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How Did the X-Men Evolve? Animator/Director Steven Gordon Explains

Steven E. Gordon is an animator, character designer and director who has worked on such hits as X-Men: Evolution, The Black Cauldron, Oliver & Co., and Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse. He recently spoke to Toon Zone about his work.

Toon Zone: How did you get started in the animation business?

Steve Gordon: It started as more of a dare than anything else. My high school art teacher saw an ad asking for portfolio submissions and she felt it would help me if I got a professional review prior to my going to college. Neither of us expected that I would actually get offered the job. I started working on Lord of the Rings for Bakshi Productions and my school counselor helped me arrange to graduate by finishing my schooling at night.

TZ: You were a character designer on X-Men: Evolution. How did you go about redesigning the X-Men as teenagers for TV?

SG: We decided to try and go back to their roots as much as possible. I researched back to the old Kirby days and tried to incorporate certain ideas, such as making Scott tall and more slender than his normal comic incarnation—after all, his original nickname was “Slim.” We also wanted to utilize typical teenage archetypes such as the jock, the loner, and the partier.

My original idea for their costumes was to use a design similar to the original yellow and black costumes that Kirby designed. This idea wasn’t utilized until the new recruits came into the show in season 2.

TZ: Were any restrictions placed upon you, from the movies and the original FOX cartoon?

SG: There were no restrictions from the movie. Actually, we were given a hand in some things such as being allowed to utilize the design for Xavier’s chair, and when we were struggling with a Sabretooth design, they showed us the direction the movie was going with him, which gave me a jumping off point.

As far as the original Fox cartoon went, we felt the best thing was to completely ignore it and start fresh.

TZ: According to various places, you’ve done some actual animation for X-Men Evolution. Do you have any favorite scenes you’ve animated? Were there any that were particularly challenging to do?

SG: All the animation I did for X-M:E was enjoyable, whether it was the walk/run cycles I did to help the overseas animators create individual personalities, or the dancing that was needed for specific episodes. It’s always fun to get a chance to move characters that you design. It allows me to take character design to the next level.

TZ: Which of your X-Men designs is your favourite?

SG: There are elements in every character that I enjoy, but I’ve got an especially fond spot for Rogue, Wanda, and BoomBoom. I guess I like the bad girls. Actually, I can’t think of any of the characters I don’t like in one way or another. It would’ve been difficult for me to design them if I couldn’t find something to like in each one of them. This also includes all the miscellaneous background characters to some degree also.

TZ: Were there any stipulations as what not to do when working on X-Men Evolution? Anything you wanted to consciously avoid?

SG: None that I can think of that were imposed by the network or Marvel. I had certain things I wanted to accomplish. For example, I imposed the “small breast” concept on myself on most of the girls, and I also avoided overloading most of the male characters with enormous muscles.

TZ: Which characters proved most difficult to design?

SG: The obvious answer is Wolverine/Logan. Since, in a lot of ways, Wolvy is Marvel’s “Mickey Mouse,” there was more focus placed on what we did with him than with any other character. But to be fair, there were other characters (like Sabretooth) that took a long time to create a look that seemed appropriate to the show. After the first season I seemed to understand what the look of the show was and had a lot less trouble with creating any new characters. It’s always the first few characters of a show that are the most difficult.

TZ: On your website you’ve got designs for several comic book properties, including Catwoman, Spider-Man, and Blade. Where any of these potential designs for shows, or were they just part of your portfolio?

SG: Some of those were intended for presentation in one form or another. Sometimes I’m asked to throw my hat in the ring when a new show is being conceptualized and I’ll work up my vision for the characters. Sometimes they get used, and sometimes they don’t and then they end up just fleshing out my portfolio. Others were created just for fun.

TZ: Can you tell us about your work for the unproduced Batman direct-to-video feature Batman: Asylum?

SG:That was a project that Boyd Kirkland was producing and writing after the success of his Sub-Zero feature. I had done some storyboard work for him on Sub-Zero and a little character design, including some attitudes and expressions for some of the characters like Batgirl. He asked me to help him after he was given the freedom to do a “slight” re-design of the characters. This was something I’d never tried before and I leapt at the opportunity. It was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. decided to shelve the project and go with the Batman Beyond video instead.

TZ: Are there any characters you’d still like to tackle?

SG: I wouldn’t mind trying more of the DC characters as well as many more of the Marvel characters. To tell the truth, I wouldn’t mind another chance at some of the characters I’ve already designed before.

But, as long as you’re asking, a personal favorite project would be to work on some of the characters from the Burroughs universe, such as John Carter of Mars, David Innes, and Tarzan.

TZ: What are your influences as an artist and as an animator?

SG: I started out, like many of my generation, being enamored by Frazetta as well as many of the artists working in comics at the time. Artists like Kirby, Ditko, Kubert, and Gil Kane were especially big influences on me. I also was a huge fan of Fechin, Cole, Wyeth, and many of the other great illustrators. In animation I was heavily influenced by Tytla, Kahl, Davis, Rietherman, and many of the other great Disney animators.

TZ: How difficult was it to make the translation from being a character designer to a director?

SG: It wasn’t my character-designing background that helped me in the job of directing, it was my background as an animator. Also, having worked as a story artist proved invaluable. For me the leap into directing seemed a natural and simple transition.

TZ: What’s next for you? What projects do you have planned for the future?

SG: That’s not so easy to be specific, but ideally I would like to stay working as a director in either features , direct-to-video, or TV. Unfortunately it’s too difficult to predict what I will be working on after my current commitment, but I’m sure that it’ll be exciting. It’s been very rare during my 27 years in the biz that I’ve had to work on something I didn’t find worthwhile.

TZ: Thanks Steve!

The images used in this interview were used with permission from Steve’s website: The Art of Steven E. Gordon.

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