SUPERMAN Flashback: Go Behind-The-Scenes On The Making Of The 75th Anniversary Animated Short

When Superman celebrated his 75th anniversary in 2013, Warner Bros. released an animated short that captured his history in two minutes. Now director Jay Oliva brings us behind-the-scenes on its making.

Put to the musical themes of, first, John Williams and, then, Hans Zimmer, it was an inspiring effort that no doubt left even the most casual fan of the Man of Steel smiling. What may be surprising to some, however, is the tremendous amount of thought that went into creating the "moments" represented in the short.

Oliva, who also served as storyboard artist and producer of this effort, directed a number of animated films based on DC characters and was storyboard artist on Zack Snyder's Man of Steel and Justice League. Now, he reflects on the making of the animated. short exclusively with Voices from Krypton, which is sharing what is the first part of that behind the scenes discussion (the rest to come soon).

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: The first time you see that trailer, you can't help but smile, and the thing that grabs you from the outset is the use of the John Williams theme.

JAY OLIVA: When we first started throwing ideas of how it would be, of course, they were, like, "We should use the John Williams theme." The original idea was to do more of a montage with music from throughout the years. We would start with the theme from the George Reeves series and go to John Williams and so on. That was in our our first meeting. The first ideas was to do everything in one shot, but I realized there was no way to do it in two minutes and feature all of the benchmarks in the character's history. 

By the time I got involved, Peter Girardi and Bruce Timm had their initial pitch where they showed all the landmarks they wanted to hit. Things like Curt Swan, Wayne Boring, Turtleboy, Christopher Reeve, the Atari 2600 and Super Nintendo games, and so forth. So I got all of this information, sat down in front of my computer and thought to myself, “How do I track all of this together?” I realized early on it had to be the John Williams theme all the way through. So I went back to them and said, “Hey, can you guys check with the legal department and see if we can use the theme?” They looked into it and they said, “Yeah, we can use it, and it’s actually not very expensive for us to use it,” so that was cool. As soon as I knew we got that in, I said we’re going to stick to the John Williams theme, because I told them I would be story boarding to the music. What this meant was that all of the transitions and all the switches from one decade to another would be based on the music. That’s why I wanted to start with Action Comics #1 and then, as soon as the music hit, you would go with the animation.

The original storyboard – maybe someday I’ll post it – was a shot of a really crappy wooden coffee table, and then the comic book would kind of drop down into it and there would be a kid’s hand on it. That’s how I read comic books, on a kind of crappy wooden table, and I thought, “Oh that would be kind of nice.” The table would have stains on it and stuff, and the camera would slowly be pushing in on it. The build-up was kind of slow and while the audience was looking at it, as soon as the music hits, boom, there’s the animation and Superman jumps off the cover. He runs to the camera and we’re now in the Shuster 1940s world. Obviously we didn’t shoot the coffee table, but from him running towards the camera he runs through a crowd and down an alleyway. I didn’t want him flying in the beginning, because back then he didn’t – he leapt, so we had him leaping up from building to building. You get to the top of the tallest building, and that would transition to the Fleischer cartoons, him smashing through the airplane and all of that.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Were there any other elements that you had originally hoped to have in there but ultimately couldn’t for one reason or another?

JAY OLIVA: When I was going over what they wanted, I thought they messed up, because they didn’t have Lois & Clark and that sort of thing. Originally I had it mapped out for four minutes, because that’s how long the John Williams theme is, but the budget wouldn’t support it. Originally it was supposed to be a minute thirty seconds, and I was able to stretch it to a little over two minutes. But, yeah, originally I had a scene where Clark Kent comes out of a phonebook, and he does that whole “This is a job for Superman” thing and he reveals the costume. I had Clark running by a train, and a whole sequence inside the Fortress of Solitude. There’s a part of the theme where it slows down for a bit and I was going to use that moment to project Jor-El and scenes from the movie in the fortress; you’d see the scene where Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are flying through the sky, with the city of Metropolis in the background. I wanted this thing where you would see animation in the foreground, but live action stuff in the background.

I had a Lois & Clark sequence, because I’m a big fan of that show. I think at one point we were trying to do a Jerry Seinfeld, since Jerry always had Superman stuff in his apartment on the show. Then I had a Smallville scene where he was up on the scarecrow in the first episode. I had one shot from Brandon Routh’s Superman Returns where he’s up in the clouds sort of recharging his powers from the sun.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: That’s pretty ambitious.

JAY OLIVA: Well, yeah, but that was the four minute version. I was told I would have to cut two minutes out of it, plus it was felt that some of that was slowing down the flow. Like with the Smallville sequence, we were going from Superman to a teenaged Clark Kent, which was something totally different. The flow I was trying to get was that you had classic Superman all the way up to the Superman with Christopher Reeve. Then we had the comic books and the mainstay of that is Death of Superman, and for that I had to bring in the black costumed Superman. Then Bruce Timm wanted the red and blue versions.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: You mean Superman Red and Superman Blue from the ’60s?

JAY OLIVA: No, the red and the blue Superman – the electric guys – because it was in that era. We couldn’t figure what else we could do from that era, but it worked out because we had the classic Superman who was killed, then changed into a black suit and then you bring in these two other guys. From there we go into Bruce’s version of the character from Superman: The Animated Series, which was almost like bringing it back to the classic take. So if we did that and then brought in the Tom Welling version, it would be counter intuitive to what the narrative was trying to say. So let’s watch it, and we can talk about it as it plays.

[At which point Jay and I began watching the video on our respective computers and continued the conversation as it played, pausing where necessary. That's where Part 2 of this series will pick up]

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