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BACKSTAGE - INTERVIEW - JON SUZUKI
The World's Finest caught up with character designer Jon Suzuki to discuss the process of working on an animated project, the surprising difficulties that come with and some of his favorite works. With Batman: Assault on Arkham about to hit shelves, Suzuki talks about his work on the DC Universe Animated Original Movie and why fans should check it out. Continue below for much more!
The World's Finest: Let's dig in! How did you get involved in the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line? Did you grow up digging superheroes and this just seemed like a no-brainer? Is this what you saw yourself doing when you first started to really develop your talents?
Jon Suzuki: I came back to WB after a few years away from animation. I helped out Phil Bourassa, Lauren Montgomery, and Sam Liu on Justice League:Crisis on Two Earths. Sam Register, Bobbie Page and Bruce Timm then gave me an opportunity to do lead design on Batman: Under the Red Hood and they entrusted me to do more from there. Growing up, I did love Batman, Superman, some X-Men and G.I. Joe. In all honesty, I never dreamed I could work on any sort of superhero property. It's been a tad overwhelming to think about who I've gotten to work with and which properties and titles I've been fortunate enough to work on. Did I imagine myself doing this ? Not at all. I still have aspirations to do book illustration. I'm still striving to constantly learn and grow. I'm surrounded by so many talented people, I always like to pick their brains and see how I can be more efficient, diverse, or informed, really.
WF: You've done design work for a lot of these DC Universe Animated Original Movie titles. What is possibly the most difficult part about working on each project? Is it coming up with new looks? Trying to stay true, but adding a unique flavor? What is your goal?
JS: Each movie had its own set of unique challenges. At times, the hardest part is trying to "hide" myself as best I can. If my job is to draw in Frank Quitely's style, as an example, I try hard to interpret what makes his work unique, while at the same time understanding that whatever I design will need to be easily digested and drawn by many other hands of varying skill levels. I'm not just drawing for myself. It's as if we're creating the road map that everyone can follow to get the best possible Lois Lane or Lex or Supes that can be drawn hundreds of times over from a ton of different angles with a multitude of expressions. Bruce Timm harped on this to me on more than one occasion, the design is pretty much useless if I am the only one that understands it or the only one that can draw it.
WF: As a semi-follow-up, what do you think makes an appealing character design?
JS: If I knew exactly what makes a good design, I don't think I'd ever miss. I certainly do that from time to time.
WF: An another follow-up - How much of your own style are in these DC Universe Animated Original Movie titles, or is there a "house style" that needs to be followed?
JS: I am constantly thinking about shape. That is something that was hammered into me by Glen Murakami (producer on Teen Titans). In all honesty, i still don't get it right. It's a constant battle. I am constantly thinking about how a design should move. How one character plays alongside another. How I am "casting" a particular character and whether or not that design works in fulfilling the needs of a script. Is the tone right? Can a character have more play? Does it need to be serious? As mentioned before, I am also not just drawing for myself. Many hands need to be able to interpret and decipher the designer's shorthand. If no one else can interpret it other than you, it is unsuccessful.
WF: You're latest project is Batman: Assault on Arkham. Can you run us through adapting the complicated video game designs into the more streamlined animated realm?
JS: I embraced the details of the video game designs as much as I could. I have said that this was me being a tad irresponsible as far as the level of rivets, seams and linework I left in the characters. I felt that was a huge aspect of the game design. To take too much of that away would make it something else entirely. Just handling this in 2D as opposed to 3D begins to take the designs away from the world. Obviously, we did have to make some concessions as far as not keeping every fine minute detail, but we did keep a lot. I tried hard to economize on the secondary characters or those that did not have a lot of screen time. MOI Animation did an amazing job in getting everything on model and translating all the details that we included. I cannot express enough how pleased I am in the work they produced for this project. They were awesome!
WF: When it comes to working on these projects, how long is your involvement on each, and what's the rough time from when you start working on these to the date they hit the shelves?
JS: Generally, we work on these for a four to six months? Hard to say. Some took longer than others, but that is about the length of time.
As far as how long it takes from when we start a project to the time it hits shelves, I am not sure. I am not even sure I am allowed to say.
WF: Viewers think designing breaks down to just redrawing the same character slightly different each time, but it's far more complicated. A whole new world needed to be revamped. Are there any aspects about character design that you think go unnoticed by viewers?
JS: I think understanding that this is a collaborative process. I am not just drawing for myself. There are people I need to please, requirements I need to fulfill. Sometimes characters need to be altered for the sake of the story. We might not want to do it, but story or plot elements may necessitate the need to design a character in a specific way. There are not-so-fun aspects to what we do that need to be done. We need to make sure that we are giving enough information to the animation studio, storyboard artists and whoever else needs to draw these characters to make them move. We need to define the characters' range of emotions or spell out how parts function. We need to do mouth/lip assignments, not the most glamorous of jobs, but a necessity to inform the animators/in-betweeners how to make these characters talk. We need to create characters that are onscreen for all of half a second. Many times they're onscreen for less time than it took to think/create/rough/clean them. All of this as important as, say, working on trying to make the most beautiful Batman you possibly can within the limits of the schedule.
WF: Do you ever run into difficulties when it comes to working on the DC projects? Is there a character you have a hard time nailing down, for example? On the other hand, which one is the most fun to design over and over?
JS: Off the top of my head, the most fun characters have been Joker and Robin. I've been fortunate enough to do about 4-5 different iterations of Joker, not even counting multiple passes within the same project. He's always fun. Robin is always fun simply because there are so many different versions of him. Sometimes he skews younger, sometimes it is Dick Grayson, sometimes it is Jason. The toughest, lately, was Harley Quinn. That's Bruce's gal! I fear what he thinks about what we came up with in Batman: Assault on Arkham!
The hard part is handling the rigors of the production schedule. It's generally an all-new crew. Sometimes there is little continuity. You need to get people up to speed and figure out how best to work cohesively. I often times vent to a few of my friends on how they are able to handle a lot of the production nightmares. They're tremendous designers (Jonard Soriano, who's worked on many of these projects, and Hakjoon Kang...both most recently worked on Beware the Batman), but also team players. This is not to say that production is always horrible or anything like that, but sometimes it's hard to get all the pieces to come together, and sometimes problems are inevitable. Just the nature of the beast, I guess.
WF: Now, this question is only to fuel my own personal curiosity since I've been reading a lot of these comics lately, but do you have any designs thoughts on how you'd approach the Ninja Turtles or the X-Men for a new animated project?
JS: X-Men would freak me out. So many of my favorite comic artists have had tremendous runs on it. Joe Maduriera's run was incredible.
As far as Ninja Turtles, the work that Ciro Nieli and Irineo Maramba and crew are doing is fantastic. The toys looks super, the show looks fun. I appreciate what they are doing with that property.
WF: Back on-topic! Can you drop a little tease for Batman: Assault on Arkham for those who haven't seen it yet?
JS: More than anything, I think we aimed to make it fun. We weren't as constricted as far as adapting a specific story. We really aimed to make it our own. I think Jay Oliva really set out to do something different for this project and I think he did an awesome job. I know a lot of fans have been clamoring for new characters to be introduced into these DTV's and we've definitely done that. Definitely go out and support it and hopefully we can continue to broaden the universe!
"Batman: Assault on Arkham" hits Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD as part of the DC Universe Original Movie line from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, in co-production with Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment.
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