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080800: Sylvain Despretz- Master Storyteller
An Interview with Sylvain Despretz by Jonathan Ellis.

Sylvain Despretz is an amazing artist who's had his hand in advertising, movies, television and comics. French born Sylvain traveled to the states to study and to make his way into the films, and was already working on movies at the early age of 18. Now he's one of the shining talents in LA, especially after having just come off the Ridley Scott success GLADIATOR, for which he provided storyboards and conceptual designs. In addition to working on several films and ads he is also apprentice to the one and only Moebius. Even now he's working on the upcoming PLANET OF THE APES for 20th Century FOX. Sylvain has an eye for detail and a style all in itself and luckily we were able to get in a few questions with the talented artist.

What formal training do you have? Or are you self taught?

It's a matter of semantics. I've not had conventional school training in art, but I spent years learning next to master artists and filmmakers, which is no doubt far better a training than any school can provide. So I couldn't claim to be "self taught". My education, in the proper sense, was in Anthropology, in Upstate New York.

How did your first forays into the movie biz come about, with a degree in Anthropology? Or the the comic industry for that matter?

As for the movies, I got a shot at doing some work on a film during my last year of high school. A film company was passing through town (Frank La Loggia's "Fear No Evil" from Rochester NY), where I lived and I showed up at an extras' casting call, with my portfolio. I went with 3 friends who were into movie make-up and had dressed up as zombies. We drew so much attention outside that a producer had us plucked from the line and brought in. We all got hired in respective departments. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to hop onto another film until "The In Crowd" (Orion Pictures), in 1986, and by that time, I was already a professional illustrator.
I've never been in the Comic Biz, really, I'm completely unknown in that field. I've done a couple of short stories, (http://www.hollywoodcomics.com/sylcadillac.html), with Jean Marc Lofficier, Roy Thomas and Alejandro Jodorowsky, but nothing worth writing home about. In fact, my first published story was a case where Alejandro Jodorowsky brought me in (a film biz connection, therefore). I'd love to be a comic artist, full time, but I'm not sure I can give up my life in the movies.

How were you treated having joined the biz at such a young age?

Funny thing is: I never was treated as if I was unusually young. It took me a relatively long time to make it out to California, and even longer to get onto relatively big films. By that time, I was in my early thirties already, and working next to people who were fresh out of art school and already had worked on 2 or 3 huge films. I couldn't believe it! In my case, the better part of my early life was spent just getting out of France and slowly making my way to Hollywood; when you get to Hollywood, you realize that people who have been there all along have a considerable headstart on you. My friends in Europe are impressed with me, but here in LA, I'm no big Deal, I'm small potatoes.

What influenced you most to practice your art?

I couldn't say that anything influenced me to practice...
Perhaps I just had a lot of free time. I was always ill at ease with normal social activities as a child, and I usually had a better time on my own than with people. I think I enjoyed drawing, and didn't realize how difficult it really was. If I had known, I probably would have abandoned it.

Did working in advertising help push you towards other outlets such as movies and comics? 'I Got sick of drawing soap for a living and sought out a more creative outlet of expression'. (You wouldn't be the first...)

That's funny! Yes, in a way. But I never had any intention to work in advertising; I just did it because it was better than working as a store clerk. When I arrived in new York City in the mid-Eighties, I needed a job, and advertising paid notoriously well. My intention was always to leave it after a while. Having said that, the Advertising business taught me many essential things having to do with learning to bite your lip, compromise, delay gratification, respect of deadlines, and most of all: Becoming A Good Politician. All these skills are essential to working in film, and tend to be rare among artists. Also, it is while in advertising that I first met Ridley Scott.

What were the great trials & tribulations you had to face to gain entry to the industry?

The hardest trial is the passing of time. We tend to think that all we need is one break but in fact we need many exponential breaks, over a long period of time, before things start improving. I arrived in LA in 1989 and I worked a good 5 years on worthless and pitiful films, before I began to get anything decent. Working on a film is a guarantee of nothing. The test of time is the only thing that allows us to build any sort of a reputation. The worst hurdle has to be the Union. Simply put, in LA, if you are not part of an Union, you cannot work on a studio picture; and usually, you cannot get into the union... In other words, however unfair and objectionable this system may be (even perhaps potentially illegal), people are stopped from working all the time, in our field, simply because they are not "members" of the Club... Getting in is, therefore, vastly a matter of perseverance and luck.

How exactly did you come to study under Moebius?

I suppose I had always felt I needed to undergo some kind of apprenticeship with someone I admired. I am convinced that on an unconscious level, we attract these situations, to the extent that we are sincere...It just happens, like some sort of perfection coming into our life...I remember thinking, once, when I was very young, that I would have loved to have known Moebius, and have him as a teacher or a dad... I wonder who or what heard my thoughts... I met Moebius in New York City at a book signing session. I hadn't realized until then that he lived in Southern California (which was the case in the mid-Eighties), He invited me to drop in and visit him if I ever got out there... I did of course, a couple of years later, and slowly got to know him. I happened to be around once, when he was looking for a storyboard artist, and we began to work together. A year or so later, he called to ask me to work on his film project Starwatcher, which if it had succeeded, would have been the first computer animated full length feature. I've known Moebius ever since. It's truly heaven, to be able to go to work with people you love... Just like it is rare to meet your heroes, and not be disappointed!
It can happen. A few years ago, I started a project: I taped hundreds of hours of conversations with him about Drawing, over a long period of time... I've started transcribing these tapes, and I have also taken many photographs of Moebius at work... I plan on publishing, someday, a comprehensive book on Moebius, in which he will describe in his own words everything that I've learned from him about drawing, art, and his views as an artist.

So tell me, wouldn't you really like to direct? Heh. Since most writers Are trained/whipped into excluding a lot of their own ideas for direction in a script, that leaves a lot of decisions for the director, you and others in the art team to come up with.

Everybody wants to make a movie, today...
Filmmaking is the Great American Novel of our time. It's unfortunate that "wanting to direct" has become such a dirty set of words, actually. When I was a child, few people knew about filmmakers, and no one knew their names. Directors truly worked "behind the camera", and the glow of the limelight was left for "Stars". Frankly, I think everyone was better off; "fame-seekers" and "posers" were sniffing around elsewhere and directing was a plausible career choice. Nowadays anyone who wishes to be a filmmaker is likely to get laughed at and ridiculed.

When you get a new project, how do you decide what goes into and what is left out of a storyboard?

Generally, the director decides. The opposite would be unusual. When you pick up a book on storyboarding, you find it is filled with information on film theory; but when you work on a real movie, you discover the director is the one who has to know what he wants to see in his film... Not the storyboard artist.

Ever get angry when you get really into a film and your visions are scraped or changed, or the film gets tossed? How often does this happen?

No, I don't get angry. That's where my time served in advertising comes in handy. And it happens all the time. Pre-production is an organic process... things evolve all the time. It's part of the job. Getting angry is a bad idea, and many artists have ended their careers in show business because of misdirected anger.

How much time do you usually spend in pre-production? Are you faced with crushing deadlines?

How much time depends on the size of the production, and how many artists are involved. A good average would be 3 months. On GLADIATOR, I spent nearly 9 months. We are sometimes faced with crushing deadlines, on occasion, but usually, the mood is quite calm and creative.

And of course, speaking of GLADIATOR. How did you get involved with Ridley Scott?

This connects to my answer about Moebius on seeking out Mentors and Teachers. On some level, I also always knew I wanted to work with Ridley Scott. What I didn't know was how I might make it happen. I first met Ridley in the winter of 1988. He was throwing a Christmas party at his RSA-USA office on Lexington in New York. Because I worked in an ad agency, I found out, and managed to get invited. When I saw him, I waited for an opportunity and introduced myself. I had a polite chat with him, and moved on. Just before I left the party, a woman came up and introduced herself. She was a producer who worked for Ridley and she said they were always keen on using storyboard artists from time to time... and did I ever get out to LA?, etc. I lied and said I'd be there in two weeks and she suggested I stop in and see them there. I booked a flight the next morning and followed through. Although I moved to California soon after that, I only worked occasionally for RSA-USA, and then, only on commercials. I ran into Ridley only a few times over the next ten years, and by chance, bumped into him on the WARNER lot, while I was on SUPERMAN LIVES. When he told me he was preparing I AM LEGEND, I decided I had to get on it. I rang his office that afternoon, brought some storyboard samples and was hired. You might say it took me roughly ten years to finally get to work with Ridley.

How involved was Ridley Scott with the storyboard process - he even made preliminary drawings for you, did he not?

Yes, most directors prefer telling a storyboard artist what goes into every frame of the film; Ridley Scott happens to be an excellent artist and can also draw it.

You've mentioned that Ridley Scott was open to suggestions concerning the film - was there anything you suggested that made it to the screen which you're particularly proud of?

It would be impossible to work on a film the size of GLADIATOR, and not contribute something. A storyboard represents around 1200 to 1500 frames. Ideas come all the time in storyboard meetings, and they are very organic, they grow. A bit like a chain reaction. It would sound quite ridiculous if I were to point to specifics and say: "Hey, That's mine"! Furthermore, I would say that many other people on a crew also contribute ideas. Ridley Scott is the director. GLADIATOR is his film.

Do you prefer working on films with that obsessive Hitchcock feel to them or films with more freedom and room for change?

There's never freedom, since it's always somebody's film. I've never worked on an obsessive Hitchcock type of film, but I would love to. What I prefer is working for a director whom I respect and whom I can learn from. Ridley Scott is my Favorite, for a number of reasons.

Have you thought of ever doing storyboards utilizing computers or will hand drawn always stay alive?

So far, I can't think of a computer program that can do what I do or can help me do it better, or faster. Having said that, on Gladiator, I used printouts of a 3D computer model of a set, to get a very accurate background in One scene.

Sometimes your storyboards end up as full blown illustrations and paintings. How often does this happen, is it a decision made on your part or the bosses?

There's absolutely no rule. Sometimes I decide to explore something further. Sometimes, I'm asked to do it. Sometimes, I follow an instinct to push a drawing further, even though no one has asked me to do it, and the result turns out to have a huge impact. You have to take chances. Filmmakers tend to ask artists to work fast and do the minimum amount of details necessary; they forget that the only thing that differentiates you as an artist is your own desire to do more than the minimum necessary. It's a question of personal choice, at the end of the day.

Are you strictly freehand or do you use models?

Models, rarely. That would be very impractical on a film; but I frequently use reference for objects, vehicles, and architecture. I steal things from wherever I can.

Currently you're working on the new PLANET OF THE APES (25th anniversary edition I believe)? When a new project of this immensity comes along, are you ever sworn to secrecy about the script? Or, now-a-days, is that just a natural consideration?

We're always expected to be very secretive when working on this kind of film. A standard contract, or "deal memo" has a "confidentiality clause". Everyone on a film has to sign it. The studios like to control the amount of information that goes out.

Do you ever work closely with any of the SFX guys?

Not Really. On any film of that size, the Art Department begins work months before any Visual Effects issue has been debated; in a way, the ideas have to be drawn and worked out first, before people can discuss how to execute them. The Visual Effects are more concerned with the Shoot and Post Production than they are with "First Unit" Pre-Production (that's us). Nowadays, it's not unusual to see a VFX team bring in their own art crew, to do more artwork in the Post Production phase. At any rate, Jean Pierre Jeunet once told me he felt it was never a good idea to allow people whose role it will be to "make something work" affect a design because the risk is too great that they will always favor a solution which makes things easier for themselves. He felt it was better to let designer's design, then let another department worry about how to carry it out. This was at least the case with Alien Resurrection.

Sometimes in a movie the imagery is just so beautiful that it outshines many of the other factors that go into the film. [I believe so anyway], do you often see this and have you been influenced by any particular examples?

Yes, I do see this. Basically, Movie Deals are not a meritocracy. Hollywood is a shitty little (Big) incestuous business that keeps its own working. The people at the origin of almost all Hollywood projects are simply pushing their stuff like used car salesmen trying to sell lemons. It happens that film technicians, from Grips to Carpenters, to Focus Pullers, to Riggers, and sometimes directors, as well, are skilled and hold up their end of the deal. Thus, they are forced into skillfully window-dressing an otherwise weak and unimaginative script or studio property. In other words: "Looks great, but what a lousy film". I have my own list of favorite films; I wish I could find jobs on those kinds of projects, but I can't seem to do it.

Any plans for your own comic series? Any more upcoming shorts?

I'm discussing it with a writer and a publisher. The main issue is finding time.

May I ask who, or is it a secret?

It's not a secret. On the one hand, I'm speaking with a young writer named Adi Tantimedh who's created a character named Anna Passenger (Available at @VENTURE.com). I'm interested in his skills as a writer. On the other, I've been approached by the French Publisher "Les Humanoïdes Associés" (Heavy Metal/Métal Hurlant originators) to develop a series with them. But deep in my heart, I think I should work on my own, rather than illustrate someone else's work; I suspect I'll get more satisfaction out of it.

Any chances of a Sylvain Despretz gallery show?

I'd love to, but that would require a Gallery that wants to do a show. Right now, I've had to settle for web exhibits: Sylvain @ Hollywood comics.com and Sylvain @ Track16.com.

What's the most satisfying part of your job?

No doubt my answer is personal. The most satisfying part for me, is sitting at the dinner table with one of my heroes, like Moebius, and talking about normal things with that person. A couple of winters ago, I stayed in London with Ridley Scott in his empty offices in Soho, and worked with him through Christmas eve. Later, he ordered a print of Saving Private Ryan, and held a private screening in a theater at Shepperton Studios. I watched the film with him. I can barely describe the joy these moments give me.

Favorite old school artist?

Andrew LOOMIS, John Singer Sargent, Jean Léon Gérome.

Most under appreciated creator currently in the biz?

I can't say. I don't know. Under appreciated creators are probably not in the "Biz" as you call it, and that is why we don't get to appreciate them. There's a huge amount of talent out there. More than any other time in history. I think that modern culture has chosen to ignore most great talent, for the benefit of more accessible "Pop Art Statements" that are easy for a large audience to appreciate. People want to admire things that are simple to do, that require little effort. You see it in music, painting, etc. Standards have had to be lowered across the board, because it makes good business sense. So when you ask about under appreciated creators, I would say most great art is completely under appreciated in modern culture. Or in the words of Harry Shearer: "The Iron rule of communication: The larger your audience, the less you can say".

Worst fanboy experience?

I've been very lucky. A good friend of mine pointed out that I have a knack for admiring only the people that I can get something from in return. Like a job. My best fan boy experience was being dragged onstage with a few other fans at a Peter Gabriel concert in 1982 in New York City, at the now defunct Palladium.

Proudest body of work?

The Storyboard for the I AM LEGEND project. Never made as a film. But my best drawing to date.

Advice to those trying to make it in the Biz today?

I get this question a lot. My first answer is: "Move to LA". It's very hard not to get experience in Show Business, in Los Angeles, and it's virtually impossible elsewhere. If I had it to do all over again, I would tell myself to be vigilant, and not accept to be paid well to do something that I do not absolutely love doing. Better to be poor but on the right track, than to make a good living climbing the ladder that rests against the wrong wall, so to speak.

I'd be a fool not to ask about FIFTH ELEMENT. How did you get attached and what influenced your designs? Great Opera singer design by the way.

Initially, I tagged along. When Luc Besson came to LA to recruit artists, he stopped and saw Moebius' agents to discuss his potential involvement. I was there, and he offered me a job as well. I don't like the Fifth Element. I don't think much of it either as a film or as a design showcase. I am truly surprised that so many people love it and don't seem to mind the lack of original ideas in it. As for the design process, we did as we were told. I think it's safe to say that out of all the concepts that were created by the 10 or so artists who worked on it, Luc Besson only picked things that resembled stuff from other films. The experience was somewhat disappointing for most of the artists. There was one guy, however, Jean Claude Mézières who seemed very pleased with himself. In fact, he's published his own book about it.

I still liked the Opera Singer... So now onto 'Of choice.' An interesting little game. What is your drink of choice?

A good 20 year old Single Malt Scotch, preferably a Dun Eideann (Isle of Islay), best enjoyed with a Cohiba Robusto.

Restaurant of choice?

Cable's Diner.in Woodland Hills, California. Les Feuillades, rue Darwin, in Paris 18th arrondissement. The Pope's Eye, West Kensington, London

Movies?

My Top 20 (Not in Any Order):
Jaws (Steven Spielberg), the Exorcist (William Friedkin), Marathon Man (John Schlesinger), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott), Playtime (Jacques TATI), The LadyKillers ( Alexander Mackendrick), North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock), The Sorcerer (William Friedkin), The French Connection (William Friedkin), The Seven Ups (Phillip D'Antony), A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick), 2001 a Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Richard Fleischer), Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati), The Game (David Fincher), Full metal jacket (Stanley Kubrick), Lolita (Stanley Kubrick), Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders), Night on Earth (Jim Jarmush), Opening Night (John Cassavetes).

Reading?

Comics: Barbarella, Hypocrite By Jean Claude Forest
Murder mysteries, SF. I love Phillip K. Dick and Fredric Brown
I love Haruki Murakami's books
My favorite novel is Replay, by Ken Grimwood
Thaddeus Golas' The Lazy man's Guide to Enlightenment.

Music?

King Crimson & Robert Fripp, Steve Hackett's acoustic albums, Serge Gainsbourg, Brand X.

Artists?

Moebius, Jean Claude Forest (Barbarella creator), Adam Hughes, Frank Frazzeta.

Past time?

Playing with my computer, as my girlfriend calls it.

etc?

Favorite distraction:
Laetitia Casta.

Favorite Filmmakers:
William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick, Jacques Tati, Sam Pekinpah, Dave Fincher, Alfred Hitchcock

Before we go, tell us something no one else knows. Something you've never told anyone...

I was madly in love with Jessica Lange, around the time she did KING KONG.

- Exactly! -


Thanks Sylvain. For more of the work of Sylvain Despretz you can check out some great artwork at Sylvain @ Hollywood comics.com or his official website Nuclearburn.com, and although it's currently under construction, the front page alone is fun enough to peek your interest. And if that's not enough, well he did include plenty of links all throughout the interview for everyone. Thanks Again Sylvain.


Jonathan Ellis is Interview Editor for PopImage.

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