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Superhero makes 3-D splash

HOLLYWOOD — Three decades after his birth, the tortured poet/philosopher of the super-hero set finally has earned his own animated TV series. When the first 13 space adventures of “The Silver Surfer” bow domestically on the Fox Kids’ Network in the first quarter of next year, and around the world by the fall of ’98, they will be significant for several reasons.

For Fox and producer Saban Entertainment, “Silver Surfer” is the first rollout of a high-profile Marvel Comics-based show since Fox, Saban and Marvel all jumped into bed together in the past year. (Fox and Saban joined forces to create Fox Kids’ Worldwide, while Fox parent News Corp. took control of Marvel, which gave Saban exclusive rights to create animated product based on Marvel characters. Several other shows are now in development, with “Captain America” likely to be the next one out the chute.)

Now that the previously Marvel-made “Spider-Man” series and the Saban-animated “X-Men” are out of production, Fox and Saban hope the expensive “Surfer” will prove to be a worthy successor. Indeed, Saban Intl. prexy Stan Golden says the company has “tremendous expectations” for the show when it goes up for international sale at Mipcom.

For Saban, the program also is the foundation of its newly ramped-up computer-animation department. Creating that department is the latest step in Saban’s growth into a global children’s entertainment powerhouse, allowing it to produce shows like “Surfer” mainly inhouse, with the exception of still farming out traditional 2-D drawings to overseas shops.

“Surfer” will make a splash by featuring extensive combinations of 2-D and 3-D animation “in ways never done before for Saturday morning TV shows,” according to Eric Rollman, Saban executive VP of production and the show’s executive producer. He wouldn’t say what a typical episode will cost, but Rollman admits, “It is more expensive than a traditional cel-animated show.” On the other hand, he points out, much of those costs are of the startup variety in order for Saban to secure the equipment and talent to mix the animation into a unique digital stew. “We should be able to amortize those startup costs over the course of this and many other projects in the years to come,” he explains.

For fans around the world, the program offers a hero and stories of a more ambitious nature than most kids’ fare, all part of a conscious effort to keep the “Surfer” true to the character created 30 years ago by comic legends Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. For example, the two-part debut origin episode will animate for the first time Lee’s original tale of a man — Norrin Radd — who sacrifices his humanity, freedom and a chance for true love in order to save his planet by agreeing to zip around the universe finding worlds for an extremely hungry, God-like entity named Galactus to eat. They are also promising many of the moral dilemmas such a job entails — like how does one back out of the gig upon realizing Galactus fully intends to ingest thousands of other worlds with sentient life on them … including ours?

Likewise, on the artistic front, the show will maintain the unique Kirby art style, while combining it with rich, computer-generated backgrounds. In fact, “Surfer” was originally slated to bow in ’97, but was pushed back when a decision was made to spend more money and time on the animation to get it, according to Rollman, “just right. To my knowledge, this is the first time Kirby’s style has actually been taken to animation, so obviously, it took a lot of trial-and-error to perfect it,” he says.

All of which is well and good, but how will the “Surfer” play from Peoria to Poland? After all, the character, although classic to comic fans, is not as well known as, for example, “Spider-Man” and “X-Men.” But Margaret Loesch, vice chairman of Fox Kids’ Worldwide, says Fox expects the show to perform strongly on a global basis, based on the success of other Marvel titles and the fact that there is nothing else on children’s TV quite like the “Surfer.” “The character was quite ahead of his time when they created him,” she points out.

Saban officials add they are confident the show’s appeal will translate to a big overseas performance, and that’s why they will be pushing it with much fanfare at Mipcom, under Golden’s guidance. Rollman feels the concept is perfect for international audiences precisely because it’s emphasizes “values without boundaries.”

“Most episodes will take place in space and on alien planets,” Rollman says. “So viewers everywhere will not be watching someone else’s culture portrayed. And second, the topics are accessible to people in all walks of life and have no cultural boundaries on them.” Those topics, according to Lee — currently chairman of Marvel Films and co-executive producer of the show — include such high-brow concepts as “the basic question of brotherhood. … Why can’t we all be good to each other?”

Despite such complicated themes, Golden is confident that “Silver Surfer” will be a big hit at Mipcom.

“Our experience has shown us that Marvel characters have been successes in animated form everywhere they have been publishing successes,” he explains. “With the market flooded these days with animated programming, one important aspect of a property is that it needs to have some sort of marquee value — recognizability — for viewers. ‘Silver Surfer’ certainly fits into that scenario.”

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