Prolific and enigmatic, the cartoonist Seth’s work has appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to the Criterion Collection to the designs of The Complete Peanuts reprint volumes and his recent collaborations with Lemony Snicket – and that’s not even counting his many graphic novels, shorts and countless other creations. But with all that work from Seth, there hasn't been that much about him.
The short documentary Seth’s Dominion, from director and animator Luc Chamberland, takes a unique look at the man and his work. Combining interviews with animated recreations of Seth’s work, Seth’s Dominion examines the man’s wide and eclectic output, the themes that underscore his whimsical-yet-melancholy work, and the moments from his life that inspired his perspective. The documentary, which was funded by the National Film Board of Canada, is now out in a special edition from Drawn & Quarterly that includes behind-the-scenes materials by Seth, along with two animated adaptations of his comic books.
Newsarama spoke with Chamberland and Seth himself about the years-long process of creating this documentary, what it’s like seeing your life put on film, and much more.
Newsarama: Luc, what was the origin of this documentary?
Luc Chamberland: I always loved cartoons, comics, graphic novels, ‘’bandes dessinées‘’ - whatever is your term to describe what I consider a "grand art." At a very early age I was doing my own comics and was heavily influenced by the French Belgium weekly comic, Spirou. I would have to think that is what guided me towards filmmaking.
I ended up working and living in London where French comic books where rare, and in the middle of the graphic novels sections in a book store in London I found It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken by Seth, and from that moment, I read everything Seth did.
Many years later, back in Montréal, Seth was doing a conference entitled ‘’Brief Stories About Cartooning.” He was extremely articulate about the art form of comics and about many other comics artists. During this talk, I got the idea to do a hybrid documentary about him and his work.
At the end of the conference, I gathered all my courage and approached him, and tried my best to explain that I was a filmmaker and that I wanted to do a film with him. I offered to exchange emails so we could start a conversation about this eventual project, and that's exactly what we did.
After many email conversations, we met again in Toronto, where we came to an agreement. Originally it was just an idea that popped into my head that could have easily faded away like so many other ideas, but on that occasion, I was able to stay consistent and make a movie about it.
Nrama: What spoke to you about Seth's work?
Chamberland: I think it's important to note that I am a very energetic individual. I move fast, act fast, and talk a bit too fast, but mentally, I like to slow things down. I almost see things in slow motion, and I do appreciate quiet reverie. I’m sure for a lot of people, that's surprising to hear.
I felt that the quiet observations in the drawings and panels of Seth's work spoke to me, and is probably what gave me the impulse to want to recreate theses feelings in film.
Nrama: Seth, you talk about this in the materials with the DVD, but what was participating in this documentary like for you?
Seth:I did not enjoy it much. I thought I would because I am pretty talkative person. I have far too many opinions on everything and like to spout them. However, I found it much more difficult on camera to do this than I anticipated.
I think I do better in a real conversation face-to-face with real people. I enjoy chatting with two or three people ideally - there is something quite perfect in the dynamics of three people talking... but talking directly to a camera was not playing to my strengths.
I always ended up feeling rather depressed after the documentary crew left. I had a feeling I had failed, each time, to express who I really was. I often felt rather boring.
Nrama: Luc - how did you settle on the format for this documentary? What was the most complicated part of the process of putting it together?
Chamberland: From the very start, I wanted to do a hybrid film that would be difficult to put into one genre. My very first draft on paper was going to go from live-action documentary, to a series of made up news reel footage, a puppet theatre play, and animation.
This, to my complete surprise, was very difficult to explain to the team at the National Film Board. I will always be grateful to my producer Marcy Page. She had full confidence in the project, and could actually grasp the principal that I wanted to achieve with the film. Luckily, she managed to convince the NFB that I knew what I was doing.
In my head, the film, at its inception, was very clear. Sometimes it's not very easy to clearly explain that to the people that actually make the film possible. I created all this animation on a very small budget and so to make it "grand" was quite a challenge, one that I enjoyed mastering with such a success in the composition of imagery, in the movements, choreography, and emotions in the drawings—all this with the understanding and confidence of Seth.
Nrama:Seth , how much input did you have into the documentary, particularly into the animations?
Seth:N one whatsoever! In fact, I didn’t even realize Luc was doing animation until about six or seven years into the project. When he mentioned the animation was going well I was a bit flabbergasted. I didn’t even recall giving permission – though Luc told me I had, years earlier.
I had some trepidation because I usually dislike when comic book art is transformed into animation… but when I saw what Luc was doing, I felt very relieved. I adore the animation. It is the saving grace of the film - I am the weakest element!
The animations are faithful and sensitive… but what Luc adds to the work makes them something quite different than my own comics. I really like the animation tremendously. Luc is a terrific director.
Nrama: Luc - what was the biggest challenge in doing the animations of Seth's work, of bringing movement to something that is, by its own definition, based in stillness?
Chamberland: Yes, infusing movement to still images is a serious challenge if you want to stay true to the original nature of these images. The advantage of reading cartoons - "bandes dessinées" - is that the reader actually puts his/her own timing to permanently-still images, meaning every reader reads at their own pace. When you do a film, you have to put a definitive timing to it, a timing that you - the director/filmmaker - will impose to the spectator.
I am very obsessed about film music and I thinks in those term when I am "timing" a film, it's important that still voice serves as it's own melody with it’s own natural flow. To help me get the right rhythm, I recorded Seth reading his own stories so I could get to the right feelings in the right "timing" that we presented the animation to the audience.
Nrama: What do both of you hope people take away from this documentary?
Chamberland: In my own humble and obviously-pretentious way, I hope that people actually get touched by the film in such a way that they would look at life in a different way, even if it only lasts a few hours after the viewing.
It is really a film project which had the clear intention in my part to celebrate "life" - the big scope of it. Every tiny little aspect of life that we might think is mundane is far from mundane.
I wanted to make such an experience that people would like to see it several times, and get something more at every viewing. Yes, grand and pretentious goals.
Seth: For myself - I guess I would hope the film gives a hint of the scope of other art I am involved in besides Palookaville. Or perhaps that it humanizes me somewhat - making me seem less like a one-dimensional old-timey nostalgia guy.
Nrama: Seth, you mention in the liner notes you feel you learned about Luc in some ways from this documentary. What, if anything, do you feel you maybe learned about yourself or your work?
Seth: I learned that some things are very hard to communicate - that even if you are not a shy person it is still very hard to articulate an inner life - especially in front of a camera.
The animations were very revealing to me, actually. It allowed me to look at my own work from the outside - which is very difficult for an artist. You are always too close to the material to see if with objectivity at all. Watching the animations allowed me to “enjoy” some of my own work for the first time.
I especially loved Luc’s adaptation of The Great Machine. Made me want to do some animation, actually.
Nrama: Luc, what do you feel you learned about Seth, his work, or yourself from putting this together?
Chamberland: That I simply want to make films that become a reference film. There is so little time in our precious little life, that it is important that every films that I take time to do is exciting and fun to work on.
And more importantly that the finished film is not a waste of time to the people that actually give their time to see the film, that those precious minutes were actually a great and meaningful experience which improve in some tiny way the quality of their life.
Nrama: Who are some other cartoonists you'd like to see profiled in this way?
Chamberland: I think there are many cartoonists for which it would be brilliant to have this kind of film made about them.
From the past; Wallace Wood, Kurtzman, Eisner, Elder, Arno, Doug Wright, Tillieux and Chaland and present; Ditko, Hernandez Brothers, Matt, Brown, Gauld, Ware, Kate Beaton… every single film would be so different because every author has their own world, their own imagery, their own "timing"
There's a lot more of them that I did not even mention.
Seth: Well, I can think of an long list of dead cartoonists that I’d love to see profiled. That is easy. Among living ones - the usual suspects. Dan Clowes, Chester Brown, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, and Art Spiegelman. Adrian Tomine would be interesting because he’d be so reticent. That would be amusing! Michael Deforge would probably be a good subject. He’s an interesting person.
Truthfully though, the very best choice would be Joe Matt. Everything he said would be gold. A documentary about Joe’s life would be a gift to any documentary film-maker. I’m not sure I could bear to watch it, though.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Chamberland: In general, I find cartooning ("bandes dessinées") is not taking seriously enough in general - animation has a similar stigma. If it's a drawing, it's not that serious.
At the beginning of the golden era of the press - 1900-1930 - the newspapers were battling to get the best illustrators - when comic artists were featured on their page, their run increased. It's funny that now newspapers are cutting cartoons out of the papers - the actual thing that helped increasing their sales in the first place.
When I was a very young kid, my uncle Alain found out I wanted to do comics when I would be a so-called "adult." He said I have a great future, because the first thing he read in the papers is the caricatures, than the comic section, and after that, the sports section. Just an anecdote.
Has Marvel got it right the way they're making films out of all their comics? Maybe, in this way, the future of comics will gain more and more seriousness?
It was a privilege to get "carte blanche" from Seth to do this film. Now what? Oh yes! I just need to direct the next James Bond film [laughs]