Writing Wednesday: Blank on Blank

18 Oct

One of the projects that was keeping me busy earlier this year was my foray into the world of whiteboard animation. Paul and I were approached by David Gerlach, who found us through our work with Drawn Out Storytelling. David runs Blank on Blank,  a site that publishes previously unreleased portions of interviews with notable public figures–anyone from Big Bird to Barack Obama. He’d noticed how popular the RSA Animate video series had been and thought Blank on Blank might lend itself to that style of storytelling as well. David picked out a few interviews that he thought would translate well into an animated style and gave us our choice. I selected Kelly Slater (a famous surfer, for those like myself who aren’t in touch with the world of sporting games), while Paul went with Alex Bogusky (the adman behind several famous ad campaigns as well as the genius behind chicken fries).

We took a few days to listen to the interviews and pick out the main ideas and imagery in each interview. With those themes and images in mind, we’d each create a storyboard to go along with the interview. While this is similar to what we did for Drawn Out every month, I was surprised at how much more challenging it was! When you’re working with a storyteller, chances are they’ve already thought about the themes present in their story and have made a conscious effort to emphasize particular moments. For example, Caitlin Brodnick carefully builds up how enamored she is with TV stardom and all the makeup and attention that come with it in her story about being in a commercial when she was young; that only makes it that much funnier when she reveals that, not only has she been completely unaware of the larger things concerning her family at the time, she’s also been unaware that she is not, in fact, the star of the commercial. That’s not something you can easily do in interviews. While a good interviewer can absolutely choose which parts of an answer to follow up on (just as a good interview subject can elaborate on the parts of a question they feel are most relevant), it’s not really possible to go back in and say, “Okay, that was good, but this time could you mention the baseball game when I ask you about your childhood?” Or, rather, while it is possible, it’s not really that ethical if you’re claiming to publish someone’s genuine responses. That meant that, if we wanted to set up some cohesive themes right away, the visuals in our animatics would have to do some of the heavy lifting.

No, the grave's not casting a weird shadow; that's the soil.

For this sequence, I wanted to play up the idea that all of the bad things happening to Slater were part of one continuous experience. I didn’t want to do several separate drawings, since that would emphasize the fact that they were separate incidents. Instead, I chose to put everything in the same setting–not a literal one, of course, since the image of Slater cheating on his girlfriend while simultaneously mourning his father pretty much ruins any pretense of a somber or contemplative mood–and used the setting sun as shorthand for time passing. Ultimately, I think it ended up working well.

Once we got our storyboards sorted out, we sent them off to David. We did a few rounds of revisions, making sure we were all on the same page about what themes were important, how they were reflected in the images, and how the images and dialogue worked in concert. Then it was time to film. David’s workspace in Manhattan has a pretty great setup for this kind of thing, considering it–like most buildings–wasn’t designed with filming elaborate whiteboard pseudo-animations in mind. There was one wall that was essentially a giant whiteboard, so I just pulled up a chair and got to drawin’!

…Well, okay. As with any shoot, we did a lot of tests to make sure that the lighting was right (whiteboards tend to reflect pretty well, resulting in a lot of glare) and that my head wouldn’t get in the way as I drew (it often did). Once we were satisfied with how everything was showing up on-camera, the real filming began. Boy, let me tell you: you never really notice how much your hands can shake until you’re trying to recreate a drawing perfectly, while people watch and film you, no pressure or anything, and by the way it was a really smart idea to drink all that coffee this morning! The more I drew, though, the more comfortable I got. It was an interesting challenge to work with such a different medium–dry-erase marker handles pretty differently from the brush pens and watercolors I tend to use. Plus, David directed the shoot very well, and I had Paul around for moral support. In the end, it was an awesome project to work on, and I had a lot of fun!

So close, yet so far.

This is maybe my favorite image from the animation. I won’t spoil the context for you, so you should just go watch it! You can see the full interview, complete with my illustrations, here. While you’re there, the rest of the Blank on Blank site is definitely worth checking out as well! You can watch Paul’s animation here, and there’s lots of other interesting content as well.


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