When you’re dealing with a story so huge that it spans multiple Earths, it’s sometimes a good idea to arm yourself with multiple directors – as did the production team behind Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, an all-new DC Universe Animated Original PG-13 Movie from Warner Premiere, DC Comics and Warner Bros. Animation.
Lauren Montgomery and Sam Liu, the animation directors of the past three DC Universe films, have combined their talents to bring Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths to the screen as a blockbuster tale of super heroes and super villains engaged in the ultimate battle of parallel worlds and, through a diabolical plan launched by Owlman, puts the balance of all existence in peril.
Montgomery has been an active member of the directing team behind several of the DCU films, initially guiding the middle section of before accepting the sole directorial role for both and . After directing several Hulk anåd Thor ventures for rival Marvel, Liu made his long-form directorial debut for the DCU series on .
As the film’s lead characters are armed with similar talents while coming from distinctly different perspectives, the same can be said of the two directors of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Both Montgomery and Liu are relatively soft-spoken individuals, yet both are opinionated in their approach to animation, diligent in their work ethic, and dedicated to achieving the best possible outcome. Over the course of making the film, they came to learn a great deal about the other’s vision, and the result is even greater than the sum of their talents.
Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is an original story from award-winning animation/comics writer Dwayne McDuffie (). Bruce Timm () is executive producer. The full-length animated film will be distributed by Warner Home Video on February 23, 2010 as a Special Edition 2-disc version on DVD and Blu-Ray™ Hi-Def, as well as single disc DVD, and On Demand and Download.
Montgomery and Liu paused from their current DCU projects (shhh … it’s a secret) to discuss their thoughts on the creation of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. FYI: The interviews were conducted separately. Montgomery’s answers are listed first because, well, decorum dictates that ladies go first …
Q: How did you two go about co-directing Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths?
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: We kind of just went over the whole film together and it was really good to get two different points of view as a check and balance for each other. If we disagreed, we found compromises that would work. If one of us felt strongly about something, we just traded off – Sam would take a sequence he felt strongly about, then I’d take one I wanted. But for the most part, we agreed. We both work in such different ways, it was interesting to see how someone else works and learn from it.
SAM LIU: We went through the film front to back, and if we ran into a problem or an area where either of us had an issue, usually where we thought it could be stronger or could be playing better, we usually solved it right on the spot. If we got to a section that was requiring a lot more revisions, one of us would jump on it and the other would move the rest of the film forward until we hit another rough spot. So that was our process.
Q: What have you learned from each other?
MONTGOMERY: Sam breaks things down a lot, he’s very analytical. I tend not to. He spends a lot of time thinking about the story and getting into all the nooks and crannies of it, and I like to work with the general story. He’ll read the whole book, I’ll read the back of the book. I try to get the emotional points down so people can understand them, but Sam will go even deeper to use shots and set-ups to drive the point home, sometimes metaphorically. He thinks harder than I do.
LIU: Our processes are very different. I like getting into a script and breaking things down. Maybe I don’t have the best ideas, but I’m pretty good at recognizing where things are needed. I really liked the back and forth process (with Lauren), talking about ideas and batting it back and forth to find a good solution. Lauren is more instinctual, she works more from the gut. And I think she works off reaction rather than an intellectual breakdown. I’m the other way by process. But I do feel like sometimes I over-analyze things, when sometimes it’s almost like the emotional flow of the movie is good enough. Lauren gets that. Sometimes logic can be bypassed if the scene is engaging enough, or interesting enough. It’ll bridge gaps and you don’t need to analytically fix all those gaps.
Q: What do you think you might have taught each other?
MONTGOMERY: I think Sam stresses out slightly less when I’m around. He stresses and I don’t. I think I calm him down a little bit. But when he’s alone, he stresses out just as much. Hopefully I helped with that.
LIU: I don’t think I taught her anything (he laughs). She’s a free-flowing, shoot-from-the-hip kind of person, and I’m kind of an angster – I nitpick things. I like getting into the story, and from there some things do need working out – things related to the emotional journey of a character that need to be highlighted or punctuated to set something up for later. I’m a stickler for things like that. And I think she saw those things.
I do stress, though – and there are times when I’m freaking out about something and she puts me at total ease. And then there’s times when I’m freaking out and she’s fighting me on it, and it makes it worse. I think we’re both control freaks in our own way, it’s just a difference in approach. I fixate on a lot of things, and she thinks things are just good enough, so let’s move on. We have an innate concept about the overall picture, but she focuses more on the acting and poses and timing and movement, and I think more on structure. I guess there’s a good balance.
Q: Do you have a favorite scene in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths?
MONTGOMERY: There’s a fight between Wonder Woman and Olympia that I thought was really beautifully animated. That’s always fun to watch. It was boarded well, but the overseas animators took the drawings from the boards and really plussed it out. I think they just enjoy animating girl fights overseas because those scenes always come back looking good.
LIU: More than one scene, I like the overall relatability of the Justice League characters. There was great character interaction. When I watch movies, I like something that has an emotional connection, and this film definitely does.
Specifically, I think the spectacle of these evenly matched supers fighting was really cool. Superman versus Ultraman. Flash fighting someone equally as fast. Strengths against strengths. Jay Oliva boarded the last fight sequence and the Superwoman-Wonder Woman fight is great. They’re both strong, super powerful women and I think it was brutal enough as is, but the way Jay made Wonder Woman use the lasso to slam Superwoman to the ground is pretty amazing.The battle between Owlman and Batman is awesome, too, because it’s sort of this weird intellectual standoff. Owlman is so far into his psychosis as to how the universe operates, it’s very existential. His concept is crazy, but the way he reasons out the technology of how things work and the way he thinks, it gave us great room to improvise Batman’s reaction. And then when they actually fight, it’s brutal. They do these gadget fights, sort of a modern ninja battle. The sound effects on the planet, the colors, the way it’s animated, it all works really well. And James Woods’ voice is perfect – most of the Crime Syndicate is very thuggish, they’re all about stealing money. But Owlman has created the ultimate plan to annihilate everybody, and James Woods does this great build-up. It’s great acting. He plays Owlman as a little bit off and kind of creepy, but not sinister creepy. His cadence is great, and his voice is almost charming in a way. It was a good mix of all the things I thought we’d have a problem with if we went too far one way or the other. It’s a great, tight sequence and I’m very happy the way it all came together.
Q: What were the challenges of directing this film?
MONTGOMERY: It was a challenge because we had a really large cast of characters – lots of main characters – and they all needed a decent amount of screen time. Both the good guys and the bad. We had to make sure the audience got to know each of those characters and make sure they had a presence in the film that was important, and that was a challenge.
LIU: Definitely the size of the cast and how to give enough screen time to everyone. At one point, Green Lantern was a little light on having enough important things to do. We needed to add a bit for Lex Luthor, too, and I still don’t think we did enough. We added a fight to show that Lex can fight, too, and tried to beef him up a bit. But there just wasn’t enough screen time to accommodate everyone.
Q: Do you have a favorite character?
MONTGOMERY: Superwoman … just because she’s so wrong. She’s a bully, but she’s got the muscle to back it up. She’s everything you shouldn’t be, but is fun to work with.
Q: What skills you learned or developed on past projects were you able to apply to this film?
MONTGOMERY: We had the same animation studio that did , so we were able to draw from the work done on and improve on that. Overall, the animation was good in , but there was some poor stuff, too. I think they really improved – they saw what we responded to in and they tried to do what they knew we liked, and it was good.
LIU: I think, this whole process was better for me this time, especially working with Bruce (Timm) and Lauren. I was able to let go a little bit and not have to over-think things, and still know that things would work out. I generally stress over everything until the very last minute. With Lauren, I sort of learned that you can say “that’s enough” and move on to the next thing. I appreciate Lauren and her patience, and that we’re still friends. In the end, you take care of the important things and everything will work out.
Q: So, are you happy being an animation director?
MONTGOMERY: It’s never been an easy job. It can be draining. But it’s still a really fun job. I mean, we get to work on great stories with iconic characters. I know people who would kill to work on Batman and Superman. When you think of it that way – well, if I weren’t working in this job, I’d definitely want to. A little bit of the excitement is taken off because I’ve done it so many times, but it’s still a really cool thing to do.
LIU: I love doing long-form animation. I’ve been offered to go back to TV series, but I like this better. Direct-to-videos are hard – you have a short amount of time to create a world from the ground up every time and, once it’s done, it goes on the shelf and you move on – but I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with BSP (Broadcast, Standards & Practices – the network’s content watchdogs). What I love most is that you get to tell stories people can love, you can have emotional pain and great action, and you get to work with things that are too adult for children’s broadcasting. That’s the stuff that I like – telling full stories. So I’m very happy.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the job?
MONTGOMERY: The best part is when you see the film start to come back (from overseas animation studios) and it’s looking good. That’s a really nice part. When you see it coming together to be something good, that’s very satisfying. You know all your hard work has paid off.LIU: I think it has to be working with the story and the characters. I love the development of the characters and how they fit into the story, helping their growth, even if it’s subtle or small. I like finding the core of what our story is about and trying to push that story. I think most of the time it’s about the characters and their conflicts in the beginning, and how they resolve those conflicts. On this film, we were able to do that a lot even after production had been underway – particularly with Batman’s motivation, and showing why it was important for him to stay behind and get Watchtower online. Superman believes one thing; Batman has a different opinion. It’s a conflict, and it pays off later.
Q: You’ve been living with this film for well over a year. Can you still watch and enjoy it?
MONTGOMERY: I enjoy it most with a new audience. You get to see their reactions, and it makes me look at it in a new light. I enjoy watching all of our movies, which is a good thing – it’s nice to be able to watch what you’ve done and feel good about it.
LIU: It’s hard sometimes, because when you’re making a movie, there’s so many things you want and wish for, and you still tend to see the things that are missing. In this case, I’m comfortable watching because there are so many things that were done right. I’m not comfortable watching some of my older stuff. But this is one of the best movies I’ve ever worked on, and it’s very satisfying. I think there’s the right amount of action, good conflict, good closure, and intelligent characters. They’re not just one-dimensional characters. So it’s satisfying to watch.
Q: What’s the DC Universe film you hope to direct some day?
MONTGOMERY: I want that Aquaman project, but I doubt we’ll every make it.
LIU: I’d love to do Sandman from the Vertigo line. I don’t know what kind of story that would be, but I’d love to work with Neil Gaiman because I really loved those comics.
Q: Now that you can see the final product, how do the voices match their animated characters?
MONTGOMERY: Gina Torres and James Woods are probably my favorites. Everybody loves Owlman. He’s such a unique character. Gina is really good as Superwoman – she has this strong, seductive, confident voice, and it makes you fear and respect her. Mark Harmon is really good as Superman. At first I was worried because I thought his age might come through, but his voice really works well. It’s funny because when we started watching the voice with the animation, it struck us how you could hear little tones of George Newbern and Tim Daly – two of our regular Supermans – in his voice, which is pretty cool.
LIU: I really liked Mark Harmon – he’s got a gentle streak and it goes really well with the strength of his voice. When he was in the recording booth, I thought he might be too gentle, but it works even in the scenes where he has to be more assertive or powerful. I think it works really well because it never crosses that line of him being mean or not genuine or sneaky. It’s very pure, just as Superman should be.
I also thought Josh Keaton did a great job as Flash. He’s hilarious. So much of these movies are based on the acting, and Josh really sold it. The chemistry between characters was good, too. James Woods and Gina Torres have this strange relationship, and their acting makes them real characters. They really engaged their personalities. That’s what good actors do. The voices in this cast really flesh out the characters and give them texture.
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