BACKSTAGE - INTERVIEW WITH PHIL BOURASSA
The World's Finest caught up with Young Justice Lead Character Designer Phil Bourassa to discuss his work on the acclaimed fan-favorite animated series, currently airing on Cartoon Network. His distinct style has left an unmistakable visual flourish to the animated adventure series. In the interview, Bourassa discusses his work past and present, his approach to character design and the collaborative process behind Young Justice. Continue on for much, much more from the Emmy-Award winning artist and designer.
The World’s Finest: First off, while you don’t need any introduction to Young Justice and animation fans, care to fill us in on your background, including some of your earlier work, recent work, and what you’re doing as you answer this question?
Phil Bourassa: I got into animation a little bit by accident, I guess. Originally I had wanted to be a comic book artist. I published an independent book about ten years ago with a grant from the Xeric Foundation, hoping I could use it to get work in the industry. As fate would have it, one of the people who bought my comic happened to be a producer for WB at the time. She gave my book to Denys Cowan, (co-creator of Static and the rest of the Milestone characters) who was just getting ready to start developing the third season of Static Shock. I guess he liked my work well enough to take a chance on a newcomer. At that point, they were looking to get a fresh take on some of the characters and were probably hoping I would be able to bring a new perspective. I think they figured out pretty quickly how inexperienced I was, but still let me stick around long enough carve out a little spot for myself on the crew.
Being a complete novice, nothing could have prepared me for the level of talent of the artists working in the animation industry. It was humbling to say the least. Everybody drew better than me. But, I hung in there and tried to absorb as much as I could from the pros that were kind enough to tolerate my naiveté.
From Static Shock I bounced around at WB for a couple of years on various productions, the Scooby-Doo series, a couple DVD projects, I worked with Curt Geda designing the characters for Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, and so on. Then it was off to Cartoon Network to help my buddy, the amazingly talented Dave Johnson (we met at WB while he was working on Justice League), design the original Ben 10 series. Another situation where I was surrounded by artists that could draw circles around me, but I stepped up my game and managed to figure a few things out.
After Ben 10 wrapped, I headed to Sony animation to help the always loveable Sean Galloway (aka Cheeks) design for The Spectacular Spider-Man. I was only there for a few months when Marvel and Lionsgate put out a call for designers for their next round of DVDs. I threw my hat into the ring and wound up designing their last two films, Thor: Tales of Asgard and Planet Hulk, in that order. While I was at MLG my friend, the super brilliant Lauren Montgomery (she was directing Wonder Woman at WB at the time) was doing a little freelance storyboard work for Planet Hulk, and I guess she had the model pack laying around on her desk at Warner Bros., because somehow Bruce Timm saw my drawings. They were looking for an artist to design the upcoming Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths DVD and brought me on board after I finished work on Planet Hulk. That was in the fall of 2008 and ever since then I have been at WB working on the DC characters.
WF: To jump right to Young Justice, how does it feel to have your expansive work rewarded with an Emmy award? Do you feel it’s a testament to what you’re doing for the series?
PB: It's a pretty awesome feeling and incredibly humbling to have the work I'm doing validated in that way. I think it’s not just a testament to the quality of the work but shines a light on how good the show is overall. We have such an amazing crew from top to bottom that it's an even greater honor to have my work singled out for recognition amongst so much talent.
WF: What are your goals with your character designs on Young Justice and what would you consider your goals? Even with all of the different DC Animation shows over the years, this is easily one of the more complex-looking series to date. How do you balance that with trying to make these designs easier to animate, etc.?
PB: I have several objectives when it comes to designing for Young Justice. First, as a general rule - and this applies to everything I work on - the look, feel and tone of the design has to suit the story and the world in which the story takes place. That’s pretty broad and it sort of includes the mechanics of the drawing style fitting the type of action, staging and storytelling that the work requires. I don't just design for design’s sake. Everything has to work in a practical way so the animators and board artists can do what they need with models in order to tell the story.
Specifically with regards to Young Justice, I am also trying to balance in equal measure the need for innovation and visual evolution of classic characters, with a deep reverence for the tradition and history of the DC universe. I think in some ways a thoughtful and respectful update of a classic actually preserves the spirit of a character more than dogmatically adhering to a dated look that is past its prime. After all, we want new generations to fall in love with these characters the way we did, and sometimes that means giving them a makeover or a new coat of paint, as long as in doing so we don't lose what is fundamentally true for each character. Obviously, it's a case by case basis and I try to evaluate each character individually. As far as complexity goes, I feel that as long as the theory and the mechanics of the designs are sound, the animators can handle anything I throw at them. On top of a solid foundation, detail is fine as long as it's not superfluous.
WF: Two of your big redesigns on the series are Aqualad and The Joker. Can you explain your design decisions for both characters? Aqualad doesn’t look anything like any interpretation of the character that has come before, while the Joker looks slightly more...A Clockwork Orange”-ish than what we’ve seen before (at least to me). Additionally, is Artemis an original character design and, if so, can you explain your choices for her costume?
PB: Pretty early on in the development of the show, Brandon [Vietti] and Greg [Weisman] decided that they wanted to create a completely new Aqualad and DC gave us the go ahead to do so. Because he was brand new we had a lot of latitude to do what we wanted as far as costume and looks. It's not like we were altering an existing character, we were creating one from scratch. We knew we wanted to make him African-American, but because he was also Atlantean I tried to add some exotic or otherworldly features. As far as our Atlanteans go, in my mind I always likened them to underwater elves - regal, elegant and ethereal I guess is what I was going for. Brandon and I bounced around a bunch of ideas regarding the detailing of the costume and the tattoos, and once everyone was happy with the direction, I added the finishing pass to the final model.
As for the Joker, I wanted to get away from the evil clown in a billowy tuxedo that we have seen for so long. While I love the classic look and various interpretations, I needed to do something different. I knew I wanted the vibe to be more ‘Spike Spiegel meets the Rat Pack’ with ‘Lupin the Third’ and ‘1960's Yakuza’ thrown in the mix. So that's what I did, if you compare the two, the silhouette of my Joker is really influenced by ‘Lupin the Third.’
Regarding Artemis, I think we started by looking at some of Green Arrows' other sidekicks, like Arrowette and the female Speedy, and developed her from there. Her costume is designed for practicality and function to serve her well in combat and stealth situations.
WF: As a follow-up, were there any designs that were more difficult to create than others on Young Justice?
PB: The better known characters with the longest traditions in the DC universe stand out to me as being some of the most difficult to design. This difficulty can manifest itself in a couple of different ways. Sometimes it's the daunting task of the wholesale redesign of a classic like the Joker, where you are making a significant departure from the existing tradition but trying to keep the core themes consistent. In cases like these, the character has so much potential both visually and thematically, it's easy to get lost in the possibilities and have a difficult time eliminating ideas. The goal is to distill it down to it's essence with a new look that still honors the history of the character. At the other end of the spectrum, it can also be challenging to do a traditionally faithful take on an icon who has been around for generations, trying to play it completely straight and deliver a classic unchanged to a much more jaded audience than the one that existed when the character was first created. I think Superman falls into this last category. He has been such a recognizable icon around the world for so long, that people I think inherently have a personal stake in the character and a lot of nostalgia invested in him. You have to be respectful of that. I think the tricky part is that he should feel timeless, almost carved in marble but still be human and relatable. The danger comes from trying to shoehorn him into your own sensibilities too much - if an artist is too heavy handed with "this is my take, this is how I see him, or leans too heavily on their own style in the attempt - it's easy to miss the target by a mile and have him immediately feel dated, absurd or corny. In most cases, but especially in ones where you are dealing with such a classic, you have to let the needs of the character dictate your approach. I always describe Superman as having this incredibly small strike zone. He's such a pure and sincere idea that you have to kind of open yourself up to being vulnerable in your interpretation of him.
WF: Greg Weisman says that roughly 219 characters will be appearing in the first 46 episodes of Young Justice. How daunting of a task is it to oversee of all of those character designs?
PB: No matter how you cut it, the breadth of characters that we are trying to cover in Young Justice makes for an incredibly daunting design challenge. You know, in most cases it's not like we can just open up the DC encyclopedia and draw the characters exactly as they appear in the comics, primarily because it wouldn't fit the context of the story and world that we are trying to create. We do want to incorporate all these wonderful characters that populate the DC lore, but we want to do it in a way that creates a more cohesive universe that is internally consistent. If you think about 70 years of DC history - with branching timelines, creators and creations that are separated by decades and comprise a disparate array of influences, origins and trends - you could see how it would be tricky to make them all fit together in an organic way. That means a lot of thoughtful consideration and discussion goes into the careful (and hopefully successful) redesign of a huge chunk of the DC library. If I was either drawing them exactly as they appeared in the comics or just throwing everything out and starting from scratch, my job would be a lot easier. So that's the overall challenge from a conceptual and thematic standpoint. As far as execution goes, time as always is the enemy and can be really merciless on a weekly TV show. Fortunately I have two incredibly talented artists helping me with the day to day trials of designing a series - Dusty Abell and Jerome Moore. They are both fantastic artists and meticulous craftsmen who have different individual strengths that make our collective efforts that much stronger. Obviously for the sake of stylistic fidelity I can't lean too heavily on my team at the conceptual stage, but their contributions to the overall process are immeasurable.
WF: Were you given any mandate from DC Comics when it came to designing for the characters? Were you obligated to stay as close to the “classic look” as possible or given leeway? Expand if possible.
PB: You know, it might seem like a pat answer or very "PC," but the guys at DC have for the most part been very open to and supportive of my interpretation of the characters and have given us a lot of latitude when it comes to the visual direction of the show. I think the only time there is ever any resistance is when there is a fundamental difference in opinion on how we should be interpreting the character from a conceptual level and the trickle down effect that would have on the design. But, it's hard to recall many occasions where they were nit-picky or sticklers for superficial details. I think they are more concerned with the broad strokes and keeping the spirit of the characters intact. As far as any sort of official mandate, there was never anything as specific as that. I think I have a pretty good handle on when to cleave to tradition and when to explore new territory. Maybe if I was more cavalier and was taking too many liberties with the material they would have to be more heavy handed. A possible exception being Plastic Man, who must for some reason always be doomed to wear a plunging V-neck leotard.
WF: As a semi-follow-up, would you ever consider integrating the "New 52" designs in the current DC Comics into “Young Justice”? Any designs that stand out to you – be it for positive or negative reasons?
PB: Somehow I don't think it would be very easy to incorporate much of the "New 52" look into Young Justice. It's not that I dislike the designs, I just don't see how they would fit into our world ... I guess I'm thinking mostly of the Justice League here. Those looks were created as part of a brand-wide effort to reboot the whole DC comics line and are rooted in that specific universe's storyline, which is in it's infancy. I kind of see Young Justice as a remix of the traditional DC universe and it's stories and characters. And as such it might be incredibly confusing if we started to visually blend the two universes, which are essentially doing the same thing at the same time, but are inconsistent with each other story-wise. It would really only be appropriate to try and incorporate those looks into a show that was firmly rooted in that version of the DC universe. Having said that, it's really not that uncommon for a particularly cool take on a character to crossover on a more universal level and influence interpretations across different media, but it would have to be on a case by case basis and handled in a way that didn't create confusion.
WF: You have a very distinct design style, one that’s easily apparent if we compare some of your recent projects like Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths and Young Justice. The distinction is there, but there’s also a slight difference that’s subtle but apparent in each project. Do you try to differentiate your work, be it slightly or on a larger scale, when you tackle a different project? Also, how do you juggle trying to alter your style for projects when working on some simultaneously? Is it hard to juggle?
PB: From project to project, the tone of the material always dictates the approach to design on a profound level. Certain worlds and stories lend themselves to the more pushed, stylistically whimsical or exaggerated. At the other end of the spectrum sometimes a project requires a more conservative, disciplined and precise approach to overall design in order to conjure up an atmosphere of believability and grounded reality. I particularly love the challenge of designing these types of worlds because it requires you to try to really master proportion and have more restraint, relying less on exaggeration which can be a crutch or stylistically self indulgent when leaned on too heavily. The payoff is then that much bigger when you do really push something because it's louder in contrast to the more conservative design choices surrounding it. That's kind of a broad description of the spectrum of possibilities when it comes to the work, but I digress.
I guess in general I'm not so much trying to differentiate my work on a stylistic level from one project to the next as I am just trying to do it better than I did last time, while still letting the needs of the story dictate the terms. This has been especially true of the last couple years because I have been working on several different projects with so much in common tonally that there was little need to change my stylistic approach overall from one job to the next. I guess therefore I have simply been trying to execute my basic theory and perspective on this particular subject matter better than I did a week a month or a year ago. Now, if my next gig was to create a look that lent itself to something even more fantastic, lighthearted, otherworldly, or even humorous, that would call for me explore different places in the design process.
As far as juggling different projects go, I usually don't make the attempt because each job really is so demanding and time consuming it would be next to impossible to do more than one at a time without compromising the quality of the work. The obvious exception being this past year when I was designing Justice League: Doom and Young Justice simultaneously. I guess in that case again the only saving grace was that they share so much in common from a structural standpoint that I wasn't required to go to a "different place" to design them. The mechanics of the drawing style is identical in both, only the surface detail and interpretations of the characters change. Even with that advantage though, the sheer amount of drawing was kind of a nightmare. I had a pretty absurd schedule trying to do both at once.
WF: When it comes to creating a character – for Young Justice let’s say – what is your typical process from start to finish? How does the tone of the show (or even animated movie) dictate your choices for creating the look of the Young Justice world and its inhabitants?
PB: After working on Young Justice for almost two and a half years - we started developing the show in the spring of 2009 - the process of creating a new character is pretty streamlined. We have firmly established the ground rules and covered so much territory that it's gotten easier to eliminate ideas that are bad or don't work, call upon familiar mechanics or spot unexplored terrain and mine it's potential when possible. The basic approach hasn't changed from day one, it's just gotten more efficient. It starts with reading the script or outline of an upcoming episode (or just talking about it if it's not written yet), which then leads to a conversation with Greg and Brandon about the context we will be using the character in. We'll talk about the character's history in the comics, powers skills, and relationships to the other characters in the show, etc. I then dig up as much visual reference as I can get my hands on and try to familiarize myself with the various incarnations we have seen in the comics and other media, as well as finding any other imagery that will help inform our take on the character.
I usually do one or two rough concept drawings in full color to really give Brandon and Greg an idea where I'm headed. Those drawings typically go to the storyboard artists as they begin staging their various sections of the script. After that I discuss the character again with the producers to make sure we are all on the same page and to incorporate any additional notes or ideas they may have into the final rough design, which we then send to DC for approval. Finally, myself and my team turn and ink the character and put together the finished model sheet for the animators, incorporating as much information as possible in the remaining time we have. As I touched on briefly before, the tone of Young Justice strongly dictates the terms of our approach to design. From the start Brandon has insisted that we try to ground the visuals in a believable and realistic feeling world. That doesn't mean there's no room for the fantastic, it just requires us to use those elements relatively sparingly, ideally saving them for the best opportunities of dramatic visuals or emotional impact. In theory, the more believable you manage to make the world the more powerful the fantasy aspect becomes when it is introduced.
WF: How much of a collaboration is it between you, Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti on Young Justice? Can you take us through a typical brainstorming session you three might hold for an episode, plot, or character idea?
PB: Our process feels very collaborative while still keeping our roles well defined. They are usually able to give me specific context and story foundation to build on, while still remaining open enough to my visual interpretation of the material to allow it to potentially add extra layers to the story. Occasionally when I give them a take on a character that they hadn't considered, if it's early enough in the writing process and if they really like the idea, they are able to incorporate the visual direction seamlessly into the story which helps further inform their unique approach to writing that character. Other times I am attempting to create a visual that completely nails a very specific idea they have, but even in these cases I have found them to be pretty receptive to something that might deviate from convention or what is expected at the outset. More often than not the look of the characters evolve organically out of our conversations and are designed to suit an already well-defined episode or story arc, requiring me to work within limited parameters. I remember when we were working on the Injustice League episode, which introduced all these new villains, and we were talking about the Atomic Skull. Greg being the expert, having written the Captain Atom comic for a while early in his career, gave me the basic background. He's a villain who's got nuclear energy powers, we are using him in the episode as sort of a superhuman battery, he fires optic blasts, there's obviously a skull motif going on, and the version Greg liked best was (I believe) the black and red costume used during his run on the character.
So we look at the comic book reference art which, while cool, doesn't really explain his powers or how he works in a believable way, and from there we try to figure out how to keep the visual consistent enough to be recognizable but also have him make sense in our world. Well, he's sort of this superhuman battery who's leaking radiation, so Brandon suggests maybe that's what has decayed his flesh to the point where his face is almost skull like in appearance. This allows us to keep the skull motif but not have him read as supernatural when his powers are more scientific in nature. Pretty early on we decide to put him in some sort of bio-hazard radiation containment gear, to harness all his atomic energy, and we start thinking of him as this nuclear mummy in a hazmat suit. So I start designing with those parameters and goals in mind. I added the twisted, snake-like cooling tubes into the abdominal region of the suit, which sort of read as almost skeletal or horrific in some way, and other details to really compliment our theme, all the while keeping the comic book reference close at hand in order to make sure I don't deviate to wide of the source material.
WF: To slightly deviate away from Young Justice for a moment, care to say a few words about Justice League: Doom, your next animated feature project coming from Warner Home Video?
PB: I am really excited about Justice League: Doom! I loved working on Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths with the Warner Home Video crew. I was really proud of the work that we did, so when I heard they wanted to revisit my designs for their next Justice League project, I couldn't wait to read the script and get started. I guess, from top to bottom, I am just humbled by the level of talent involved in this project. I loved the DCAU Justice League and Justice League Unlimited shows and was thrilled to contribute to a production that reunited much of that original voice cast, as well as being animated by the legendary TMS studios in Japan, who are responsible for some of the best work on American animation productions over the last 20 years. It was also an opportunity to work again with Bruce and Lauren, both brilliant artists whom I greatly admire, and on top of all that it was written by the always wonderful, late, great Dwayne McDuffie, who has contributed so much to these character's animated incarnations. It's an awesome movie, it's an exciting story with fun visuals, and an amazing voice cast and I just feel lucky I got to be a part of it.
WF: To go off-topic again, you worked on a few Marvel projects in the past, particularly the wildly acclaimed Planet Hulk and the recent Thor: Tales of Asgard. Care to touch upon those projects. How does working for the creative team on Marvel differ from the DC Comics crew?
PB: To start with, we did Thor: Tales of Asgard before Planet Hulk, but it was put on the shelf for like 18 months after we finished so it could be released in conjunction with the live-action Thor movie. Both of those projects were tough because we had limited resources and a skeleton crew, but they were really a labor of love for everyone involved. Although there are things I wish I could have done differently on each one, in hindsight I think they turned out great. I feel like it's a testament both to the great characters of the Marvel Universe and to the talent at the MLG studio. A good buddy of mine once described MLG as the garage band of animation, like all this great talent and energy just jamming making music with whatever we had available to us. Producers Gary Hartle and Frank Paur are both really talented guys who had a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the material. I was also fortunate to work really closely with Sam Liu, who directed both movies. Sam is an incredible talent and really a very cerebral artist. He puts a lot of thought into his work and was always willing to share his process with me, which I think made the collaboration more rewarding.
I guess the biggest difference between working on Marvel or DC properties in animation would be that the politics vary slightly when you consider the solid partnership between DC and Warner Bros. vs the relatively tentative relationships Marvel had with the various film and animation studios who had licenses to their characters at the time. In other words, I think there is or was a much more equitable relationship between the creatives and the execs at DC and WB than there was on the Marvel stuff. WB has a long history of making great animation. They have the resources, the infrastructure and the know how. At the other end of the equation, DC has wonderful characters and fantastic stories. Put those two things together and you have the potential for a lot of really great cartoons. Because it's more of a marriage or a partnership than a client/contractor relationship, you usually get the best of both worlds as opposed to a comic book company telling animators how to make cartoons. That being said, I'm a huge fan of the Marvel characters and can't wait to see more of them in animated form. It remains to be seen what the new dynamic will be in the animation industry now that Marvel has been bought by Disney.
WF: As we wrap up this Q & A, care to give us an idea of what we can expect in upcoming episodes of Young Justice, perhaps any particular designs or new characters you’d like to point out?
PB: I'm not sure what episode will have aired by the time you guys run this interview, needless to say, season one is gonna end with a bang! As far as characters to look out for in the second season, let's just say there is one we will introduce that brings my animation career full circle.
"Young Justice" airs Saturdays at 10:30am (ET/PT) as part of DC Nation on Cartoon Network!
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