In comics, the artists who lay down the panels are often compared to film directors due to their role in creating story flow through shot choice to how they make the characters “act” from panel to panel. Still, the transition from drawing widescreen action to directly overseeing it for film and television doesn’t happen as often for comic creators as one might expect. “Planetary” and “Astonishing X-Men” artist John Cassaday officially makes the leap tonight with a new episode of FOX’s “Dollhouse” airing as the second of two back-to-back episodes starting at 8:00 pm Eastern and Pacific.
Cassaday was given the invite to step behind the camera from his former “Astonishing” writer and “Dollhouse” creator Joss Whedon early in the show’s first season. “It was about the span of a year between him asking me to do it and actually getting the green light,” the artist told CBR. “The big stumbling block was [the series] just getting renewed. Once that happened, it was up to Joss to work his magic and get me through the right doors. I truly didn’t get too worked up over it until I was completely approved and given shooting dates. There was just too much that was out of my control, so I just let the hands of fate do that voodoo they do.”
While “Dollhouse” will not be returning for a third season, the producers were able to complete their full episode order for this one, meaning that fans of the series will earn some level of closure for their dedication to the story. “Dollhouse” revolves around Eliza Dushku’s Echo and a host of other brainwashed “Actives” assuming the rolls of different people for the profit of the mysterious Rossum Corporation. Cassaday’s specific episode -Â “The Attic” -Â tells the tale of what happens when Echo is retired to the titular ominous holding tank. “If you’re a fan of the show, you gonna love the episode,” Cassaday explained. “It weaves through a lot of the history of the show in some sometimes exaggerated manners and gives us insight into characters we wouldn’t normally be able to see. Playing throughout the episode is a subplot that turns out to be a game changer. By the end of the episode, the entire series will take a terrific turn.”
Stepping onto the “Dollhouse” set to direct those turns came to Cassaday with a steep learning curve. “I shadowed directors on three occasions -Â twice with Joss and once with David Solomon,” he said of his process. “The first two times, during the first season, then once again as the second season started. The final visit was especially helpful in that I was there in a specific role. The cast and crew knew I’d be working with them soon. I was able to get closer to the process and ask more questions without feeling like I was in the way. It was also extremely helpful because there was a new cinematographer and they were shooting in digital for the second season, so I needed to meet new members of the crew and become familiar with any differences in how the show was being shot.”
While he’s known in comics circles for his widescreen action storytelling, Cassaday said that his first foray into filming came with significantly less pre-visualization or storyboarding to work to those strengths, though he did do some. “There was no time, which is just how these shows work. I had a good outline to go by and worked out a few things before shooting. From there on, I’d get home each night after the day of shooting and I’d draw up what I could as I made my shot-list for the next day. It was very much ‘fly by the seat of your pants.’ I’d go in each morning with my ideas, and we’d do our best from there. I’m very lucky in that my episode is about the Attic, a place of dreaming and nightmares. So visually, we were able to do some stretching outside the normal realm of the show. I was very excited for that. Not unlike ‘Planetary,’ the episode gave me a chance to play within different genres. We could jump from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to slick sci-fi to the Afghanistan War to a horror flick! It’s really something.”
Early images from the episode have played up the war angles of the story, and Cassaday noted that he was more than ready to let the professionals do the exploding. “We’d work out the shots and basic staging for the actors, but when it comes to stunt work and staging explosions, gunshots and all, you let those specific departments handle the heavy lifting. It can be very dangerous on a set when there are stunts, and you need to trust the pros with that. But yes, loads of action, fighting and booms!”
In the end, the artist felt confident with his final product despite his status as a first time director. “Every day was a learning curve. There was no rhyme or rhythm to the shoot. One day would be the best – I’d be on top of the world and felt in control and great, and then the next day would be like running underwater. We just couldn’t get ahead. Lots of tough days, but the good ones made it all worth it. And I’m happy with the footage we got every single day.”
Beyond tonight’s installment and the few remaining original episodes, what’s next for “Dollhouse” remains a mystery. While some fans have hoped for a comic continuation a la Whedon’s “Buffy: Season 8” series, for now the episodes are the end of the line. Similarly, Cassaday’s next project, be it in comics or film, remains secret, though the artist promised that after this outing with the camera “I’ve got prospects in the cooker, but nothing I can talk about yet. All sorts of fun is on the horizon. Stay tuned, if you will!”
“Dollhouse” sees two episodes hit tonight on the FOX Network. Cassaday’s “The Attic” will follow “Stop-Loss” which airs at 8:00 Easter and Pacific.