Animated People: Robb Pratt Talks ‘Superman Classic’

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If you’re looking up in the sky or scanning your local theater for signs of Superman — you’re out of luck, as the Man of Steel has most recently been sighted on YouTube in an animated short created by professional animator and long-time Superman fan Robb Pratt.

The short clip, called Classic Superman, was a labor of love for Pratt, who came home from his animation day job to work on the project late into the night. Made in a classic, hand-drawn animation style, the clip most obviously evokes the spirit of the classic 1940s Superman shorts made by Dave and Max Fleischer. Pratt also used the music from the live-action Superman serial from the late 1940s, and got actor John Haymes Newton — who starred in the 1980s Superboy TV series — to voice the character, while Newton’s wife, Jennifer, played Lois Lane.

The rest, Pratt did himself — writing, designing, storyboarding, animating and compositing. And the fans have noticed — spreading the clip far and wide across the internet almost as soon as it hit garnering more than a quarter million views on YouTube. In case you’re one of the few who have not seen it yet, take a look here:

We caught up with Pratt to talk about the inspiration for the clip, how he made it and the reaction to its success.

Animag Online: You’re a professional animator, so tell us who you work for and a bit about your career.

Robb Pratt: Right now, I’m a story guy at Disney. I’ve been at Disney since — boy, this makes me sound old —  I got hired when Lion King was still in theaters, on Pocahontas. I started as a clean-up in-betweener and transitioned into rough in-betweener — where you’re working directly with the animators. Then I got mentored by some of the animators there, and eventually became an animator on Hercules. I stayed with the 2D animation all the way until it kind of ended with that Home on the Range movie. I then had to reinvent myself and that’s when I got into story. I struggled with story for a year or two, and then the lightbulbs just turned on and I really got passionate about it. Once I really got into story, I got a story supervisor job at Disney TV and got to direct a series at Disney TV, and now I’m back doing storyboards, on Planes, which is a part of the Cars franchise.

Animag Online: Is that one of the shorts?

Pratt: No, we’re going to do direct-to-video features. But I still love animating (by hand) and I missed it, so I figured I’ll just do it on my own time now.

Animag Online: Have you always been a Superman fan? You obviously love the Fleischer cartoons. When were you first exposed to them?

Pratt: As long as I can remember. I went nuts for the Christopher Reeve movies. But even before that, when I was really little, I would watch the George Reeves re-runs and loved them. And then, when I saw the first picture of Christopher Reeve and he had the curl in his hair, I was so excited. That was a big-time movie for me. Around that time, the Fleischer cartoons weren’t really seen, and then I think it might have been a good five years after the Reeve movies were done that they started re-surfacing. I went to an animation festival and somebody showed one and I was floored. I loved it. I would go to comic cons and find them on bootlegs. Of all things Superman that have been on film, those are my favorite. I mean I love the Reeve movies and Reeve is my favorite Superman, but those Fleischers are just my favorite Superman things ever put to film. They’re just gorgeous.

Animag Online: Are you a fan of any of the Superman comics? Do you have any favorites?

Pratt: As much as I love Superman, I don’t read a lot of comics. If a friend recommends one, I’ll read it. And there’s been some that have been fantastic. I love that Kingdom Come graphic novel. The Dark Knight Returns is great. So there’s a few here and there. I got into buying the Superman monthlies for a little while, around when they did that death of Superman stunt. I was buying those for about a year. But I think it’s really more the cultural icon aspect that attracts me to Superman. I just love that he’s like a modern-day Hercules for the 20th century, and he’s so American. That’s what really draws me to him — that and I was a kid when the movies came out, so I just went nuts for those.

Animag Online: What made you decide to make a short like this?

Pratt: It’s just all passion. It’s just really loving the character and missing animating. I just missed hand-drawn animation so badly and I knew I wanted to do something animated. I have my own original characters that I do on my own, but  I did want to do something that would be kind of like an homage that would harken back to my childhood and make me remember why I drew in the first place. Superman was something that was kind of always on my mind anyway.  And then, I was always poking around on the internet, listening to stuff — seeing the Saturday matinee serials and hearing that music. I love the John Williams music. John Williams is my favorite composer of all time, but there was something about that Saturday matinee music that really struck a chord with me.  I just loved how dark it was and even though I don’t think of Superman as a dark character, the music just seemed really dramatic and it was very striking.

I kind of  always had it in the back of my mind that someday I’d like to do a Superman. I love those Fleischers, but so much has been invented in the Superman canon since then. The Fleischers don’t even have Kryptonite yet. They don’t have Lex Luthor. They don’t have Brainiac. There’s a lot they don’t have. They don’t even have Jimmy Olsen and Perry White. And the costume has evolved. So I definitely wanted to do something that was like a nod to the Fleischers, but a little nod to all the things that have come since. The costume — I kind of think of it as the Curt Swan costume. To me, that’s where the evolution kind of ends, at least with the suit. That’s where it got to its perfection, at least just for my taste. So I wanted to have that Curt Swan costume, but in the Fleischers’ setting. Then I met John Haymes Newton and he’s  one of my best friends now. I’m so thrilled to know him. So then things kind of came together: this music, and I want to animate, and John is here so he could do the voice.

It started with building an animatic to that music first. I waned to see if I could make it look like that music was scored to my piece — almost like a little mini-Fantasia piece, where you animate to the music but then afterward when you watch it it almost looks like it’s scored to your animation. Once I had the animatic going and I could see it, it just became an obsession. I have an obsession with Superman anyways, but it became a thing where I’m working all day and I could not wait to get home at night to work on this thing.

And it’s funny, when I animated professionally, if I did like five or six feet a week at Disney nobody gave you a hard time. On this, I was coming home and because I had it so clear in my head, I would animate three feet in a night and barely threw away a drawing. Now, maybe I could have nuanced it a little bit more. But when you’re doing it on your own, it’s like, do I want to nuance this even more when I have other scenes to do? There’s a lot of footage to get done. But it just became an obsession where I couldn’t wait to work on it at night. It was so fun.

Animag Online: Talk about your influences on this project. The two obvious ones are the Fleischers and Bruce Timm — and you’ve got elements of both in there.

Pratt: I love Bruce Timm’s stuff. He revolutionized the whole TV look of the ’90s. But I definitely wanted to give it something that came from a little bit more of my voice or came from my animation upbringing.

I love the Fleischers and I love the Bruce Timm stuff and one of the things they have in common is they give Superman those real squinty eyes. And I came from a Disney approach, where you have to give him eyes that can squash and stretch. So I wanted to add a nod to their stuff, but then the thing I thought I could add to it was getting that squash and stretch in, and opening his eyes a bit. They can still squint, but that’ s just a squashed expression now. And then Clark, when he’s talking, the face can stretch. It’s really just drawing on a nod to Bruce Timm and the Fleischers but also just my upbringing at Disney in working with guys like Andreas Deja and Randy Haycock and Eric Goldberg — everybody that I learned from at that studio.

And then there’s the limitations, such as, do I do cleanup? At Disney we would spend an hour on a drawing, cleaning it up, making the line look perfect. Had i done that, there was no way the (Superman) project would ever get done. So I knew early on I’m going to have to go with a rough pencil line, and there’ll be cross hairs here and there, and it’ll look sketchy. But at the same time, we can’t over gloss it. It’ll never compete with CG in the gloss factor, so maybe it’s great to just embrace it as an organic art form.

I’m a grown-up now, but that’s still the one thing that seems like magic to me, is a drawing that’s moving. So that’s a big reason why I put the pencil tests on the ending credits because I wanted a constant reminder that this is an organic art form.

Animag Online: You leave this on a cliffhanger note — will you do more Superman or move on to something else?

Pratt: I definitely will do something more because of that hunger and love and passion for traditional animation. So I’m definitely going to do something else, and I don’t know if it’s going to be a continuation. Though I have some thoughts on how it could continue, I think it could be fun to let the viewer imagine what happens next. You may never come up with something as cool as what the viewer is imagining. A lot of it too is I didn’t know what the response to this was going to be. So the response has just been so great and there seems to be demand for more, so I might do another Superman instead of doing something else. It’s an art that takes so long to do and when you’re doing it you have so many other ideas, so I’m definitely going to do some more stuff, I just don’t know what yet.

Animag Online: How long did it take you to put this together from start to finish?

Pratt: I came up with the concept of it last February. And so from just imagining it in my head to having it completely done was almost a year. But in that year I did work full time, so those are only night-time hours and even with that, I would take a freelance job here and there and not be able to work on Superman for maybe a month to six weeks. That happened a couple of times. So all told, if I were to stay home and do it full time, obviously it would have been done in less than half that time. And I’m a family guy and my kids are little and I love spending time with them, so I would wait until they’d go to sleep. Every drawing you see there is probably done between 10 at night and 3 in the morning because I didn’t want it to encroach on my family time. I lost sleep over it, but I didn’t want to lose family time.

Animag Online: What are the reactions like? Any strange or unusual ones, or comments that have taken you by surprise?

Pratt: There’s so many. People have been praising it and I love that. Sometimes they’ll say the animation looks Spumco influenced, and that really came out of left field for me. I love Ren and Stimpy, but I guess I picture that stuff being more like Tex Avery, with eyeballs popping out of skulls and stuff. So that reaction kind of cracked me up. And a lot of people have given me a hard time because I did that little making of video and I didn’t acknowledge the Fleischers. And I do feel like I kind of dropped the ball there a little bit. I guess it was so obvious to me that I love the Fleischers, it’s just such a no-brainer and somehow I just didn’t mention it. So a lot of people have gotten on my case about that. I don’t know if that’s weird, but it reaffirms to me that the Fleischers are remembered because I’d like to stand on top of a building and yell how cool the Fleischers are, and I don’t want anybody to not know about them. Everybody should see those in their lifetime at some point, they’re just so beautiful.

And then the phone booth just cracks me up. I looked for reference for an old ’40s phone booth and it was so hard to find one that had the window just right where you could see Clark Kent changing. So I grabbed the same phone booth that I think Doctor Who used and everyone is calling me on that and it’s great. I have such great respect for the geek community because they are sharp. They will catch everything. I just love it. This whole YouTube experience, it’s almost interactive where somebody creates something and you get feedback from people. And I’ve just had such a fun time with people spotting everything.

Animag Online: Anything else you’d like to say about the movie?

Pratt: I’m just so thankful to everyone who’s responded well to it. It was so fun up front to work on it and design it and storyboard and animate it. And then when it got to the grueling dog days of coloring cel after cel, I would ask myself, Have i just wasted this whole year? And i’m so grateful to everyone who’s written a nice comment and, yeah, that’s my big thank you for affirming to me that I didn’t waste my time.

  • http://artofstodoe.blogspot.com Stodoe

    Beautiful work Rob. You’re an inspiration to all of us full time animators that just want to do our own projects and share our voice. It’s so hard to get the time to come home and create something of our own after 12 hours of creating other peoples movies. But you showed us that it can be done. Great work. I look forward to seeing more.

  • http://www.hanskarlmusic.com Hans Karl

    Hi Robb, This was nicely done all around. I am a HUGE fan of the original Fleischer cartoons, but I don’t feel it was a disservice at all not to mention their work. After all, you combined lots of “different” Superman elements from past and present into a cohesive whole that really stands on its own for me. Can’t wait to see the next installment, when and if it does indeed happen. Great work and good luck!

  • Shakeem Winn

    This was fantastic work my friend. i hope you continue with series

  • air

    very nice Robb! VERY NICE!!!