Hellboy: Sword of Storms debuts this weekend on the Cartoon Network (check your local listing for times). Stephen Schleicher had a chance to talk with Producer/Director/Writer Tad Stones to discuss Hellboy’s transition to animated features, styles, and future Hellboy animated projects.
Stephen Schleicher: You have quite the list of projects you have worked, everything from Dark Wing Duck to Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. A lot of it is with Disney…
Tad Stones: I started with Disney in Features, with a training program as an In-Betweener, got to Assistant Animator, and eventually moved into Story. I worked at what is now Imagineering on EPCOT, and I got to share a room for about nine months with Ward Kimball, which was fantastic.
I then came back to the Animation Department just a little before Michael [Eisner] and Jeffery [Katzenberg] showed up – the world changed.
SS: This was all before Black Cauldron.
Stones: They came in during Black Cauldron. There was this thing with Jeffery that people kind of laughed about; that I thought was really to his credit. They were showing dailies from Black Cauldron, and Jeffery said, “Do you have this shot from a different angle?”
It was quiet, and they said, “We can draw it from a different angle.” It got a chuckle, as if “this guy is inexperienced,” but what I thought was great about it was, here is a guy that is treating it like a real movie. Up until that time people were trying to pretend that animation was some unique animal that didn’t require you to tell stories the same way. This kind of thinking kept animation from being what it could be. There were years of stunted growth because of that mindset.
SS: Wasn’t he one of the first ones to suggest editing the animated film down?
Stones: I wasn’t involved in that project, but it wasn’t soon after that editors were brought in at the early stage of the project, so an editor could say things like “do you have this from another angle”, or “This doesn’t seem to flow quite right”.
It was an added expense, but it was worth it because the thought then became, “Let’s treat these things as more of a movie”.
When I first started working for Disney, it was at the time they didn’t give credits to everyone. I was with Disney TV animation from the beginning. I began as a Creative Manager. My first show was the third season of Gummi Bear Adventures. Then Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers, and then I created Dark Wing Duck.
I was pumped to do a science fiction show in the same way, because I had learned so much in Dark Wing Duck, and felt I could really cut loose, and that is when they [Disney] said they would rather have me work on a spin-off of Aladdin. And that began the long sequel spin-off of their features that we have today.
SS: What is cool is your whole career has been in 2D animation, with a practical background, not just as a producer, or writer, but also as an animator.
Stones: It is now more common today. You can write with story sketches. It is really whoever the storyteller is, not just the guy who writes dialogue. Earlier, when I started in TV animation, I was the producer who both wrote and drew – kind of the odd animal. I still get that reaction sometimes. But you are right, when I am with an editor on Hellboy, I’m using the animation knowledge from spacing in-betweens, when I first started in features, to cut out frames to increase the power of the punch.
SS: And that leads to the question; because of your 2D background, was that one of the reasons Hellboy: Sword of Storms is a traditional 2D feature? So many of today’s animated features are done in a 3D application and are then treated with a 2D shader (South Park for example).
Stones: I had wanted to do Hellboy since I first read the comic. I pitched it to Disney back in ’93 or ’94, when Wake the Devil came out. I’ve been thinking of this show a lot.
I saw a scene that someone had done of Hellboy in 3D, and it really looked cel shaded like Mike Mignola’s work. The first impression was fantastic, but when you really looked at it, you notice the 3D, with the movements not natural.
One of the first questions I was asked [by Revolution Studios] was, “2D or 3D?”, and I instantly said 2D without hesitation. It was more of a practical idea, due to budget and time. The premise of this show – our early talks were about a possible series – is that they never go back to the same place twice. There are very few standing sets other than the B.P.R.D. Headquarters.
There is a reason why cheaper CG Fantasy and Sci-Fi often occur on rocky planets, or out in space, or dessert planets, because it is a very easy background. But if I am going into a ruined castle one day, and the next day it is a Tibetan Temple, and the next day after that it’s the foggy Moors of Scotland – it is a huge expense, whereas in 2D the costs even out. From a practical standpoint, I knew if I went 3D I would be limited in the stories that we told.
We did these two movies on top of one another, and really, pretty much at the pace of a couple of TV pilots. I started work just over a year ago in September.
SS: When you look at Mike’s work, whether it is on the cover of the new Tales of the Unexpected, or stuff he was doing for DC long before Hellboy was introduced, it is an instantly recognizable style. With these two movies, you decided to go a different route in the look and style.
Stones: Guillermo [del Toro] and I separately assumed we were going to make it like Mike Mignola’s work, but once I worked on the Atlantis television project, I realized there was a trap in that. Not in the characters, but in the background.
Disney’s Atlantis used a simplified posterized look, they didn’t use the solid blacks that Mike did, and they certainly did a good job at blending the characters with the background artistically. Story wise, if I did a pile of gold or a diamond it would have three colors to it; it is a symbol for a pile of gold, whereas if I go with fully rendered backgrounds, I can make that diamond sparkle. I can actually make you unconsciously look at that and think “Ooo, treasure” instead of just a symbol of treasure.
I just felt, on the Atlantis TV show, limitations of mood and atmosphere. What Mike does so brilliantly on the page is mood and atmosphere, and I felt I needed a more rendered background. This was well before we were in the talking stage of Hellboy: Sword of Storms. Mike has done painted covers that were ink washed with a little bit of watercolor on them, and I thought we could experiment with that.
But when we got on the project, it turned out it was part of the deal that the animated feature could not look like Mike’s artwork. I assume it is for licensing and merchandising and who would get the monies from that.
Even with that revelation, I thought I might be able to sneak it back to Mike’s look, until I talked to Mike, and he said he would be more comfortable with a different look. So it was a legal and personal decision on Mike’s part to have it look different.
SS: Sword of Storms is its own unique look, and when you look at the still image, you think to yourself, “Hey this looks great, I can accept that”.
Stones: I think so too. In fact I was very surprised, when I looked at a rough cut of some of the DVD extras where the editors do cross dissolves between some of the animation, rough drawings, and storyboards, and several times they would dissolve between the Hellboy comic figure and the animated character, and I was surprised that in certain scenes we weren’t that far off.
Of course that happens in the close-ups. The main differences are in his proportions in the body. Which is exactly what Mike wanted. Mike is a shape guy and thinks in shapes when composing a page.
As far as the dark shadows go, the crew got better and better as the movie progressed. There is a graveyard sequence toward the end, where Hellboy carries the sword through the tombstones and they just nailed the look to the point you’ll be thinking “Whoa… this is gonna be a screensaver.”
SS: I believe I’ve seen that shot up on the Hellboy Animated blogsite.
Stones: Yes, there are very few questions that I haven’t answered through those posts.
SS: I think a lot of people are surprised at how long it takes to complete projects of this magnitude.
Stones: It was surprising to me too, and I’ve had a lot of compliments on the blog. I was frustrated in the early postings, because the studio wanted to keep things secret until they made things official, but guys in the industry knew exactly what was going on.
There were times during production that I couldn’t post what I wanted, but some of the biggest compliments were on the minutia; like the section on retakes and notes. This surprised a lot of people, because Art of Animation books take you through the classic Disney process. We’ve seen that covered over and over again, and I wrote my posts to show what happens when the production is going on on the other side of the world.
SS: Can you give us a rough breakdown of what happens in the first movie?
Stones: It is kind of an Alice in Wonderland story. This university professor, who is looking into folklore, finds a forbidden scroll, and by reading the scroll he becomes possessed by the demons of the scroll. They are trying to bring about great evil in the form of their brothers, The Great Dragons. That sets off a psychic disturbance at B.P.R.D.
When Hellboy gets there, he is suddenly transported into an Alice in Wonderland type world, but it is a land of Japanese folklore. And he doesn’t know what he is supposed to do, so he is just wondering through the story, which goes back to the roots of how Mike originally intended Hellboy to be; a guy who walks into a situation, deals with some sort of myth or folklore thing, and then moves on.
SS: With Mike’s stories he is heavily focused on the European and Lovecraft-ian lore and myths, but here Hellboy is in an Asian setting. Was that a difficult story to write?
Stones: No, not really, because the basics are the same. Mike has really complimented me on things that I have written that really feel like he has written them. I’m getting a better handle on how Hellboy’s character works, and how his dialogue works and how Mike thinks about this character in this world.
The best stories are those where you find some detail of the folklore, and in Japanese Youkai monsters, their stories are way more bizarre than anything you can think of. For example, we have the story of the Kappa, where Hellboy finds this guy carving names into cucumbers and throwing them into the water. The guy says, “If I feed him cucumbers, he leaves us alone for a year. Isn’t that weird? He really likes cucumbers.”
At one point in the process, the sound mixer asked where the cucumber idea came from, and I simply told him it is in the legend.
What Mike loves is feeling of a Hellboy that feels right, moving into territories he hasn’t done. Mike did a short story, that can be found in the Right Hand of Doom trade, that was perfect to plop into this story – in fact, Mike even wrote the dialogue for that sequence. Dealing with Japanese folklore is really no different than what he does with Baba Yaga or any of the other characters.
SS: What about Blood and Iron?
Stones: Blood and Iron is a completely different movie. It is something we hope to keep up with every other movie – we want it to feel entirely different, but it will always be Hellboy. Blood and Iron is more of the Central European story, even though most of it happens in upstate New York. It is a Transylvanian vampire, based on Elizabeth Bathory, who believed if she bathed in the blood of young women, would stay young. Our premise is she REALLY got evil after she died.
The movie starts off with Professor Broom, and an adventure he had the first time he faced evil. Even though he had done his research, and been to séances and the like, this was the first adventure he undertook to Transylvania to try and help someone.
We tell that story in flashback, while in present day, the vampire we saw Broom destroy is coming back and now facing Hellboy. There are vampires, there are werewolves, lots of cool stuff – about 100 ghosts… It has a real team feel to it too. Going back to Wake the Devil, or Seeds of Destruction, you get the sense of teams put together and sent out to work a case.
This starts out as a mundane adventure, and they are only going to send out a token guy, but suddenly Professor Broom says Hellboy should go, and then Liz and Abe should go, and finally puts himself on the team, even though he hasn’t been out on a mission for 17 years. Everyone is worried about what is going to happen to the Professor, causing Hellboy to split focus worrying about Broom when he should be worrying about himself.
SS: In the flashback sequences, are we going to get to see any Lobster Johnson?
Stones: You’ll have to see…(laugh)
SS: When you are talking about Elizabeth Bathory, you are talking about a lot of blood, gore, and violence. Did you have to approach this story from the “We have to censor it for broadcast”, or the “Let’s target direct to video and edit it for television”?
Stones: All we did was try to be as close to the comics as possible in mood and in tone. Ironically, where we got away from that tone is in the movie. I feel you have to do a little more personality work than what Mike does in the comics. When he does do it, I think it is brilliant, but he rarely goes into that. In Sword of Storms we have stuff between Abe and Liz, that I think are some of the nicest moments in the movie, and yet, because they are personality moments, I feel they are the least Mignola.
We were never given any notes to tone it down or make it different. I think Mike was asked early on if the movies could be made without pools of blood and upside down crosses, and Satan worship, and so on. But Mike doesn’t do that; his comics are PG/PG-13. So I felt if I do the movie that way, I’m in safe territory, and if they need to edit something for broadcast, that is up to them.
It’s funny, when it was originally announced it would be on Cartoon Network, I was literally okaying a scene where the vampire bathes in a bathtub of blood…
When Mike does blood, it is not a splatter. You aren’t going to see someone make a slashing move toward the throat and then get that splatter against the wall feel. Usually, the shape of the puddle is very clean, with only a simple drop coming down. I’m not quite happy with how we are depicting blood right now; it is something I hope to refine in future movies.
SS: You keep saying future movies, have you already been contracted for five more?
Stones: That would be sweet! No, they are negotiating with me right now to write the script for the third film, but that is not a green light for the project. Everybody is acting like we are going to do lots more movies. Until Sword of Storms is on the air, and until it is out on DVD and all of your readers buy multiple copies to give as gifts (laughs), I don’t know.
It puts me in an uncomfortable position. When I showed Hellboy at the San Diego Comic Con, there was a huge reaction, and there are a lot of people saying they want that look for their project, and I’m getting some very nice offers… I may be doing multiple projects at once. I’ve been trying to do this project for twelve years, so certainly I want to stay connected to it, if at all possible.
SS: Fortunately it looks like people are picking up on the branding and spinning off the toys coming out based on the Sword of Storms, but Hellboy Animated is also going the comic book route too. That’s a little ironic, don’t you think?
Stones: (laughs) Comic, turned cartoon, turned comic. I was thinking how weird that was, then I realized it is akin to what happened after Bruce Timm did such a great job with Batman. There are the DC Adventures, but we didn’t want to do exactly that, or make the comic versions too sanitized. It is taking us a bit of time to find our ground. It is really in the hand of Dark Horse.
It’s fun. I’ve written two stories for the comics that will be packaged with the DVD. Dark Horse is also putting out a Hellboy Animated comic that is digest sized, roughly 80 some pages. In addition to the main story, in order to get the digest feeling, Dark Horse suggested a back up story as well. Both of the stories happen to be about young Hellboy. I wanted to do something spooky, but Mike really wanted them to be like Calvin and Hobbes.
I wrote the first one, got the artwork done, and they made the decision to make young Hellboy very young to go along with the theme, which made me nervous, because when you see our movies, they are not young.
I’m paranoid about being on Cartoon Network first and not on DVD first. I worry that the real audience for Hellboy will not want to watch it on TV, thinking it will be too “young”. I was very paranoid about the comic character looking too young and feeding that, but the comic will come out later than the movie, so there is really no need to worry.
Mike kept saying I should write the second story too, and kept pressuring me to do it. I finally gave in, saying I would do it if they got a good inker to save me, but Mike said I had to do my own inks. He kept putting pressure on me, so I decided what the heck – and last night, I inked my first page.
SS: Good times!
Stones: It is a different medium. I’ve read comics since the Silver Age, and have always been fascinated by the creative process, so I’ve read books about comics, and I’m aware of the pitfalls. But because of the whole Calvin and Hobbes thing, the second story I’m more self conscious about. But it is a lot of fun…and you will see Lobster Johnson in that.
SS: One of my favorite Hellboy Jr. stories is where Hellboy eats pamcakes for the first time. It cracks me up and I laugh about it all the time.
Stones: The other one that’s really a touchstone for all of us is Weird Tales. It was an experiment by the writers and artists to try and make it not feel like Hellboy. Eric Powell’s young Hellboy when he was living on the airbase, is a hilarious story, and is what I looked at for the type of young Hellboy I wanted to play with.
We haven’t talked about the third Hellboy Animated story in detail, but we have talked about seeing a glimpse of young Hellboy in that one.
SS: Just to be clear though, there are no ties between what we see in the comics or the del Toro live action movies and the animated features.
Stones: Mike has said, each of these media have a different Hellboy universe, even the video game is a slightly different universe from the movie. In Guillermo’s world, Hellboy has a crush on Liz, in our world they are not.
The main tie we have with the feature film is the voice talent. Story wise… I don’t think there is anything in common with the first movie. Compared to the comics our differences come from Broom still being alive – you could argue timeline – all the key events in Hellboy’s life will occur in the animated universe but at different times.
Heads is in the middle of a much larger Japanese adventure, even though it follows the comic exactly. In the second movie we set out to stick out our necks and do a totally original story, but we got to a point where we said, “This is such a natural place to bring in a major character in the Hellboy series.” It is weird to not bring it in. So you’ll see things out of the comic that are very direct, but they are in the middle of a different kind of story. I think this is the right decision. We are giving comic fans new stories, yet you hit something that is very familiar right in the middle.
Having said that, let’s hope there are many more Hellboy movies. The one after the third one I could see as an adaptation of Almost Colossus. Fans keep asking if Roger will be a part of the animated movies. Roger isn’t just some guy who can walk in. It’s not a big stretch to see a guy that looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon and guess he can breathe under water. But a Homunculus is not a real familiar concept, nor is Roger’s character and personality. He deserves his own movie, and that’s my thought if we go that route.
When I am at a convention, the question of are we going to include all of the supporting characters always comes up. There is a reason why this is called Hellboy. This is his story, he is part of this organization, but the stories are his. It’s not Hellboy and his Animated Friends…
SS: Or Hellboy Babies…
Stones: (laughs)… my feeling is the more we include those people, and the more people want to see them do more, the more it is like X-Men or Fantastic Four, and the less it is like the unique creation we are trying to hit.
We got very few notes on this movie, but the one we did get was “Can we get Liz to do more fire stuff here?” She’s not the Human Torch, she is a walking nuclear weapon. At a certain point if she uses her power at a certain level it is hard for her to turn it off. That is how we treat her. I foresee future episodes where she is not there at all, because it would be too easy for her to take care of the situation, or we would end up with the same beats over and over again.
SS: Are there any hidden surprises viewers should watch for?
Stones: There are subtle things that if we did our job right you will not notice the first time through but may catch in other viewings. We plan out a sequence and send it overseas for the animation to be done, so it is not easy to slip something in. You have to do it with great intent.
SS: What has been Mike’s reaction to the films?
Stones: He saw it while doing the commentary! He seems to like it. He said to me, “I assume these will get better each time we do it.” I kind of count the first two films as one, because they overlap so much, there wasn’t time to learn something from the first movie and apply it to the second. The third movie, we will definitely take what we have learned here and apply it.
SS: Tad thank you so much for your time, I know I’m excited about seeing the movie on October 28th.
Stones: Thank you.