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Ernie Altbacker Talks Spider-Man: The Animated Series

Joining the show's writing staff in the final season of one of the biggest cartoons of the decades can't be described as a bad way to get your start in the animation business. Just ask Ernie Altbacker, who joined the crew on Spider-Man: The Animated Series during it's fifth and final season. The Marvel Animation Age caught up with Ernie to talk about his work on one of the biggest cartoons of the 90's.

MAA: How did you actually come to work on Spider-Man: The Animated Series?

Altbacker: I attended the AFI (American Film Institute) with Jim Krieg. He did a hilarious Spider-Man student film called Viva Spider-Man (If you bug him you can probably get a copy) and after I saw that we started talking and found out we were both huge cartoon, sci-fi, and comic book nuts. He got a job on Spidey and introduced me to John Semper who ran the show. I guess I didn't screw up too badly in my interview because I got hired.

MAA: What makes Spider-Man different from every other show you've worked on?

Altbacker: Well Spider-Man was my first writing job so it was a huge leap of faith for John Semper to take me on. He basically had to train a new guy and not everyone wants to take the time to do that. Scripts for animated shows have to be stylized in a very different way than live action. In a feature script you could write "the car roars down a street" and be fine (if you set it up properly, that is). But in a cartoon you have to be way more specific. What are we seeing exactly? Are we close enough to see the driver? Do you want to keep his/her identity hidden? Is the camera down low by the tires? Point of view from the front grill? Is the car seen from overhead? Are we tracking with the car, or is it a static frame that the car crosses through? And it goes on and on. You basically get to initially "direct" the episode through the choices you make in your draft. Now, that may get changed and revamped by other writers that take a pass on the script or by the storyboarders and animators, but you have to make the first choices on camera angles, camera moves, and editing (pacing) so the others working on the episode can "see" the scenes and make them as good as they can be. Both Jim Krieg and Mark Hoffmier helped get me up to speed along with John. The learning process was many times unintentionally hilarious. You're never more embarrassed when reading through your script where everyone in the room bursts into laughter at something you've written-- not in a good way. In my first script I think I wrote something like "A rainbow of emotions play out on Spider-Man's face." I think John said "Ernie, you do realize he's wearing a mask?" before Hoffmier and Krieg had a laughing fit that lasted about ten minutes. But basically, Spider-Man is still my favorite job. I loved the comic and cartoon as a kid and then I got the chance to spend time talking about about what the Rhino might say to Doc Ock in the middle of a battle with Spidey. What's not to like?

MAA: You came onto the show's writing staff in its final season. How much more difficult is it to jump on a show in the middle of it's production?

Altbacker: As it was my first job, I didn't know that it was tough to do that. Now after writing on different shows I think it's much easier to be on from the beginning because then you're aware of what can and can't be done with the characters, stories, etc. Instead, coming in late to the show, I had a couple "great" ideas where everyone in the room looks at you and then someone explains "Well Ernie, that would work in theory, but that character got stuck in an alternate universe fifteen episodes ago."

MAA: You were uncredited for some of your work on The Six Forgotten Warriors storyline. What did you think to Electro becoming an all-powerful God in the show, as opposed to the underachieving supervillain in the comics?

Altbacker: I thought it was a great idea and it came from a logical look at what Electro's powers would be in the modern day. That storyline was so much fun. Captain America and the Red Skull, the old-time heroes, the Kingpin, Spidey in Moscow. It's all great and I'm glad I was a small part of it. I hear you can get bootlegs that string the entire thing together like a movie which is how John envisioned it from the beginning.

MAA: In a similar vein, how important do you think it is to stay faithful to the comics when translating them to another medium?

Altbacker: I think you need to stay faithful to the character and world, but not necessarily to the individual storylines. If something interesting comes up you need to be able to explore different avenues. Plus, in some cases you're dealing with comics that are thirty or fifty years old. Things do have to be modernized and updated so it's more relatable and interesting to the audience.

MAA: Secret Wars received some criticism from fans for having Spider-Man act as the team 's leader. What's your take on it?

Altbacker: Well, the show is called "The Amazing Spider-Man."

MAA: Are there any characters/stories you would’ve liked to tackle but never got the opportunity to?

Altbacker: I would have killed to do a Green Goblin episode.

MAA: Which episodes of the series do you like the most? Is there any you really dislike?

Altbacker: I loved all the Venom and Carnage episodes.

MAA: How do you think the show holds up 10 years later and what's your overall opinion of the series?

Altbacker: The story-telling on the series is rock solid and the animation is eye-catching at times. It's going to hold up just fine.

MAA: What are you currently working on?

Altbacker: I have a feature film called Twist that's in development at New Regency Pictures with producer John Davis. It's a comedy about a nerdy computer programmer who switches bodies with a suave secret agent and has to rise to the occasion when he'd rather just run like hell. I finished a manuscript just a week ago called Wage Mage which is a fantasy set in modern day New York, but my New York has Elves, Dwarves, Trolls and magic. I think it's a very interesting world and a huge story. It's probably more of a graphic novel, but then I can't draw. I'm hoping to hook up with someone for that one day. And I'm working for fellow Spidey alumni Mark Hoffmier on his new animated show called The Combo Ninos which is being produced by Sip Animation and Jetix Europe. I'm having a ball on that and I think it'll be a very funny show.

The Marvel Animation Age would like to thank Mr Altbacker for his participation in this interview, and his work on the show. Cheers Ernie!