As technology continues to rocket forward at breakneck speed, a brand-new storytelling form opened up to the comic industry, a form that walked a fine line between static images and movement and blended comic book concepts with animated aesthetics: motion comics. As the medium continues to expand, it comes as no surprise that Iron Man - a character long linked to technology - is tossing his metal hat into the ring.
"Extremis," a motion comic based on the Iron Man comic book story by writer Warren Ellis and artist Adi Granov, debuts now on iTunes, Zune and Xbox Live. The series follows Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men" adaptation and Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's "Spider-Woman" original series as the third Marvel motion comic release. The first episode runs a massive 20 minutes long and costs $1.99, with subsequent episodes releasing bi-weekly until June.
Ruwan Jayatilleke, Marvel Senior Vice President of Development & Planning, Print Animation and Digital Media, and Adi Granov spoke with CBR News about the new motion comic series, giving the rundown on the extreme process of adapting "Extremis," and hinting at Marvel's future forays into the digital realm.
The first step behind the new release was, of the course, the decision to turn the "Extremis" story into a motion comic. However, according to Jayatilleke, the choice was hardly a difficult one. "It's Warren and Adi, how can we go wrong?" Jayatilleke told CBR. "It would take a colossal effort on our part to screw up this gem. And how could I pass up the opportunity to be the creative lead and lead producer on a Warren Ellis story? I said that last line to make Warren nauseous with my praise and sycophancy. Hopefully he will thrash me on his site with his color commentary. Ha."
Jayatilleke continued, "'Extremis' is a compelling and engaging character-driven story with many textures, subtleties, 'a-ha' moments and a skillful threading that tangles together Tony Stark and the other character as they struggle to find their respective identities and paths in the world. Of course, Adi's visual storytelling is hands-down perfect. The characters' expressiveness, the small subtle details, the great camera/lens work and absolutely gorgeous cinematic visuals make this a no-brainer."
"It's a very striking and cinematic story, which I think would work well in any medium," Granov told CBR. "Warren writes the kind of characters which can exist outside of comics just as much as within them, so giving them motion and sound just adds another dimension."
Jayatilleke revealed that Magnetic Dream Studios worked directly from Granov's original digital files in order to properly adapt the penciler's visual style. The producer said that preserving the artist's work and matching any new images to Granov's originals was a very important part of the project. He also noted Granov's brilliant "camera positioning" and the hyperrealism of his work as prime examples of what makes the artist's style ideal motion comics. Granov himself expressed his own amazement at seeing his artwork "come to life" and noted a few scenes he can't wait to see animated.
"I didn't know what to expect prior to seeing the first episode but was pleasantly surprised. It is a lot more animated and thorough than I had imagined it would be," said Granov. "My favorite parts are the ones involving Mallen and all of the violent action between him and Iron Man. When illustrating them I very much wanted them to have a cinematic look and feel, so seeing them move will be interesting. Having said that, I very much enjoyed seeing the calm talking parts voiced, as it gives them flow and drama which was really interesting."
However, adapting the "Extremis" story was not without its challenges. "Obviously, making sure that the 'Extremis' motion comic matched up with the high standard of storytelling and visual excellence set by Warren and Adi goes without saying," Jayatilleke explained. "It is quite daunting to know we're working with a story that is super-popular and sells well - and incurring the wrath of Warren and Adi was always at the back of our minds. Matching the CGI sequences with Adi's style and tone, finding the right camera movements, making the additional special effects and storytelling sequences seamless, and adding motion to art that wasn't intended to move are just some examples of what was challenging. Mike Halsey and Joel Gibbs of Magnetic Dream Studios did an excellent job of animating this story, guiding the camera, figuring out how much animation to use without detracting from the core story and adding a personality and emotional tone to the motion comic without overburdening. I can't compliment the entire team at Magnetic Dreams enough."
Granov said that although comic artists present implied motion through static images, it certainly doesn't make turning a comic into a motion comic any easier. The artist said that if he had known "Extremis" would one day become a motion comic, he would have approached the art differently. "I imagine I would do many things differently to give the animators more room to play with," he said. "Painting the backgrounds behind the characters, keeping the characters on a separate, floating layer so they can be easily moved, etc. I don't necessarily think it would be an enjoyable process as it involves a lot more production on top of the artistic parts, but it could be an interesting challenge."
One of the biggest questions arising from the advent of motion comics is where lays the line between these comics and animation. For Jayatilleke, there is no line, or rather no overly simple means of distinction between the two. The producer said that it all comes down to whether or not the range of movement detracts or enhances the story. "If it detracts from the story or pulls the viewer out of the experience, we don't use it; but if it enhances it and gives an additional texture and level of experience to the story, then it's full steam ahead," explained Jayatilleke. "To be honest, I took the lead producer role on 'Iron Man: Extremis' because I wanted to see how far we push this type of content to the limit and show how far it can still go as technology and software leap forward in the digital space. Magnetic has achieved with hard work, discipline, loads of talent, and a little bit of luck. And it makes me grin that we can give 'traditional' animation a run for its money with great storytelling, visuals, acting, scoring and creative 'cheats.'"
However, movement alone does not a motion comic make. Today's motion comic employs not only special effects but also voice acting. Additionally, Magnetic built from scratch a number or re-skinned and textured 3D models, as well as computer-generated animated sequences. Jayatilleke also acknowledged the influence of actor Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark in the "Iron Man" films, saying they wanted to capture the spirit of the character without coping it directly.
"The motion comic is very much its own story and I didn't want to tread on anything that Marvel Studios is doing and trying to achieve as they spend so much time, money and effort delivering incredible content for the fans to enjoy," Jayatilleke said. "For me, D.J. Tanner really nailed it with his acting, the range of emotions and the textures that he added to each line of dialogue. His take on Tony felt natural and totally in line with the story."
Like Tony Stark's own suit of armor, every piece of the puzzle plays a part in forming a motion comic. Before animation begins, voice recordings get underway. While the animators work off voices to properly line up movement, the sound designer creates effects. Simultaneously, musical scoring occurs. "I can't say enough how tirelessly everyone worked on 'Extremis' to make sure we made the schedule and delivered a phenomenal product in record time," said Jayatilleke. "Magnetic Dream, Edge Studios, Underground Music and NYAV are all fantastic shops."
As to the nigh unanswerable question of what does the emergence of motion comics means to the comic industry, both Jayatilleke and Granov offered their thoughts and opinions. "This sort of animation technique has been around for a while. Inevitably, someone is going to point out that Marvel did this in the 1960s with the classic cartoons," said Jayatilleke. "It's how you use and enhance that visual technique with CGI, special effects, etc. and what other storytelling elements you bring to the table like great voice-acting, sound design and scoring that ultimately determine whether this can be a new entertainment space for storytelling. Of course, none of the bells and whistles matter if the story, itself, is not served.
"I do think that motion comics can become a unique entertainment experience that casts a wider net in terms of potential audience and hopefully encourage casual fans of Marvel characters to seek out these same stories or characters in print. It's a process and one that will take a fair amount of effort, but I am sure Marvel is up to that task."
"It's blurring the lines between comics and animation and giving the audiences more options to access these great stories and art," said Granov. "I personally love comic art in its traditional form and enjoy the process of reading sequential art at my own pace, but just as audio books give an alternative to reading books, I feel motion comics are a good way to make comic books more accessible to the people who aren't their traditional audience. I think the technology, especially the handheld devices, has opened a new world of opportunities for all publishing industries. Just as the Walkman allowed us to listen to our music on the go, digital and motion comics now allow us to access entire libraries and enjoy them wherever we are."
"Iron Man: Extremis" is released now on iTunes, Zune and Xbox Live.