ANIMATION: 'THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN'
CULVER CITY, CA — As kids, many of us got lost in our favorite television shows, comic books or videogames, but how many of us as adults get to put a new spin on an old favorite?
Well, Victor Cook, who co-developed The Spectacular Spider-Man for television, did. As supervising producer/supervising director of the show, he has helped to bring an updated-yet-classic version of Spider-Man to a new generation.
"I really loved the old 1960's animated show as a kid," says Cook, referring to the Stan Lee/John Romita era of Spider-Man. "This was an opportunity to define a new animated Spider-Man with a few retro touches, a cool, new theme song and a show that truly makes use of the medium of traditional animation with over-the-top, Hong Kong-style action sequences.
"This is a Spider-Man that moves; one that is designed to be animated."
Cook has his hand in every aspect of the show. "My job is to oversee the art direction, all the visuals, making sure it's as dynamic and action-packed as possible, and overseeing the choreography of the action to make sure it's fun to watch."
Cook visually plans each episode, working with a team of preproduction artists at Sony in Culver City, such as character designer Sean Galloway, background designer Vince Toyama, episode directors, storyboard artists, prop designers and color stylists.
He also works very closely with three Korean animation studios — HanHo, Moi Animation and Dong Woo Animation — during the making of the show, exchanging emails and holding conference calls.
"Then I finish it all off by working with the editors, calling retakes, getting the pacing we want and seeing it through sound and music, working with the composers, spotting each episode with them and the sound effects person, all the way through the audio mix."
Read on for more with Cook…
POST: With so many past iterations of animated Spider-Man shows, how did you set out to make this one different?
COOK: "I wanted an action show with classic squash-and-stretch animation. There were all those past animated shows that you mention, but the real benchmark for Spider-Man was the Sam Raimi movies. Our goal was to get Spider-Man to move in animation the way Raimi had him move in the films. We weren't a CG show, so we had to find a way to do it with traditional 2D animation on a tight schedule and still make Spidey look great. The way we achieved it was to simplify all the designs.
"Spider-Man's costume alone has a lot of detail. So we wanted keep it iconic and make it look like the Spider-Man costume, but streamline it down to its basic essentials. That also influenced the overall design of the characters. We made them all less detailed and more graphic with very strong silhouettes. The lack of detail also helped the animators focus on animation because they didn't have to draw so many details on each drawing.
"Number two was I wanted to raise the bar on the choreography. On some of the past shows, he shot webs and swung from them; I wanted to inject a little bit of a Hong Kong movie to it, but without the martial arts. In Hong Kong movies, specifically the Jackie Chan movies, they use the environment, and I wanted to do that with Spider-Man. For instance, if he's fighting thugs in an appliance store, I want him to use his web and powers in a clever way. So we might have him web a TV or washing machine and have it hit the thug."
POST: What were some of the challenges in terms of the animation?
COOK: "I didn't want a traditional action show, not so straight or 'realistic.' I didn't want to go cartoony, but I wanted to make sure we had some squash and stretch in it. If you have ever seen The Incredibles, it's very cinematic and action-packed, but there is an element of squash and stretch, and it's very designy — dramatic scenes that are still very cinematic and dramatic and scary when it needs to be, but the acting and the characters have some squash and stretch to their movement.
"But the studios in Korea weren't used to that. When they worked with action shows they approached it either very anime or very straight. Or on a cartoon show it's not really cinematically staged but very squash and stretched. This version combines both styles."
POST: Are the animators drawing directly into the computer?
COOK: "They hand draw them, but scan them into the computer to color them. They also do all the camera work and compositing in the computer. For Spider-Man's color, Dong Woo used Retus Pro — a Japanese system widely used for anime-style shows; HanHo uses Animo; and Moi uses Toonz.
"There is some very limited CG and they use Toon Shader CG for some vehicles so it blends in with the graphic 2D designs of the rest of show."
POST: How do you divvy up the work between the three studios?
COOK: "HanHo excelled at squash and stretch and the character acting, so I try to give them episodes that showcase that. Moi seemed to excel at the action. Dong Woo was good at both, plus they handle effects very well and have a big CG department."
POST: How long does it take to animate one episode?
COOK: "From storyboard it takes about six months. The animation itself probably only takes three months. It was a huge task on the front end in designing the show because we had to design New York, in our style. It was envisioning a reality where it's still real but only with the essential details — it's the same way we approached Spider-Man's costume. You will have some windows drawn in — in the mid-ground fewer, in the far-ground maybe just a silhouette of the building."
POST: You reuse those assets of the city from episode to episode?
COOK: "Once we designed New York, that's used, same with the high school and Peter's house. The storyboard artists are free to draw all those places in any new angles they want, but once we design it, we'll reuse it if we go to that place again and again. But there are always new locations in each episode as well.
"In episode three, Peter Parker is being taunted in the courtyard of his high school by a bunch of students, so all those characters had to be drawn. Then he hops on a city bus and goes to his part-time job at the college and he walks across campus — all those background characters have to be drawn. We couldn't re-use those characters from the high school because it was happening in chronological time. Then there was a street scene and a subway scene, which also needed new character designs. We reused when we could, but we were always having to do new designs."
POST: You work with Advantage Audio on the mix?
COOK: "Yes, they did the audio mix and sound effects design. It's great working with sound effects artists, specifically on signature sounds. We've seen the Green Goblin in movies and in past animated shows, so people know he's got pumpkin bombs and razor bats and his glider, but the fun for us was making these sounds different. While we were working on the trailer for the series, we decided to add screams to the bombs.
"There a lot of unique sound effects and it was a challenge for the mixers because these shows are jam packed. In other shows I've worked on you really try to separate dialogue away from when there is going to be a sound effect or you leave room for music. But if you go back to the original comics, Spider-Man is making wise cracks all through the battles, and when he's not talking he's thinking. So we incorporated that into the show. All the while you have punches, explosions, loud music and dialogue that all needed to be showcased — the mixers really pulled it off."
POST: How long is the mix?
COOK: "It's about a four-hour process when I get there, but the mixers have already spent four hours on their own getting it to a point that they feel is ready to show [supervising producer] Greg Weisman and I. When we spot the music, it's about an hour and we'll talk about it. Sometimes there will be an action-packed scene but we want the music to be the reverse of that… to tell something internal. We'll talk about each villain and their theme — Spider-Man has this rogue gallery of villains and they all have their own theme."
POST: Where are the actors recorded?
COOK: "Studiopolis in Studio City. Our voice director is Jamie Thomason."
POST: What about the music?
COOK: "The composers are a trio known as Dynamic Music Partners — Michael McCuistion, Kristopher Carter and Lolita Ritmanis. Spider-Man is not a dark brooding character, especially our Spider-Man. This show takes place when he first gets his powers, so the weight of the world is not on his shoulders yet, so it's fun, it's light."
POST: Who edits the show?
COOK: "The picture editing is done at Culver Studios on Final Cut Pro. Bruce King was our main picture editor for both seasons. Ralph Eusebio was the first season editor, and Damon Yoches was the second season editor. They were very integral to the show.
"We have a lot of material and we didn't want to lose anything, so the signature style is a fast-paced show."
POST: What about the theme song?
COOK: "We wanted to really have a fun vibe to our show. Spider-Man is having the time of his life. A big influence besides the early Ditko/Lee comics was the Bakshi animated cartoon from the '60s. That was a fun show and part of the fun was that theme song…. 'Spider-Man, Spider-Man,' so we wanted a contemporary version of that.
"The theme song done by the indie band the Tenderbox, and the whole main title is designed to bring you into the show and tell you right away, yes it's action packed and dramatic, but it's super fun. We didn't do a clip reel for the main title. It's all original visuals."
POST: I've noticed that the language is also contemporary and modern.
COOK: "Yes. The other thing we wanted to do to make this show different was go back to the roots of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comic. In the original comics, Peter Parker was a high school student when he got his powers so we wanted to take that time in the early '60s and put it into today, so it's very contemporized. The language is contemporized, the kids have cell phones, they text. All that stuff is updated to the 21st century and how kids relate to each other.
"We also wanted the characters to reflect the diversity of modern day New York, so we changed ethnicities of some of the characters. For example, Liz Allen was originally caucasian in the comics but in our series she is hispanic. The comic's caucasian Ned Leeds is now Korean-American Ned Lee."