When it comes to the DC Direct animated features, featuring DC superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Women, director Lauren Montgomery has been there since the start. She was at the helm of the first DC Direct title, Superman/Doomsday and the following titles Wonder Woman, Green Lantern: First Flight and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.
First, she honed her directing skills on Legion of Super Heroes, and before that she gained experience with superheroes boarding on Hulk vs., Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow, Justice League: The New Frontier, Ben 10 and Justice League.
I had a chance to talk with her about the latest DC Direct title Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, which is based on the Superman/Batman comic storyline "The Supergirl from Krypton." Like Wonder Woman, she had a chance to tell the origin of one of DC's most popular female heroes.
Rick DeMott: What did you take from DC Direct's Wonder Woman and Green Lantern: First Flight that you brought to Superman/Batman: Apocalypse?
Lauren Montgomery: You learn a little bit on each project that helps you on your next project. On Wonder Woman, I learned a lot about keeping characters and shots simple. There were armies and a lot action going on in Wonder Woman that if I could go back and do it again I'd do differently to make it a little smoother. When you're working in animation the more stuff you have on screen, the harder it is to animate it. It ends up looking a little too busy. It's best to keep things simple, because then they come off a lot stronger.
On Green Lantern, I don't know, that one went pretty smoothly. I guess I learned a lesson about length, because that movie was so long and we had to cut out a ton of stuff to get it down to the accurate time to have it shipped off and animated. In Apocalypse, it ended up being really short. We actually had to go in and lengthen it more. [Producer] Alan [Burnett] had to go in and write another scene. Yeah, on each project we learn something new and hopefully that can apply to the next project.
LM: We didn't really have to do a lot of work outside of what was in the comics. It was pretty well laid out initially. The story was already pretty strong. All we had to do was a few nips and tucks and strengthen some parts that work in a comic, but when you put it in a movie that is one long linear story is out of context and doesn't make sense for the movie. For the most part it was easy. There are a lot of comics out there that would be a much bigger pain in the ass to translate. This one already had a pretty theatrical format.
And there are still a lot of character emotional bits between Kara and Superman that are the most important part of the story. Big action scenes make it entertaining, but the character bits aren't distracting from that because they make you care who wins that fight.
RD: Green Lantern was one of the best DC Direct titles in balancing character and action. How do you go about balancing the two? I know there is often a push for more action, because boys like action, however the characters are the most important part, especially when it comes to an older audience.
LM: We are doing these for an older audience. Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett care about the characters. Alan has been writing these characters for so long and he cares that the characters get enough time where you actually care about them. If you're sitting there watching a ton of action, it gets kind of numbing. And we don't want that. We don't want one big punch fest. We want people to care about the battles going on and who is going to win and who is going to lose. Because we have that storytelling base, we can do that for our audience. And our audience always responds to that as well. On Justice League Unlimited we had a lot of character stuff, it wasn't just punching all the time, and those are the ones that the audience remembers the most. It's the relationships more so than a really cool punching scene. If you don't care about the characters, who cares who is getting punched?
RD: You started out as a storyboard artist, how do you think that work helped your transition into directing?
LM: It's technically the same thing. Directing in animation, we don't have actors to move the camera around, we're just working with drawings and that's what a storyboard is. The storyboard is essentially our camera. As a storyboard artist you learn how to do it and the natural progression is into directing. I don't know how anyone could direct anything in animation without being able to storyboard. You have to be able to understand the visual aspect and how to put that story into pictures.
RD: When I talked to Brandon Vietti about Batman: Under the Red Hood, he said that becoming a director made him a better storyboard artist.
LM: Yeah, I believe that to be true as well. As a storyboard artist, you're only working with your work, but as soon as you become a director you become in charge of everyone on your crew's work. You start working with other storyboards and you start seeing the differences. It teaches you what makes a storyboard good and what makes a storyboard not as good. So if you see a weak moment you have to go and help improve it. I didn't know what a good storyboard or a bad storyboard was until I started directing, because all I knew was my work. Sometimes I liked it and sometimes I didn't.
LM: There are a couple of things. Number 1, it's a female story with Supergirl, which I always appreciate. I love to get the chance to work with any of the female characters, because we don't get that chance too often. And also it's an origin story and I've always liked origin stories, because it's the first interaction with that character. I like being able to handle that first time the audience gets to meet that character. It's fun to make that first impression. You don't have to follow any real precedent that was set by the previous movie. I get to make her character on my own… as long as she's not radically different; I can't turn her into something else. But I do get to form her personality a little bit by being the first one to handle her in a movie.
RD: When it comes to action — whether it be animation or live-action — it's kind of boys' club. So as a woman, what new perspective do you feel you bring to the mix?
LM: Just the fact that I'm female helps sometimes. I can't tell you how many times we'll go over the female character models and the high heel was drawn incorrectly. Or she's making a bad fashion choice. Some of those things can really help the guys. Some of the guys are really good at designing female characters and others aren't as good.
And also in the movies I noticed that the women would act in a way that a guy would want a woman to act, but not necessarily how a girl would react. I try to call them on it as much as I can. I'll say, "No girl would do that. That's crazy." I try to give as much believability and humanity to the women as I can, because that's what I know the most. And if I need any help on how a man would act I would have to go to them and ask, because that's not something I'm as familiar with. I can fake it pretty easy, but sometimes you need help.
RD: What was the biggest challenge about this particular project?
LM: I would say that because it was based on a comic already. The previous ones I worked on were both original content. Justice League was very loosely based on the comics so it was practically original content. This one was very, very close to the comic. So it was helpful and it was also kind of hindering at the same time. You want to stick to the comic as much as you can, but if you see something in the comic and it's not working in the story you want to be able to change it, but you have to make sure that the audience will respond to the change, especially if it's a moment the audience really likes. It makes you second-guess yourself. If I say, "That doesn't make any sense or that power is dumb." I have to think to myself, "Is this something, that if it were gone, would the fans of the story be upset to see it gone?" Is it a moment they really remember or really love and identify with? You have to set aside your personal preferences, because we're making this for the fans and we need to give the fans what they want to see.
RD: What are some of your influences?
LM: I guess the Batman series and the Superman series. Those are my biggest experiences with those characters. I draw lot of their personalities from what I learned from those series.
I was really influenced by Batman: The Animated Series. I watched a lot of that when I was in high school. I really liked the storytelling, because it was so different. It was storyboarded very differently than anything else I had seen up to that point. A lot of animation can be storyboarded very boringly. It's a lot of flat staging, but Batman: The Animated Series was one of the first series to really change it up and used a really different storytelling style. Even as a child I noticed I was a lot more dynamic than the majority of other shows out there. I was drawn to it.
As I got older I watched a lot more anime. I was really influenced by Cowboy Bebop. It's similar to [Batman], because they used that cutting around technique. Those are the most influential on my directing and storytelling style.
LM: I would love to do a Batgirl: Year One. That would be my dream to do that as a movie. But they're not pushing for the female stories, because they don't seem to make money. It's a business. If they can't make money on female stories then they won't make them.
I would love to anything with Aquaman in it. I like him as a character; I think he's fun. And we don't get to work with him too often. I like underwater stuff. There is a whole other world you can tap into with a lot of potential. I would love to see us have the chance to bring a whole underwater world to life. That would be a lot of fun.
RD: What are you working on next?
LM: Green Lantern: Emerald Knights. That one is similar to Batman: Gotham Knights, which tells some of the smaller stories of the Green Lantern Corp. members. That will come out around the time the movie comes out.
I'm also working on Batman: Year One with Sam Liu. That one is directly based on the comic too.
RD: Will Emerald Knights have the anime style that Gotham Knights had?
LM: Kind of. We used a Japanese studio to animate the majority of it and I think one of the shorts went to a Korean studio. It won't be as different from story to story as Gotham Knights, because that was put out to a bunch of different directors and completely done overseas. With Emerald Knights, we storyboarded it here and had it animated overseas.
RD: What was memorable about the Superman/Batman: Apocalypse project that you'd like readers to know?
LM: The nicest thing about it for me was that it was such a dominantly female cast. I always try to do something goofy for myself whenever I can fit it in. In Green Lantern, I gave him his Sailor Moon transformation, which I will never be able to do again, that was my only chance, so I used it. In this one I got to take Kara on a shopping montage. I knew that opportunity was never going to come up again. You can't send Superman or Batman on a shopping montage.
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 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.