Supervising producer Marty Isenberg talks about Disney XD’s latest animated TV series based on Marvel’s comic book and feature film universe.
Taking a cue from last year’s Marvel hit feature Guardians of the Galaxy, Disney XD has just launched an expansive new animated TV series, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Billed as an “action-packed epic space adventure following a ragtag band of disparate misfits,” the 26 episode first season will incorporate characters and story points taken from various Marvel comic books as well as the 2014 feature film that introduced the world to our five reluctant heroes – Peter Quill / Star Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon and Groot. Thrust together against their will and better judgment, this group of galactic troublemakers manages to do the right thing, though usually under considerable duress, and with considerable weaponry.
I recently had a chance to speak with supervising producer Marty Isenberg about the new show. He shared his insights on the genesis of the series, how the new stories intersect with the overall Marvel universe and what viewers can expect to see in the inaugural season.
Dan Sarto: So how does this new series fit into the Marvel universe? How does it fit within the world introduced to audiences with the Guardians of the Galaxy feature film?
Marty Isenberg: When I sat down to develop the series with Henry Gilroy [show writer], I had a brief introduction to the Guardians because they made guest appearances on other Marvel shows. My initial belief was that we would just continue from where we had established them in these other shows. But after looking at some scripts, and with some encouragement, in particular from Joe Quesada [executive producer], we followed more of the timeline, characterization and tone of the feature, which we loved. We were delighted to be able to basically start from scratch and use the feature as our template, to really do something that was more along the lines of a galactic caper movie.
DS: So does the series pickup from where the feature left off?
MI: We made a conscious decision that the majority of the audience will have been introduced to these characters through the feature. As much as we could mirror the back stories and setup of the feature, the more familiar it would feel - the more comfortable the audience would feel coming into it. We based some things on what was established in the Marvel animated universe, but on the other hand you could also look at this and say, "Well, this all takes place before Spider-Man met the Guardians, and before the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. met the Guardians and before the Avengers met the Guardians." You have to do a little mental gymnastics to get the full continuity.
DS: Are you going to introduce new characters? Are there comic book story arcs you're going to follow? Is this all brand new? What can we expect?
MI: The Abnett and Lanning run and the current comics run were definite influences. There's great stuff that we can pick and choose from. While we won't be directly adapting any stories from those books, there were elements where we felt, “Oh, that would work well for our series. That would work well for our series." Cosmo will have several appearances in the series, because he's just too great a character not to use. We'll be seeing the Collector and the Grandmaster as well as Ronan. We do see Thanos and a few more from the Marvel cosmic universe that we sprinkle in there. As far as the team itself, we are remaining true to the core five team members. In the comics there was sort of a revolving lineup as they often did on Avengers as well. We're sticking to the core team.
DS: What is your role in all of this? Walk me through your main duties on the show.
MI: My title is supervising producer, and basically that’s a glorified writer. It's what I am – I’m the head writer on the show. I am responsible, along with my consulting producer Steve Nelson, for coming up with the season arc and the individual episode stories. We work together and spitball ideas for individual episodes leading toward a bigger story arc within the season. Then we periodically have what we call our Marvel Animation Story Summits, which are two day affairs where Steve and I, and a number of executives and freelance writers, sit in a conference room and beat out the beats for 5-6 stories. We assign those scripts to writers. I serve as story editor, so the freelance writers will give me outlines and I'll give notes. They'll give me another draft. I'll do an edit. That goes up to the production executives, who give me a set of notes. Then it goes back to the freelancers to work the drafts into scripts. Then we do the whole process again.
Ultimately, I'm responsible for editing the scripts, for all the working drafts, for the production drafts, and then my duties go into post-production a little bit. When the animatics come back, sometimes there are dead spots where we think, "Oh, we could use a little bit more dialog here. That scene went on a little longer than we thought it was going to." Or, sometimes we feel, “Actually, that wasn't so clear, so maybe we can add some dialog there."
At the animatic stage, sometimes you'll see scenes play out and they need a little more dialogue or you just get ideas for gags based on the visual. So, I can add dialogue that we’ll have the actors pick up and add to the animatic before it goes to animation. So I get that round to plus the dialogue and then I get another round to plus the dialogue when we get the rough animation back. So, as long as I'm not dealing with any lip flap I can still add more dialogue and they'll add it in the ADR sessions.
That's a luxury you don't always get in television. So, that's a nice chance to add more gags and sometimes to make up for some mistakes or erase a few sins. I enjoy having that second chance.
DS: The more you can iterate, the more you can tighten up the material.
MI: Exactly. That's the process Marvel Animation has worked with for a number of years and they’re very happy with the results.
DS: What are the biggest challenges you face on this show?
MI: Probably the biggest challenge is the volume. Each season is 26 half hours. You have to tell 26 compelling stories that also add up to a compelling season arc and you have to do that in such a way that you're not going to confuse viewers who are only tuning in occasionally. You want to make sure that each episode stands on its own but also feels like part of a greater whole. I say this all the time - you're rewarding the loyal viewer without punishing the occasional viewer.
So, I think that's the biggest challenge. And then, just simply juggling all of these stories and keeping them all straight in my head. That's why it's wonderful I have a great consulting producer in Steven Melching and incredible production staff at Marvel Animation that helps keep my brain in check.
DS: 26 half hours is a tremendous amount of animation to produce in a single season.
MI: It is and I don't even have to do the animation! I just do the writing. There are some extremely talented directors working on our show that manage to take my jumbled nonsense and actually turn it into something that moves onscreen.
DS: Turn it into a thing of beauty. The work looks great.
MI: Yes, exactly. I have an incredible appreciation for the work that they do.
DS: The Marvel universe certainly is immense, with lots of properties across lots of mediums. What is it about this property, the set of stories you're telling throughout this season, that you think is the most interesting and compelling for your audience?
MI: Well for me in particular, what makes it special is something you don't get to do a lot in kid’s animation – you get to have rogue heroes. Heroes with real flaws, heroes that aren't always setting out to do the right thing even though they ultimately land on doing the right thing. Just being able to write flawed, interesting characters and have everyone from the brand level at Marvel in New York, to the animation studio and to Disney, all onboard with having our heroes act that way. We've seen in the movies how entertaining that is. It gives us incredible leeway to tell different kinds of stories and show different kinds of characters and keep it fun and interesting.
The way the story unfolds and the whole scavenger hunt treasure map aspect keeps you coming back week after week. The series builds on these characters and even those who are very familiar with these characters from the movie and the comics are going to find some surprises. We're doing this for kids, but we know that there's plenty of adult fans watching and I hope they like it. I could do this show for the rest of my life if they let me.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.