Adventurous Action Abounds on
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It's characters like Conjure Man that drive the Webisodes at Stan Lee Media. © Stan Lee Media.

Another big-time industry recruit, Larry Houston, has worked with Stan Lee on and off for over 20 years, beginning in the 1980s on Marvel's syndicated Spiderman series. His distinguished action-adventure career spans dozens of animated projects. In multiple roles as director, storyboard and artist, Houston has worked on a range of series like The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men, HBO's Spawn, Disney's TailSpin and Batman for the Warner Bros. shop. He has also spent time in the traditional comic books field, drawing such titles as All-Star Squadron for DC Comics, DNAgents for Eclipse and his own creation, The Vanguards. Before making art and animation his priority, Houston worked as a systems analyst and technician for several major computer companies. Now at SLM, the melding of his animation expertise with his "distant past in computers," he laughingly points out, "has seemed like the perfect example of professional convergence."

When he got the call last October, Houston didn't hesitate for a millisecond to jump over to SLM's nascent studio. "You know, if Stan Lee calls, this is the guy I grew up with. It's like, 'Yes -- I'm there!'" Houston describes the process they've adapted for Flash episodic production as very similar to the standard steps of 2D series formation. Each Webisode starts with the writing department (headed by well-known story editor Mark Evanier) which operates "directly with Stan to create the scripts and work out the little nuances of what he wants in the shows." Artwork and storyboard follow. While layouts are being completed in-house, traditional actor records take place outside, with six to nine 3-minute episodes recorded per session. "Instead of now shipping overseas," Houston explains, "when you finish your pre-production, you hand it off to the digital department which is only a cubicle away." Scanning, computer-generated coloring and lighting take place there. "Once that's done, it's then moved on electronically to the next department which is digital animation." A major departure from usual procedure happens at this stage. "In traditional animation, we have nice exposure sheets done so that, down to the frame, you know exactly what you're doing. Producing for the Internet, it's not as precise. Not yet, at least." What Houston does, then, is shoot a rough animatic of the storyboard to give the computer animators direction on overall pacing and timing of scenes, thereby able to communicate his well honed action-adventure sensibilities.

Once the tricky issues of "downloadability" and "playability" are tackled by Houston and the Flash animators, the Webisode is locked in to its desired length. Lush sound effects and full music tracks are produced using traditional methods of production and final sound mixes take place at the nearby studio, Image Resources. From there -- marking a cool advantage to working in the digital realm -- a dedicated Internet site is used for electronic transfers of the final Webisodes to SLM and shockwave, or anywhere else they may need to go.

Stan Lee isn't just a figurehead. He's an active member of the creative team on all of the productions. © Stan Lee Media.

Although the schedules remain hectic, Houston is loving every minute in his new job with mentor Stan Lee. "It's pretty much an open type of environment here where ideas are out on the table. Anybody can have input and Stan has an open-door policy for people with ideas. If you have something, come pitch it to him and he will consider it."

Tom McLaughlin is a further powerhouse addition to the Encino team, brought on in February of this year to help drive SLM's high-end goals. As a creative producer/ director/designer, McLaughlin's extensive background in action adventure includes work on such successful titles as X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Batman, Gargoyles and Silver Surfer. While studying at New York's School of Visual Arts, NYU and Pratt University, McLaughlin picked up day jobs in animation which eventually led to his creative involvement in dozens of award-winning commercials for clients like McDonalds and MTV. As director and designer on the acclaimed Pee Wee's Playhouse, McLaughlin treasures that early experience at Broadcast Arts because he found himself not only responsible for content and design, but as a "sometimes" animator and cameraman, as well. "It was the greatest learning experience of my life because it was soup-to-nuts, you learned everything."

The Accuser pits a crippled lawyer against the criminals he helped put back on the streets. © Stan Lee Media.

McLaughlin feels as excited about working at Stan Lee Media as he was in those heady days on the New York show. "It's the same kind of atmosphere," he says, "with an innovative spirit that's just pure adrenaline!" Having "bumped into" Stan throughout his production career, McLaughlin remains super-impressed with Lee's creative output. "Stan is still in there, a 77 year-old, ready to swing it out with anybody." He describes the new studio as "like a bomb ready to explode with all kinds of stuff. It's one of the most exciting places I've ever worked because of all the different applications we want to go into." Last winter, while still on a project with another studio, McLaughlin was handpicked to freelance an animated commercial to showcase SLM's gala launch party of early this year. Coming into the studio shortly thereafter, he worked on the Backstreet Project promo and just last month completed the highly praised Mary J. Blige video. He loves working on these special projects, stating, "We want to put the level up for everybody to get excited about the content that we're doing. We want people to look at us and say, 'What is Stan Lee doing next?'"


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