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By Andrew Avery
When “Donnie Darko” hit theaters in 2001 it mostly flew under the radar and later achieved cult status. Now, Darko director Richard Kelly is hoping to start his next film, “Southland Tales,” with a bang by offering a graphic novel prelude. Written by Kelly with art by Brett Weldele, the series will be three books long with the film serving as chapters four through six. Weldele, whose credits include “The Surrogates” (Top Shelf Comix) took the reins in helping adapt Kelly’s script and talked to Comic Foundry about the experience.
How did you get involved with the “Southland Tales” project?
My editor over at Oni Press, James Lucas Jones, called me up in April of 2005 and asked if I’d be interested in tackling this project.
I wasn’t really listening to the part where it was six 100-page books in less than a year. So Oni pitched me to Richard as the artist. At the time there were a few companies trying to land the project so this wasn’t a done deal. Then I get an e-mail from Bob Chapman over at Graphitti Designs saying that his company and Kevin Smith’s View Askew would be producing the book. Apparently Richard liked what he saw enough to drag me along with the project. I whittled my involvement down to three books and eventually the project shrunk with it. And here we are a year later.
How much is your artwork influencing the look of the film?
Probably not much. Richard and his [director of photography], Steven Poster are very good. They don’t need my help.
I read that your art is very influenced by films, that you even do comic adaptation of some of your favorite movies. What can comic artists learn from watching movies? And, conversely, what can movie directors learn from reading comics?
I subscribe to a more cinematic look to comics. I like stories that have room to breathe, that move more. This style tends to focus more on emotion and context instead of cramming as much plot into a little book as possible.
Movies also remind me, people don’t have big outlines around them.
What movies particularly influenced your drawing?
I don’t think I can point to any specifically. I’m very much a sponge though. I’ll catalogue things in my head. Like how a certain angle works, or how a face is lit a certain way. I start to focus in how, say, the depth of field affects a shot. I realize I don’t have to draw every window on a building to get it to “read” like a building. I can do a lot with tone instead of line. They remind me of reality.
“Donnie Darko” was such a surprising cult hit. Was there any added pressure with this project because of that films popularity and obsessive fan base?
When I started it, not really. I just thought I landed a really cool job with a collaborator I was excited to work with and hopefully it would lead to the next project. It’s now starting to become bigger than that. I mean I started this a year ago. Very few people had even heard of the film. It was still in preproduction. It makes it feel small. Most of my comics only sell around a few thousand. I have no idea what this book is going to do in terms of unit sales…but the buzz is growing. It’s almost electric especially now with the Cannes film festival coverage. Now it feels like the pressure is mounting, but thankfully I’ve finished a good chunk of it so I don’t have to worry about it. Not much I can do about what’s done. Out of my hands. It is surreal to imagine some of the dedicated actors involved in this project maybe sitting down with the comics.
Also I’ve met the obsessive fan base over at richard-kelly.net. Really a great bunch of people. Very respectful. It’s nice to see some message boards that aren’t full of flame wars and naysayers. Refreshing really.
Did you take any stylistic points from “Donnie Darko” and adapt it to your work on “Southland Tales”?
Not really. ST is just such a different animal than Darko. This is Richard several years removed from Darko, and honestly this is a much bigger, more ambitious story.
The one thing to be gained and that really comes across is Richard’s voice as a writer. Understanding how his style works in Darko has made Southland that much easier. There’s a small amount of direction when it comes to pages and pages of dialogue. The “acting” is up to me to make it work. Seeing how the rhythm of his scripts work in Darko and “Domino” helps me make it come alive.
“Southland Tales” is unique in that it’s a graphic novel setting up a movie. What else about this project was different than the others you have worked on?
I had more involvement in the storytelling than ever before.
All together we’re talking three books at 100 pages each. How long did it take all together? Would you do the pencils for all 300 and then color, or how did it work?
I’m about to start book three, so we’re not at the finish line yet. There was a lot of tweaking that went into the first book, plus I had three issues left of “The Surrogates” left when I started. With that out of the way book two only took about three months.
I’ll do a section of a few scenes at a time. Maybe 15 pages. I have an assembly line process where I pencil/scan/tone these processes separately. I don’t like to do too much of one thing for too long. It gets kind of boring and seems like a lopsided mountain of work. After I tone, I send a pdf off to Bob Chapman and Richard for approval. Then I’ll go color the section.
I’ll explain in further detail. I loosely break down the script into pages. I work out the page in red pencil, hammering out usually a whole scene in a sitting. I then go in in regular pencil and fine-tune and decide what I could do in tone or color instead of line. The pages are about 8.5 x 11. I scan these in and through a batch process in Photoshop I get rid of the magenta channel thus ditching the preliminary pencil work. Then in another batch process I “ink” the pages using threshold and the watercolor filter. I apply a watercolor texture I’ve scanned in to use as a middle tone/backdrop. I then open the file in Painter. I used to do this step with gray markers, but here I can quickly go through the image with a loaded palette knife and add shadows and highlights. It’s at this stage it goes off for approval. If something needs fixing, this is a great step to do it. My pencils are fairly simple and at that step it’s hard to tell everything that’s going to end up in the image. By the toned stage most everything is in place.
After approval, it goes back to Photoshop where it gets colored. I mostly use color modes like color burn, color dodge, and overlay to give the color a bit of jazz.
What was the hardest part about adapting the screenplay?
Trying to figure out how to pace it.
In the comic script world, writers generally cover this. You may have a bit of give on a page, but the beats are taken care of in the larger picture. Like, “x” happens on page 13 and the “y” happens on page 14 and so on until you have a typical 24-page comic. Again, there’s some give in this as the artist and it’s really my job to take whatever the writer writes and make it work.
When you’re dealing with around 20 pages a book, things are simpler. It’s smaller and manageable. But when you have a 40-page screenplay and want to translate that into a 100-page book, there’s all sorts of issues raised. It’s another step in the process. It’s adaptation. Is one scene bigger than the others for a reason? Should I give more room for this scene over that one? There’s no equation that makes it easy. Plus you can’t sit there and say, “One page of script equals x number of comic pages.” Some things are very visual…some are dialogue driven. It’s a constant balancing act.
Your style is far from the stylized, polished look of most mainstream books. How does that help for this project? And is having a unique style a double-edged sword for you as an artist?
One important advantage to working this way is speed. The drawing is loose. The inking is digital. The color is digital.
Honestly I don’t think a traditional penciler/inker/colorist team would work very well on a project like this. As Richard was filming or editing or whatever, things would change. I had to be very fluid. Going back into the art to change things. That would be a lot of extra work for a team.
I tend to favor more gesture, more movement in a line. It was one of those things in college I realized. I really liked the energy in my roughs and then I’d sit there and ink them very traditionally. The end result was kinda stiff…dead. It was around this time that I was rethinking all the “rules” for producing comic art. You know, like a page has to be drawn 11×17 and the art has to be inked. Why? The reasons for this were growing technologically irrelevant. I feel more comfortable drawing on 8.5 x 11 bond paper with pencil so I do.
It’s a double-edged sword as a comic book artist, definitely. I do think that’s changing a bit though. When I first started doing portfolio reviews in the late ‘90s, I got a fair number of weird looks. I think there was a lot of traditional thinking on the editorial side back then though. That’s changed a bit with the amount of digital painted art that’s broken through. When I did The B-Sides for Marvel, I was totally expecting a call explaining who was going to ink my pencils and that I’d have to draw the thing on those giant Marvel boards. I never did get that call, because Andy Lis got it and hired me for what I did.
The biggest disadvantage to doing a very traditional comic book style is that you don’t leave yourself open for doing, say things outside of comics like illustration work. Living wage comic work is really, really rare and its a hard thing to count on.
Did you see an evolution in your work or process from page 1 to 300?
As with pretty much all projects, it just gets easier and as a result, faster. The first issue of just about everything I’ve done is so damn hard trying to find my sea legs. It’s also the most exciting. It’s the new thing. It’s fresh. It’s a new challenge.
As I struggle through the first bunch of pages, I start to get a bit paranoid. Drawing is such an intangible skill. I’m never sure if I’ll wake up some day and say, “Hey, I don’t remember how to draw. Huh.” But then everything turns out okay and then I’m on my way.
After I figure out what I’m doing and have drawn the characters for a while, its gets a lot easier. I don’t have to think as much. The problem with this is, slight boredom sets in from the repetitive nature of the work. I start thinking about the next project. Don’t get me wrong — I actually really like getting to a comfort zone. I can work without being too frustrated trying to figure things out. But then there’s always the grass is greener rule.
What did you learn from this project that will help you on future work?
It’s hard to tell without knowing what future projects there are. It’s safe to say that I’m always learning and fine-tuning things.
How did you use color tones (yellow vs. blue, etc) as a storytelling device?
One of my favorite subjects…color theory!
Here’s a cool little trick to easily and simplistically divide up various scenes. Comics are a hard place to be subtle because if you’re too subtle the storytelling may fall apart. So I try to divide up the scenes of a book into different setting types: office, desert, train station, whatever and give each a specific color. This is something very much from film and television. The blue office versus the orange beach scene. And since comics are largely shorthand extrapolations of things, this is an easy trick to get out of doing a whole lot of work. If in one scene, you can establish a pale green office setting, every time you come back to that color you have instant office setting. And again you have to be fairly dramatic in the difference in color. This isn’t photography.
I like atmospheric color over doing much local color. I tend to even go fairly monochromatic, with just punches of complementary colors to focus the eye. Too much local color tends to look like the world outside. Kinda chaotic. Less is more.
For more information on Weldele, check out his Web site here.