With episode one of "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers" now available on iTunes, Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network, we wanted to take you behind the curtains of Marvel Knights Animation's latest series.
Marvel.com spoke with Mike Halsey, co-owner of Magnetic Dreams Studio, the group responsible for animating the epic story, as well as the series' co-directors Mark Cowart and Joel Gibbs to get their thoughts on the debut episode and the process that went into bringing it to life.
Marvel.com: How much thought and effort went into crafting the very first image and sequence we see on screen? How important was that first impression?
|"Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers"|
Mike Halsey: Excellent question that uncovers a lot of hidden effort that goes on behind the scenes. The most difficult thing about the first shot is that it has to be consistent with and live in the same world as the very last shot you are going to be creating months later. Of course, Robert Rodi’s story and Esad Ribic’s beautiful artwork were the anchor we were holding on to, but within that there were a tremendous number of discussions between producer Ruwan Jayatilleke, the directors and myself about how to approach this material. The techniques we were going to use had to be completely resolved, from the approach to lip sync, to the way we were going to surface and light the 3D elements, to the balance between 2D and 3D, [to] programming custom tools, to the cloth dynamics, and on and on; it all had to be in place before we created that first scene. So there were about three months of technical research and development, built off what we learned from "Iron Man: Extremis" and focusing on the areas we had worked with Ruwan to target for improvement.
Mark Cowart: I remember spending a considerable amount of time discussing the opening shots of the first scene. We loved the idea of opening with Thor’s knee crashing to the ground, filling the frame.
Joel Gibbs: Essentially we are opening the series at the very moment of Thor’s defeat and subjugation.
Marvel.com: How different is putting together a first episode from doing the rest of the series? Do you refine the process as you go or are you working on the bulk all at once?
Joel Gibbs: The first episodes are always a little tricky. You are discovering the techniques you are going to use and getting everyone in the different departments up to speed on what their tasks are. We definitely work one episode at a time. However, we don't always work in chronological order inside the episode. Some sequences are harder or require more technical work, so we tend to start them earlier in the process. Sometimes we're still waiting for assets to be built so we move on to other sequences that we can immediately start on. We had discovered a few techniques during our preproduction tests, so we had a good base to work from. But there were still things discovered in [episodes] three and four that we felt made our work a little better. Our final goal was for the animated piece to be true to the original art. So whenever we inserted 3D or footage or whatever, we wanted it to feel coherent and appropriate.
|Screenshot of Loki from "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers"|
Mike Halsey: As for the opening animation, our original intent was to do a different opening for each episode based on the four gorgeous covers that Esad Ribic had painted. As we got into the practical considerations we began to realize that a couple of the covers gave away more than we wanted, and the different moods they set were going to be difficult from a scoring standpoint. Joel and Mark came up with an approach that included all the covers but gave a very mythical quality to the proceedings.
Joel Gibbs: Our idea was that we should try to represent this as being a battle of two gods that is endless and cyclical. Thor and Loki have always fought and will always fight. So, we wanted to open in the middle of a fight sequence, and then fade into different wood carved panels that use the art from the comic covers. We felt the wood carvings would give the opening a cultural setting, with an ancient Norse feel to it, as if men had recorded these battles throughout the ages.
Mark Cowart: The four covers were modeled in 3D, textured and then lit. Jeff Greulich, one of the 3D modelers, did a great job creating the beautiful 3D carvings of the covers and Ying Li, our Matte painter, added design flourishes. We did slow camera moves across the carvings with a really shallow depth-of-field to give it a macro photography look. For the Loki logo, we created a 3D model of a shield that Esad Ribic had done with Thor and Loki sculpted in a yin and yang layout. It was such a great piece of artwork that we felt like it had to be used.
Joel Gibbs: Of course you can’t talk about the opening without mentioning the stunning score that Amotz Plessner with Underground Music provided. It really just set the tone so perfectly.
Marvel.com: What were the primary goals of this first episode in terms of what you wanted to convey to viewers?
|Screenshot of Thor vs. Loki from "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers"|
Mark Cowart: I think one of the primary goals was establishing the mood and tone for the series. We wanted to convey that this was a very personal, internal story. It’s a character piece and the audience needs to know that from the start.
Mike Halsey: We wanted to get across Asgard as a tangible place, an unfamiliar land the viewer is thrust into, where the character’s actions take on symbolic importance and there is magic just below the surface. We used hand held cameras and tried to use angles that put the viewer right in the middle of the shot. This story is not the big summer blockbuster; it’s more like a little indy film, intimate and personal. We tried to use the tools that are effective in that style of filmmaking to drive the story home.
Marvel.com: Specifically, what were the goals in terms of the portrayal of Loki in this first episode?
Joel Gibbs: We tried to stay true to what Robert Rodi established in the comic book. Loki is a rather complex character and Rodi reveals different aspects of the character throughout the four issues. In the first issue we have a Loki that needs recognition, and he wants to set himself above what he has always been.
Mark Cowart: We really wanted to play off of Loki’s arrogance and how he always seems to be babbling on about how misunderstood and mistreated he is. We joked early on that it’s almost as if Loki has hired a camera crew to follow him while he runs around interrogating his prisoners trying to prove why he deserves to be in charge. That was one of the reasons we sometimes went for a handheld camera look. It’s the behind-the-scenes crew documenting Loki’s overthrow of Asgard.
Marvel.com: How did you work to make the flashbacks have a different feel from the scenes set in present day?
Joel Gibbs: The Asgard that Robert Rodi depicts is one where things are not right. Loki is ruler, Thor and Balder are in chains, and Odin is quarantined. We noticed that Esad Ribic used completely different color palettes to differentiate the Asgard from before and now. The flashbacks are colorful and brighter in general, and reflect the right order of things. So we tried to pick up upon that and accentuate it. We desaturated the outside shots and made the palace scenes more monochromatic. For the flashbacks, we brought the luminance up and added a little diffusion to make it feel softer and more appealing.
Marvel.com: Hela’s appearance is an early highlight of the comic series and stands out here as well; what steps did you take to make it memorable?
|Screenshot of Thor from "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers"|
Mike Halsey: We shifted the framing around quite a bit on those shots, showing an almost intelligent tentacle of smoke creeping around behind Loki’s back to create an eerie and unsettling mood. Tim Crowson spent a lot of late nights doing the particle work on all the Hela shots and he did a great job of getting beautiful billowing smoke that moves in a way that seems otherworldly and purposeful. It gave the scenes a certain tension that helped portray Hela’s power. This was the sequence we used as an early test in our proposal to Marvel, really a tech demo of the approach we wanted to use for "Thor & Loki." It was intentionally chosen for that because we knew that it could be a highlight scene and that gave us a chance to start exploring the animation very early in the process.
Joel Gibbs: I have to admit that that particular scene was a tough one for many reasons. For one, we used a combination of 2D animated art and 3D animated cape that was pretty tricky to pull off. But we wanted to use the original art for the shot because it was nicely detailed and held up really well. Secondly, the original panel is a full vertical page painting. It's really impressive to look at and you really get the full impact of her entrance. However, on our side we are limited to a 16:9 frame ratio. So a head-to-toe shot of Hela leaves a lot of space around to fill and just doesn't feel the same. One thing we did was to reintroduce Loki back into the shot to give a sense of scale. With the two together in the shot Hela seemed a lot bigger, and the smoke was more impressive as well. To make this event take on a bigger scale we put a wall with pillars between the camera and the scene. We felt it made Hela fill out even more of the space, as if her entrance is filling this huge room.
Marvel.com: Do you find it personally more intense to watch Thor and Loki physically battling or verbally sparring, even if the latter is somewhat one-sided? How are the two things different to animate?
Mark Cowart: That’s such a tough question. If I had to choose I would probably say verbal sparring because Robert Rodi’s writing is so amazing. The dialogue is so layered and fun when they are going at each other. I think Loki’s encounter with Sif in episode two is my personal favorite of the "verbal spars." In a visual medium like this, animating a fight sequence is creatively easier in the sense of holding the viewer’s attention, but technically more challenging. There are places in the comic with pages of dialogue and very little action. The challenge in those circumstances is more on the creative side to find ways to keep it visually entertaining.
Mike Halsey: I can’t say that I have a preference between them, but in the case of "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers" we felt that this was essentially a character driven piece, so the onus was on the dialogue scenes to make the story work. I have to give full props to James Snyder at Edge Studios who did the casting and voice directing. The vocal performances were wonderful and give these scenes the weight and drama they required.
Marvel.com: What touches did you put in to really build to and make the ending pop as something of a surprise and cliffhanger?
Mike Halsey: The ending of episode one translated straightforwardly from the comic. We worked a bit with camera angles and timing to create tension [before] the reveal. There were other areas in the episodes that required some major re-ordering and re-cutting to work as a film. Comics have a very interesting and unique element in the shared control of time between the writer and the reader. When we do the translation we take full control of time, so there is a great responsibility to do that well and maintain the intended impact of the story.
Marvel.com: What were the personal highlights of this episode for you?
Joel Gibbs: I really enjoyed working on the two-panel shot where you see all of Asgard looking at Loki. I think just about all the compositors worked on it at one point or another. The pages are beautiful to look at and are meant to be appreciated with time. We took special care to animate as many elements as we could. We moved things around to recompose the shot to fit our 16:9 ratio. We added a sky that starts out clear and then turns overcast by stormy clouds with a couple of lighting hits. There’s even animated fire and smoke in the far background. It was just a lot of fun to work on, and I think it turned out pretty well.
Mark Cowart: One of my tasks was shooting live-action reference footage of actors for key shots. I think seeing the translation of the reference footage to the animated 3D characters was pretty exciting for me personally. Being new to animation, it was fun to see animated characters giving a performance that I’d shot days earlier with a real person. There are so many small victories along the way just to get these episodes out the door. In order to make these animations happen, you have to break the process down into so many pieces; that makes it really fun to put final shots together and you begin to see the payoff for weeks’ worth of work. And then when you get final audio mixes with foley and original music, it’s a whole new and satisfying experience.Download episode one of "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers" now on iTunes, Xbox LIVE or PlayStation Network, and stay tuned to Marvel.com for even more behind-the-scenes peeks at the series in the coming weeks!