With the "Marvel Knights Animation Collection" now in stores, Marvel.com will bring you a spotlight on each of the five series collected within all this week! Bringing together "Astonishing X-Men: Gifted," "Iron Man: Extremis," "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers," "Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D." and "Black Panther," the "Marvel Knights Animation Collection" on DVD gives you hours worth of Marvel animated action.
By Marc Strom
Marvel Knights Animation’s adaptation of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s epic “Astonishing X-Men: Gifted” wowed fans with its release two years ago, but that was just the beginning of the story.
While “Gifted” adapted the first six issues of Whedon and Cassaday’s run on ASTONISHING X-MEN, Marvel Knights Animation will adapt the rest of the team’s story beginning with “Astonishing X-Men: Dangerous.”
Bringing the art on the comic page to animated life isn’t as easy as it may seem, however, and behind it all is Todd Casey, Supervising Producer on “Dangerous.” Casey works with Atomic Studios, the animators responsible for bringing the story to life, and oversees the entire production of each episode of the series from beginning to end.
With “Astonishing X-Men: Gifted” now available in the “Marvel Knights Animation Collection” on DVD, we spoke with Casey about the series’ future and what it takes to take Whedon and Cassaday’s story off the page and onto the screen.
Marvel.com: What are some of the things you’ve learned about the Marvel Knights Animation process since producing the first “Astonishing X-Men” that you think will prove beneficial to the second?
Todd Casey: Being unfamiliar with the style of animation, I was under the assumption that it would be difficult to pull really compelling action sequences out of the art by just moving around assets, but Atomic Studios and Director Jesse Cote really impressed me with the level of movement they pulled off. We were really lucky to be building a show around a comic written by a TV vet like Joss Whedon because his dialogue moves at a fast clip and, despite the fact he never intended this to be a show, it sure feels like it was meant to be.
Marvel.com: What are some of the challenges in bringing Cassady’s art to life?
Todd Casey: John is really a born director. His shot selection is impeccable and his characters have such expressive acting, which comes in really handy for what we’re doing. He brings the scenes to life with a cinematic realism that did us a world of good in the translation. The challenge in making his artwork move is that he uses a touch of charcoal around his line work. On the page, it gives it a wonderful texture, but when you blow up a small panel to the size of a TV screen, it can be tricky to preserve the detail in a line like that. In addition to John’s knack for directing, we had the added kick of Laura Martin’s rich colors. She does such brilliant work, I wish she could paint the entire planet.
Marvel.com: What’s the process like for transforming the art on the printed page into full-blown animation for the series? About how long does it take to animate a full episode?
Todd Casey: Step one is recording the dialogue track. We had a great cast of actors who were tasked with playing multiple characters across the course of the series--sometimes up to seven or eight different voices. Not an easy task, and they did an incredible job.
Step two is creating the animatic. This marries the dialogue to the images on screen, and makes what you could roughly imagine to be a storyboard come to life as a kind of slide show. It also shows how the director and animators plan to pace and stage the story, complete with rough illustrations to indicate where they might need to fill in art beyond what was on the page.
Step three is the actual animation. This is where Atomic Studios really showed off their creativity and ingenuity. Panels have to be extended, limbs are redrawn, facial expressions subtly shifted. Something as simple as having a character walk across the screen involves drawing new legs, filling in backgrounds, and creating a “walk cycle” for them. They actually built a Blackbird in CG, which looks really impressive on screen. From there, it’s the regular production system--edit, music, sfx and sound mix. From start to finish, it’s about 14 weeks per issue, which our tremendously industrious Line Producer, Kelsy Wittmann, managed to hold us to despite my best efforts to derail us with last-minute changes.
Marvel.com: Are there ever any instances where you need to make slight alterations to the story or art when translating it into animation? What are some of the reasons you may need to do so?
Todd Casey: Absolutely. If you move something in the panel, you leave a blank spot in its place, so that needs to be filled in. If you’re working from a shot of Wolverine in mid-air leap, you need to see how he got there, which means replicating John’s style to fill in all the various poses from crouch to leap. There are never any brand new scenes created from scratch, but all those little moments your brain fills in between the panels when you’re reading have to be recreated using the existing art, which most often means re-drawing limbs.
Marvel.com: What is it about Whedon and Cassaday’s story that makes it so ripe for adaptation into Marvel Knights Animation?
Todd Casey: As I mentioned earlier, Joss and John are really cinematic storytellers. Joss has well over a dozen seasons of TV under his belt, and he brought everything he learned in that time to his comic work. His scripts are airtight and there’s a liveliness to his style that keeps the pace going even in dialogue-heavy scenes. There’s a now-famous moment I love in one of the last issues where you get a Dutch angle shot of Wolverine slumped against a wall, clutching a beer can and Hisako is cautiously turning the corner to ask, “Can I help?” to which he deadpans, “Are you a beer?” That panel alone became somewhat of an internet meme, and that speaks to the power of John and Joss’ storytelling--ust this one panel, even out of context, is so great that it gets re-blogged dozens of times over on Tumblr by people who aren’t even X-Men fans. And John, as I said, is a born director. Selfishly, I want him around in comics for as long as possible, but he really belongs behind a lens making features. He has such an amazing eye.
Marvel.com: Finally, was there a moment in “Dangerous” that particularly excited you when you saw it animated for the first time?
Todd Casey: When we first started the project, I was up at Atomic Studios sitting with the director, Jesse Cote, going over the storyboard. This is the stage where they had the comic art laid out and cut up on screen with lots of colorful arrows drawn in to show how and where things would be moving. There’s a fight scene where the X-Men are battling a giant creature that’s come crashing through a New York City street. It’s a massive set-piece that gets even bigger when the Fantastic Four show up. As we were looking at the page, Jesse was telling me how the Blackbird is going to fly in from here and the Human Torch will zoom this way and Cyclops blasts there and the creature throws Colossus here while Wolverine is stabbing him and so on. I was staring at this single splash page thinking, “How the heck...?” When the animation came back and I saw it fully executed, I was really impressed and knew the Danger fight sequences and battle on Genosha were going to be amazing--and they are!