Many of our readers know the name Chuck Austen from his career in comics, working on such books as Action Comics, Miracleman, US War Machine, and Uncanny X-Men. What many may not know is that his comics career was but a small part of a much larger tapestry of work in the entertainment industry, landing most recently as a producer and showrunner for DreamworksTV working on such shows as Dawn of the Croods and the smash reboot of She Ra. Join Comic Watch as we catch up with Chuck Austen for a look at where he has been and where he is headed!
Comic Watch: First off, I wanted to note how much happier you have seemed (at least on social media) in your gig and offer my deepest congratulations on your transition back to television work!
Chuck Austen: Thank you! Yeah, I’m enjoying life, right now.
CW: The move to animation happened so quietly that many missed it completely. Could you talk to us a little bit about how you landed at DreamWorksTV?
Chuck Austen: Sure. Most of my career has been in animation, actually, so the ‘move’ was more of a return. I started in video games working for Activision many years ago, back in the caveman days when there were only sixteen colors, two of which were black and white, and eventually moved into traditional animation in my thirties. My so-called ‘career’ in comics was actually a three year break from animation work.
My main gig, King of the Hill, was on hiatus, and Tripping the Rift, a SyFy show I had co-created with my friend Chris Moeller, had gone badly, and I wanted out of the business. Marvel had just asked me to write the X-Men, I was in the middle of US War Machine, they were asking about additional availability, and I thought, “well, I guess I’ll try this for a while.” Careers were notoriously short in comics, and blacklisting common, so I knew it wouldn’t last. But I wanted to write, and it seemed like a good place to make that transition. I told my wife at the time that I’d be lucky to get five years in comics, and I got three. It was fun while it lasted.
After it was all over I contacted some friends, and went back into animation, assistant directing on The Cleveland Show. The cartoon business is notorious for being show-to-show, one season and canceled, so I moved around a lot as most animators do, boarding, directing, whatever was needed. Eventually I found that—given my experience—I had the ability to teach and mentor younger people, and my career shifted to being what I call a “Support Producer”. It started on Steven Universe at Cartoon Network, and continued on when they needed someone at DreamWorksTV for Dawn of the Croods helping my friend Brendan Hay. Dreamworks has had a consistent need for someone like me, someone with no ego who’s happy to play second banana, so I’ve stayed here and continued helping on various shows. Croods, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Kipo, and most recently, She-Ra. I actually love my work, which is part of the happier thing you commented on earlier.
CW: She Ra landed on Netflix and took off like a bottle rocket. I’ve heard nothing but high praise in my circle of friends with kids, both in terms of how much the kids love it but also that it’s sophisticated enough for parents to enjoy as well. With Season 2 coming in April, can you talk us through the origins of this series a bit?
CA: HA! Actually, I can’t. I was brought in to help Noelle midway through the process, almost a year and a half in. I wasn’t there for any of the development. Again, I was the ‘Support Producer”. Noelle did most of the heavy lifting. I was there to oversee the episodes, give notes to get it playing the way Noelle wanted, and move it to completion, on time and on budget. I had no hand in the original, creative pitch or development.
CW: We all know the term “producer” but so often we have no idea what that really entails. To the outsider looking in, what is a day in the life for Producer Chuck Austen like?
CA: The short answer is: anything that’s needed to get the production out the door.
First, my day starts with coffee. Lots of coffee. Then I get my son out of bed, make his breakfast, lunch, and get him to school. Weirdly, that’s the only consistency in my ‘producer’s’ life. The rest is a mish mosh of all that follows, depending on the day, or the lateness of some part of the process. A lot of this may just be jargon to people, but I’ll attempt to explain it.
I arrive in the office at nine, or so, spend time reviewing designs, giving notes on outlines and scripts, reviewing animatics, giving notes on those animatics, sitting with editors to trim and review in-progress episodes, sitting with directors to improve emotional beats, and storytelling, to help gags land, or to find places to trim the episode down to shipping length. I also meet with executives to hear, and address notes, Standards and Practices problems, look for alternative solutions to things that weren’t cleared by the legal department, and make other technical changes to the show, like color-space problems, or potential flashing-light epilepsy issues. Material also has to be prepped and packaged and sent to overseas studios for animation, all of which needs review and approval. We now have overseas partner studios who board and direct entire episodes, and those partner studios need notes, meetings, direction, and encouragement. And none of that includes Post, which is when the color comes back from overseas and needs to be finished, fixed, trimmed, and mixed with music and sound effects so it can air.
On an average day I leave about five or six, usually having worked through lunch at my desk, then it’s more time with my son, dinner, and normal life.
So… a lot. LOL.
CW: Similarly, for She Ra you were also a showrunner (along with Noelle Stevenson). What does that title entail?
CA: All of the above. With Noelle, she was essentially in charge of the creative aspects of the show. My job was to help her get the episodes where she wanted them to be. For example, we would watch a board pitch, or an animatic, and she would give a note about a scene that wasn’t working for her, and I would offer suggestions for how to easily fix it so the board people, and the director could get it where it needed to be in the most efficient way possible. You want to make every episode its best, but you don’t want to kill your crew. Television is a marathon, and people have lives. So I try to be specific in my notes. “Move the wide shot there, do a push-in on this shot, put an over the shoulder shot there, and you’ll get more of what you’re looking for.” Sometimes it’s as simple as: “this scene is a repeat of an earlier beat. You can cut it, we won’t miss it, and we’re down to time.” My experience would allow me the ability to offer easy changes with the fewest number of drawings and time spent. The scripts on She-Ra, as your friends may know, are very emotionally powerful, and funny as hell. So part of my job was to take what Noelle and the writers had written, and help push those emotional moments so they played their strongest, and work the comedy so it played its funniest. I would also handle retake board revisions, fixing color files in post, offer suggestions at the mix—a whole host of things. Essentially I was The Hand of the Queen. LOL. Like Peter Dinklage, I would offer advice, and sometimes be listened to, and sometimes shot down. It was Noelle‘s dragon to ride.
CW: Television in the Digital Age has changed so much in the past decade as more and more production companies are moving into the streaming arena but DreamWorksTV has long been one of the frontrunners. Can you tell us anything about where DreamWorks is headed in the future as more and more streaming services rise and what your role will be?
CA: DreamWorksTV has a lot of fun and interesting projects coming down the road, none of which I can talk about, including the show I’m currently working on now that She-Ra is over. But everyone is trying to figure out next steps, overall. Streaming is clearly becoming the future, the near future, and DreamWorksTV is definitely the frontrunner, but you’re asking the million dollar question. Will all TV be streaming? Will networks and time-based broadcasting still exist? Is Netflix the new base model? As a base model will it work without being miles deep with content? I know people who only stream in their homes, now. No cable. I know people who still only watch Network TV. I also know people who don’t own a TV. My son watches mostly YouTube, and occasional movies, and interestingly, short-form, classic TV like very early Gunsmoke, and Twilight Zone with me. Virtual Reality, and VR fiction are the newest, looming, craze. 3D and holographic TV are no longer science fiction concepts.
Whatever the case, fiction and storytelling will remain the same. I tend to believe I will have a job for as long as I want one. Through all these new directions and innovations, cartoons will still get animated in 2D, and people will still want good stories that resonate. I feel pretty secure in my future. And isn’t that usually when the axe falls? LOL
CW: You mentioned once that when Joe Quesada approached you (pardon my paraphrasing here), part of the logic was to appeal to a larger audience, tap untapped markets and that, in turn, led to a different sort of comics writing than most fans were accustomed to. Television work, on the other hand, seems to really embrace a very different sort of writing than comics writing. Can you talk a bit on the differences between television and comics and your feelings towards writing/producing for the television audience?
CA: Yeah, sure. Um… wow. This could take a bit to explain. First, to let Joe off the hook, I approached him, and he responded. I sent the first eight, or ten pages of the US War Machine comic to him as a sample of how I would approach comics and storytelling, using what I’d learned over the years in animation.
I’ve always wanted to write and draw, work in comics or television, so I was always reading, and studying up on how to improve those skills. In college I took a lot of classes for both, and got a lot of classical training in both. Light, shade, reflected light, proportion, perspective, in art; classical three act story structure, Shakespeare’s five-act structure, Hero’s Journey, midpoint, character arcs, viewpoint character, all that stuff in writing. I’d also worked with the writers on King of the Hill and listened when they talked about writing, especially comedy, story, character development, setups and punchlines, efficient storytelling, how best to stage a gag, and a lot more.
I mean, I lived and worked in LA. If you want to create anything in this town, you have to prove you can connect with an audience—preferably a broad and diverse audience. A large audience. It’s the core need, around here. Everyone talks about writing, story, all the latest books get recommended and handed around, and there are classes to be had, pretty much on every street corner beside a Starbucks.
Even as a board artist, it’s all about conveying story. You don’t get gimmicks like variant covers, or foil embossing. You have to tell an engaging, entertaining story, and if you don’t, you don’t work. If you don’t follow the script, you get fired. You do have guest spots, or ‘stunt casting’, sort of the ‘Team-Up’ of the television world, but it’s still in service to the story. It’s not the core, in and of itself. Multiple viewings is always the end goal, and ‘stunts’ won’t get you that if people didn’t enjoy the episode. If people watch something once, you’re doing great. If they watch multiple times, you’ve got syndication gold.
So, agree with it, or disagree with it, that’s where I was coming from. My training was all in how to connect with a general audience. Jemas and Quesada were, I think, as any business people would be, looking to broaden the market, and my timing was good.
So I wound up with Mike Marts and Mike Raicht on the X-Men, which was great. We had a real affinity, I thought. I loved the working process with them and we started by discussing long-term ideas and direction, they suggested characters, like Northstar, and I asked for characters like Juggernaut. I created my ‘viewpoint character’, Sammy the Fish Kid, and off we went.
The initial idea for that Juggernaut/Sammy arc came from the J2 continuity where Cain winds up married to a lawyer, and he has a kid, so most of my run was really about Juggernaut’s journey to becoming a hero, and a loving father. Still a bit of a Wolverine, anti-hero, but a hero nonetheless. Sammy as a character was literally created to die so Juggernaut could be reborn. Cain was my main ‘arc’. There were others, like the overall “Dominant Species” concept, but he was the first and foremost. I intended to end it with Cain meeting his future wife, and forming a bond, but things got off the rails.
So, basics of storytelling. Relationship, Sammy and Cain. Stakes, Cain learns to love the poor, abused kid, and becomes protective of him, and Sammy’s life is placed in danger. Vulnerability, Cain’s love for Sammy makes him vulnerable when—to complete Black Tom’s plan—Sammy gets in the way. Passion is ignited when Cain is confronted with Sammy’s horrifying murder, at the hands of his oldest friend. In other words: Drama. He loved the kid, and now his worldview has changed. His intensity rises, his passion rises, he has a choice to make, and his life changes forever… or until I leave the X-Men and someone changes him back to a villain two issues later. LOL. Which is ultimately a violation of the emotional commitment that the reader has made. You don’t play with the hearts of your audience. You respect those hearts. At least, outside of comics.
Comics fans, or fans in general, are looking for a different entertainment experience than what I laid out. Continuity, evolving powers, characters who stay basically the same, and fight the same villains in bigger, better battles that end basically the same way. How much do sales spike when Hulk fights the Abomination? When Batman fights the Joker?
A non-comics example would be the last season of Enterprise, and an episode that puts me squarely on the fanboy side of things. I love Trek. All forms of Trek. But Enterprise wasn’t registering with me, and I gave up mid first season. Then a friend told me, “You gotta check out the new season! It’s amazing!” So I I watched an episode with a different friend that was essentially the ‘other side’ of the Tholian Web, an episode from the original series, and I thought, “Oh, my, God! We finally see a Tholian! OH! This is where the Enterprise went when it blinked out of space/time!” I watched with a friend who wasn’t a Trek fan, and he looked at me and said, “Dude. What the fuck is going on? I don’t understand any of this. Why is the old Enterprise there?” I started to explain this wasn’t the ‘old Enterprise’, it was technically the future Enterprise, even though it’s from the original Trek, it’s technically a ship from this timeline’s future … and slowly his eyes glazed over! He stopped listening, and caring. And I realized… I’m enjoying a different form of entertainment.
And most comics are geared that way, appealing to their longtime fans and devoted readers. Nothing wrong with that, but obviously not where my head was when I was writing. I followed continuity when it gave me what I thought was a good springboard, but ignored it when it interfered with my story. When I wrote stories like Fall Down, Go Boom, or the birth of Nightcrawler—both drawn by the brilliant Sean Phillips, I still have the originals for Nightcrawler’s conception hanging on my wall—my guidepost was Rod Serling, who was the master of story, to my mind. What comics fans are looking for is more Brannon Braga.
Stepping back I could see why Enterprise had failed as a commercial venture, and I walked away from Trek, then not long after I also walked away from comics. It’s not how my mind should work if I want to connect with a general audience and keep working in this business. I love writing, and writers, and I love when characters go against expectations, change, evolve. Fans do not like that. It’s not a criticism. Fans just want a different form of entertainment than non fans. I don’t understand YouTube videos of gamers gaming. Lots of people do, my son included. I do not understand tentacle-sex anime. I do not understand or enjoy embarrassment humor, or gifs of people in pain, or Adam Sandler. But a lot of people do.
Interestingly, the things I got the greatest response to were the characters or concepts with the least continuity, and fewest fans. I still get compliments for Exiles, and Metropolis, two of my favorite things I wrote while in comics, and two of the lowest selling. Metropolis was the most fulfilling writing experience I’d ever had, up til that point, and Danijel Zezelj, and Teddy Kristiansen were bloody effing brilliant.
Sorry, that got long. Does that answer your question?
CW: It does and so much else in addition! Before we wrap up, is there anything else you want to say to our readers about what the future holds for Chuck Austen?
CA: Lots. But I can’t. Not yet.
And there you have it! You can be sure that when the time comes to find out about the mystery future projects, Comic Watch will be on hand to deliver the news!
A Dream of a Job: An Interview with Chuck Austen
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