Posts Tagged art
New comic, autobiographical style. I suppose I was going for something of a Linklater-film-y feel to the storytelling. And it’s a Magnolia Cafe story, which is good.
Art and Tarantino
Thoughts Above and Around Inglourious Basterds
by J. Robinson Wheeler
It’s kind of weird to watch the Weinstein brothers, who are bound together tightly to Tarantino — Miramax was the house that Pulp Fiction built, as the legend goes, and in order to sustain the complete creative control and freedom every artist desires, Tarantino relies on Bob and Harvey to fund and promote all of his films — be crossing their fingers that Basterds would be a moneymaking hit, one their company desperately needed. Even before seeing this movie, and concluding that Tarantino was an Artist with a capital A, I was saying to myself, “Tarantino makes art films.” Yes, he does think about entertaining audiences, delivering payoffs, and so forth (though he will always make the quirky artistic choice if his muse says he must, which is partly what allows me to define him as an artist), but if you look at all of his movies, they’re quirky art films, not pack-em-in-seats blockbusters. He has this huge reputation, still partly from Pulp Fiction — which was a huge hit in one of those concoctions of timing and public taste where something new was embraced for being new, rather than rejected for being new — for being an exciting filmmaker, someone whose releases are highly anticipated. However, I hang around in a film geek crowd in a city with a thriving film-fan culture, so of course it tends to feel to me like his releases are anticipated. Yet, there’s a huge audience out there that is just people who go to see the latest thing at the mall every week before renting it again a few months later on DVD. They are fine with McMovies. Then here comes chef Tarantino with his five course platter of weird foods.
Tarantino’s movies are weird. His tics and obsessions are on full display. He returns to the same wells over and over again, doing variants on the same ideas. He throws in references that even people who have taken film school classes are likely to miss half the time. The violence in his movies is bloody, huge, and gross. His sense of humor is mischievous and geeky and as apt to unsettle and audience as make it chuckle. By all rights, he shouldn’t be as famous as he is, shouldn’t have the clout he does, shouldn’t have the budget to indulge himself that he’s given. It’s pretty shaky to build a career on catering to a small audience of super film geeks like yourself; the economics just shouldn’t sustain it. But he does. And he’s built his career from the ground up, by following his muse and doing his quirky art. There’s no cheating or short cuts, although there is luck.
I remember seeing Pulp Fiction when it came out. I remember seeing it with a big audience. I remember taking my Dad to see it, and he was blown away by it from the moment Amanda Plummer swung that pistol around on her bony arm and screamed profanities, until the lacerating chords of surf music cut her off and the title came up, big and fat and yellow like a young lion pouncing. It was the kind of moviegoing experience where you’ve never seen anything like it and you wanted to shout, “Hot damn!” It was like a slug of adrenaline right in your chest, just like the one Mrs. Marcellus Wallace got, watching Pulp Fiction when it was brand new. It also had the benefit of Sam Jackson as the anchor man, racing the baton home in the last scene. There’s a lot of lowlifes in Pulp Fiction’s gallery of characters, but there’s two who make moral choices: Butch (Bruce Willis) and Jules (Jackson). So the movie ends on this positive note, on this right moral choice. So after taking this long, bizarre ride, you step out of the theater feeling like maybe it was worthwhile, as bizarre and as long as it was. A year earlier, we saw Jurassic Park for the first time, and we were like, hey, dinosaurs, cool. Never seen dinosaurs not move like clunky claymation creatures before, that’s neat, that’s kind of new. Then here comes Pulp Fiction, and it was a new kind of storytelling altogether. Dialogue like that was new. The disordered chronology was new. Seeing someone get an andrenaline shot in the heart was new. Seeing a wad of bills five inches thick was new. And somehow, the public was ready for all this.
Doing something new can get you drummed out into the street and your career destroyed as it’s getting started. There’s been more of a history of that in the history of art than the reverse. And if you do manage to create a breakout success, then comes the burden of following it. Do you have the goods? Can you keep doing it? Will anyone care when it’s not new any more? That’s destroyed quite a few artists as well.
And now I’m sitting here in this all-night cafe pondering Quentin Tarantino’s career and his status as an artist who has managed to keep the conditions alive for creating the art he wants to create, because I consider myself an artist, too. I’m nearly 40 years old, though, and have yet to find much of any audience for what I do. That doesn’t stop me from doing it, it never has — and my inability to stop creating what I consider to be creative works of art, despite all financial, social, psychological, and practical impediments to doing so is part of why I easily identify myself as such. I am quite simply compelled to.
What I grapple with, of course, is what to spend my time working on, which projects to throw energy and time into completing, which to let lie fallow, which to reject, which to play around with until it seems like it’s going in a better direction. Sometimes, there’s something that I just feel like I have to get done, so I do that. Other times I can dither around with a project for years. I can throw everything I have into something that’s totally not commercial or perhaps so self-indulgent there’s no reasonable way that anybody but myself is going to like it. I can scrap things because I am full of endless anxieties about whether anyone will like them or not, or because my strongest suspicion is that they won’t, so I don’t bother. It is very perplexing, most of the time.
When I was a kid and didn’t have much invested in my own ego, I proved to have a knack for writing stories that had an audience appeal. There were all these little ideas I’d scooped up from various places, from things that had pleased me — from comic books and from Spielberg movies and from young adventure novels and such — that I was able to sort of stick in at the right moments to thrill the little audience of my classmates and my writing teacher. By the time I was finishing college, I was preoccupied with delving into my own private angst and finding some way to express it, and pleasing an audience was pretty low on my list of artistic prioirities. Then I sort of moved out of that into a phase of trying to reclaim those earlier sensibilities, but I was still not the best judge of what projects would find a receptive audience and which wouldn’t. My artistic ambitions were enormous by that point.
It’s all still in flux. I still wonder, of course, whether I’ll ever make a movie again, or if The Krone Experiment was it. I was watching Tarantino expound upon his own oeuvre, as he called it, to Charlie Rose, and about how one watches the development of a unique voice over the course of a career. He said something interesting, which is that being a writer-director, as opposed to a director who is happy to pick up scripts written by other people and develop them, necessarily means you’re not going to make as many movies, partly because you have to start from scratch at the bottom of Mount Everest every time, facing the blank page and scratching something onto it that hopefully will be a movie three years later. I am now aware that I may be lucky to make three movies in my life, and that would be better than making one, but it’s too bad I won’t get to make ten or twenty, because I’d be very interested in seeing what my gimmick is, what my voice sounds like, what my themes are that I go back to over and over again, what is a Rob Wheeler movie (or a J. Robinson Wheeler movie, or a John Robinson Wheeler movie — I’m kind of schizo on the whole naming thing right now, which is a whole other deal), and what isn’t. Back when I was making Krone, I remember saying that it would be great if my partner, Ben Pascoe, ended up making a lot of movies on his own, and so did I, so that later we could look back and see how Krone was, indeed, a collaborative mix of two distinct filmmakers. With just the one movie, it’s a little harder to tease out the difference.
Of course, the other thing is, that unlike Quentin Tarantino, I have never exclusively been a film artist. I have lately been making serious plans to take some movie scripts I’ve written, that I might have to admit I will never be able to produce as movies, and draw them as webcomics (serialized graphic novels, basically) instead. I think this is a great idea and I’m very keen to do it, but it’s turning out that drawing comic pages is an incredibly labor-intensive activity, and one of the things I’m slowest at, just as I’m reaching an age where I can feel myself slowing down. So then it starts looking like it’ll take three years to do each of these comics projects, about the same amount of time it would take to make them into movies. The main advantage is economic, of course.
These days, it can cost nearly nothing to make a movie, unless you really want to rent some equipment, pay actors and crew for their time and talent, and need anything special in the way of costumes, props, or special effects. I have a lot of confidence in my talent as a filmmaker, but I have zero skill and experience at raising money. The main trick of doing Krone was figuring out a way to do it without raising any money at all, and I did, but I don’t think I can or will do that again. What I have to spend on any project is my own time, which is a limited resource, and my own energy, which is renewable but also limited.
Thus it does all come down to trying to choose every day which project to invest in. Every now and then someone will poke me with a request to finish something I started that they wanted to see more of, and they probably wonder why I don’t do so. It’s not necessarily that I don’t want to, but when a project cools off, it takes an extra investment of energy to heat it up again, so that, in a way, it’s more expensive than a newer project, which is hot to start with. The energy economics don’t make sense, and there’s no money economics to balance it out.
I’ve drifted far away from Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds, I know, but this wasn’t supposed to be a review of that. It was my own situation that was on my mind, but seeing that movie and thinking about Tarantino and his situation brought it into focus.
Appendix A: The Making of Pages 1-24
First of all, I have to say that writing and drawing this
comic has been the most satisfying creative project of the
year for me. It demanded a lot from me, and that’s partly
why it ended up being somewhat thrilling. Keeping on my
self-imposed schedule (aiming to be done with each page
at 12am each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) was a crazy
high-wire act with a lot of frenzy behind the scenes that
I deliberately didn’t mention was going on most of the time.
I say this because I want people to know that I’m having an
enormous amount of fun making Less Ordinary, so I do
intend to start cranking out pages again soon. Posting this
is not a replacement for that, it’s just extra stuff. And
I have in fact been sketching new pages lately.
Currently, I’m using a Sawtooth model Macintosh G4 minitower
from the mid-90s, at a screaming 400MHz with 768MB of RAM. The
computer cost $100, give me a break. The monitor is a huge monster
I got at a Goodwill computer store, also for $100. I’m using version
3.0 of Photoshop, which I got as an extra with a scanner I bought
in 1997 for an incredible $300. It was like 2 feet long and had
heavy solid glass and weighed 8 pounds, and it broke during a
move and I threw it away. But the Photoshop was a full version,
not that LE business, and I’ve never been able to afford to
upgrade it, so I’m still using it. Fortunately, version 3.0 is
when they standardized the PSD file format that is still in use
today. I do have to run it under OS9-Classic (under OS X 10.3.9),
but it behaves well. One limitation that has a significant
impact: one level of Undo only. If I make one stroke I don’t
like, I can get rid of it. If I make a stroke I don’t like and
then accidentally touch a dot of digital ink somewhere else a
second later, I’m committed. Or I have to go back to an earlier
saved version. Personally I look at this as a heroic and very
manly way to work, without all those effete and foppish 99+
levels of Undo people think they can’t live without.
The drawing tools: Cross ballpoint pen (blue medium),
Strathmore sketchbook, Wacom tablet, chair, desk, mouse, keyboard.
I invented the process of turning out pages of this comic while
doing it, seeking always to make it more efficient. It does end up
being kind of a factory assembly line kind of operation, taking
several weeks to produce the first page, but able to churn out a
page every two days on schedule when it got up to speed.
The basic workflow goes like this:
- Preliminary Page Breakdowns
- Page Layout, Composition and Editing
- Pre-Ink Prep
- Dialogue and Sound Effects
The Pre-Production phase happens on multiple pages at a time, so
that a whole sequence is prepped for production at one time. It is
more efficient that way, and helps for planning ahead in terms of
Production is one page at a time. I start and finish one page
before even thinking about the next, because it’s all I can handle.
Now that you have the broad idea, I’ll take each step at a time
so I can talk about each part and show some art examples. I didn’t always
save copies of the intermediate stages — too busy trying to get the
page done to worry about documenting the process — but every now and
then I remembered to do that.
The stage wherein I draw several pages of “pencils” in my sketchbook,
in a fast and loose style. I’m aiming to get down the next few pages of
ideas all at once, usually in one sitting. It’s almost like I’m just
jotting notes for what I’d like to do, except that I actually use these
drawings as the basis for the final art. Even though these are much rougher
and sketchier than ink-ready pencils usually are, they are not cleaned up.
This is somehow working beautifully for me. For years, my
main sketching/doodling medium has been ballpoint pen
in an artist’s sketchbook (11×14). I get a really fluid
line out of a ballpoint, and it can sometimes feel
effortless. It often looks messy if I can’t quite get
a line in the right place, because I can’t erase, but
a lot of the time I will draw a breezy stroke that
somehow captures something perfectly — a look on
a face, the body language of someone in motion.
I used to have a very hard time with the fact that I
couldn’t use these ballpoint sketches as the basis for
a real piece of finished artwork. I would have to, at
best, laboriously re-draw the sketches in pencil, and
then ink, and I’d lose that ineffable something that I
really thought the fast first sketch had.
I got a Wacom tablet about three years ago,
but after multiple experiments with it I still had never
become comfortable with drawing with it directly — ie,
digitally “pencilling” — or even with inking over scanned
drawings. However, a lot of other artists digitally ink
over scanned pencils, so I figured there had to be a way
to make it work for me. This comic gave me an opportunity
In fact, it started just as a quick and dirty experiment
I was doing purely for research purposes. I had been planning
to do a webcomic of my own for a full year, and by September
2007 I was very busy trying all sorts of experiments with different
real and digital drawing tools, trying to figure out what
would be efficient and reliable for turning out pages on
a regular schedule. Traditional pencil, pen and ink were
looking good but incredibly slow. I knew I’d be lucky to do
more than one page a week like that, and that just wasn’t
good enough. I had to try doing more of the work in the
So when I got the idea for the first 8 pages, based on a
real-life incident, I figured this was a chance to try out
any techniques I wanted. I drew some fast sketches,
took pictures of them with my digital camera, and pulled
them into Photoshop. I lowered the contrast and brightened
the page, making the ballpoint look faint. I chose one of
the drawings from the page, traced over it with the paintbrush
tool with black “ink”, and hey — I liked the result.
Since then, I have continued to do all the pencilling
work as crazy-fast sketches in my sketchbook, making often
very little effort to draw them cleanly or what you might
think of as being a sound basis for finished work. But
it somehow works! Mostly because I’m finally getting to
work from the intuitive strokes that manage to get the
bold ideas down, because I’m drawing in the way I’m
absolutely the most relaxed, comfortable and confident.
Getting the sketches into the computer.
As I said, I started with just a digital camera, because
I was scanner-less. (My old scanner didn’t have a driver for
OS X, and UMAX refused to ever make one, for some reason.)
I’d take one picture per sketched panel, several per
sketchbook page, often ending up with dozens of pictures.
I’d capture them in iPhoto and use that to brighten them up
a bit, because the camera was always making the sketchbook
paper come out as 50% neutral gray instead of white.
It eventually became clear that using the digital camera
and was adding a lot of steps to the process of getting them
assembled as ink-ready pages, and whacking those few steps out
of the process was going to be a big time and energy saver.
Anything to make it faster and easier to turn out new pages
was my guiding principle. So, I bought a new scanner, I think
around the time I was working on page 10.
Because it costs a stupid amount of money to get a scanner
that can take an 11×14 image, I have to scan each sketchbook
page in two overlapping halves. At first, I fell back on my old
habit of scanning at 300dpi, but the scanner was especially
slow at this. I realized that high resolution didn’t matter,
because I was resizing the artwork so much anyway during the
layout and composition phase (see below) that the starting
resolution was largely irrelevant. Once again, speed was better,
so now I scan them at 75 dpi. I take the two scans,
bung them together in Photoshop, collapse them into one image
file and save that.
Preliminary Page Breakdowns
Where the sketches get reorganized into comic pages.
I take all of that newly scanned material and make a
preliminary best-guess at breaking it down into 11×17
comic pages in a rough form.
Industry standard art boards for illustrating comic
pages are now 11 by 17 inches, so I decided it would be
smart to use that size of virtual paper, at 300dpi, for
drawing this comic. My sketchbook pages are 11×14, though,
which means that there is not a complete correspondence of
sketchbook page to comic page.
The extra 3 inches vertically are a little annoying to
deal with, actually, because it’s not enough height to
add another row of panels to the artwork, but pulling
all of the panels apart with more room can leave things
looking a little empty. I approach this problem anew for
each one; it’s the initial challenge that gets me engaged
in the activity of deciding what, in fact, will happen
on this page.
Page Layout, Composition and Editing
In this stage, the sketches are treated as mutable
independent objects that can be rearranged on the page,
with an emphasis on the visual flow of the whole page
and telling the story.
It was when I was working on page 1 that I began to see
the potential of working in the digital medium at this early
stage, before I start inking. I can take a sketch for a panel
and combine it with another panel. I can mirror flip a drawing
if it makes the visual flow of the page work better. I can
stretch a small panel to be really large, and I can shrink
or crop a large panel to be small. I can grab drawings I
assigned to future page breakdowns, and I can throw away drawings
completely, because I’ve figured out how to tell the story
without them, probably by beefing up the role of a different
panel. This phase is where I look hard for what I
can cut, that I don’t need to tell the story on
that page. I think it’s strengthened the visual
impact and the storytelling to have made some
bold choices in this regard along the way.
The first dramatic breakout was on page 6, which
originally was laid out like pages 1-5, with a lot
of little panels and a lot of dialogue balloons.
But by that point, I’d realized that drawing one
small panel takes about the same time as drawing
one big panel. And drawing two big panels to do
a page takes considerably less time than drawing
four to seven panels to do the same work. And so
when I stretched the second panel (see below) to cover everything
and realized that one image told the whole visual
story for that page — Mr. Glasses’s incredulous
reaction to what was happening on the other side
of the table — I knew I had a lot more storytelling
options than I was originally assuming.
Sometimes discarded material is saved
to be used in upcoming pages. Other times, I may decide it
just doesn’t work — there is one sequence of sketches
I did that I liked a lot, but I tried twice to prep it for
inking — spending several hours trying to put the
pieces together — and it never came together as a solid
layout. The layout has to feel firm, because it’s the
foundation level, and something was always too wonky
about this sequence of drawings, and so I had to leave
The dramatic example of this was the “Timequake” sequence,
which started as eleven pages of sketches, was broken down
into eight pages of preliminary page layouts, and then
ended up being slimmed down and reorganized (one page
decided at a time) to just five pages of the final comic.
This gets everything all set for the inking to begin.
After I’ve got the composition and layout pretty much
finalized, the page is massively reduced in contrast and
raised in brightness. You may not have noticed this, but
the background is never true white, it’s always a very
faint off-white, a sort of yellowish gray. (Only the
dialogue balloons are pure white, which makes them pop
out.) The main point of doing the contrast and brightness
alteration is to make the ballpoint sketches turn a very
faint, light purple that can be drawn over and also erased
by a paint bucket fill with a moderately high tolerance (52).
It can look faint in a thumbnail or zoomed out, but zoomed
in it is still highly legible throughout the inking process,
so that I don’t find myself losing track of the underlying
Lastly, the panel borders for the page are set by drawing
with the straight line tool and filling with black ink. I
might still move panels around after this point — some of
a trickier pages require rethinking and tweaking even after
inking has started — but the general rule is that the
artwork and layout are now “locked” and I can move
on to the next task with a clear head and confidence.
This Pre-Production process is, in my mind, highly analogous
to working on a film: sketching is like shooting raw footage, the page
breakdowns and rearranging of panels is like editing the footage
to a rough cut, then down to the final cut. In movies, you then
“lock the picture” (stop changing any of the editing or timing),
and then you go into post-production to sweeten it all up and
polish it (ie, add music and special effects, do the sound mix,
and so forth). Except, for the purposes of doing a comic book, that next
bit is the Production, not the Post-Production.
Next: The Production stage: Inking, Dialogue, and Coloring
I made this up as a doodle, basically (well, for drawing practice, I might better say). Afterward I started to think that the guy’s face looked like Alan Alda, which amused me.
Click for full-resolution image.