Rick DeMott talks with director Brandon Vietti about balancing the action and drama in the dark animate feature Batman: Under the Red Hood.
Batman: Under the Red Hood is the eighth DC Direct title. This series of original PG-13 animated films has marked a new ground for animated superhero tales with their more adult content and focus on balancing action with drama.
The films have also attracted impressive voice cast with this new entry no exception. Bruce Greenwood voices the Caped Cruiser as the crimefighter struggles with the death of Jason Todd (aka the second Robin), who is voiced by Jensen Ackles of TV's Supernatural, at the hands of the Joker (voiced wonderfully by John DiMaggio aka Futurama's Bender). Back in Gotham, Batman teams with Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris) to challenge a new villain, Red Hood, who is trying to corner the city's organized crime from the Black Mask (Wade Williams, Prison Break). Turns out Batman must confront Ra's al Ghul (Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter series) to discover the true identity of the new foe.
Director Brandon Vietti has a track record of working with DC superheroes. He was the director of the first DC Direct title Superman/Doomsday and has helmed episodes of such series as Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Legion of Super Heroes and The Batman. In addition to taking the director's chair on DC inspired project he's also boarded for several series, as well as the animated version of Wonder Woman. I had a chance to talk with him about the challenges of bringing this weighty story to the screen.
Rick DeMott: Having directed Superman/Doomsday and now Under the Red Hood, are you the go-to guy when it comes to dealing with the death of major characters?
Brandon Vietti: (laughs) I wouldn’t say I’m the go-to guy, but I have gotten my share of death stories. Both of the movies and even on The Brave and the Bold I had a few stories of heroes dying or villains dying. I don’t know why they keep coming to me.
It’s always fun to do stuff like that. It’s certainly cranks up the drama and that kind of drama is really fun to play with when you’re a board artist or a director. It raises the stakes. It raises the emotions of everything. It makes a very interesting experience for the audience that is watching.
RD: What did you learn on Doomsday that you brought to the Red Hood?
BV: Well, Doomsday was really interesting to work in the longer format; I hadn’t worked with that too much before. I really learned a lot about extending action sequences for feature length. That was a lot of fun to play with on Red Hood. There is a lot of action in Red Hood and it feels like feature length action. I’ve done a lot of TV stuff as well where you’re constrained to 22 minutes basically of screen time, which doesn’t always allow you to do what you want to do with your action pieces. With the feature length format you can really expand on that. It makes for more entertaining viewing. Bruce [Timm] and I had worked pretty closely on Doomsday in staging action sequences for feature length so some of those lessons transferred over to Red Hood.
RD: Do you find that it’s a balancing act between the action sequences and the emotional side of the story?
BV: Absolutely. I think the two complement each other. I think if you have something that is too heavily weighted with action than the action sort of becomes a blur and after a while you stop paying attention because it loses its impact. So you need that counter balance of drama to slow the picture down for a minute and give people something really interesting to lock into psychologically speaking. Strong characters with a dramatic interaction. Red Hood gave us that with the script; there was so much there to sink your teeth into. Psychologically things people could relate to, it’s not just superhero stuff, it’s pretty common everyday emotions we’re dealing with in Red Hood. Regret, dealing with failures, things like that. So it’s really important to play the balance between action and drama.
RD: Where did you draw influences from for the tone and then the design?
BV: The tone of Red Hood was really set by Judd Winick’s script. Obviously a very dark story. It had a very film noir feeling, which the Batman universe has always lent itself to that quite well. So film noir movies have always been a favorite of mine. I learned a lot about filmmaking from early film noir movies. I was a big fan of Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series; it’s largely the reason I’m working in animation today. I was so inspired by that. I loved the [Christopher] Nolan movies; I loved the reality there and the tone he set. And some of the comics. Kia Asamiya, the Japanese artist who did Batman stories, was a big influence on me as well. He had a very particular way of portraying Gotham City and all of Batman’s gadgets. He made everything big and over-the-top. He brought a great scale to the environment. That was something that I wanted to bring into this as well.
Gotham City was such an important character in this movie. There are so many sequences that are staged in the depths of Gotham City. I really wanted the backgrounds to be an important part and almost be characters in the movie. A lot of thought went into the depiction of the city, so we could capture the mood of the script and make the characters look good when they are fighting and interacting in the environments.
RD: What was your biggest challenge on this particular project?
BV: The biggest challenge was keeping up with the script for me. It was a great script and I really enjoyed working with it. It was so dramatic. When I first read the script I loved the drama and the tone of it and to me the challenge was just coming up with the visuals that would match that script and carry the words on the page.
We would do the storyboards and watch the animatics and that was the first thing on our minds – was this carrying the drama? Are we pushing things as far as we can to tell this story properly?
RD: How was working on this PG-13 direct-to-DVD different than working on the various TV series you have worked on?
BV: I’ve never worked on anything this realistic in tone before. One of my favorite things about this is that there weren’t a lot of superpowered guys in this one. This was a good old fashioned Batman story. I think when you take the superpowered guys out of it you’re dealing literally with mortal men. It raises the stakes. Death feels closer and that is totally underlined by the death of Robin in the opening of the movie. I think that’s the biggest thing. The fantasy that comes with superpowered heroes and villains is removed and you’re left with real people to deal with. I think that really grounds the story in reality and we really tried to play to that too in the filmmaking.
With a show like Brave and the Bold I try to choose cartoony camera angles and shots that could be straight out of a comicbook panel. But with Red Hood I tried really hard to be cinematic in a realistic way. I mean use the camera like a live-action movie director might. That would be a big difference from some of the shows I have worked on and this movie.
RD: How was the transition from being storyboard artist to becoming a director?
BV: It’s a great progression. You start out doing storyboards with easier sequences like conversation sequences where you are focusing on the very simple, but complex dynamics of moving people around the room. And then you graduate to action sequences, which are very complex and very difficult. Once you grapple and learn to balance those two things – action and drama –you eventually get a battlefield promotion. Maybe a director will leave to go to another project or a new project is starting up and they need people and you put your name in the hat and hopefully someone draws your name and you’re bumped up to director.
It’s funny, you actually learn so much more about storyboarding once you get to directing. In a weird way it’s almost as though I wished I could have directed before I storyboarded. You’re learning in reverse in a strange way. With directing you learn so much about the larger picture rather than working on just one act. Now you’re taking three acts and having to weave them all together and making sure there is a proper pacing that will bridge all three acts. You have to track multiple story points instead of only the few story points that might happen in one act.
RD: Where was the animation done?
BV: The animation was done by Answerstudio in Japan.
RD: There seems to be a combination of CG and 2D animation in the film?
BV: Yeah a lot of the vehicles in the film were CGI.
RD: What are you working on next?
BV: Right now I am producing a series called Young Justice with Greg Weisman. Right now Greg and I are plotting out all the stories together. We’re in the middle of storyboarding it.
RD: Is there a story in the DC canon that you’d like to see turned into an animated DC Direct feature?
BV: That’s a good question. I’ve always wanted to see some of the lesser known characters. I’ve always been a fan of Jack Kirby’s The Demon stories. I’ve always liked the supernatural element of those stories. There would be a lot of fun stuff to explore there. I really like the Fourth World stuff. There is the Superman/Batman Apocalypse coming up, which I didn’t have a chance to work on, but I’m a really big fan of that. I would also love to see The Sandman stuff.
RD: The last question is a geeky one. If you had one superpower, what would it be?
BV: (laughs) I would love flight. Getting to work would be awesome.
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.