Marvel One on One

One-on-One with Comedy Central's Dan Powell

The "Ugly Americans" executive producer discusses his favorite X-Man and what it's like to work on a TV show

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By Ryan Penagos

Marvel fans are always popping up in the strangest of places doing interesting things in all facets of entertainment.

Dan Powell is the executive producer of Comedy Central's hit animated comedy "Ugly Americans." The show follows an eccentric cast of monsters, demons, wizards and more as they just try to survive in New York City. Before he landed that sweet gig, he was one of the driving forces that saw Stephen Colbert crossover into the Marvel Universe during his run for president in 2008.

Powell, who is in the middle of production for "Ugly Americans," took some time to chat with us about the process of creating an animated series, his favorite Marvel miniseries and his experiences with Comedy Central.

Marvel.com: So, you read a lot of comics when you were younger?

Dan Powell:
 I did. I was definitely a collector when I was younger. I have to confess, I'm sorry, I was a primarily a Batman collector, but what I did collect of Marvel was mainly X-Men.

Marvel.com: X-Men are good. What was your favorite X-Men character?

Dan Powell: I have to say Wolverine. Any 14-year-old boy collecting X-Men—if Wolverine was not your favorite character—you were an embarrassment.

Marvel.com: Oh yeah, everybody goes though that phase at least at some point if you're an X-Men fan.

Dan Powell: I had WOLVERINE #1 in mint condition and I sold it to Scott Hensley in 8th grade. I still regret it to this day. I got like 30 bucks, which back then was a huge amount of money. Now, obviously, I rue the day I made that decision.

Marvel.com: Was it the miniseries, the Claremont/Miller one or was it the full series?

Dan Powell: Unfortunately, It wasn't the first of the miniseries. It was the first of the full run.

Marvel.com: Badass run though. He was in that weird black costume and he was running around killing people. It was scratchy and the art was great.

Dan Powell:
 Yeah. You know there's another series I collected that was Wolverine and Havok, I believe. It was almost like oil-based art. Do you now what I'm talking about?

Marvel.com: Yeah, “Meltdown.” That was a great miniseries. Kent Williams and Jon Jay Muth did the art. Walt & Louise Simonson, wrote it.

Dan Powell: Yes, “Meltdown!” Now I've gotta go back and read that.

Marvel.com: Definitely. So, I love “Ugly Americans.” I like the designs, the monsters and the whole idea. I watched the first season. I loved it. I'm psyched for it to come back.

Dan Powell:
 Thank you so much. I'm actually here in Brooklyn at Augenblick Studios. We're working on finishing up the seven episodes that are airing right now.

Marvel.com: That's awesome. It's super great. I watch the show with my wife and our housemate. It was a good surprise when we caught it and it was actually super-duper funny. So all the animation and everything is done in Brooklyn?

Dan Powell: No, a lot of the animation work is done in Toronto at a house called Cup of Coffee Studios. But a great deal of the initial design work, animatics and blueprints for the show are done at Augenblick Studios in Brooklyn.

Marvel.com:  So you’ve been editing “Ugly Americans” all day, what's that process like?

Dan Powell: It's a lot different than live-action. Typically live-action you shoot a lot of coverage and then you cut it all together. In animation, a lot of the editing is done up front.

Marvel.com: Makes a lot of sense. Can you walk us through it from the top?

Dan Powell:
  David Stern oversees the script process in LA. That takes about a couple of months to go from initial story idea to having a “table-read” ready script. We then do a table-read with the performers and about a week later we record. That gets cut into a radio play. Next we use a stopwatch and try to estimate how long scenes without dialogue or establishing shots will take. It's very much just a rough guess. It's usually about 25 minutes long. At the same time, the director of the episode puts together thumbnails where they take the script and put together very loose drawings, shot-by-shot, of what the episode will look like. Then David goes though those with the director and gives notes. Once those are adjusted and where they need to be it goes to the animatics stage and this is where really every shot sort of gets planned out. The animatics are done over the radio play so they're usually about 24-25 minutes long where you have every single shot laid out in black and white but with very rough character movements. If one person is on one side of the screen and they walk across they do the very raw movements. Sometimes it's a little analogous to motion comics, frankly, kind of that flavor. And then at that time we usually cut it down to about 22 minutes. That's the first time you really see any real picture married to audio.

Marvel.com: Cool. So you have the radio play working and some rough visuals going on, where do you take it next?

Dan Powell:  Obviously there's no animation yet but you get to see how the story flows and how it all works together and usually at that stage we cut out about two  minutes, down to about 22. Then it goes to animations and the animation takes a couple of months. When we get it back, that's when we start making creative revisions; we go through and punch up lines.

Marvel.com: Are there ever times when you have to deal with correcting the animation? And what happens now when you have to shave more time off to get it to broadcast length—there must be difficult choices to make at this point.

Dan Powell:  If there are scenes that weren't done right they go back into animation. Once all the creative revisions are done and all the jokes are where we need them to be then we go in and two things happen in the edit: your typical nips and tucks and cutting out dead air and putting dialogue in over cutaway shots—things like that that take out about 20 seconds without cutting a single line. Then we have to make the hard decision which is where that last 40 seconds is going to come from. There are often scenes that are heartbreaking to cut but we have to deliver a show that is exactly 21 minutes to the frame and there's no leeway so sometimes we need to make really hard decisions. That's basically how the editing works. Instead of shooting everything and editing it together in a week like a live action show, we're editing in almost every step of the process. From the radio play through the animatics then when we get the animation back for creative revisions and then the final edits, there are about five or six different stages over a five month period where we're doing editing.

Marvel.com: The show has got some pretty crazy stuff going on. Do you ever run into any difficulties in terms of what you can show? Even though Comedy Central seems like they can say more and do more and show more, do you ever push the envelope too far?

Dan Powell: Yeah, I mean I don't think that there's a single episode where we haven't gotten some note from Standards & Practices. Without giving away too much, we had some fun in the season finale that definitely required a lot of negotiation with the network over what we were going to be allowed to show. It was specifically over a character's piece of anatomy that we sort of invented that we had to [put] through like ten different stages [of design] before the network said it was okay. But in general we always have a very respectful back and forth with the network and as much as we joke around about their standards and practices, it's the job of producers to joke about network standards and practices. They're actually really good about having conversations with us and never saying “No you can't do this.” It's always like let us help you figure out a way to do what you want to do without us feeling uncomfortable about what we're going to put on television.” And look, we understand, it's a business. They can't just show anything. But they've been unbelievably respectful of us and we'd like to think of them in terms of having conversations about how to do what we want to do creatively. We're not looking to do an extremely crass show or something that's way too overly raunchy or just shock people for shock's sake. We're all about story and jokes. So if we're doing something, we're doing it for the laugh and sometimes that requires going a little bit blue but that's always in service of the joke not just to be raunchy for raunchy's sake.

Marvel.com: As all good comedy should be. For the Marvel fan that is going to read this interview, why should they watch "Ugly Americans?" What's your pitch?

Dan Powell: When I think about Marvel, I think about all these fantastical characters and the worlds that you guys have created. One of the coolest things that "Ugly Americans" does is take our own little world of fantasy and horror and science fiction and normalizing it and making it seem sort of everyday and mundane. Like what would happen if all of these bizarre characters existed in the world of New York City as it is. So I think you get the best of both worlds. You get all these interesting new dynamic characters but you also get this, not to say sitcom, but a show that's relatable. It's about their lives and the little things that go on in their lives. And even if you're not a centaur or a super hero or a zombie, you can still relate to what they're going through.

You can catch "Ugly Americans" every Wednesday night on Comedy Central at 10:30 p.m. ET/9:30 p.m. CT

 

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