ANIMATING HELLBOY: AN INTERVIEW WITH TAD STONES

While Guillermo del Toro works on the live-action feature “Hellboy 2,” the character is taking animated form Saturday, October 28, 2006, on Cartoon Network in a new film, “Hellboy: Sword of Storms,” featuring the voices of Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, John Hurt, and Peri Gilpin.

Tad Stones, whose animation career began at Disney, is the one responsible for giving further life to Hellboy and in an exclusive interview with Film Threat’s Rory L. Aronsky, had a lot to discuss about the character, the comics, and his previous experiences (which include “Return of Jafar,” which became Disney’s first direct-to-video feature).

So, from Aladdin to Buzz Lightyear to Hellboy.
Well, I had been a fan of Mike Mignola’s work, going back to at least his days at D.C. Comics, especially the Cosmic Odyssey that he did. That’s the comic where he jumped in his artistic style. So I was there at the beginning when Hellboy started in comics. And I even pitched the concept of a Hellboy half-hour prime-time show when I was at Disney and they wanted to look at different things at primetime.

Was this for the Disney Channel?
No, this was for Disney/ABC, but really they were looking for comedy. So I pitched it that long ago, almost 12 years ago. I had a chance to work with Mike when I did a proposed TV spin-off of Disney’s “Atlantis” feature. When the feature came out, it was disappointing in terms of box-office, so they cancelled our production, although we tied some of the episodes together for a DVD release. But the important thing is I made a connection with Mike. When I left Disney, I wanted to do some new sample scripts, so I asked Mike if I could do a couple of Hellboy sample scripts, since the live-action film was approaching and there was a talk of an animated film, mostly from Guillermo. At one point, in their long development of the Hellboy movie, they actually considered doing it in animation, since they wouldn’t have budget restrictions. But in the end, Guillermo’s a live-action director, so he wanted to do it in live-action. But that put it into his mind that he wanted to do an animated “Hellboy” feature, so he talked about putting Hellboy into animation. I don’t think Revolution would have bothered looking for an animation studio had it not been for Guillermo. So I met Guillermo online, I went to book signings of his, and he certainly knew my background. So when all the parties got together to say, “Ok, we’re doing this, who should be in charge?,” my name came up from several of the participants.

When you were given the job, was the live-action film in production at the same time or had it already been completed?
It was completed and it had been out, because officially, the deal was signed to do DVDs a year from the last San Diego Comic-Con. So 2005 Comic-Con was when we got the word.

Had you ever been to a Comic-Con before 2005?
Oh yeah! I started collecting comics in the Silver Age, back when collecting comics meant going to used bookstores and getting comics for a nickel. And I got Avengers #1 for a nickel. So I had been to Comic-Con off and on, maybe two or three times through my animation career and probably solid for the last six. Last year we did a panel on “Hellboy,” and that was my first time being an exhibitor. That was cool. It really cut down on the number of lines I had to stand in.

What were fans’ expectations when they learned of the animated feature?
This was the first project I’ve ever done where there was a big anticipation for the project. It’s not like people were waiting around for a new “Aladdin” cartoon. With “Hellboy,” people were wanting it done and wanting it done correctly. I know there was a lot of interest, because the hall that we had the panel in was a 1,000-seat room and I was worried the day before that there’d be no way we’d get the sizable crowd to fill that room. Instead, we packed the place and had to close the door, which is less about our work and more about the interest in “Hellboy” itself. But we showed about six minutes of the film and it seemed to go over really well.

When did production begin and how much involvement did Guillermo and Mike have?
The project began a year ago last month. I started at FilmRoman in September of 2005. And we’re in post on our second movie already.

A second animated film already?
Yeah. Way faster than we would have liked. Other than getting the whole thing going, Guillermo suggested a music composer to me. The composer, Christopher Drake, got the job due to the score that he wrote for our animatics and luckily, he was so good, I didn’t have to fight with Guillermo about using somebody else. But our production pretty much coincided with Guillermo’s production of “Pan’s Labryinth,” so he didn’t have time for us. In fact, any spare moment he did have, he put toward writing the first draft of “Hellboy 2.” Mike on the other hand co-wrote the stories with me and then gave notes on the treatments, the scripts, changed lines of dialogue, wrote some dialogue, and he saw the designs of any character that he created, and I’d say all the monsters. In the DVD extras, Mike says that he had the perfect amount of involvement, being all over the front line of creating the story and watching over the script and then letting other people do the work of making the movie.

What was the experience like for you on this project as opposed to the Disney animation you presided over?
The most amazing thing about this project is that we got fewer notes than anything I’ve been involved with. There was no studio executive placed in charge of us to tell us how to do our movie. Revolution Studios, Dark Horse Comics, Guillermo, they all said, “Just keep Mike happy.” Since that was my goal, I didn’t really have a problem. Because we wanted a good relationship with Cartoon Network, we showed them the script and the animatics, but they had very few notes and some we just said, “This is why we can’t do them.” The biggest note that they gave that we took is that they insisted that Hellboy should be in the first sequence of the movie with a lot of action. So basically, we did the Indiana Jones/James Bond thing of seeing a bit of the last adventure. With Disney, notes go on forever and many of them come after the time that you are really in a position to [use] them. In my last project, I got editing and story notes literally at the final mix of the picture, a day before we were to send the movie off to be put on disc. That’s the difference that makes my life simpler. The other huge difference is that Hellboy allows me to write at a whole different level.

With less focus on a younger demographic?
I’m writing the comics and the comics are for adults, although they’re accessible to younger kids. That brings a different level of sophistication, an edgier supernatural storyline, and generally lets me play with pushing the boundaries of American animation. I mean, this stuff is all old-hat to anime fans, but I think it’s something new for us.

Anything you can give on the next animated “Hellboy” feature?
#2 is Blood and Iron. It’ll come out around the time the first one is out on DVD, although I don’t have a date. That’s a completely different kind of a movie. Where the first movie is kind of an Alice in Wonderland episodic adventure set in the world of Japanese folklore, “Hellboy: Blood and Iron” is centrally European vampires, werewolves and witches. The second one is also more of a classic get-the-team-together-and-send-it-on-a-mission scenario. And the second one also includes John Hurt in the cast playing Professor Broom. In our universe, Broom is still alive. In fact, several characters who are dead in the comics are still alive. My feeling is that I want to let the fans get to know them before I start killing them off.

And I heard you just a minute ago on a third one. Where does that follow?
Currently, they’re negotiating with my agent for me to write a third film, so it’s not green-lit but we can at least get the script started. That one will be more of the mad science side of Hellboy, the cybernetic apes and the floating heads in the jars. My hope is that if we do a lot of these films, each one will be totally different. Some will be adaptations of the comic stories, but most would be original adventures. Hopefully we don’t have interference on this, but Hellboy is not the X-Men, so some films may just be Hellboy out meeting weird crap. Others will include other familiar agents.

Which characters are you looking forward to putting in the future films?
Well, honestly, I’m most excited about putting Hellboy in different situations. He’s really fun to write. Sooner or later, definitely Lobster Johnson. And I think fans will be surprised that Lobster Johnson is a lot weirder than they think he is. Before we include him, Mike is going to make sure that he tells the story of the lobster in his comics. The only restraint we have in picking storylines is when Mike wants to do something first or that we know Guillermo is going to do certain subject matter in his film, well, Guillermo and Mike. I would love to do a story with Celtic folklore, but I knew early on that was going to be the subject matter of the second live-action movie, at least the fairy tale side.

How’s that going to work?
The “Golden Army,” as Mike first described it to me, is in the comics, you definitely get the sense that the creatures of legend are fading away and leaving our world. The second movie postulates the idea, “What if there was a leader of that world who asked, ‘Why should we be the ones to go?’”

How did you get started with Disney and how did it reach all the way to “Hellboy”?
I started at a Disney training program three days after I graduated college. I’d already submitted a portfolio and was accepted. That was when the training program was just a bunch of us in a room, next door to Eric Larsen, who’s one of Walt’s Nine Old Men. So that was back in ’74. Over time I realized I’d rather create what the characters did rather than make them do it and that meant moving into story. So that would have been “The Fox and the Hound” when I did my first story work for Disney. And that was back when they didn’t use scripts for animated film. The stories were created visually. Then I got a chance to do an educational film, which gave them the idea to move me over to WED Enterprises, now known as Imagineering. So I designed rides for EPCOT Center. The coolest thing about that was me sharing an office with Ward Kimball for nine months.

Having been raised on Walt Disney World, I must ask: Which rides at EPCOT did you have a hand in?
Now they’ve all changed, but the first one was the transportation pavilion. That was the one Ward and I worked on. It was kind of the story of transportation told through gag audio-animatronic scenarios. [Writer’s note: That pavilion, formerly World of Motion, is now Test Track.] Then after that I worked on the Imagination pavilion with Tony Baxter. Then I came back to the studio to work on EPCOT documentaries, which ultimately didn’t sell because the studio thought they were still in the days of Walt when networks begged him to do programming, but the reality was that the network said, “We have our own news divisions to do low-rated documentaries and we’re certainly not going to put them on in the middle of the new fall season,” which is when EPCOT was opening. So I was at the studio when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg came and I was pretty much at the ground floor of TV animation when it started at Disney. Our first meeting was on a Sunday at Michael’s house at the end of his first week on the job. My first show was the third season of “The Gummi Bears.” Then I did “Chip ‘N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers,” then created “Darkwing Duck.” That’s when I thought I was figuring out how to do things. So I was all set to basically do the same, but with a science fiction show, and that’s when Disney said, “No, we want you to do a television version of Aladdin.”

What was it like to approach that with the film having been hugely successful?
“Aladdin” had been directed by a couple of friends of mine, John Musker and Ron Clements, so it was kind of weird, but we plunged into it. As part of syndication animation back then, you always did a four or five-part story to introduce the show, which would be played as a feature on the Friday night before the series debuted. I called up Home Video and said, “Technically, I’m doing the sequel to Aladdin. Are you interested?” All I was trying to do was protect our television budgets. I thought that if they could sell a few more copies of a video, TV animation would be seen as more valuable and they’d give us enough of a budget to keep the quality of it. However, I didn’t realize I was opening Pandora’s Box, because our little three-and-a-half million-dollar movie made over $100 million dollars domestically. If I was a live-action director, they would have offered me cars in a multiple-picture deal, but in animation, we’re used to being treated like crap, so I foolishly didn’t question it. Then I did a series of direct-to-videos, usually based on the television series I was doing, so they weren’t the high-budget extravaganzas, but they always made plenty of money. My favorite was the Buzz Lightyear DVD because it was just introducing our TV show; it wasn’t trying to copy “Toy Story.” And then the last thing I did was a spin-off of “Atlantis,” which, as I said before, got me to work with Mike Mignola.

What does it feel like now, working with “Hellboy,” coming from all you did at Disney?
It’s strange, but I sincerely feel at times that I’m just starting my career and all that other stuff was practice. I think that comes from working with Mike, and you realize even working in a mass medium like comics or animation, you can still be a real artist.

And the pressures that come with it?
It’s so easy to let the pressure of production lower your standards. It’s a tough balance. You have to be professional enough to pay attention to budget but with this project, I really tried to do so much more. I’ve never been as passionate about a project as I have about this one.

If given the chance, would you like to be the one who becomes the “Friday the 13th”-type director on these films, as in making more and more and more?
Yeah, in that there’s a lot more stories we’ve already talked about casually, and we haven’t even touched on the big, epic side of Hellboy, which is what the Right Hand of Doom means in what his destiny is. So I don’t know if “Friday the 13th” is necessarily the description, but there’s plenty to do with this guy. And I have to say working with Mike Mignola is just a ton of fun.




Posted on October 26, 2006 in Interviews by
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