Frank Paur has served as a Director on some of the most popular and critically accalimed cartoons ever, including Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles and Spawn. Frank is currently hard at work bringing another Marvel Superhero back to animation with an all new Iron Man Direct To DVD feature arriving in the fall. The Marvel Animation Age recently caught up with Frank to discuss his work on the hit Kids WB! show X-Men: Evolution.
MAA: How did you come to work on X-men Evolution?
Paur: That’s actually an interesting story. I was being interviewed for producing X-Men: Evolution and the evening before my interview I received a call from Boyd Kirkland asking me if I wanted to direct for him on the production. It was a bit confusing. Boyd had already interviewed with Rick Unger that morning and Rick had been so impressed with him he brought him on board that day. I couldn’t argue with Rick, Boyd is an impressive producer. Still it was awkward, starting the meeting for the producing spot and ending the interview with a director’s position. All in all, though, it wasn’t a bad deal. I was able to work with talent I liked, and develop a new take on a series I loved.
MAA: What are your favorite episodes, both as a director, and a viewer?
Paur: I know that everyone asked this question usually has the same response; oh I liked all of them, I put so much time into these things, they’re like they’re a part of me.” Well, that’s partly true, and although I didn’t really dislike any of my episodes, some I have more fondness for, for different reasons.
The first episode of the series stands out simply for the fact that it was the first. We had a lot of pressure and expectations riding on this, and in a way our hands were tied by the constraints of the Saturday morning format. Plus we had the change of continuity from the comic, by adding the Bayville high plot to their story, and we knew that some fans out there would be very unforgiving. So we had to concentrate on the aspect of X-men that has always been the root of its success: Characterization. Yes, everything was set at a regular high school, and yes, our guys were all teenagers. So we went back to its root, the original feel that Stan and Jack had given their creations. We gave them all personality; they all had depth to their character. In the original X-men animated series, the show moved so fast and loose with everyone and everything that you were lucky to get any surface personality to anyone. Can you imagine how fun that series would have been if the producers had had the luxury to play out the personal moments instead of barreling through to the action all the time?
So, we concentrated on the personalities of the players. And we set up all the threads that would one day, hopefully, take us to the stories that you saw in seasons 2, 3 and 4. Speaking of which…
Hey, it’s a wolverine origin story, what’s not to like? This was a fun one. Wolvie goes whacko and tries to slice our favorite valley girl. It was one of the darker episodes of the first season and gave everyone a taste of where we wanted to eventually go with the stories. What you didn’t see on television was at the moment on the Cliffside where Kitty is trying to talk Logan out of his bloodlust, and he has his claws drawn up on her, he actually draws blood. This is what originally snaps him out of his funk. But this was Saturday morning and the ever-present censor gremlins drew a line we could not cross. One of the things that we always tried to do was the undoable, show intensity, and keep the viewers unsure of just how far we would go. This was an instance that we couldn’t cross that line. I mean hey, cartoon characters aren’t supposed to bleed or get into perilous situations. Right?
This was supposed to be the episode that helped to cement Kitty and Lance's ongoing, off going relationship. It’s why Kitty loved Lance. Lance is a dick; he’s from the wrong side of the tracks. You know. The classic rich girl poor boy romance thing. But at the height of his dickness, he endangers Kitty, and risks his own life to save hers. Unfortunately, the censor gremlins were busily at work ripping the guts out of the heart of the story. September 11 had freaked them out, and anything falling down on anyone in a cartoon made them wet their pants. Even though the act of heroism that follows is very uplifting and inspirational, the gremlins could not handle the idea that some kid somewhere might be upset at seeing a cartoon character in danger or risking their life to save someone else.
The consequences of this selective censorship, was that nobody understood the dynamics of the Kitty/Lance relationship. It seemed forced; a lot of people liked it, but they could not understand it, because they did not see the pivotal emotional moment in their lives. Lance saves Kitty’s life at the risk of his own. That is hard-core stuff for a teenager to go through. So, yes, there is a bonding that happened there.
Fun and Games:
One of my favorites, simply because it has everything. Aside from the great animation, it shows us the lighter side of our characters, the beginning of the Scott/ Jean relationship, the pranks the kids pull to get them out of the house and strand them, Arcade having the time of his life playing games with Cerebro, the new recruit time, and oh yes, Risty has a secret revealed. Oh yeah, we like throwing surprises in these shows.
On Angels Wings:
The best-written episode of the series. Boyd did a tremendous job on this, and it shows. This was a very moody and downplayed episode. We wanted to play up the melancholy that so many of us experience during the holidays. And Angel was perfect for the story, and a Christmas story should always have an angel, and in this case we had a devil in Magneto.
The temptation of Warren in the cathedral by Magnus was classic in it’s undertones. That sequence oozed depth and feeling. That type of story and structure normally does not exist in a Saturday morning cartoon. Again nothing in this series was meant to be ordinary or hacked out.
There are hints of a larger Marvel universe. The Daily Bugle, Stark Towers, just the sort of thing that fans drool over.
I’m not sure how many of the fans of these shows understand just what a director does. Sure, we break down the script and board out all the actions, which sound pretty simple on the surface, but in order to do that, we have to know the motivations of the players, and not just the scripted actions. The way we show the shot, what angle, how long do we play the scene? When do we go for the close up? How does the character act in a certain situation? We play a lot of back-story in our heads; stuff that is not in the script, aspects of personality and experience that cannot be scripted but still affect what is going on in the shot. Here are a couple of examples:
We played the relationship card with Scott and Rogue, she makes a play for him, and why not? If anyone has an idea of what she’s going through, it would be Scott. He lives in fear of losing control of his powers and killing someone; so does she. He had a lousy childhood; so does she. He always feels isolated because of his powers and of his responsibility; so does she. And he’s the one who reached out to her and brought her into an environment of warmth, family and friends. Why wouldn’t she make a play for him? She reads Jean's actions toward Scott as mean. Jean is a player, the cheerleader who has everything, and can’t make up her mind at what she wants. Scott is an item to her, just like Duncan, and who knows whom else. Rogue thinks Jean is a dumb ass and cannot recognize a good thing when she sees it, so yeah, she’s going to make a play on the guy. (Oh, as a minor side note; on the final episode, during the peek into the future, check out who is not included in the group shot and check out whom Rogue lands next to.)
Warren Worthington III; in order for this episode to work, empathy for Warren was critical. Here is a guy who is not a teenager; he is in his early twenties, probably graduated from Harvard early with honors. And is now helping his father run a multi-billion dollar industry. The guy is a Billionaire. He’s serious and he’s having fun, he knows all the right people and he is very well traveled. He is enjoying his life. Then, He grows wings. Not the sort of thing you do in polite company, so yeah, you withdraw from the things that you enjoy. And because you are who you are it doesn’t go unnoticed. So you cannot just fade away, you don’t know what the hell to do. But someone has ideas. Someone’s been keeping track of things.
Magneto wanted him more for his financial power than for his mutation, (and just who do you think financed the rebuilding of the mansion after its destruction?). So I have this entire back-story for Warren in order to know how to handle his current story. Because this episode is as much internal as it is action, but the thing is the action plays better when you get a feeling of your main characters.
And oh, lest I forget, loved that ending with everyone’s holiday plans. A joyous time for all then we end on Logan playing pool at some unknown dive.
What you did not see were the other patrons of the bar. Boyd and the directors, I originally wanted to throw some eggs for the fans, but having other people in the bar sucked some of the emotion out of the scene. Logan needed to be alone for the scene to work, so I cut our guest spots. I think Steve still may have those models somewhere.
One other thing. Although this is a favorite of the fans, the animation that came in made us choke when we saw it; it was pretty bad. We did huge amounts of work in pre-production and were very disappointed when we got the footage back from overseas. A nod has to go to Boyd with his edits, re-edits; re-takes, color enhancement tricks kicks and screams to get this thing viewable. I think he did a great job polishing this thing up.
Walk on the Wild side:
Great animation, and a lighter touch to our girls made this a blast to work on. Did I tell you that I love to draw women? Well, I do, and with this I got to re-design all of their outfits for a sleeker more dangerous look. (Of course, Steve redesigned my work for a more polished feel. He also treated us to some great girl with girl animation you never see in animation, unless of course you’re an anime’ fan)
Boom Boom! I love this girl and how she seduces all the other X-gals to try something more risky and risqué, I mean really, she’s supposed to be the bit player, but she winds up doing what she always does, she plays the girls; Tight assed Jean, Moping Rogue, Know it all Kitty and Innocent Amara, not in a bad way, but in a life should be fun! Why mope around and be serious all the time, lighten up and party kind of way. And anyone who thinks that She wasn’t aware that Scott and Kurt weren’t on to her doesn’t know Boom Boom. I have always imagined that Tabitha, despite her outward attitude, is one of the more intelligent characters in the show. Her priorities are just different, this girl will moon you, steal your jeep, charge up your credit cards, and somehow she gets away with it. Ask Lance.
Day of Reckoning I and II:
Sentinels, or more correctly; A SENTINEL, Sabertooth, Pyro, Gambit and Colossus. It was a load of fun anticipating audience reaction to seeing Gambit and then top it off with Colossus armoring up. Throw in the world finding out about mutants, the brotherhood gets dirty and a patricidal Wanda. And then top that by showing that Xavier was Mystique all this time. Nope! Cliffhangers don’t get better than this. Oh and did I mention Rogue and Gambits first meeting, I know that caused a few giggles from the comic fans.
Again a wonderful episode dealing with emotions. Everyone knows who our guys are, and we get to see who stands out as real friends and supporters. Kurt’s betrayal to the others by wanting to hide his true form is a standout in this episode, highlighting our desires to never follow the norm in telling stories about these characters. We want people to believe that a piece of 2-d can feel and emote. This story is full of that, Kurt’s reluctance to support his friends to Lances seeming breakup with Kitty. (The taunting of Lance by the brotherhood is not only one of the funniest moments in the series. It precipitates his anger at not being able to hide his emotions for Kitty and ultimately leads to the breakup. Peer pressure is a nasty thing.
MAA: Is there any episode you find yourself disappointed with? Who was your favorite character to work with? Alternatively, is there any character that presented a challenge each time you used them on screen?
Paur: I’m kind of disappointed with much of what I work on. When you create these shows you naturally have a much higher expectation of what they will wind up as. Unfortunately budget, time, talent, always work against your imagination, so there is always some disappointment with the final show. Things being as they are however; some shows are more disappointing than others. One that particularly erked me was an episode featuring Omega red, a poor execution of a great villain. He was supposed to come off as a mean brutal and frightening monster. As a director you always try to convey what you want to the various artists handling the storyboard. In house art staff are a lot more likely to get the vision. But to maintain our budget and schedules we rely on a lot of freelance artists. And for the most part we are pretty fortunate to have the talent that we had working for us. But sometimes it just doesn’t work out. This was one of those cases. One of the guys I was using just didn’t get it, I mean everything from the script was there, but that was about it, no real vision, no understanding of the character, just basic stuff, and absolutely no attention to the models, Omega red looked about wolverines size, which was about four feet shorter that I wanted him to be. Combine that with absolutely no sense of drama in the composition and set up. And it makes a pretty hefty headache to try and make it work. And ultimately I just ran out of time and couldn’t fix it all that one really upset me, and they were good people working on it. So it was particularly upsetting.
I always liked working with Boom Boom, Tabitha was the rebellious one and marched to her own tune. She was a great contrast to all of the goody goody girls at the X –ranch. Lance kind of fits under that category. I always thought of him as Scott, but without Xavier and all the advantages that brings with it. That’s why Scott hates him so much in the series, he recognizes himself; where but for the grace of God go I kind of thing. That, and the Kitty thing. One of the things that I think we did pretty well on Evolution was turning things on there side. That relationship allowed a lot of possibilities that in the comic world just wouldn’t happen. In ours it did and added a lot of depth to very underused characters. Same thing with Rogue and Scott. It added a cool twist to the whole Jean affair, they couldn’t do it in the comics, but it worked great in our universe.
Wanda, I would have liked to have worked with her more, When we deciding who to add to the cast Wanda was an eventuality, it wasn’t if but when, it was just a question of how. I suggested that we make her somewhat, homicidal; more of monster, someone that would just scare the **** out of everyone. Because in the comics I remember her as someone who was always being controlled by others just kind of a featherweight in the marvel world a weak version of Jean Grey. We changed that. And yes, that scary gal from “The Coven” was definably inspirational.
You know what? All these characters were a challenge and fun to work with. We were given a clean slate to create an entire universe with the X-Men, if that’s not challenging, I don’t know what is.
MAA: Are there any characters you would’ve liked to appear on X-men: Evolution, but never got the chance to?
Paur: Emma! She would have been the cream of the cake. Even taking into account that the shows would wind up on Saturday morning, we coulda done it. And if there would have been a fifth season, she would have made it in somewhere, the possibilities would have been stunning.
MAA: If X-men: Evolution was to be the start of an all-new 'universe' of Marvel Animation, what project would you like to have done next?
Paur: I’m already doing it, it’s called “Iron Man” and it is very ambitious.
MAA: Is there anything that BS and P wouldn’t let you show on air? How lenient were they with the fight scenes?
Paur: It varied. I’ve already mentioned the Lance/Kitty hatchet job. But in fairness they let us do seasons two, three and four, and there was some pretty intense stuff in those episodes. Mostly we were left alone if we followed a few simple rules. No blows to the head, no killing, no extreme cleavage, and make certain that all the girls dress fashionably.
MAA: You directed the final episode, Ascension, Part Two. Did you accomplish everything you wanted to in this particular episode?
Paur: Not a chance. There was so much happening it was all I could do to keep track of all the action going on. I wanted to give everyone his or her own special moment, especially during the climax of the film. And I did, but the show was about 10 minutes longer than it had to be. And so we took out the scissors and started cutting, and I cut till I couldn’t cut any more, and so Boyd cut the stuff that I couldn’t. And the end result worked pretty well, nearly all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place, the one big casualty was Angel’s screen time, he never had a chance. But overall I’m very proud of how well it turned out. When you consider everything that went into the production and all of the characters that had to be kept track of and all the story points that had to be told. And still have time for that ending. Well, I think people understand.
MAA: What’s your overall opinion of the show?
Paur: One of the great-animated series ever. Every season our budgets shrank, yet we always managed to improve the shows, our animation was consistent in its quality, in its design, and in it’s writing. (Thanks in large part to Greg Johnson and Craig Kyle coming on board the second season.) The quality of the creative staff and the care that we each gave this show all added to the high performance of X-Men Evolution. It was a unique experience that does not happen often and I am proud to have been a part of it. The Marvel Animation Age would like to thank Frank for his participation in this interview, and his great work on the show. Cheers Frank!