111: The Voice Behind Samurai Jack
March 11, 2017 3:52 a.m.
Episode 111: The Voice Behind Samurai Jack
After a 13-year hiatus Genndy Tartakovsky's 'Samurai Jack' finally returns and so to does voice actor Phil LaMarr. I speak with LaMarr about what makes 'Samurai Jack' the best cartoon on TV; and I share my geeky fandom for the show with Mike Salva, an animator living in Nashville..
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Related Story: Podcast Episode 111: The Voice Behind 'Samurai Jack'
Beth Accomando: Welcome back, back to the past -- oh, I mean welcome back to the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast, I’m Beth Accomando. Thirteen years is a long time to wait, but it’s been worth it, because on March 11th Samurai Jack finally returns and, so too does voice actor Phil LaMarr to make sure…
Video: That Jack still was Jack.
Beth: I got chill’s of excitement when LaMarr took on the Jack voice during my interview. Genndy Tartakovsky, Samurai Jack premiered in 2001 on Cartoon Network. The series followed Jack a Samurai flung into the future by an Evil Demon and on a quest to travel back in time to defeat his nemesis, The Shapeshifting Master of Darkness, Aku. Each show opened with this intro from Aku.
Aku: Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the Shapeshifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish Samurai warrior, wielding a magic sword, stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow is struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku!
Gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack (watch out).
Beth: The show had a bold visual style that reveled in both intoxicating action and meditative moments of stillness. There could be whole episodes with barely a word spoken and it was riveting. It had a deceptive simplicity because the animation was very two-dimensional and angular. But there was so much craft and care put into the composition of every frame and so much creative innovation.
Tartakovsky kept the frame in constant dynamic play, so the animation might fill the whole screen then shift to a letterboxed frame for a Sergio Leone-style landscape or split into three like comic book panels to emphasize the details of some action. You never knew what he was going to do and every episode seemed to deliver brand new characters for a standalone adventure.
Jack: It is my duty to oppose the minions of Aku and my mission to vanquish the very demon himself.
Rothie: Well, then, now that we have a chance at freedom we should take our leave of these forsaken mines. Our pack shall continue our once-nomadic life searching for more answers to our puzzling history.
Jack: I wish you the best.
Rothie: We certainly invite you to join us.
Jack: No, I cannot! Aku's wrongs must be righted. Surely, there is a way to reverse his spell. I will find a way back to my own time. There, I will finish what I started centuries ago and defeat Aku's evil before it was ever truly unleashed.
Beth: The show lasted for four seasons and went off the air in September of 2004. It was a sad day for fans. Tartakovsky had previously done “Dexter’s Laboratory” and worked on “The Powerpuff Girls.” And while on the tail end of the original run of “Samurai Jack,” he created the brilliant “Star Wars: Clone Wars” as short interstitials (now called a microseries) between programming on Cartoon Network.
Clone Wars was the best thing in the Star Wars universe since the original trilogy. Each episode, done in a manga style of character design, was less than five minutes long, but it would be packed with wall-to-wall action and clever storytelling. More than any of the movies, it showed how kick ass Jedi could be.
Video: In general explosion [phonetic] [00:03:54] all over we are losing control. What?
Beth: Tartokovsky has moved on to feature films with “Hotel Transylvania,” but he always seemed too long for a return to “Samurai Jack” to finish the story he started. When “Samurai Jack” went off the year in 2004, it left fans hanging in regards to the fate of their time-traveling hero. But Jack is back to launch a long-awaited season five on Adult Swim.
Video: “It always seems bad at first. But then, I find a way."
Jack: Leave here now, and live. Or stay, and face your destiny.
Daughter: Our destiny is your death!
Jack: ...Very well.
Aku, destroyed everything. Gotta get back... back... Back to the past... past...
Samurai Jack, an all new limited series, premiering Saturday, March 11th at 11pm.
Beth: Actor Phil LaMarr has come back to again voice Jack. The story picks up 50 years later, but Jack has not aged nor has he achieved his quest to get back to the past to destroy Aku. Instead of Aku providing the shows weekly intro at the beginning of each episode. It now looks like Jack will be getting those honors.
Male Speaker: “50 years have passed, but I do not age.” “Time has lost its effect on me. Yet, the suffering continues.” Aku's grasp chokes the past, present, and future. Hope is lost. Got to get back. Back to the past. Samurai Jack."
Beth: The new series serves up 10 episodes telling one story so it is a more complex narrative structure than before. It is also darker, which is why when it returns on March 11, it will be on Adult Swim rather than Cartoon Network, and fans will finally find out if Jack will get back to the past or not. I began my interview with Phil LaMarr by getting his back story in terms of how he got involved with the show.
Phil LaMarr: I got involved with the show by auditioning for the show, they were holding auditions for the part -- I mean – I don’t know if they auditioned for Aku or not or Genndy just knew he wanted Marko, but no there were a bunch of us all different types and I guess mine was the voice that seem to fit the idea that can be Genndy had.
Beth: Do you have any idea what it was about you that might have made you appealing to them?
Phil LaMarr: If I knew that I would have big houses and I would probably own my own island, I’ve no idea, I mean in my experience it is simply just finding the right fit between what the voice the creator hears is in his head and the voice that comes in through the speakers.
Beth: Now with Samurai Jack, he is a character who is fairly laconic and doesn’t go off until long monologues usually, so did you hesitated at all as a voice actor taking on a part where there was -- it seemed to be there were going to be not a lot of dialogue for you to play with?
Phil LaMarr: Well, one I didn’t know, because there was no full script and the whole concept to the series wasn’t laid out, although I think early on we started – when we were talking about the voice, we noted down something we described as a young Asian Clint Eastwood, so I guess that should have been clue right there, that he wasn’t going to talk very much. But no that’s – that’s not really an issue I mean it’s not like that old Monty Python [indiscernible] [00:08:01] come to value, the value of your part by the number of words or words the number of pauses.
I think – I’m trying to think if I’d known would it have made a difference and I don’t think so, because early on Genndy showed me the little test animation PC done as a proof of concept and it was just incredible. You knew right away that this was going to be something special and I don’t think I would have baulked at this anymore then Clint Eastwood baulked at playing The Man with No Name, like you don’t have a lot of lines, “dude, I’m the hero, I don’t care”.
Beth: And after you started to doing the show for a while like earlier on that first season did you feel like Samurai Jack was doing something different as a show?
Phil LaMarr: Oh, absolutely. The very first episode, well although I didn’t know this until we saw it, but I mean we had what 9 or 10 minute stretch with no dialogue at all, which at the time was absolutely unheard of in American TV Animation. I mean there is silences -- I mean I don’t even know how we got it on the air, but as you watch to it, it fit the series, it fit the episode and it set a tone that was really just set the show apart from anything else that was being done at that time and to a larger [indiscernible] [00:09:28] anything that's been done since.
Beth: Oh, you mentioned 10 minutes of silence even today that is a rarity I mean especially in a cartoon where it’s seems like maybe not the artists themselves creating it, but like the studios and kind of the producers behind it sometime seem to want it to be coming at you with this rapid fire space with no pauses like don’t let anybody have a moment to get bored or we'll lose them and it was so refreshing.
Phil LaMarr: Yeah, absolutely, well, and also that idea “oh, people are going to get bored” well people are going to get bored if you are boring. It is nothing to do it whether you’re talking.
Phil LaMarr: Or, if you are engaging people and this show engages people on so many levels, I mean I always said it’s a show I feel like l can recommend to anybody, because whoever you are whether you’re an animation person or a person who doesn’t like cartoons or you're person who doesn’t like action you know, there’s going to be something. If you don’t like action, you love the painted backgrounds. If you don’t like the painted background then you’re going to love the robot, there is something in it for everyone.
Beth: Yes, how would you describe your character of Jack in -- let’s start with him in the initial series. How would you describe him when we first met him?
Phil LaMarr: Jack is a man on a mission. He's in many ways the purist kind of hero. He is selfless, he is generous and he is well trained and the big thing from a performances standpoint that Genndy always stressed was less -- things don’t affect him.
Rothie: Ahem... Good, Sir Jack. 'it was truly a noble deed you have done today, and an historic victory most worthy of our logs. You have saved our pack from the wrath of Aku's drones. We are forever indebted to you.”
Jack: Thanks, but not necessary.
Phil LaMarr: In a normal cartoon there would have been a lot of [indiscernible] [00:11:34] grunts and heaves and hoos and all that in this cartoon there was very little. I mean maybe an attack yell [Indiscernible] [00:11:43], but not a lot of effect and even and when things went wrong he would generally find his equilibrium pretty quickly and get back on track.
Beth: And what was it like coming back to him now more than the decade later?
Phil LaMarr: He was really interesting obviously – well not obviously, but for me after a certain amount of time a character get’s absorbed into you and it becomes a little more reflects of you. You don’t have to dig and it was hard to figure out where that character lives in you vocally, emotionally and then to go away and come back was really interesting, especially, because of how we came back.
And he didn’t just go, we're just going to do a more episodes, it’s like no, these episodes are talking place much further down the line its the same guy, but he is not in the same place. He is not in the same head space. He is a very different person then he was before and I mean my job I thought was to connect this new circumstance to that old hero. What is that guy from 15 years ago like when all this happens to him.
He's still a hero, he is still well trained, he is still somebody who cares about others and all that, but how does it change? After being struck unable to complete his mission for 50 years, the hero is defined by the quest what you do went you can’t complete your quest.
Beth: Well he seems to have a few more demons that he is fighting and not all of them external.
Phil LeMarr: Right, right well and that’s the thing I mean Aku could never defeat him. The only person who could defeat him was himself ultimately when it comes down to that's who he's fighting.
Beth: And what’s the biggest challenge for you in performing as Jack or portraying Jack.
Phil LeMarr: Maintaining that solidness and then having him deal with the things that these new episodes bring to him, but also keeping the core the same, because that’s the thing, we don’t want it to be all of a sudden it is like a different guy. But it is a very, very different situation and the show itself the way the story telling is going is a lot different. There needed to be this character at his core as the through line.
There need to be something that people recognize and could hold on to, so I felt the responsibility in that way to make sure the Jack still was Jack.
Beth: Well, I have to say when I watched the premier episode like I didn’t feel you guys had missed a beat. I had to actually remember how long it’s been since you had done a show, it just felt fluid like it went from the end of the last season to this.
Phil LeMarr: Well you know what's funny, Genndy has done something that I’ve only seen done once before. I worked with Paul Reubens and he adapted his original Pee-wee Herman stage show into a new stage show. And he took the Saturday morning show and put it into the stage show in the way that it had not existed before. But people had these amazingly strong fond memories of that Saturday morning show.
So he knew when they came to the theater to see the Pee-wee Herman Show, they wanted to see that, but it had never existed on the stage before. So what he did was he created an approximation of their memory of the show. And to a person everybody who came said “oh, my God, it is exactly as I remember it,” but the truth is if you look at pictures of the set from the stage show and the set from the TV show completely different.
But you take the elements, the people latch on to and it feels like you remember it, doesn’t feel the same, it feels like you remember it. And, he has done that with this, somehow you come into this show and its feels exactly like it felt when you watched it before. It’s not the same, because you’ve grown up, you’ve been watching it you know, but it exactly like you remember it.
Beth: I mean you do feel like there was a change in like how he looks and how he behaves, but it feels perfectly organic like this is what would have happened to him. You don’t go like “oh, that’s a little drawing”.
Phil LeMarr: Right, right. Well, and that’s the thing he is like he is somehow able to calibrate what is going to feel different, what we can’t replicate, but then you put it in the context of well 50 years later and he has been through this, so this is why it feels that way. So, you go “oh, got it” and you just keep moving forward naturally.
Yeah, it’s really I hope people appreciate the degree of difficulty, I mean you look at other reboots and most of them the nostalgia is what they trading on, it’s like watch this because you used to like it. He is not doing that. He is saying watch this, because this deserves to be watched.
Beth: Oh, I also feel like whereas with some other shows you feel like you get the reboot just the cash in on something like they want to cash in on the popularity. And with this I felt like it never really finished on a certain level and that you guys have all been harboring this desire to go back to it and complete it, so it seems like the motivation is different and very genuine.
Phil LeMarr: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Well one the show never did and, and it’s the premise of the show has an ending built in. It’s in the bloody song. You got to get back and with – to for the show to end without resolving that in some way makes it incomplete. So yeah, there is definitely a reason and most shows the premise is this is who we are. So, the first episode pretty much answers the questions oh that’s who they are, let’s keep watching it, I mean the Simpsons there is no question, there is no ending built into that.
Beth: I’m curious to as a voice actor how do you actually record your tracks, do you have to wait until the visual images completely done or do they need some of your voicing before they can finish what it looks like, you mean how is that process?
Phil LeMarr: Well, in American Animation you always record the voices before the animation is done, because American tend to care about lip sync and you cannot sync it unless you record the dialogue first, because if you know what character is saying, “I’m going outside,” you could tried to approximate that, but you don’t know how they are going to say it, because “I’m going outside,” takes -- that’s different animation and then “I’m going outside.”
It just won’t match, the timing won’t be right, yeah you always – although it is funny, because in the movies whenever there is somebody doing a cartoon, they always are doing the voice to the animation, and it’s given people this, this false idea of how its done like yeah, we know we’re not Japan. We record the voices first.
Beth: So, then you are kind of like the vocal equivalent of an actor, acting against a blue screen, because you’re not seeing what you’re actually voicing or reacting too on a certain level.
Phil LeMarr: No, yeah well you’re given the script and certainly in the case of Samurai Jack you’re given extensive storyboards. So you know emotionally and action wise and contextually what is going on. The voice is really only half the acting in American Animation, because how you say a line can affect how the animators have the character look when they say it.
And the animation really can add to whatever emotion you’re trying to convey, that’s why a lot of the digital animation, the flash or the CG stuff [phonetic] [00:20:09] that are less detailed, I think that’s why some of them have a harder time doing -- on an emotional levels stuff that people were doing in the 20s with animation, because you could paint and you could do subtle stuff and approximate those things that we see when we’re watching live action.
But when you get to computerized stuff it gets flattened out and simplified. So, you can’t communicate as much emotional detail.
Beth: Well, Samurai Jack is a really interesting show from an artistic point of view, because on a certain level the visual style looks simple in the sense that it’s kind of two dimensional and very different from kind of the CGI 3 dimensional stuff that’s very popular. But there is so much care and craft that goes into just like the composition of the frame. The complexity of what’s going on, it’s funny, because I was just watching the premier episode and I went back to watch a few of the older ones.
And this term from films school kept popping in my head and it’s a term that I hardly every use, because few films merited [phonetic] [00:21:15] it, but the notion of this [indiscernible] [00:21:18].
Phil LeMarr: Right.
Beth: Like I kept thinking to myself there is so much care in this cartoon as to do you use the full frame? Do you letter the box it? Do you use like comic book panels? Do you have stillness? Do you have emotion and all those things seem so carefully thought through.
Phil LeMarr: These guys are artist, these guys are filmmakers and the level of collaboration -- I don’t think is common, most filmmakers would tell you oh they tell about the camera and the actor, like well, what about the music? What about the light? And on Samurai Jack in some way it all feels equal. And it is, because they’re all working towards the same goal. If you watch that show without the music it’s not there.
If you watch it without even the -- just the sound effects you lose, you lose something, yeah, so it’s exactly what you’re saying it, they are using so many tools and not just using a closed up to emphasize. I’m going to emphasize by cutting the screen into 3 and showing that same thing 3 times in a row, yeah it’s – that’s why I said it’s a work art.
Beth: Well, you mentioned – you called them filmmakers and it’s very much a cinematic show, it feels very like you could put it on the big screen and it was still like it would be even better?
Phil LeMarr: Well, and I think that’s part of the reason that Genndy tried for years to complete the story as a feature film, because it definitely has the epic scope, but unfortunately dealing -- the executive mentality these days is everyone thinks you -- no one will watch – kids won’t watch 2 dimensional animation, like one they will if it is good.
Beth: Well, remember I mean one of the reason I started watching the show was I saw – I think that I don’t know if they had just clips or an actual episode at Comic Con and they had these gorgeous posters. And my son was into Asian action films and I remember thinking -- telling him, because I think he was literally -- he was only like maybe 7 or 8, I said “oh, we should check the show out of it, it looks really cool.”
And even though there were with these long stretches were there was no dialogue and I remember there was a couple of episodes where there was even moments that are in almost complete black. I think there was the one where he is fighting the three blind archers and he puts on a blindfold and for a couple of moments all you have on screen is black. And slowly you start to hear some sounds.
I remember he was like riveted, because even though there is nothing on there, it’s like what’s going to happen next and how is he going to use this to outsmart them and it was great. And it challenged kids, I loved it how it challenged kids who were watching this show to think about watching cartoons in a different way.
Phil LeMarr: Well, I mean that’s interesting that you used the word challenge and I think a lot of people would, I don’t know if it is challenging so much, simply because like what you’re talking about that the episode with the archers and it goes to black. He set that up in such a way that there is a reason for it, you understand that there was no confusion. There is no boredom, it heightens the tension and it’s a challenge the way Shakespeare is a challenge.
Beth: I think it’s a challenge to expectations, not that it is hard to watch, but that you go in watching something and the mainstream prepares you for a certain things. And I think what Samurai Jack does it challenge you to say like just because that’s the way it’s done, it doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it.
Phil LeMarr: Right, actually that’s -- yes okay I would agree to you, I think it actually challenges other animators more than it challenges the audiences, but yes it is uncommon in what it is expecting of you. And if you come at it with the same expectations you come to a regular cartoon, you’re going to have to make an adjustment, yes absolutely.
Beth: Now, does he talk to you at all about some of the influences he has on him, because I noticed in the episode it felt like -- the premiere episode it felt like there was a moment of -- I think it is the first one I got to see the first two episodes, oh, no I think it’s the second episode. It feels very much like there is a references to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in that -- one plays and I’m not very musically inclined, I’m a bit tone deaf.
But it felt like there was a little bit of a music cue and then the visual cue you know that seems to be referencing some Sergio Leone and I don’t know if he ever talks to you about kind of the things that influences him in terms of the way he is taking the story.
Phil LeMarr: Not really, because generally we are talking about episodes before they are done and unfortunately we don’t usually sit down and watch them together. But yes, no there was definitely a lot of Spaghetti Western. I mean throughout the series that’s a huge thing for Genndy. And I remember at the very beginning when he was talking about his concept, he said “there is a never cartoon that have – cartoons never have enough action for me.”
[Indiscernible] [00:26:36] so, yeah, he definitely draws from those wells as well as Hong Kong Action, I mean you can see that just very apparently in the way that this show is done. And I think there are a lot of other influences that maybe probably less apparent than that, but – you know he is -- the man knows what he is doing and what he is doing goes deep.
Beth: So, when you get to see the final episodes is there an element of surprise for you when you see the whole thing finally put together?
Phil LeMarr: I let you know when I do. You see more than I have.
Beth: Oh, wow! So, do you think people can come in to season 5 cold like if they’ve never seen a Samurai Jack and they still come in to this season and enjoy it or would you recommend going and seeing a few at least maybe the pilot episodes.
Phil LeMarr: I think that this story stands on its own, if you’ve never seen the show before, you will not come at it with nostalgia and the set of expectations. But what you will get then is an amazing story of a man trapped in a world and dealing with that and some kick ass action. To me it’s a win-win if you know the show its like seeing kids you grew up with, blossom into something amazing and if you’ve never seen it then you just meeting Naomi Campbell for the first time. You know, how [indiscernible] [00:28:19] looks?
Beth: Do you have some favorite like a couple of favorite episodes from the past seasons that you would recommend you are like a personal favorite?
Phil LeMarr: Well, it’s funny I mean I think the ones that I -- that are my favorites -- just, because or just that, the things that I had a fun time in working with John Marzano on The First Scotsman Episode that was just the blast.
Male Speaker: Excuse me.
Male Speaker: What do you expect me to do?
Male Speaker: Just stand aside.
Male Speaker: And risk falling over the side for a perfect stranger? Away and bow your head. You stand aside!
Male Speaker: My destination lies at the opposite end of the bridge.
Male Speaker: And you'll get there after you back up and I reach that end of the bridge first.
Male Speaker: That would waste too much time and time is what I don't have.
Male Speaker: So you think you're better than me because you're in a hurry. Well, I'm in a hurry too! But, no, you did not think of that, did you? That I might be an equal. No! You just consider yourself superior, right off. You're rude.
Phil LaMarr: There’s The Jump Good Episode, which is one of the first season ones is always been one of my favorites.
Male Speaker: Who are they?
Male Speaker: Other tribe.
Male Speaker: Why do you not defend what's yours?
Male Speaker: We peaceful like flower. Know not how to protect ourselves. Other tribe take food, smash home, never leave us alone! We pick up pieces, replant somewhere else. We scared. Not, like before, we find new home.
Male Speaker: I could show you how to defend yourselves how to protect what is yours.
Male Speaker: And we show you to jump good. They agree. We learn to protect and defend.
Male Speaker: And they will show me to jump good?
Male Speaker: No. I mean yes.
Phil LaMarr: And then there was The Mad Jack Episode where Aku creates an evil doppelganger.
Jack: Who are you?
Mad Jack: Don't be such a fool! I'm you.
Jack: If you are me, then who am I?
Mad Jack: Oh! You're so stupid. Nrrrgh! You're so stupid! You are you, also!
Jack: Enough! You are my mirror image, yet your speech is foul with evil and disrespect. Who are you and how have you come to be me?
Mad Jack: I am the son of Aku's magic. He has looked deep within you and has spawned me from your own burning hatred. I am your dark side and I possess all the powers that you wield. And I have only one purpose in my existence, to destroy you!
Phil LaMarr: That one I love on a number of levels one just because that’s a staple of the Era of TV I grew upon Evil Twins and I think it’s pretty much the most lines, I had in any episode they were going through.
Beth: And you got to be both good and evil?
Phil LaMarr: Exactly.
Beth: There is one of a little bit sad thing about coming back to the series as we know no longer have Mako doing the voice for Aku was that a shift for you getting back to that?
Phil LaMarr: Yeah, yeah, I mean obviously you knew several years ago that he passed away and it was weird, because really the original series he and I were the only constants. And it was a little – well he and I and Genndy it was weird to have one of the three of us not there, but Greg has done an amazing job and we actually had a really cool thing happen, Mako’s daughter came to one of our recording sessions.
So -- and brought her son who is named after his grandfather and they came and watched us record and got to see the episode and everything, and so we feel like at least their family is still part of us and we're still part of their family, so it is not – he is not gone just not recorded.
Beth: Is there anything you can tell us about the new season or anything coming up that might further wet our appetite for the show?
Phil LaMarr: Without Spoilers.
Beth: Spoilers yeah, I don’t know.
Phil LaMarr: “Oh, my God”, well what I can tell you is there is some really big spoilers that I can’t tell you, would you honestly -- you don’t want me to, because you want to watch this unfold. It’s a lot harder for Jack this time around, then at any point in the previous series, it’s also in some ways a lot better for and I guess that’s all I can say.
Beth: Well, there is a shift in the show in the sense that when it debuted it was on Cartoon Network and definitely aimed for kids and now when it is coming back it’s going to be on Adult Swim, so there is a little – would you say it’s a little darker show?
Phil LaMarr: It’s a little darker and definitely more mature, I was saying that the original episodes are like us when we are kids, young and simple concerned with one thing. Let’s try to get that portal let’s try to save this tribe let’s try -- you know this is 10 episodes telling one story. So it’s more complex as life is when you get older, there is more to be concerned about, there is more to think about and more story to tell, I think it just more mature personally.
Beth: Well, I’m glad it is and I’m very glad to have Samurai Jack and you back again. It’s a thrill I have to tell you it’s something that I will be looking forward to every week to watch and I haven’t have that in a while, so thank you.
Phil LaMarr: I know, but yes I’m looking forward to it to.
Beth: Well, thank you very much for making some time to talk about Samurai Jack.
Phil LaMarr: Sure Beth and thank you for giving us a place to talk about it.
Beth: Oh, certainly like I said that show is so much and it’s so much art and craft package into this, little time slot that its breath taking, it really is and I really appreciate all the episodes we had before and I’m, so happy to see it come back. So I’m like a little school kid kind of like [indiscernible] [00:35:16].
Phil LaMarr: Yeah, me too well, I hope you and everybody else enjoy the episodes as much as I have, because the scripts I think are just amazing and some of the best stuff that I’ve ever gotten to work on so.
Beth: If the first two episodes are any key, I got to see the first two and they were amazing, so I’m very hopeful.
Phil LaMarr: Oh, and it’s get better.
Beth: I have to wait so long now. All right, we’ll thanks a lot.
Phil LaMarr: Of course take care yourself.
Beth: You too, bye- bye.
Phil LaMarr: Mm-mm, bye.
Beth: That was voice actor Phil LaMarr who actually hadn’t seen any of the finished episodes yet, but a follow fan Mike Salva and I got to see a preview of the first episode and had to share our giddy excitement. I figured since he is an animator, he would be fun to talk to you about the gorgeous style of Samurai Jack’s Animation. I begin our GeekFest by asking if Mike remembered how he had first gotten introduced to Samurai Jack.
Mike Salva: Yes, I remember I watched the original movie, which was really just the first three episodes of the shows strung together, I did know what to expect from it, because when I heard the name Samurai Jack, I thought it was supposed to be a joke. I thought that it was supposed to be the comedy especially when it came from the creator of “Dexter’s Laboratory” but as soon as I watched it I realized I was completely wrong.
Beth: And what was it about the show that made you feel like you’re watching something different?
Mike Salva: A lot of things about the show that maybe feel like I was watching something different the look of the show it was very – it was very cinematic the attention to detail, the backgrounds, the fact that the dialogue usually took a backseat to the visuals that made a big difference. One of the things I loved about the show was the fact that they would create new characters for practically every episode and just throw them away.
Beth: Well, you’re an animator, so looking at the show on a certain level the animation has a kind of simple look to it, because it’s very 2 dimensional at a time when more shows are trying to do this 3D, CGI animation. So as an animator what do you see that they are doing that's kind of challenging the status quo or pushing the envelope in some way?
Mike Salva: I just don’t think the show would work as 3D, CGI animation, I think that it works the way that it does, because of – I mean the way that the show is drawn, the way that the characters aren’t 3 dimensional, it’s not like there are providing unnecessary information about the characters information that we don’t really need. I thought the perfect example of this was when the creator of Samurai Jack was doing the Clone Wars show, did you ever see the Clone Wars show?
Beth: Yes, those were brilliant.
Mike Salva: Yes, they would -- yes and then right after that they came out with a show that he was not involved with it at all. It was called Star Wars: Clone Wars as well and it’s just looked like a bad – a bad 3D video game, there was no life in the characters whatsoever, it was just the bunch of unconvincing ones and zeros walking around.
Beth: Well, and also when you watch the show the way he uses the frame is fascinating, because sometimes the image fills the entire screen, sometimes he gives you this kind of letterboxed look that’s this is like wide screen you feel like you’re watching Akira Kurosawa film with the action, but he uses it in this playful and very clever manner.
Mike Salva: Yeah, it looks like it is also very influenced by comics as well were from one panel to the next it’s not like there is a specific defined shape that they have to use for every single frame of the show. They could just – they just do whatever they want with Samurai Jack.
Beth: It’s interesting, because you mentioned that the dialogue sometimes takes a backseat to the visuals in this, and one thing the show does incredibly well is action sequences. And the way he conveys movements sometimes in the frame is just great I mean you feel like stuff is coming at you with incredible speed or the battle scenes are just, so well rendered.
Mike Salva: It’s like its cartoon animation that television doesn’t deserve. It should be up on the big screen.
Beth: Yes, it does have this as you mentioned cinematic and it does have this really cinematic quality.
Mike Salva: I was just going to say one of the things that I’m excited about is the fact that back when the show was on in from 2001 to 2004, it was also not available in HD. It wasn’t available in wide screen and people would be able to watch this on TVs that are at least a lot larger than the once that were common back then.
Beth: No, you get to see the two new episodes that are going to be coming out from the new season 5 and as someone who is eagerly looking forward to this, did the shows disappoint, did they meet your expectations?
Mike Salva: They were delightful and I don’t think that any fans of the original show are going to be disappointed quite the opposite. I think they are – I think they are -- if you’re fan of the original show you’re going to love this, they don’t make it look like a completely different show, this is still supposed to be season 5 of the original Samurai Jack Show. Yes it has taken a darker turn compared to the pervious episodes.
And the story is more serialized you get to the end of one episode and you can tell that it’s starting to bleed into the next episode with the original show it didn’t really – for the most part you could take all of the episodes of the show and interchange them. And it’s not really going to disrupt anything this is the final season of the show, so they working towards an end here.
Beth: Yeah, originally this show aired on Cartoon Network and I mean I remember getting into it in part, because I had a son who loved cartoons and I thought “oh, he is interested in Asian action films” this sounded like something that he would enjoy. This one’s airing on Adult Swim, so how do you feel about that, does the show seem to have matured in a certain way?
Mike Salva: Yes, it’s carrying the TV 14 rating now, it’s seems like it’s going to be more at home on an Adult Swim, I mean after -- 13 years since the show went away. All of the kids who were fans of Samurai Jack, back then, they are all grown up now, so it’s okay if that is going to be some blood in the cartoon.
Beth: It is still the show that I think some younger audiences will appreciate with that unless parents are little overly protective maybe.
Mike Salva: Well, I guess I’m not one of those -- the show went away the same year that my son was born and I’ve noticed that -- he has seen all 52 episodes of the series and I’ve noticed that his friend who -- that are his age have never even heard of the show. He has been trying to turn them on to the show. He is a big fan of the show and this is something that he will love. He is 13 years old, yes I know its TV 14 go ahead and call the social worker, I don’t care, but this is the kind of thing that a 13-year-old boy would love.
Beth: Yes. Well, and I appreciate about it too is that it also challenges young viewers, I mean that’s one of the things I liked about the show when my son watched it when he was little is unlike a lot of kids shows that just are rapid fire with no breathing space and they just this constant barrage of stuff coming at you. Like Samurai Jack took these quiet moments and had these sections where there wasn’t dialogue where you had to watch and it [indiscernible] [00:43:43].
Mike Salva: It’s very deliberate in its spacing I think they even made an episode or two -- I think it was at least one episode where there was only one speaking part in the entire cartoon. There were a lot of episodes where they would go from minutes to the time where nobody would say anything. But at the same time it’s not a show where you can walk away from it, you think it is like more kids might run to the kitchen to get Hot Pockets or something like that, if you walk away from this show you’re going to miss something.
Beth: Yeah, because not everything is conveyed through dialogue, but well, while we're talking about dialogue one thing that it does do well is use of sound through music and through effects. The music on that show is great.
Mike Salva: I think when the 5th season of the show, they have taken a lot bit – put a lot more care and detail into the graphics and into the sound effects, the overall ambience of show. I think that they put more care into this then they would have normally done if it was just another year of the show.
Beth: Well, I think it’s nice that they had some time, I think that the show’s success and it’s called popularity gave them a little bit of leverage to say like let’s take some time and effort to make this last season look as good as it can.
Mike Salva: And again, I don’t think anybody is going to be disappointed when they see this.
Beth: Do you think people can come to the show fresh without having seen anything of the Samurai Jack or do you recommend that they go check out a few episodes. The pilot movie or are there any episodes in particular that you loved that you think need to be seen before watching these?
Mike Salva: Well, I think that is –I believe that Adult Swim has made the episodes of the show available on their website. If you make the effect to at least watch the pilot episode. You’ll at least have a better idea of what is going on and by the way I think the pilot episode for the time period I think that had some of the best. I think it was one of the best looking animated episodes of any TV show ever.
And they did – I mean everything about that you did the color, the character design and especially the way that they were telling the story once again was very little dialogue. So at least if you want to go back and look at the pilot episode and that’s worth it another one that I really love is the Jack and the Scotsman episode. It’s the one where they introduce the Scotsman who was voiced by John DiMaggio who people will probably know has Bender from Futurama or Jake the Dog from Adventure Time.
And really the Scotsman is the closest thing that we ever come to an ally of Jack’s -- a friend of Jack’s he is going through the world alone. And it’s actually kind of relief to see that he has a friend somewhere along the way that at least in a few episodes.
Video: I'd say we've wiped out our bounty-hunter problem.
Aye. For now. I was wrong about you.
I acted foolishly as well.
No hard feelings, aye? I'll buy you a refreshment.
Please, allow me. I shall buy you a refreshment.
No, no, I'll buy you one. I insist.
No, I must buy you one, to make amends.
It's all right. I'll buy…
Mike Salva: So, Jack in the Scotsman is a nice little introduction to the character of the Scotsman, I don’t know if the Scotsman is going to show up in season 5 or not, I hope that he does, but you can't have everything.
Beth: I know that it’s a great relief to have the show back and have it to be in such top format that watching that first episode, I have to say I was like absolutely giddy and was going like this is everything I was hoping it was going to be and more.
Mike Salva: Yeah, yes because something’s when they come back to something after a long time and you just think “okay, they waited too long” I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this or not, I think it is a good example of this was about the years or so go in Cartoon Network decided to revisit the Powerpuff Girls.
For anybody who has seen the show who loved the original show you’ll know that it was awful and I don’t think that any of the original people who were involved with the original show were involved with this one and they just absolutely ruined. They absolutely kingdom of the crystal skulled it.
Beth: So, if you had to describe kind of how this looks to kind of entice people to go see it if they haven’t. How would you describe the visual style of Samurai Jack? What does he look like?
Mike Salva: Rather simple in his design, I think that – the design of the show and the design of the character seems on the surface very simple, but I think that everything else that comes with the character is what you really feel. And I know that is a terrible way to describe the visual aspect of the show, I’m sorry.
Beth: As an animator you know how much work goes into putting together animation even if it looks simple to the casual observer, so these have like very elaborate kind of backgrounds and even though it may be very 2 dimensional looking it conveys like a lot of movement and visual interest within the frame?
Mike Salva: But, yeah the backgrounds especially contribute to the overall feel of the show and both on the original series as well as season 5 it looks like more care has been put into the backgrounds than anything else that we’ve seen on television and can rival the backgrounds in a lot of movies.
Beth: There is such cleverness and artistry to the composition of like every shot that I was like lifting my jaw of ground, repeatedly going like this is amazing.
Mike Salva: I don’t know if you remember the episode of Samurai versus Ninja, but there’s this is black ninja, I mean he's -- the characters is just totally black [indiscernible] [00:50:25] some red eyes on him and he is the master of stealth and you know he moves in the shadows. So that’s how he is able to hide and that’s how he's sent to kill Jack by hiding in the shadows and so Jack decides that he can't fight him on his level, so Jack decides to hide in the light.
Shinobi warrior of the night. Trained to use the darkness of the shadow. I know your arts as well. But I have been trained to use the light.
Mike Salva: And so it’s breaks off into this sequence where the two characters are just in the black and white scenes where the ninja hides in the shadows and Jack hides in all of the white scene -- in all of the white parts of the scene and it’s just delightful to watch.
Beth: Well I want to thank you for taking some time to talk about Samurai Jack, you have of some one of your own animation projects what are you currently working on?
Mike Salva: Well I have this one that I’m just finishing up that I’m going to be putting online in a couple of weeks called Working for Copper Jim, there is a handful of 5 minutes shots that are about guys in prison.
Beth: So this view of prison is a little different from what you might expect and one of the episodes I really enjoyed was called the Escape Club. So tell me little bit about that one that we'll hear a little clip from it.
Mike Salva: Yeah the characters who are in prison are not like you would expect say from an episode of Oz or something like that, you’ll actually wonder what all of these guys are doing in prison for the most part it except – well except when they occasionally stab somebody or talk about the horrible crimes they’ve committed.
But for the most part they’re nice guys and this particular episode the new guy finds out about something that they have called the Escape Club where he believes is – were they plan to escape from prison, but then he discovers that it’s actually just a book club.
Beth: All right let’s hear a little bit from that show.
Male Speaker: The Escape Club isn’t about from escaping from prison it’s about escaping the daily monotony of this humdrum life through the magic of literature.
Male Speaker: [Indiscernible] [00:53:07] sometimes you got to get out here and get into here, and that’s the good thing.
Male Speaker: Yeah.
Male Speaker: You know I’m talking as good thing.
Male Speaker: There is great Martha [phonetic] [00:53:15], so what did everyone think of the bridges of Madison county? What did you think come on Martha?
Male Speaker: Man you know I got no time to read, I got some [Indiscernible] [00:53:27] to bill. I got people doing my reading for me.
Male Speaker: Okay Frank?
Male Speaker: Oh sorry -- man I don’t know how to read. I think that’s why I killed all those librarians.
Beth: All right. Well I want to thank you much for speaking to me about Samurai Jack and sharing our Geeky fandom for the show.
Mike Salva: Thanks for having me.
Beth: That was animator Mike Salva you can get more information on his new micro series by going to the Facebook page for Working for Copper Jim, thanks for listening to an another episode of Listeners Supported KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast, coming up there will be a podcast about the Legacy of Casablanca. Something from the archives on David Lynch before the New Twin Peak show comes on.
And a report from the TCM film festival and Star Wars celebration in April. But the most important thing this weekend is to make sure you tune in for the new Samurai Jack Season 5 show. So till our next film fix I’m Beth Accomando your Residency Cinema Junkie.