Warner Bros. Animation director Sam Liu talks about the experience of bringing the seminal comic to the screen.
Writer Frank Miller and illustrator David Mazzucchelli's Year One storyline is one of the seminal in comics' history. Now it has been adapted in animated form from DC Direct and Warner Premiere. Shepherded by Bruce Timm, the faithful rendition was directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery. I had a chance to speak with Liu about his experience working on the project. He's not new to the Batman world having worked on the series The Batman, as well as the animated features Superman / Batman: Public Enemies and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.
Rick DeMott: How was this project different than some of the previous versions of the character you have worked with?
It's different because it's year one. Bruce is still trying to figure it out. And also the way Frank Miller wrote it it's not slick, ultra designed Gotham. Bruce [Timm] called it — old-school Chicago. It's not these super huge skyscrapers. [Bruce] is not a ninja, yet. So we didn't do these crazy types of fights. It's a lot grittier. Real world. Not Hong Kong fighting.
RD: The story is very close to the comic. What was changed and why?
The changes were very few. The ones that happened on the script level I'm not super aware of. Bruce's mandate from the very beginning was to make it as spot on as humanly possible. So we tried not to embellish too much, even though the running time was short. Lauren and I had talked about trying to get more things in or expanding certain areas but Bruce didn't want to do that. He wanted to stay as faithful as possible to the source material. Which is great in a way, but there were some things I wish we could have expounded upon a little more. That was the edict from the very top to make it as close as possible. Even when we came out short, we requested that a writer go in a write new scenes, but Bruce didn't want to do that.
RD: The comic was even used as part of the storyboard process; did you find that helpful or constraining?
SL: David Mazzucchelli's stuff is so cinematic that in this case it was very helpful. We do pick and choose as far as what we can use. If it flat out doesn't work we'll deviate. But in this case it made the job much easier. There are a lot of panels in there that could be the in-between panel. I didn't think it was limiting.
RD: Though it's called Batman: Year One, it's just as much James Gordon and Gotham's story. How did you like exploring areas of the Batman world that might not have explored so deeply before?
Just me personal the kind of stories that I get really invested in are the psychological ones. Human condition type stories. I loved it. It could be argued that it's more Gordon's story than Bruce, but in a way I thought that was smart, because you sort of leave Batman as a mythical figure because you don't see him too much. He kind of becomes the boogieman. It's a "less is more" type of thing, which I thought was great.
Working on The Batman series in the early 2000s, I think the edict on that was to humanize Batman more. The shows that were like flashbacks from other people's point of view were a lot more true to the character. It made him a lot scarier because he came in and you wouldn't set him up too much. If you were with him too much, it almost makes him too human.
I felt the Gordon story was this extra element. The backdrop is this bad city. It's corrupt top to bottom. The gangsters are working with the police. The people who are supposed to enforce the law are corrupt. The politicians are corrupt. Gordon is the only one that is trying to make things right. Batman, from the other angle, believes that he is the only one who is trying to make this right. So in a weird way it's two people with ultimately the same goal finding each other. That's why the combination works.
RD: Did you find it hard to balance the two stories over what is just an hour-long film?
SL: This falls into whether it's a benefit in having such a strong source material to work from or a hindrance? We just trusted the script. Bruce wanted it so close to the source material so I was a little gun shy to expound on moments. In a way it was a little bit of a limitation, but I didn't have to think about it because this is what we were doing. Bruce really worked out the story he wanted in the script phase. So for Lauren and I we just followed the blueprint. We just identified the moment and tried to nail those as visually interesting as we could.
RD: Was there fear that there wasn't enough action in the story?
SL: For me I was like "I don't know how this is going to go," because Christopher Nolan and so many other people whether they be Batman stories or other stories have taken elements from Year One. So I was a little concerned that people would say that they have seen this in movies before. Also most of the DC Direct movies have been about action. Big fight scenes. These apocalyptic tales. But this one is like an old mobster type movie like Scarface or Serpico. For me I thought if we made it into a superhero movie we're going to fail.
I was trying to push in more elements of the city and the mob. In the end, it's Batman fighting the nephew of the lead gangster who is kind of dumb, so I felt no one would be impressed by that because it's not like you're fighting Darkseid. So it was a challenge. It was a movie you had to immerse people in the character or else it was going to fail. It was like All-Star Superman because that was something different then we had been doing with the DC Direct stuff. It was a lot more personal.
RD: The story makes Gotham a place where it's going to take more than one person to make a change. The nephew is just part of a bigger problem. If he's gone there is someone worse to take his place.
SL: Yeah. It really wanted to hit that more though. I wanted to push the fact the police are in cahoots with the gangsters and all of the big powers. All of them are pressing Gordon, who is the public face of wanting to do right. Batman is coming in and helping him out.
RD: When it comes to pacing, how do you view the difference between comic storytelling and filmic storytelling?
In both mediums you can cheat time, but I feel in animation it's more difficult to do it. You have to explain things a little more. The separate dates on the screen helped a lot.
There is a scene where Gordon is having a nice dinner with his wife and she is massaging him and then it cuts to another Gordon scene, so Lauren and I were like "how are we going to transition out of this?" It's from a Gordon moment to another Gordon moment if we just cut it will look like it happened 30 minutes later. Is it the next day or the next week? So those are the problems that you run into in animation that a comic book doesn't have.
RD: How did you divvy up the directing duties between you and Lauren?
SL: Lauren and I worked together before on Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths and on that one we were both a little freer so we worked together a lot, but with this one we were both so busy. I was editing All-Star Superman at the time and she was working on Green Lantern: Emerald Knights at the time. So it was about availability. We have offices right next to each other so we were like I'm busy for the next couple of days could you look at whatever else comes in sort of thing. Or there were sections that would come in and we were like you take this, this and this and I'll take that, that and that. I would do my revisions on it and I'd show her and she'd make additional changes and if we didn't agree we'd talk about it. It was a back and forth type of thing. It was out of necessity.
RD: This seems like a project Bruce Timm really wanted to do. How much was he involved?
SL: Bruce isn't as interested in the middle part, the building part. I feel like he is very specific about design. We went through a few people to find the ones who got the closest to the Mazzucchelli style. He is specific about the basic story and the writing process of it. Because he has worked with us on a couple of these, I hope he trusts us. He is very hands-on in the beginning and at the very end during the edit session.
RD: What was the most difficult part of this project?
It was actually a little easier outside of the struggles of trying to get the animation that you want. And technical kind of things. Because we had such a strong source material and Bruce wanted it to be like the source material it was like following the manual in that way. But the fear for me was that people would say it was something they have seen a million times. How was this going to come together? That was the only pressure.
RD: Because there is less action to rely on, did you find it difficult to get the subtly in the acting that you needed?
SL: The way we are trained for TV animation — because we are not Disney and we don't have that budget and we know that we aren't going to get the subtleties — we try to hit a key emotion. It's more of a Clint Eastwood style of acting. It's subtle but you only hit the change of emotion. It's not like you go through the range of five separate thoughts and try to animate that. It's usually a one to two type of thing. Lauren is great because she was brought up on Disney so she has a natural tendency to animate. We were pretty smart about it and found out what the key things were and hit that.
RD: So you're on the Green Lantern series now, any other DC Direct features coming up for you?
I'm finishing up the last few episodes of that right now. I've been working on the direct-to-videos for five years now and I want to go back to series work. Batman: Year One is the last one I'm going to direct for a while. The feature work is great because you have a longer time to explore story, but the down side is that you have one shot unlike series work where you develop the world and the characters and have time to work out who the characters are. With the direct-to-videos you design the world; you tell it the best you can. A lot of times you're not working off of original stories; it's stuff from the comics. So you're not being as creative. I'm following a template. There is a fanbase and they expect to see this and that. It's great and when I first got into direct-to-videos I thought it was a dream come true, but now I want to think outside the box.
Rick DeMott is the director of content for Animation World Network, VFXWorld and AWNtv. Additionally, he's the creator of the movie review site, Rick's Flicks Picks, which was recently named one of the 100 best movie blogs by The Daily Reviewer. He has written for TV series, such as Discovery Kids' Growing Up Creepie and Cartoon Network's Pet Alien, the animation history book Animation Art, and the humor, absurdist and surrealist website Unloosen. Previously, he held various production and management positions in the entertainment industry.