What A Tangled Web We Weave - Bob Richardson Talks Spider-Man
Bob Richardson was the Supervising Producer of Spider-Man: The Animated Series. His job was to oversee every aspect of the show’s strenuous production from start to finish. The Marvel Animation Age and Toon Zone News caught up with Bob via e-mail to speak about his work on the show.
Marvel Animation Age/Toon Zone News: How did you come to serve as Supervising Producer on Spider-Man: The Animated Series and what were your duties on the show?
Bob Richardson: Stan Lee knew my work and me from the 1980s, when we worked together at Marvel Productions. Stan joined together with Avi Arad to start a new entity to produce the Spider-Man series under the production name of Marvel Films. I came in and met with them and they hired me to produce and direct the series. At the time they had already signed a writer-story editor-producer to the series that had been recommended by the network, whose work I wasn’t really familiar with. Soon after that, I started to build the staff and the studio that it would take to do such a project. Some people were under the impression that we were a part of New World Animation, but we were actually a separate entity from them.
My job on the Spider-Man series was to supervise everything, starting with story and ending with the delivery of the show to Fox. In addition, I needed to build a studio, which didn’t exist at the time I was hired. The first thing I did was to bring in John Cawley as a coordinating producer/production manager (who is also author of a number of animation books based on his extensive experience in the business). I had worked with John at Film Roman and found him to be a very talented production person that the studio would need for this level of production. I wanted to build a studio in the San Fernando Valley that would be more centrally located to most people, but we were forced to use space in the New World building, which was on the west side in L.A. Then, as we started building a studio in the New World building, I started looking for staff to work on Spidey.
Some key people were needed for this complex project, so one of the first hires was a talented background designer and art director – Dennis Venizelos, who I’d worked with before at Marvel Productions. Another key person I hired was a talented production designer and layout artist – Vladimir Spasojevic. I brought on staff Hank Tucker to lead the storyboard crew. For most of the finished character designs I hired Dell Barras and for the major props I employed Wayne Schulz. Our colorists were Allyn Conley and Derdad Aghamalian. I brought in Bob Shellhorn, who I had worked with before, to handle sheet timing and eventually we would add many more people to the staff to handle the workload of this series. Later I would hire Richard Allen to set up and run the editorial facilities. I had worked with Richard before and knew he had the talent and ability to set up an Avid editing system and run editorial.
Meanwhile, in the bottom of the parking structure I had a carpenter building artists desks, because there were none available at the time. So, what you can see here was a major undertaking to create a whole new studio from scratch, while you’re trying to start a major series into production. One serious problem we encountered was that the writer-story editor-producer that had been hired had to be replaced six months into the schedule (after much struggle, it became very obvious that he was unable to write the series). This was a terrible time for me, because in the same week we had to replace this person, my mother died and my wife had a heart attack. It sounds like a cheap soap opera, but it was all real, unfortunately. We weathered all of this and finally got production on track, but a great deal of pre-production writing time was lost forever.
While all this was going on, we started casting voices for all the characters that the series would need. This was an ongoing process, but we would end up with about 100 actors by the time dialogue director Tony Pastor would finish. Fortunately, they wouldn’t all be in every episode. Roscoe Lee Browne, who voiced the Kingpin in about 30 episodes, was a wonderfully gifted actor and a fantastic person that represented just one of the extraordinary team of actors voicing our characters for the series. Sadly, he passed away recently. Our other actors in this huge cast, were incredible as well – actors like Ed Asner, Martin Landau, Mark Hamill, Hank Azaria and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., just to name a few.
I wanted an orchestral score behind the Spider-Man series, so we began to explore doing that with a composer and orchestra in Israel at a price we could afford. At the same time we approached Aerosmith to do the main title theme and were able to get Joe Perry, the lead guitarist and vocalist to do the title and main theme for us.
Later on, right in the middle of production, we were forced to move out of the New World building and even though we had to rebuild the whole studio once again, at least it was in the valley where it would be more centrally located for most of the staff to travel to. It was also more convenient doing postproduction, because although I could supervise the picture editing in the studio, I had to travel to Advantage Audio, located in Burbank, to supervise the sound effects and the mix. Music was cut in another location, which was also in the valley. Dennis Graham and some talented editors that worked with him did the final production on-line at Complete Post in Hollywood. It was a bit of a drive, but I didn’t have to go there as much as Dennis did. The 3-D effects house that we used, Kronos, was located in Glendale.
TZN/MAA: How much control did you have over the visuals of the series? Was there a particular look or design aesthetic you were going for?
Richardson: I had quite a lot of control over the visuals, but I also had to please Stan Lee and Avi Arad as well as our client, Margaret Loesch, who was President of Fox Children’s Network. They always had input into what we were doing and we listened, reacted and found a way to bring everyone’s thoughts together and do what was best for the series.
From the beginning, we were determined not to copy Batman, even though it was a highly successful series. Spidey should have its own unique look, not copy Batman in any way, just because it was successful.
The Batman film-noir style using Art Deco backgrounds (with a lot of black) and the more stylized character designs seemed to fit perfectly with Batman’s origins. Gotham and bat caves and the whole period characteristic of the original material seemed to demand this kind of stylized concept for that series, which I think the producers of that show achieved perfectly (with a slight nod to the 1940s Superman cartoons produced by Max Fleischer).
Stan’s concept for Spider-Man was more reality based than the Batman material with a real student, quite poor and down on his luck, living with his Aunt in a real city – New York. It grounds this character so well with a contemporary audience, that when he goes through this life changing event of accidentally acquiring superpowers, the audience can relate to him even in this extraordinary circumstance. In theory, it could even happen to them. Even the super villains are more interesting, when they are placed in a realistic city environment. So this was the key to the direction we would take in developing the style of the show.
Spider-Man would be designed to be more realistic than Batman and in an environment that was more authentic and as contemporary as possible. Consequently, it was a lot harder to achieve, because doing reality in animation on TV budgets is no easy problem. The drawing and design skill as well as the animation expertise is very demanding with less room for error. We also did quite a bit of research to make sure that New York City was as accurate as we could make it.
In addition, to make the show have a dramatic edge and work better for animation, I was always pushing for exaggeration of that “reality” in any and every way we could. Exaggeration is what makes animation work best, even when you’re trying to achieve a live-action reality. That is also why we attempted to add CGI backgrounds to the show at a time when it was unheard of for a children’s television show, because of the cost and where the technology was at the time. But we felt if Spidey could actually swing around buildings in three dimensions, it would push the reality of the series even further. Unfortunately, we had to limit what we did with this, because we had a very small — you might say microscopic — budget for it. We also attempted to give the show a live-action film quality to further enhance the “realism” that we were looking for and treat each episode almost like a mini-movie.
TZN/MAA: The series originally featured some stylized character designs (most notably Peter Parker) that were much closer to the original comics – did you have any input on the final versions?
Richardson: The Peter Parker design which can be found in Wikipedia was just a preliminary design, of which there were many. This was an exploratory design only and shouldn’t have left the studio, but New World and Marvel were trying to get some early promotional material out and stuff happens, especially in the case of the Peter Parker artwork. I traced the Parker design (an early design by Mike Peraza) to a publication called “Spider-Man Magazine” (December 1994) and the other larger piece of artwork of Spidey and the villains (created at Marvel Comics), I traced to an industry magazine called “Preview Television” (October 1994). The art showing just Spider-Man was the only one in Wikipedia that represented the style and direction of the series. Once that magazine artwork got out, it could show up almost anywhere.
I gave input on virtually everything we did in the studio including character designs and was a big fan of John Romita Sr., whose work we looked at along with numbers of other comic book artists when we were trying to find the right animation style for the series. But ultimately, we decided to try to make Peter look younger and more contemporary than he seemed to look in a lot of the comics. Again, with a view to reality, we thought he was looking a bit long in the tooth at times for a young college age student.
TZN/MAA: In a similar vein, Peter Parker’s wardrobe was revamped for season 2 and he lost his striped T-shirt. Did you have any input on these and other visual changes between seasons?
Richardson: In the case of Peter Parker’s wardrobe, the problem was finding some cool and appropriate costuming for Peter that wouldn’t look too old fashioned or become a contemporary style that was out of date by the time the series aired.
Parker’s design as it turned out, was one of the toughest to finalize and even then, we ended up revising it in the second season to make it better. We felt we could do better than the design we started with and give Peter a cooler look. I was always involved with the changes of costume or character, but we finalized these designs as a team effort in conjunction with our client.
TZN/MAA: You previously worked with the character on Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends. What experiences did you learn working on that show did you apply when working on this one?
Richardson: Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends was done at a time when less respect was paid to the origins of these characters. So, when it was being developed, Peter Parker was given a dog. Peter also had a lab built under his bedroom floor. The clients at that time didn’t concern themselves with the fact that Peter wouldn’t have the financial ability to have such an elaborate set-up built into his Aunt’s house, not to mention how it got there. Those kinds of changes were commonplace back then, made to satisfy some kind of program testing I suppose, but we were determined not to have that happen in our new series and to Fox’s credit they were in total agreement.
TZN/MAA: The show was harshly treated by Broadcast Standards and Practices. What effort went into creating an action show without any real violence? Do you believe it had an adverse effect on the overall quality of the show?
Richardson: I think we had a tougher time with BS&P because of the realistic design style that we decided to use for Spider-Man, as opposed to the more stylized Batman series. I was told by BS&P that Batman was a cartoonier show; therefore the restrictions were a little more liberal. Batman was also considered a period piece, because of the style, so they got away with fewer restrictions because it was felt that you were watching something from another era.
In addition, Batman started before an increased sensitivity to violence became more prevalent in children’s TV. Also, Fox didn’t have the magnifying glass on them like the other three major networks when they first started their big push into children’s programming. But, eventually, everyone was affected by that new sensitivity.
As far as the quality of the Spider-Man series, I think we have always worked around the BS&P problems with every show we’ve done for televisio. You find ways to make the action, humor and dramatics work within those restrictions. Time, talent and money do more to shape the quality of the work than BS&P ever did.
TZN/MAA: The villains in the show were often changed from the comics in their adaptation (Hobgoblin before Green Goblin, etc). Are there any you are particularly proud of, or wish you could change, looking back?
Richardson: Some adjustments were made to how the villains worked in the series versus what happened in the comics, but you make those adjustments with an eye to making the show as strong as you can. Remember, it’s not like we didn’t have a lot of great comic book people looking at everything we did, including Stan Lee. If we went back today to make the series, everything would change, because we would approach it with a whole new perspective.
TZN/MAA: Any specific story or episode you wanted to do but never got the chance to?
Richardson: Our goal with the series of 65 half hours, was to bring most of the classic characters and stories from the books to the screen. I think we did that pretty well, all things considered. Keep in mind that some characters were not really available for us to use in the series, but if we had been able to continue to make more episodes, it would have been nice to develop stories beyond the great classics that everyone was familiar with and see what kind of new ground we could break after establishing this great Spidey playground to work in.
TZN/MAA: The animation of the show has fallen under considerable criticism from the fans in terms of re-used and recycled animation. Any comments?
Richardson: Unfortunately, animation does not always end up looking like it should, particularly when it’s been short changed at some point in the production pipeline. When that happens and you can’t get a retake, you find different solutions to try to solve the problem. Reuse of animation that looks good, is at times, a better solution than looking at a new, but horribly animated scene. This reuse of scenes is not the perfect solution, but at times the only option you have to solve certain problems.
TZN/MA: How much did James Cameron’s in production Spider-Man movie influence the series?
Richardson: I don’t think Cameron’s Spider-Man had much effect on what we were doing at all. First, his movie wasn’t in production, so it’s not like you could see anything to influence what you might do with our series. We weren’t allowed to see his treatment for his movie, so that couldn’t affect what we were doing. About the only real affect that Cameron’s Spidey had on us was not being able to use the character Sandman, because of a previous agreement with Cameron. We really wanted to use Sandman, even though it would have been somewhat of a production nightmare to do his sand effects in animation.
TZN/MAA: Given TMS’ reputation for their technical excellence at animation on other contemporary series, and the very high quality of “Night of the Lizard”, why did the animation quality of Spider-Man become very noticeably worse with each season, resulting in some four-frames per second shots in some later episodes?
Richardson: We made a deal with TMS to do the entire 65 episodes of Spider-Man, which was an unusual deal for them to make. They usually wouldn’t take on this many episodes of a show like this. I believe that over time, as the scripts became more and more complicated and the production was costing them more by virtue of the yen to dollar exchange, they had to find ways to get their costs down. This problem usually results in reduced quality.
I do think that our last season was destined for problems beyond that, because of a three-month delay in those scripts and when they did finally arrive, they were the most complex scripts we had to date. Those scripts went against everything we were trying to do in an effort to keep the workload on all of the production at a reasonable level. By that time we had lost some key writers like Stan Berkowitz, Brooks Wachtel and Gerry Conway.
Actually, we lost Gerry Conway after the pilot script “Night of the Lizard.” He went on to great success in prime time television, eventually becoming an Executive Producer and Writer on the phenomenally successful prime time series Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Our whole staff as well as the overseas staff had to scramble to make up for the lost production time and overly complicated scripts of season 5, which then affected the quality and the amount of mistakes that ended up in those final episodes.
TZN/MAA: What are the main logistical problems/advantages with dealing with a foreign animation studio?
Richardson: The obvious problems that you would have with a foreign studio is that they aren’t close by; they speak a different language and live in a different culture. That has improved somewhat with time and experience and we have better ways of communicating back and forth today, but it isn’t like being able to drive across town and see what’s going on at a local studio or having the work all done in house at our studio.
The advantage of this foreign production has always been one of controlling costs. It is so much more economical to have the production done in certain foreign countries because the labor is so much cheaper.
TZN/MAA: How easy was it for TMS to handle the 3-D rendered backgrounds along with the series’ digital coloring? What made you decide to go with digital coloring, given how new it was at the time?
Richardson: It took some preliminary testing and experimentation to get a system working with TMS to integrate the 3-D material with the 2-D material, but it’s not that surprising, given that it hadn’t been done much, if at all in television series work before that time.
As far as digital coloring was concerned, I’m convinced that we couldn’t have done the series with conventional ink and paint without really hurting the quality of the series. There were too many characters with a lot of detail and shadows, which would have been exorbitant to do with conventional ink and paint. That was my reasoning for doing it at the time and I still believe it was the right thing to do, even though it was tough to set up in the beginning of the production.
TZN/MAA: There are a lot of repeated shots throughout the series that were either slowed down or sped up in video editing depending on the dialogue. Was this to effectively “plug in” gaps of animation that were unfinished or unsatisfactory?
Richardson: Again, lots of problems arise in production and even from mistakes in pre-production. When we can’t get a retake to fix a problem, we will resort to an editorial solution, which can include repeated shots, sped up scenes and unfortunately, slowed down scenes (which I hate to do, and avoid as much as possible). Without the ability to actually animate a new scene or fix the old scene with a retake, you’re forced to find other solutions. Also, if we found a weakness in our story telling that could be helped by editing an existing scene or scenes into the reel, we would do it.
TZN/MAA: How did you go about crafting a new visual take on Spider-Man’s world, and the New York City skyline in particular?
Richardson: In the very beginning we were looking at the possibility of creating a CGI New York, but that proved to be an impossible task for our situation, so we created extensive designs of the city based on existing maps, photos, drawings, etc. We created key areas in the city that would work for our stories, such as the Kingpin’s lair in the Chrysler building or Norman Osborn’s industrial plant near the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge. Since New York is a well known city, we tried to keep a sense of exactly where things took place in the city, so that it would seem as realistic as possible.
Vladimir Spasojevic (mentioned earlier) was the head of the background layout team. Vlad was a live-action production designer with a background in architecture, who could take the Chrysler building and open the side of it like a big giant door and keep it looking plausible. Even though we had some very talented artists working with Vlad, I credit him with pushing the layout team to achieve the kind of exaggerated, but believable realism that I was looking for in the series.
TZN/MA: What would you have done in season six if given the opportunity? Was anything planned before the axe fell?
Richardson: I think I answered this already in question 8, but in truth we knew we weren’t doing any new Spider-Man episodes beyond season 5, but were hoping to do the Silver Surfer as a series and actually had started to do some preliminary development on it. Unfortunately, when Marvel was sold, our animation unit was dumped and everything that was to be done went to the Saban Studio.
TZN/MAA: What would you do differently if you were given the opportunity to go back?
Richardson: Unfortunately, nobody gets to go back except George Lucas. But, if I were to go back I would probably want to change everything. Nothing stays the same, including me. We would have a whole new set of circumstances – some good, some bad and all quite challenging, but quite different from what happened in the 90s series. All those things would affect everything we would do in a new series. As a creator, nobody wants to do the same thing again, anyway, so I would be looking at how we could make the next leap beyond what we did in this series, as we did after having worked on the earlier Spider-Man series like Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.
TZN/MAA: What’s your overall opinion of the show?
Richardson: I think we did a credible job with some very difficult challenges to overcome. Could it have been better? It sure could have, but not under those circumstances. If you just take the nine months of lost script time (6 months in the beginning and 3 months affecting season 5), it’s a miracle that we were able to do what we did. Add to that, building two complete studios from scratch during production and now you have another level of miracle.
Ultimately, the audience seemed to appreciate what we were trying to achieve back then and it was relatively successful in its time.
The Marvel Animation Age and Toon Zone News would like to thank Mr. Richardson for his participation in this interview, and his work on the show. Cheers Bob!