We have a nice treat today! An interview with Lev Yilmaz, the man behind Tales of Mere Existence. If you don't know his brilliant cartoons, check out the vids below. Then read the interview for a chance to win an autographed copy his book "Sunny Side Down" (plus a DVD!), which you can also buy over on his site.
DI: Songwriters are often asked, which comes first, the music or the lyrics. How about you? Do you first come up with the story and then draw it, or does a doodle sometimes give you the idea for a story?
LY: A little of both. The series began like this: I had just moved to San Francisco, and I knew almost no one there. If you move from the East coast to the West, it takes a little time to adjust to how people relate to each other differently. I usually say, it takes forever to make a friend in Boston, but you will have that friend for a long time. You can meet your soul mate every fifteen minutes in San Francisco, but you'll never see them again. Anyway, I was keeping these journals with me at all times, drawing and writing, just to keep myself company, just to have something to do. After a while, I started keeping track of what I was doing by drawing very crude, very mundane cartoons. I woke up one day with a hangover, and did a video version of one of the entries in my journal. It was basically verbatim, exactly what I had written & drawn. That one was called "Party", about the party I had been to the night before. Now that I think of it, I should try doing it that way again.
(Read on for your chance to score the book + DVD!)
DI: Talk a little bit about the process of making these awesome videos. What do you do first? Second? etc.
LY: These days, almost invariably, I write first. I try to figure out whatever it is that has been on my mind the most in the last week or so, something that I've been thinking about semi-conciously. Then, I write down everything I can think of about the subject. I try to read a little about whatever it is too, if I am disciplined enough. I usually have about 3 pages of random thoughts. I print them out, and get on the bus or ride my bike somewhere, and see what parts could go together to make some sort of narrative, could possibly seem like I could be making a point, even if the piece never gets around to making one. Then I rearrange the order, and it usually starts making sense around there. From that, I cut out the flab, fill the holes, and the script is done. The shooting is the easier part usually.
DI: How do you achieve that neat effect where we can sort of see you reflected off the paper doing the drawings?
LY: It's either negligence, accident or witchcraft.
DI: How many static cartoons does it take to make the average video?
LY: It depends on the length. My average has been 3.5 minutes lately, although I think I should be making them shorter. 3.5 minutes usually winds up being about 40-50 drawings.
DI: Do you wind up scrapping a lot of drawings or by now do you pretty much get it right the first time?
LY: I screw up maybe one drawing in ten, and oh man, I hate it- that may not sound like much, but I almost always set up for the shoot first thing in the morning, ready to go, and then procrastinate and fritter the day away and finally start shooting at about 9:30 PM. On average, I finish at about 5 AM, so when it's 3:45 in the morning and you bone a drawing up, you don't have a lot of sympathy for the error.
DI: Talk a little about The Mystery Of Picasso and how that influenced you.
LY: It was an influence... no, more like a dead blatant thievery of the technique. I'm not shy about saying I took the technique outright. I thought it was a beautiful movie. It was simply a technique I remembered when I wanted to start telling this sort of story, and I thought "Well, that may work, to put this together with this..." and there it was. Technique, by and large, does not interest me much. It's only a means to the end, which is storytelling.
DI: What cartoonists or artists are you most into?
LY: My favorite cartoonist is not one that influenced me much, Reuben Bolling who does "Tom The Dancing Bug". He's from Neptune, this guy- I wouldn't know how to be influenced by it, he hits you from angles you never knew existed. He has two major books that I would recommend to everyone, the more recent being "Amazing Tom The Dancing Bug Stories". Now that I have that out of my system, the most obvious influence of mine has been "Life In Hell", of course. It's funny, I had those books and was influenced heavy by those comics before I had ever bothered to watch an episode of The Simpsons. I did it sort of backwards. "Life In Hell", for me was mostly the liberation of seeing something that was all about the writing, and even though the drawings were simple, the facial expressions on the characters could make or break the piece. That was all I needed to know, and I went from there. I would say though, that the largest influence on me was Vonnegut's "Breakfast Of Champion's". I'm not shy about that either- Everytime I say "It looked like this" in one of the videos, I'm thinking Vonnegut.
DI: How about a Dr. Katz-style TV show? Any plans along those lines?
LY: I'm interested in Television now a lot more than I used to be, as It's pretty clear that TV is going through something of a new creative Renaissance. My reluctance up to this point has been as follows- I've heard WAY too many stories of people starting work on shows, and then the market research people come in, and tweak the project until it's unrecognizable. My friend Odd Todd, the fella who did the major viral piece "Laid Off- A Day In The Life" did a great animation about that, called "Hollywood Bound". I've gotten a few calls over the last couple of years. Let's just say that if an executive is busy telling me about how many Reality T.V. shows he has produced, and that he only has a minute because he's in his car on his way to meet (Insert name of flavor of the week B actor)________, It's pretty clear to me that they're not interested in what I'm doing, they're only interested in it's popularity. See what I'm getting at?
I don't think you would have to see too many of my videos to conclude that I would have no interest in Reality T.V. shows, so if they're trying to make me go "Ooooh, Ahhh..." about that, I get very very leery. I have met some people that are exceptions to this, thankfully. The hardest thing in thinking about a "Tales" show, would be how it could be done. Purely the technique I use now wouldn't work over a half hour, and I don't think the writing style would work in straight animation either. I am now figuring out a way it could be done though, if the opportunity arises. That's the thing, I'm just very cautious about this. If I do it, I want it to be something I'm proud of.
Here's how to score the autographed Lev book, plus DVD. Answer the following two questions and send them to me: david 'at' neatorama.com. I'll pick one winner at random and notify you via e-mail. Simple, right? 1) From where does Lev say he copped his technique? 2) How many drawings does Lev say go into the average vid?