DC Entertainment and Warner Archive celebrated the twenty fifth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series with a blu-ray remaster of the cult classic animated feature film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm at this year's Comic-Con International in San Diego. The star-studded retrospective panel includes Bruce Timm, Eric Randomski, Kevin Conroy, and co-screenwriter Alan Burnett, along with Warner Archives podcasts hosts D.W. Ferranti and Matthew Patterson.
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The panel opened with Bruce Timm explaining the origin of Mask of the Phantasm as a project that was originally intended to be a direct-to-TV movie that was then given a theatrical release. The creative teams waffled on whether or not they would go for a wide release, but eventually the decision was made -- Unfortunately while Bruce Timm and Eric Randomski were in Japan.
The crew had to then reformat the original storyboards from their original aspect ratios to fit a theatrical screen.
"Back then, nobody was doing wide-screen releases." Alan Burnett explained, "Everything was 4:3."
Bruce Timm went on to explain that the film's theatrical nature allowed for some wiggle room in the film's violent content, but there wasn't need for much. "I think we ended up with a PG rating, even though we had some moments that may have not made it to TV," Timm elaborated.
Alan Burnett then went on to talk about the film's nature as a love story after Warner Archive podcast host Matthew Patterson gave a specific shoutout to the film's incarnation of Bruce Wayne.
"This was our chance to do something that was almost an origin story," Timm added in, after admitting that the show intentionally avoided doubling back on that story. "This was the "Last Temptation of Batman."
Kevin Conroy joked about the the bromance between he and Mark Hamill (The Joker) and explained the relationship of the cast on both the film and the animated series as something that felt like a radio drama.
Conroy sang the praises of Hamill’s Joker and the utilization of the Joker in the film, especially in relation to the Phantasm as the main villain of the story, especially "in the 90s, which were such a super villain driven time."
"I don't know if any of you have seen this movie," Matthew Patterson joked, "But it's the best Batman movie of all time." The crowd emphatically agreed.
Alan Burnett then took over to explain how theaters only played the movie during the day -- there were no nighttime showings. He explained that they were definitely marketing the film towards children, despite it "not really being a kids movie."
Bruce Timm shared some of his frustration with the studio process of production, and how the production involvement asked for the movie to initially be recut in a more linear way to make it easier for young children to understand. They tried it, Timm said, but found that a totally linear progression hamstrung the narrative completely. "I needed cinema...not that," Timm joked.
"Even the sound mixing was a bigger deal, because it was a feature. We couldn't use our TV crew we had to do with Warner Studios. It took like a week, when we could have had it done in the afternoon." Timm joked, shrugging.
The panel then shifted focus to the technical aspects of updating a film that had originally been created and released in the age of the laser disc into the blu-ray era. "It was a big job," said Warner Archive's Ferranti, as he attempted to illuminate the tricky process remastering something that was originally animated on physical animation cels.
"There's a gritty look to the movie --" Ferranti started, before Bruce Timm interjected that a lot of the "grit" in the early Batman animation was actually unintentional and the fault of dirt on the lenses used to scan the cels. "We used to call the episodes that had so much dirt on the cels 'snowstorm shows' they were so dirty."
The panel then dimmed the house lights to show the panel the first 8 minutes of the remastered version but experienced some technical difficulties. "Kevin, why don't you just do the first seven or eight lines from the movie instead?" Burnett joked, right before the issue was resolved.
After the footage was cut, the panel then took the time to highlight the score of the film and how much it shines in the remastered edition. "This is where it really feels like the old Fleischer Studios Superman to me," Patterson elaborated.
Then the panel turned over to audience Q&As.
The first question came from a fan looking for the panel's opinion on Batman's love life. "Who would fit Batman the best romantically? Andrea, Wonder Woman, or Catwoman?"
Kevin Conroy was put on the spot, but said that trying to pick would be like trying to pick a favorite child, but when pressured, he joked that Alfred was Bruce Wayne's one true match.
The next question was about the future and staying power of Andrea Beaumont as a fan wondered if she has a chance of showing up in any Batman media in the future. The panel hedged their answers, but turned the focus to Burnett who explained that Beaumont is a "smart, strong woman" who is "a head of Bruce Wayne almost every step of the way," which is why she works so well, but didn't elaborate on the potential to see her in the future.
A fan then asked if anyone involved in the project had any idea that Mask of the Phantasm and Batman: The Animated Series would be such huge hits, even 25 years later. Bruce Timm was quick to answer that he knew the show was going to be a hit (though he qualified that he hoped that didn't make him sound immodest.)
"The early 90s were the height of Batmania, thanks to the Tim Burton movie. So I always knew that our show would end up as a ratings hit, if not a critical hit. The critical hit part was a hope, of course, but it came as a surprise," Timm said.
A fan then asked if Warner Archive had any plans for the re-release or re-mastering of the boxsets of Batman: The Animated Series but the answer was a quick "no plans at this time."
The next question went to Timm and Conroy, about the score of the movie and the show. Timm shared an anecdote about the first time he heard "On Leather Wings" and how he immediately got chills. "It was everything we wanted it to be and more. It's one of my favorite Batman memories of all time."
Burnett then chimed in that the Gregorian chanting in the theme song is actually he and Timm's names.
A fan asked about the choice of The Phantasm as the villain, to which Timm responded that there was never any plans to use an existing character. "People compare The Phantasm to The Reaper from Batman: Year Two but that was almost an accidental inspiration. I had read the story but I wasn't thinking about it as I designed The Phantasm," Timm confided.
"The villain I drew the most inspiration from was honestly Mysterio from Spider-Man -- the idea of someone who could disappear into smoke," Burnett explained.
Patterson announced that the remastered version will play on the day of release at Cine-Family in Los Angeles if anyone in the audience has the ability to go and see the movie on the big screen again.
"Was anyone on the panel feeling star struck when they met Mark Hamill?" A fan asked, prompting the immediate response from Timm, "Oh, hell yeah. It was hard for me to keep from nerding all over him."
Conroy then explained that "actors are so often pigeon holed by their looks," and sighed Hamill specifically as someone who was getting type cast as Luke Skywalker type characters in his youth. "He's so good looking, he was too good looking to be a character actor in his youth. He could have never played someone like The Joker in live action back then."
Conroy continued to sing the praises of Hamill and excitedly explained how much Hamill transforms when he's in the recording booth, "he's got a rubber face, you can almost feel the heat coming off of him."
A very excited fan then asked Conroy about the difference between his voice for Bruce Wayne and his voice for Batman. Conroy related that as the series progressed, he had to adapt his voice for Bruce specifically -- "They had me darken Bruce Wayne more as the show went on to make him closer to Batman, just so he would fit the palette of the show a little bit better."
Timm jumped in to say, "At the start, Bruce was very Zorro. We just had to reign that in a bit."
The final question went to Kevin Conroy asking if he had any physical quirks or actions he adopted to get into the character of Batman.
"Voice acting is acting," Conroy said, "you only have your voice to tell the story but you have to use your body to get the performance. You physicalize the emotion of it -- you're not just making funny sounds, you're really inhabiting the character. Sometimes you make faces or sounds that you don't expect because your emotions pull you to that point when you're in the performance."