.37 Warm Sounds

Thanks for the kind messages and donations after last week’s letter. If you’re interested in finding out more about the theory and craft of sequential art I recommend reading work by Nick Sousanis and Neil Cohn.

Hugo, who is a Third Something reader, also does some really interesting experiments with comic storytelling on his website; I’ll keep writing about it here as well!

From pictures to sounds.

I spend a lot of my work day with headphones plugged in - a condition of the co-working-space-worker I suspect. Some parts of my job - writing scripts, storyboarding and animating - are deep focus tasks and music really helps block out distractions.

I started collecting long ambient drone music about seven years ago and now have a playlist that’s two days long.

What I think it is, is to find music that is long and arrhythmic - there is no single beat to follow so you can only let the sounds wash over you.

Here’s a weird playlist I’ve been building this year. It’s called Talking Songs and well, it’s just that: songs where words aren’t sung, but said. So instead of lyrics you have short stories, poems, speeches, archive audio - all put to music.

I find the combination highly potent. In the right arrangement, the words are electrified by the music behind them.

For example, my friend Ben recommended this song called I Trawl The Megahertz by Prefab Sprout - the words are made of snippets musician Paddy McAloon heard late night on shortwave radio:

"Odd words from documentaries would cross-pollinate with melancholy confidences aired on late night phone-ins; phrases that originated in different time zones on different frequencies would team up to make new and oddly affecting sentences. And I would change details to protect the innocent (or guilty), to streamline the story that I could hear emerging, and to make it all more...musical, I suppose."

The result is an epic poem that starts very intimately but then seems to travel across time and space, before returning back: “Your daddy loves you very much, he just doesn’t want to live with us any more.”

Warning: there are some weird, if not disturbing, songs on that playlist and some are not suitable for playing in the car with kids. But like a good podcast, they conjure up images and emotions as you listen.

I discovered six years ago that I am mildly sensitive to ASMR. Like many people, I like closing my eyes listening to a Bob Ross episode (still the best - it’s the combination of the high pitch sounds of the brush moving across the canvas juxtaposed with the baritone of his voice.)

This old Englishman ruminating on philosophy in an echoey church seems to do it for me too as do these recordings of artisans at work once the volume has been turned up. (Yes, there’s a YouTube channel where the owner re-uploads other peoples’ documentaries after boosting the audio levels, something I suppose I ought to be unhappy about as an internet creator).

Finally, how about a guy walking around the Japanese countryside?

Writer Craig Mod lives in Japan and loves hiking - his newsletters are really great if you’re into walking. In April he undertook an epic hike along an old trail in Japan. Each morning he would record 15 minutes of binaural audio wherever he happened to be at 9:45am.

The result, SW945, is - well, I guess it’s a podcast of sorts, a podcast made up entirely of ambient sounds of Craig’s surroundings. Sometimes he’s by a railway, sometimes in a cafe or a shrine and sometimes surrounded only by birds and trees.

I find it strangely transporting, which I think is due to the fact the audio is different in each ear (if you listen on headphones) so it sounds as if it would if you were Craig, bathed in Japanese woodland.

So yeah, I listen to some weird shit.

I’m in New York this week for meetings and development of new films, plus the Emmy Awards at the end of the month.

This is maybe my fourth visit to the city but it still feels a little alien to me. Maybe because I only really come here for work and usually alone? Because I’m usually jet lagged? I might be more of a homebody than I want to admit.

Until next Sunday,

.36 Things I know about visual storytelling

I haven’t talked about the craft for a while - so today’s letter is a non-exhaustive, always-changing list of things I think I know about how to tell little visual stories.

As you know, I make nonfiction videos, but hopefully the comic artists and drama filmmakers among you will find this useful too.

The first ever screenplay was a list. Film, video, TV and comics are all sequential art: images arranged in a specific order across time or space. Superior to all the other decisions a storyteller makes is the sequencing of the images.

Show one thing at a time. Image sequences are similar to sentences in that you can only say one word at a time. A lot of the work involves parsing out information into smaller pieces.

Clarity first. The priority with every image is readability. Can the audience tell what this is supposed to be an image of? Is the image saying what I want it to say? The only way to know for certain is to test it with others.

Efficiency second. If you are unsure about a sequence of images, a good question is ‘what is the fewest number of images needed to convey this idea?’ This is true of words also.

The job description: making the invisible visible. Telling visual stories is about translating abstract, general concepts into specific, tangible objects which can be seen by the human eye.

Juxtaposition is the engine of visual storytelling. 📣

There are things the audience is consciously aware of and things that happen subconsciously. In between is the Threshold of Awareness. Learning what goes above and below this line has made me a better storyteller.

The subtext belongs to you. You don’t always get complete control over what the audience knows or thinks while watching your story, but as the filmmaker you do get to influence how they feel.

Composition is subtext. The arrangements of shapes and colours really do impact emotions. Horizontal lines make us feel safe, diagonals make us feel anxious.

Every shot should be a close up. Even wide shots should be directing the audience’s eye to something.

There’s a difference between Illustration and Visualisation. The former is using images to repeat what the words are saying. The latter is using the words and pictures together to make the point in a way neither could do independently.

Show and then tell. Wherever possible try to convey the idea visually first and then use words to fill in the missing information.

It’s worth learning about semiotics. Thinking of images as signs really levels up what they can do for you.

Film is a musical medium. It is a medium of rhythm and tempo. Stories rise and fall like a symphony, with allegro and lente movements. Ideally you don’t want the same BPM throughout.

If your story is a piece of music, the words and pictures are dancing to it. Scott McCloud’s metaphor of words and pictures in a tango is perfect. They are both dancing together, but only one can lead.

Finally, don’t make creative decisions because you think it will make your film or comic more “interesting”. Per David Mamet: It is not your job to be interesting. It is the story’s job to be interesting; it’s your job to tell the story. 

Until next Sunday,

P.S. Please share this with any filmmakers and artists in your life! If you found any of that helpful to your work, here’s my digital tip jar if you fancy showing some appreciation. 😊 💵

.35 A Low Dishonest Decade

Today marks 80 years since the outbreak of the Second World War - or at least the European part of it.

Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ Symphony No.4 in F Minor always makes me think of that looming thundercloud, that tragic inevitable foreboding many felt in the 1930s (and some say they feel today).

I think the last three minutes of the first movement (starting around 5m45 in the above recording, conducted by RVW himself) are some of the most emotive sounds in classical music, lilting down through the d-minor scale, like leaves falling from an autumnal tree. There’s a story in those notes, I swear it: someone recalling a long-lost memory from an age slipping beneath dark waters.

One day, when that story reveals itself to me, I’ll put it to the music.

The anger and sadness of the 4th Symphony, finished in 1934, is often attributed to Vaughan-Williams’ fears of upcoming war. But he always said it had no message - it was “pure music”. Others, apocryphally, say he wrote it in response to a noisy bypass being built near his home.

Meanwhile here’s the opening stanza from WH Auden’s famous poem “September 1, 1939”:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night

Again, it is viewed as an important response to war, but was later effectively disowned by Auden himself - he said it was “infected with incurable dishonesty”.

Despite this, it still feels like it resonates doesn’t it. The lines “As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade” feel like they could have been written today.

There have been many, many - mostly bad - films made about the Second World War.

The best ones, in my opinion, are not the gloating, bellicose and patriotic stuff made by Britain or the USA, but those made by other nations: by Germany (Das Untergang), Italy (Germany, Year Zero) and Russia (Ivan’s Childhood).

There are some exceptions in the US/UK canon: The Best Years of Our Lives and (about the First World War) Journey’s End are two good examples of the genre.

Why? A good war film - like a good war poem or symphony leaves you with one feeling: what an absolute terrible waste.

Until next Sunday,

.34 The Moving Mountain

This week’s letter comes once again from Paris. It’s a chilled trip this time - a chance for calm before a stormy September.

This week I wrapped the forthcoming series with Jaron Lanier - it now joins a production line of headline writers, landing page designers and promotional materials, in preparation for mid-September.

I don’t always feel a big sense of accomplishment when I finish a film. More often, my process is to work at it until I’m so bored of the damn thing I just want it off my desk - I know a video is ‘finished’ when I’ve run out of energy to keep refining it.

But what I do like at the end of a project is the excitement of starting something new.

One of the benefits of my little genre of storytelling is that (unlike a novel, graphic novel or feature film) I get to start a new thing several times a year. That’s a rhythm that suits me. Daily and weekly deadlines feel too rushed, whereas a year or more feels too stagnant. But every few months is the Goldilocks zone. Maybe my creativity is connected to the seasons.

Speaking of seasons, I like the chance to ‘rotate my crops’ when I start new project.

If I have just finished a big series about one idea, the last thing I want to do is another big series about something similar. I want to mix it up - a short two minute piece about a completely different subject, in a different style.

I have often wished that I was an artist who could do one thing with consistency - if you look at the creators out there who have built big audiences, that reliability is a factor.

And consider this, from Neil Gaiman’s famous 2012 commencement address:

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right.

My mind seems to work the opposite way: if you look back at my old videos, they flit from topic to topic like a hummingbird. I can’t even make this newsletter about one thing!

It is frustrating to work hard in the direction of a mountain only to find, as you take a step closer to it, that the mountain has moved.

But that has happened with me so many times now that I have to believe that it’s a feature not a bug.

Creativity wants expansion, I think. It wants to feel like it is always growing, being stretched - otherwise it is contracting.

Recently I have felt my creativity pulling me towards different mediums - mediums I am a beginner in. Rather than fighting it, I’m going to follow that curiosity, even if it means the mountain moves again.

Until next Sunday,

.33 As the Electromagnetic Pulse Ripped Through The City, He Saw It Was All For Nothing

It makes me just a little bit uncomfortable that everything I make these days is digital.

That’s not remarkable. Everything these days is digital!

But think about what that means and it gets scary. Digital means made of ones and zeros, which means storage on a computer drive, which means electricity is required for it to exist.

Every blog post, every web comic, every YouTube video, every short film, every song (that isn’t printed on vinyl) - all of it breathes electricity. Take that away and all digital art is suddenly rendered lifeless, inaccessible, put into suspended animation.

(Even movies stored on 35mm prints aren’t safe - you need electricity to run the projector!)

To enjoy anything I have made (including this newsletter!) you need 1) electricity and 2) the internet.

And I’m not sure either of these things can be taken for granted.

Just last week here in the UK there was a power cut that affected more than a million people and shutdown transport infrastructure. There was one in New York earlier in the year that had people trapped in elevators, a horrible thought if ever there was one.

These are rare and usually last only a couple of hours. But what happens if they go on for days, or weeks…or longer?

If that sounds laughable to you, go ask the residents of Kashmir - except of course, you can’t - they’ve had all communications severed by the Indian government for a week now.

We know things like the Stuxnet Virus exist - with the power to shutdown power plants and telecoms networks - not to mention invisible particles from space that cause Bit Flips.

Or, to take a step into science fiction, what about a giant electromagnetic pulse, detonated above a city, that instantly wiped every disk within a 100 mile radius?

OK, if that feels far-fetched, consider the very real problem of format obsolescence. Who’s to say that my videos won’t end up trapped, like mosquitos in amber, on the 2030 equivalent of the MiniDisk?

Sometimes I wonder how it would feel to watch your life’s work wiped from the earth - or trapped in a locked box, the key lost long ago.

Novelists, poets and painters know, at least, their work could survive them by some centuries. Paper never goes off.

We cannot escape the fact that we’ve built a civilisation that cannot function without the internet and electricity. We are all caught in an invisible technology trap - what other choice do we have?

Sometimes, when I am not worrying about my work being wiped, I fantasise about destroying it.

A few times in the last year I have come close to deleting my YouTube channel and every video on it, for good. Then deleting the backups and project files on my hard drive.

An act of madness? Maybe.

But, just as life and death are two sides of the same coin, destruction is the ultimate expression of creativity.

Destruction creates room for new work. Destroying your old work declares, more powerfully than anything else, “I believe my best work is ahead of me!” - a radical expression of faith and abundance.

The only things stopping me are knowing that a lot of people find comfort and inspiration in the Long Game videos and that other artists put love and effort into Parallax.

But who knows, I might change my mind one day!

Last week’s letter resonated with a lot of you, thanks to everyone who wrote in.

On Friday I finally wrapped on the big series I’ve been working on all year. It feels great to have it finished and I’m really proud of it. But I also can’t wait for the feeling of a fresh start I will have as I arrive at my desk on Monday.

Until next Sunday,

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