Only a week after its debut on iTunes, Marvel's "Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D." motion comic is already carrying the descriptor "hit" in most news reports and blog write-ups. Debuting at #1 on iTunes' Television-Animation sales chart and as the #2 episode on the Top Television Episodes sales chart, the digitally animated version of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's new Marvel monthly has seemingly landed on plenty of computer screens across the U.S. Behind the scenes, Lance Sells couldn't be happier.
The Creative Director and the owner of Motherland Animation, Sells oversees the creation of the new motion comics from a soup-to-nuts standpoint, working with both of the print comics creators to make the story of Jessica Drew's enlistment in the alien-fighting organization work in the new format. Sells spoke to CBR News shortly after the specially priced $0.99 release of the comic's first online installment, and he explained that the trick to making a solid motion comic lies in not reverse-engineering static pages into bland animation.
"The great thing about this project is that since we're working with Alex, we can see any time there's hole that needs to be filled as he's working along," Sells told CBR. "Really, in comics things happen in the gutter in between panels. We'd noticed before how someone's position would change dramatically from one panel to the next, and the way these are animated we're not able to bend the characters arms in a new position. Editing-wise, it would get tricky. It doesn't work in the structure of a motion comic. With Alex, early on he gave us the storyboards from before he even does page layout. So we'd do everything as an animatic, where everyone on the team could see 'We need a reverse shot or an older the shoulder shot of Jessica Drew talking to a Skrull or otherwise it seems weird and doesn't flow.' That was the best thing about this."
Unlike previous motion comics efforts that have been built upon flat, scanned pages of art, "Spider-Woman" was built bit-by-bit digitally. "[Alex] works digitally, and he's smart digitally. He knows how to use 3D programs and does everything in layers," Sells explained. "Most of the time, you have to cut out the figure and redraw in whatever background is missing. The great thing with Alex was that he would give us the backgrounds and the 3D models from when he works, so we would move those and be able to put Spider-Woman in a world that is more three-dimensional -- though we really tried to keep things true to Alex's artwork. We didn't want some Pixar-looking backgrounds with Alex's art on top."
Writer Brian Bendis also kept involved in the creation of the "Spider-Woman" motion comic, particularly on the acting end, using chops he built as a producer on MTV's CGI "Spider-Man" series to pull stronger performances from the voice actors. "We were involved in casting, and we were the production company in terms of getting auditions from actors." Sells explained. "We'd get five or ten auditions for each character, send those to Marvel with our three picks, and it'd get whittled down from there. When we'd go to record, we'd be on the call with Brian, but Brian would be the voice director saying, 'Here's how I hear these lines.' The cool thing with Brian is that he could pretty much be a voice actor because he would say these lines as good as the actors or better sometimes. He's great at dialogue, and he can say it as well as he can write it."
"Spider-Woman" isn't Motherland's first involvement with motion comics, not by a long shot, though Sells explained that getting to the level of "Spider-Woman" took a lot of testing, both seen and unseen. The studio began connection with the House of Ideas during the sale of the "Civil War" series in 2006. Said Sells, "I've always been into comics. I worked in comics for a little while. And what I was noticing as we were working at this motion design animation studio was that DC, for a small part, but Marvel especially were starting to put out these video trailers for their books. Smaller companies were as well, and I said, 'I think there's more to this than what they're doing.' I thought the quality was pretty bad at the time. So what we did was an in-house experiment where we took three issues of 'Civil War' and cut them together in a trailer form. We didn't animate the characters too much, but what we did was do the camera action and effects like fire. Somebody at Marvel saw that - though we didn't release it publicly as that's just not good form to do that. Then [online VP] John Dokes at Marvel saw that, and within an hour he had us on the phone and was talking trailers."
Trailers for "Ultimate Spider-Man," "Dark Tower," "World War Hulk" and the "Unstoppable" arc of "Astonishing X-Men" soon followed as Motherland worked both sides of the superhero mainstream in different ways. "While we were doing trailers for them, we started working with DC on some projects - not trailers but things like this package with 'Smallville' through DC where, during the commercials, they'd show these videos that told a story," Sells explained. "We continued that and learned new stuff on each and every trailer we'd do. We'd done a minor version of the full first issue of 'Astonishing X-Men' that you might have seen on YouTube. It was very quick, but I think it was more of an internal test for Marvel to see what it takes to cut up an entire issue and use all of that stuff."
Sells said there's still much to learn about how motion comics will work as their own medium. "I see this format and how there are drawbacks to the format and great things about the format that regular animation can't do. But I see a really cool potential, and now with DC and Marvel going at this full-steam, the thing I see in comic artwork is so much more beautiful than anything you see in animation. Even a cool show the 'The Venture Brothers' where the characters are well designed and drawn, but you don't get the impact of insanely detailed art of comics. There's going to be away to exploit that and take it to a different level."
Whether Motherland will specifically continue to create comics for Marvel is up in the air. "As far as our contract goes, we do this arc. We are talking to them about doing more," Sells said. For its part, Marvel has shown recently that it's interested in expanding its online content to multiple platforms with multiple partners but Sells remains confident that more motion comics work would be in Motherland's future. "For now, we're just continuing to work. We don't know how much they're selling, and I don't know if Marvel will let us know how much they've actually sold. I'd be surprised if they release those numbers. But for the most part we're still working on the 'Spider-Woman' series, and I don't know if their plans are to do another property [with us] like Iron Man or something else. There was talk early on of Daredevil, but it's all Marvel that knows that at the moment."
Motherland will continue to work in many spaces over the coming year, including more original animated music videos. "A music video is 1/30th of the [Spider-Woman] motion comic," Sells said. "We're doing about an hour's worth of animation on 'Spider-Woman.' It's like small season of a show. We're looking at exploring some live action stuff to mix in with our animation, but I really want to keep going on these motion comics because I see something there that's different than animation. I think motion comics is a form of animation more so than comics just because of the nature of losing word balloons and panels."
"Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D." #1 is on sale now at iTunes.