From Batman: The Animated Series to Spawn and Spicy, Eric Radomski has always been testing the limits of animated TV, while being very vocal about what makes and breaks a show. Amid Amidi passes on the insight.
Dark, intense and brooding are not words often used to describe an afternoon animated TV series, but the Caped Crusaders adventures proved to be just that when Batman: The Animated Series premiered in fall of 1992. The show radically redefined the medium of television animation eschewing the tradition of mediocrity while proclaiming that an afternoon cartoon show could be atmospheric, moody, mature and entertaining to both kids and adults. This triumph of TV animation was a team effort, and one of the crew leaders was Eric Radomski, who along with Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett, served as the show's executive producers. His invaluable contributions to the show ranged across the board from the artfully designed title cards that introduced each episode to the series' minimalistic art direction that suggested and hinted at details rather than spelling it all out for the audience.
However, Eric Radomskis career did not begin nor end with Batman. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, a decidedly non-animation town, Radomski entered the business in the early 80s as a cel painter and office boy at a hole-in-the-wall Cleveland commercial studio run by Rick Reinert. As most animation artists eventually do, he found his way to Los Angeles working at various outfits on the feeble cartoon output of the 80s before ending up at Warner Bros. with his chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity on Batman.
Following his illustrious tenure with the Dark Knight, Radomski became the supervising director of HBO Animation in 1996. There he was responsible for two high-profile series: Todd McFarlane's Spawn and Ralph Bakshi's Spicy. Sadly the studio folded before it had reached its full potential, and Radomski has since redirected his focus toward Film Roman where he is currently executive creative director. Not knowing what to expect before our first meeting, I soon discovered Eric to be a genial and genuine creator, somebody who loves the classic Warner Bros. shorts and Disney features, speaks his mind freely, and most importantly, isn't afraid to push the animated envelope and explore the vast possibilities of this art form.
Amid Amidi: You were painting backgrounds on Tiny Toons when they started developing the animated Batman at Warner Bros. I understand that you weren't a particularly avid reader of the Batman comics like Bruce Timm was, so what was it that initially attracted you to the project?
Eric Radomski: I think I've always favored more of the dramatic in terms of storytelling. As a kid from the lower east side of Cleveland, inner city kid, I saw the Godfather when I was like 11, and I was into mob and war films, and enjoyed that sort of drama. The previous incarnations of Batman I'd seen growing up, the Filmation animated version, that series they did with Adam West, they were all just a bunch of goofs. They were dopey versions of a character that could be really strong and dramatic, and when I saw Tim Burton's movie, I thought that was a good way of looking at this character.
AA: To get on the project, you made some preliminary studies using colored pencil on black paper
ER: That's a painting technique that I had done previously in my own personal paintings where I was trying to work with limited lighting and examining how lighting actually works at nighttime with the effects of the moon and such. Literally the first piece that I did was lights of a city reflected on a wet pavement, and that was also inspired by the drama of Burton's movie. But I never thought that they would go that far in a cartoon. They attached to this look immediately, and that was exciting for me. I thought, Well, at the very best I'm going to get to paint or set the style for the show," but it also opened the door for me to exercise skills that most everyone didn't know about. I knew how to organize projects because out of necessity, I had been so hands-on in the previous studios that I'd worked at so when they asked us to produce a couple minutes of animation, that was like a walk in the park for me. Bruce and I basically organized this two-minute presentation piece in a month and a half. Bruce boarded it, and he and I did layouts from the boards, and I did all the original backgrounds. I had a friend up in Canada, Greg Duffell, who had a commercial studio, and his crew animated the whole thing. Based on the strength of that piece, we were offered to produce it. Here, Bruce and I are looking at sixty-five episodes, neither one of us ever having been in that position of responsibility, and we just never thought about it. Just took it one episode at a time.
AA: Speaking to your role as an executive producer on Batman, you came from an artistic background, whereas many TV animation producers today are not as versatile in basic cartoon fundamentals. Do you think it's an advantage to have a producer assume an artistic and creative role in the creation of an animated series?
ER: Having a very involved and comprehensive knowledge of the process was completely beneficial to me. It allowed me to talk to anyone from prop designers to the directors. I could explain and request things very specifically as to the way a sequence should be directed or what needed to be indicated in the storyboard so that there wasn't confusion when they sent it overseas. I was also able to relate those same concerns and thoughts to the writers on the show, and the writer/producer Alan Burnett, and later Paul Dini. To be able to troubleshoot an episode in script form, we were able to resolve issues and not compromise the content of the scripts.
The problem comes when folks are given a producer title and it's not warranted. As we see in a lot of the primetime shows, anyone who writes is a producer, and that's fine to have that title or credit, but it doesn't relate to the responsibility of that producer. At the end of the day, it's a visual medium, and while writing is very important to it, in order to make the best possible piece of entertainment, you have to be able to look at the big picture and know how you're going to get to the end of the line. Not just have a cool idea and go, "Oh yeah, we'll have these wacky animators come up with some gags or funny drawings, or direct it with great timing so that the comedy comes off." That's fine but that's a lot of assumption. If you don't know how to get there or convey that, you're asking for big trouble. Subsequently, you see some of these primetime shows that just cost oodles of money and the product is really pretty weak. It's a system out of balance. Primetime television sort of adopted animation and to them it's just a technique. A good portion of the animated primetime shows could just as well be done live-action. I mean there are a couple exceptions but for the most part, it's not what cartoons were originally meant to be. Cartoons aren't meant to lip sync dialogue that's written by stand-up comics, which is what seems to dominate the primetime market. For me, unless you do that extremely well, it's always going to be less than interesting to watch.
AA: With shows like Batman and Ren & Stimpy, it seems that when the producer is an artist, it can avoid a lot of problems down the line
ER: It's unfortunate but exactly as you've said, really heavy duty producers from the live-action world are trusted more by executives so they're put in a position of power. But they really don't understand the process and the animators are left a lot of times fixing things that are broken rather than concentrating on making them better. So you end up with an end product that's half of what it could have been, had it been trusted in the hands of the animation folks.
AA: Batman has proven to be one of the seminal TV shows in animation history. What are you most proud of about your association with that show?
ER: The live-action movie had done very well and Batman was very much in the limelight, so I guess the biggest effort we made was to stand on our own. We didn't want to just rely on the success of the movie; we wanted to distinguish ourselves not only as [a representation of] the character Batman himself, but as an animated project. It was an opportunity to say we're going to do this differently. Speaks directly to what we just spoke about, artists/producers being involved in a project. I think the biggest accomplishment, whether we set out to do it or not, was that we proved that if artists/producers were allowed to handle a huge franchise show, we could deliver both visually and storywise.
AA: How involved would you be in the actual writing of the show?
ER: We didn't sit down and write them, but Bruce and I were very involved with a lot of the scripts. We not only pointed out the pitfalls, but also had a strong, secure writer in Alan Burnett to invite us into the process, and invite our opinions in, so that when we had an idea for a sequence in a show, or changes to story, it wasn't about fighting over it, or egos. It was about making it better. I think the ability to bring together the writers and the artists, and the crew in general, was one of the biggest accomplishments with Batman. We eventually created 85 half-hours in the first incarnation of the series, and subsequently they've done Superman and Batman Beyond, and they've held consistent. Really strong narrative and absolutely terrific graphics. It's a wonderful testament to a team working together, which is a rarity in animation.
AA: From a viewer's perspective, there's not really a whole lot to complain about, but from your perspective, if you could go back, what would you improve about the show?
ER: Without stooping to the levels of using foul language or showing nudity, I think we could have pushed a lot of the elements to a greater degree more adult, and I use that term very loosely because I don't think it has to be blood and guts but I think it has to be real for the audience to buy it. There were a couple episodes that probably spoke truest to the goal that we would have set for ourselves in terms of overall quality. We were fortunate enough to win an Emmy for part one of Robin's Reckoning. It was the back story of the death of Robin's parents, a touching story about a kid losing his parents. That took animated storytelling to a new height because it wasn't about selling toys anymore, and it wasn't about being wacky cooky, and it wasn't about Batman always winning; this was a story about the birth of a superhero, of Robin really making decisions in his life, and it was quite dramatic.
AA: It would seem then that the move you made to HBO was a real freeing transition in terms of the content that you were allowed to do?
ER: Absolutely, knowing that HBO was definitely interested in pushing their shows to an R-rating was music to my ears.
AA: What specifically took you there?
ER: Spawn was their first project they had optioned, and HBO had brought in Catherine Winder with the project. They originally subcontracted work out to an off-site studio and had gotten about three or four months into development and pre-production, but Todd McFarlane, who created Spawn, and the studio, which shall remain unnamed, had a real difficult time getting along because the material being generated wasn't up to Todd's standards. So Catherine made a suggestion to HBO, to bring the work in-house. She and I met somehow, and it was perfect timing for me because I was then directing Freakazoid and very anxious to get out of Warner Bros.
She gave me the Spawn comics and when I read them, I found Todd's writing in the books to be kind of sophomoric. Very young for the opportunity that he had. It's not all about ripping guy's heads off. You're talking about the Devil and there's nothing juicier than that. We wanted to get to the romance story; it's a guy who lost his life, wants to get back to his wife and he's got a kid. Can't ask for better drama than that. It was continually an education process to say, "Look, Spawn doesn't get mad and put his fist through the wall, he takes a moment here and there." That was really important to convey to Todd.
Most of the material that had been created by the other studio didn't work for my plan. I wanted to go for something much more dynamic, much more graphic. The material I had was very illustrated and not very animatable. It was even beyond manga, it was just so complicated. I had to convince Todd that I wanted to simplify, but to keep in mind the big picture of what I wanted the art direction to look like on the piece. As with Batman, I was fortunate enough to generate some material to be able to convince Todd and HBO that this is the way I think the show should look. Production moved along fine, and as we were tailing out on Spawn, Bakshi's Spicy came by and that was another juicy bit.
AA: HBO seems to be the ideal outlet for adult animation, and you had two pretty successful shows in Spawn and Spicy, so why is it that HBO Animation didn't survive?
ER: We hit a huge bump in the road when Catherine and I made a request to have a story editor come in on Spawn because no one was too happy with the scripts that were coming out, and what we inherited was some executive producer that came in from live-action, speaking back to our earlier conversation, and just proceeded to really dismantle everything we had built. And unfortunately, he had one HBO executive believe that he had a better way of doing things even though the show was already successful. Slowly things started to decline internally at HBO for our little unit, and by the end of it, I took my name off of the third season of six episodes because I refused to be associated with them and what was going on.
AA: What do you think of your time at HBO?
ER: I was absolutely under the impression that HBO Animation had arrived, and this was the place to be. We had even gotten to the point of development, and we had probably eight or ten titles that we had optioned from various sources -- underground comics, independent creators, etc. and there was a nice mix of material that we were going for which was very much adult. It took me a long time to get over that because I was so absolutely excited to be working in R-rated mode and being trusted to do things the way that I wanted to do them.
I'm speaking to you from Film Roman, but if I had an opportunity to work on another HBO show, I'd do it in a minute. I think they're a fantastic group to work with. Not only do they allow and trust you to do what you do, but they're really smart. They know good entertainment and it's so refreshing because a large part of the industry simply doesn't. That's why we have so much crap on television. You'd sit in a notes meeting with them, and actually come away with useful ideas. Typically you're looking at notes and going, "What the hell are they talking about?" It was a great experience, and inspiring if nothing else, because now I continue to work towards getting back to producing at the level that I had at HBO.
AA: You had a unique situation at HBO because you're working with Todd McFarlane, a creator inexperienced with animation, and Ralph Bakshi who probably knows too much about animation. As a producer, who did you find easier to work with?
ER: I would probably lean on the Todd side because it's a strong idea and he was absolutely supportive of pushing the envelope. He bought the art direction, he bought the drama. He had a commitment to making something that was different. He didn't want to do a typical show in any form. Out of lack of a better term, because of his ignorance, he was open to the process and able to allow us to produce something special.
Now conversely, with Ralph, he had absolute respect and trust for the talent involved. He basically handed it over and said, "This is your project, I'll tell you what I want, you guys go do it." That was great, but on the downside, HBO was very demanding about the content so scripts that came in early on from Ralph, not known for being a great storyteller, needed changes. And Ralph is not a guy that likes to compromise. If this is the way it's written, and you point out that it's not working, hope you get him on a good day because if you don't, you're going to hear about it. I think that's to be admired that the guy has survived in the industry for so long and done his films his way. But it's less likely that you're going to be allowed to make decisions the way you need to because it's somebody who's been through it and has a specific way of thinking about how animation should be produced.
AA: And what would be the downside to working with Todd?
ER: The fact that Todd didn't understand animation, had no experience with it, was a lot of work on my part as a producer to help him understand how things are produced and how to trust without seeing, because basically he wouldn't know anything until he saw it come back on film. He would have to trust me that the pause and slow moment there and the shot in black with just a little bit of light was going to speak volumes.
AA: As a comic artist he's used to drawing the final product himself and seeing it immediately on the page in front of him . . .
ER: Exactly, and a lot of the comic art is in the artist's head. The audience is invited in and if you get it, fine, and if you don't, you're gone. We're speaking to a much broader audience, a pretty good chunk of them who've never seen the book and who don't care about the book. They're watching a piece of late night animation and it better tell them a story. They don't care about the cool drawings in the book. They don't care about drawings at all as long as when they come away from it, they're hopefully affected in some way emotionally or just entertained in general.
AA: Both with Batman and the HBO shows, the cartoons had more of a cinematic live-action feel to them than traditional fare. Was this something you were consciously aiming for, or did this style evolve out of necessity for the type of stories that you were telling?
ER: Spawn was a natural extension or evolution from Batman, to take it not only cinematic but also get into a real stylistic approach. Batman had the traditional three-act setup, but with Spawn, having only six episodes in each season, it was an ongoing and everchanging storyline, with the core being this guy who has a mission which is to find his wife and see if there's any possible way he's going to be able to get back what he lost. It was wonderful, the closest that I've come to really doing my own piece. I could not wait to get to the editing room and try a million different things. I can't tell you how many times I begged and pleaded with Catherine to give me more time in the edit room because I had absolute visions of how some of this stuff was going to play before I even saw it, and it just took a lot of time.
Literally, there would be times where within a twenty two-minute episode, I'd have a thousand cuts because a lot of it was half frames, re-uses, flips and flops, effects, and the like. It was all done after the fact. Typically with animation, you send stuff over and what you send you get back. Here I was doing almost special effects in the Avid, because there was no way I could convey those thoughts in my exposure sheets. I had to do it in the edit room so it was very much a live-action mentality of having a cutting room floor except it was all digital.
AA: Following along these same lines, when I see some live-action films, I see a level of depth in the characterization and storytelling that I don't see in animation. Do you think an adult animated drama has a place in animation?
ER: I think there's definitely a place for an animated adult action-drama. Everything doesn't have to revolve around fairy tales and fantasies. Animation has always, at least for as many years as I've seen, been relegated to marketing and merchandising. I think Blade Runner could exist as an animated film, or a Blade Runner-esque type of film. It's futuristic, they've got vehicles and they've got action characters. If you want to make your merchandising, that's great. It just hasn't been given the opportunity. No one is trusted enough; it always has to be justified with how much money the film will make merchandising-wise. There's no reason that you couldn't do an absolute all-out animated action-drama, and let it compete against any other live-action film.
AA: What sort of a role do you see the Internet playing in the future of animation?
ER: A lot of the material that's on the Internet now is place holders as far as I'm concerned. It's derivative of television. Right now the best use for the Internet is to sort of incubate ideas. To put up a short, and get a real good sense of whether your ideas working and whether the audience likes it. Beyond that, delivering on-going content on the Internet is limited so you have to surrender yourself to that, and do something that's pretty much verbal graphics. But embrace the fact that it is a reality and it's not going away. The technology is coming, and artists creating material for the Internet should be prepared to throw away all of the limitations that television places on animation, and just get back to making good product.
The Internet will allow audiences to pick the material they like. People that know the material will pass around the word and eventually creators/producers/directors like myself will be trusted to make stuff that can exist on the Internet, and can be directly marketed to its audience. I believe that will play a big role in moving entertainment, especially animation, forward.
AA: How involved have you been with Film Roman's entertainment site Level13.com?
ER: I was responsible for the direction and attitude of the entire Level13 project. With Level13, we specifically went for material that was going to be more adult, but that doesn't mean adult in a bottom of the barrel sense which 95% of the stuff on the Internet currently is. Not just a bunch of jokes about excrement, nudity, foul language and racist jokes. A little bit of that is fine for people to exercise their point of view but it's not going to hold up over the long term.
Mindless Bob was a short film that I directed for Level13. We had a relationship with Mark Mothersbaugh and he had an idea and basically told me what he wanted to do. I came up with a new technique that's a 2D, 3D, live-action combination. It's real strange, esoteric, weird, but we never had the opportunity to develop the character further into the sort of Marx Bros./Three Stooges personality we had planned. The set-up was that wherever Mindless Bob went, chaos followed. He literally caused the destruction of the Earth in the first piece by setting off a nuclear warhead through his ignorance.
: You've also been associated with Film Roman's Howard Stern project.
: We sold Doomsday about a year ago to UPN. The show is created by Tracy Torme and Howard is attached to it as an executive producer. I helped Tracy develop a bit of the animation style, and also helped put together about a 10-minute animatic that basically tells the story and introduces all the main characters. However, what we pitched was a 2-minute trailer that we cut movie fashion. UPN was never satisfied with the pilot script, and they pushed us in ten different directions about how they wanted the family treated. So we decided to take a break with it, and since then UPN went through some changes with the merger so who knows what's going to happen with them as a network. Either way, a new writer/producer was brought on recently to start the production up again. Tracy will still be an executive producer and Howard is still very much involved. We're hoping to get back under way writing the pilot script and developing it in the next month. There is a series that will be made.
: And what are some other projects you're currently developing at Film Roman?
: We're working with Norman Lear to develop Till The Fat Lady Sings, which will be taken out this year to pitch as a series. It's about folks that live in a senior citizens home and it's quite funny. There's Trippin' The Rift, a 3D animated science fiction spoof currently in development as a series for cable. I didn't have much to do with that other than making sure the attitude and the content was appropriate for what we were doing. Doug Lawrence's Hairballs is being developed for the Internet, and possibly a cable series. This show was rescued out of the batches of optioned content that we had. It was originally part of another show that had this as an insert. A cartoon within a cartoon.
Amid Amidi is the publisher and editor of
Animation Blast Magazine. He is currently lobbying The Walt Disney Company to produce more Humphrey the Bear merchandising in honor of the characters fiftieth birthday.