Filmmaker Luc Chamberland’s wealth of industry experience spans shorts, feature films and, more recently, animated documentaries. His first short Mr. Rivet, produced with the Animation Workshop, was a festival success in 2004 and, following 2011’s Saga City (an NFB-produced short dealing with intertwined environmental and urban issues) Chamberland recently finished the long-in-the-making feature documentary Seth’s Dominion. This latest film explores the life and work of Canadian comic artist Seth, known for his long-running series Palookaville and the graphic novels born from it, including 1996’s Ignatz Award-winning It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, The G.N.B. Double C, Wimbledon Green and the ongoing Clyde Fans. Eschewing the typical approach to documentary filmmaking, Chamberland has endeavoured to create an altogether more immersive and engaging profile of the subject, combining live-action footage with animated interpretations of Seth’s work, perfectly retaining the artist’s 1930s-informed style. The film recently won for Best Feature at the Ottawa International Animation Festival and will have its UK debut this coming weekend at the Raindance Film Festival. Following a sneak preview at this year’s Annecy festival, Skwigly jumped at the chance to speak with Chamberland about this compelling project during our most recent visit to the NFB.
What has been your background prior to making Seth’s Dominion?
I’m a filmmaker working mainly in animation and, being Canadian and British, I’ve had the pleasure of working in both countries. I’ve worked in Paris, London and Montreal. I was in London for fifteen years and I’ve been back in Canada for the last nine years now. I studied here in Montreal at the University of Concordia in Cinema, I was curious about animation and could draw well enough to make a character look like he was experiencing some emotion so I did a Minor in Animation. So I was trained as a filmmaker, and with that I did the typical cliché of the backpacking trip – I went for about six months, just hitchiking around Europe, sleeping under bridges and youth hostels and at the end I tried to get a job in London.
Was it easy to get a start in the UK?
They actually sent me to Paris, where they were doing Asterix movies, and I ended up working on three of those over there. That was in the late 80s, when I was young and beautiful and had hair on my head. Anyway, I worked with a lot of British animators who were just in the country to work on the Asterix movies, after which they all went back to London and invited me to work there as well. So I ended up at a studio in Acton, Amblimation (the 90s animation production arm of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainmen) for five years. I worked on Fieval Goes West and We’re Back, the famous animated dinosaur movie. Fieval Goes West I think everyone was very proud to have worked on. This opened me up to direct commercials in London in various studios and it was a boom in the early 90s, there were a lot of different studios doing a lot of animation so I had the opportunity to do all kinds of different styles of animation. It was very varied, I really enjoyed it because I was paid to experiment with all kinds of different techniques. Also the turnaround for commercials was so fast, I had a lot to learn. London itself was a big school for animation so I learned a great deal, everything I could.
Ultimately you wound up back in Canada…
Yes, after fifteen years I went back to Montreal and voila, I’m at the NFB now. I just used all the knowledge I learned in London and have been applying it to all kinds of different styles of film I’ve been doing.
Before Seth’s Dominion, what sort of work had you been doing since?
I’ve been doing commercial work in Montreal alongside working on different films here at the Film Board. I like all kinds of different approaches, combining live-action with animation, ink, computer, puppet animation, mixing all those styles. But I really, really simply enjoy making a great film with great emotion.
For those who may not have come across his work, can you tell us a bit about Seth?
Seth is a Canadian cartoon artist who does graphic novels and illustration, he’s been doing that since the early 90s. They’re a mix of autobiography and beautiful graphic images, influenced enormously by the 1930s New Yorker illustrators. In the graphic novel world I think he’s one of the top ten, easily, in the quality of his storytelling and visuals, they’re really beautiful. I wanted to take these visuals and bring them to life in animation.
What was it about his work that make him especially appealing as a subject?
Besides being a filmmaker who wants to do all kinds of different styles, I’m also probably a little bit of a frustrated comic artist. I really like comics, and I was reading mainly European comics. I really liked Belgian and French comics these and was inspired mostly by them. When I was living in England I couldn’t really find European comics, there were only American and some British, so my reading changed quite a bit when I was in London. Suddenly in amongst these books of British and American comics I found one of Seth’s graphic novels.
I thought Seth was American, but it turns out he’s a Canadian cartoonist, and I discovered him in London, strangely enough. He’s kind of a bit how Canada itself is, he’s in-between the American comic – a bit more brash and loud – and the European comic – a lot more subdued and graphic. I think Seth is really in-between and this really appealed to me. I was reading every book I could find of him, every publication, I was a very big fan. When I arrived in Canada I thought I could maybe do a film with him. I’d met a lot of the French and Belgian comic artists who were very nice to me and were my heroes when I was a young kid, reading their books, they influenced me enormously. A few of them I would have liked to do a film with but most of them are passed now, they’re gone. I was regretting not trying to do something with these artists, so when I discovered Seth I thought “Aha! I want to work with that guy and I want to work with his style”. As we met we started to explore a way of making the film, to make it an unusual film about cartoonists, not your normal, talking-head, guy-drawing-on-a-table documentary.
The animated segments of the film do an excellent job of maintaining the tone of the source material. How closely did the two of you work together on these sequences?
I’ve been quite lucky, when I met with Seth we started to talk about the film I wanted to do with him as a live-action documentary mixed with animation. Then the more we talked, the more I learned about his different projects and one of things he had was a model city that was quite original. I figured that could be interesting, as something that’s never been done in a film that I know of, that could explore one facet of his work. Another one is that he has a comic journal, a diary in cartoons that he actually keeps for himself, it’s not published. It’s about twelve books now, at least, if not fifteen. I had access to that, I could look at his personal journal in comics and discuss with him which one I could use to reveal more of him and make them into animation. What then happened was absolutely fantastic, Seth wants to have free reign when he works on something, to do exactly what he wants, so he looked at me and said “I imagine you would like to work like that too, so I give you carte blanche; I know what you’re doing”. I reassured him about my intentions and we discussed about what the film would be about, and when he was set with that he let me go. I’d keep sending him drawings over the internet and he always accepted whatever I did, so I was able to do whatever I wanted with his material. The advantage of comic books is that we can read the book at the speed that we want, we decide the rhythm, we hear the sound as much as we want, but with this film I imposed a rhythm to this book, as well as sound and music specific to my taste, but he gave me his blessing. I’m very lucky that he let me do exactly how I felt. And fortunately he’s told me that he really likes it!
Seth’s Dominion will play at Raindance this Saturday, Oct 4th at 3:40pm. For more information visit nfb.ca and raindancefestival.org. To find out more about the artist Seth check out his Drawn & Quarterly author page.