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Joss Whedon - Comic book artists becoming Hollywood directors

Friday 12 February 2010, by Webmaster

If this were an EC comic from the 1950s, the cover line would scream, "Comic artists conquer Hollywood!"

For some years, Hollywood has been plundering the comics, grabbing stories and heroes to transfer to the screen. But a counterattack has begun, and comic artists stealthily are beginning to invade Hollywood.

Not that Hollywood is likely to resist. It already has succumbed to such waves of outsiders as commercials directors and music video helmers, and comic artists bring a lot of the same visual flair. But they bring something else that could distinguish them: a focus on plot and character development.

Canadian artist Kaare Andrews — in postproduction on the indie horror feature "Altitude," which is likely to debut at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival — puts it best.

"You’ve seen the commercial guys go into directing, you’ve seen music videos guys go into directing; now you’re going to see comic writers and artists," he predicts. "I think that the one thing we have the others don’t is the sense of storytelling."

Examples are cropping up everywhere.

Last month’s release "The Book of Eli" drew on comic book influences. Although some might have assumed the comic book qualities were there because "Eli’s" directors, the Hughes brothers, are known aficionados, some of the credit goes to Chris Weston, a Britain-based comic book illustrator who served as storyboard artist for the movie, and Tommy Lee Edwards, who served as concept artist. Both were making their Hollywood debut.

To cite another case, Mike Mignola — creator of the Dark Horse comic "Hellboy," which was turned into two movies by Guillermo del Toro — recently returned to Los Angeles after a short stint as a designer on "The Hobbit," which is being directed by del Toro.

Bookeli The influx isn’t limited to below-the-line work.

Indie comic artist Tory Nixey is in postproduction on "Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark," starring Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes.

And a December episode of Joss Whedon’s Fox series "Dollhouse" was directed by comic artist John Cassaday.

"I believe if you’re a strong storyteller that comics can be just as good of a training ground for directing as any other job you may find in film, television or elsewhere," says Cassaday, who got his break after working with Whedon on an "X-Men" comic. "In both comics and film, I believe there’s a tangible cross section of thought. When I read a comic script, I can see the scenes behind a camera — the shots, the movements, the sounds, the actors. At times, I’ve read screenplays and seen the comic page. These things blend in my mind, so I do my best to shape them into what is needed. I believe in cinematic storytelling, whether it’s on a comic’s page or on film."

Offers Whedon: "There’s no job that prepares you for directing — not even writing. It is a very diffuse and very complicated skill set." But turning to comic artists, he adds, "The thing you look for is someone who will get that extra visual pop.

"For example, you have a hero shot, someone crouching. Normal TV directors are going to shoot that person from eye level, and it will show someone crouching. A comic artist is more likely to go, ’Let’s put the camera on the floor so our guy stands out from the background.’ And you get that iconic comic image," Whedon explains.

Not everyone agrees that drawing comics makes for good cinematic training. Despite raving about Weston, Albert Hughes says that because of the usual solitary nature of an artist’s life, knowing how to draw well doesn’t necessarily equal knowing how to edit film or draw strong performances from actors.

"You might be terrible at getting things out of a human being because you’re used to being locked up in a room by yourself and not communicating with anybody," he says.

The lure of movies appears to be something many comic creators can’t resist.

"All comic strip writers are huge movie fans," Weston says. "So you get kudos among peers when you do something there. It’s cooler than comics."

Comic talent, knocking on Hollywood’s doors, is finding those doors opening.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of happenstance.

For Weston, becoming part of the "Eli" team grew out of his friendship with the movie’s screenwriter, Gary Whitta, a comic book nerd. When Whitta was set to submit "Eli" as a spec, he asked Weston to draw concept sketches he could use in his pitch; Whitta promised he’d do what he could to get Weston involved in the movie if it sold.

Mignola also became involved with the movies by chance when he was a young artist in the San Francisco area, working on the comic adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola’s "Bram Stoker’s Dracula." He used to drop by the Zoetrope offices so often to pick up photo references that he became well-known. One day, when the production needed a model redrawn quickly, he was called on because he was nearby. Mignola ended up storyboarding three sequences, two of which made it into the final movie.

Artists whose aim is to direct films have had to work longer laying the foundation.

Andrews, based in Vancouver, attended the Canadian Film Center and made short films and PSAs before finally getting a shot at a feature film.

In the past, few comic artists paved the way, though they tended to be isolated exceptions.

The late Jack Kirby, creator of Captain America, worked in Saturday-morning animation during the 1970s, when he was on the outs with Marvel and DC. But that animation doesn’t carry the same respect today as live-action feature work does, so it became more noteworthy when Geoff Darrow worked as a concept artist for the Wachowskis, putting ink to paper for "The Matrix" movies and "Speed Racer."

The first major artist to make the jump above the line to director was Frank Miller. His "Sin City," which he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez, grossed $158 million worldwide. But when he took over as sole helmer on "The Spirit," Miller stumbled, and the movie died at the wickets.

That setback might have slowed, but hasn’t stopped, the migration of comic artists to film.

One of the first things they discover is that the pay is much better.

"You’re getting paid by the hour, whether you’re working or not," Mignola says of his work below the line. "In comics, you’re paid by the page; in Hollywood, it’s less work, and you’re making more money for the same amount of time."

But there is a trade-off, artists say: They must surrender creative freedom. Although comics let them create entire worlds, on a film set, they become a tool of the director.

"I was there to drag out what was in Albert’s head," Weston says. "In the comics, I’m pleasing myself."

Mignola had a similar experience working with del Toro on "Blade 2" and the "Hellboy" movies. "My job was to get his idea on paper, and more film-centric guys would translate that stuff into things that could actually be built or filmed," he says.

Depending on the director, there also is less of a chance to cut loose artistically.

"There are some occasions where I am allowed to create, but most of the time del Toro is really clear about what he is looking for," Mignola says. "Much of my time is trying to pick his brain and understand what he wants. ... When I’m working on a del Toro picture, my job is to help him put out a del Toro picture."

Another drawback: Working in Hollywood has forced some artists to put their comic work on hold.

Weston, who also worked on "Eli’s" digital-motion comics released online in advance of the movie, took heat in the blogosphere for falling behind on his Marvel comic "The Twelve."

Because of that, Mignola isn’t in a rush to do more movie work.

"I haven’t produced the kind of comics I would like to produce, so as I get older, I’m a little bit more choosy as to how I spend my time," he says.

"If I take the amount of time I put into movie preproduction doing whatever I want in my studio, then I’ve created something that is published, and I can say, ’That is me,’ " he adds. "Whereas, if you spend three months on a movie, and the movie comes out, you might be able to say: ’See that guy’s fingernail? I designed that.’ I would kinda like to spend my time doing my stuff."

By contrast, after working on "Eli," Weston wants to become more involved in film. He’s getting feelers from producers more interested in the storyboard work he did on "Eli" than in any of his comic work.

Andrews, meanwhile, has lined up his next directing gig: "The Hunted," an assassin thriller being produced by Gale Anne Hurd.

Whedon predicts that comic artists shuttling between books and movies is the wave of the future. "I was a writer who said I wanted to direct, and they mocked me," he says. "Now, it’s not strange. People bopping between TV and movies used to be a stigma, and now it’s not anymore. What you’re seeing, and what technology is allowing, is people creating a chance for themselves."