(Pictured above is an early look at the new Batman: Brave and the Bold cartoon. Obviously, it’s Batman and Aquaman fighting Black Manta)
Ben Jones isn’t a name we all know, though it probably should be. For some reason, animation directors don’t get the amount of attention comic-book artists or writers do (and they get far too little as it is.) But Ben Jones has storyboarded and/or directed some of our favorite moments in DC comics animation (JLU, Teen Titans, Legion of Superheros, New Frontier) as well as worked as an animator on pretty much one of the best films of all time: The Iron Giant.
The man deserves a lot of respect and credit and, in between his busy work schedule and a Comic-Con appearance this week, he took time out to talk to Big Shiny Robot about his new show Batman: Brave and the Bold as well as his other works (including Tenacious D’s “Fuck Her Gently” music video and the new Transformers cartoon.)
So, without further ado:
Big Shiny Robot!: So, how did you find your way into animation?
Ben Jones: I always drew as a kid, but I honestly don’t remember making the decision to get into animation. I really wanted to be a comic book artist. But at some point in my late teens, I apparently decided to apply to the animation program at Sheridan College instead, because that’s what I did. I happened to graduate from there just as the first Chuck Jones Film Production internship program started, which brought me down to California. I’ve been bouncing around from animation job to animation job since then.
BSR!: What was it like, taking the jump from Storyboard artist to director?
BJ: Pretty smooth, all things considered. I guess I was lucky to make the jump on Teen Titans, because the style of the show was a little looser, and there was a sort of safety net in that we had done two seasons already, so we knew what we were doing a little bit by then. Plus it’s hard to screw up too badly with Glen Murakami looking over your shoulder.
BSR!: A lot of people describe directing animation like they were directing in slow-motion. What do you say to people who ask you about this?
BJ: From my perspective, it seems like the opposite is true. I’ve passed by more than a few live-action sets as they’re filming, and it seems to me like it takes forever to set the damn lights up for even the briefest take, whereas I can just draw whatever’s in my head in a minute or two.
I mean, I know that animation takes longer than live-action. On my end, though, I just sign off on the storyboard and watch it go overseas for the really laborious stages. Even when I was animating, I’d just get stuff handed to me, already laid out, and then I’d hand it off to the next guy in line. The only time I ever really saw a project through from Step One to Step Finished was for the Tenacious D video (see question below!), but that was a rush job. So maybe my perspective is skewed.
BSR!: You were the storyboard artist for the Spumco produced video for Tenacious D’s “Fuck Her Gently” music video. What was the experience like there?
BJ: That was a rare joy. We got the job right around the time we were spending all day all listening to Ray Morelli’s bootleg Tenacious D tapes, so we were pretty psyched just to be involved in any capacity. We only had 6 weeks to do the whole thing, but we did everything from premise to finished animation with no interference or censorship from anyone. So we had a little story meeting where we gathered everyone up and came up with three premises. We discarded the one with animals and the one with children in favor of the Devil idea, because we noticed the whole Satan angle as a recurring theme in the D’s HBO series.
Just to make sure the credit goes where it’s due (and that’s not easy – even the DVD just says “Animation by Spümcø”), I really only boarded the last chunk of the video. Gabe Swarr, Matt Danner and Ray Morelli boarded the rest of it. But we all did mutliple jobs, so I also did some layout (along with Gabe, Matt, Ray, Fred Osmond and Derrick Wyatt)) and then spent a whole week animating the scene where the devil melts. His skin melting off was animated traditionally, but his skeleton was composed in Flash and painstakingly disassembled by Eric Pringle. Then after the video was done, we got to meet JB and Kage backstage after a show, so that was a sweet wrapup to the whole thing.
BSR!: What has been your experience to the response on the new Transformers Animated show? There seems to be a rift between jaded fans of the old show and kids who love this one.
BJ: Honestly, I loved that there was controversy. After Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes (and The Batman, peripherally), I’ve come to expect the fans of the original material to hate the first artwork they see, then slowly come around as the shows air. I think most of them have come around by now – at least my entry in the Transformers wikia seems pretty friendly.
BSR!: You’ve been working with a lot of superheroes (Teen Titans, Justice League, Legion of Superheroes, Brave and the Bold, etc.) Which hero is your favorite to work with and/or draw, for whatever reason?
BJ: My favorite superhero, hands down, is the Red Tornado. I grew up with the satellite League, and he was, to me, the heart and soul of that team. Professionally, though, he’s been a little frustrating – I got to draw him for a JLU episode (“Panic in the Sky”), and James Tucker refused to let me blow him up. Maybe some day.
Professionally, I usually end up enjoying drawing characters I didn’t really care all that much about in their comic book incarnations, like Starfire, Triplicate Girl, Starfinger or Kid Flash. I don’t know why that is.
I also really enjoyed some of the new characters, like See-More, Control Freak and Mumbo. With See-More, it was just fun coming up with disgusting eyeball gags. Control Freak and Mumbo were fun mostly because of Derrick Wyatt’s infectious enjoyment.
On Brave and the Bold, my favorite so far has been this one particular Green Lantern that I can’t name yet. He’s barrels of fun to storyboard, because he has such an amusing interaction with Batman.
BSR!: We have to say, one of our favorite episodes of Teen Titans is Mad Mod, it’s got a really distinct visual style and it’s just dripping with it. Can you talk about how you approached that episode?
BJ: Ciro Nieli is the one who directed Mad Mod, I was just a storyboard artist on that one. The thing with Titans was that we were always eager to try new things with each episode, so for Mad Mod, we watched Yellow Submarine and The Thief and the Cobbler to get that psychedelic 60′s flavor. And of course, once we knew Malcolm McDowell was doing Mad Mod’s voice, we dug out Clockwork Orange. Ciro had a book of Moiré patterns too, and that seemed to fit with the Thief and the Cobbler stuff, so we experimented with that as well. We even took the checker pattern from the top of the DC Comics of the 60s as an influence as well.
I also remember Mad Mod as the episode where I set my own personal record for overnighters – I boarded most of the chase sequence in one 53 hour work session. A lot of fans ask what drugs we were abusing for that show, and the answer, for me at least, is nothing more than good old fashioned sleep deprivation. Cheap and legal!
When we finally finished boarding it (and got some sleep), we started worrying about what we were going to get back from overseas – we didn’t know if the Moiré patterns would read on television, or if Dongwoo would get the optical illusions right, or if the story still made any sense to anyone but us. But they did a stellar job on it. I haven’t seen as perfect a translation from board to finished show as Mad Mod, before or since.
BSR!: You were an animator on what is probably one of the greatest films of all time… That’s right, The Iron Giant. Could you talk about what you animated in that movie and what that experience was like?
BJ: I was the last animator hired on Iron Giant, so mostly I did little fill-in scenes. If there’s a scene where Hogarth is really tiny, or a scene with a half dozen soldiers running around in the BG, that’s probably me. Even so, there was a feeling on that crew, from top to bottom, that the film was something special. It was obvious just from the animatic that the film was going to be a milestone.
Plus it was great working for Brad Bird – he had a knack for finding ways to improve the scene that was being animated just by tweaking the timing, instead of sending you back to your desk to redraw the whole thing. Maybe that was driven by our tiny tiny budget, but for me it was a valuable lesson in the importance of timing.
BSR!: Moving on to Brave and the Bold, how long have you been working on Brave and the Bold and how did you get the directing gig?
BJ: I’ve been working on it since last November – I’m guessing I got the gig because I worked for James on Legion a couple years ago, and he must have decided that I didn’t screw that up too badly, so he could use me on B:B&B too. I think Sam Register put in a good word for me too.
BSR!: What has been the reasoning for the DC animated universe to move away from the Bruce Timm style? I’m not saying this as a good or bad thing, I’m just curious how that decision is made.
BJ: The thing is, there’s only one Bruce Timm. If you look at the timeline of when the shows were made, you’ll notice that Bruce is busy on other stuff, either JLU or the DCU videos. So he’s just not available, to begin with. You could, I suppose, try to mimic his style for your show, but that’s kind’ve weird for a variety of reasons, especially when he’s sitting just down the hall. So in the end, you’re generally better off doing your own thing than trying to be a second-rate Bruce Timm.
BSR!: Is there any recurring voice talent from the Justice League or other DCU series’? (I saw you mentioned on your blog that Tom Kenny would be back as Plastic Man, but according to IMDb, Dr. Fate has a different voice.)
BJ: At least two others so far, and there are nine shows left to cast yet, so there may be more. But mostly the characters are being played by different actors than in previous versions. A lot of the actors have worked on previous DC shows, but they’re sort of all shuffled around into new roles, with some new faces thrown in (none of which I can reveal yet, but holy crap, I can’t believe we got that one guy we got).
BSR!: How is the decision made whether or not to bring previously established voices back to a character?
BJ: Generally, it comes from James [Tucker, Producer] wanting to try something different. But sometimes it stems from a different approach to the character. Our Aquaman’s not as ornery as the one in JLU, for example, so we used John
DiMaggio. Sometimes it just stems from budget reasons – we have a sizable cast with all of our guest stars, and a limitation on how many people we can squeeze into our booth, so alot of the time, actors end up pulling double or triple duty. Sometimes it’s about availability – people just aren’t available for one reason or another. But mostly James wanting
BSR!: I guess what I’m getting at is this: Kevin Conroy?
BJ: He was awesome in Gotham Knight, wasn’t he? Is that the question?
BSR!: Is that the best no comment you can come up with? And when will we know who is voicing the Batman for the series, Conroy or otherwise?
BJ: Sorry, I thought you knew – Batman’s been cast. He’s being voiced by Diedrich Bader.
BSR!: According to all the published information about the show, we’re looking at Batman teaming up with Green Arrow, Blue Beetle, Plastic Man, Black Canary, Huntress, Aquaman, a previously not drawn Green Lantern (Kyle?), and Red Tornado. Is there anyone else you can tell us about here?
BJ: Actually, Kyle’s already been in Superman and JLU, so he’s not the “previously not drawn Green Lantern”. Turns out, though, that the guy I was hinting at has already been animated too, although I didn’t know it at the time. Fortunately, there’s still at least one other GL we’re using that I’m fairly certain has never been animated, so I can pretend that I
was really hinting at Driq of Criq the whole time.
So good news, Driq fans (assuming there are any)!
And if I’m wrong about Driq, there’s still Honnu.
BSR!: Anybody else?
BJ: Oh right, how about the Atom? Wait, I think he’s been leaked already.
Flash? Wait, James dropped that name in his TV Guide interview.
OK then, there’s also Fire (aka the Green Flame).
BSR!: You’ve mentioned Wil Wheaton as a guest star, is he reprising his Teen Titans role as Aqualad? Or does he have a new mystery part?
BJ: I will say he’s not Aqualad, but the part he’s playing is the number one untouchable do-not-reveal super-secret surprise character of the entire first season. So that’s all I can say about that.
I hope I haven’t built it up too much.
BSR!: Can we expect to see Robin at all in the series? If this is about Batman’s teamups, it might make sense to see the Boy Wonder, right?
BJ: Well, the thing is, Brave & the Bold is loosely an adaptation of the comic series from the seventies and eighties. At the time, Robin was appearing with Batman in Batman, Detective, Batman Family, and occasionally in World’s Finest. So there wasn’t really much need for him to appear in Brave & the Bold – even when he did, it was usually as a member of the Teen Titans. Besides, we’ve already seen him team up with Batman in the Filmation series, in Superfriends, in B:TAS, in The Batman; even when he guest-stars in Scooby-Doo or Static Shock, there’s Robin. Why not take the opportunity to see Batman team up with new heroes that we haven’t seen him teaming up with in animation before?
On the other hand, it’s Robin. I mean, come on! Robin!
BSR!: Cartoon Network announced the Friday lineup this will be on and it will play back to back with Clone Wars. The released promo art for Brave and the Bold has a lot of people assuming it’ll be fairly kid-centric, though the Great Bearded One has said that Clone Wars is a definite PG-13. What exactly is the demographic Brave and the Bold is going for?
BJ: You’d think that’s something I should know, but it hasn’t really come up yet. I suppose Cartoon Network has a specific demographic in mind (probably Boys 6-11), but really, the secret to making a good cartoon, as passed down from the Legendary Cartoon Gods of Termite Terrace, is just make the show for yourselves. And if that should stray from what Cartoon Network wants, they’ll let us know – but so far, the notes have been minimal, so I guess we’re giving them what they want. We can do some things we couldn’t do in Titans or Legion, like defenestration. So expect lots of that.
As to the “kid-centric” thing, not really. The colors on the costume are brighter, but the fights and action are still intense. Nothing’s been dumbed down or softened for children’s consumption (well, maybe show 16).
Kids know when you’re talking down to them, so it’s better just to make the show you want to make and let the kids decide for themselves if they like it.
BSR!: And finally, name three comics you read?
BJ: I finally started picking up Scott Pilgrim, which is even more awesome than people have been saying it is. I’m only on Book 2 so far, so don’t spoil anything. I’ve been reading The Goon from the beginning, though, and it’s consistently entertaining. I like the new direction – it’s good to see the Goon have to work a little harder. And Jack Staff – I was already a Paul Grist fan when he was doing Kane, but Jack Staff presses even more of my nerdly buttons. It’s like the twenty best superhero comics compressed into one title.
Here is an exclusive look at a Batman and Plastic Man from the new Brave and the Bold Cartoon. Click on it to see it full size:
Here is an exclusive look at Ben’s designs for Red Tornado for the new Brave and the Bold Cartoon. Click on them to see them full size:
Check back Saturday for an exclusive look at some of Ben Jones’ Teen Titans storyboard.
(UPDATE: Here’s the trailer! )