‘Beware The Batman’ At Comic-Con: Talking To The Producers And Cast Of The Dark Knight’s New Cartoon [SDCC 2013]
Beware the Batman only launched on Cartoon Network a few weeks ago, so as you might expect, I've got a lot of questions about the series. That's why I sat down for a roundtable interview at San Diego to talk with show producers Glen Murakami and Mitch Watson, along with JB Blanc (Alfred) and Anthony Ruivivar (Batman) to find out about the process of making the show, how the voices developed, and just why they wanted to do a cartoon about Magpie and Anarky.
Series producer Glen Murakami:
On the genesis of the project:
"When they came to me and asked about working on the show, I looked at a lot of the older Batman cartoons, and the one thing I noticed was that it felt like it was the same villains over and over again. Joker, Harley, Two-Face, Penguin, it just seemed like it was everything that we've seen before, and everything that had been covered on Batman: The Animated Series. I just felt like it's been done, and if we wanted to do something different with the show, we should go in a different direction. One of the things that I pitched was 'What if we used different villains? What if we use villains that haven't really been used before?' So that's how we started, and then we tried to look at what if Alfred wasn't a Butler? That was another take on the show, and Mitch and I looked at that and pitched it.
Visually, CG was a new factor. We wanted it to be more… I don't want to use the word 'Cinematic' because it's so overused, but that's what we wanted. Most CG kids' cartoons are really brightly lit, and we wanted to make it reflect the subject matter. It's Batman, it needs that film noir tone. Butch Lukic, who was my supervising director, worked on the original Batman animated series, and he's worked on other Bruce Timm projects. We've always liked '70s detective movies, and Butch has a really good eye for composition. So rather than going '40s film noir or gothic, we wanted it to feel more contemporary or modern. That was the other approach.
It was 'Here are the things that have been done with Batman, what hasn't been done? What can we explore to give the show a fresh visual feel and tone?' It's interesting, because some of the stuff that Mitch and I thought the show was going to be, we did that, but once you start to put it all together the show changes. It evolves. So on one hand, the show is more filmic, but it also got bigger and its scale got huge."
On the villains, and how to avoid just writing them as substitute versions of the more famous bad guys:
"We talked about that. What's been good about using the new villains is that it changes an aspect of Batman that you haven't seen before. We talked about what iconic things about Batman villains are, and how we can bring that to the new villains. A lot of people asked how we were going to approach Professor Pyg, and it's not like we're trying to change it, but we only have 22 minutes to tell that story. You kind of have to try to figure out how to make Professor Pyg iconic and narrow him down. We don't have a twelve-issue story arc, we don't have a year to develop that character, so we felt like we had to change some things.
I think the theme that we went in with Pig and Toad, for example, was kind of Wind in the Willows, but they also became like a twisted Holmes and Watson. It felt like it flowed, it felt like it had a theme. That seemed more important, for that to track rather than all the backstory. In 22 minutes of backstory, we couldn't get into all of it.
Magpie, too, as we were talking about her dual nature, well gee, that's kind of like Two-Face, but it's also kind of like this. It felt like we were on the right track with the villains, that it was something fresh. There are things we couldn't do with Two-Face or Catwoman, and that's what's nice about using the new villains.
That was one aspect where, once we pitched the concept, everyone was like 'Hey, that sounds cool.' The challenge was 'Hey, how do you take Batman and make him fresh? What can we do to make him more exciting?' Even us as creators, we don't want to keep repeating ourselves. I think everyone was excited. Even DC, we presented some villains that were similar to what we'd done before, and they were like 'No, you can change it. Go further with it.' Everyone was very supportive."
On the challenge of using CG animation for the show:
"The question I kept asking was 'Why does everything else look this way, and can we make it look like all of these things that we like?' I think rather than referencing other CG movies or cartoons, we went to movies, we went to live action, we went to the subject matter. Crime stories, film noir, we looked at that stuff. In the beginning, we did look at a bunch of stuff and we realized that a lot of people aren't filming stuff at night. A lot of people aren't showing cities, or doing characters with capes like Batman. That's what made us nervous about the show -- how come nobody's doing that?
Those things, I don't think people realize how difficult and challenging they are. Cloth is very difficult. Hair is very difficult. We were trying to do that on a TV budget, and people are so used to seeing feature quality CG stuff, trying to do that in a TV show was challenging. There's differences between 2D and CG. There's some stuff that we do that's similar, but the process is longer now. We're reviewing the material longer. We're fleshing it out more, there are more phases to it than there are to 2D. Butch is going over everything, then the directors are trying to wrangle it and manage it, but what's difficult for them is that there's a lot of restriction. The difference is that you can draw a shot, but now you're shooting it through a camera lens, and that really changes the scale and scope. Now, we have an animation supervisor, TJ Sullivan, and we have an effects and lighting supervisor, Frederick Gaudreau, so that's almost like having a cinematographer.
We got so bogged down that I think everyone's job slightly changed. Everyone switched and ended up having to do a lot more than we realized. It was huge. Building Gotham City was huge. Filming it was bigger and more difficult than people realize.
We are reviewing and reviewing and reviewing. You don't draw it anymore, you build it, then you film it. The difficult thing is that you approve the animation, but you're lighting it last, and so much of Batman comes together in the lighting. You're looking at all this footage and guessing what it'll look like. You can paint a concept, but it changes with everything. You're looking at it grey, with some color, without effects, and it's raw. That, in some ways, is terrifying. It's different from looking at pencil animation. You're seeing it evolve. We know what we want it to look like, but you just don't know.
Now I realize why other people don't do that. It's really hard, and I think we bit off more than we could chew. But the other thing, I will say, is that in the beginning, the characters were a little more animated. Yeah, it looked more lively, but it didn't fit for Batman. You don't realize until you start working on it that you're so used to CG animation being really bouncy and full, but when you have Batman doing that, it doesn't work. Butch and TJ were like 'Tone that down,' and there was a lot of development. There's stuff you can storyboard, but everything is a guessing game. You're guessing what it's going to look like until you go through the next stage. It was a challenge."
On the use of guns in the show and the designs for them that showed up in the first episode:
We have to be responsible. I'm a little uncomfortable about the portrayal of that, but so much of guns are part of that world and what Batman's about. You have to be responsible, that's all I can say. You are making this and portraying those kinds of images, and you can see how that affects people.
Producer Mitch Watson:
On pitching the show:
"The way it came about was that we'd been kicking around different ideas, and when Glen came aboard, it was his suggestion that we use the lesser-known villains. I was obsessed at the time with wanting to do Batman more like Batman way, way back. More detective Batman. That's what was appealing to me, so we sort of melded those two ideas. Then we started looking at all the old comic books, the really way back comics, and going through the different stuff. We wanted to do a classic, more noirish detective show with villains we hadn't seen before.
Then we looked at Alfred, and there was stuff here and there about Alfred's past and his history that I never knew existed. I'd never heard, and I don't believe it had been talked about in any of the TV shows or the movies, of his MI-6 background. He was always portrayed as more of an upper-crust man, so we wanted to make him a little more street. I was also reading this book called Bitter Seeds, a fantastic book about World War II with a paranormal aspect to it. There's a character I really liked in that book, and he was more of a working-class guy. So what if Alfred came from a working-class background, more street smart? What if he was Sean Connery from the Untouchables? Although everyone seems to think he's Jason Statham, from all the reviews, which is the first time we even thought of him. We thought '70s Michael Caine from Get Carter, and when all that came together, we were like 'Cool!'"
The way Katana came about was that they didn't want us to do Robin at the moment. We wanted to figure out something different, so we thought if Alfred is getting on in the years and knows he won't be around forever, let's find someone that will fit with someone he'd trust to take over. We'd already created the backstory for Alfred at that point, which was revealed in Episode 2, that he had a partner who was killed. What if we made her his goddaughter?
We have this huge backstory that, unfortunately, you guys will never, ever hear about, but basically it's that Alfred felt responsible for the death of her father, he's the one who brought her to America and put her in good boarding schools, and she went off and we'll find out what happened to her. That was how we hit upon Katana, it was more organic. We knew we had to have someone that Alfred would trust. Those were the three main characters, those were the things we wanted to concentrate on and what we had to figure out.
Once we figured that out, they came together quickly, as I remember. It took us about a month. I'd already been working on the show for about a year at that point, and we were sort of under the gun. We had to get the thing into production. Glen had never worked in CGI before and I had, I knew how hellacious it can be to work with, especially with an adventure show where there's action and people physically touching each other. It came together fast, but the harder part was the villains.
Glen had some ideas for villains that he wanted to explore, and then I went back to the comics to find villains. DC was very kind with us, because we were looking for villains that would allow us to explore different aspects of the character, all the way down to Barbara Gordon and Lieutenant Gordon, so the villains had to be characters who would affect them. It's not just pick a villain, stick it in, and it's not going to affect our characters except for that they defeat them. We wanted villains that would evoke changes in our characters. DC was very kind, and Magpie's the best example. They said 'If you find characters that you really want to use, but their personalities don't exactly fit the stories you want to tell, feel free to change them.' Magpie, I think, is only in a couple issues of the comic books. There's not much backstory there, so we ran it by them and they said 'As long as you don't gut something that's canon, as they say, it's fine.'
Barbara Gordon's introduced in the second episode, and as the show goes, her part gets bigger and bigger. We're leading up to something with her, which I can't tell you. I've seen the guessing online, and I'm like 'No.'"
On the appearance of a larger DC Universe within the show:
"You're going in the right direction. You can probably guess where we're going. I'm not allowed to say, but you can probably guess if you're aware of some of the characters and villains that are appearing in the show down the line. You might be wrong, but I cannot say what we'll be doing.
I think everybody knows Metamorpho's going to appear in the show, but he's a tough character. Any time you have a character who can morph in CGI, it's tough, but we figured out a way to do it. Well, Glen, I should say, figured out a way to do it."
On whether there was a desire to take time off from doing a Batman show:
"That's a question that's sort of above my pay grade. I was hired based on work I did on Scooby-Doo, and they hired me because they knew I wasn't completely immersed in the world. I had a working knowledge of the world when I started, and I have a huge knowledge now, but when I started I was coming at it from the point of view of an everyday fan. That's what they wanted, because they want a show that's going to appeal to both the fans and to everyday people.
In terms of why they chose Batman, it's for exactly the reasons you think. He's a very popular character, he's been continually popular, and he's a character they think people want to see. The tricky part is always that we'll continually live in the shadow of Bruce Timm's original show, which is awesome. It's always a matter of how do we do something that pays homage to all that, but is also its own unique beast, and I think we got there with this one. A lot of it helped that we're using villains you haven't seen before and going in different directions with the storytelling.
Batman's an interesting guy. He's psychologically messed up. He has flaws. Superman is a tough hero to portray because he's perfect in so many ways, and there was a push for a while to make Batman a little more perfect. I've seen fans that have talked about the 'Batgod,' they refer to him as. We specifically didn't want to do that. We wanted a guy who's super-intelligent, but he's flawed. In the first bunch of episodes, he gets his ass kicked. He makes mistakes, he's still learning. I think that's why Batman is a popular character, because at his core, he's a flawed human being who's trying to overcome that and be better. That makes an interesting character."
On the time that it takes to make the show:
"My understanding is that it takes nine months to a year for each episode. To give you an example, from the time we first started writing the pilot to when we saw the finished version, it was well over a year. From script to rough animation, before the lighting pass, it's about nine months. Then once you pull it all through post and fix it, it's a year per episode, which is almost triple what a normal show takes.
At any one time, we're working on maybe five episodes at a time. We were supposed to be breaking an episode every week, and I think it ended up being every two weeks. There's no staff, really. In the beginning, it was me and Glen, and then it became me, Glen and a guy named Mark Banker who came on. It would really be the three of us, and when Glen started getting busy with the CGI, it became just Mark and I. We'd bring Glen in, and we'd break these stories for about a week, then sit with Glen and he'd doodle or draw and come up with how the characters were going to look, tell us what we could and couldn't do, and then we'd pitch that to the network. Nine times out of ten, when we'd pitch a story, it got completely eviscerated, and then we'd have to go back to the drawing board and start again. It took about two weeks per episode to get the story to the point where we could actually go to outline.
A lot of shows, the way it works when you have a staff is that you have freelancers come in and pitch you ideas for episodes, and then you pick one and break it together. The way we did it on this show is that we broke it all internally. We had a particular story to tell, and we'd bring writers in and tell them 'This is what you're going to do,' which was fortunate. It allowed us to get some really good writers in. We had Len Wein, Greg Weisman, Mike Ryan, Adam Beechen who writes the comic books, all these guys came in because they knew we were literally going to hand them the story and tell them to write it based on a beat sheet. They didn't have to jump through a bunch of hoops to get a job. We know they can write, so here's a job. Write us a great story.
That ended up saving us a lot of time too, because when you do that, you don't get a script back two weeks later that's unusable. You're giving such a detailed outline that you know what you're going to get back, and at least 75% of it should be usable. And if it's not, that writer's never going to be hired again. [Laughs] We didn't have that experience. We were very succinct with what we gave people. We knew the characters and the story that we wanted to tell, and we just trusted them to take it and run with it."
On the villains:
"Anarky is a fun one. Humpty Dumpty is a fun one, because we really had a lot of fun with his backstory. Some of the characters, we are going to go into their backstory and how they became who they are, but others, not as much. With Humpty, we do. Lady Shiva's coming up, that's going to be really cool. The ones I can say without getting into too much trouble… Silver Monkey is really cool. A couple are coming up that are awesome but I can't talk about them."
JB Blanc, the voice of Alfred:
On how he got involved with the show:
"I was working on a video game called Diablo III, and it's usually directed by Andrea Toyias, who does a lot of games, like World of Warcraft. I've worked with her a lot. I turned up at the studio that day, and they said "oh, you're in that room with Andrea." I walk in there, and there was a woman I didn't recognize, and she said 'Hi, I'm Andrea Romano.' I said 'What? I've been trying to meet you for years!' She said "That's nice, get in the booth.'
I went 'Oh, great. I just messed up my first meeting with Andrea Romano, I'll never see her again.' I tried to put that aside, I did the session, and a couple days later I got a call asking if I'd like to come in and read for Alfred. I didn't have any time to think about it. I had to call back within the hour. It was late in the casting process, so I just instinctively did my read. I had a little bit to go on in terms of an image -- not the final image that we ended up with, but something as a guide. I just flew on my instincts, seat of the pants stuff, and then they put me together with Anthony and we got along like a house on fire. He's a very easy guy to get along with, and we seemed to gel well as the characters. That was it.
Initially, you just go with your instincts on the brief outline you've been given, and your job is just to tell the truth of the character, and tell the story as best as possible. So really, all you've got to go on -- and I like this -- is the writing. I would get the script maybe a day before recording and I'd have a quick look through, and I'd try not to make too many choices because I like working off the seat of my pants. It's more exciting, you tend to be more spontaneous like that, so I really wanted to develop him by finding him through the scripts. It's dangerous, it's a more dangerous way of doing it, but I've been doing this a long time now across a lot of different avenues, and I've learned over the years to trust my instincts a little more. That's part of the discovery. I try not to have too many preconceptions, because otherwise I might start talking like Michael Caine.
Anthony and Sumalee and I have become really strong friends. We've managed to really build those relationships, and that can only serve those characters better. You're in a comfort zone, and it makes sense to gel as a company. The other great thing is that Andrea Romano has such a great source of fantastic people to come in and do these characters."
On Alfred's backstory:
"It was clear when I saw the image that there was something different going on. That definitely influenced the voice. The image is the strongest indication of where you're going to go with the voice, and it wasn't a million miles away from my own voice. It felt very comfortable, and I felt like I could tell the story within that. I didn't have a lot of background, but I knew there was something different going on.
I think people are worried that he's a departure, but if you're taking Batman younger, it makes sense to take Alfred younger too. They've done that. I think they've given him a bit more of a harder background, a tougher military background, the MI-6 thing, but what is still true and what remains true is that the fundamental relationship between Alfred and Bruce is the same. He's there to support, he's there to nurture, he's there to honor the promise that he made to Bruce's parents, and I think we've really stayed true to that. All the compassion, all the wit, I hope, I still there.
There's a fine line between them of who is dictating whose life, and I think that's a very rich vein to tap into. The fundamental truth of the relationship is still there and still honored, and that's what I love about the show. It's still Batman."
On stepping into the role:
"It's a tremendous honor. The Batman franchise is, I think, the franchise of franchises. It's hallowed ground, and therefore risky to do something different, but I love the challenge of that. Whenever you enter any kind of genre, you have a duty to honor that genre, and I take that very, very seriously. While you're doing something new and interesting, you also want to maintain the traditional character elements that have always been there. I think that we've worked really hard to do that. We've kept the compassion, the fatherly relationship, the humor, the acerbic wit. That's why there's a British character in this thing, to set that up, and we've honored all of that. It's a huge privilege, and I was like a giddy schoolgirl when I found out.
At the callback, Anthony and I looked at each other, and the noises they were making behind the glass, we were like 'This might actually happen!' We were both very excited, and we've been excited ever since."
Anthony Ruivivar, the voice of Batman (left, seen with Batman's IRL best friend on the right):
On becoming the voice of Batman:
"I was lucky. I won the lottery. My agent sent me out for the new Batman cartoon, and they were very secretive about it, so I only got to read little bits and pieces. Just little scenes. So I went in and read, and they seemed to like it. I went in with JB to the studio, and we got to read opposite each other with Andrea Romano, and they listened to us do the scenes together and made the decision. It was awesome.
When I got it, I went home, and I have a four year-old boy. I said 'I'm Batman!' And he looks at me and goes "I'M Batman." I said "No, I'm the voice of Batman," and he said 'Right. I'm Batman.' It's not going to happen. Then a month later, he brings two Batman t-shirts home, one for me and one for him, and goes 'We're both Batman.'
It's our chance to put our little stamp on it by looking at a point in time. It's Batman in his thirties, no Robin, we're dealing with a Batman who's steal dealing with the Rubik's Cube that's Bruce Wayne and Batman and how he navigates those personalities, and he's a Batman who goes out sometimes half-cocked. He finds himself in bad situations and gets hurt, he's not the hardened, grizzled, indestructible Batman of his later years. It's an exciting, fun place to be. We also get to see Batman with this rogues gallery of lesser known villains that are being animated for the first time, and more importantly, you'll see Batman interact with them for the first time, so you get the genesis of that relationship. It's really exciting."
On Batman's identity:
"We came up with three different voices. Not entirely different, just slight variants. We have a public Bruce Wayne, who's this playboy billionaire, the facade that he shows Gotham. We've got a private Bruce Wayne, who's much more introspective, quiet, brooding with Alfred. Then we've got Batman, what happens when he puts on his suit of armor and goes out to kick ass.
We dealt with those three voices. He does refer to Batman as Batman and when he's Batman, he refers to Bruce Wayne as Bruce Wayne. That's his way of keeping them separate. They aren't one to him, there's a duality to him that, psychologically, is the only way he can keep everything in a box. In a great way, this season will explore the toll that takes, and that's some of the really exciting stuff to me. He'll have to spend time as one persona more than the other, and that starts taking its toll. Batman and Bruce Wayne are yin and yang, they have to coexist for it to be okay. If you don't have the release, what happens? We play with some of that stuff.
The hardest thing was keeping it in the range. When he's Batman, he has a very specific range. Some of the things you have to do vocally are a little difficult to do in that range. I don't do the deep, deep gravelly voice, but I didn't really spend too much time thinking about how he sounds. I really spent time thinking about who this human being is. As Public Bruce Wayne, what's he trying to accomplish? As Private Bruce Wayne, instantly, what is he dealing with or grappling with? The same thing with Batman. He's a detective, he has this lighting sharp mind, he's ten steps ahead and everything is a chess match. He's putting it all together.
It's about formulating those thoughts and wrapping his mind around it. That's where I started. I tried to go inside-out."