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THE AMAZING ELWOOD - Transcending Technique

NOVEMBER 7, 2010
I've long held the view that my work is not about technique. However, my technique has, in many ways, defined my style.

A Short Overview of My Traditional Work

Illustrators and cartoonists who work in line, like Peter DeSeve, Ed Sorel and the astounding crosshatch king, Jack Davis, can draw circles around me. (Why they spend their time drawing circles is beyond me, but it happens all the time. I find it nerve wracking, to tell the truth.) However, I draw well enough and, while I am not a true watercolorist like Jim McMullen, I apply it well enough and with the two techniques under my belt and a measure of good fortune, I have made a living with my "technique" for many years. Also, like many other artists, I love my tools. I am enamored with the texture and feel of quality watercolor paper, the rich, flat colors I get from gritty watercolor pigment. I love, but can no longer find, Kolinski sable brushes that hold their point and rich, black, really waterproof India ink that flows well. Most of all, I value a pen nib that flows and flexes without complaint. I have written articles here on Drawger about my various quests for tools that work for me, like my trusty old Pelikan 120 fountain pen and the very best ink of all time, the original carbon formula FW, which is no longer being made. My articles have continued to get responses from pen and ink enthusiasts over a span of many years. I use the computer and the Wacom Cintiq drawing tablet, but I still get a genuine thrill when I feel my Pelikan nib flex against the Arches cold press watercolor paper.

My pencil sketches have a vitality that is lost in the final inked art, but something else is gained with the application of black India ink; a gutsiness, a boldness of intent. And there's the delicious variation in line that takes place as I lean into and then back off the flexible nib as I draw. I'm myopic and, when I remove my glasses and get up close--about 8 inches from the paper's surface--I can see a magnified view of the pen nib as it makes those thick and thin marks on the soft, textural, handmade watercolor paper. There is no other experience quite like it.

Years ago, as I studied the technique of the old cartoon line masters, Elzie Segar (Popeye), Billy DeBeck (Barney Google) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat), I came to the conclusion that their choice of drawing tools was the core, the soul of their creations. Sure, they were funny writers and the characters they created and the world the characters inhabited were hilarious and original, but it seemed to me that the thing that made their work distinctive--that made their creations come alive--was the way in which they used their tools of choice. (Okay, I'm exaggerating somewhat to describe the enthusiasm I experienced back when I began to use those old Hunt and Crowquill dip pens.) I could plainly see in Segar's pencil sketches, the soul of Popeye The Sailor Man, but the India ink applied was the breath into the clay. The art remained incomplete until that small metal nib added its old black magic.

Change Happens

I've since adjusted my lens. In recent years, thanks to computers, I've been experimenting with motion pictures and those explorations have altered my earlier views of where the soul of my creations reside. I guess I needed to work in another medium to see that my well-honed technique was only a small part of the soul of my work. Of course, not everyone agrees with me. When I posted a link to the first animation I created with 3D animator, Brian Hoard, two scenes from Mondo Luigi, some of my colleagues here were disappointed that my specific, hand-drawn, gritty technique was nowhere to be seen. Sadly, they lamented, my characters had taken on an almost porcelain-like appearance. Very un-Elwoodian. But I'm the expert on Elwood H. Smith, and I approved. I was delighted to see my characters wearing new skin.

Which brings me to my latest effort, The Amazing Elwood, another collaboration with Brian Hoard. I'm not talking about myself, no sirree, I'm referring to another Elwood, an odd, enthusiastic fellow who has his own forum, one he shares with a rabbity sidekick, his "beautiful assistant, Pickles Pickard."

I met Brian many years ago when I was struggling to learn the exellent vector animation software, Toon Boom Studio. Brian reached out to me via the Toon Boom User Forum with clear and sage instruction when I was overwhelmed by the initial complexity of the program. In time, we became friends and, some years back, we drove together up to Canada to attend the Ottawa International Animation Festival. On the way home, Brian expressed an interest in working together on a project. I had made several 2D animations and he was a 3D animator, working for the government. He liked my stuff and thought it would look great in 3D. I was not a huge fan of that style of animation, although I do like some of it now, like the excellent The Incredibles. But I like experimentation--in music and in art, so my interest was immediately piqued. I was delighted at how the two scenes of Mondo Luigi turned out. Thing is, all animation is time consuming, despite the wrongly perceived idea that "computer" animation is easy. Brian's job began wearing him out and he found it hard to come home after a day of working in Maya and sit down to work on our projects. He asked if I had a more simple story he might animate and I'd just begun dabbling with a new animation that fit the bill. I sent him my short QuickTime of the opening of The Amazing Elwood and he loved it. I'd written the story and recorded my reading of the narration in a voice that I thought portrayed an ecentric funny elderly man. Maggie (my wife, rep and creative partner) hated that voice at first, but she's learned to like it. Or at least tolerate it. I've never wavered in my affection for the guy.

Now back to my original thought. The Amazing Elwood is an example of my creations--my "world" might better describe it--transcending my particular technique. Brian has, to my mind, captured the essence of Elwood and Pickles completely, using a technique unlike anything I've ever done or am unlikely to do. When Pickles blinks and looks up at Elwood and when she waves for just a little to long at the end of the movie, she is Elwoodian in every respect. Sometimes the characters in my illustrations are very active, but much of my work is inhabited by characters who are worried or forlorn. They know the other shoe will drop, it's just a question of when. And where. The world I create for my characters is unsafe. Little wonder, since that is how I view the real world. One must remain vigilant. I think Brian has captured that sense of my characters carrying on, sometimes with great courage (or stupidity), despite an inner sense of fearfulness.

The Process

Once Brian was onboard, I worked up simple storyboard in Toon Boom Studio--somewhere between an animatic and a storyboard--and he began building the characters in Maya. We decided to keep it simple and part of the plan was to mix up my 2D art with his 3D stuff. Also, I love the stop-motion work of Richard Goleszowski, who created one of my favorite series of all time, Rex the Runt. It was an Aardman Animations project created for the BBC in the late 80s. It differs from the Nick Parks stuff (Wallace & Gromit), which is 3D claymation, in that the work is more Gumby-like, somewhere between 2D and 3D. The technique is called Clay on Glass and I asked Brian to try to get that feel in his 3D. Also, I wanted a freedom one gains by avoiding normal perspective and props, so I wrote it with that strategy in mind. Brian is good at following my intentions, but he often adds his own little touches that enrich the story. For instance, he added the "dream" phasing to take us back in time and the short garage door bounce. Right after we first began this project, Brian was hit with another heavy workload at his job, so The Amazing Elwood was shelved for a spell. Then, one day, out of the blue, he wrote to say he'd pretty much finished the project. I only needed to tweak a couple of things, select and add the sound effects to a rough QuickTime, which he then added to the final in Maya. I also had to work up finished art for my pieces that appear in the movie and I created the 6-seconds of music for the opening title in GarageBand.

I'm proud of this piece and, although it's my brainchild, I must give Brian the lion's share of credit. He did a ton of work to bring this short piece to life.

Here's a link to a page Brian created to show the making of the animation. You can click there to view the final animation and a wonderful eBook he created based on it. Enjoy.

The Making of The Amazing Elwood
Screenshot of one of Brian's interesting videos

Another screenshot of a Brian video