Friday, May 1, 2015

May Backstage Pass: Stephen Leotti

Pssst! C'mon, I'll sneak you backstage!

 This month, meet Stephen Leotti

The Creator Of

So, tell me about yourself!

Okay, well I was born in Lynchburg, Virginia – where I still reside. 

Since I was homeschooled in grade school before I went to Christian High school (plus I lived kind of in the boonies), I spent a lot of time alone. So I developed my ability to entertain myself without the need for friends. Drawing was one of those things I took to. But, I also was interested in movies and writing and stuff. When I was about 13 I started watching bonus material on DVDs like The Incredibles and getting fascinated by the behind the scenes stuff. 

After playing around with 3D animation programs that were horribly unsophisticated, I decided to try 2D instead and fell in love with it. I made little shorts in high school (one was about a Snowman who dies from drinking alcohol). 

After graduating, I didn't really want to go to college because I hate spending money (we were poor, so I learned to be frugal). I ended up working crap minimum wage jobs (and being unemployed) for about two years before I started getting animation jobs. I started Stardust in the interim between unemployment and employment.

Other Hobbies and Obsessions

I have a blog called “Matters of Great Pith and Moment” ( where I write about media and culture, and do inteviews. It's kind of like Idea Channel meets meets Nostalgia Critic. I did a post about Satanic themes in Disney films (as in Laveyan Satanism) and I reviewed the entire Fifty Shades trilogy and the movie (spoiler alert: it's not very good).

It originally started under another name for some friends and I to make comedy skits, but that kind of withered and died. I'm still open to doing that again though.

I think in some way everything I do is related. So, I like learning about a lot of obscure things that then somehow end up making their way into a project. I love documentaries and interviews (if you couldn't tell). I like knowing the story behind the story. I was addicted to the History Channel before it was all: “not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens”.

And I like sex. A lot. 

So how did you fall in love with telling stories in pictures? 

I guess I just never liked reading novels all that much. There are a few I enjoy (Fight Club), but in general I like SEE it rather than just listen to it being talked about. It's not as interesting to be told a character is angry as it is to show it. I think it was Bob Godfrey who described animation as like opening up the top of a person's head and dropping the ideas straight in. I think that goes for comics too, provided you're not going overboard with the narrative captions like some comics do. My favorite film of all time is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, because that film says so much with just the visuals. You don't need to explain to the audience that Marion is afraid of the cop when he pulls up to her. You don't need Morgan Freeman's voice in background explaining what you're supposed to be feeling. The look in her face and the angles and cutting tell you everything you need to know. That's the kind of storytelling that I love the most because it's the simplest and most direct.

What were some of your early influences?

I think the biggest influence on me is probably Abbott and Costello. 

Abbott: “Say you had $5 in one pocket, and $5 in the other. What would you have?”
Costello: “Somebody else's pants on.”

You see, it is funny because he's so poor that to have $10 would be so unlikely... yeah, you get it. That's the thing I learned most about comedy from them, that it's all about expectations. They were masters of flawed logic.

In a similar vein, I love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Three Stooges, Red Skelton, and pretty much anyone old. They all had a classic style that I think I picked up.

And then of course, Disney and Warner Bros. I also loved Fleischer Bros cartoons like Popeye and Superman. Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon shows like Dexter's Lab and Spongebob. Batman The Animated Series and Tim Burton's Batman I also loved. The first Ninja Turtles movie was huge as well as the 80s cartoon. Another huge film was Toy Story. Saw it when I was about 4 and it changed my life.

I also played video games back when they were fun (Ocarina of Time, Starfox, FFVII). Now they're just hard and require deep religious devotion.

How long have you been drawing comics?

I think the first comic I ever drew was when I was 10. But really I never did it much because I looked at most comics and thought I could never draw like that. And I still can't really. Also, I never really thought I was that good at writing stories. And I'm still not either I guess.

But I started getting into Jeff Smith and Doug TenNapel and realized it didn't have to be one style. I think the first time I really drew a comic was in 2012 when there was a power outage so I had nothing to do. 2 or 3 months later I created Stardust.

What was your first attempt?

The comic I drew when I was 10 was a bomberman fan comic. It was stupid. The comic I drew during the power outage was called Purgatory. It was also stupid.

Can you tell me about your typical day or drawing session?

If I'm working on a video, then I'm animating during the day and doing comics at night. If not, comics during the day. Either way, I get up. Make coffee. Start the computer. Watch Youtube. Read articles. Work. Eat lunch. Work more. Take a break. Work more. Call it quits and read or watch movies. Eventually get tired and go to bed.

Music is very important. It's lately either Marilyn Manson, Gorillaz, The Cure, Pink Floyd, or a podcast. I also listen to audiobooks occasionally.  

How does your working process flow? Does your production process for a finished piece follow specific steps?

After I've got my script written, I like to break it down into shots if possible, but it's not always. I might do thumbnails, or not. It depends how much I can visualize it ahead of time.

I open up a blank page template (Stardust was standard size).

I make my panels and rough in the characters and BGs.

Then I do the lettering and balloons. I'm always tweaking the dialogue for what works best on the page.

When I'm happy with that, I go back and finish off the artwork.

Stardust was all digital, but my new comic is being colored by hand with watercolor. I print it out sans lettering and balloons, paint it, and scan it back in. Do some color correction and re-apply the lettering. I hate comics where the balloons don't look like they fit with the artwork, people have their faces half covered because they didn't have space. I avoid that by lettering it first and drawing around it. Like animating to dialogue.

What media did you work in to produce Stardust The Cat?

It started on paper, then switched to digital around #7.

What made that your main media choice for the project? 

I just felt I needed to learn how to use Photoshop more and I wanted to experiment with as many of it's features as I could. I didn't know what I wanted it to be, so I tried everything. I still would be changing the style if I were working on it again because I don't like using the same style twice. I'm like Picasso that way.

Can you tell me about your storytelling process? 

It all starts with an idea. “What if...” and so on. I keep spiral notebook with hundred of ideas that I write down. I do this until I have at least a beginning and end. When I do...

Then I work on an outline to try to get bullet points for the main beats of the story. It has to feel like each story point is leading into the next one. It's cause and effect. If one changes, they all change.

Then I script it out. Usually I'm going back to the outline and making adjustments to it, that's kind of like my road map for this trip. I may go off side roads, but I know where I'm going and what points I have to hit. If it seems the journey is pulling me in one direction, I may alter the point itself. Same goes for when I'm drawing it.

Then I start drawing it. Again, I'm also tweaking stuff. But I need to know what the point of a scene being there is even if I completely rewrite it. As long as it's advancing the story in the same way. I change the dialogue right up until the end.

Do you prefer to script your stories, fly by the seat of your pants, or somewhere in between? 

Gotta have a script. The first Stardust script I wrote by hand, but I still needed something to work from. I can't do stuff in my head, which is why I can't do math or write fantasy/sci-fi. 

What gave you the ideas to start work on Stardust the Cat? 

I guess I just needed something that was relatively easy to get. A simple two character situation. Like Abbot and Costello. So a cat and a mouse seemed easy enough. Since you need contrast, one should be happy, the other not. I know people probably thought I ripped off Garfield, Tom and Jerry, or Grumpy cat -- but that was never intentional. I had never even heard of Grumpy cat until I had drawn the third episode. With Tom and Jerry, they didn't really talk. So I thought I'd try to inject more irony and social commentary into it.

I guess a proto-Stardust was a little cartoon I drew a few years earlier of a guy holding a cat with a bubble that said “put me down asshole!”. I had a friend with a cat that was kind of like Stardust, very grouchy. So I also was thinking of that I guess.

How long did you work on the plot and ideas of Stardust the Cat before you set pen to paper?

About five minutes.

I mean, I had no plot in mind when I made the first one. I was just making it up line by line until I got to 24 pages. Then the details started to build up and the world got bigger. It's like how they developed The Simpsons.

By the end I was writing stuff months in advance though. The last episode when through 15 drafts and was even rewritten after I was half way through drawing it. I'll never do that again. I need the whole story before anything gets drawn, I learned.

Has anyone told you that you'll never be a successful artist and you'd be better off studying a real field and/or getting a real job?

Umm, no. More like everyone told me I WAS going to be successful and then I wasn't. So I felt lied to. In the words of Fight Club: “raised by television to believe one day we'd all be media moguls and movie gods and rock stars. But we won't. We're slowly learning that fact. We're very, very pissed off about it.” I've been called a genius all my life, and so for a long time I was a narcissistic asshole about it. “I'm an ARTIST! I am BRILLIANT!”  When I got out of high school I expected to just become an animator at some commercial studio. Not Disney, I'd have to work up to that. But some indie place where I could get experience. But I sucked. I was not a beautiful, unique snowflake. I was the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.  Sure, I could make a drawing move, but it was still a bad drawing. So I had to get better as an artist and comics were a way of honing my drawing skills. I was so focused on animation, that I skipped all the basic drawing lessons. I mean, look at those first pages. They're god awful.

How do you cope with that kind of criticism? 

As far as the people who told me I wasn't good (mostly on message boards), I finally listened and owned up to it. In the words of Louis CK: “Life's too short to be an asshole”. I just try to be honest with myself about it. If I'm sucking at something, I try to go out and get better at it so I don't suck as much any more. That's why I'm so self-deprecating now. Because I don't want to be that person anymore.

And maybe that's why Stardust started out as such a pompous ass, because I was trying to pour that part of myself into him that's a whiny, pretentious douchebag. Then the character ended up learning the same lesson that I did. That being an asshole just makes you lonely and unhappy. So, you might see it as cynical and nihilistic. But I see it as getting through feeling like that, and learning how not to be. I think it's actually a very positive message.

Now that Stardust The Cat is finished, can you talk a little about upcoming projects you're considering? What's next? 

My next thing is a graphic novel project called Harlequin Jack & The Absinthe Bunny. It's a kind of high school romance with a magical twist. Think John Hughes meets Calvin and Hobbes, with some Scott Pilgrim thrown in. I don't know when it'll be launching. I'd like to get at least a year's worth of comics done, and I'm also submitting it to publishers. In the quite likely event of being turned down it'll be web. It'd be nice to get it out by the end of this year. We'll see.

Other project ideas include a mother/daughter story. A detective story with zombies. A story about a guy who has a one night stand with a porn star and gets her pregnant. And I'd like to remake an animated short I did in high school. But that's all a long way down the road. Right now I'm just focusing on getting this book finished.

Rock on Stephen! We'll keep an eye out for your next big thing!

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