Luc Chamberland on Seth’s Dominion

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Director/animator Luc Chamberland’s fondness for comics makes Seth’s Dominion, his latest work for the National Film Board, glow from the inside. Blending animation and live action, Chamberland unveils the celebrated cartoonist’s vivid inner world with a kind of subdued nostalgia. Luc’s deftness, both with a camera and in the editing room, results in a seriously-can’t-miss biopic of a Canadian icon.

We sat down with the French-Canadian filmmaker to discuss his unconventional approach to documentaries, his fixation with film scores and the challenges of making movies in Canada.

AH: It took seven years to complete Seth’s Dominion. Did that prolonged production time have any impact on the film’s end result?

Luc Chamberland: From the start, I made a structure of how I wanted to build the film. I wanted a bit of documentary, a bit of animation, and a bit of puppet play. That was clear. Having done commercials as well as TV and film, I have lots of experience; I know that full-time, this film was 14 months of work. But because we didn’t have the budget, I worked on the film part-time. I directed commercials, a pilot for a TV show, other short films, but every time I had a moment I would work on Seth’s Dominion. One of the secrets of documentary filmmaking is to film too much. When I do fiction, the ratio is 3:1 – three shots, one of them is good. When I do documentary, the ratio can be up to 200:1. That’s how you get those little gems. And many happy accidents took place during those seven years.

It’s funny because in Montreal, my friends would joke that “Seth” sounds like sept, which of course is seven in French. So of course it would take seven years to complete! They would joke, “You should have done a documentary on someone named Un!”

It was a million dollar budget for the film I had in mind, but I had a budget of a short film of seven minutes.

The idea of memory construction, the process of deciding what remains in our minds as our lives become the past – these are driving forces in the film. You had to engage in a similar process during the editing of this film. How did you decide what to keep?

It’s a painful process. I mean, I have a first cut that’s four hours. And it’s really amazing; it’s a brilliant film. But nobody will sit down to watch that! So there I go, into the cutting room. In the world of editing, it’s likened to killing your babies. It’s a nightmare.

Seth’s unpublished diary became a device to structure the narrative. It contains about 15 books, maybe more, and I had access to all of these. There are little entries about everyday life, mundane realities. I had the chance to get in his head, and it was amazing. Of course there was much more material to choose from but I had to be picky. There’s so much life inside Seth; he is like a storm beneath a surface of calm.

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Luc mixes animation and live action in Seth’s Dominion (2014) / NFB

The film presents traditional cartooning as an artifact, as if exploring an antiquated ritual that is from another era. There is a sense of endearment, and perhaps nostalgia, about drawing comics; both for the people who do it and the people who enjoy it.  

It scares people to draw on paper, to not be able to “Control-Alt-Delete”. They’re afraid. But actually, paper is diligent; it will do what you want. There are techniques to manipulate paper. For Seth’s Dominion, I embraced fiction in documentary. I made creative decisions that people would never do on a documentary. I didn’t do a purist documentary. When he’s in the world of 1930s, I filmed in Super 8 and had him walking in fast motion, like he was straight out of an old film. In some scenes, we went au naturel, with a single source of light, almost as if it was a comic. Seth actually lights his basement like that: one light and everything else is dark. Very dramatic!

Continuing the theme of blending fact with fiction, reality with construction, you played with the idea of Seth himself fictionalizing his own life. You had him narrate his own sequences of animation and puppet play. You’re both storytellers with particular tastes and preferences – to what extent did you two butt heads or contradict one another in the making of this documentary?

Seth is strong-willed and extremely articulate. When I approached him to make the film, I said something like “I work with the NFB, and we would really like to do a documentary about you. It would be a documentary…mixed with animation, of course.” And those words were a surprise, even to me. It happened so organically. That first meeting, I managed not to scare him.

We had a conversation over email about the intent of the film, and I mentioned early on that documentaries on cartoonists end up being a head talking and then someone drawing at a table. I love these; for someone who is fascinated by the craft, this is good. But it’s not exciting for the average person. I wanted to do something that spoke to everyone. I wanted to push myself. I wanted to be ambitious. So I told Seth I wanted to have animation there, but I wouldn’t know which sequence to choose. He hesitated at first, but then he offered his diary.

At some point, Seth mentioned that he would like to do a puppet play someday. So I said, we should do that! We’ll film it! I filmed the entire thing (it lasted about 40 minutes!), cut it and injected it into the film as well. I’ve also finished two shorts of based on Seth’s comics: one is the The Death of Kao Kuk (an Inuit astronaut who has amazing adventures, very much like a TV show of the 60s) and the other is The Great Machine (a visual poem with music). In the near future, we’ll have these two short films introduce Seth’s Dominion.

I thought he was going to be disappointed. He thought he would be disappointed.

Did Seth have to be coached for his narration?

I wanted to have his voice so I could pace the film as close to his imagination of his comics as possible. When you read a comic, you invent your own speed. You read the panel, then move on, then maybe check the illustration again, create sound effects, create music. It’s all in your head, very interactive and engaging. Animation is passive; the tempo is imposed on you. Seth hesitated at first; he didn’t think he had a good voice. I think he has a brilliant voice.

I would spend long weekends at his house to film him, and I know that he got nervous before I showed up, he would slow down his work, he would become self-conscious. Then when I finished filming, he would be self-aware and brood on his comments and doubt himself. It was a commitment on his part. It was a long process, but thank god he stuck with it.

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Seth and his wife. / NFB

The music in the film really stood out to me. Seth manipulates his surroundings to create a world in which he’s comfortable and inspired. Most of the time, that world ends up looking very 1920s or 1930s. You made sure that the musical cues reflected his particular aesthetic and the emotions being conveyed in the film.

Seth gave me carte blanche for everything. He let me do it and he saw the result at the end. I’m so grateful for his confidence in me. Thing is, he likes to have carte blanche when he is hired to do something, so he wanted me to have that same freedom when approaching this project. It’s a huge responsibility.

That said, for the music, to say I’m obsessed about film music would be an understatement. I do a radio show in Montreal about film music. Every film I do, I want a soundtrack that will stand out. It has to be right. I managed to get Luigi Alemanno. He is an exceptional composer. I’m very specific about music — I’ll differentiate that this is a John Williams moment, or a Jerry Goldsmith moment, or a de la Rue moment. I have all of those references. Luigi is very versatile, and for every key important moment we sat down and decided what to do. For Seth’s theme, he created six compositions, and the sixth was the one we used. It had to be nostalgic but upbeat.

The interplay of silence and music in film is very important. A film is l’ensemble: you need the whole thing. Everything has to be perfect. Like the human body – it’s a perfect machine, it’s magic in a bottle. When you do a film, you are humbly at the service of the film. When the film is finished, it has a life of its own. You need to give it the best of everything so it can carry on.

Like all documentaries, there is an interrogation of fact and fiction, and the extent to which “real life” can be captured on film. In that sense, there is a dialogue between your film and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell.

Yes! When I saw the film I marveled that they had Super 8 footage of her mother. I said to myself, “I would kill to have Super 8 footage of me!” Then at the end of the film, like everyone else, I realized it’s all made up, which is what we did as well.

A film is l’ensemble: you need the whole thing. Everything has to be perfect.

What’s your “Director’s Opinion on Film vs. Digital”?

Certainly, Super 8 has a certain quality that I love. But then, Sidney Lumet’s last film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (such a brilliant film!) was all done digitally. He was in his 80s when he did that, and he was all excited at the freedom and capacity of digital. He liked the control. So there are pros and cons. But now it’s more a budget thing – film is a luxury.

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Seth’s mother informs much of his work. / NFB

Speaking of budgets, what was the process like to get this film off the ground?

Finding the grant for anything is impossible. The film board was excited, but scared of the scale of the film I wanted to do. It was a million dollar budget for the film I had in mind, but I had a budget of a short film of seven minutes. Seven minutes! I stretched the budget as far as I could without breaking it, and lots of a personal money and time went into it, which made all the difference. To be honest, I could buy three cars with the money I spent on the film. But it was well worth it. I hope that after people see the film, the quality of their life is enhanced.

When you read a comic, you invent your own speed. Animation is passive; the tempo is imposed on you.

What did Seth think of the film?

The most nervous in my life, besides trying to seduce a girl, was showing that film to Seth. I thought he was going to be disappointed. He thought he would be disappointed. He figured he would watch it, be depressed for a few weeks and then forget about it and never see the film again. When saw the film, he said to me, “I’m so excited right now, I just want to go to the drawing board.” That was the best compliment I could’ve received. Thanks to the film, I’ll get to enjoy more of his work. I’m selfishly very happy about that.

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