A few months back, Ira Marcks, a New York-based cartoonist, contacted me about his recent collaboration with Jake Lodwick (the founder of Vimeo) regarding an experimental illustration/animation project featuring music composed by The Few Moments. Before or after you read this email interview with Marcks about the project, I invite you to watch the score (embedded below) as its an ambitious and intriguing concept on many levels. Now on with the interview (and my thanks to Marcks for contacting me in the first place).
Tim O’Shea: Among the three main factions in this project, Jake Lodwick, The Few Moments and yourself–whom approached whom about this project. How did you settle upon the term “illustrative score” for the project?
Ira Marcks: The process began with The Few Moments making a record called “March 3″ for Jake Lodwick. At the time (2008) Jake had a record label called Normative through which he would release music by his artists in unconventional ways. The idea for this release was to have the music be accompanied by “one long, scrolling illustration”. Those are Jake’s words. It’s all the direction I was really given on the project. First thing that came to mind was Trajan’s Column in Rome. It’s covered from bottom to top in a bas-relief that scrolls around the column and tells the story of an ancient war. I imagined this project would be something of an automated version of that concept.
O’Shea: Did you define the parameters (a 50-foot long piece in total, and “animation was limited to a sliding, digitized canvas. 8 x 6 inches of illustration = 30 seconds of music”) at the outset or did the complexities and nuances get defined and/or redefined/clarified throughout the project?
Marcks: I felt it was necessary to give the project some very strick dimensions. Not only to keep it from overwhelming me and my budget, but to guarantee that the illustrations were queued up with the music.
O’Shea: Did you listen to the music for inspiration as you worked on the project? Would you have done the project if you had not liked the music?
Marcks: The lyrics create a narrative in a similar way to Neutral Milk Hotel‘s album In the Aeroplane over the Sea. There are characters that act out of motivation but a traditional plot line never reveals itself. The best way to approach it, I felt, was to use the illustrations to create something of a parable to the music and words. I used related shapes, colors and objects to convey the mood and themes of the album.
O’Shea: The piece is defined as “A visual companion devoted to enhancing the elements of a song.”–but would it be wrong to say vice versa as well–that the song also enhances the art?
Marcks: If the project was successful, they two should feel like a whole piece. I wanted the visuals to be a animated equivalent of an album cover. Something, once seen, is inseparable from the music. Each of them complimenting the other.
O’Shea: When we first discussed this piece, you wrote to me “the method of my illustrative score is a small part of my over all philosophy on sequential art”. So let’s talk about the method and your philosophy. First off, could you attempt to describe a typical day (if there was such a thing as a typical day) when creating this illustrative score? Secondly, how did you arrive at your philosophy on sequential art?
Marcks: The initial planning of the project was done in a storyboard format much like any conventional animation. I established the over arching theme and characters and then broke it down by song, giving each track a different motif (12 songs in all). Once I a concept for a song I used a gridded template to sketch out the track. At this stage I end up with something that looks like a equalizer of the song. Then I start drawing the designs over that. Next it gets inked and colored. It’s difficult to really put an hourly rate of production on this. Some parts came easier than others.
I believe that sequential art has the potential to help people exercise their storytelling muscles in ways that are not found in other mediums. Being a teacher who works in a variety of circumstances and often on a shoe-string budget; the medium is great for many reasons. Two important ones being: It’s cheap to produce and it’s a universal language.
My first test audience for the project was a fifth grade art class. About 15 students sat through the whole 45 minutes. Touching the screen, investing in the characters, being genuinely engaged. I also showed them the original art work. They spent only a few minutes flipping through these images. Their difference in reaction to the different presentations of the images is part of why I’m so invested and curious to experiment with sequential art.
O’Shea: At some points in the piece, your backgrounds are quite intense and complex, then at other points you opted for no background, allowing the eyes to focus on the foreground art. Creatively, how did you decide what needed (or did not need) a background?
Marcks: This approach emerged from the listening to the textures and density of the music. It became part of the method as I got deeper into it. The loud and complex sections of the album usually generated more dense and complex ideas.
O’Shea: The project generated a great deal of discussion at Scott McCloud’s site. Were you pleased at the variety of responses it generated (and the fact that it clearly caught McCloud’s interest)?
Marcks: Certainly. Like most comic artists my age, Scott’s work has been a big influence on the direction my work has taken.
In fact you jump in on the discussion, writing of the project “The reason I decided to imply it is comic-like was that I never thought anyone would sit and watch it like a film. I expected it to be shown as a minor accompaniment to the music at a party or something. I envisioned people looking at it occasionally, seeing a ‘panel’ and turning their back.” When I looked at it, I treated it as I would when I go into a music shop, sidle up to the listening station and scan a cut or two on the CD–I hopped around and looked at different aspects of the piece. Honestly I think I would be overwhelmed if I tried to experience all the art in one 45-minute sitting.
O’Shea: When creating a project of this scope, how hard is it to realize people may only focus on a “panel” or so in a viewing–or do you not worry about how it is viewed?
Marcks: I wouldn’t say I worried. Nothing depended on the success of project as a watch it from A to Z video. I think it is successful because it can be approached and viewed in many different ways. I actually like the idea of skipping around. It makes it seem more like a tiny universe. A place that leaves an impression but isn’t fully experienced by a single person.
O’Shea: What was the largest logistical challenge for you on this project? What creative lessons did you take away from it?
Marcks: I learned to loosen up. I’ve done lecturing on experimental sequential art and I push my students to approach things in new ways. But I often find my personal work comes off as fairly conventional. I become tied up in over developed story-lines and the interlocking details of a narrative. The ‘art’ of the piece sometimes suffers. With this collaboration the story was already built in. There are reoccurring themes that I attached, but for the most part I worked from a stream of consciousness.
O’Shea: Do you hope to do more work with either Jake Lodwick or The Few Moments? Have you had other musicians express interest in collaborating with you? Have you attempted anything along these lines with RESTYS, the folk rock project that you are a member of?
Marcks: Jake and I are old friends. We get along because we are very curious about how people respond or relate themselves to the world around them. We keep in touch and I wouldn’t be surprised if we find something to do together again. I have no commitments to do another such project at the moment. I’m currently focusing on a print collection of my comic strip, WITCH KNOTS.
As a song writer in the band RESTYS, I like to keep a mostly conventional approach to creating music. I’m by no means an trained musician, but I love the tradition of song craft and performance. We play within the genre of ‘folk rock’ and at the moment it’s satisfying to work towards the goal of being simply a great band who puts on a great show.
O’Shea: Can we talk a little bit about your site, Morning in the Atelier? How do you decide what you’re going to post on a given day?
Marcks: I post whatever is my current focus. I’m most productive from 8am to noon. I teach in the afternoons so I have the morning to focus in my studio. Sometimes the images are things I’m drawing at the moment, sometimes they’re notes on new ideas. Other times they are pictures of reference materials or artifacts from past art projects. I spent over four years on a graphic novel that’s been put in suspended animation. The grimy and smudgy sketches that pop up are from days I consider getting back into the book. Again, it’s something I overwhelmed myself with. It’s hard to see the end of that project.