The future of the graphic novel is now. And you can blame Ryan Woodward, veteran animator and storyboard artist whose credits span from "The Avengers" and "Snow White and the Huntsman" all the way back to "The Iron Giant." If you've been to the movies in the last lifetime, chances are good you've seen his work.
Erasing the lines between comics, iTunes app, and animation, Woodward delivers "Bottom of the Ninth," a baseball yarn set 200 years in the future that will make your eyes love you. Designed specifically for Apple's iPad, "Bottom of the Ninth" is the first of its kind, featuring 2D and 3D animations, an original score, and professional voice actors. It's an immersive experience -- one that keeps you asking, "Am I reading a comic or am I watching a cartoon?"
Woodward spoke to CBR News about his new "animated graphic novel," his love of baseball, and the future of comic books.
CBR News: With your background in storyboarding and animation, it's only natural that you'd be drawn to comic book production, but "Bottom of the Ninth" is a little bit different, isn't it? If you would, explain a bit about the format approach you've taken with this story.
Ryan Woodward: Yeah, I had the beginnings of a story but wasn't sure about how I wanted to tell it. I had finished my short film, "Thought of You," and that did well but [I] didn't get overly excited about diving into that much animating. Then I wanted to do another comic book (ten years ago I had a short series Dark Horse picked up, ["Invincible Ed"]), but getting that into fans' hands is really tough and expensive. Then when [I] was leaving CTN Expo last year, a friend of mine showed me his iPad and a couple cool apps he had on it. My head exploded. Suddenly, I started thinking about all the incredible ways you could tell a story on an iPad with all the interactivity. Even the story itself grew and took on more depth because of what I could do to show the characters animating and still have that nostalgic feel of a comic book. And the best part -- all that my head was dreaming up had never been done before. That really got me excited. All along the production, more and more ideas came and the passion and the wonder of it all grew. I eventually had to cut myself off [because] I wasn't stopping and I was out of time and money. So there are a number of ideas still simmering in my head awaiting issue #2.
Let's take a step back: why futuristic baseball? What's the appeal there?
It's all about being creative. Why follow the rules of real life baseball when I can change things up and make it way more interesting? Artificial gravity in the infield that stretches up into the sky, arm parasites that enable the players to throw the ball 10x the distance, an outfield that is comprised of both teams where gladiator-type fights break out to control the ball -- so much more exciting and challenging for the main character who's an 18-year-old skinny girl. The futuristic aspect contributes to the overall story as well. The artificial gravity is controlled by the Corporation, which controls the game and the players, which poses real conflict to our rising star. Also, the rules of New Baseball opened up the door to important subplots about races not allowed to play, which leads into the major theme about identity. Hmmm, I may be revealing too much...
Nah, you're just properly whetting the appetite. But what's really appealing is the interactive nature -- the comic with a pulse -- of the project. Tell me, what were some of the difficulties in producing this type of project? Any unforeseeable road bumps along the way?
Every step of the way we encountered unforeseen hurdles. Like I said before, I had no idea how to make an app in the beginning. So the learning curve was huge. Some of the issues were limitations with the iOS technology. I wanted to have every panel animate subtly in each panel, but there's processor limitations on what they can handle. Several compression issues came up that made this app 4x the size it is now. But with a lot of creative problem solving, we were able to create unique forms of compression that brought it down to a reasonable size. I've had some enthusiasts ask me how we got that much content in the app under 300m. Well, that's our little secret. But one of the biggest struggles [was that] we are a bunch of passionate artists. We are not managers. In fact, there was nobody on the team to manage us or see things through a pipeline or track scenes. We had to learn to manage our time and I had to learn to put down the pencil sometimes, and get organized. Cause we'd be talking about scenes and we'd come up with another fun idea and we'd just go for it without even thinking about the resources, time, or delays it would cause. I would create schedules and plans for delivery and honestly, that drove me nuts. I hated doing that cause I felt I wasn't producing anything. But I did come to appreciate and realize how important a production is to have managed correctly. But surprisingly, with what we accomplished with such a small team, I am still amazed that we did it. I've been on enough large productions to know the complexities that occur, but the guys that worked with me were all hand-picked because I trusted them and I knew they had the talent, skills, integrity and work ethic to see this through. That kept a lot of those bigger issues under control. They are really great guys and I owe them big time.
Yeah, I've never heard of artists being the best of managers, but it sounds like you and your team pulled through just fine. With your background, did you find yourself following beats that are usually structured for animation or film? Or did you approach the story a different way entirely? I guess I'm trying to sharpen the line you blurred the moment you created this project.
Yeah, I knew all the processes and steps, and that was the way it was structured. It sort of went like this: script, character designs, beat boards, comic pages, 3D modeling, 2D and 3D animation, texture painting, rendering, compositing, audio and score, coding. But because we were under no overruling producers, we had all the flexibility in the world to go back and revisit shots, add new shots, delete, or whatever. In fact, I finished the app at the end of April, but then after looking at it, I realized I wanted to add a ton more stuff -- so we did. I loved having that flexibility.
What were some of the things you wanted to add that you hadn't thought of? You mentioned earlier about ideas simmering in your head for next issue -- can you elaborate? I see tying in merchandise at the end of the feature that links to an online store: "Bottom of the Ninth" jerseys and Big Hands…
Well, I don't want to give away the punch before it's delivered. But there is so much potential in story, merchandising, advertising, etc. It's all waiting to be unleashed.
Cool. What type of reference material did you look at or study for this project? Was it more animation-focused, comic book-focused…?
I actually prefer European graphic novels over American comics in terms of art and design. But at the same time, American comics have that nostalgic feel that European graphic novels do not. So I tried to blend the two by using the nostalgia, faded newsprint, ads, etc., in Golden Age American comics, but my style of drawing pulls more influence from European artists such as José Luis Munuera, Juanjo Guarnido, Bengal and Claire Wendling. I wouldn't say there was much direct animation influence, as most of the principles of animation were already embedded in me from years of film work. But I did study the human mechanics of batting and pitching. I watched hours of batting reference and really studied the pitcher, Tim Lincecum. His torso turns to rubber and it's so amazing how he delivers the energy from his feet all the way through his body to the ball. I'm not a self-proclaimed 3D animator, but couldn't resist diving into 3D land as the world of Tao City started to unfold. My modeler was shocked at some of the techniques I employed in 3D. I would destroy the constraints and set driven keys to break the rig of that News Van so it would have more squash and stretch. At one point I couldn't get the constraints of the wheels to behave like I wanted them to when the car was moving, so I kept the car in place and animated the world. Turned out perfect.
Let's talk about your main characters -- Candy Cunningham, the baseball phenom, and her dad, Gordy. What are they like and how will the audience connect to them differently than a character from just another comic?
Like any story of substance, a solid relationship won't fully develop immediately. It takes a bit of time and few more issues. But their relationship is actually the main story. Not baseball. Throughout the story, there are many factors that attempt to rip their relationship apart, but in the end, this comic is not a thrill ride. It's not about the wow of the technology. It's not about the fluidity of the animation or the coolness of New Baseball. Those are mere devices to support the quality of the story. This app is about a girl who forgets who she is and it's the unconditional love of her goofball father that helps her see the truth from the lies. Everything about this app supports that theme. You can't pick up on that in issue #1, I wouldn't want the reader to [know] that early, or it would feel disingenuous. That relationship has to be massaged first, and [the] evidence that there is a real bond needs to be established before I can ask the reader to believe something deeper than most characters in comics. But hopefully, as the story progresses, people will feel what the real themes are and they will want to keep reading for that reason alone. The first clue to this relationship in issue #1 is when Candy is having her flashback, and she's searching for that memory to give her confidence. She remembers shocking Coach Lovejoy and getting all the cheers from the other girls -- that didn't do it -- then when she remembers simple loving words from her father -- that does it, and she pitches with confidence.
You said the app supports the theme -- are you referring to the more dynamic qualities the app offers, like the score or voice actors?
Everything. The theme and the story and characters are central. I really tried to keep that front and center and stay away from gimmicks that just look cool, 'cause those get old and eventually detract from the story. Whenever we came up with a new idea, I'd ask myself if it supports the story or the characters. If the answer was no, then it's a gimmick and we didn't do it -- no matter how cool it may have been, 'cause gimmicks lose their coolness fast, but a solid story doesn't. That was hard to control at times 'cause the interactivity of the iPad gave us a lot of cool ideas of finger swiping and interactivity. Sure, there are probably a few things we just went ahead and put in for fun, but it never got out of control or detracted long enough from the story.
It seems to be more than a story, Ryan. It's an experience -- a fully-rounded story that is experienced. That said, what do you want your readers to take away from "Bottom of the Ninth?"
At first, I'm just going for interest and potential. The prologue is just set up to introduce the world and the characters. I'm hoping there is enough there to generate a real interest in [issue] #2. In the end, it's much more profound than that. I want the reader to get a feeling of their own identity and what really matters in the end. But that message takes time to communicate honestly without bias and without preaching.
Ryan Woodward will host a panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego entitled "The Animated Comic Experiment: Bottom of the Ninth" Saturday July 14th from 6-7pm in Room 24ABC.