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Marvel Knights Animation

Animating Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers

The creators responsible for bringing 'Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers' to animated life talk about the process!

By Marc Strom

"Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers" all began with a dream. Magnetic Dreams, that is.

The studio that previously brought Marvel Knights Animation's "Iron Man Extremis" to life returned to do the same for "Blood Brothers," taking Robert Rodi and Esad Ribic's comic epic and adapting it for the small screen.

Series co-directors Joël Gibbs and Mark Cowart, along with Magnetic Dreams co-owner Mike Halsey, took some time to speak with Marvel.com about the process of taking "Blood Brothers" fromt he page and animating it into the epic series, the first three episodes of which are now available for download on iTunes, XBox LIVE and PlayStation Network!

Marvel.com: What drew you to Blood Brothers initially?

"Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers"

Mike Halsey: First and foremost, it was a great story. I loved the fact that it was not a stereotypical choice; it was an intimate character study of Loki, written like a Shakespearean tragedy. Of course Esad Ribic is a master painter so that is both exciting and frightening as you know you have to somehow live up to what he and Robert Rodi put on the page. For me personally, I loved the fact that this is a story told with an adult sensibility. So much about animation is built around trying to entice children. We get plenty of opportunities to work in that area, but it’s really special to get to create an animation that is mature and sophisticated.

Marvel.com: What are some of the first steps in the process of animating a series like this?

Joël Gibbs: The first step for us was extensive reading of the comic book. That happens in several passes, but of course our first read is that of your typical comic reader; we just try to enjoy it and get into the story. Then we get into the comic and really start picking it apart. We try to pick up on the beats of the story to get a feel for pacing and understand the underlying themes. As we read we try to point out elements that might be tricky to animate or the ones we know are going to be hard and start imagining solutions. At this point, we are also looking for the elements that might need to be 3D, such as characters, environments, props, etc. Some pages and panels will easily translate into animated storytelling, but others need reworking with insert shots or other creative approaches. This is what we typically call the pre-production phase.

After pre-production we begin cutting up the comic art. Our Photoshop artists led by Brad Applebaum break things out into separate layers such as characters and background and foreground elements. We use these layers to create an animatic. The animatic is a simplified animated piece that has all the shots laid out with initial timing. This is the starting point for the production phase when all the departments are brought in.

Screenshot of Thor vs. Loki from "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers"

Mark Cowart: I came in after pre-production had begun. For me, establishing tone, look, pacing, camera, pipeline, technical challenges, etc., is where I began on ["Blood Brothers"]. There was the added layer of having myself being an outside co-director, so getting on the same page creatively, stylistically and technically was a key part of the early process. Robert and Esad did such a great job creating the Loki comic, so deciding on the best way to translate that into this medium was the focus of our initial talks.

How important was it for you to stick as close as possible to the original work, and where was it necessary for you to take some liberties?

Joël Gibbs: We tried as much as possible to stick to the original art work. However there are times when it just doesn't translate, so it becomes a question of do we stay true to the art or true to the story? We can find ways to tell the story using exclusively the art, but it comes with workarounds and visual tricks. We felt that by using additional art and/or 3D elements we could stay truer to the original intent. Characters that walked around or characters that turned their heads were usually replaced with 3D characters. We also took some liberties when there were not enough panels to cover dialogue. That was the case for Balder's dungeon tirade in episode two, for example.

Marvel.com: What was the process like incorporating the 3D animation into the 2D art? How did you go about deciding where to utilize the 3D animation?

Joël Gibbs: Decisions were based on the limitations we encountered in effectively animating the comic art. Sometimes the comic art just won't move as much as you need it to.

Screenshot of Thor from "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers"

As far as the process, our modelers, Jeff Greulich and Tim Crowson, created specific 3D models for Loki, Thor, Karnilla, Hela and several others. They made multiple versions of the models. Some were fully textured high resolution models, others were low resolution models on which we projected original comic art. The models were then fully rigged and passed on to our animators. Andrew Atteberry, lead 3D animator on Loki, headed up a team of three to four animators depending on the episode. They would use the original art in the background and animate to the camera angle dictated by the panel. The animation was passed on to our FX Technical Director Harry Han who single-handedly ran the cloth simulations for all the characters. If you know anything of cloth simulation, that’s no small feat. Finalized animation is then lit and rendered. We try to match lighting direction and intensity at this stage. The rendered images are brought into compositing where we assemble everything and add our special touches of FX, color correction, and 2D animation.

Another less discussed use of 3D is the lip sync technique we used for all talking characters. We had developed a technique for "Iron Man Extremis" which worked most of the time, but gave us inconsistent results. Steve Alley, our Technical Director, revamped the whole system for Loki, dramatically improving it and streamlining it to where we had consistent results.

Marvel.com: Was there anything particular about Esad Ribic’s art that leant itself to your process?

Joël Gibbs: I was pretty intimidated by the art at first. I would say it wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be as far as the 2D animation and the compositing. However, it truly was a struggle getting our 3D to integrate into the art without throwing the viewer out of the story. The painterly look is very hard to obtain in 3D without major tweaking. We came up with a couple of techniques during a preproduction test. But we continuously tried new small adjustments to get it closer and closer.

Marvel.com: How did you break down your responsibilities as co-directors?

Screenshot of Loki from "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers"

Joël Gibbs: This was the first time Mark and I had worked together. We've known each other for years, and I've always been a big fan of his work as a director and cinematographer. Mike and I thought it would be interesting to bring Mark in to help us push our storytelling even further.

Mark Cowart: During the first few weeks of the project, it wasn’t quite clear what our individual responsibilities were going to be. That was a little challenging at times, but as things progressed, our workflow evolved into me building the initial animatic that became the blueprint for each episode, and Joël managing the execution of that blueprint. The schedule was such that while Joël was managing the team of artists through production, I was in pre-production for the next episode. We had additional responsibilities as well...Joël was lead compositor and I was the editor, so we always had something going on!

Joël Gibbs: I took on mainly the production phase. I oversaw each department making sure that the art direction was clear and that everything served the story well. I was also part of the compositing team, focusing primarily on finishing shots.

Throughout the production we were constantly meeting to go over ideas for future episodes, approve shots, or come up with solutions for things that weren't working as well as we thought.

Marvel.com: Once you get the sound, music and voice recordings, what’s the process of putting the whole episode together like? Are you still tweaking and revising the animation during this process?

Mike Halsey: When you start off in animation you sometimes think that you are done with a shot. That is only because you are not good enough yet to see all the things you could do to improve it. Eventually you realize that you are never done; instead you work to get the most quality and consistency you can on the screen. We tweak and revise on all our projects until the realities of life make us stop.

Specifically, on these productions we have animated everything with the voice overs and locked in timing before it goes for sound design and music. We continue to improve the animation while Amotz Plessner at Underground Music and James Snyder and Edge Studios work their magic. There is a wonderful moment where we get the final audio back from them, put it all together and get to watch it for the first time with all the sound effects and soaring music. It’s always a great reminder of how collaborative filmmaking is, and how rare it is to get to be on a team where all the parts are working to serve the story.

Marvel.com: What did you learn from working on "Iron Man Extremis" that helped you in producing "Blood Brothers"? Similarly, is there anything you learned in making this series that would lend itself to another, if you were to do it?

Mike Halsey: We are arguably working in a new form of animation. With "Extremis," after an initial three week R&D period, we dove in and solved problems as we went. By the midway point we were coming up with techniques and solutions that we could not fully implement because they would change the way the story was being told mid-stream. It was wonderful to get to do a second project and be able to fully use the things we had learned.  A completely revised approach to lip syncing the comic art is probably the most noticeable change. We were better able to merge the 3D elements with the original art. We learned to define the problem areas, where the storytelling from the comic would not translate to animation, earlier in the process and therefore solve them more efficiently. 

Between the two projects we were able to program some tools that solved technical problems and speed up several of the processes. That time savings was applied to other areas we wanted to implement, [such as] cloth dynamics and a deeper focus on an atmospheric environment. Overall we were able to focus less on the technical and more on the storytelling with "Thor and Loki: Blood Brothers."

Moving forward we have a new list of things we know we can improve upon; further integration of 2D and 3D elements tops the list. By the end of "Thor and Loki: Blood Brothers" we were beginning to find some new techniques that we are exploring in that area. We are also experimenting with some new surfacing and lighting approaches. In animation you are always keeping up with the latest software and technologies, but at this point we have a moment to catch our breaths and really access what technology can be retooled to the needs of this type of production. With our first two efforts at translating a comic into motion we have used fairly classical film storytelling. We always want to make the decisions that best serve the story, but with the right project I would love to get a bit more edgy and experimental.

Mar vel.com: Looking back, what was the most satisfying aspect of the production for you? What are you most proud of?

Mike Halsey: In some ways the production itself becomes a blur for me, six months of daily successes and tragedies punctuated by too much coffee and too little sleep. We are creating something that is not a comic, not a cartoon, not a CGI film, or an animatic. It’s a completely unique little piece of storytelling, fueled by love of comics and animation, which we are fortunate to be allowed to create and let loose on the world. It’s always a bit dangerous when you are working outside the normal labels and genres, so seeing the reaction and watching it shoot up the iTunes charts certainly felt like a moment of triumph.

Stay tuned to Marvel.com for even more on "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers," and download episodes one and two now on iTunes, XBox LIVE and PlayStation Network!

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