Fan work based on established licenses always treads a fine line. It speaks to the passion a fanbase has for a property, but the more attention that work gets, the more likely it’ll draw the ire of the original creator. We sat down with Joel Furtado, the animator behind a new X-Men webseries out this week, to ask him what it’s like pouring your heart into work that could very easily vanish through legal threats.
Furtado has spent the last year working on The Danger Room Protocols, an 18-part animated short series based on the X-Men engaging in combat exercises in Professor X’s holographic training simulator. When he first revealed his creation to the wider web the combined wroth of Marvel Comics and 20th Century Fox (who own the X-Men characters’ movie rights) didn’t seem to strike, the attention may have made more impact than he initially thought—shortly after this interview was conducted, the first episode of Danger Room Protocols was promptly pulled from YouTube by Marvel, and moved to Vimeo instead.
By day, Furtado is an animator and art director in the video game industry, working for companies like Electronic Arts and Microsoft. So why turn to the X-Men in his free time? “I’ve always loved X-men since I was a little kid. It was something I gravitated to, reading the comics at that time even before the animated series,” Furtado told io9 over email. “When Fox’s cartoon came out that was it, I was hooked. I’ve done a few personal projects over the years, but nothing of this scale or scope. I decided I wanted to take a year off and do this thing for myself, as well as the fans. I knew there were X-men fans out there, wanting more than what the official powers that be were giving them.”
Concept art from X-Men: Danger Room Protocols by Joel Furtado. Screencap via Vimeo.
The ‘90s era of the X-Men, particularly Fox’s famous 1992 animated series, was a huge influence on the project. “I really wanted to bring a feeling of nostalgia with the project. I still keep up with the current comics, but I feel the whole experience of X-men has changed so much,” he continued. Furtado also saw it as an opportunity to explore characters that had yet to really get a spotlight in the ongoing X-Men movie saga and putting them alongside classics like Wolverine and Storm. “The roster for me was a good mix of the animated series and the comics. In some cases these characters have never appeared in a cinematic form of any kind, so it’s pretty cool to work with them.”
Furtado spent nearly a year designing and working on the series before revealing it in full earlier this month. The reaction from fans and media was mostly positive, but the excitement also caught the suspicious eye of Marvel Entertainment. “I have to be very political about this answer,” Furtado laughed. “At this time I cannot discuss any conversations with Marvel, but let’s just say it got people’s attention.”
He wouldn’t clarify further beyond the fact Marvel had contacted him, but Furtado suggested the communication was at least amicable. “For the time being everything is moving ahead as planned and there has not been any serious action taken against the project,” he continued. Ultimately, to Furtado it was the fan reaction that worried him before release, rather than the threat of copyright woes. “I was thrilled at the fan reaction, which I was really nervous about. Sometimes you wonder if you’re too much in your own head, and it’s really kind of a mess. But from the reaction I got from the public it seems like everyone is on board and excited about what I’m doing, which means the world to me.”
Although any potential conflict with Marvel wasn’t his primary concern, Furtado says it was a challenge to create the series not just on his own, but with the lingering threat of legal action always over his shoulder. “Stressful. Very stressful,” is how Furtado recalled the project. “I’ve been doing seven-day work weeks for about six months straight, and feeling pretty burnt out. The idea that it could all be shut down and nobody would ever see what I did is heartbreaking. I can only hope for the best though, and I’ve taken every precaution to prevent that from happening.”
When we brought up comparisons to the much vaunted, professionally produced Star Trek fan film Axanar (which was beset by ongoing litigation after over a year of work on the project being tolerated by CBS and Paramount, who own Star Trek), where even amicable relations between creator and license holder broke down, Furtado believes that Danger Room Protocols has been spared thanks to the fact that he’s not sought money from outside sources to fund the project through crowndfunding sites like Indiegogo or Kickstarter. “In my case, it’s all self-funded and the videos are not making any money on YouTube, as my channel isn’t monetized. So in that regard it’s not impacting Marvel’s business, or taking money from fans that would have otherwise been spent on X-men products.”
In the end, it seems for now that Danger Room Protocols is safe—among a sea of other fan works that sometimes skirt the line between fan art and copyright infringement. “Why it’s allowed is a complicated answer, but I hope this project will fall into that category and be treated as any other fan art on the internet,” Furtado concluded. In the end, only time will tell if the series will continue to evade Marvel’s ire as it has so far.