Cinematography the 'Hellboy' Way
Plus: a Russian master and global animation news.
Welcome to another issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter! Thanks for joining us. Here’s what we’re looking at this week:
One — how the Hellboy Animated team figured out Mike Mignola’s way of building a shot.
Two — animation news from all around the world.
Three — a documentary on a Russian animation legend.
Four — the last word.
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Now, let’s go!
1. Animating a Mike Mignola shot
How do you turn a comic into animation? It’s an age-old problem. Animators were struggling against it even before the first Spider-Man cartoons aired in the ‘60s. And the more distinctive the comic, the harder it becomes to adapt. Animating a Maus or Billy Bat in a satisfying way would be close to impossible.
Then there’s Hellboy by Mike Mignola. Its style, a dark spin on Jack Kirby mixed with German expressionist film, has been widely imitated since the series started in the mid-1990s. But it’s one thing to steal the look — it’s quite another to crack the logic of a Hellboy page.
This was the challenge that faced the makers of Hellboy Animated — the collective name for two films that remain, to this day, the only major animated Hellboy projects. They debuted on TV in 2006 and 2007, keeping up cult followings ever since. Hellboy’s creator was involved in these films, but they don’t really look like his comics.
“Mike Mignola wanted the look of the animation completely different than his own and the contract required it,” said Tad Stones, the mastermind behind Hellboy Animated. Stones and his team couldn’t go the obvious route. Because Mignola’s visual style was off limits, they had to look deeper — into the way that Mignola constructs scenes.
“That means his insert panels, his staging, compositions, whatever we can pull out of the comics,” Stones wrote at the time. And so, to craft authentic Hellboy animation without the Hellboy style, Stones put together a guide for the films’ storyboarders. It broke down the secret logic of Mignola’s method:
Stones was uniquely suited for this job. A longtime fan of Hellboy, he’d tried to get the comic greenlit as a Disney animated series in the mid-1990s. Plus, he was familiar with how Mignola thought. They’d worked together at Disney — during Atlantis.
Atlantis was Disney’s own attempt to emulate Hellboy. Years later, Mignola recalled the moment when the studio told him it was “planning to do a film in [his] style.” He joined the team and found its artists hard at work figuring out how he drew — just as Stones would later do. Some of what they picked up, Mignola wasn’t aware of himself:
… there were these insanely beautiful drawings from Tarzan and smack in the middle of it there was artwork of mine. […] They had enlarged a bunch of comic book pages of mine and put diagrams over them, explaining in terms I didn’t understand, what I do.
Stones and Mignola met on an Atlantis spin-off series. Although it failed, and they both eventually left Disney, that wasn’t the end. On his own time, Stones wrote two Hellboy screenplays. “I pitched Mike some premises and he generously gave me notes on two, half-hour, Hellboy scripts,” Stones remembered. Ultimately, Hellboy Animated came to be.
The films were made extremely quickly — too quickly for Stones’ taste. He wanted to get as close as possible to Mignola’s sensibilities. “Now if we had the schedule of a Disney feature, I know that we could control every frame,” Stones wrote. With their timeline, they could only do their best using Stones’ guide and Mignola’s own input.
But the storyboard team did impressive work. Even though Hellboy Animated doesn’t look like Hellboy, it often feels like it. This is particularly the case for the second film, Blood and Iron. These assorted storyboard panels for the film, drawn by artist Tom Nelson, clearly show the influence of Mignola’s own cinematography:
For one thing, the claustrophobia that Stones identified in his guide is here. See how the foreground tree shoves the church against the side of the screen. How Hellboy’s body frames the ghosts in the distance. How the candles cover the priest. The haunting “insert panel” of the crucifix, with its arms and the top of its head cropped, feels almost suffocatingly close.
Stones’ request that the storyboarders “use scenic elements to suggest a different panel shape” is right there in the kitchen shot. Nelson framed Hellboy starkly against the door — an effect that becomes even more intense and clear in the finished scene.
In fact, a lot of these effects intensify in the final art. All of the above panels carried over into the film — with strong results. The shot of the priest is even more claustrophobic and tense than in the storyboards:
Like many American cartoons in the 2000s, Hellboy Animated had its actual animation outsourced to Japan and Korea. Madhouse and DR Movie collaborated on Blood and Iron. The American team’s job was mostly to design, plan and polish the film — storyboards, model sheets, color keys, editing and so on.
During production, Stones wrote that the overseas team was “really coming through for Hellboy.” As you can see from the shots above, while there’s some drift from the storyboards, things only get more Mignola. In the shot where Hellboy looks at the ghosts, he fills up almost his whole side of the screen — truly becoming one of those “framing elements” that Stones wrote about in his guide.
The result is a case study in how much the fundamentals of filmmaking contribute, quietly, to the feel of animation. It’s even clearer when you compare Hellboy Animated to The Amazing Screw-On Head, a pilot based on another Mignola comic. DR Movie animated it not long before producing Hellboy Animated. The pilot actually uses Mignola’s visual style. It looks close — but something’s missing.
That missing piece is what appears in Blood and Iron. The same studio animated both projects, but the feel of the filmmaking is different. A lot of it comes down to the subtle stuff — sometimes extremely subtle. “Comic staging usually has to leave room for word balloons,” as Stones’ guide says. “We want to use some of that staging even without the dialogue blimps.”
When adapting a comic, even elements this minor make a difference. Nailing a look is one thing. Getting to the heart of what a comic is, as a piece of sequential art, is another thing altogether.
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2. News around the world
Animation writers fight for fair wages
We follow a lot of industry insiders on Twitter — and, all week, one story has dominated our timeline. Through #PayAnimationWriters, a hashtag spearheaded by The Animation Guild, a campaign has begun to close the pay gap between writers in animation and live-action. The Animation Guild Writers account put it like this:
As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down global live-action production, the animation industry kept working. Sets closed, but we animation writers didn’t put our pencils down. We are a valuable part of the entertainment industry; we do the same job as our live-action writer counterparts, and it’s about time that our pay reflected that.
The Animation Guild/IATSE 839 is going into negotiations this year determined to increase animation writer minimums and educate the industry on challenges faced by animation writers. We’re not asking for special treatment, but we deserve to be given the same respect as our live-action counterparts, because at the end of the day, we’re all doing the same job.
The campaign has gotten broad support from luminaries in film and TV, among them Lauren Faust, Craig McCracken and Jorge Gutierrez. Maybe our favorite comment came from Jim Krieg, a writer for the animated Green Lantern series and more.
“Think of a live-action TV show that you HATE, one that really sucks,” Krieg tweeted. “Now think of an animated series that you LOVE, one that will live rent-free in your head forever.”
“The writers of the live-action show made at least three times as much as the animation writers.”
GIRAF 17 gets underway
GIRAF is the longest-running animation festival in Western Canada. Amid the pandemic this year, its 17th edition has gone virtual. The festival’s whole lineup started streaming on Friday — open to viewers across Canada until November 28.
There’s a lot to recommend at GIRAF 17. We know because the festival invited us to serve on its jury this year. Almost a hundred films, sourced from Montreal to Moscow to Santiago de Chile, are competing for a bare handful of prizes. We’ve been watching them all — and painfully narrowing down the list. Canadian filmmakers Greg Doble and Siloën Daley are joining us in the process of selecting the winners.
Beyond the competition, GIRAF has premiered a newly restored version of Jiří Barta’s The Pied Piper — one of our favorite stop-motion films. It’s amazing to see such a pristine copy after all these years.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be writing more about GIRAF, our top picks and the process of giving the prizes. There’s plenty to say. We’d like to thank the festival’s organizers for this opportunity — it’s been an honor.
Best of the rest
Speaking of Gorillaz, Damon Albarn has confirmed that Netflix is doing an animated film starring Britain’s favorite cartoon band.
American animator Jonni Phillips is set to release Barber Westchester, the 90-minute feature film she’s made mostly by herself, in late November. It’s one of our most anticipated projects of 2021 — we’ve previously chatted with her about it.
In Britain, the BBC plans to “triple its investment in UK-made animation for 7-to-12 year olds,” according to Deadline. The company’s stated goal is to give children animation that feels British — America dominates right now.
A new stop-motion anthology from Netflix, The House, will feature the talents of animators from Belgium, Britain, Sweden and beyond. It’s due January 2022.
Two intriguing retrospectives this week. Rintaro keeps talking Genma Wars amid its return to Japanese theaters. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian veteran Nadia Vurbenova-Mouri (Samurai Jack, The Iron Giant) reflects on her incredible career.
The American webcomic platform Tapas, like Webtoon before it, is moving to leverage its “rich content library” to make films and series. We hope that means fair deals for the original artists.
One more from America — Pixar dropped a new trailer for Turning Red.
Lastly, if you’re like us, you love to see hard data about what’s popular. In its first move toward real transparency, Netflix has opened a special site that lets you browse the weekly rankings worldwide, including hours watched.
3. Documentary — The Spirit of Genius
We’ve only had one Fyodor Khitruk. Born in 1917, he lived for 95 years — and was party to almost the entire history of Russian animation. He gave Russia its Winnie-the-Pooh. He mentored generations of artists, including Yuri Norstein. Even the oddest detours of his career, ones made out of spite, are exciting and entertaining.
In fact, Khitruk might be the most important animation director ever to emerge from Russia. But his story, while well documented in his home country, isn’t easy to piece together in English. That’s what makes The Spirit of Genius so necessary.
This is a 1998 documentary by Otto Alder, a German director and curator who’s still in the news. It covers Khitruk’s life and career in his own words, and in the words of many of his friends, colleagues and admirers. You learn about his animation and ethos, from his time in the Stalin era to the way he revamped Russian cartoons with The Story of a Crime (1962) — and beyond.
But you learn about Russia, too, and about how the USSR really worked. Because Khitruk was an artist’s artist and successful and beloved by the state, his story intersects with every facet of Russia’s communist years.
“In Russia there has always been what you would call a mafia of the ‘upright people,’ ” writer Lyudmila Petrushevskaya says in the documentary. Khitruk played a big role in this mafia. She mentions the time that the government banned Norstein’s film Tale of Tales:
This might sound crazy, but somewhere up there were the Party, the Communists, the government, the KGB, the militia, the Druzhina. And we were down here. Khitruk fought to ensure that Yuri Norstein got a state award. If Norstein hadn’t received that award, Tale of Tales would probably have remained banned until 1986. I’m quite sure about that. Norstein would not have had a chance, if Khitruk had not been so involved. That’s how the mafia of the upright people worked. And in the sphere of animation, Khitruk was the ringleader.
Throughout The Spirit of Genius, Khitruk is a magnetic, gregarious presence. You want to root for him. As the story continues, it grows clearer how those glorious Winnie-the-Pooh films came to be. The documentary, embedded below, is only an hour long. We recommend it to anyone interested in Russian animation:
4. Last word
That’s all for today! We hope you’ve enjoyed. We’ll be back again next Sunday — and on Thursday, for members.
One last thing. This week, we had our most successful tweet yet — a clip of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Combustible. It passed one million views, which we’re still trying to process. The tweet was particularly popular in Japan. Just one of the Japanese quote tweets broke 20,000 likes by itself.
Combustible is a beautiful film, and it was special to watch it resonate with so many people. We’ve had this clip in storage since July. Back then, Twitter’s compression muddied the soft textures and lighting too much for the film’s subtleties to carry through. Twitter has since improved its video quality, so we decided to try again. We’re glad we waited.
During September, we covered Combustible in our bonus issue on Katsuhiro Otomo’s storyboarding technique. In that piece, there’s a quote from Otomo about the film. “When you see the fire, in the eyes of Owaka, is my favorite part,” he said. That moment appears in the clip, and many who responded on Twitter singled it out. A highlight of our week.
Hope to see you again soon!