Welcome to the latest installment of The Life of High Adventure. This time around we interview Doug Lefler, a storyboard artist and director who has recently made the jump into comics with his new project Seven Extraordinary Things.
Christian Beranek: You’ve had success as a director and storyboard artist in film and tv. What was it about the comic book medium that attracted you to working in it?
Doug Lefler: When I was a kid my Mother thought comics were a waste of money (they cost 12 cents an issue in those days!) so I wasn’t allowed to collect them. Out of frustration I started drawing my own. The concept of starting with a script didn’t come until much later. If I wanted a story about an astronaut stranded on Venus, I put a stack of paper in front of me and drew a spaceship getting hit by a meteor. Three panels later he was on the planet’s surface, half buried in a ditch with the damaged thrusters still smoldering. I wrote with pictures. Dialogue and scene descriptions were an afterthought.
When I started making movies as a young teenager, it was easier for me to draw a shot than to describe it. I didn’t know what a storyboard was at that time but creating a comic book for a film made sense to me. Later, when I discovered I could make money doing this professionally, I thought I had found my calling in life.
If I hadn’t done well as a storyboard artist, and had that lead me to directing, I would have gotten back to drawing comics a lot sooner. Being a director is one of those rare professions where you spend more time not doing your job than doing it. In some ways this is a good thing. Shepherding a feature film or even a television episode is such a consuming undertaking that it would kill you if you did it all the time. Most directors I know spend ten percent of their effort making movies and ninety percent looking for the next gig. And those are the successful ones.
In between directing assignments I would write screenplays. I sold a few of them. Eventually I filled up a shelf in my studio with ones that didn’t sell. When there was no space left, I decided to do something different. I took my most personal story and turned it into a graphic novel. Seven Extraordinary Things was inspired by my time at California Institute of the Arts during the first two years that the Disney sponsored Character Animation program was in existence. It was an exciting, and sometimes tragic time for me.
CB: Seven Extraordinary Things was originally designed to be a self contained graphic novel. Why the switch to the web?
DL: I was halfway through the process of inking this story when I started sending it to comic book companies. It went out to four of them. Two wanted to publish it. I got sample contracts that stated three things: 1) I shouldn’t expect to make a dime off the book, 2) I should be prepared to promote it myself, and 3) the publisher would get twenty percent of the ancillary market if I sold it as a film, television show or video game. I was prepared to accept the first two items, but not the third.
Having gone to all the trouble of writing, drawing, inking and lettering a graphic novel on my own time, I wanted to retain ownership of it.
CB: What is your creative process?
DL: In a lot of ways it hasn’t changed. If I want someone to crash on Venus, I open my sketchbook and start drawing all the ways I can get my character there. I like to draw the beats of the story in as few panels as possible before I start elaborating it. When I was in the Feature Animation department at Disney, I got into the habit of working on index cards. Nowadays I draw in Photoshop on a tablet PC. Instead of rearranging cards on a bulletin board, I use Adobe Bride to shuffle my individual picture documents and renumber them.
The years I’ve spent storyboarding have taught me how to draw roughs with as few lines as possible. I like to have the entire story laid out before I refine the drawing and start inking. Most importantly, I never rewrite or revise anything until I complete a first draft. There is nothing worse than reworking your opening sequence over and over, only to find you have to throw it out later. Wait! I was wrong. Realizing the opening no longer fits the rest of your story but not throwing it out (because you put so damn much work into it) is worse.
CB: What are some ways comics can compete given the continuing changes in new media i.e. with such devices as the iPad, Kindle and mobile phones?
DL: Comics must embrace new media. If I were to do Seven Extraordinary Things over, I would lay it out for computer screens, large and small.
CB: Any plans to direct film and/or tv in the future?
DL: Each directing job comes as a surprise to me. Although I’m quite content to sit in my studio and draw all day long, I miss the collaborative process, working with actors and shooting outdoors. But I don’t miss writing screenplays. How that format became the standard document used for making movies is still a mystery to me. It desperately needs to be reinvented.
I have a number of projects I’m developing now, but I’ve shifted my emphasis from getting the next directing job to creating content. Stories with pictures. That’s the reason I got into the film business in the first place.
CB: What are some of your favorite comics?
DL: I’m a big fan of French bande dessinée, and the work of artists like Didier Cassegrain, Olivier Vatine and Régis Loisel. I got hooked on them when I was in Paris, doing post production on The Last Legion. I also think the best way to learn another language is to read foreign comics.
CB: What else can we expect from you comic-related in the future?
DL: I’ve got a lot of new material on my drawing board. Seven Extraordinary Things is something of an anomaly for me because it is a slice of life narrative. The story I’m currently working on is a medieval fantasy, and more in keeping with the things I’ll be doing in the future. In the same way a caricature can tell you more about a person than a photograph, I believe fantasy has the potential to be more honest about the human condition than true-life drama.
I love the sequential art medium, but like screenplays, I think comics are ripe for reinvention. New media on the internet and mobile reading devices will push us along. My new story is looking more like a comics/storyboard hybrid. Although it will fit comfortably on the printed page, it is designed primarily for the computer screen. I’m convinced that is where the art form is headed.
Please visit http://www.sevenextraordinarythings.com to read the book and learn more about Lefler’s work. I recommend clicking on the journal section of the site as there are many great in depth features about the process of storytelling. My favorite post is called The Rat Catcher’s Son — it’s a fantastic lesson in how to showcase your characters.
Christian Beranek is a writer, producer, actor and musician. Beranek is working with Disney on several projects and is also co-starring in an upcoming feature for Lakeshore Entertainment and PDFlo Films. His twitter page is http://www.twitter.com/beranek and he co-runs http://www.youtube.com/leadpipeent with Super Frat’s Tony DiGerolamo.