There’s an interesting trend going down at Warner Bros. Animation.
The first generation of talent at the studio started in the early 1990s with the likes of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Andrea Romano and Alan Burnett. These were the people who broke the TV animation world wide open with “Batman: The Animated Series,” then went on to do “The Adventures of Batman” and “Superman.”
Toward the end of the decade, one could say a new generation appeared. Trained by Timm, Burnett and Dini, their names included Glen Murakami, James Tucker and Dwayne McDuffie. This group raised the bar with shows such as “Teen Titans” and “Justice League.”
Now it looks like a third generation is starting to emerge. Spearheading this latest class of animators are Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery. Montgomery has truly earned her bones with the direct-to-DVD releases “Wonder Woman” and “Green Lantern: First Flight.” Liu also deserves some mad props. This year he directed the Thor segment of “Hulk vs…” and now, “Superman/Batman: Public Enemies.”
“It’s kind of exciting in a way,” says Liu. “It’s also funny. I was talking to a close friend of mine about this. When ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ first came out, the style that Bruce created—the pacing and design—was so much more like a movie than a cartoon, it was a huge contrast to what was happening.
“There are so many other people coming up, too. Lauren and I just happen to be the directors of it, but all the people who work with us are very talented and have been working here for about ten years, give or take. We are all video and anime fans. We read information a lot faster than before. We grew up in the middle of geek culture. Now we’re putting in what we like. Even Bruce says the old Batman stuff is now so slow to him. He would love to go back and re-edit that stuff.”
Not that “Public Enemies” was an easy assignment for its director. There are a number of very interesting reasons the movie is one of the shortest in the DC Animated Universe library, clocking in at 66 minutes.
The first is that it was decided to try to stay as loyal to the comics the movie is based on. Say what you will, Superman/Batman #1-6’s artist, Ed McGuinness, is not the easiest style to animate. The iconic heroes are incredibly muscled, virtually ripped and sporting six packs under their iconic chest logos.
“That aspect of Ed McGuiness’ art, which is heavily muscled/muscles bulging everywhere, was important,” says Liu. “It’s kind of difficult to get some of it. The studio we used did do a pretty good job of keeping it, generally. From what I heard, it was a bit tough on them.
“The more lines, every line you have to put down, that’s one more line the animators have to draw as well. Then they have to those additional lines 24 frames per second, or as we do it, 12 frames. That’s a lot of drawings. Every extra line you have to draw is compounding the work that many times. That’s why animation tries to cut as many lines as possible. It makes the work load doable.”
Another element for the movie’s shortness is just the number of action sequences. No less an authority than Frank Paur (“Gargoyles,” “Hulk Vs.”) will boldly state that Liu is one incredibly good storyboard artist. Liu appreciates the compliment, but will also tell you “Public Enemies” tested his and his crews storyboard skills to their limits.
“It’s interesting because the comic is pretty straightforward,” says Lie. “Stan [Berkowitz, the movies’ screen writer] probably knows more about this, but the idea was to keep to the elements that were important to the story.
“Even after that was buttoned down, it ended up being a lot of fighting. The first half involved its share of set-up, and then it becomes this fist fest through the rest of the movie while Luthor executes his plans. In the middle stretch there were like four big fights; there’s Star Labs, then there’s the business park, then Grodd controlling Mongol, then the government superhero agents. Then Hawkman and Shazam come.
“It was kind of rough. It ended up being one of those calls. There was so much fighting there really wasn’t that much more to say. There’s so much fighting it left us wondering if it would kill the audience overseas. Also, as a viewer, I was starting to wonder if all this fighting would end up boring, a little too much of the same thing.”
To help him through this, Liu called on a number of the best in the business. This included Montgomery, Eric Canete, Michael Goguen, Gary Hartle and a number of others.
“We had a lot of great fight choreography people,” Liu acknowledges. “We called upon everybody to look at their characters and not mimic what anyone else was doing. We asked what was each character’s power and how would they fight with it?
“It was a test because the schedule was a little bit shorter than usual. I think it was green lit a little bit late. So we ended up with a pretty down and dirty production. Thankfully I had a lot of top notch people.”
To compound matters, Liu had to work on a short deadline. He had six weeks less production time than any other DCAU project ever produced.
“Normally, you storyboard and then do animatics. In this case we didn’t have the time for an animatic,” he informs. “So in this case there was a lot of guessing as far as time was concerned.”
Working at this turbo-charged pace had its price.
“There was one scene in particular that I wish I could have included,” says Liu. “It was very difficult to cut and I just lamented doing it. It would have helped the immersion process. At the same time, cutting it made the pace go really fast.
“There was a scene we had before Superman and Batman go to Star Labs. We have Superman fly to see Lois. We kind of wanted it to feel like a man stopping to see his lover before going to war to say goodbye.
“We wanted him to pass by a Superman: Wanted poster. He was dressed as Clark Kent to avoid detection. He’s crossing a street and passes by posters with his face on it. People are huddled around a shop with all these TVs on. They are all watching the TVs and seeing the meteor coming. During this, we watch him sneak by.
“Once he gets home, he just sees the back of Lois’ head in front of a TV,” Liu continues. “On the TV are three voiceovers of people giving their reactions to Superman being a wanted man, whether they believe he’s turned evil and that kind of thing. The idea was Superman thinking how he was going to explain this one. Then when he gets in front of her, he sees she’s fallen asleep, with her laptop on.
“It was a touching little moment. It was a great textural kind of thing. We had boarded that. We passed the initial board, but due to time we had to cut it. Yet if I had to pick one sequence I would have put back, that was it.”
Another casualty of Liu’s brutal schedule was he couldn’t sit in on Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly and Clancy Brown’s recording sessions. He had to rely on the skilled ears of Andrea Romano and Timm for the pre-lays.
“I was extremely excited. They were the classic voices,” he said. “I expect to hear their voices when I work on something involving them. Unfortunately, because it was so quick and dirty I couldn’t sit in on their sessions. Normally I would have. In this case, there was so much work that it was just efficiency. My time was better spent trying to get the boards and designs down.
“Even though the story is simple, there are a lot of plot things that had to be smoothed out. I think we did most of them. So I dealt with the broad strokes and then got to as many of the finer ones that I could. That way I think the film didn’t end up feeling too clunky.”
The simple truth is “Public Enemies” should go down as one of the best DCAU DVD’s ever, in large part thanks to Liu’s work on the film. It is the true definition of action packed, flying at such supersonic speeds that one doesn’t realize how short the entire film is. Between the acting, action and overall just plain eye candy scattered throughout the project, it ends up a truly satisfying view.
Considering all that Liu went through to do this, he should be properly rewarded…and he has. He and Lauren Montgomery are sharing the directorial chair on the next DCAU project, “Crisis on Two Earths.”
“Lauren’s funny because I actually knew her from very early on in her career,” Liu said. “We ended up being really good friends and we have lunch together almost every day. In fact, she has the office next to mine. It’s frustrating knowing how talented she is. She’s also like my little sister and I love watching her grow up.
“We have different ways of dealing with things. I think that helps push each other. We’re doing editing on ‘Crisis’ right now. So when we get footage back from overseas, she would make notes on certain things, and I would make notes on other things. Even Bruce said we made more notes than he ever would have. But the end result is it really looks beautiful.”
As for the possibilities of another generation following him? Liu realizes it’s only a matter of time.
“The sensibility has changed. In part that was from video games. That’s what we have to compete against or people are not going to watch us. To them it would be boring. So the choreography has to be a little bit tighter. It’s less about big punches and more about combinations, like Hong Kong cinema.
“It has also made our lives more difficult because that takes more time. We’re cutting and editing a lot more. So we’ve made our work harder for us, but we’re also a lot more immersed in it. I know our people take a lot more pride of authorship in what we do, especially at Warner Bros. I know when I look at the work one person is doing, I’m constantly thinking I have to step it up even more.”
If that next generation can produce films as good, or even better, than “Superman/Batman: Public Enemies,” then fans will have something to really look forward to.