Trailblazer: BYU professor creates first animated comic book, 'Bottom of the Ninth'

Published: Saturday, July 28 2012 11:40 p.m. MDT

Not many professors work on big-time movies like "The Avengers," "Spider Man 3" or "Where the Wild Things Are."

BYU animation professor Ryan Woodward — a storyboard artist on several Hollywood productions, including the three movies listed above — isn't your typical buttoned-down university academic.

When Woodward released his cutting-edge iPhone and iPad app "Bottom of the Ninth" in June, he left behind conventional notions of "what professors do" for the umpteenth time. But with "Bottom of the Ninth," Woodward ventured further outside the box than ever before: He essentially left behind the confines of conventional media to forge his own path to potentially groundbreaking innovation that has Apple's support and has won the praise of baseball columnists.

One of a kind

"Bottom of the Ninth," set in fictional Tao City in the year 2172, is the first-ever animated comic book.

"By definition, animation means 'the illusion of life,'" Woodward said. "So when I say it's the first animated comic book, it is the first one where you can actually touch the panels and get full 24-frames-per-second animation and characters talking, moving (and) running through a 3D world.

"It's not just sliding artwork — it's actual, full-blown animation like if you were to go watch a Pixar movie. And that hasn't been done before."

The concept that would become "Bottom of the Ninth" started with a short story Woodward wrote in 2005. The next year he molded that story into a four-minute cartoon — but thereafter the story and cartoon both ended up on the proverbial shelf, and there they remained for several years.

It was only after Woodward realized in 2011 just how much the quality of smartphone and tablet apps had progressed that he seriously considered undertaking production of the "Bottom of the Ninth" app.

"I thought to myself that it's not going to be long before studios start making these super high production-quality apps, and they start charging more for them — but the experience is much, much richer," he said. "I always knew how to create the (visual) content, so as soon as that dawned on me, that's when I decided that I wanted to do this app. "

Daddy-daughter story

The plot of "Bottom of the Ninth" centers on New Baseball, a sport that largely resembles present-day baseball. The primary protagonist is Candy Cunningham, an 18-year-old pitcher who is the first female to play for the New Baseball team in Tao City. Candy's father, Gordy, is also a prominent character in the comic book.

Woodward's decision to cast the main character in "Bottom of the Ninth" as a female athlete is no coincidence; instead, it's a deliberate outgrowth from his own life experience of raising three daughters — one of whom is a competitive gymnast.

"Being around my (gymnast) daughter during all of the high-anxiety moments — the training work with coaches, being at the meets when she's competing — there's a lot that goes on in a kid's mind and in the parent's mind that I tried to incorporate into this script. I think that helps me quite a bit to connect to this particular storyline, because it is actually a part of my own life — but just put into a fictional context."

Boom or bust

By virtue of being the first animated comic book, "Bottom of the Ninth" faces a catch-22 marketing dilemma: How can Woodward convey to consumers the nature of a product, the likes of which they've never before seen, before they plunk down their money?

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