Superman Classic creator Robb Pratt unveils Flash Gordon Classic
In 2011, Superman Classic caught the online community by surprise. The traditionally animated short breathed new life into many of the hallmarks associated with the iconic superhero. But most impressively, it had been created by one man in his spare time, in one year: Robb Pratt. He followed that success with last year’s well-received sequel, Bizarro. Now, in an Animated Views exclusive, Pratt is thrilled to announce his next project: Flash Gordon Classic.
Pratt is able to make these fan films thanks to skills he’s collected from years as a Disney animator. He started at Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1994, where he worked on Pocahontas, Hercules, Tarzan and Fantasia 2000. Pratt later worked on Disney direct-to-video titles such as The Lion King 1 1/2 and Tarzan II, as well as TV productions including Kim Possible, The Emperor’s New School, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Meanwhile, he honed his abilities as a director on several episodes of the animated TV series The Replacements.
When Pratt decided to make Superman Classic in spring 2010, he knew the project would be a labor of love, offering no monetary gain. Instead, he simply took pleasure from working on a film – even a fan film – starring his favorite superhero, Superman. Pratt created the minute-and-a-half short during his spare time late at night. He drew the characters on paper; then he scanned each frame, so he could digitally color and composite the characters into the backgrounds. John Newton, who played Superboy in the first season of the ’80s TV series Superboy, was cast as the voice of Clark Kent/Superman, while wife Jennifer Newton lent her voice to Lois Lane. Superman Classic made waves among comic book fans when it hit YouTube in February 2011. Bloggers praised the fan film as a modern update of Fleischer Studios’ Superman cartoons from the ’40s.
The positive reception to Superman Classic encouraged Pratt to create a follow-up, Superman Classic: Bizarro. As with the prior Classic short, Bizarro starts with Lois scrutinizing Clark over a matter related to his alter ego, Superman, when a new villain threatens Metropolis. John and Jennifer Newton returned to voice the characters. John also took on the role of Bizarro by reading his lines backward; Pratt then digitally reversed the lines to make Bizarro’s voice, like his appearance, a twisted version of Superman’s. Bizarro arrived online last July, also to much critical acclaim.
Pratt is now hard at work on animating Flash Gordon Classic, hoping to adapt the magic of the character’s earliest adventures into a captivating short film for modern audiences. With Animated Views, he gives a sneak peek at what fans should expect from the traditionally animated sci-fi project, including the first look at artwork and character designs. Plus, Pratt talks about storyboarding for DisneyToon Studios’ upcoming Planes and hints at more Superman Classic stories, including a teamup with a certain Dark Knight.
Animated Views: How did you land your first job in animation?
Robb Pratt: I grew up really poor and couldn’t go to a great school. Luckily, I was in the North Hollywood area, where our union headquarters [The Animation Guild Local 839 IATSE] are. Cartoonists have been unionized since the ’40s, when the Disney strike took place. The union headquarters teaches classes. You don’t get college credit for the classes. But they’re taught by guys who work in the industry during the day and want to make a few extra bucks at night. So, you can go get classes from them. Like I said, they aren’t accredited, but you’re learning from guys who work in the industry, so you’re really learning how to do it.
This was right when Disney was coming out with their really big hits. The Lion King hadn’t been released yet, but it was in production. Aladdin was huge, as were Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Things were really busy at Disney. I was learning at night at this union class, when things were so busy in traditional animation that Disney was offering tests to people who had a decent enough portfolio. I submitted my portfolio to Disney, and they said, “Would you take a test to be an in-betweener?” I came in and took a test, and then for about eight months, I didn’t hear anything. I figured the job just wasn’t happening. But eight months later, I got a call out of the blue that Disney was hiring. I took the job and got hired on Pocahontas, during their big crunch.
Robb Pratt, the creator of Superman Classic
AV: Based on your online shorts, I’m guessing you love superheroes. Around that time, Warner Bros. was doing animated projects for Superman, Batman, etc. So, what sparked your interest in Disney?
RP: It’s funny, I love Superman – he’s my favorite character. I think people assume, because I love him so much, that I read a lot of comic books, but I don’t. I really love Superman because he’s a cultural American icon. I know a lot more about Superman from his movies, cartoons and TV shows than I do from the comics. It is an obsession with him. But I really don’t read a lot of comics.
Disney was just doing such great work at the time. I remember seeing that Lion King trailer, where they showed the opening sequence of all the animals lining up to see the new “lion king,” and I just couldn’t believe the quality of work they were doing. If anything, it was intimidating. I thought I could never do that. I really wanted to be an animator due to those old Bugs Bunny shorts. But Disney was almost intimidating. Then the opportunity came to take that test, and working there became more of a reality, which was great!
At the same time, Bruce Timm’s Batman series was great. Even though I don’t read a lot of comic books, how could I not be stirred by how visually exciting that show was? When you watched it, the content was just as great as the visuals. But maybe in the same way that Disney was intimidating to me, that was very intimidating, too. The action was at a level I thought I could never even come close to. So, that almost seemed like a whole different world out of my reach.
AV: Apparently it wasn’t, looking at Superman Classic! When did the idea to make that short enter your mind?
RP: When you work in animation, there are times when you might get laid off or have a hiatus in-between projects. Even if you work on a TV show, you might have a break in-between seasons. So, I did have a time when it looked like I was going to be laid off. Right at that same time, I met John Newton, who played Superboy in the ’80s – an encounter that came from my being a fan of Superman. I was at a children’s event for Halloween, and I spotted and recognized John. It’s been more than 20 years, but the guy looks great; he still looks like Superboy. We hit it off right away and became instant friends, which I couldn’t believe. So, I had just met John, and it looked like I was going to have a break in my work, and I thought, “You know, instead of being negative, I’m still going to wake up early in the morning and work on a project! I’m going to do Superman the way I’ve always seen Superman!”
I had John and his wife, Jennifer, over at the house. We were just having dinner and drinking wine, and I made a pitch to him. I had all the designs drawn and a lot of references ready. Of course, Sky Captain is the obvious reference; I had screengrabs from that. From playing Superboy, John was already familiar with a lot of Superman stuff and had seen the Fleischer shorts. So, we were on the same page. Before I could ask John if he wanted to do the voice – I had gotten halfway into my pitch – John was so excited, he was like, “Oh man! I’ve gotta do the voice for this!”
The funny thing is, I never did get a break in work; I had work right away. But I was so fired up and excited that John was involved that, even though I was working regular hours, I would stay up late at night and work on this thing.
Robb Pratt, right, directs John Newton on voicing Bizarro
It was a dream project for me. I kind of described it as Superman through the ages. I wrestled with the idea of calling it Classic. For a while, I was going to call it Superman Retro. I decided, “Why not make this an all-encompassing thing where we can celebrate Superman from any period?” So, if the art direction looks a little like it’s from the ’40s, I could still introduce elements that have been invented in the Superman legends since then. For instance, I love the Christopher Reeve portrayal of Clark Kent. To me, it’s hands-down the best. But the Fleischers didn’t have that portrayal yet. So, it’s like, “Wow! This project could have the Fleischer look, my idea of the Classic Superman costume, and the Christopher Reeve-inspired Clark Kent!” Also, if I do more of these, I can have supervillains, even though the shorts are set in the ’40s. If you watch the Fleischer shorts, they didn’t have supervillains yet. I could have Bizarro and Brainiac and all of the great villains, but in that ’40s pulp look. Superman Classic just became something so exciting that it didn’t matter how busy I was at my regular job, I had to work on this thing every night.
AV: How long did you work on it each night?
RB:Superman Classic took a year. If I could have worked on it full-time, it would have been a lot faster. Plus, I’m a family man. I don’t want my kids growing up remembering, “Dad was always at his desk.” So, I always made time for my family. I would wait until everyone fell asleep at about 9 or 10 o’clock, and then I would sneak into my studio and draw until 2, 3 or 4 in the morning. Then I would get up at 6 and start all over again – for a year! But it was so much fun!
Of course, in that year, you’ve got to factor in that there were times when I got sick and couldn’t work for a week or two. And sometimes family things would come up, and I couldn’t get to the project. But it was a year of “sneaking away” at night. Then it was pretty much the same story for Bizarro, which also took about a year.
AV: Were you afraid of how Warner Bros. and DC Comics might respond?
RB: I had absolutely no fear on the first one, because there are so many fan films on YouTube. I thought, “Well, as long as I make it super, super clear that it’s a fan film, and I put all the credits to DC and Warner Bros. at the end, it’ll be okay.” So far, it’s been all right!
AV:Superman Classic was huge when it debuted. But if I remember correctly, you weren’t planning to do a sequel to it.
RB: I wasn’t planning on it. But I had so many ideas, like seeing all the supervillains in that ’40s setting. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I was going to do another one. When you post one of these shorts, it’s terrifying. I remember posting Superman Classic in the middle of the night. As soon as it became public and wasn’t just mine anymore, that minute – I will be completely honest – I had a big glass of vodka just to fall asleep. And even then, I passed out, woke up three hours later, and immediately ran to the computer. Fortunately, there was already fantastic feedback.
The response has been so much better than I ever could have dreamed. After all, as soon as people are anonymous, they can say the meanest things – things they would never say to your face. They can be cruel. But that was not the case with Superman Classic. It was embraced so well. For the first year, I would check the feedback obsessively, and it was the top-rated Superman clip on YouTube. I was so proud and so happy! It felt good to get that kind of feedback. That’s why I decided to do Bizarro, and the response to it has been equally as great.
AV: Of the possible villains, what made you chose Bizarro for the second short?
RB: When I decided I was going to do another one, I sat down and storyboarded a few adventures. I still have a few more Superman shorts already storyboarded and everything. I would look at them, and I would show them to a close circle of friends to get feedback. Some people liked the other ones better; some people liked the Bizarro one.
What stood out with the Bizarro one, to me, was the gimmick of recording John’s dialogue backward to get that eerie voice of Bizarro, and using the music backward. I think those are things, as a fan, I had always wished were done in Bizarro’s cartoons, but were never done. So, I was really eager to do them. As for the other villains I’ve storyboarded, they definitely have compelling things that I, as a fan, want to see but haven’t yet. But I think the backward stuff on Bizarro was such a fun gimmick; I think that’s really what put that short over the top.
AV: Yeah, when I first heard Bizarro’s voice, I thought, “There’s something different going on here.” Then I saw how you recorded John saying the lines backward, and I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty cool!”
RB: It comes from a game I used to play with my kids. Now everyone has computers with sound software. Long before Bizarro, I used to play a game with my kids where we would say a word into a sound recorder, and then loop that recording backward and listen to it. Then we’d imitate and record ourselves saying that new sound, and loop that recording backward to see how close we came to replicating the original word. It’s always been a fun game we’ve played. So, it was a no-brainer that, if I ever did Bizarro, that’s how I would record his voice.
AV: Can you give a general idea of the budget for each of these shorts?
RB: The budget is a weird thing. It’s really just my time. I really don’t put money into these. I mean, there’s a little money here and there, to secure a recording booth. But a lot of it is just my sweat and time.
I call in favors from friends. I let them know that these are for fun; I can’t make money off of them, because I don’t own the characters. I’m upfront right away, and I let people know, “If you want to help, it’s only because it’s for fun.” So, really, I can’t put a dollar amount on the shorts; it’s just time.
AV: Let’s talk about your next big project: Flash Gordon Classic. What do you have in store for fans of the character?
RB: Flash Gordon is amazing! You asked if I had planned on doing another Superman short after Superman Classic. Well, I was not going to do another Superman short right away – Flash Gordon Classic was what I wanted to do next. It is very much in the same passion and love for that kind of World War II/1940s/Saturday matinee/pulp feel that I’m trying to get out of Superman. Flash Gordon is just the coolest, and I see a lot of parallels with the Superman projects, where this retro/futuristic setting could be so exciting. I love the ’80s movie; I think it’s really fun. But I thought, “Wow, what an opportunity it would be to do it in more of a retro setting!”
The title hero of Flash Gordon Classic (Click to enlarge)
Also, I’m a big Star Wars fan. Superman is my favorite character, but Star Wars is my favorite movie. I’ve always known that Lucas got a lot of his inspiration from the Flash Gordon serials. So, immediately, that made me want to investigate the serials. Now that I’ve watched them, I just adore them. There is just so much coolness going on in them. The fan in me sees any Flash Gordon project, like a cartoon or that ’80s movie, but then sees it doesn’t have that pulp/’40s feel to it, and I’m like, “Wow, I wish somebody had done that.” Well, I’m going to be the one to do it! I think it will be a lot of fun to do. The more research I do on the character, the more it seems like he’s such an untapped – well, I say “untapped,” but really Lucas has tapped a lot of it. Still, Flash Gordon seems like a character that has really been underused lately. I’d like to shine a spotlight on him and how cool he is.
AV: You got John Newton for Superman Classic. Should we expect any actors associated with previous Flash Gordon projects to voice the hero?
RB: That would be my dream. I haven’t secured it yet, but I definitely will make every effort I can to get someone from the Flash Gordon “family” involved. Absolutely, that is a goal.
Storyboard for Flash Gordon Classic (Click to enlarge)
AV: Can you reveal which characters will appear? I’m guessing one of them will be Flash Gordon, of course.
RB:[laughs] You know what’s great? This sci-fi writer who’s been corresponding with me mentioned something that’s stuck in my head. He said, “There’s almost a ‘kitchen sink’ approach to writing for Flash Gordon: Anything that sounds cool, throw it in!” So, reptiles holding laser guns? Throw them in! Winged hawk-men? Throw them in! Women who are chained up while a monster is trying to eat them? Throw them in! Anything that sounds cool – because Flash Gordon’s universe is so big.
The challenge now is that I can only animate so much. I’m going for two and a half minutes on this one, whereas Bizarro was a minute and a half. Flash Gordon will be a longer short, because of the challenge to make it Flash Gordon Classic – trying to find the “classic” essence of this character within two and a half minutes.
With that said, I’d be cheating the public if I didn’t have at least his five main characters: Flash Gordon; his girlfriend, Dale Arden; his sidekick, Dr. Hans Zarkov; and then you have to have Ming the Merciless and Ming’s sexy daughter, Princess Aura. I’m also going to sneak in other references and anything I can in this two and a half minutes.
Dr. Hans Zarkov of Flash Gordon Classic (Click to enlarge)
AV: How long have you been working on Flash Gordon Classic?
RB: Not very long. It’s been in the back of my mind for years and years now. But I’ve really only sat down and drawn on it for the past three months, to put the animatic together. I’ve begun animating, but I’m only about three shots in. But the animatic is together.
AV: Do you have a release date?
RB: I don’t. I’ll be racing to do it. The other two shorts took about a year each. I’m guessing this one will take about a year, even though it will be longer in length. I’m hoping to get Flash Gordon done in a year or sooner. I’m going to see if I can get a little bit more help on this one than I have in the past. Of course, if I were working on it full-time, it would be done much quicker. But it’s just finding those hours in the middle of the night to get it done.
AV: Whenever the short comes out, it’ll probably get a couple thousand hits just from Seth MacFarlane.
RB: That would be so cool! In a way, he stole a lot of my thunder. My favorite part of Ted is seeing Sam J. Jones, the Flash Gordon from the 1980 movie, make an appearance. I was laughing my butt off! It’s my favorite part of the movie. At the same time, I was like, “Aw! I wanted Sam J. Jones to work with me on Flash Gordon Classic!” I’ll still definitely try to hit him up. But he may be harder to get since he was in that giant-hit movie.
AV: You have Disney’s Planes coming this summer. Can you talk about your involvement with it?
RB: I was a storyboard artist on Planes. It’s coming out so great. I’m not sure how many people know the history of Toy Story 2. Toy Story 2 was meant to be a direct-to-video sequel, like what Disney was doing at the time with a lot of their sequels. It’s the nature of the business to screen these things to the public and get feedback on how we’re doing. When they screened Toy Story 2 for the public, the movie got such positive feedback that it ended up being a theatrical release. That’s what is happening with Planes. It was meant to be direct-to-video, but it’s really coming out terrifically. We screened it for the public to get feedback, and the same thing happened. So, Planes will be going theatrical this August. It is a really, really fun movie, with a fun universe. I think kids are going to eat it up; they’re going to love it.
AV: Your involvement with Planes is done completely now, correct?
RB: Yes, my involvement is done. I was on the story team. Generally how animated films are made is that you’re in story and development for the first year or so, and then it has to go into production, where they’re actually animating the shots and putting them into color. So, the story on Planes has been finished for quite some time now. It’s really deep into production.
AV: Are you also working on the Planes sequels?
RB: I think Disney has not made any official announcements, so I probably can’t say anything. One thing I would guess – and probably the public would know – is that a lot will depend on how Planes does.
AV: You wrote in YouTube’s comment section for Superman Classic: Bizarro that you’re storyboarding Lex Luther Classic and a Batman/Superman teamup. Can you talk any about those?
RB: Sure! Like I mentioned, when Superman Classic did so well, I storyboarded several adventures. So, I do have one with a Batman/Superman teamup – and Batman in that ’40s setting is just the coolest thing ever! I’ve even gone as far as taking that storyboard and synching it with a lot of sound effects and music from the old Batman serials.
As for Lex Luther Classic, it’s great because there’s so much debate in the comics world about Lex Luther. There are two versions of Lex Luther: the “mad scientist on the run” Lex, and the industrialist Lex. For the Classic Lex, I have an idea on how to handle it in a way that I’m happy with, and I hope other people would be happy with it, too. It has fun references that span different eras of Superman. I have not storyboarded that one, although I have scripted it.
A friend of mine helped me script Lex Luther Classic. Through all of this Superman stuff, I’ve made friends with this kid in Ireland named Emmet O’Brien. Emmet has always volunteered, “Hey, if you want help writing stuff…!” So, I had an idea for Lex Luther, but I didn’t have it all the way. Emmet gave a more fleshed-out version of the idea. Then we went back-and-forth a couple of times, and now we have a version of the script I’m really happy with. We’ve been corresponding over the internet. I’ve never met him face-to-face, but I feel like we’re quite close now.
I said to him, “I also want to do Flash Gordon Classic, but I don’t know Flash like I know Superman.” Well, Emmet is just a nerd for Flash Gordon, and he knew all the ins and outs of the character. Whenever I had an idea, I could run it by Emmet and go, “Is this ‘classic’ Flash Gordon? Would this really represent him well?” He was a good guy to sound off for that. He helped me write a little bit of Flash Gordon.
Anyway, that’s where we have Lex Luther Classic and the Superman/Batman teamup. They’re sitting in my computer. I hope to get to them someday. When I look to the future, I could have done three Superman Classics, or I could have done two Superman Classics and a Flash Gordon Classic – the second choice sounded like the better way to go. But I can’t deny my friendship with John Newton and his availability to do the voice. I can’t deny Superman forever. I hope to get back to those someday.
AV: Do you ever see yourself saying, “Okay, time to make shorts featuring my own characters,” or do you want to continue focusing on fan films?
RB: I absolutely want to do my own characters. This is kind of a long-term game plan for me. It’s so hard for any artist to have their original stuff viewed – just to get eyeballs on it. So, I figured, “Well, maybe if I do a couple of fan films, and if they’re well-received, it will help build a name for me. When I do release an original character, maybe people will take some notice and look at it.”
I have this road rage, angry car guy whom I’ve been animating for years. I think there’s seven minutes of him fully animated. At some point, I will refine it, because I look at it now, and it’s old work.
I’m also going to collaborate with an established artist in the UK named Des Taylor. He and I are planning to collaborate on some characters in my wheelhouse, in that retro ’40s era, named Eva Strongbird and the Marine. We hope to do a graphic novel together on them, and if that goes over well, I’d like to animate them as well.
Those original ideas are definitely something I want to do at some point. I just hope that the Superman and Flash Gordon shorts will help shine a big, bright spotlight on them.