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Animation Smorgasbord at New York Comic Con

Janet Hetherington reports on juicy animation and vfx tidbits from New York Comic Con -- including X-Files 2, Hellboy 2, The Incredible Hulk, Wall•E, Prince Caspian and more.

There's never a shortage of Jedi knights at New York Comic Con, and this year was no different. Courtesy of New York Comic Con.

There's nothing like taking a bite out of the Big Apple, and this year's New York Comic Con offered up juicy animation and vfx tidbits, along with a healthy serving of comic books and graphic novels.

The show, which was NYCC's third installment and took place April 18-20 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, boasted some 64,000 attendees.

These days, with comics crossing the line into movies, TV, toys and video games, it's no surprise that fans were offered lots of animation- and vfx-related programming and exhibits.

The Andromeda Strain

On the show floor, a large, long, white biohazard containment tent offered "survivors" a peek at A&E's new treatment of Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain, from Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, due to air over two nights beginning May 26 (Memorial Day).

The new movie stars Benjamin Bratt, Eric McCormack, Christa Miller, Daniel Dae Kim, Viola Davis, Ricky Schroder and Andre Braugher, and relates how a U.S. satellite crash-lands near a small town in Utah, unleashing a deadly plague that kills virtually everyone except two survivors -- who may provide clues to immunizing the population. As the military attempts to quarantine the area, a team of specialized scientists is assembled to find a cure and stop the spread of the alien pathogen, code-named "Andromeda." David Vána acted as vfx supervisor for the mini-series.

Those who visited the exhibit were provided with small samples of The Andromeda Strain hand sanitizer to ward off any alien infection.

I Want to Believe

FBI Agent Fox Mulder is no stranger to alien visitations and he's back, along with partner Dana Scully, in The X-Files: I Want to Believe.

The film, which is set to release on July 25, is described as a supernatural thriller that takes the complicated relationship between Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) in unexpected directions. According to the new film's writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, a lot has transpired since the events of the TV show and the first feature-length movie.

"This is a stand-alone story that does not hold to the last movie. Most of the TV episodes were stand-alone. This movie is a good, scary ride," Carter says.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe writers Frank Spotnitz (l) and Chris Carter explain that the feature is a stand-alone title. All images courtesy of Janet Hetherington, unless otherwise noted.

"The characters are older, and we found we had a lot to say about where they are," Spotnitz says. "To be able to reconnect in this way is uncommon. I found I missed them."

"As for the theme," Carter says, "'Trust No One' and 'I Want to Believe' are two different ideas. One is conceptual, and one is practical. I think 'Trust No One' is really a plea to find someone you can trust. 'I Want to Believe' is about wrestling with your beliefs."

Spotnitz says, "All those things were in the show from the beginning."

"The series ran for nine years, and we planted seeds," agrees Carter. "If you plant seeds and don't harvest what you grow, it's a waste. We were mindful to place a solid foundation."

That foundation has included various monsters and other hard-to-explain events, yet Carter never thought of The X-Files as an SF genre show. "I didn't like the label," he says. "I thought of it as a mystery show about the things that were in the realm of extreme possibility."

"The secret to its broad appeal on television is that it's like a police drama," Spotnitz says.

As a PG-13 movie, the new X-Files feature won't be as graphic as many of today's horror films, but Carter still hopes to scare people. The film will have vfx to support the spooky.

"There will be some greenscreen effects, but they're minimal compared to some summer blockbusters," Spotnitz says. "It's about the story." Offering a new, frightening mystery for the special FBI agents to solve "allows us to plumb the depths to see the light."

Hellboy II: The Golden Army director Guillermo del Toro.

The Golden Army

Also ready for sequel action is Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which is set to hit theaters on July 11. In this adventure, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) must save the world from "mythical" creatures that start a rebellion against humanity.

Along with his team in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development -- pyrokinetic gal friend Liz (Selma Blair), aquatic empath Abe (Doug Jones) and protoplasmic mystic Johann -- Hellboy travels between the surface strata and the unseen magical one, where creatures of fantasy become corporeal.

"There are fairies, giant entities, elves -- creatures that come from a fantasy world," says director Guillermo del Toro. In addition to new creatures, the film is showcasing new vfx. "We are not using Massive," del Toro says. "We are using very inventive techniques that involve prosthetics, hand animation and clusters of creatures."

Del Toro says that this big-screen sequel is in many ways "much freer and crazy" than his other works The Devil's Backbone and the Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth. "Pan's Labyrinth taught many lessons about being freer and to be yourself," del Toro says. The director's "small movies" still have a special place for him, and he has other projects in development and is writing a new film.

[As of last week, Del Toro was confirmed as the director of Peter Jackson's production of The Hobbit, scheduled to premiere in 2010.]

Hulk Smash

The crowd at New York Comic Con got glimpses of the new Incredible Hulk movie, scheduled for a June 13 release. The star-studded panel featured producers Gale Ann Hurd and Kevin Feige, director Louis Leterrier, actor Tim Roth, and a surprise appearance by Lou Ferrigno.

Ferrigno's appearance proved germane, as it was revealed that this film adaptation draws upon elements of The Incredible Hulk 1970s TV show, in which he starred. "The film is faithful to the comic and the live-action TV show," Leterrier says. "The TV show was very popular when I was growing up." Leterrier confesses affection for comics, including such characters as The Hulk and TinTin.

At the star-studded panel for The Incredible Hulk, it was revealed that this film adaptation is faithful to the comic and the TV show. Photo Credit: Rhythm & Hues. © 2008 Universal Studios and Marvel Studios. All rights reserved.

In the new movie, physicist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) takes flight in order to understand -- and hopefully cure -- the condition that turns him into a monster. While on the run from the military, which seeks his capture, Banner comes close to a cure. Then a new creature emerges -- the Abomination (formerly Emil Blonsky, played by Roth). Much fighting ensues.

"We promised 'Hulk smash,' and you get 'Hulk smash,'" Hurd says.

"We chose Abomination because we needed a big-ass fight," adds Feige. "And for action, [director] Louis [Leterrier] made a human look like a super-hero in The Transporter."

While the clips being shown at the presentation had unfinished vfx ("Welcome to the editing room," quipped Leterrier), the audience was noisily receptive to the action-packed direction of the film. They also cheered the onscreen appearance of Tony Stark (a.k.a., Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr.).

"There are many long fights… Hulk versus the army, Hulk versus the formidable enemy," Leterrier says. The movie features a 20-minute CGI fight sequence. "CGI was very good and very liberating," he adds. "We wanted to make the big guys talk, and CGI helped us do that."

The film also used motion capture (MoCap) and a new technique, Mova, which specifically captures facial movement. "We experimented in different ways on how to make the monsters move," Leterrier says. Mova's Contour Reality Capture system uses an array of cameras to create 100,000 polygon facial models that are accurate to within a tenth of a millimeter -- no special reflective balls required.

Prince Caspian

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is another vfx-filled film that was showcased. While female fans were swooning over William Moseley (who reprises his role as Peter) and Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian), producer Mark Johnson explained that the effects for the new movie were being produced by different vfx houses this time, located in Britain.

"Part of the challenge is that this material is no longer fresh," Johnson says. "The techniques we used in this film are not necessarily different, only better. The creatures are more natural and believable."

Johnson says that working on such an effects-driven film is both "a joy and exhausting." While the effects are important, so is telling the story. "We're lucky to have Andrew Adamson as director because he comes from Shrek and Shrek 2," Johnson says.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian was another vfx-filled film showcased at New York Comic Con. Female fans swooned over Ben Barnes (l) and William Moseley.

Prince Caspian finds the Pevensie siblings pulled back into the land of Narnia, where 1,300 years have passed since they left. The children are once again enlisted to join the creatures of Narnia in combating an evil villain who prevents the rightful Prince from ruling the land.

"It's pretty different from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," Moseley says. "The first one was quite pastoral, while this one is rawer, scarier."

The Comic Con crowd was treated to a first showing of the theater trailer depicting the aged and desolate Narnia.

Setting the new movie 1,300 years after the first posed new vfx challenges -- including make-up. "The creatures have evolved, and tragic things have happened," comments Peter Dinklage, who plays Trumpkin, "My character is a cynic who has never experienced the magic of Narnia." Dinklage endured three hours of prosthetic make-up every day. However, the transformation helped him find his character. "You look at yourself in the mirror and half the work is done for you."

Johnson confirmed that there will be another Narnia film, Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The movie begins shooting in October, with a projected release date of May 2010.

Disney shared animated sequences from Wall•E, and revealed for the first time a sequence with Moe, another robot. © Disney/Pixar.

Wall•E

Comic Con-goers were also treated to animated sequences from the new Disney Pixar feature Wall•E. Pixar Executive Vice President of Production Jim Morris was on hand to show clips and discuss the film.

"We wanted Wall•E to look and sound like no other animated film," Morris says. "We wanted to honor the science fiction genre."

Morris explains that the film does not feature a wisecracking robot; rather, Wall•E is at first very machine-like, performing a singular task. However, as the last robot on Earth, Wall•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) discovers a new purpose when he encounters a sleek search robot named Eve. Wall•E chases Eve across the galaxy and inadvertently sets an adventure into motion. Joining Wall•E on his journey across the universe is a cast of characters including a pet cockroach named Hal (Hal Roach) and a team of malfunctioning misfit robots.

In addition to some spectacular outer space imagery -- all in CG --Wall•E also has charm and humor. "When Wall•E meets the beautiful killer robot, Eve, he rescues her from a sandstorm and takes her to his sanctuary -- his truck -- where he shows her a Betamax tape of Hello, Dolly! Watching that film has turned Wall•E into a bit of a romantic," Morris says. The Hello, Dolly! sequence includes some very comical robotic dancing.

Morris also showed a sequence featuring Moe, another robot -- the first public screening of that character.

In addition to enjoying the beautiful CG space scenes, Morris advises that moviegoers stay for the end credits, which will feature a special animated sequence and a Peter Gabriel song. "It's a great song, and a great 'button out' for the movie," Morris says. The rest of the "SF epic" score is by Thomas Newman.

Chaotic Animation

Another animated offering being promoted at the convention was Chaotic, from 4Kids Entertainment. "Chaotic is different from other properties because it has been developed as a card game, a TV show and an online game... it's all cross-pollinated," says Senior Vice President Carlin West.

"Chaotic is about two boys who play a game called "Chaotic," and the kids battle each other," West says. The animated series mimics the actual card game and online card game, and players can participate through hands-on and online collecting and play. "Kids can learn tips and strategies to better their play," West says.

Chaotic airs weekends on 4Kids TV (FOX), weekdays on Toon Disney's Jetix, Comcast and Cox Cable Video on Demand, Teletoon in Canada, and on Jetix in Latin America. In addition, streaming episodes can be viewed at 4Kids.tv/chaotic.

The animation is created in 2D, in Flash, and the cards for the game are illustrated by a "group of talented artists from the comic book industry," West says. "There are hundreds of creatures, battle gear and attack modes depicted," she says.

While the animation is completed in Korea, West advises that 4Kids Entertainment has a 35,000-square-foot production space in New York for pre- and postproduction. "Scripting and storyboarding are handled in the U.S.," West says, "and we also have full sound studios in the facility."

Kurt Csolak (l), who voices the new Speed Racer, shares the spotlight with Peter Fernandez (the original Speed Racer and now Headmaster Spritle).

4Kids Entertainment is also busy with its new incarnation of Yu-Gi-Oh! "Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds will be airing next year on CW. We haven't picked a time slot yet," says Roz Nowicki, executive vice president, marketing and licensing. The show, which made its debut in Japan on April 2, is already yielding strong ratings in that country.

Of course, there is an associated Yu-Gi-Oh! card game, and Nowicki notes that Upper Deck is the master toy partner.

In this new version of Yu-Gi-Oh!, the 5Ds refers to "dragons," and the show will be "going back to its roots," according to Nowicki. "It's 20 years later, and there will be lots of futuristic gadgets and machinery," she says. The animation will be in 2D, and also HD.

"We've started adapting the Japanese scripts to English," says Nowicki. She comments that 4Kids must be mindful of the "kid" audience, but at the same time, "we are trying to bring back older fans."

Speed Racer: The Next Generation

Speed Racer, another beloved Japanese animated series, has also been given a tune-up and sped onto Nicktoons on May 2 as Speed Racer: The Next Generation. It was revealed during its panel that the new show offers both 2D (for fans of the classic series) and 3D (for newer fans of CG vehicles).

"Now we'll see what the Mach 6 can do," says James Rocknowski, executive producer and panel participant. Also on the panel were executive producer and story editor Larry Schwarz, voice actor Peter Fernandez (the original Speed Racer and now Headmaster Spritle), voice actor Kurt Csolak (the new Speed Racer) and John Holt of the Animation Collective.

In the original Speed Racer, Spritle was a silly, mischievous kid, but he has since grown up and is the headmaster at the Racing Academy, where the students train by driving on virtual tracks. There's also a new Speed Racer at the school, but there's a mystery surrounding the character.

"This boy says he's Speed Racer, and he drives like him. But the real Speed Racer, we don't know what happened to him. This could be his son, but we don't know that," comments Fernandez.

Writer and ReBoot co-creator Gavin Blair was unprepared for the outpouring of fan support at his panel.

Fernandez was involved with more than just voice-over in the original series. "I was a writer as well as an actor, and I had dubbed many foreign films into English," Fernandez recalls. "I had worked on Astro Boy and Gigantor. I was approached about doing this series about car racing. I said okay, and the only instructions I got from the the distributor was 'Americanize it.'"

"Of course the translations were very poor, so that meant writing the dialogue, directing it, naming the characters and, as director, I gave myself the best parts -- Speed Racer and Racer X," Fernandez says. "But there were only four of us in the cast, and we had to do all the parts, including the villains, by changing the voices."

Fernandez has already provided a voice for an additional character in Speed Racer: The Next Generation ("It's a surprise," he says), and there may be more in the offing.

While Fernandez continues to play key roles in the new animated series, Schwarz notes how important it was to find the voice of the new Speed Racer. "We needed to find the right voice... the right mix of 'aw shucks' and 'I wanna win,'" Schwarz says.

That role was filled by newcomer Csolak, who says, "I didn't really know too much about Speed Racer until I saw the Geiko commercial. Then I felt a lot of pressure once I knew how big it was."

Rocknowski notes that it was the Geiko commercial featuring the classic animation that got "everyone interested again." Further interest was sparked by the filming of the Speed Racer live-action movie hitting theaters on May 9.

Schwarz says that he became "very excited when we had the opportunity to work on the show." He says, "Over 100 people devoted to animation work on that show, and we watched the old DVDs so that we could set up the characters in thrilling adventures."

The new show will feature overarching storylines in a number of three-parters that will tell a bigger story when viewed all together.

ReBoot Reconnection

Writer and ReBoot co-creator Gavin Blair was also in attendance, and pleased to talk about renewed interest in that series and about Beach Studio's book The Art of ReBoot, by Jim Su.

Blair was unprepared for the outpouring of fan support when it came time to speak at the ReBoot panel. A long line of enthusiasts ran down the hall, all eager to hear about the story of ReBoot's creation.

"I was indeed an original creator, one of four," Blair says. [Those creators were Blair, Ian Pearson, Phil Mitchell and John Grace.] "Back in London, this was when CG didn't even exist. There was a lot of typing and programming involved."

Computer-generated animation was indeed cutting-edge in 1984. "It was new and amazing. We worked on Money for Nothing for Dire Straits," Blair remembers. While the characters seemed boxy and the animation appears a little crude by modern standards, the video was one of the first uses of computer-animated human characters and was considered groundbreaking at the time of its release.

"It was one of the things that put CG on the map," Blair says. "Ian said, 'We could do a show like this.'"

Six year later, the creators were still kicking the idea around, and a bible was developed. Meanwhile, CG animation had been evolving and, Blair says, "The show evolved to suit the medium."

Part of the reason the team moved to North America to make the CG show was that the system used back then "cost a fortune. Canada had a nice low dollar at that time. If it was happening today, we might be in L.A.," he observes.

In addition, such companies as SoftImage were in Canada, and Vancouver was a "hotbed of animation." Mainframe Entertainment created the ReBoot series, which originally aired from 1994 to 2001.

Today, Mainframe and ReBoot are part of Rainmaker Entertainment Inc., which is creating a ReBoot comic via its Zeros2Heroes website. Interest has also been stimulated by the publication of The Art of ReBoot.

"I wrote the foreword and I had to identify a lot of what was in each picture," Blair says. "I had six crates of artwork to sort through!" As for the resulting publication, Blair thinks that it's a "really great book" and he was happy to contribute.

Blair says of today's CGI animated features, "There are no limits as to what you can do." He still feels the uncanny valley has yet to be conquered, but filmmakers are getting there -- making quantum leaps.

Currently, Blair is busy writing screenplays and has no plans to resume being an animator. However, as far as a ReBoot revival is concerned, Blair says, "Never say never."

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who lives in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.

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