Little Bird’s Darcy Van Poelgeest on Shifting from Film to Comics for his Surreal Sci-Fi Opus
March 8, 2019 | Darcy Van Poelgeest
March 8, 2019 | Darcy Van Poelgeest
The writer behind Little Bird describes his transition, trading film production for panels and collaborating with artist wunderkind Ian Bertram.
When Image asked me to write about my journey from working in film to writing Little Bird, my first comic and collaboration with artist Ian Bertram, I wanted to offer insight on my maiden voyage while avoiding any pro-tip hyperbole. I don’t consider myself an expert in either medium, but I can tell you a bit about my experience transitioning from one format to the other, and how I came to rely on old habits to get me through it.
Long before Little Bird was a comic, it was… something else. A film, perhaps—after all, I am a filmmaker. But I didn't know anyone in Hollywood, and the films I was involved in were low-budget Canadian productions. Funders would never (or could never) consider something like Little Bird, a sci-fi saga, as a real option for financing due to the size and scope of the story. It would simply be too great of a concentrated effort for Canadian funding bodies such as Telefilm.
In short, I had become frustrated with my inability to dream bigger. This sudden lack of opportunity collided with my long love of comics (initially forged in the pages of Grant Morrison and Chas Truog’s Animal Man), and the idea to turn Little Bird into what it is today was thrust upon me.
Little Bird is an epic sci-fi/surreal drama that takes place in the distant future of North America, where an American theocratic government has steamrolled Canada in its expansion. At least, those are the basics of Little Bird’s external conflict; beyond that, it’s a little more complex. I’ll let you discover the story in your own way. My point is that Little Bird is a lot of things, and writing that first issue was not without difficulty.
Coming from a background in film and commercial work proved to be more useful than I originally thought it would. But it came with a slight twist because it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. It turns out, with a great deal of retrospect, that this transition was aided more by my experience as a film director and editor than my experience as a writer.
A comic script has a unique element that other script formats do not—panels.This sequencing of events is much more specific than a screenplay would offer. One of the critiques I’ve heard about screenplays is that the writer is too specific and tries to direct the film through their writing. In contrast, a comic script aims for that degree of specificity—the writer is literally directing or, at the very least (and this was my approach), suggesting the camera movement or position. Although we can suggest direction through a comic script, that mantle is ultimately (as I soon discovered) passed to the artist.
Paneling is the equivalent of a director’s shot list or storyboards—but this is an entirely different stage in the filmmaking process. The director creates the shot list after the script has been completed, often reinterpreting the script into a tighter, more visual language including shot size (Wide Shots, Medium Shots, Close Ups or Extreme CUs) as well as where the action begins and ends within that frame. Some screenplays are written by a writer/director and, therefore, might include camera directions, but they’re the exception to the rule.
In comic scripts, this attention to detail is most definitely the rule, with the story broken down on a molecular level from the start. And since I was already an obsessive “shot-lister” from my time as a director and editor, this turned out to be a relatively natural process for me. But as I learned, writing Little Bird wasn’t as cut and dry as all that either. The process I was more used to was one where the script evolved with the production, and as it turns out, that’s a tough habit to kick.
Throughout the process of making Little Bird, I was always writing, and the script became a living document that grew with each stage of the project. At every stage, from outline to full script, I made sure Ian was involved. In the same way that an actor would reshape a scene with their performance or change a piece of dialogue so that it feels more natural, or the way a cinematographer might recommend combining two shots into one, the script was always adapting and evolving, whether it be during illustration or color and, certainly, during lettering. Making Little Bird was always about inclusion and bringing the team’s thoughts into the process. In this way, Ian was an integral part of the storytelling, and we were able to react to each other’s progressions as opposed to just completing stages and moving on. The whole thing was very collaborative and three-dimensional.
An example of this was when I originally had something else in mind for a character design (Sarge, who is introduced in Chapter Three). It was literally so ridiculous that I’ll save myself the embarrassment of going into any detail. Thankfully, Ian had a better idea and came up with something we both loved. In fact, I loved it so much that I was inspired to go outside the pages of Little Bird and write a whole backstory for the character and then worked certain elements of that story into the revised pages of Little Bird in a more significant way. Ian’s design had told me how and when the character would speak, what his personal triggers might be, and generally how he interacts with the world around him.
The creative process between Ian and I working off each other was at times messy, but ultimately fruitful. I would send Ian a sketch of how something might be choreographed, he would take a village and make it a city; we would be on the phone constantly digging into the emotional beat of a scene or a character’s motivation. We experimented with our collaborative approach throughout the process of making Little Bird and eventually settled into a rhythm and story that we both enjoyed and felt connected to. Whether or not we’d realized it at the time, Ian and I had fallen into a very similar pattern of how I approached making films.
I tend to avoid elaborate details in the script itself, but make hundreds of pages of notes outside of the script, usually filling several notebooks that eventually became talking points for our lengthy discussions. I wanted the scripts to feel clean and clear, containing only the most necessary ideas for the story to come together. Everything else I preferred to make a discussion so that Ian understood my ideas more intimately and was free to reinterpret them through his own imagination and experiences. This gave Ian the freedom to work the way he wanted to and inject his own ideas, which were often more interesting than mine.
For all my anxiety on how to best make a comic, I’d ended up simply doing it the best way I already knew how.
It made for a true collaborative experience. As the team grew to include colorist Matt Hollingsworth, letterer Aditya Bidikar, and designer Ben Didier, Ian and I did our best to encourage the same level of experimentation while still working within the relative structure of “comic making.”
I think in the culture of “pro-tips” and “how-to videos,” it’s easy to believe there is a right way and a wrong way to make a comic (or insert art of any kind), but as far as I can tell, the rules of how to make something are dictated only by those you are making it with. We shouldn’t be afraid to rely on our own creative instincts from other experiences in other media to make comics.
In the end, whatever we did resulted in Little Bird, and whether or not we succeeded in telling a good story is… well, maybe not for us to say. But we weathered the storms of this excursion and eventually hit dry land. If you like it, we promise to do more. And if you’ve been tempted by what may be out there on the distant horizon of comic craft, maybe you’ll push off and have a look for yourself.
I think in the culture of “pro-tips” and “how-to videos,” it’s easy to believe there is a right way and a wrong way to make a comic (or insert art of any kind), but as far as I can tell, the rules of how to make something are dictated only by those you are making it with.