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Chapters of the motion comic have been available on iTunes and, with a new chapter being released every three weeks, for some time now.

On March 3rd, Warner Premiere will release all 12 chapters in “Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic” — available on DVD or Blu-ray disc.

We got the chance to talk Watchmen motion comics producer and animator Jake Strider Hughes about the genesis of the idea, and the challenges he faced in animating the static pages of this iconic comic masterpiece…

Whose idea was it to take Watchmen and make it into a motion comic?

JSH: That just happened with me, kind of by accident. My background is in video game development and I was specializing in storytelling and cut-scenes. I was working with some buddies of mine, they were working on a little PSP game called “After Burner.”

They didn't have a lot of money, so they couldn't do all of the hardcore, 3D-rendered backgrounds. It was a flight sim, so everything they'd have to do for the story, we'd have to generate from scratch. So I said “Hey, why don't we do a comic book style? Do it all in aftereffects, generate the art, we'll put little balloons up so we don't have to get anybody to speak the parts,” and they loved it.

It was really fun to do and I did it for a couple of months. And when the project was over, I thought “Well, maybe I can do this with pre-existing art.” So I grabbed my favorite comic off the shelf…

And also, the Absolute Edition had come out, so I had these nice, big-ass pictures that I could scan in at a nice high-res and then work from there. So I scanned in the first page and the first page is about as famous as you can get of an image from Watchmen. It's the pull-out from the button to the top of the building.

The challenge was — how do you take seven panels of art and combine it into one continuous shot? Obviously, that's what the page is telling it wants to be. So I just did that and I showed it to my two best buddies. They loved it. They flipped out for it, so I thought “Okay, maybe I should do more of it.

And it's really fun to do. I spent maybe two months doing the first half of Chapter I and I put together a DVD. At this point, I knew that this was something people were responding well to. All my friends are Watchmen fans anyway and they knew the comic, so I was sort of giving them the litmus test of “Hey, how do you feel about this?” They were like “Oh, this is great! You should do the whole comic!” I'm like, “What? Can't really do that, not by myself.”

I had obviously known about the movie that was being worked on and I had been following the movie development ever since Terry Gilliam was going to be working on it. I had always known about it, always keeping track of it. Then my buddy — who was working at one of my old game companies — he knew Lloyd Levin, from Tomb Raider, because he had basically given Lloyd the rights to Tomb Raider, which Lloyd went off to make in movies. So, he said “Hey, we've got something we should show you.”

So I got my DVD, my friend and I went down and I thought it was going to be a real small meeting. It was a room with, like nine guys, including [Watchmen producer] Lawrence Gordon, who I had known about from Die Hard. It was really scary. I popped in the DVD, I didn't have to speak much and I sort of showed it to them. And they jumped at it.

When did you learn the Watchmen motion comic was coming out on DVD?

Jake Strider Hughes: I had gone down to L.A. to [Watchmen producers] Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levins' office. I saw Lloyd Levin and he said “Hey, I saw the DVD art!” Of course, I was thinking he's got some inside track. He probably was there at the meeting. And I'm like “Oh, that's awesome!” So he sent an e-mail with a link with the release date and it was just a regular old link. So that's where I learned about the DVD and the release and what it looked like. That was cool.

I'm sure you've seen it by now, but I have Gibbons' "Watching the Watchmen," and it's amazing. He does seem to plan a lot of his comic panels and very cinematically, which I guess lends itself to the style you animated them in.

JSH: One of the powers of the book itself is — which I was never aware of — its pacing. Even in how your eye moves from panel to panel, there's a rhythm that's involved in that. It's really extraordinary how much of that was planned and how much of that came out of naturally doing it. I think, having been so familiar with it now, I feel like everything was planned. I just think that there's way too much detail and things in there.

I think a lot of the pacing you're talking about is inherent in the nine-panel structure, too.

JSH: What's also strange is the panels are vertical. Movies and TV are horizontally biased, that's the way we view them. And all of those panels are vertical, and that was strange for us, because we essentially had to move the camera in, through a vertical panel or miss art on the left and right-hand sides.

Didn't Dave Gibbons fill in some of the blanks for you? Obviously, there's artwork behind the characters that he sort of filled in. Didn't he do that?

JSH: No, but… well, he was watching everything that we did. He drew out the Minutemen photo. If you look at the comic, you never get a full shot of the Minutemen photo. It's always at an angle, or seen on the left-hand side or the right-hand side. So we tried to take every single panel and glue them all together to make a full one, but it didn't work. So he happily drew one for us.

The other thing that he did is that his cars are so specific to his style and they're slightly futuristic and he only draws them like you either see the ass end or the front end. He also did a left and a right-hand side, you never actually get a full image of a car. So we didn't feel comfortable, not having the whole car, knowing what the rest of the car was going to look like. So he went in and drew in a whole bunch of cars and filled them in for us. That was great, because that way, we could use those cars in a lot of the city shots. It's nice having cars just moving backwards and forwards, taxi cabs and whatnot.

We did have to do all the art fill-in ourselves, and he was always making sure that it looked right. And we got it wrong plenty of times. After a while, we started getting better at it. One of the things about his art is that you can see where his lines are supposed to go. He's really good at perspective and so you know where the lines are supposed to continue on.

Also, the fact that that street corner is covered so well and Dan's apartment is covered so well, so there's all this really great reference material. You know, “Where's the light switch on the wall?” and we would just go to either another chapter or another page and sure enough, that's where the light switch is. And it would always be there.

So you get the gig, and now what? I know it was rough going in the beginning, it took a while for those initial chapters to come out. Then finally, a regular release schedule — like every three weeks — started to settle in.

JSH: I've learned a lot. What I've learned is that it takes a really long time to get all the paperwork signed and ready to go. We spent the year before doing some tests, having Dave Gibbons come out and meeting us and giving his thoughts on things and getting it all together.

It took a while. We had actually started right at the end of January 2007 and we had started doing animatics for the whole piece. We had each person working on one episode at a time, so we were working on all the episodes I-VII concurrently. But Chapter I was so far along because I'd worked on it.

You know, we also do a scoring session for the music and get the sound team on board, and once that was done, it was essentially our pilot. They released it on iTunes and we didn't know if that was going to happen or not, but one day, it was like “There it is.” It was online, and we were really excited. And I think the responses were positive enough that they basically wanted to use iTunes as a springboard.

I know there was only one voice actor — and I think I'd heard that was primarily based on the decision to sort of make it like an audiobook where there's one narrator as well as for budget reasons, correct?

JSH: No, it was a creative choice. Early on, even in the very first meeting where we were just looking at the DVD, there was the idea of, “Let's do it like an audiobook and have one narrator.”

We didn't know exactly if people would respond to the idea of a motion comic, but you've seen some of them now. Some of them have text balloons, some don't. Some have multiple voice actors, some have one, some have none.

We liked the idea of a singular performance from someone and Zack Snyder was a huge fan of this guy who he had heard do Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Zack basically found this guy, brought him in, ran a test and he was just awesome. It was basically “Wow, this is our guy.”

Tom Stechschulte, is that his name?

JSH: Yes, he's been doing audiobooks for years. He's been an actor for a long time, but he'll still tell you that he really knows this was his calling, his passion. He loves it. He's got all of these voices and when you hear him, actually seeing the lines in the recording session, he's doing seven different characters at once without missing a beat. It's a real skill that he's got and he's so good at it. When we heard him, we all jumped for joy.

Tom should do the one-man Watchmen show on Broadway. It would be eleven hours long, but it'd be fantastic.

JSH: [laughs] He could do it. He could be… You know the Comedian's soliloquy in Chapter II? Even before we knew Tom was going to be working on it, we were like “How are we going to do some of these things, especially like the Comedian crying in front of Moloch's bed?” That could come off cheesy or weird, we're never sure. And he came in, he'd done Chapter I, doing Chapter II and we're all anticipating “Okay, here it comes, what's he going to do?” And he did it all in one take. All of our hairs were standing on end and it was really cool.

Now, the music: Is that all original, orchestral music?

JSH: Yeah, Lennie Moore. He had done one of my favorite video game scores back in '97, '98. Game called “Outcast.” It was the last great voxel-based game, they don't make those anymore. He wrote this amazing score and I used to listen to it a lot. When I was trying to get this off the ground, I went to his Web site, called him and he has worked a lot with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, which is what he did with “Outcast.” He teaches scoring at U of C and UCLA, with the eye towards scoring for video games. So he, like me, also has a video game background. And once he was on board, he started composing themes and would do mp3 demos and we'd talk about them.

His challenge was that he had to make two hours of music for six hours of content. So he would have to approach some tracks as library music, where it's creating mood and sort of a landscape and texture, without scoring the moment. And then he'd make… maybe 40 percent of the music he'd actually score very specific to scenes. That's what he did. Then he did the full orchestration for a 50-person crew and we did satellite sessions down in Santa Monica while the orchestra was in Prague. It was about 11 o'clock at night for them, and we'd actually have our picture up on screen and they'd start playing. It was awesome.

There was really a weird coincidence as well, during the Rorschach breakout scene at the end of Chapter V. It's very, very scored, every moment is scored to picture. And when we'd go to later chapters, we'd be presented with a challenge, like "What music do we use?" So we'd have to go to our library music. Chapter VIII had no original music, so it all had to be library. We would insert music that was scored from a scene from three chapters ago and we would put that in there and everything would line up to the new scene, which was incredible. We hadn't anticipated that and it would work great. We thought “Well, that's a very 'Watchmen' thing to have happen.” Where some reference from some earlier chapter works later. This is all on visual and dialogue, but it was working for us on a musical level as well. It was great.

It's like playing “Dark Side of the Moon” next to The Wizard of Oz.

JSH: [laughs] Exactly!

Some of the dialogue and some of the scenes from each chapter of Watchmen had to be cut for the motion comics, right?

JSH: [long pause] Yeah.

How do you decide what content stays and what goes?

JSH: That's one of the worst things. It was one of the worst things. Honestly — say, for one page, we only would have seven to nine images that we could use. And some scenes would be pretty text-heavy. So we were trying to find the balance of making sure that the story and the information was being told. Look, no one ever would want to try and hit at Alan Moore's text, so it was hard for us. But we had Dave Gibbons making sure we kept everything in order. So he read everything that we had to snip.

You did decide to keep the “Black Freighter” subplot.

JSH: Well, yeah. Of course.

I would assume if cuts needed to be made the “Black Freighter” might have been one of the things on the chopping block.

JSH: You know, whenever I heard about the movies, that had been always one of the things that's always the first thing to go. And I think it's awesome that Zack Snyder's going to make a version of the movie with the “Black Freighter” in it. That's great. But we had to fit certain pillars on the experience of Watchmen, and “Black Freighter” is one of them.

I really came to appreciate it a lot more, because when I was sixteen and I was reading it, I didn't really understand it. But now that I've been with it for so long and we were doing something really neat with the printing dots, because when they made the Absolute Edition… the way Higgins colored it was he colored it with printing dots to kind of imply that you're looking at comic book paper

So we're doing something where we're animating all of the line art — the black line art — but the printing dots and the colors of the printing dots were made completely stationary onscreen. It's kind of hard to notice when you're looking at it on iTunes, but what'll really be cool for the Blu-ray disc is that you'll actually see all of that detail in there. I think it looks really weird and cool and different.

Those sequences now are really exciting to look at. For me, at least. I really enjoyed the Black Freighter scenes. And again, that's Watchmen. It's part of the experience and that's why we kept… Especially on Chapter IV, we really kept a lot of that stuff in there. And you haven't seen Chapter XI yet, but that's Veidt's chapter…

…With all that exposition!

JSH: He's a wordy man; that dude can talk. And it's all in there. He talks for that entire chapter. And that's great. Those are the details that make it.

How many animators did it take, on average, to make a chapter and about how long did it take to animate each chapter of the graphic novel?

JSH: Each chapter was different. Chapter II was basically done all by my buddy, Rich. He was the guy that gave me Watchmen in Spanish class in high school and we've been friends ever since. But he wanted to do the entire chapter by himself, so he did it. He did all the animating and put it all together himself.

On later chapters, we had… I think on Chapter XII, we had every animator on the team working on it. I think there were eight people working on it. Each chapter was different, and it kind of made sense in the Watchmen universe that each chapter is sort of distinctly its own, so it works if each person can sort of lend a voice.

And then we started getting to the point where one person would work on just the scenes with Seymour at the New Frontiersman, so we'd have one person handling the scenes with those two guys.

Out of all the twelve chapters, was there any one chapter that was just a lot harder to do than the others? Just more of a challenge to put together?

JSH: Chapter III, for some reason — just from our end, just from a production standpoint — was really cursed. We were having lots of difficulties with it. Just with people working on it, being available… We had a really hard time with that one. And then at some point, we had to basically put everyone onto it, because we were scrambling to finish it. It was a really good experience for all of us, because we learned what that was like. That sort of paid off later, for the later chapters, because we were basically doing that, where lots of people were working on one chapter and how we could do it that way. And it worked out. I really was happy and proud of everything we did to get that one because I think it's really watchable. It's really great to watch.

XI was hard, because Veidt is talking for so much of it. We're not sure if the interest level… if it even works, because you're just basically hearing him talk for so long in that same way that in Chapter IV, it's Dr. Manhattan talking at you for 25 minutes. But the imagery of Dr. Manhattan is going backwards and forwards in time, so there's this great interest level. And at that point in the story, you're still not fully grasping the entire universe yet, which is what's so great about the functionality of that chapter. It kind of gets you up to speed on the Keene Act and all of the details. It's a great big information overload.

I think both chapters… the reason why I think they work really well is because the music has really come in there to kind of help support the experience. So those, I think, have paid off from really great music.

So are you going to be doing more motion comics for DC and Warners? Is this going to become a new cottage industry for you guys?

JSH: [laughs] I don't know, we should ask those guys. I'll tell you this: Every single person that's worked on this has had so much fun — and of course, we've been working our butts off and it's been each deadline and making them in time has been a real challenge for us — yet we've just had such a good time with it. It's really a lot of fun and we enjoy doing it.

I can imagine that now, when you open up a Watchmen book, the pages are probably all moving. You can't even read it anymore, they're probably all moving and jiggling around.

JSH: [laughs] We talked about this the other week, which is that when you do open up a page… you know, we've moved them! We've animated them! It's strange to think that we've done that for the whole thing. And that's been rewarding for us. A hundred years from now, I think people will still be reading Watchmen. They're not going to be seeing the motion of stuff, but I think that was something Dave Gibbons was worried about. We're moving his drawings.

But he loved it, right?

JSH: Yeah.

Any projects you have coming up?

JSH: The next project, I think, is going to be Hawaii and my son.

That sounds like a very good idea.

02.16.2009 Source:

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