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Boyd Kirkland Talks X-Men: Evolution

Boyd Kirkland, perhaps best known to some animation fans for his directing work on Batman: The Animated Series and producing the direct to video feature Batman and Mr. Freeze: Subzero. To others, he is known for his outstanding work as Producer/Writer/Director on X-Men: Evolution. The Marvel Animation Age managed to catch up with Boyd to talk about his work on the critically acclaimed show.

MAA: How did you come to work on X-Men: Evolution and what did your duties include?

Kirkland: I heard that Marvel was doing the show and contacted them about being the producer. Both Marvel and Kids WB interviewed me. The network had a great deal to say about what they wanted for the show, including approval of whoever would get to produce. I was basically the show runner, having input into all phases of the series’ development and production. Marvel had no production facility of their own at the time, so put the show at Film Roman, where I negotiated my deal. Working with them, I selected the staff, subcontractors, etc., and developed the production schedule and budget. Once work started, I managed everything from story development through final postproduction. Of course, I had a very talented and dedicated crew who made my life a lot easier along the way. They really carried the workload, while I ensured quality control.

MAA: What thought went into deciding which members of The X-Men from the comics would make it into the show’s core team? What made you pick those who did make it?

Kirkland: We considered many factors, including personalities, powers, how they would work together, whether there was a good variety to provide visual excitement, drama, and opportunities for storytelling. Some were chosen because of their importance to the X-Men mythos. And some, obviously, because of their popularity with fans.

MAA: In the beginning of season two, a whole host of “new recruits” joined the show. With a large cast already in place, what made you decide to introduce these new characters?

Kirkland: Well, we initially started with a smaller cast since we were showing the progression of how these characters first gained their powers and came to Xavier’s institute. By the second season, we wanted to imply that some time had passed and more recruits had arrived. Also, the network liked the scenes from the first X-Men movie showing many miscellaneous mutants at the school, and asked us to work that into the series. From a production standpoint, we knew that it would be difficult if we had too many of these characters involved in the stories all the time, so mostly kept them in the background.

MAA: What was it like working with the Canadian voice cast, whilst the shows production took place in the States?

Kirkland: The first season, I flew to the recording sessions in Vancouver every week, and that took a toll. But the folks up there were great to work with, and we always had a good time. Eventually, we hooked up a direct digital line between Film Roman and their studio so I could “sit in” on the sessions without having to be there. Modern technology is great!

MAA: An odd question, but given the big build Apocalypse received throughout the series, were there ever any plans to introduce Mr. Sinister in the show?

Kirkland: I think his name came up a time or two, but we were concerned about getting too many big baddies going on at the same time. We were mostly doing smaller, character driven stories, while planting seeds for the bigger “epoch” action stories which finished up each season. With the Apocalypse arc finished at the end of season four, we might have been able to bring him into the fifth season, but we never really had any serious discussions about it.

MAA: If you were given the choice to start a new ‘universe’ in the style of X-Men: Evolution, which character(s) would you choose?

Kirkland: I assume you mean from the Marvel universe? Well, as a kid, I was initially drawn to Marvel comics because of Jack Kirby’s art, so am partial to the Fantastic Four, including the Inhumans, as well as Thor and the Tales of Aasgard. I have always been convinced that the story of Ragnarok would make a great big budget animated feature!

MAA: Was anything beyond Phoenix planned for season 5?

Kirkland: We never knew from one season to the next whether or not we would get renewed, so it was difficult to plan very far ahead. And once the network made a decision, we usually only had a few weeks to develop ideas before going into production. So no, we didn’t do any serious development for season 5, beyond sketching an outline for the network of the Jean storyline and indicating the general direction we’d like to take the series if they gave us a pick-up.

MAA: What was the censorship like on the series? Did it restrict you from telling a certain story you wanted to tell?

Kirkland: The first season was very restrictive. The network felt that action shows like Batman, etc, had gotten too dark and mature for the kid audience they were trying to reach, so they really kept a tight lid on us. Once the first season aired, and proved to be a big success, they loosened the reigns a little more with each succeeding season. The good side of this, however, is that I had always wanted the show to be more character driven than big action-story driven, so the restrictions actually helped play into that. The high-stakes epochs we did later really became more meaningful and poignant because of how much time we had given the audience to get to know and empathize with the characters.

MAA: If you were given free reign to tell one last story with these characters, what would you tell?

Kirkland: Wow, just one, huh? That’s tough, because we left so many story threads that I would love to revisit and resolve. One story that I always wanted to tell but couldn’t interest the network in, was how Professor X lost the use of his legs, and how he came to know Magneto – kind of give the back-story of these two guys, if you will. The comics version of Xavier’s story wasn’t that great, and I thought we could come up with something better.

MAA: What’s your opinion on the show romantic storylines? Is there a specific reason why most were either left unresolved or their conclusions were only hinted at? For example, are we to believe that Kitty/Lance and Scott/Jean eventually got together?

Kirkland: This is one of those areas where the network really boxed us in. We thought this kind of character development was crucial and consistent with the fact that these X-Men were teenagers in high school, but the network felt that 6-10 year old boys (their intended audience) would find such fair just “icky.” Often, we had to slip stuff like that in visually without writing it into the script, or it wouldn’t have made it into the show (like in the last episode where Lance puts his arm around Kitty as they walk away). We kept pushing it, and they kept saying no, even though they knew that it was popular with their “tween” audience

MAA: The second season finale really changed the course of the show, with the world now aware that mutants existed. Was this planned from the beginning? Did you feel the revamped format (mutants now public knowledge) that came after these episodes was needed?

Kirkland: Marvel always felt that the whole subtext of human hatred and mistrust of mutants was crucial to the X-Men’s success in the comics, and wanted it to be part of the show. But as I indicated above, the network was concerned that this theme was too dark and mature to include in the first season. As the second season progressed, they finally conceded that we could lead that direction, so we came up with the second season cliffhanger that would make it the theme of the third season

MAA: As the show grew, so did the scope of the storylines. What are your thoughts on the season long arcs? Do you prefer them to the standalones stories? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each style of storytelling?

Kirkland: Until recently, networks have always preferred series (in both live action and animation) to have stand-alone stories. There are many reasons for this, including the flexibility it gives them in scheduling and repackaging the show for later syndication. They also have concerns about potential viewers being reluctant to get into a show with an on-going storyline. The success of TV shows on DVD has been the biggest factor in changing this thinking. On our series, we were allowed only one “to-be-continued” story in the finale of each season. All other stories had to be resolved by the end of the episode. We would sometimes plant seeds in these episodes that would pay-off in the finales, but we had to be careful about how much of that we did. Character relationships would also naturally evolve and progress throughout the series. One of the great advantages of series television over the shorter format movies is the ability to tell these grand stories that evolve over time. Networks have dragged their feet about this, but I’m sure you’ve noticed that almost all of the current big hits in prime-time TV are serialized shows.

MAA: If the show had lasted longer, would we have ever seen some of the more fantastical elements of The X-Men (Time travel, space stories, Savage Land visits etc), or were these purposely ignored throughout the series?

Kirkland: The latter. We wanted to keep the series as grounded and realistic as possible. Plus, it played into our format of starting at the beginning of these young X-Men’s careers. The kind of stuff you’re talking about came later when they had a few years under their belts.

MAA: Were any restrictions placed on the show because of the movies? Alternatively, were you told to use certain characters more because they were in the movie/make them more like their movie counterparts?

Kirkland: When we were initially developing the series, the first movie was still being shot, so we couldn’t really refer to it. Only Avi Arad knew what it was going to be, and he didn’t share much of that with us (everything was top-secret). He did guide us a little in such things as the style of Wolverine’s hair, the look of Sabertooth and the design of Xavier’s chair. Beyond that, we were pretty much on our own. By the second season, the movie had been released, and influenced a few things such as the addition of new recruits as I mentioned before.

MAA: Overall, which was your favourite season?

Kirkland: There are episodes in all of the seasons that I really like. Our season two finale had some great twists in it, and epoch events, and I loved the stuff we did with Rogue particularly in seasons three and four, as well as the Apocalypse build-up and resolve. I don’t know – it would be tough for me to pick just one favorite season. In terms of quality, I’d have to say the season 3 had some of the most stand-out shows.

MAA: What’s your thoughts on the series overall? Which episodes do you pick as your most/least favourite?

Kirkland: I’m very proud of the series. Consistently good TV is difficult to produce even under the best of circumstances, and we definitely faced some challenging circumstances when making this. I often stuck my neck out and took risks, but I think it paid off. One of the greatest pleasures for me, as I indicated before, was getting to work with a really great crew. We were working under some really crazy deadlines, and with increasingly shrinking budgets, but still managed to maintain the quality of the show.

As far as favorite episodes, I like several for a variety of reasons: some for artistic excellence, others for comedy or out-of-the-norm storytelling, etc. But those that worked on a powerful, emotional level really stand out, such as Shadowed Past, Power Surge, On Angel’s Wings, Mainstream, Blind Alley, Self-Possessed, Impact, Day of Reckoning 1 & 2, Dark Horizon 1 & 2. I hesitate to name least favorites, as I’d like to think that even the worst of them often have redeeming, entertaining qualities (would you expect a parent to tell you which of his children he likes the least?!).;-)

The Marvel Animation Age would like to thank Boyd for his participation in this interview, and his work on the show. Thanks Boyd!