Here at Below the Line, we’re always looking to shine the spotlight on bright new talent, so when we were told about Aron Fromm’s animated short, Sessions with Stan, which literally takes a recording of the late Stan Lee and animates it quite vibrantly using 2D animation, we knew that we should speak with Fromm.
Fromm actually used to be Lee’s sound engineer, which is how he had said recording, but he’s also been working in animation for quite some time in a variety of capacities, including his role as Post-Production Supervisor on Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus.
As enjoyable as it is to see Stan Lee brought back to life, Fromm also has a fairly unique sense of humor as seen by his other recent short, Ovarian Cyst!, which pokes fun at some of the odder animated superheroes that have been created over the years. (You can watch both these shorts below.)
Below the Line spoke with the lively, young animator a few months back for the following interview
Below the Line: Before we get into Sessions with Stan, what was your background that got you into the world of animation?
Aron Fromm: When I was a kid, I used to make loads of little movies with my action figures and stuff. I’ve been in film production stuff for a while. It’s mostly just I hate actors and I hate sets, and so animation’s just like… it’s great. Don’t have to deal with anyone. I had a lot of little projects here and there. I was freelancing for Stan, and then I got the chance to work for Mike Judge. Worked with him for a few years on his Tale from the Tour Bus series for HBO. And then, I was already doing a lot of animated stuff by then, but then that kind of got me I guess more in that world.
BTL: How did you become Stan Lee’s studio engineer?
Fromm: I work a lot in documentary, too. Documentary and animation are like my two things, which is why I was really lucky to get to work on the Mike Judge show, which was an animated documentary, and I’m working on some animated documentary projects now. I was helping out on a documentary called With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, and then, I was just around all the time. Then I ended up meeting Stand and a bunch of people at Stan’s company. Sorry, give me one second. I just was around all the time, so I just ended up being the guy, and I’d get called in whenever “Stan needs to do some promo. We’ve got to shoot this thing with him.” I did a lot of Comic-Con coverage for them and with them, and later on, I ended up doing some producing for a couple of Stan’s projects later. But yeah, I was just kind of always around, and that was it. Just over the years, just a lot of little sessions and shoots and stuff like that with them.
BTL: Your short really captures Stan’s spirit. I’ve interviewed him a few times, and I was amazed by how quickly and efficiently he handles interviews.
Fromm: I worked with him probably till about like a little less than a year before he died. Even till the very last time I saw him, he was just sharp as a f*cking tack. It was crazy, cause I think I met him when he was 85 or 84, and he he died when he was 95. He was just so present and there and f*cking around and making jokes and the dude was just also such a like a master bullshitter. Always. You could just go off on a riff, and that’s why I was liked that recording. I just remember, we all laughed. There were a lot of little sessions with him over the years, but it was just a perfect encapsulation. What I like about it is that it’s clearly not meant for public consumption and that Stan is exactly what you imagine him to be.
That’s what kind of authenticates it is that it’s clearly not staged, it’s clearly not meant for Stan’s audience. To see Stan come through in a moment when he really thought no one was looking. He knew we were recording, he knew we were all there, but for something that wasn’t intended for public consumption, it makes you like him so much more. I’ve gotten a lot of comments that people cried watching it, and I think it’s just because there’s something kind of heartbreaking about finding out that he kind of was exactly what you thought he was, and it being kind of too late to let him know how much he affected you. I think that there’s a lot of distrust in people’s outward personas, and there’s something very comforting about finding out that someone is as advertised. I think that’s why it makes so many people cry is like really finding out, yeah, that was him. He was just like that. He was just like that all the time.
BTL: Obviously, you had the audio of Stan, so how did you go about animating it. Is that a pretty accurate representation of his offices?
Fromm: It’s a much more cinematic version. I can send you some pictures, but that painting of him facing off with Spider Man in the back, that’s 100% real. He had that exact painting. You can see pictures of him sitting right in front of it online. I can send them to you, so that’s real. He did have that little Captain America statue on his desk always. We made it a lot more cinematic than it was in real life in real life. In real life, it was more mundane looking. It was a little more bland in real life. We made it kind of like this old school detectives’ office look. It wasn’t quite that cool looking, but it was that and he did have like little action figures and framed photos of him with celebrities and stuff all over. There’s pictures of his office all over the place. This is his Pow! office in Beverly Hills, which is where we recorded that.
BTL: I know you did some rotoscoping with Mike Judge. Did you use a similar technique for this? Or did you just make it from scratch?
Fromm: No, this is just audio, and I am not the animator on this. A very talented guy named Richard Plata was the animator on this. Basically, I do like a stage direction pass where I took the audio. I have a lot of old videos of Stan, too, not from this occasion. So I sent all that to the animator, and I do like a stage direction pass where I’ll “hit this pose or motion here, hit this pose and emotion here.” And we kind of went from there.
BTL: I think that’s why people like it, because it seems very representative of Stan from when we’ve seen him or when I met from, from the hand movements, and all that stuff, it’s very, very exact.
Fromm: I think it’s because he was such a cartoon character. That animation doesn’t even do justice to how animated he was in real life. I think like Stan’s kind of famous. I remember in the documentary that I worked on, everyone from the old Marvel bullpen was talking about how Stan would literally jump on top of a desk and do like that Dr. Doom pose where he’s got like his handout. He was just like that. When he was in it, he was in it. And he was basically on all the time. I think it’s more on the toony side of acting. Some people have mentioned that to me, and Stan was more on the toony side of acting. I think that’s it. He was such an animated dude that some of these more extreme poses just fits so perfectly with him.
BTL: I love the fact that the Marvel movies have just kept on using him right up until the end. He’s in every movie, and it’s a great moment when he shows up.
Fromm: That’s another comment I’ve been getting a lot of people saying, “I cried just hearing him again.” I think the fact that it’s so candid that you’re getting to see Stan kind of for the first time in a way, what he was really like, years after his death. I think it just makes people really happy.
BTL: Did this go to any festivals or did you just make it, and put it up on YouTube?
Fromm: I just wasn’t sure what to do festival-wise. Festivals, the joke we have is kind of like when somebody’s dog dies and the parents don’t want to tell the kid. They tell them that they’ve gone off to a farm somewhere. I feel like that’s what festivals are like most of the time. I didn’t feel the need, and I don’t know. I just wanted to put it out there. I wanted the maximum amount of people to be able to just check it out. There was no reason to try and hide behind exclusivity.
BTL: And film festivals this year are pretty much like being on YouTube anyway, since they’re all virtual. What’s this Ovarian Cyst thing? I saw what I think is the opening credits sequence.
Fromm: I mean, that’s all there is of it right now. That’s all I’ve done so far. When I was a kid, I put together this list of ideas, and I’ve been slowly checking off the list. I’ve actually had some pretty good success doing it. That was just one of my ideas that I had. I was like I’m gonna make this and that was the first thing like that, that I ever made. It’s kind of exactly what I saw in my head when I was a kid.
BTL: So what I’ve seen, that’s the whole thing? It’s not gonna be an animated series?
Fromm: I mean, it may very well be a series eventually. All I’m saying is right now that’s it. That’s not a teaser for something larger that’s already done. I’ve got a whole season arc planned and more characters and all that stuff, but for right now, it’s just that piece that you saw. Do you have any questions about Ovarian Cyst?
BTL: Well, first of all, how did you hear the term “Ovarian Cyst” as a kid and then decide to make it into a superhero?
Fromm: I thought it was funny how superheroes it’s always an adjective and a noun. Blue Beetle or Green Lantern or Superman, whatever. I just thought “ovarian” was such a funny adjective for a superhero, and then it was just me and my brother, we did like little sketches of it, and then started slowly coming up with more characters, and then I got the chance to work with one of the old Animaniacs and Freakazoid guys on designing them. Once I had those designs kind of ready to go, I was like, “Oh, man, I got to animate this. I got to record the intro.” Animation looks like shit now – it just all does, and especially adult animation. It all looks terrible. And the issue is that animation is so costly, good animation, and so time consuming, that no one wants to take any kind of risks with the content. So I was like, “Alright, well, what if I made a cartoon?” Anytime I make anything I want the reception to be, “Who the f*ck was dumb enough to put this much time and money into it?”
That’s what I want people coming away from all of my work. I just thought, “What happens if you take a concept that’s kind of ugly, and instead of going in this very gross, John K Superjail direction with it, what happens if you make it so pretty that no one can really object,” or even if you hate it, you’re kind of forced to be like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool looking.”
So that was the concept. “What happens if I really just crank it up to 11, and can I pull something off at the quality of the stuff that I see in my head?” I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It really came out frame for frame like exactly how I imagined.
BTL: I like the behind the scenes recording with the kids… The kids seemed to enjoy singing “Ovarian Cyst” over and over.
Fromm: That’s the Los Angeles Children’s Choir. It was kind of an exercise in like, “All right, I’ve got this kind of big idea. I want to condense it down to just about a minute, and let’s just go ground up and not pull any punches. I don’t have a deadline on this. I’m just gonna take what I see in my head and I’m just gonna do it.” And I did. Yeah, it looks like how I wanted it to look. It sounds like what I wanted it to sound like. It’s kind of my like homage to the Saturday morning cartoon block of the 90s. I’m sure you see a lot of the influence in that stuff.
BTL: You mentioned doing these things with your brother as a kid, and I did stuff like that with my brother as a kid, but then we both grew up and got jobs and didn’t follow up on our great ideas from when we were kids.
Fromm: Sure, yeah, I have a list. I’ve still kept the list. Right now, I try to check off one a year. I’m in my next big short right now. It’s very short also. It’s under two minutes, but it’s gonna be great. My next one is going to be again, Kosperry did the designs, who designed Stan. She’s amazing, and I’m working with my buddy Guillaume Arantes, who also did the backgrounds for Stan and I’m working with Pablo Navarro who was the animator on Ovarian Cyst.
BTL: Pablo’s name sounds familiar. Where have I heard of him before?
Fromm: I don’t know. He’s one of the best animators out there, as far as I’m concerned. He worked on Klaus and Ovarian Cyst… to name a few. He’s so great. A different guy worked on the Stan Lee animation — Pablo kinda gave his two cents along the way. So it’s an awesome team, and this next one’s going to be really… it’s my favorite thing that I’ve done so far. Assuming it comes out and comes out the way I’m aiming for it to. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s probably gonna be a while. That’s the thing, too. It’s just takes a long time, especially because — generally speaking, I don’t work with studios. I like keeping it my team, my people, my friends, and kind of building it ground up even if it takes a little longer. That’s the next personal kind of short I have and then I’m working on a handful of other things right now. Just to finish things up, right now, the other stuff I’m working on is I’m collaborating with. Have you seen The Devil and Daniel Johnston ever? Jeff Feurzeig and Henry Rosenthal, the director and producer from that, I’m working on their new one with them right now, which I’m very excited about. And then I’m working on an animated series with Andy Dick, tentatively titled Dick Tales. And a handful of other shorts. I’m working on starting another feature right now, but I’m pretty tied up. It’s called The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, the other documentary. In 2021, the plan is to release at least two or three more shorts at the level of Sessions with Stan.
You can keep track of Fromm’s work over at his YouTube channel. All photos courtesy Aron Fromm.