Behind the Scenes - Frank Paur Interview

Chances are if you’re looking at this page, you’re more than aware of who Frank Paur is. Having served in a variety of roles in his illustrious career in animation and working on the likes of Batman: The Animated Series, Spawn and Men In Black: The Animated Series, The Marvel Animation Age tracked Paur down to talk about his most ambitious project yet, The Invincible Iron Man.

Marvel Animation Age: How did you come to work on the Invincible Iron Man and what did your duties include?

Frank Paur: I was working on “Ultimate Avengers” doing conceptual art and storyboards when word came out that MLG would be producing Iron Man. And I guess Craig Kyle and Eric Rollman were happy with the work that I was doing (I had also worked with Craig on X-Men Evolution). So they talked with me about my views on the character and how I would visualize the show. A short time later, I was meeting with Avi Arad for his approval.

When you produce any film or series, you have to bring vision to the project, you have to make the story your own, and then you have to convince everyone associated with the film that your vision is the correct one.

Next you have to find a crew that you feel will best match your take on the script (It also helps if they can draw and know how to tell a story; I believe that a producer can only be as good as the people that he surrounds himself with, and I am very good at surrounding myself). You have to take the lead. I provided a lot of art for the artists to follow. When I had an idea for Tony Stark’s offices, I would research the style I wanted and then sketch out the basic designs. The background artists would then take it, add to it, expand on the concept, and in effect make the idea their own. If they ventured too far off what I needed, they would then be steered back to the original path.

I wanted all the painting to be done digitally. The type of detail that I planned would make it easier to alter the work as needed. And because of the amount of CGI we planned, the paintings would help cement the 2d with the 3d. This sort of direction would go on for just about every phase of the production, storyboard, animatics, timing, color, etc, etc.

One phase of the production where I spent much more attention was character design. The nature of what I needed was very specific, the throwback feel of the art was meant to capture the feel of a 1940s’ B-movie adventure, and capturing the feel of that era was very important. Tony Stark as envisioned is Howard Hughes, with a bit of Douglas Fairbanks thrown in. It was what I felt best captured the spirit of what Stan Lee originally was going for when he created “Iron Man”.

I guess it really comes down to being the guy that takes the lead in the production. When that baton is passed on to you, management expects you to create something that the fans will enjoy enough to go out buy, generate interest, create discussion and expand sales. If I’m lucky more people will like it than not. God knows not everyone will be happy with the final show. There are just too many people with too many ideas about how things should be done. If you try to please everyone, you wind up pleasing no one. So you follow your instincts and hope it’s enough to please most.

MAA: You’ve directed for some of the most critically acclaimed animated series of the last two decades: Batman The animated series, Gargoyles and X-Men Evolution. How do you pick projects?

Paur: Sometimes the show picks you. I’ve been fortunate. For example, I knew Bruce Timm from a couple of other studios we worked with, and when he received the producership on Batman, he asked if I would like to join his team as a director. As surprising as this may sound, it took me a few days to accept the offer. At the same time I was also considering an offer to work on a Universal Monsters project. Now I have always loved the Universal Monsters, and really wanted to be part of the project, but the more I looked into it, the more it just didn’t feel right for me. I passed up on their offer and a few days later I started work on Batman. Soon after that, the whole Universal thing went south and died… And thank you, Bruce, for keeping the Batman option open for me.

When you work on a show like Batman, people categorize you; I’m known more for action adventure, mostly because of the shows that I’ve worked on. This can limit your options. Few studios would be interested in me doing comedy shows. Once in a while I’ll get lucky and produce a show like ‘Men In Black the Animated Series” a comedy/adventure hybrid. But most often the choices are limited to the dramatic. Because of the success of “Batman,” Disney offered me “Gargoyles,” because of “Gargoyles,” I worked at Sony producing “Men In Black,” from that came “Spawn,” etc, etc.

Notoriety gained from successful shows is very helpful for opening doors. When you’re successful, studios want you to duplicate that success on their own productions. That could be about your creativity, being a great guy to get along with, or just because you know the pitfalls of production and have a good idea of what to avoid, anything that they feel will get their project done on schedule, on budget, look good, and get ratings.

Networking also is very important; it helps to have an idea of what is going on at all the various studios. I received my job on Batman because of Bruce Timm, X-Men Evolution because of Boyd Kirkland.

From my experience, artists are not the best negotiators, and having someone looking out for your interests can be very helpful. After having gone through a few trouble spots in my career, I decided to use an agent for most of my work that I do. Knowing where to find that special project is fine, but getting that door open to talk to someone in authority can be maddening. And sometimes you just get so busy that you don’t really have the time to hunt down that next big show.

I suppose that the type of show that I enjoy these days has more to do with character than action. Don’t get me wrong; I love the action shows, but when you do as many of these type stories as I have, it gets to the point that you feel that you can create action sequences in your sleep. It all becomes automatic. Character on the other hand, always requires serious thought. To keep these guys alive, you have to always envision who they are, and how they react to events and characters around them, If you don’t, they just come off as stale imitations of people, and when they get into the serious dramatic stuff, they’re just props. But give them a personality and you can get your viewer to feel and react in ways that a cartoon shouldn’t be able to inspire. The viewer needs to care about them.

MAA: What would you say are the positives and negatives on working on a direct to DVD feature rather than a weekly-animated television series?

Paur: You’re able to finesse the story far more on a feature that on a series. Everything that you do is finessed: character, background, painting, sound, music, everything is tightened up several notches. I would never attempt the design elements from this movie onto a television series. They were difficult enough for the animation that we had. On a series budget and schedule it would have been impossible to have any kind of quality survive.

The feature format also allows you to be more expressive in style and substance; you’re able to put more thought into the overall production. If you take a good look at the paintings in the film you’ll find a lot of subliminal aspects to the shot, things put there to affect the viewers’ perception of what is going on. Here is an example; it’s no coincidence that much of the time we see Lei-Mei, she is shown amidst moving water. These are some very beautifully rendered sequences, and in a very soft way the viewer identifies the water with purity. It is a reflection of the condition of her soul. Toward the end of the movie, the climax takes place in a tomb filled with dark and murky sludge. Since the earlier scenes, Lei-Mei has murdered people and lied, her soul has been corrupted; the action takes place in surroundings that mirror her inside. It is only after she saves Tony and destroys the Mandarin that we see her with once more bathed in light and cradled in Tony’s arms. The scene is restful and serene, her soul clean, she has purged the evil from herself.

Here’s a more obvious one: the design in the boardroom is very deliberate. The image in the stained glass is of Prometheus, the Titan who was punished by the gods for giving fire to humanity. Understanding the symbolism is important; when we see Tony Stark framed within the stained glass the similarities in their stories should be obvious. It foretells Tony’s future. Tony gives mankind new technology that changes the world, and he is punished for it. His heart is seriously damaged, he is never able to sustain a relationship, and he becomes an alcoholic and eventually isolates himself more and more into his armor.

This is all very film 101 stuff, and some would say pretentious as hell, but darn if it isn’t a kick to come up with these things. This movie is loaded with that type of imagery, and anyone who wants to put their brain to work and figure them out…good luck.

(By the way, I’m still waiting for someone to spot the connection that links this film to Ultimate Avengers.)

A movie has to be self-contained. But you have a longer time to build your story and develop the characters. Stronger set-ups and animation help to build up the overall quality to the film. The big downside is it feels like forever to actually see progress from concept to final film, especially if, as in the case of these DVDs, the animation is all done overseas without the kind of supervision that you’re able to give the post production work.

The positive aspects to a series are obvious. If you’re allowed some sort of continuity, you can build your characters and actions over a tremendous length of time. It can play more like a novel in some cases, like soap in others. You get to know these characters over a sustained period of time and they can become very real to the viewer. You can string sub-plots through the entire season and get a tremendous eventual payoff. That is IF you are allowed that kind of continuity. Most studios discourage that sort of structure in favor of a single episode arc. Syndicates welcome this format more, so they don’t have to put much thought into keeping the episodes organized. It’s just easier that way.

The other form of payoff is that you are able to see the fruits of your labor much sooner, and you’re constantly fed animation on a weekly basis. If you’re really into the soap mode, it’s just a lot of fun to see the stories all coming to life in a reasonable time.

MAA: The movie uses a mixture of 3D and 2d animation. Which do you prefer to use and how much did you enjoy using 3D for the first time?

Paur: I enjoyed the use of 3D particularly on the armors. We tried to make as much use of the computer as possible because we knew that using traditional animation on the suits was going to cause it’s own set of problems. The grey armor would have been near impossible to animate in a traditional manner. And, in a strange way, it allowed for more fluid animation in the action sequences. Unfortunately, because it moved so well, it became apparent that the 2d animation was going to look primitive. So that led us to add more 3d files.

When Iron man fought the Elementals, it made things much simpler to have 3D characters interact with other 3D characters. The character animation was a different story. When you watch 3D character animation, it looks clumsy and stilted, and unless you have an unlimited budget it’s not going to get any better. So we opted to try something new and a little more complex than you would normally see in this type of cartoon. For those scenes that required the 2D and 3D to mix, we treated the 3D as rotoscope and then composited the 2D elements over as needed. We were continuously working to sync the 2D and the 3D together, right up to the point of delivery. The dragon caused particular headaches. The CGI range on the dragon was too limited for the animation that we were calling for; this can be seen on how segmented the dragon looks in many of its shots, and eventually we had to rely on scenes with pure 2D to pull off some of the things that we asked for. Eventually we just ran out of time, or I would still be adjusting the film.

We designed the background design to help merge the 3D and 2D together. I added unbelievable levels of detail to the designs, details that could only come from heavy use of Photoshop. This allowed us to use a lot of complex design elements from carpets to books to buildings. Some of the designs look as if they came out of some of the more serious video games; in fact the ancient city is all CGI. When it worked, it looked spectacular. When it didn’t, you got the underwater sequence. That was something that was just not working, as we would have liked. .

MAA: Are there any Iron Man characters/armors you’d have liked to use but never got the chance to?

Paur: War Machine would have been fun, but there was no use for it in the story arc. It is a pure weapon (remember, Tony was not into weapon design for the company). These suits were not designed for battle; the weapons used in the film are defensive in design but with emergency upgrades to handle the threat raised by the Elementals.

I would have liked to take another pass at the Hall of armor and really trick it out a lot more, play out the high tech aspects to the armor storage, show various armors in different stages of completion, from exo-suits to the skin type conceptual armors that Tony wears in the comics. You know, just let out the geek in me and show a lot of really cool visuals. If there is a sequel you’ll see a lot more technology.

MAA: None of The Elementals in the story speak. Did you find this was difficult to work around in terms of developing them and adding more drama to the action scenes?

Paur: Have you ever seen Jason and the Argonauts? You know, the one with Talos the 300 foot Titan? That thing scared the hell out of me as a child; I had nightmares for years because of that puppet. Darn you, Ray Harryhausen! Another one was the Giant Majin, a nasty Japanese import also featuring a silent giant destroying everyone it could find.

None of the Elementals were ever intended to speak; they are not human, and having them speak would have been somewhat silly in the scope of the picture. It would have been like having Michael Myers throw out one-liners in “Halloween.” It would have made them appear too human; the Elementals are literally the personification of natural forces, air, water, fire, and earth. The trouble that some fans out there are having with the Elementals is their animation. Even though they do not speak, there was supposed to be personality to them. Sometimes when you envision these types of characters you have a certain preconceived notion of how they will ultimately turn out. Sometimes you are wrong.

These creatures were designed to be a mixture of 3D and 2D, the more expressive parts of their design such as the cloth and effects were to be done in 2D composited over their 3D bodies. Firebrand was supposed to have 2D hair, cloak and skirts, they were all supposed to consist of flame and animated with a fluid expression that evoked power and movement. Whirlwind’s cape was the same, translucent and free flowing, but this was more difficult than we had originally thought. Out of the four, only Earthmover came close to our original vision, perhaps that was because his mask was the more expressive of the four, and he had less actual effects that needed to be animated; Still though when all is said and done, They were still pretty creepy, and maybe, just maybe some little kid out there will have the same kind of nightmares that I had as a child. Darn you Ray Harryhausen!

MAA: A lot of reviews/fans have noticed the similarities between this film and Batman Begins. Was this a deliberate ploy on your part or mere coincidence?

Paur: The day after Batman Begins was released, I saw a lot of unhappy faces. It took a lot of us by surprise. But the storyboards, the voice recordings, all the designs were finished, and much of it was already in animatics. We couldn’t go back and alter everything that had been done, it was just too wrapped up into the story, and it was unfeasible. Of course I would have liked to have Iron Man come in as War Machine and repulsar blast all the evil board member sonab*****, and then launch a few rocket salvos into the boardroom just for good measure. But that was thought to be unfeasible as well. So we kept things as originally scripted.

MAA: What did you think of the whole Western Technology Vs Eastern Mythology aspect to the story?

Paur: I remember a story from John Romita Jr’s days on Iron Man; it had to do with the Mandarin destroying all technology, and Tony having to confront him with non-functioning armor like a knight of old. It’s been a long time since I read that story, but it made a lasting impression. The science vs. magic scenario to me, has always been full of wonderful “what if” scenarios. Anyone who follows my work knows that this is a motif that I’ve worked with. “Gargoyles” was full of such stories. The wonderful aspect of animation is that something that should not work in the real world can in animation. Live action would have a difficult time trying to make the concept work. But animation… you can go for it.

MAA: What do you think of the prior appearances of Iron Man in animation?

Paur: I loved the original “Marvel Superheroes” when I was small; in fact I have some of the Iron Man episodes on tape. Outside of that I was never impressed. But that had more to do with how super-hero shows were depicted in general. The first season of “Iron Man” I had absolutely no interest in at all. It was dreadful. The second season I hear was pretty good, but that wouldn’t surprise me because they brought in some pretty talented people to rework the show… I still hated the styling though. I felt that it could have been done better. Kind of like when people see my work and bitch that it would have been soooo much better if only Bruce Timm had done it…

MAA: Last time you were interviewed here at Marvel Animation Age, you mentioned that the Iron Man project was very “ambitious”. Did you get everything you wanted out of the project, from a personal point of view?

Paur: That’s a very difficult question for me to answer. My natural tendency is to always push the limit of what I can do, and I always feel unsatisfied at the end of any production. In “Iron Man,” there are so many levels of detail that I was pushing in the story, in the art, and especially in the storytelling. With me, it’s not so much about showing events unfolding; I want the viewer to feel the events unfold. I want the people watching my shows to feel as if they are part of the story. When I look back at the finished product, I can’t help but want to continue refining the work; to me it’s always a work in progress.

I would have liked to have more time to flesh out the characters, Rhodey, Pepper, Howard, even Tony and Lei-Mei. Not to mention Wong-Chu and the old monk, Ho-Yin. In my mind, Wong-Chu is a highly intelligent man who found the legend of the Mandarin to be true and then went insane trying to fight it. He joined the Jade dragons to prevent a catastrophe and wound up accelerating it. From inside the organization, he corrupted it. From a very covert and benign order, he made it into a more radical and confrontational entity espousing violence over diplomacy. He became the evil that he wanted to defend against. Ho-Yin is the original leader of the Jade Dragons who was ousted by Wong-Chu for not being more proactive. If you’re a student of history, you’ll find that this is a very common theme—rulers and tyrants never just start out that way, it’s a slow and steady corruption of power that takes place. If we were doing a series, this is the sort of thing that you could flesh out over several episodes, but this was a movie, and time is always a luxury when making a movie.

Iron Man comes in at a pretty solid 82 minutes. My favorite cut is 103 minutes. Now, the cuts I’m referring to are storyboards, not finished animation. So, you have to think to yourself, “I only have 82 minutes, what do I cut?” As much as you may love some sequences, they may not be necessary in the pacing of the story. So you cut and then you cut some more. And just when you think that you can’t possibly cut any more, you figure out a way to edit things just a bit more differently that allows you to save the original intent and actually improves the pacing. I swear it always feels like a miracle to me how these things get done.

If anyone out there really wants to appreciate movies, buy final cut pro and learn how to edit, it’ll open up a whole new world to you…I think I just rambled on a bit off topic.

MAA: Any interest in returning to the character? what would you do with a sequel if you ere given the choice?

Paur: When you put so much time into a project like Iron Man, you can’t help but think of where you’d like to see the character go. I would love to explore the science of the armor more. And return to Tony’s heart problem. That’s something that we didn’t get much of a chance to dwell on because of time limitations. There are serious ramifications from Tony’s Chinese adventure; the reveal of the armor would have raised some serious interest from Stark competitors, and especially from Shield. Tony is in a conundrum; on one hand, he is against heavy weapon development, and on the other, he’s literally fought the armies of Hell, and he knows that such weaponry is needed to combat that level of threat. And once that Genie leaves the bottle, it is extremely difficult to control access to that kind of technology. See where I’m going with this? And hey, we have to get Happy Hogan onboard. Give Pepper something to play with… That didn’t sound right did it?

MAA: Will you be working on any of the Marvel/Lions Gates features after Dr. Strange? Which character would you like to use if it were up to you?

Paur: I’m already working on the development of additional stories for MLG, and I have to say they’re some good ones. I think some long time Marvel fans will be pretty happy with the choices – and no, it isn’t Daredevil, although that is one property that would be fun as hell (no pun intended.) I would love to do anything Asgardian featuring Thor, the classic Lee-Kirby Magog saga, an X-Men retelling of the Phoenix (done right), Captain America in World War 2 fighting the Red Skull, Nick Fury: Agent of Shield with Steranko styling, the true origin of Doctor Doom… I could go on and on. But I’m sure you get the point.

The Marvel Animation Age staff would like to thank Frank for agreeing to do this interview. Cheers Frank!