Weekly reflections on visual storytelling and the creative process from video artist Adam Westbrook.

.03 Movies made in slow motion

Lets talk about graphic novels.

I have just put down my copy of Square Eyes, a new graphic novel by Anna Mill and Luke Jones, my first read of the year.

Set in this vividly realised dystopian future, it tells the story of a tech superstar who suddenly finds herself ‘locked out’ of society: her internet profile has been erased effectively making her invisible (and unable to access even basic services); meanwhile she’s been forced out of her company.

The plot, I’ll admit, is a little thin, but the artwork, oh the artwork! Look at how Anna Mill has rendered this cityscape ⇣

My mind boggles when I think how long it must have taken to intricately pencil and colour this single page, all in pitch-perfect perspective.

You really get the sense that not just the contents of each panel, but the arrangement of them has been really carefully thought out. The story opens with several pages of tiny 5x5 panels, all in extreme closeup. Sometimes a scene is shown entirely from a single character’s point of view; other times, the same space is split across multiple panels.

So I enjoyed “seeing” it, more than I enjoyed “reading” it, if that makes sense.

Now a confession: I discovered graphic novels embarrassingly late in my life, not long before I turned 30. In fact, it wasn’t until I read Scott McCloud’s legendary book Understanding Comics that I finally appreciated their potential.

(It also helped, I think, that I was living in France at the time, a country that has a vibrant culture of bandes dessinées. They have shops that just sell graphic novels, there are so many of them published there!)

First I was fascinated by what they could teach me about filmmaking. Scott McCloud’s definition of comics as “sequential art” showed me that they share the same DNA as films: where one juxtaposes images in space, the other does it in time.

They both operate under the laws of The Third Something.

But the more I read, the more I see their potential beyond what film can do.

You could almost think of comics and graphic novels as movies made in slow motion - where every single shot has been stared at, studied, loved. It takes a lot longer to draw someone eating a bowl of cereal than it takes to film them doing it.

So what you get on a page is a sequence of images that feels that more attention has been given to it than a sequence on a screen. I say “feels” because obviously filmmakers put a lot of love into their sequences too; but their vision must always meet reality at some point.

Even on a low budget, graphic novels have the advantage of being able to imagine anything.

Another advantage, I think, is graphic novels can use simple and abstract images. Tintin, with the five marks that make his face, could be any of us. Film, on the other hand, is a slave to photorealism. Once you’ve seen Harrison Ford as Han Solo it’s hard to imagine him played by anyone else.

And then, maybe it’s just because the conventions of the graphic novel are less locked in than cinema. Can you imagine a movie doing the entire opening scene in extreme close ups, or suddenly switching to a single character’s point of view?*

I don’t know…it feels like silent images lying static on a page have more untapped potential than the noisy kinetic montages flying across our screens. There’s something in that silence, in the stillness, that feels very…reflective.

I read The Sculptor when it came out in 2015 and last year I read Maus both of which I loved. Last week C and I watched Persepolis, an animation that started life as a hit series of books.

Are there any graphic novel fans (or even novelists) among readers of The Third Something?

What should I read next to dig deeper into this art form? What can you tell me about it that I don’t know?

I’ll pass your recommendations on!

*OK yes, Silence of the Lambs; but if you read Square Eyes you will see they used this device differently!

I forgot to mention this before, but you can respond to this letter just by hitting reply. Thanks to all of you who emailed me directly as well last week to be sure!

Until next Sunday,

.02 Trust the process

"And like this, piece by piece, the thing will be made."

There’s a busy construction site outside the back of our house.

Our living room window looks out over it and from my desk, which is just perpendicular, I have a front row seat.

I watched, back in the muggy heat of August, as demolition workers peeled tiles from the roof of the condemned buildings, which had stood there since the 1950s. I felt my desk and chair shake as the bulldozers razed the walls, simultaneously showering them with water to quell fires. Through October and November I watched as bright orange machines scooped ton after ton of brown soil, creating a huge pit in the ground. And then, with Christmas approaching, I was transfixed as a big white crane was erected.

(Have you ever wondered how a crane is built? Unsurprisingly, it requires the use of another crane.)

Each day now, if I turn away from my screen, I can watch the crane pick up a huge pile of steel poles, slowly carry them from one end of the site to the other, and gently lower them down.

It’s like this, piece-by-piece, the building will be made.

It was around the same time, in the muggy heat of August, that I began a major construction project of my own: a feature-length screenplay.

Two years ago, I don’t think I could have written a screenplay. Not because I didn’t have the tools or the stories; I was missing something else.

In scenes that I am sure will sound familiar to you, for much of my life my creative process has been an anguished one, riddled with self-doubt. I couldn’t put a stroke on a page without immediately questioning whether it was exactly the right stroke in exactly the right place.

My motivation was mercurial: if I wasn’t immediately happy with one small part, I questioned the whole endeavour.

And the result (in scenes that I am sure will also sound familiar) is a long list of abandoned projects and stories.

Something has changed since the summer.

Every weekday morning for four months, I have woken up and written one scene. There has never been a question of motivation. If it’s a weekday, I get out of bed and write a scene. I stop when I’m done and put it away for the rest of the day.

And like this, piece-by-piece, the screenplay will be made.

(On Friday morning I finished Act II..!)

So what has changed? I haven’t got more money, time, or talent than I had before.

I think partly it is age (I say that for the benefit of readers who might be younger than me and wondering why they can’t finish anything.)

And I think it is certainly experience. In the last two years I have finished two big projects: my sci-fi project Parallax and the New York Times documentary Operation Infektion. Both took more than a year to see through, and both required patience plus a trust in the process.

Having those two wins under my belt gives me the confidence to think, even on the difficult days, I will see this one through too.

So start small if you have to, but get some finished projects under your belt.

Completion begets completion.

And like this, piece-by-piece, the thing will be made.

Thank you reading this week. If you know someone who might like this letter please forward it onto them. Each letter is also a webpage so you can share it online too!

Until next Sunday,

.01 Towards the door we never opened

Reflections on place and placelessness

A very happy new year to you and thank you for reading the very first letter from me in 2019. It’s been lovely to see so many of you come over from Patreon and my old newsletter.

C and I spent the holidays in Paris, the city where we met, fell in love, and lived happily for several years.

Paris was also the focus of a very protracted debate between us in 2018, namely: should we move back there or not? We could never seem to agree on the same place at the same time. The year ended with C wanting to stay in London, where we are now, and my own heart yearning to go back to Paris.

Paris was the place where I once felt creatively alive and free. It was where I was living when I started making the video essays which most likely brought you here.

When I was there, Paris always felt…right.

And although we moved - more than two years ago now - to London for good reasons, this city does not really feel right. Certainly not creatively. It is a city where money is made, not art.

So I’ve spent a lot of the past couple of weeks wondering: if we had stayed in Paris, would I still be feeling alive and free right now?

It’s a strange sense that, I wonder, becomes more common as you get older: an awareness of paths not taken.

I really don’t intend for this to be a newsletter where I quote poetry, but these lines from T.S. Eliot strike a chord.

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the Rose Garden.

It might be a sensation that has become more acute in this era of global travel. Today we are fortunate enough to be able to make our homes in many places and I’m sure you have friends and memories scattered across the globe as well.

Do you ever find yourself wondering about the doors you have left unopened? The gardens you never visited?

It’s a sort of geographical FOMO I suppose. Roll back 200 years and folks were lucky if they left their own village, let alone country. The paradox of choice dictates that if you can live anywhere, you’ll probably always wonder if you are in the right place.

I expected my yearning to get even stronger in our ten days in Paris. But strangely, the opposite happened. Sometimes, when you revisit the scene of an old memory you find it has changed. The café where a magical night happened has become a gourmet burger joint. Or the place has stayed the same, but you have outgrown it.

So I have returned to London feeling more at peace. I needed to be in Paris and then I needed to leave. I have grown a lot since I left, in ways that I probably wouldn’t if I had stayed.

But the search for a place that feels…right, continues.

Thank you for reading this week. I hope that wherever you’re reading this today feels right for you.

My rule with these letters is I am not allowed to know what I’m going to say when I sit down to type. It will be a reflection of what’s on my mind now. I hope it will be interesting and I hope you’ll give the letter at least a month before deciding whether it’s for you. Each week will be different!

Until next Sunday,

The Third Something

Weekly reflections on visual storytelling and the creative process

It was the Soviet pioneers who first put it into words, this thing, as yet unarticulated, about the fabric of cinema.

Sergei Eisenstein’s the most famous one. In an essay in 1938 he wrote:

“When we see two objects placed side-by-side, we draw certain conclusions almost automatically.”

By objects, he means pieces of film: shots. A shot of a boot stepping on a twig in the woods followed by a shot of a deer raising its head makes us draw conclusions about an event: a deer has heard an approaching hunter.

Eisenstein and the other Soviets figured out that the two pieces of film do not even need to be related in time or space for this phenomenon to happen. The boot could be filmed in Idaho in 2010 and the deer in London Zoo in 2018 - but cut together, our brains would connect the two into a third landscape, one that only exists on screen.

“This property reveals that any two pieces of film stuck together inevitably combine to create a new concept, a new quality born of that juxtaposition” he concluded.

This new concept is often not present in either image. It lives in the space between each shot, somehow both a sum and a negative of the two images at once.

And so the fabric of the film form was articulated and cinema set free. Filmmakers realised the art was not necessarily in the content of an image, but in how it juxtaposed with the previous image and then the next.

Eisenstein called this new concept, this new quality “The Third Something.

As I spend a lot of my working and waking hours thinking about this third something, it seemed a fitting name for this new weekly letter I am beginning.

In 2019 I want to do a better job of recording my life experiences. I have always done a lot of writing, either in a journal or through morning pages, but this writing is mostly thinking (alright, worrying) about the future.

I want to get better at observing the world around me, recording it, turning it into thoughtful words or pictures and sharing that with you.

That is what this will be.

Roughly 500 words.

Every Sunday.

My next year is going to spent making some of the most ambitious and challenging nonfiction videos for The New York Times. I am also working on a drama screenplay, improving my french and my drawing and much else besides.

These are the sorts of things you might read about in these letters.

If that sounds interesting to you then please put your email address in the box at the top of this page. If there is someone in your life would like to read this too, please pass it on.

This should begin on the first Sunday of the year, the 6th January.

Until then,

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