Billy Shebar and David C. Roberts of 110th Street Films talk about the use of 2D recreations in their three-part Discovery+ true crime drama, ‘Doctor’s Orders.’
In May of 2012, local New Jersey radio host April Kauffman was found dead in her home, the victim of a fatal gunshot wound. Although her daughter suspected that her stepfather, Dr. James Kauffman, a respected endocrinologist, was responsible, he was never questioned. Then, five years later, when a member of the Pagan’s Motorcycle Club was busted for drugs and illegal guns, information about the murder came out that led directly to Dr. Kauffman, who had been supplying the gang with Oxycontin prescriptions.
The whole sordid story, from the wild world of motorcycle gangs to the ravages of America’s opioid epidemic, is explored in the three-part true crime documentary Doctor’s Orders, which begins streaming Friday, September 3 on Discovery+. Produced, written, and directed by Billy Shebar and David C. Roberts of 110th Street Films, creators of the animated web series Trump Bites, Doctor’s Orders makes extensive use of animation – by Israeli animator Yoni Goodman (Waltz with Bashir) and the Canadian animation house Look Mom! Productions – as an integral part of its storytelling.
Take a look at the trailer:
While the combination of animation and documentary is nothing new, Shebar and Roberts’ decision to use hand-drawn animation for the recreations in Doctor’s Orders gives the show a unique and powerful twist. We spoke with the directors to find out more about what led them to make this choice, and how the animation was produced and integrated into the creative process.
“At its heart,” Roberts begins, “Doctor’s Orders is the story of Andrew Glick, a leader of the Pagans motorcycle gang, who snitches on his Pagan brother after the murder of an innocent woman. Animation was a way that we could get into his head and visually convey his struggle for redemption, how he sees himself and his world.”
Shebar adds, “We never saw animation as a substitute for the kind of recreations that you see in many true crime series, but something more subjective and psychological. When Andrew describes the first Pagans funeral he attended as a kid, we were able to tap into his sense of awe by showing a coffin floating toward the horizon while hundreds of bikers rev their engines.”
Apart from its more expansive visual possibilities and the opportunity it provides to plumb psychological depths, Robert makes the point that animation, precisely because it’s less realistic than live-action, can actually be more truthful. “Live-action recreations can be a powerful storytelling device in documentaries (in Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line, for example), but you run the risk of the audience believing they are seeing something objective,” he explains. “Animation seems more honest in that sense.”
Roberts and Shebar had been fans of Yoni Goodman since seeing Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (2008), for which Goodman served as animation director. They have since worked with him on several projects, and knew he would be a good fit for Doctor’s Orders.
“Billy and I are both animation enthusiasts, particularly hand-drawn 2D,” says Roberts, “and we wanted to develop a particular graphic novel/noir feel for this story.”
Shebar adds that while, in the beginning, they told the animators to be “realistic, but surreal around the edges,” as they went on, they started pushing some scenes more deeply into the realm of fantasy and surreality.
“In the third episode,” he recalls, “Andrew shares a fairly outlandish theory he has that Dr. Kauffman is actually in witness protection in Montana or Alaska. The animation goes all in, showing the doc opening his mail in a high-end igloo befitting a wealthy endocrinologist. Then there’s another scene where Andrew is describing a meth-fuelled orgy, where the animation takes off into circus acrobatics, people fired out of cannons, and so on.”
However, getting to the high-end igloos and meth-fuelled orgies wasn’t a walk in the park. As Roberts explains, the production got off to a rocky start.
“Yoni and his team were set to animate the series, but by the time we secured financing, Yoni was already pledged to finish the animated feature Where is Anne Frank,” he relates. “So in a matter of weeks, we had to find a new animation house that could do this type of graphic novel 2D style that we were looking for. Fortunately we found the Canadian company Look Mom! Productions. Prior to this, we’d mostly worked with animation auteurs like Yoni and Bill Plympton, so working with a larger team took some getting used to.”
“We set ourselves a very ambitious goal of 30 minutes of cinematic quality animation in around 8 months, without the luxury of a proper development period,” Shebar adds. “Ideally we would not start animation until the rough cut, but we did not have the time.”
An additional complication was that, in a documentary of this kind, it’s not unusual for the story to be constantly reshaped, sometimes radically, during editing – which requires extraordinary flexibility on the part of the animators.
“I think we pushed the animation team to the brink a few times, but they really came through in the end,” says Shebar. “It helped that many of our animated scenes focused more on the state of Andrew’s mind, rather than recreations tied to specific story beats.”
And, with regard to the final product, Roberts notes that despite the fact that Goodman and his team were otherwise engaged, Goodman was still able to advise from afar, and he and his team were able to go over each scene to give it a more coherent style towards the end of the process.