Forging The Fantastic: Tom Tataranowicz Talks Fantastic Four
Tom Tataranowicz served as the Supervising Producer for the second season of Marvel Action Hour’s Fantastic Four animated series. The Marvel Animation Age and Toon Zone News caught up with Tom in an email interview to talk about his work on the show, and how he went about turning one of the worst comic book cartoons of all time into something truly fantastic.
MARVEL ANIMATION AGE/TOON ZONE NEWS: How did you come to work on Fantastic Four and what did your duties include?
TOM TARANOWICZ: My crew and I had just finished 65 Episodes of Biker Mice From Mars for New World Animation. That particular series had been very successful and had been the #1 syndicated show for a while.
Anyway, New World and Marvel Animation were basically the same company. Marvel had seemingly been unhappy with the first seasons of both Fantastic Four and Iron Man, an opinion which I must say that I concurred with. They had apparently liked what I and my crew had done with Biker Mice both creatively and quality-wise, and asked us to take over the second seasons of both Fantastic Four and Iron Man.
My official job title was as Supervising Producer. That meant that I was the one responsible for the re-vamp of the total look of the series, putting together what I wanted to be the season’s stories and arcs for approval, selecting the crew, functioning as Voice Director and Supervising Story Editor, and overseeing and finalizing all of the scripts. I also supervised the Post Production among myriad other duties such as working with the Overseas studio, etc.
MAA/TZN: What steps did you take to improve the quality of the show from season one?
TARANOWICZ: I had really not cared much for the “robin’s egg blue” costumes of the first season. While they accurately reflected the toy designs, I felt that they were, well… rather a bit on the wimpy side and lacked a certain “cool factor quotient” which I felt that Super Heroes should posses. I didn’t want to get too retro and so pretty quickly zeroed in on the dark blue costumes that John Byrne had drawn for the FF in during the 1980’s.
For the look of the characters themselves, much discussion was initially held about working in the Jack Kirby style. I was not for that, however much I personally liked and admired Kirby’s work. I felt that the strength of Kirby’s own unique talent carried the look of his designs to such an extent that trying to execute it in animation would require animators to try and capture that, and would surely disappoint. I believe that this was borne out a few years later with the Silver Surfer show, which had tried to mimic the Kirby look in a mass production animation series and which I personally consider pretty much of an artistic failure.
That was why I proposed using the John Buscema look to the characters. Not only was it Kirby-esque to some degree, it had the added value of being more realistic – a style which I felt that the PASI animators in the Philippines were comfortable with and could execute nicely. Also, we had Buscema’s How To Draw The Marvel Way book and videotape to provide them with. We felt that we could thus inundate them with valuable reference to ensure getting the look that we wanted. We also hired John Buscema to do some initial model designs of the characters’ faces for us to use.
As mentioned above, we had contracted with PASI to do the animation for the series. PASI had grown incredibly as a studio in the years that we did Biker Mice with them, had become a top notch studio and were certainly more than up for the task.
Perhaps the most major concern to me were the stories. I had felt that we needed to do strong, very faithful stories of the FF canon and lose the silliness and all too blatant “toy selling” aspect of the first season episodes. Nonetheless, however I may feel about the first season, they are a part of the FF history, that is why I included them in the light blue costumes in one scene of the new Main Title that we did for the second season.
MAA/TZN: How does one carry out a revamp as big as the one undertaken in this show?
TARANOWICZ: It all starts with a strong crew that shares the same vision. Once we had done some preliminary design work, I pitched the concept to Marvel Animation and Toy Biz. There was some resistance at first about changing the costumes because of the toys. While it is all too easy for producers to harshly bad mouth toy company influences on shows, they do pay the freight and have needs that should be adequately while also creatively addressed. Toy Biz was more than reasonable to deal with and quickly approved everything with Avi Arad also on board for getting the best quality show possible.
Then, the key was to hire the right point person. I hired Larry Houston to produce the series under me. Larry was a long time FF fan and was very excited at the prospect. His love and fealty towards the subject matter certainly went a very long way in its successful execution.
The final step was hiring a team of Story Editors and writers that could faithfully execute the desired vision that we had developed.
MAA/TZN: What was your opinion towards the first season? Considering the improved quality of most shows airing at the time, can you offer any insight into why it was poor as it was?
TARANOWICZ: I personally thought very little of the first season. The stories seemed poorly conceived and weakly executed, and lacked any strong artistic vision that I could discern. Basically, I think that it may have been the end result of the wrong people being put in charge for the wrong reasons, making the wrong decisions on many production and creative fronts and having no real love or respect for the subject matter.
MAA/TZN: What did you think to the show’s animation? Where there any particular logistical problems dealing with a foreign studio?
TARANOWICZ: If you are referring to the second season animation, I think that it stands right up there with the best TV action animation being done at the time. In fact, without appearing to brag (too much), let me state that some episodes, such as the one where the FF and Thor battle Ego, may be among the best ever done.
In my opinion, the key to success in getting the highest quality animation back from a foreign studio is in doing the best possible pre-production packages (Models, Storyboards, Color, etc.) to send to them. One must remember that artists the world over are in animation first and foremost because they like to draw and that they really want to do good work given the opportunity. If you walk into artist work areas in the USA and ones in the Philippines, China or wherever, they look basically the same. Pictures hanging up of favorite artwork, studio gag drawings, posters, kids, dogs, etc. My basic idea is to always try and give the overseas artists the best material to work from so that it inspires their artistic yearnings and doesn’t make them feel like we need them to bail us out because we provided slipshod pre-production work. I like to think of the foreign studio as also being my crew, not just some sort of subcontractors to dump on. That said, we worked very hard to make the shows producible and geared towards achieving the highest possible quality.
As I mentioned above, PASI was more than up for the challenge. Couple that with the Philippine artists love of American culture and a more Western aesthetic overall than say, a Korean studio, we felt real good about our likelihood of success.
MAA/TZN: The show remained very faithful to the comics, especially the Lee/Kirby and Bryne runs. How important do you believe it is to stay faithful to the spirit of the comics when translating them to animation?
TARANOWICZ: I don’t believe that a series necessarily has to faithfully adapt stories to be successful, but keeping the spirit is certainly something which I believe that fans want. That said, I really wanted to try and adapt some of the most significant FF stories for the fans. In Iron Man, the emphasis was for veering more towards original stories, but because of the historical and cultural impact of the Fantastic Four, I thought that the fans deserved faithful adaptations for once. The 1960’s Hanna-Barbera FF, although now enjoyable in its funky crudeness, pretty much sucked. The Marvel 1980’s FF (with a robot instead of the Human Torch!) was not much of a step forward (the less said about the Shmoo & The Thing Show, the better!) and the first season before we took it over offered very little to fans.
However, the trick was in finding stories in the comics that had enough to make a 22-minute episode. Believe it or not, it seemed to require a storyline that covered at least several issues. That is why we had to sometimes combine various storylines (particularly in the Byrne influenced episodes) to make it work.
“And A Blind Man Shall Lead Them” had always seemed like a big fan favorite and seemed like the natural one to kick off the new season with. Fans I have spoken with to seem to agree.
MAA/TZN: What were the advantages/disadvantages to having the show syndicated, rather than on network television which was the norm at the time?
TARANOWICZ: The advantages of being syndicated was not having to deal with network interference. While network input is often sensible and even constructive, any producer of any kind of show, be it animated or live action, can tell you that network input can often be puzzling at best.
The disadvantage was that I feel like the “new, improved” FF was largely overlooked out there. Fans had seen the lame first season and had no way of knowing that it would be any better. Networks would have undoubtedly promoted the show more. Individual syndicators did not seem to do that.
MAA/TZN: Are there any characters/stories you would’ve liked to use but never got the chance to?
TARANOWICZ: I would have liked to have adapted some stories like “This Man, This Monster,” “Him,” and another Silver Surfer story.
MAA/TZN: “Behold, A Distant Star” featured a rather shocking death scene with Franklin Richards. Was there any concern that you wouldn’t be able to show it when it was conceived?
TARANOWICZ: Actually, I had to do a lot of tap dancing to push this one through. One of the Executive Producers, Rick Ungar, was initially concerned, but soon did a lot to champion it through. Nonetheless, we had to be very careful in how we presented everything without watering it down unsatisfactorily. If this had been a network show, I really doubt that we could have gotten it through.
MAA/TZN: Galactus, Dr. Doom and Terrax reappeared a few times in the second season after being treated like comedy characters in season one. Was it difficult to make them seem like a threat again?
TARANOWICZ: Not really… I simply did them as if the first season did not exist. The key had to be in the strength of how we presented them as well as in the stories themselves. In fact, that is why I decided to re-do the whole “Doomsday” storyline in which Dr. Doom stole the Silver Surfer’s powers. They had more or less done that story in the first season, but rather poorly, in my opinion. This had always been on of the touchstone stories of the FF legend and I felt that it deserved better. So I said, “Screw it, we’re gonna do it right.”
MAA/TZN: Are there any characters you felt disappointed you in the show, or any characters you think you could’ve done more with?
TARANOWICZ: For reasons which I cannot clearly state, I was disappointed in the “Hulk vs Thing” episode. It never really seemed to gel for me and, although I certainly think that it worked well enough, did not live up to my expectations for such a classic concept.
MAA/TZN: Did you know that episode 26 would be the last episode you’d worked on or where there plans for a third season? What would’ve you have liked to do with season three if given the opportunity?
TARANOWICZ: We did not have any idea if there would be a third season or not, but after seeing how the new season was not being promoted as different and kinda felt like it was just being “dumped” out there, the handwriting seemed to be on the wall. We quickly moved on to developing The Incredible Hulk series.
For a third season, I had wanted to go into the whole Sue Storm pregnancy story arc. That also would have given us a chance to do our take on the Submariner as he played into the whole thing a la FF issues leading up to and around FF #100. Bringing Medusa and She-Hulk into the mix as part of the FF was also rolling around in my head.
MAA/TZN: What’s your overall opinion of the series?
TARANOWICZ: I am extremely proud of the series. I believe that it had some of the highest quality of any TV animated superhero series. Sadly, I feel that season two FF, as well as the second season Iron Man, have been largely overlooked and certainly deserve better attention than they have received. I am personally very happy to have been able to contribute in some positive way to the legacy of a medium and subject matter that was such an integral part of my growing up and artistic development.
I am also very proud of the new main title that we designed. I had wanted to cover the scope of the history of the FF by not only showing their origin, by featuring several classic FF covers brought to “life.” The series composer, Will Anderson, did a theme and I drove around for hours in my car listening to it over and over. That is one way that I like to work on conceptual things, especially main titles, just letting images come to mind that the music inspires. I then wrote up a “beat script” and Dick Sebast did the storyboard.
MAA/TZN: What are you currently working on?
TARANOWICZ: I am currently partners in my own animation studio, Tom T. Animation / Gang of Seven Animation. Most recently, we have just finished 26 new episodes of Biker Mice From Mars, which is currently the #1 show in England and other parts of Europe. For this reincarnation, we hired the accomplished comic book artist, Bernie Wrightson, to re-vamp the characters and design new characters.
We are also developing a number of projects, TV, Feature and Internet. Among them are two “R” rated horror films designed by Bernie. One is actually “Freak Show,” based on the Bruce Jones / Bernie Wrightson graphic novel. We also are finishing the animation on a 5 minute short based on Bernie’s “Change For A Dollar” poster. We hope to have a World Premier of that short at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. If anyone is interested, they can catch up on more of what we are up to on our website: www.g7animation.com.
The Marvel Animation Age and Toon Zone News would like to thank Tom for his participation in this interview, and his work on the show. Cheers Tom!