Buddy Scalera, the Long Beach Comic Con host and former producer of a cable access show, “ComixVision,” introduced a wide ranging panel of guests with expertise in film, television, and comics, to the lively audience in Room A. Panel guests included Laura Harkom and Christopher Leone (producers of the SyFy channel mini-series “The Lost Room,” and creators of the Red 5 Comics mini-series “We Kill Monsters”), Mike Fasolo (writer for Cartoon Network’s “Robot Chicken”), and a late Jeph Loeb (writer for various television shows, films, and comics). Though Jeff Katz was scheduled to join the panel, he was unable to attend.
Scalera set the theme for the audience’s question and answer session, focusing on how comics become shows or films, the cross-over in creative talent between the mediums, and the differences in writing for each.
When asked how Harkom and Leone came together as a team, Harkom said “We went to school together, but had different careers. I was a studio executive, Chris was in visual effects. We knew each other through a writing program, and both realized, ‘Well, that’s what we really should be doing.’ So we left our other jobs and teamed up to start writing together.”
Leone added “We’ve written a bunch of scripts, but the only thing that’s been made so far is ‘The Lost Room.’ Most of what we’ve written has never been made.”
When asked how they ended up writing comics, Leone said “I grew up kind of obsessed with comics. So it’s not an alien format to me. The cool thing about comics is I can write it, and then hire our own artist, and it’s creator owned. ‘The Lost Room’ was like $20,000,000 to make, but for the comic, Laura and I can fund it ourselves. And now it’s out.”
Scalera asked the duo what could be done with a comic that couldn’t be done with a television show such as ‘The Lost Room.’ Leone responded “Yeah, I come out of a visual effects background. I understand what it takes to build a CG monster. But in this [the comic’s] case, you just tell the guy to draw it.
Harkom agreed, saying “You know, very early on we thought ‘should this be a TV show?’ And then we thought, with the way budgets are for television shows today, we would never get to execute the monsters the way that we wanted them to be. But whatever you can imagine, you can have drawn for the same price as drawing any other page. So we decided to go the comic route, and we’re really glad we did.
Laughing, Leone said “And the insane thing about Hollywood is that the odds are, the chances of actually making it into a movie or something are probably ten times better as a comic book. Which is insane, right? Why shouldn’t it just be a script?
When asked if, in their experience, Hollywood is looking at the comics field as an incubator, Leone answered “A lot of people say, well, it’s got pictures, it’s more like a movie. But I think that is a rationalization. I think they like that someone published it. Validated it. ‘Well, someone published it, it must be worth something.'” he said.
“Yeah, someone took a chance on this. Someone else thought it was a good idea, therefore if it fails as a movie, I can always point back to ‘Well it was successful as a comic book, so how could I know it wouldn’t be a good movie?'” added Harkom.
The next question was from Scalera, who inquired about the transition from writing for the screen to writing for the page. “I’ve read 10,000 comic books, so I understood it. But there are a lot of simple, obvious rules that I just didn’t get.” Said Leone, following up with an example. “So, looking at a panel, you have two guys driving. I have the guy on the right, the guy driving, speaking first. Well, that doesn’t seem weird. But then you look at the panel, and he’s on the right, so the word balloons will cross. So the artist was like ‘No, you gotta have the guy on the left talk first,’ and I had to rewrite the whole page. It’s a funny little rule, but it’s obvious once you realize it.”
Loeb was asked what the difference is for him, in writing for comics versus movies. The veteran scribe offered several drawbacks and advantages for each medium.
“This is going to sound silly,” Loeb started, “but the really big difference is money. I don’t mean how much you get paid, I mean in terms of the responsibility you have. Both of them are really different.”
On an advantage of comics, Loeb replied, “When you do comics, you’re only limited by your imagination. So if you want all of Rome to burn, you can write ‘all of Rome burns.’ Your artist is going to kill you, but you can do it… or you can do ‘Luke gets in an X-Wing, and then double page splash he blows up the Death Star’ And, obviously, in a movie that’s going to cost you $25,000,000, but on a page, you can do whatever it is you want to do.”
Loeb continued with another advantage of working with comic books. “When I write a comic book I tend to write the same way that I do a script. I put in the slug line, which is where it is happening, and if it is day or night, and that kind of thing, interior or exterior, and then for each panel, I write a description as to what is happening in that panel. And that is very much your responsibility, because if you don’t put it there the artist is going to do whatever they want. But in film, it’s something you can ask for, but it’s ultimately going to be the decision of the editor or the director. In film, it’s going to happen the way it’s going to happen, “said Loeb.
But, Loeb continued, there are limitations to what an artist can accomplish for you. “One of the hardest things to learn when you start writing comics is that you have a tendency to put, you know, ‘Claudius comes over the hill, sees Rome burning, gets on his horse, and rides down into the city. Panel two…’ (laughter), and your artist will kill you, which is a theme I think. You have to be realistic in terms of what they can draw.”
“The other thing that’s very difficult to do is, it’s very easy in television to write two people talking, because it is the responsibility of the director to make that interesting…but unless you’re as talented as [Brian Michael] Bendis, in comics, it’s incredibly boring. You don’t want to have five or six pages of two people standing there talking…when it’s Bruce and it’s Alfred, guys move on here, you need to get there. But in television and film, you can do a Bruce / Alfred scene, as they do in the movies, and it can go on for two or three minutes, and it’s Michael Caine and Chris Bale, and it’s awesome,” said Loeb.
The next question was regarding Mike Fasolo’s work on “Robot Chicken” and how it differs from typical film or television, given that he is working with animated figures and puppets. “We write as if they are normal people, but then someone will come back and tell us, ‘Well, no, a puppet can’t do a back flip…’ So, we write normally and we just hope that the puppet department can make our puppets do what we need them to do.”
Fasolo elaborated, explaining “A normal rule of thumb is one page to one minute of screen time. But ours translates to one page [being] a minute and a half. We don’t have the same ratio that everyone else does.”
Fasolo spoke to more differences between writing for an animated production instead of a live action one, saying “We write all the script first. Then we have all the voice actors come in and do their dialogue. And then they match the movements that need to be done, to the puppets…you can build the performance based on what the voices do,” he said.
He added, “Also, everything we shoot is what we are going to use. On a very good day, we can get our animators to do ten to fifteen seconds of animation in a day. We can put together an episode in a week, but we have 15 animators working eight hours a day. And it’s very tedious, they move a puppet and take a picture, move it again and take another picture, and then watch it to see if it looks good. And then do that again, and that’s all day,” said Fasolo.
Returning to Harkom, Scalera asked what the mental transition involved when making the change from screen to comics. “My experience with comics was pretty limited. When I was a studio executive at Warner, I was in charge of the DC Comics projects. But aside from a lifelong obsession with Batman, which is another story, I didn’t have much experience with comics per se. I got a really cool crash course from some of the best people in the business. Like Paul Levitz and Jenette Kahn, who were running DC at the time. But as a kid, I was not an avid comic reader,” said Harkom.
Harkom continued, “It was really difficult. Because for me, comics is more like directing than writing. Because you are dictating in a visual way more than in a traditional script. In a comic book script, it is ten times more specific. Because you are saying what is in each panel, who speaks first, what the angles are, and those are things that you don’t do as a screen writer, or you only do in a limited way.”
When asked how the issues of writer and artist are similar or different from the relationship of writer to actor, Loeb first addressed the similarities between the two mediums. “I wouldn’t write the same movie for Arnold Schwarzenegger that I would for Tom Cruise,” he said, and then compared that to how he would write differently for individual artists he would work with in comics.
However, he added that there can be differences between the two mediums when dealing with a change in who you are collaborating with, saying “By the time you get to the second season [of a television show], you know what the actors are capable of. And, particularly [on] a serialized show, you try not to do an episode where the audience goes ‘What show is this?’ You are trying to work in something that looks a lot like the previous episode and the next episode. You are writing down a very thin corridor. Whereas in comics, every time you are working with a different artist or working in a different character, you can change up whatever you want. And that’s sort of the magic of what that medium can do,” said Loeb.
Asked what Leone and Harkom’s experience was like working with an artist and a limited number of pages per issue, Leone responded, “We really liked our artist. We looked through comics to find a guy whose style matched our tone, and now he seems to be up and coming, so I am thankful we got him early. On the first issue, it was kind of the most push and pull as far as layout and how the characters look, but once we had that figured out, the train just keeps rolling.”
Loeb also spoke on the differences in working with various artists, saying “When I was working with Jim Lee on ‘Batman’ for the first time, he was really intimidated by Tim Sale. And it was weird to me, because they are both master illustrators. I said to Jim, “What is it?” And he said ‘Just don’t ask me to draw a kitchen,’ and I was like ‘What?’ And he says ‘When you look at Tim’s kitchens, they actually work.’ And I think what he was trying to say to me was that Tim has a capability of drawing the real world, so that his kitchen…to someone like Jim Lee, Tim’s kitchen works. You feel the weight of the pans, and they hang in the right place, and the counter is the same length that it should be. And when Jim draws a motorcycle, it just looks cool! Who knows whether or not you guys could get on it and drive it? But that’s I think the difference between the two of them. When I was working with Timmy, after about three issues he said ‘Stop putting cars in, I just can’t draw cars!’ And everyone has their own limitations.”
On the subject of the limitations he finds with new writers for comics, Loeb said, “I find there’s too much information. You’re telling too much story. You’re not just limited by twenty-two pages; you’re limited by how many ideas you can convey.”
Expanding further on that, Loeb said “It’s very challenging for me to do a book like the ‘Ultimates,’ or when I was on ‘X-Force,’ because you have this cast of like twelve people. They can’t each have a page. And they are all running around fighting each other, and you have to explain what everybody is doing, and the artist is pulling their hair out,” said Loeb.
How does he make that task easier? “I tend to do things like ‘It’s night, and they’re in a tunnel, and you can’t really see everything.’ You gotta remember that they can’t draw what they can’t see. If you do a scene that’s in the dark, they [the artist] are going to be able to pick up the [production] pace,” laughed Loeb. “Unless it’s Jim Lee, who somehow draws a dark tunnel with the lights on, and you’re looking at every brick known to man,” Loeb joked.
Loeb expanded on the limitations of various artists who work in a great amount of detail. “Arthur Adams is the same way. And I could kill Arthur. You know, we are working on a project right now, and there is a panel with a boat house, and I write my script in caps ‘ARTHUR, DO NOT SPEND TIME ON THIS PANEL. DRAW THE OUTLINE OF IT, AND WE’LL GET IT.’ And you know, I love Arthur desperately, but he drew every board. And underneath the dock, and forget the boat house, it looks like you could move into it. And I’ll call him and ask ‘What did you do today?’ and he says ‘I drew the boat house.’ And I’m like ‘No, no, you’re supposed to do the whole page today!’ And then when I do stuff where I ask him to have the background drop out, it drives him crazy,” said Loeb with a big smile.
Turning back to writing for television and film, Loeb was asked how much of what he writes makes it into the final comic or show. He replied, “Having come from television and film, sometimes I see a scene and think hey that’s great, they actually did what I wrote. Whereas in comics, pretty much what’s on the page is what you wrote. I tell comics writers who are starting out, if you get 90% in there on the page, you are so far ahead of where you are in film and television, just celebrate it!” urged Loeb.
On how long it takes between writing a project and it being released on television, Fasolo said, “From when we sit down and write until the finished product is 11 months. We can write something that is very timely to everyone in the room, and by the time it comes out, nobody remembers what it is. We have to be careful about what we write some times.”
Loeb added, “Jeff: Pop culture references are really tough. Roll a DVD, and they are agony…”
As a final note, Loeb teased a bit about his current and future projects. “Every month I am there with the Hulk, and yes we will be telling people who the Red Hulk is, I promise. And there is a huge big thing with ‘World War Hulks.’ There is some stuff in the Ultimate Universe that will be announced next week. I am currently on a new television show called ‘Day One,’ which was created by Jesse Alexander. We were together on ‘Heroes.’ And that will be on NBC, right after the Olympics, so right around March 2010.”