Turning an Avenger Golden: Tom Tataranowicz Talks Iron Man
Realizing that their Iron Man and Fantastic Four cartoons were in dire need of a revamp, Marvel turned to Tom Tataranowicz and in turn, he and his crew revamped the shows from the ground up, turning poor shows into some of Marvel’s finest. The Marvel Animation Age and Toon Zone News caught up with Tom to talk via email about his work on Iron Man.
TOON ZONE NEWS/MARVEL ANIMATION AGE: Iron Man underwent a more drastic revamp than its Fantastic Four counterpart as the series turned from a team show with Forceworks into a solo show in which his former partners were rarely featured. Was there ever any resistance to removing Forceworks from the show, especially as the majority of the team were already featured heavily in the show’s toyline?
TOM TATARANOWICZ: There was indeed somewhat significant back and forth on revamping the line up. However, since Marvel was not at all happy with the previous season’s shows, they quickly started to warm to the concepts I was putting forth.
I can’t say enough about how supportive I felt that both Rick Ungar and Avi Arad were. They liked what the Biker Mice from Mars crew had been doing and wanted us to bring that to the Marvel series. Rick trusted my judgment and gave me a lot of latitude. A good writer in his own right, Rick often had very good creative input. Both he and Avi really wanted nicely done shows that were not only exciting and interesting, but utilized an entertaining sense of humor, as was a hallmark of the Marvel comics.
I think that they, Marvel and Toy Biz all felt that a well done and popular show would sell more toys than a weak and poorly watched series would. Also, they may have felt that the fan base needed to be more meaningfully engaged and satisfied. That said, working with the team at Toy Biz was a good experience. Even when we proposed changing the color keys of some characters which were already toys, they were very cooperative.
Perhaps the biggest overall conceptual change was to divest the story lines of pretty much everyone but Iron Man, War Machine, and Spider Woman after the first (14th) Episode. To mitigate this, I wanted to set up a season long arc for all the major characters while also introducing the idea of a “mini-serial” at the end of each episode with the Mandarin gathering his rings. Then, I proposed bringing the Mandarin and many of the characters back for the season finale shows.
After outlining the season, its arcs and the finale that it would all lead to, it seems that everyone’s agendas were going to be well served and we went into production. The concept of Stark’s armor somehow able to morph and change upon command may have stretched scientific credibility to the breaking point, but worked for keeping story momentum going. It also enabled us to use and showcase various cool armors in episodes without having to deal with where Stark kept getting them from. But no one seemed to mind overly much. Ah! The beauty of animation!
Initially there was a bit of grief about our wanting Tony Stark to have long, shoulder length hair. It was felt that he might look too much like Conan. Stark actually worn this sort of hair at some point in the comics, probably in the 1980’s. Nonetheless, we wanted to distance him from the plethora of clean cut alter egos ala Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, etc. It also billboarded that this season was different than the previous one. Aesthetically, the idea of an uber-business man with unfashionably long hair also seemed like an ideal way to solidify his character of an outsider who marched to his own drum.
Oddly, another minor stumbling block initially had to do with the Stan Lee intros. I had advocated eliminating them in the interest of more screen time for the stories. However, it was felt that Stan’s vast legion of fans liked seeing him intro the episodes and that not using him could frankly be interpreted as insulting to Stan. I realized that they were right. We thus did shorter Stan Lee intros with Stan “green screened” so we could place him against Backgrounds from the shows. Sort of a nifty way to showcase Stan as well as some very nice key BGs. Using his previous live action experience, Rick Ungar set everything up and I directed Stan through the intros. Stan’s energy was and is amazing, and I think these came out rather well, adding nicely to both the Fantastic Four and Iron Man series.
TZN/MAA: Was there any conflict regarding the radical revamping of the majority of the show’s character models? Were there any particular comic book artists you were inspired by at the time?
TATARANOWICZ: There was really no resistance to the revamp of the series design and art direction. I don’t believe that they were at all happy with the previous season’s look, so once my team settled on a new design concept, they were right on board.
While Fantastic Four was revamped with John Buscema in mind, we did not have another particular artist in mind for Iron Man. Rather, we went for a more graphic and streamlined approach to the series. We kept a bit of WB’s Batman in mind, mixed it with a little anime flair, and tossed in a touch of a Frank Miller graphic look. We then simplified it to make the details manageable for animation while still maintaining a “cool factor” and stirred it liberally with our teams’ own ideas.
TZN/MAA: Did you find that any of the characters were unsalvageable in your show given how they had been poorly portrayed in season one? What was your personal opinion of the first season?
TATARANOWICZ: The first season was perhaps too much like a toy commercial rather than a faithful and entertaining adaptation of the Iron Man comic legacy. For my money, the amount of characters crammed into each episode was on the overkill side and did not lend itself to satisfying stories.
I was not fond of many of the characters as portrayed in the first season. Some seemed inconsequential and unworthy of Iron Man. Others did not strike me as interesting enough for repeat episodes. Although he was always a favorite Avengers character of mine with his peevish attitude, a little Hawkeye can go a long way.
TZN/MAA: Iron Man was a fairly dark cartoon, especially as its main character was often tortured by his own mistakes/choices. Did you intentionally make the show darker to fit his “lone wolf” attitude?
TATARANOWICZ: Most definitely. What was always intriguing about Iron Man was that inner conflict. The idea of a brilliant man who theoretically had everything going for him without limits, but was often his own worst enemy, was one that we were most anxious to work with.
That led to the concept of War Machine’s falling out with Stark and exploring his own inner demons. The rift put between them, as well as between Iron Man and the rest of Forceworks, because of Stark’s “lone wolf” maneuvering, offered interesting dramatic grist for the mill.
To that end, we also pushed the entire Background look to be one of slick execution and dark darks to reflect the Tony Stark persona.
TZN/MAA: The majority of the actors from the first season were replaced. Was there any particular reason behind the recast?
TATARANOWICZ: Simply put, we thought that we could do better. I was after a much more “natural” delivery in the character acting and was looking for actors that could pull that off for animation, while still providing the dynamics necessary for successful limited TV animation.
TZN/MAA: The relationship between Tony and Julia was one of the better-done romances in animation. What made you partner them up and did you ever think the storyline of him leaving her at the altar would confuse viewers, as it was never actually shown?
TATARANOWICZ: No, I always believe that you have to give the audience credit for much more intelligence than many producers do. After all, being jilted at the altar is an easy concept for anyone, however young, to understand. The result of this history gave us a natural jumping off point for portraying more realistic emotions than was usual in TV animation at the time.
We wanted to do more with the relationship than the usual lovers who can’t get their acts together. In my opinion, giving her an important “real life” role in the series also served to make her a much more interesting character.
Needless to say, a lot of thought went into the season arc of Julia and Tony. In fact, in “Armor Wars” I directed Jennifer Hale (who played Julia) to play the confrontation with Tony at his beach house as if she were drunk. Jennifer is an excellent actress and she really nailed it while walking an admittedly fine line. For obvious reasons drinking was never in any way even hinted at in the episode, but if you watch it with that in mind, it is a pretty clear subtext.
TZN/MAA: Iron Man featured in a few cameo appearances over in Fantastic Four. Was there every any temptation for a full-fledged team up between them or where they intentionally kept apart?
TATARANOWICZ: No, actually, that never came up one way or the other.
TZN/MAA: The Incredible Hulk guest starred in “Hulkbuster.” You later went onto work on his own spin off show. What did you learn from this experience (and his appearance over on Fantastic Four) that helped you develop his own show?
TATARANOWICZ: To never do time travel episodes! Keeping the rules you set clear and consistent can drive anyone crazy! Even when you succeed – as I believe that this episode did – it can be a daunting task.
Seriously, although that episode was indeed done as a “dry run” for the proposed, upcoming Hulk series, the focus was more on the Iron Man side of it. It was kinda fun to try the “GQ” looking Hulk and the casting of the Leader’s voice was a satisfying find.
TZN/MAA: One of the more memorable scenes from the show was Iron Man’s fight with The Mandarin in “Hands Of The Mandarin,” Part One, in which he melts Iron Man’s mask of his face, and boasts how obvious his secret identity was. What was the inspiration for the scene, and were there ever any concerns about having the Mandarin become his archrival for this season?
TATARANOWICZ: To me, the Mandarin was perhaps the key Iron Man villain, so that choice was easy. Casting Robert Ito for the voice made him a really choice character. I felt that putting the Mandarin on a season long quest of recovering his rings did not overuse him, but rather added a nice “cliffhanger” aspect to the series. The key was to design those Mandarin vignettes so that they would make sense no matter what order the shows were ever eventually run in. After the first run of a series, there is very little control over how broadcasters run the order of individual episodes, so that did have to be considered when doing such a continuity.
As for Mandarin “unmasking” Iron Man, it just seemed so right… so satisfying. I mean, what fan wouldn’t want to see that? It also undeniably “upped” the stakes to something of an “nth degree.” After all, if your arch enemy knows your secret identity, how can anything short of one or the other’s complete destruction resolve the problem?
TZN/MAA: Which episodes ormoments stand out the most for you? Are there any that you don’t like, or think they could’ve been done better?
TATARANOWICZ: I am actually quite fond of all of the episodes and consider the series an overall artistic success.
Specifically, I think that the Madame Mask episode came out very well. It was a bit of a concern initially as it violated an unwritten rule of sorts in that the hero did not show up in the first act.
I also quite liked the episode (which was the 2nd episode #15) in which War Machine quits. I think that graphically it came out very well.
The “Dark Aegis” episode in which Iron Man and War Machine traveled to another planet is also one which I liked. Even if the animation quality wasn’t the best in the series and the story did not necessarily gel completely, I still liked it. Using the Crimson Dynamo, one of Iron Man’s long standing nemesis, was satisfying and the Story Editor, Greg Johnson, came up with an interesting idea using Cold War subtext. Incidentally, Toy Biz had shown me designs for a Dark Aegis toy. That was interesting as he was a character created for the series and was never in the comic books. However, I really don’t know if they actually produced that particular toy or not.
The 2-part “Armor Wars” episodes did not quite come together as well as I would have liked. However, given the ambitious nature of the story line, was actually quite successful in my view.
TZN/MAA: What was the inspiration for the show’s incredible opening title sequence with Tony’s past armors ‘haunting’ him as he created his new suit?
TATARANOWICZ: Since I always saw Tony Stark as a sort of modern Renaissance Man, Da Vinci’s immortal drawing of human proportions became a key starting point. From a practical point of view vis-à-vis toys, we needed to make sure that a few suits of armor were shown in every episode. Integrating his “history” of suits as well as his multiple transformations seemed like a good solution. It freed us from having to show Iron Man wearing too many different suits of armor during the episode and having to gear stories around that, compromising them dramatically.
Working with the series’ composer, Will Anderson, he and I decided to go with a techno-rock type of score for the series. Once the composer writes the main title music, I wrote a script to go with the images that the music evoked in my mind. I always do that. Then, collaborating with the series’ producer, Yi Chih Chen, and Storyboard Artist, Robin Brigstocke, we started fine tuning the visuals. Then, it was pitched to Avi Arad and Rick Ungar for their approval.
I always believe that opening titles of a show are very important. They should provide intriguing visuals that not only sum up the series, but also merit repeat viewing. To accomplish this, the artistic concepts must be dynamite of necessity. Otherwise, the audience may simply decide to change channels before the episode begins again. There is no point in doing a good show if the audience is watching another channel, is there?
Also, I always felt a duty to be a good steward to the Marvel franchises while producing them. The comics were so important to my own personal artistic growth when growing up, that the legacy needed to be respected. As in the Fantastic Four opening titles, which were sort of a tribute to the FF legacy and history, a similar nod was also given to Iron Man.
In the end, I was happy, Marvel was happy and Toy Biz was happy. Who could ask for better?
TZN/MAA: What would you have liked to do with a 3rd season, if given the opportunity?
TATARANOWICZ: While I did not have as strong a potential series arc in mind as I did for a possible 3rd Season of Fantastic Four, I had several concepts rolling around in my head. They hinged on a deeper exploration of Tony Stark’s inner demons. While we obviously could not deal with Stark’s alcoholism from the comics, I was toying with other ways to achieve the same dramatics. That, coupled with his guilt over being a weapons manufacturer and his long established inability to have a meaningful, lasting relationship with any woman, were intriguing to me.
Having Julia do a real “put up or shut up” ultimatum to Tony in the first episode and Tony unable to pony up would be an ideal way to set him into his downward spiral. From there on out, the season would basically be “The Fall and Rise of Tony Stark.”
I don’t know if I could have sold that concept to the powers that be, but one can aspire, eh?
TZN/MAA: What’s your overall opinion of the show?
TATARANOWICZ: I am very proud of the shows. The animation of some of the episodes was not 100% up to my ultimate standards, but was always significantly more than good quality. Some of the episodes had very, very nice animation indeed.
I also quite liked the introduction of the holographic computer image portrayed so well by Tom Kane. All in all, the dynamic of “it,” Tony, Jim Rhodes, and Julia made for a nice ensemble.
As Supervising Producer, my job was overall creative control of the show. I worked with the Story Editors and usually did the final re-write of the scripts before they became final. Due to – if I can sort of toot my own horn here – my knack for “wise guy” humor (as evidenced by Biker Mice From Mars), I was particularly focused on interesting dialogue in order to push characterizations. Between the Writers, the Story Editors and myself, I think that there was some particularly unique and interesting dialogue, far above and beyond that in the usual TV animation show.
As an example, one sequence that I liked was from the episode where Iron Man had to shrink down to go inside an unconscious Hawkeye’s body. At one critical point in the story, time is running out on Iron Man’s miniaturization and he is communicating with Julia. Iron Man needs a quick exit and Julia needs to make the unconscious Hawkeye sneeze for Iron Man to escape. To do so, he tells Julia to get pepper… y’know, the kind you use on popcorn? At this critical dramatic juncture, the ensuing and unexpected banter between them about using pepper on popcorn gave the sequence a nice rhythm, in my opinion.
As an aside, it also allowed me chances to “wink” by including locales and references to places where I live such as Malibu and Idlewild. The perks of the position, I guess.
Incidentally, the whole credits situation at Marvel – and I believe at most TV animation studios at the time – was kind of odd. As best as I can figure, it is sort of the by-product of an archaic system of assigning credits for Saturday morning cartoons.
As Supervising Producer, I was actually more like a Show Runner/Producer/Supervising Director. Yi Chih Chen, who was credited as Producer, acted more as the director of the episodes. The Directors listed on the individual Episodes were basically Animation Timers who actually had rather limited creative input.
Yi Chih, for whom I gave him this series as his first Producing gig, did a great job. He is a gifted artist and had a did a nice job of seeing the vision for the series through. The “troika” of Story Editors — Greg Johnson, Dean Stefan and the team of Julia and Eric Lewald — also did very fine work.
Incidentally, this also happened to be Greg Johnson’s first real Story Editing job. He had done nice work for us on Biker Mice, and I wanted to give him a shot at the Story Editing. He turned in really fine episodes but unfortunately had a bit of bad luck in terms of animation quality. It was just luck of the draw. The Korean studio that was doing the actual animation production had several satellite studios that were doing the work. As it turned out, Greg’s shows came in the cycle of going to the lesser of the studios. Although the episodes ultimately came out well, they did not have quite the same high level of production as some of the other episodes.
Because of his great work on gig, we used Greg as the Story Editor for The Incredible Hulk which we did next. He really excelled in both instances. As you undoubtedly know, Greg has gone on to do very good work and has been involved in the recent Lions Gate/Marvel Direct-To-Videos.
Unfortunately, as nicely as the 2nd Seasons of both Fantastic Four and Iron Man came out, I think that they are largely overlooked, and thus vastly under rated. It seems to me that Marvel did not seem to do enough publicity on them. I also kind of feel that fans who had maybe felt rather burned by the first seasons did not realize that they had been so extensively overhauled in the interest of producing significantly better shows. Fans simply may not have had any way of knowing that these new episodes were far, far different from the first season’s and worth a second look. Very disappointing.
The Marvel Animation Age and Toon Zone News would like to thank Mr. Tataranowicz for his participation in this interview, and his work on the show. Cheers Tom!