By John Peters
(Originally published at Killer Movies)
Finally, for the first time on DVD, X-Men: The Animated Series comes roaring to the format in all of its glory in season sets (dubbed volumes). You can almost hear Shuki Levy’s score now, the pulsating theme tune that is so memorable a decade after the last episode aired. To mark this special event, I'm taking a look back at the ground-breaking series, through the words of it’s creators, writers, and voice talent in Remembering the X-Men: The Animated Series. This is part two as told by the Story Editor/Writer Eric Lewald, with the Fox network executive Sidney Iwanter and Supervising Producer of the show, Scott Thomas.
The Write Way
“If it wasn’t for the writing this show would be as forgettable as anything in the 80s,” states Sidney Iwanter, the Fox network executive at the time. “We were lucky; there was a lot of great people working on this show, from storyboard people, to writers, to editors, it all worked. It worked because we all had the same vision of pushing this show further than anything before. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it didn’t work.”
Like Sidney Iwanter said, it was the writing of the show that made this stand out over the many other superhero-themed cartoons. One of the key reasons was Eric Lewald and his team of writers.
Eric Lewald, the head writer/story editor explains the developmental process of an X-Men episode: “I and my writers came up with “premises” – story ideas about a page long. We would submit these to Fox (Sidney Iwanter) and Marvel (Joe Calamari). They would accept, reject, or ask to see-again-with-changes. Once they all signed off, a writer was assigned.”
“Basically it started out in New York, looking over the comics, talking with Joe (Calamari) about what Marvel would want to see and what would work for the series,” chimes Scott Thomas, Supervising Producer, on the development of an episode. “Other times, we would sit down, with Eric (Lewald) and assign scripts and they would show up. We moved on from there; storyboards then overseas animation.”
Eric Lewald continues with the writing structure they followed: “Usually if a writer came up with the premise, he or she wrote the outline and the script. The first season (the only one we were guaranteed at first) of 13 episodes was written in an arc, to play back-to-back, so we figured these 13 out pretty much together. The two writers who did the most to create the initial arc were brothers Mark and Michael Edens, friends of mine from college. After that, we were asked to make the episodes more “stand-alone”, since that made them easier to repeat out of order if necessary. We got around this two ways – multi-part episodes (like the Phoenix Saga), and an experiment during season two where we had a connected ongoing one-minute tidbit at the end with Charles Xavier and Magneto stuck in the Savage Land (and thus not part of the main stories).”
“Once the premises were approved, the writer would “go to outline” – creating a ten-page, full version of the story with little dialogue or minute detail,” Lewald continues. “This was sent around. Fox and Marvel – and directors and producers – all weighed in with thoughts. Revisions were made, then the writer was sent to script – about 40-pages, and very visually detailed (far more than live-action scripts, since it is handed to artists to draw). Then another round of notes was given until everyone in production and supervision signed off on the script. Then the board artist got it and about six weeks later we’d see it “alive” on paper. This would be my final chance to weigh in before the episode was recorded and produced. Four months later we’d have an episode. Usually there would be about a dozen stories going at once – four or five in premise, same at outline, same at script, with one episode to be “finalled” every week or ten days.”
With over 30 years of material at that time of 1992, deciding which stories to use would be key. Eric Lewald explains how this was done and what made some stories accessible to adapt: “Deciding on stories was tough. No one wanted us to try to simply adapt the books. TV is a different medium, and, if you time out the dialogue/action in a comic book, it runs about four minutes. We needed twenty-two minutes. So, for reference we used the books we could find (no web sites in 1992) and the material available in early “Marvel Universe” summary books – even an X-Men game booklet. There were many threads to X-Men history (three or four series going at once), so it was agreed to keep the spirit of the books and characters, but to primarily create original, TV-focused stories. Once the series became a huge hit, and we were asked to do 39 more episodes, fast, we looked to specific major works (Phoenix, Dark Phoenix) to adapt. Even there, many decisions were needed about what to keep in and what to discard. (There were often three or four plots/subplots interweaving in these longer book series, so we had to simplify the focus. It’s easier to pause and go back in a book – TV just barrels on.) We used the marvelous creation of 31 years of stories as reference – how would Cyclops act in a new situation, knowing he had been an orphan, etc. – and some writers sneaked in favorite bits from the books.”
“But the mission was always: tell a good TV story, using book material or not, but respecting the characters and their world”, Eric Lewald affirmed.
Stan “The Man” Lee
Marvel can’t go on without some association to the great comic legend, Stan Lee. From cameos in recent live action films, to his name plastered on the credits of such a series as this, how involved was the man? If one remembers the failed pilot episode, Pryde of the X-Men, Stan provided narration for the introduction. Hyper and excited, this element was not used when Fox reworked the X-Men for this series.
Scott Thomas remembers: “Stan was initially was involved as day to day; he would be involved in the meetings at first.”
“Stan and Chris’ (Claremont) comics work has had an immense affect on all subsequent X-Men projects: the books, the movies, and television,” said Eric Lewald. “But when we were developing and producing this series, neither Stan nor Chris were creatively active at Marvel comics (that I was aware of). I never met or talked with Chris (though I must say his work stood out in our research). And while Stan showed great initial interest in our TV series, his contribution was limited to some producer’s notes on ten or eleven of the first season’s completed storyboards. He didn’t like giving notes before the full scripts were put to storyboard, and once we had shown him that we “got” the X-Men world, we stopped hearing from him. I have since had the pleasure of working with Stan on a couple of other development projects and will always remember him with affection and respect.”
After working on five seasons worth of material, like fans Eric Lewald has his favorite episodes. “We always wished there was more money to make the shows slicker. We were working on a budget of about half of what they had for Batman: The Animated Series. But there were a few stories that stood out for me: One was Nightcrawler, written by Len Uhley.”
“Nightcrawler himself is a fascinating character – a devoutly religious man who looks like a demon, ” explains Eric Lewald on this episode. “Then there was the opportunity to explore religious faith in a Saturday morning cartoon (yes, we had to ask and be persuasive and persistent to be allowed to tackle it). Finally, there is the use of Wolverine (thank you, Len Wein, for coming up with him) as a deeply troubled, older man who has lost his faith, but who is touched somehow by meeting Nightcrawler and is made to reconsider.”
“There were many others, like One Man’s Worth that was a pleasure. I have always loved the idea of the affect that one person – or his absence — could have to the lives of those around him,” explains Eric Lewald. “Another favorite was Beauty and the Beast, written by Stephanie Mathison. But I must mention Deal with the Devil,” adds Eric. “It was the one episode that I wrote start-to-finish (crazily, over a weekend). My preference was always to come up with or polish story ideas and hand them off to others to do the bulk of the writing. This way I could focus on keeping the overall series going in the right direction. In this case, we had paid a writer for his script, but Marvel ultimately had me throw it out (the only time this happened – and not his fault). So, since there was no money for another writer, I got to do one “for free.” I wish I’d had more time to do more.”
Finally, Scott Thomas offers his favorite episode: “I really liked Mojovision; from recording to finished product it was a good one.”
Cue the Music
No show is complete without music, whether its theme or background use, it makes all the difference in the world for animated features. X-Men was no different. “We would approach the show like a live action series, you know, with adding footsteps for the characters. If a character walks by glass or down a hall, you’d hear them. I’m not sure if anybody did that at that time,” says Scott Thomas, Supervising Producer of the show. “Sidney and I would work with the composers on each episode, and say we want that in this scene, or that here in this scene, and they would come up with different types of music for each episode. Sometimes we would use stock, and other times the theme.”
Sindey Iwanter concludes the production and legacy of the show perfectly by saying “X-Men has 40 years of material were you can explore the crevasses of this stuff. It was a wonderful project. It’s a series that will maintain itself for years and years.”
To be continued….
Come back soon for part three of this multi-part look at Remembering the X-Men: Animated Series as Rogue herself, Lenore Zann, joins us, along with Sidney Iwanter again, as they give us a detailed look at the casting of the X-Men. Future parts will include the more voice talent and their fond memories, so don’t miss out on those!