The filmmaker discusses his award-winning feature about the legendary Canadian comic book artist.
A documentary-style feature that mixes live action interviews with animated segments, plus a puppet show, Seth’s Dominion is, first and foremost, an intimate and revealing biographical look at the creative process of legendary Canadian comic book artist Seth, best known for works such as Palookaville.
Watching Luc Chamberland’s film brought back fond memories of the days when I actually had the patience, time and desire to sit back and really enjoy a movie. Days before I had kids, business partners and a myriad of electronic devices all equally determined to turn even small moments of my free time into excruciating moments of anxiety-fueled hell. Seth’s Dominion is a gentle, focused and wonderfully paced film, deliberate and thoughtful, deeply intimate yet not the least bit frivolous or exploitative. The film’s strength lies not just in its innovative weave of live action and animation, but in how it shares with the audience the deeply contemplative and deliberate manner of Seth’s creative process, his approach to art and how his perspective on life impacts and shapes his thinking and artistic vision. I could imagine a film where Seth explains how he shops for clothing or decides what looks most inviting at the produce market to be every bit as captivating and interesting.
The film premiered in September at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, taking home the Grand Prize for Best Animated Feature. I recently had a chance to sit with Luc and discuss his path from comic book fan to feature film director. He shared insights about his love for comics, his path to animated filmmaking and the eight years it took to bring Seth’s unique talent to the screen.
Dan Sarto: Very few films mix live action with animation, as you’ve done so effectively in your film. Tell me about the genesis of the story? How did Seth get on your radar and what made you decide to make a film about his life and work?
Luc Chamberland: I’ve always been a comic book fan. I grew up reading Spirou [a Franco-Belgian comic magazine] from Belgium. I was able to read them six months later here in Canada, but it didn’t matter. I got the Christmas special in the middle of summer, but it didn’t matter. Anybody who was any good was in Spirou. The magazine has inspired a lot of comic book artists and animators.
I first wanted to create European-style comic books. Then I ended up in art school. I did painting. I did some theatre, some radio, some acting before ending up studying cinema. I was schooled to make films, not animation. But I took an animation class and realized that in animation, I could do anything. In live action, to do a western, it’s complicated. I need a proper location. I have to build a town. I need costumes and guns. Doing science fiction is even more complicated. Animation provided me with tremendous freedom. So I explored it. I ended up doing animation in Paris and then directing commercials in London.
While in London, I had problems finding French comic books. I preferred the European-style comic books to the American Marvel superhero comic style. That’s when I found Seth. He was the only artist I found that had this European sensibility. It was if he was speaking to me. I became a fan immediately.
I became an avid reader of his work. I never thought I’d do a film about a comic book artist. When I came back to Montreal after 18 years in Europe, I had a chance to meet him. As we were speaking, I got the idea to make a film about him. I had no idea what I would do, but I told him, “I’d like to do a film about you, you’re an important artist, I’m a filmmaker…” We agreed to discuss it, to see what kind of film it could be.
Two films, Crumb and American Splendor, are great reference for making a film about a comic book artist. For a comic nerd like me, these films are fascinating. Seth and I discussed what we didn’t like in documentaries we’ve seen about comic artists. We wanted to do something else. So I thought we could include animation. But his stories are all finished and complete. I thought it might be strange to animate just part of one.
DS: It might look odd just animating a small slice of a bigger graphic novel.
LC: Exactly. But Seth told me that actually might be interesting. He said he’d been writing a diary for many years in comic book form that hadn’t been published. I asked to take a look. Well, he’s written a dozen or more books of comic-style diary. It’s a lot of material. A lot. I had complete access. He was very generous and had great confidence in me. As I read through the material, I saw that much of his diary was about memories. And that’s the path we took with the film. The things that happen in our lives, we drag them forward with us forever. Sometimes we don’t listen to our memories. But sometimes, incredible memories show up when you don’t expect it. But we all carry around the huge baggage of our memories.
By discussing Seth’s diary and his memories of certain events, we would bring up even more recollections, which would all form the basis of the film. I figured animating those memories would be much more interesting to an audience than just having him talk about them. So, in the film, I jump from face to face interviews into animating his comic diary recollections. There are comics about his youth, about his life, about his ordinary daily routines.
In addition, he had a wish to be a puppeteer in a play. So I said, why don’t you become a puppeteer in a play and I’ll film it. So the film became his life. His life in comics, his life in animation and his life bringing to life another comic artist shown as a puppet play. We jump from one medium to the other.
DS: Tell me a bit about how you accessed him and his work.
LC: I work 60 hours a week. He works much more. I’ve never met anyone who works more than Seth. Every time I visited him to film, he was regretting the time we were taking away from his work. I was keeping him from working on his comics. But he was generous with his time. I was very lucky.
DS: Was it always your plan to work with the NFB on this film? Didn’t you work and finance this on your own before the NFB came on board?
LC: My plan always was to do a film about a comic book artist along the lines of Crumb or American Splendor, which would have limited theatrical runs at arthouse cinemas. A niche film. I wanted to do it with the NFB because I felt it was universal enough, but Canadian enough, to appeal to them. I presented the project to Marcy Page [recently retired NFB producer] and to my astonishment, she didn’t know of Seth. Nobody at the Film Board knew Seth. But in less than a month, Marcy became an avid fan.
But really, to me, the film is not about a comic book artist. It’s about our memories and how we deal with our memories. It could have been about a taxi driver. They have an intense moment with someone in a car, for just a few moments, and then there is another one, each with its own circumstances.
So in the beginning, the Film Board was not sure about the film, but slowly, they became fans of Seth.
LC: Eight years. At the NFB, if they’re interested in a project, they give you a little bit of money to investigate whether or not your idea is worth producing. You work for a month, make a formal proposal with some drawings, stuff like that. Well, when they gave me that small initial amount of money, I used that, and more, to film Seth. I put together a seven minute short with a little bit of animation along with a 25 page proposal.
They told me they were not sure when they’d be able to fund the film, but they were interested and would give me an office at the NFB. So I kept working on the film, going back to see Seth usually every year around some special event. I filmed him at an event in Windsor. I filmed him at a conference in New York, at a conference in Montreal. I think the NFB was checking to see if I was truly passionate about the project. So they saw me every year coming in and doing more animation, working with more interviews. Slowly I’d get help from different people and finally, after seven years, they were convinced that I needed to get this film finished. The money they gave me I used to make the last animations and finish the film.
I had done all the animation sequences in animatic form. I had storyboarded and done animatics for the entire film, so it was pretty much constructed early on. They could see what I was trying to do. Eventually, they said, “OK, this guy knows what he’s doing. Let’s help finish the film.”
DS: What has Seth’s perspective been on this drawn out process?
LC: His perspective has been fascinating. In the beginning, he felt, “Yah, that could be interesting.” During the middle of the project, he got tired and felt he was wasting time working with me when he could have been working on one of his own projects. It was a weekend every year, spending time filming with me…
DS: …on a project he wasn’t sure was ever going to be finished…
LC: …exactly. He wasn’t sure it was going to get finished. It was always getting postponed. And, he was wasting three days each time we got together. I think it also affected his work for at least a week or two after each time we filmed, his feeling guilty about losing work time and feeling narcissistic about what he’d revealed on camera. So in the middle, he was questioning whether or not it was worth his time.
But, the fantastic thing was when we got to the puppet play, and filmed it together, suddenly, he realized what I was trying to do and he became very happy about the process. So the last half of the project, he stopped worrying about the interviews and the time he was spending on the film.
It’s tough to act naturally when you have a camera crew invade your work area, a place you usually work in alone. It’s tough.
DS: It’s intrusive.
LC: Very intrusive. But his attitude gave me confidence. When he saw the first cut of the film, to our mutual surprise, he said something like, “This is exciting because I just saw the film and now I’m more excited than ever to go back to my drawing board. The film has had a very positive impact on me.” I loved hearing that.
DS: Until you show your subject the work, you never know how they’ll respond. I’m sure he wasn’t used to being in front of the camera, so finally seeing how great the film was turning out must have been a wonderful experience for both of you.
LC: It’s a very delicate thing. I was interviewing an artist who employs a great degree of discipline in his work. He wants to do better every day. This was what I was trying to get across. I’m asking him to explain his process, to show us his process. This is an intimate process he has been doing for years by himself. Now, I’m asking him to share it with the world.
DS: One of the things I enjoyed most about the film was the very nature of Seth’s description of how he takes time to reflect on past memories, how looking back is not a trivial nor flighty process. No one seems to want to take time to do much of anything these days. Everyone and everything seems so hurried.
LC: One of the things that I enjoyed most about working with the NFB was that they understood this was going to be a contemplative film. No explosions. No car chases. Actually, there is an explosion in the film and a space chase. But Seth’s work is about exploring life at a more profound level. That takes time.
Remember, I directed commercials, where everything had to be said in 15 or 30 seconds. I wanted to do the exact antithesis of that with this film.
DS: So is Seth happy with the final film?
LC: Yes. Before, he was afraid that after seeing the film he’d be depressed for months. But, he was really excited after seeing it. It just made him want to go work even harder. It was really great.
Seth’s Dominion will be screened November 22 at the Cinefamily Animation Breakdown 2014. Check the website for details.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.