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Drawn to Hellboy - Mike Mignola and Tad Stones talk about animation hell

Seeing as he's a demon summoned from hell to help the Nazis win World War II, Hellboy is an unlikely hero, but he has nonetheless become a multimedia stand-out, growing from his origins in comic books to star in a feature film, a number of video games, books and an animated movie. With his latest animated adventure, Blood and Iron, soon to make its premiere on TV before coming to home video in May, creator Mike Mignola and director Tad Stones sat down with Francis Rizzo III at the New York ComicCon to talk demons, design and DVDs.

DVDTalk: When you were creating Hellboy for that first comic book for Dark Horse, could you have ever envisioned Hellboy being a movie star, a video-game star, a DVD star?

Mike Mignola: Not even slightly. When you create something and you call something Hellboy, I think it shows you're not thinking about toys and merchandise, and certainly not thinking about animated TV shows. My whole goal was to do that comic and if it worked, maybe get to do the comic again. I never believed any of this stuff would happen. To this day, I guess I'm starting to believe this stuff now, but like with the live-action film....For six years, I was saying, "I'll believe it when I see it." I never really believed it would happen until I was standing there on the set and I was like "I guess I have to start believing it."

DVDTalk: It must be something like being a new father when you see your creation walking around and talking.

MM: Except that the gestation period was six years, so you had a lot more time to get used to it. Through pre-production and stuff, you start, you...the weirdest thing is how much it wasn't that weird when it happened. Because it wasn't just like "Oh look! They're making a movie!" I'd been working on it for so long that when it did happen finally, it wasn't a giant shock. But still it was weird. The first day I was on the set, I came straight from the airport in Prague onto the set and John Hurt stepped out, and I never met John, and he looked exactly like the character in the comic. That was pretty weird.

But seeing Ron [Perlman] in make-up actually wasn't weird, because I had gotten used to being around Ron, and he was so much Hellboy just when he was being himself.

Tad Stones: It was kind of like that even on the animated film, that...you'd co-written the story, given all the notes and a lot of the notes were about visuals. He visited the studio and there were actually all these artists working on drawings of characters and sets and all that. And he was like, "Oh...you're doing this."

MM: Yeah, I just never believe it, because I don't want to be disappointed. So I figure, if I go into it going "Well...that'll never really happen," then maybe the universe will surprise me.

DVDTalk: Now, if Mike's the dad, Tad, you're at least one of the mothers as director.

TS: [laughing] I'm a mother, yeah.

DVDTalk: What were the labor pains in bringing Mike's unique style to the screen?

TS: It was mostly the time, the schedule limitations, that we had two movies to do in just a little over a year. I had been thinking about Hellboy for years, and in fact, Guillermo [del Toro] and I both, separately, assumed that if it was ever animated, that it would look just like Mike's comics. So we were shocked when we were told, "Yeah, and it can't look like the comic."

But I had been thinking about it certainly since Atlantis, about how to bring it to the screen, what I would have to change, about backgrounds, giving it more atmosphere, by making the backgrounds more rendered. What Mike is able to do on a page is much harder to capture the same level of atmosphere and mood in a film. And I felt we needed the extra tools of the special effects and the depth of field and all that. Then, when we found out we had to change the characters, the decision I made, the major one that had an effect on the films, was to put the characters really in the environment, instead of having them separate, and that surprised me, in that the characters ended up not having a lot of dark shadows. They always have shadows on them, but you can't have a shadow on a character be darker than the darkest in the background. I think it came out with a really cool look, a really distinctive look, that gave it a lot of quality.

Other than that, story-wise, I've been wanting to do this for so long. I've written sample scripts for Mike before. That was just like...I wish I could have done it all myself.

DVDTalk: Mike, you're well-known for such a graphic, visual, unique style. Where there any concerns on your part when you were talking about animating the character that it wouldn't look like your Hellboy?

MM: I didn't want it to look like my Hellboy, and the studio didn't want it to look like my Hellboy. The problem I have when people try to imitate my style...nobody can read my mind. Even if I had a full-time job showing somebody how to draw like me, it's so inherent to the way I think and the way I view things, you can't teach somebody how to do that. So I thought better to have somebody else come in and create a new look for it, create the visual rules for this, rather than have people try to second guess what I would do.

DVDTalk: With the somewhat unlimited media of DVD, where you have things like extras and deleted scenes and different versions, is it freeing when you're creating to know those possibilities exist?

TS: Actually it's not all that usual on an animated film to have a lot of extras, and that's frankly what was so great about Film Roman and Starz and Anchor Bay really supporting this, allowing us not just a commentary, but to actually have a crew to put some documentaries together. I really wanted to concentrate not just on the film but on Mike's work in general, because I felt the fans are our core audience, the fans he already has. So there are certain times when I've been editing, and we've called retakes and something slips through, and I say "There's one for the commentary." I'll apologize later.

MM: It was nice. I like doing an audio commentary. I told Tad I wouldn't watch the movie 'til the audio commentary, so you could get my genuine first response to the show on the commentary.

TS: Which started my whimpering, of course.

MM: Which I entirely did scare the crap out of him. But it was nice. It's nice to see somebody putting in an extra effort.

DVDTalk: As a comic veteran, and now someone who's worked on a DVD extra, do you wish those things existed for comics books, that you could provide those extra pieces for the fans?

MM: Well, I actually do...in a small way, when I do my Hellboy trade paperbacks. I always put in a little note at the beginning of a story or the end of a story, saying "This is where I got this story," since so many of my things are based on legends or old myths or things, i always give credits to that kind of stuff. I like to acknowledge my sources and what I was thinking and where a story came from. I just think it adds a nice thing. It's a small effort on my part, but I think it makes it a richer book.

TS: I'm fascinated by the creative process, and hearing a filmmaker talk in a real way about what he was trying to do or what lead to certain decisions is fascinating. I would love for Mike to do a real long book to the art of Hellboy, because I'd love to know more about where's that sketch come from, what were you trying to do, how satisfied you are with it, whatever. It's more than just the sketch itself, it's fascinating to me to see the creative process.

DVDTalk: Tad, you've created an animated movie from a comic book, and Mike, you created a comic book that became an animated movie. How do you compare the two mediums in terms of storytelling? Does one have more power over the other one?

MM: I think they're different. Everybody compares comics to film or animation, but the truth is comics is a distinctly different medium. I mean you're dealing with a single page, where even though it's designed to read this panel then that panel, all that artwork exists on the same page and can be viewed at the same time. So there are different things you just have theluxury of doing as far as storytelling, you can run a sequence of time parallel on a page. Somethings happening over here, at the same something's happening over here. Unless you're going to do fancy split screens or stuff in animation, you don't do that. You're dealing with a very linear thing in animations or film. It's just different.

TS: I think comics is a more individual art. Like Mike did, one creator conceives the story and how to tell that story and puts it on the page, and Mike's very particular about the colors and works very closely with Dave Stewart. Whereas we have a cult of the director/auteur, as if, "Oh yes, that's the director's film." Yeah, except he's using the work of another 200, 300 people down the line to help him put that thing together on a live-action film. If that director could do every piece of the process, it would be a whole different film.

MM: And it wouldn't come out very often. [laughs]

TS: So in animation, you're literally building it a frame at a time. It's like I described the general feeling, but it's about the talent of the storyboard artists and the background painters and the color stylists that bring it about.

DVDTalk: Now we have two Hellboy animated movies, recently there were three Marvel animated movies, there's another one coming, now three DC animated movies. What do you attribute the boom in animated comic book movies to?

TS: I'd would say it's probably a reflection of the success in live-action, and their actually behind the curve, in that we've really had some super-successful live-action films. Certainly, the Spider-Man franchise really surprised people with how popular it became. There are some really good comic movies out there, and there are plenty that are just fun, it's like popcorn, and there are a few stinkers. But the fact that the public at large is going to these movies, it finally soaked into somebody's head to say "Hey...maybe we ought to draw a couple of these."

I hope it takes off. I think it's great that we've got several studios working on this type of stuff, because our market is nothing like in Japan, where having a direct-to-video is an accepted thing. It's like a new paperback book coming out. "Oh, the new one from so-and-so." I'd love for this country to get to that place, where here's something that's just made for DVD, and it's something that's very special, and it doesn't have to fit into a certain time frame or a certain level of commercial content.

MM: I think it's also, dealing with the straight-to-DVD animated thing, it's kind of a recent thing. I know that there are a lot of people holding their breath to see how the Marvel straight-to-DVD film, how that was going to do, and if that did well, then it was a good sign for Hellboy. So yeah, I think we're just at the beginning of something.

DVDTalk: And finally, are you both DVD buffs?

TS: I've got 'em! [laughs] I don't know what qualifies as a buff. I'm not one of those guys who goes out every week and buys one. I just don't have room in the closet, is what it comes down to. What I enjoy about DVDs, aside from obviously the picture quality, it is the commentary stuff, it is bringing that extra level to the movie.

MM: I am a big DVD guy and I probably do get at least one DVD every week. Because also, when I'm drawing, I watch movies, so I consume a tremendous amount of discs. I don't have a desk job where I can't watch TV, you know. I work at home, so I get to watch movies all day long.

Listen to the complete audio from this interview & Read DVDTalk's Review of Hellboy: Sword of Storms.

- Francis Rizzo III

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