Eric Rollman certainly appreciates the position he’s in. The president of Marvel Animation since 2008, he has seen the fortunes of his organization rise and fall for over a decade.
“I worked on the X-Men series. I’ve spent 16 years at Marvel,” he admits. It should also be noted he is on record as the most prolific producer in the history of the company.
One person who also knows this is Chris Yost. He started as an intern at Marvel Animation at the beginning of this century.
“I’ve been at the company more or less since 2001,” Yost admits. “I did a little bit for the studio side, then got into the comic book side. In animation, Craig Kyle, who was kind of brought in as a consultant on ‘X-Men: Evolution,’ kind of took it over when I came on board. I started with him on ‘X-Men: Evolution.’ Then they ended that show and started growing.”
Grow, indeed. Marvel’s current DVD partner, Lionsgate, has just released a box set of the studio’s first six direct-to-DVD movies. Next week it will be issuing the third volume of the “Wolverine & The X-Men” series, that is also about to wrap up its first season on Nicktoons. Yost has finished being story editor of the first season of “Iron Man: Armored Adventures,” which is also currently airing on Nicktoons. Meanwhile, a new series, the very kids-oriented “Super Hero Squad,” made its debut this fall on Cartoon Network.
If that isn’t enough, Yost left “Iron Man” to start work on a new Avengers animated series. At the same time, Rollman just hosted a private screening of his latest D2D, “Planet Hulk,” with a Thor animated film also in development.
While both Yost and Rollman will currently politely duck out regarding their company’s recent acquisition by Disney (the deal hasn’t been approved yet), admit that “Spectacular Spider-Man” is done and over and not comment on the status of BET’s “Black Panther” series, they still see their future as incredibly rosy. As Rollman points out, the time is just perfect for superhero entertainment.
“There is a very powerful interest in these characters now,” Rollman said from his office. “The world is interested. Spider-Man proved that after 911. People want to believe in these fantasies. It’s something that’s really been embraced these days. Comics and animation are part of our culture, like it or not. We keep bringing iterations of it to the market and I think that’s amazing. I think a lot of people think the same way, such as Lionsgate.”
One thing both will concur on, is current prosperous state of Marvel Animation is due in large part to the coming of the direct-to-DVD releases. The first, “Ultimate Avengers 1,” surprised even Rollman by selling over 500,000 units. “Ultimate Avengers 2,” the second release in the series, did even better, nearing 600,000 units. Yes, there was a considerable dip with the next three—“Iron Man,” “Doctor Strange” and “Next Avengers”—but the last release, “Hulk Vs.” smashed though 400,000 units this year.
“I think doing the direct videos was the main reason why I came to Marvel Animation.,” says Rollman. “It was definitely a new era. Marvel had never done feature animation, ever, before then. Now we have done the first six films. It’s become really exciting and I hope our fans appreciate it.”
Getting the whole project off the ground in itself is a story that should someday be told.
“It was challenging on a lot of levels,” recalls Rollman. “Avi Arad was the head of Marvel at the time, and we sat down and talked about what we were trying to accomplish. The thrust of the conversation was to make stories that could not be produced in live action as well as do what we could never do with television animation. Let’s take all the limitations off. This is the chance to do that.”
“I think the DVDs gave Marvel a little more freedom to tell stories that were closer to the comics,” adds Yost, who wrote “Next Avengers.” “It let Marvel cut loose a little bit. Comics have matured a great deal since the 60s.
“Really, the 90s X-Men show was the bar for Marvel animation. I watched that show when I was in college. I had been reading comics forever, but that was the first one stepped it up. It took the serial, soap opera nature of comics and did it some justice.
“The bottom line is animated series are for younger audiences,” says Yost. “The DVDs allowed Marvel to go for an older audience. By that I just don’t mean violence, but topically, even though they were more violent.”
“Television animation has a lot of limitations because of broadcast standards,” says Rollman. “They would always put restrictions on everything we did through all the years. Live action always had its budgetary limitations. We had lots of ideas that would look great but always come up against those limitations.
“From film to film, if you watch the evolution of the movies, from ‘Ultimate Avengers 1’ to the next two films we are going to do, you’ll see the production values have risen considerably. The challenges faced with the early films with the budgets we faced, the timelines and the imposed creative restrictions, were learned and continued to get better and better. We not only got better at managing the schedule and money, we also learned what our artists were capable of doing and thus raised the bar for ourselves on every level.”
Another thing Marvel Animation has put together is a very loyal cast and crew. People who work at the DC Animated Universe have no problem singing the praises of Marvel’s main house directors, Frank Paur (“Gargoyles,” “Batman: TAS,” “Men In Black”) and Gary Hartle (“The Mask,” “He-Man”). Some DC people even moonlighted on storyboarding. Heavyweight voice actors such as Steve Blum, Frank Tatasciore and Yuri Lowenthal keep regular jobs over at Marvel Animation.
“If I’m nothing, I’m loyal,” boasts Rollman. “If you look at a number of people who work on these projects, they’ve been with me for a long time. I think it pays off. We know what each other’s expectations are. I know what I know, etc. It allows you to focus new things and not have to reinvent the wheel with every project. Woody Allen has the same editor. It’s the same idea.”
“The great thing about Marvel is a lot of people have a lot of love for their characters,” says Yost. “We can draw talent because of that. I’m just lucky to be included in that group. When you can hang out with Gary Hartle or Frank Paur, that’s a pretty good day. Whatever they are on they are going to do, they do it justice.”
“It was a very attractive opportunity for talent, for the same reasons it was attractive to me,” says Rollman. “Once I was able to talk to people and let them know what we were trying to accomplish, telling them that we were not going to pull any punches, they were all ready to go.”
That loyalty goes beyond Marvel’s own animation staff. It includes their overseas production crew, particularly Japan’s incredible Madhouse facility and France’s Method Animation.
“That was due in part to us working closer with our studios overseas, trying to put more on screen,” Rollman said. “They want to be part of the process, so we started developing stronger relationships with them. You’ll see a lot more with that with ‘Planet Hulk.’ We are working with Madhouse Studios on that. Those guys are tremendous. We push each other a lot. I think they appreciated us bringing them into the fold, even on the script level. They are also are helping with the layouts. They are more partners than just a production facility.”
“Method’s been great,” says Yost, who has worked with the studio since they collaborated on the “Fantastic 4” series. “I think their animation on ‘Iron Man’ looks phenomenal. They were the first fully CG show I’ve ever worked on. It’s pretty amazing to see them turn this stuff into life. Obviously, they armor looks great. I think they also made the kids look great, too. They can do some fairly subtle humor and facial things. I think they do a great job.”
Even though Yost has moved on to work on the upcoming Avengers series, he still has nothing but good things to say about the one season he worked on (of which the first DVD is hitting the market through Genius).
“This is a co-production between Method and Marvel,” says Yost. “It was actually in development before the first (live action) movie. We wanted to have a more approachable take to Iron Man, while still keeping a lot of what made Tony what he is. Tony Stark is a lot more than just women, booze and boardrooms. There are things with him that did speak to his sense of responsibility.”
Even though Avengers is still very early in development, Yost doesn’t mind sharing a little of what the new series is going to be about.
“There is one promotional image of the initial team roster; Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Ant Man and Wasp. It certainly is the original team,” he admits. “You know I worked on Kirby with ‘Fantastic 4.’ The Avengers are their own thing. It’s pretty amazing property to be working on. I really fell in love with it, but I do with everything I work on, but Avengers just feel special.
“The cast for ‘Wolverine and the X-Men’ and the upcoming Avengers project are both phenomenal. Even a show like ‘Super Hero Squad’ draws top names. ‘Super Hero Squad’ is a show where everyone’s just supposed to have fun. I mean there will be shows for the more hardcore fans, like the Avengers show. That is for older audiences. We are trying to do something for everyone. That was the whole point of ‘Next Avengers.’ It was something for younger audiences.”
Rollman also has some things to say about “Planet Hulk.”
“It’s as close as possible to the comic as possible, but it is an adaptation,” he admits. “You just can’t do a literal transcription of the comic to the movie, but it’s darn close for sure. I can tell fans they will not be disappointed. It’s big. It’s bold. The animation is stunning. There are battle and fight sequences that are hard to believe are hand-drawn, but they are. Frank Paur does have a thing for the Hulk, even though he’s looking like Thor these days.
Things are apparently also going full bore for new seasons of “Wolverine,” “Super Hero Squad” and “Iron Man.” While Rollman is hesitant to talk about future plans for "Squad" and "Iron Man" he does drop some tantalizing clues about the future of the X-Men series.
“It’s the third iteration of the X-Men, and a lot of the people who have worked on the first two series have worked on this one as well. We all are big X-Men fans. It’s got the classic storytelling and look to it, with a modern twist. It’s definitely working.”
Most important, is “Wolverine and the X-Men” will do its own take on the "Age of Apocalypse" arc with its next 26 episodes.
“That’s the plan, so I hear,” he says, coyly. “There were endless meetings deciding what would make a great story and what wouldn’t, limitations on budgets and timelines. Remember, everything you write has to be created, so you have to be efficient about what you are doing. You try to not to create everything new with every new episode. That is where the rubber hits the road. Do we have to do a new location? Do we have to introduce a new character? You have to balance the time and money to do that.”
As for the Mouseworks affecting anything, there’s no news so far.
“It really has been business as usual,” says Yost. “Obviously there’s a lot of excitement about it. Until it becomes an official thing, it’s the usual day to day, and as far as I know that won’t be December. I’m just as excited to find out about it as the fans.”
So, for at least the foreseeable future, things are looking pretty good over at Marvel Animation.
“Animation has a unique ability,” says Rollman. “We can go anywhere we want. You draw it, you go there. That’s what we tried to do. I think we’ve accomplished that. We had a private screening of ‘Planet Hulk’ last Sunday. Everyone who came out of it said it’s the best movie we’ve done so far. We just continue to learn.
“We’re doing very well. The DVD market has been challenged the last couple of years. We’ve seen some nice increases with the last few. Of course, we’d always like to see more, but our fans are definitely responding. One thing that always helps is we screen the movies at Comic-Con. That always gets a good buzz going. We have also been lucky in that overall our fans have been highly complimentary.
“I’m very proud of Marvel Animation. It’s a really fun unique look at the Marvel world. I mean the variety of projects we’re working on, from ‘Planet Hulk’ to ‘Super Hero Squad,’ is a lot of the fun. Being able to do such a wide variety of things, and having people appreciate it, there could be a worse way to make a living. Making cartoons for a living is a pretty extraordinary.”
With 16 years of perspective to work off of, it’s hard to argue with him.