Superhero Shorts: Superman Classic
Superhero Shorts: Superman Classic
Welcome to this week’s edition of Superhero Shorts where I take a look at a different superhero themed short film and get the creator of the film to answer a few interview questions. This week I’m talking with Robb Pratt, a professional storyboard artist, director, and animator who is currently working for Disney on their upcoming film Planes. He created an original independently animated Superman short film called Superman Classic which you can watch below. You can also visit Robb’s official site.
I really love classic, hand drawn animation and this really reminds me of some of the great classic animation from the 50’s, but with a touch of the more modern style of Bruce Timm. I loved the little bit of Clark comedy in the beginning as well as the classic pose in silhouette inside the phone booth. Really the only downside to this short is that it is so short. The actual runtime of the animated portion is only about one minute. It’s nice to see a bit of the behind the scenes stuff added on to the end of the short with some great design sheets and the animatics in the credits. But enough from me, it’s time to hear from the man behind the animation, Robb Pratt himself.
Bubbawheat: What was the inspiration for the design for the characters? Superman reminds me of something like a mix of Bruce Timm and the classic Max Fleischer cartoons, and the robots remind me of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but again with a touch of the classic cartoons.
Robb Pratt: When I designed my Superman, Bruce Timm’s work is definately an inspiration, as well as the old Fleischer Superman shorts and the Filmation design of the 1960s, but the thing I always noticed about them is the squinty nature of the eyes. They need to be there because it gives Supes that steely, cold expression, but I always knew that if I were to design him, I’d incorporate eyes that could be squashed and stretched in the traditional Disney way, so I could get some comedy from him, particularly when he’s Clark. Of all of the Superman actors, I think Christpher Reeve really nailed Clark as the secretly empowered weakling. His comedy chops were great, and I figured I’d go for drama with Superman, and comedy with Clark Kent. Now I can squash his expression to get the steely, squinty eyes, but I can also get the stretched expression for classic animated “takes”. I also tried to incorporate Chris Reeve in there, and George Reeves from the 1950s “Adventures of Superman” with a “widow’s peak” on his hairline. There’s a bit of John Newton, TVs “Superboy” and the voice of Superman in my short as well, particularly at the hairline/temple area. I was sure to make the design very square, because that speaks of the character, too, so you may notice that the eyeglasses on Clark are squares, the jaw is sqaure, all to re-inforce the notion that he is a square, straight-up, type of character.
The Lois drawings are probably more influenced by my love of Stephen Silver’s “Kim Possible” design, with a hair style that is taken from the classic Hollywood beauty of the 1940s, Veronica Lake. I love covering one of her eyes with hair, to make her seem a bit mysterious and elusive, which is what I’d imagine Clark likes about her. She’s tough and keeps the world at arm’s length, but Clark already grew up in Smallville with the pretty girl-next-door in Lana, so I can see how a big-city broad that’s tough would seem compelling to him. Her outfit is pretty much right out of the Fleischers’, which I love: a woman working in a man’s world, wearing a suit and tie.
Lois and Clark’s designs are even meant to work together, with Clark’s square features playing against Lois’ triangular features.
The robots are absolutely inspired by “Sky Captain”! I thought that movie was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, but had wished Superman would show up to fight those robots! The Fleischer’s “Mechanical Monsters” was obviosly an inspiration, too, but they were smaller than the Sky Captain ones, and I wanted to see Superman fighting the big ones!
BW: I thought it was interesting that when searching for “Superman Classic”, right next to your video, there’s also the Fleischer Mechanical Monsters short. With the immense popularity of CG animation, hand drawn animation feels like it’s becoming a lost art. Do you think it’s important to preserve that tradition, and why?
RP: CGI is so cool, I can why the audience has flipped for it, but I would hate to see hand-drawn die away. I remember the first time I saw “Toy Story”. It was a screening at work (Disney) and when we all filed out of the the theater, I remember one of my co-workers saying “Well, I guess we’ll all be out of jobs”, and I didn’t get what he was saying. I never thought that it’d be one or the other – I just figured that they’d co-exist. Now, as time has gone by, I think that traditional animation will have to re-invent itself to some degree in order to keep the audience’s attention. We probably can’t just make the same old stuff and expect everyone to show up. I’m not saying that it should change completely, but by expanding the techniques with computer filters or whatever the animator can imagine could be inventive, would help. I really LOVE the opening sequence to “Kung Fu Panda” for instance! It celebrates the flatness of traditional animation, but uses the computer in a way that makes it hip and fresh. I feel the same way about the opening animation to the “Beatles: Rock Band”. In the end, though, the audience decides with their support (in dollars) what will survive. I’m sure that in the 1950s, a lot of directors didn’t want black and white film to go away because it’s BEAUTIFUL, but audiences supported color and that’s what it will always come down to.
BW: I also loved that sequence in Kung Fu Panda, it’s such a great scene. What do you think of traditional looking animation that’s created 100% digital? Do you consider it the same as traditional pencil and paper animation, or is it something different?
RP: I was terrified to draw on a computer screen a few years ago, but now I actually quite like it. I use the Cintiq for all of my drawing now, except for the actual animation. There’s no replacing the technique of drawing and rolling, drawing and rolling (rolling the drawing between your fingers to see them “move” as you work). A lot of things come down to symantics, but I guess if it’s drawn, it’s tradional animation, regardless of whether it’s on paper or Cintiq. Really, all animation is the product of the artist making it. The rest is just the delivery system of the performance. Whether that performance is expressed through drawings or by sculpted clay or by paper cut-outs, it’s just the delivery system. It’s the same as looking at fine art and discussing whether the artist used water colors or oils or sculpted in marble or clay. The added part of the craft in traditional animation is the drawing, though, and that does give you something to behold that CGI can’t.
BW: The animation is very smooth, but there’s a slight unfinished quality to it. If you had the time/budget, would you clean them up? Or was it intentional to give it a rough charm, and to help sell the fact that it’s actually hand drawn?
RP: For my animation, I’ve decided to not clean up the artwork, so it’s clear that they are indeed drawings. I figure that 2d will never look as slick and glossy as CG, so why try? Why not celebrate what it is: moving drawings. I’ve grown up and don’t believe in magic so much any more, so the closest thing to magic for me is a drawing that is moving and is alive. There are times when I’ve wished I could clean it up, because I do love that old thick and thin quality with tapering ends, but that requires a lot more work. At Disney, it would be common to spend an hour on each drawing to clean it up that way. Because it takes 24 drawings to make one second of fluid movement, that’s just not a possibility for me at an independent level.
BW: Describing animation as “magic” is totally how I feel about it and why I imagine I’ll be a fan of animation for the rest of my life. You’re working on a sequel to Superman Classic, is it going more or less smoothly than the first one?
RP: I have finished the sequel! [UPDATE: It has been uploaded to YouTube and you can watch Bizarro Classic right now and even in 3D] I’m just working on the “behind-the-scenes” video part of it before I post it. As far as going more or less smoothly? That’s a tricky question! I learned so much by making the first one, that the knowledge made making the new one much easier, but then that made me want to challenge myself. The new one is much more ambitious, with more strongly composed shots and less re-use of background art. It’s a half a minute longer than the first one, too! I wasn’t intending on making another one, but the reaction I got from people was so positive. “Superman Classic” was the highest rated Superman clip on YouTube for over a year (someone bumped me down to number two recently!) People’s comments have absolutely floored me. It felt so wonderful that it compelled me to make another one, and I don’t want to fail to live up to the first one! I worked my tail off to try not to let anyone down!
BW: I can tell from all your YouTube comments that you have a real passion for this project, where did you develop your love of Superman?
RP: That love started very early in life. Even before the Christopher Reeve movies, I would watch the old “Adventures of Superman” reruns starring George Reeves and run around my house with a towel tucked into the back of my shirt for a cape! I can still remember seeing the first image of Christopher Reeve in the newspaper annoncing him as the new Superman for the big-budget movie, and I was thrilled! He looked exactly like Superman from every angle! He even had the curl in his hair! Then as a teenager, the old Fleischer shorts were kind of brought out after not being shown for a long time and those blew me away! Out of everything Superman, I think those are my favorite!
I think the thing that resonates with me about the character is the whole geek empowerment angle. There were times when I got pushed around by bullies when I was a kid because I was such a nerd that sat and drew cartoons all the time. I liked the fantasy that I was just letting them bully me because I couldn’t reveal my secret identity: that if they only knew, I was really Superman, and I was strong and handsome and everybody loved me! That’s why I think Christopher Reeve really nailed the part. His Clark is such a nerd, so when he transforms into Superman, the fantasy is in full effect! It sets up the whole comicbook thing for practicly every hero that followed, and it did it first and best.
BW: I agree, Christopher Reeve really nailed the part of Clark Kent. I grew up with the Lois and Clark series and while Dean Cain was a great Superman, his Clark Kent had too much confidence. What do you think of all the recent straight-to-video DC animated movies, have you seen them? If you have, is there anything you would have done differently?
RP: Watching anything Superman is a frustrating experience for me! I realize that I’m just too close to this character! There are always things that I like and things that I hate. I’ve seen all of the recent DC Superman videos and it’s much the same way. The action sequences in “Doomsday” are brilliant and much better than I could ever do, but then the character and story stuff are different from what I would do. I wish there was more charm and comedy to compliment the action in way that’s done so well in the “Back to the Future” movies. That’s the idea behind making “Superman Classic”. It was a chance for me to roll all the good stuff up about Superman into one concept. That way, I can show you what I love about the Fleischer art direction, but now with the Christopher Reeve-style Clark Kent. I can have the 1940s tough broad Lois Lane, but add characters from more recent eras (as I do in the new short). The “Classic” concept is not simply “retro”, but more all encompassing.
BW: I ask everyone this question, what is your favorite superhero movie?
RP: Well, forever, it’s always been “Superman: the Movie”, but a lot of good stuff has come out the past few years. “Superman” is very flawed, and there are bits that are sloppy, but the performance by Reeve is (now alongside Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man) simply the very best in comicbook movie history, and will probably always be. The tone of the movie is pitch-perfect, and the score is one of the best movie scores ever. Superman, being flawless, is one of the hardest characters to write, and somehow they managed to make him interesting and impossible to not root for.
The new Nolan Batman movies give it a run for it’s money, though, and as much as it pains me to say it, “The Incredibles” may be the better movie. I’ve watched that one about fifty times now, and have yet to find a flaw.
Thanks for including me on your blogsite, Nathan! I’ll give you a heads up whan the new short is online – please help spread the word!
Thanks to you too, the Incredibles is one of my and my daughter’s favorite movies as well. I can’t wait until the sequel comes out and I will definitely let my readers know when it does. Tomorrow I’ll be watching Thor: Tales of Asgard before I return it to the rental store, but then I’ll be following it up with some more DC animation including the recently released Superman vs. the Elite and Batman: Under the Red Hood. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.