To El and Back: a film about Butch Belair

We just completed the next sketchbook film —it’s about Butch, my pal who’s a famous photographer, then became a 3-D illustrator and then, a couple of years ago, took up watercoloring in a small book. He excels in every medium. You can see more of his work. here and here.

Tommy Kane and I have gone on a few sketchcrawls with Butch. I generally finish up my drawing in half an hour, Tom keeps crosshatching for an hour, but Butch can just sit, hunched over his books for a solid day and then come back the next day to keep going. He’s a monster.


You may remember Butch from my last book, An Illustrated Life. When I interviewed him he said:

I usually draw alone in my car. Very few people know I am doing it. I think I may be hiding somewhat, in the car. Having people watch while I do it would be a bit of a buzz-kill. Don’t tread on my zen, man.

Sometimes I will drive to a place that has caught my attention in the past. But usually, I just get in my car and try to get lost. When I see something that has a story to tell, I stop. I try to record what it is that I see, and somehow fuse the feeling of being there in my memory.

I tend to view these places as stage sets, just after the Play has been performed. In science, there are certain phenomena that cannot be seen or directly recorded (black holes for example). Scientists only know they exist by observing their effect on the objects that can be seen. For me, people are one of these phenomena. Actors that have left the stage. I may be attracted to the evidence in the details of buildings, or an arrangement of structures that would suggest the people or generations of people, that have passed through and made their mark.

Finding a place to park is also very important in selecting a site.

And the light. Light is also very important to me. Representing the quality of the light in a scene is something I struggle with. It is probably a big part of what attracts me to a place, so learning how to achieve this would be very satisfying. Learning to do it quickly would be a huge conquest for me. Even when I feel I am onto something, more often than not, it takes me so long to do one of these sketches that the light has changed drastically by the time I’ve finished.

Butch is usually a man of few words and his paintings remind me of Edward Hopper, so we tried to make the film feel like it was made a long time ago, a hard-bitten time when New York city was strung with elevated trains like this one in Brooklyn.

Tom and I planned this film out for a couple of weeks, discussing the look of the film, lenses (we ended up using a 14, a 50, and the old trusty 100 macro), locations, and the best way in which we’d capture and condense Butch’s marathon sketching sessions. The weather toyed with us a lot too, but we were blessed with a perfect morning and managed to get the film in the can by early afternoon of the first day of shooting.

Here’s the final product. Amazing.

Here are our shooting boards. We deviated from them a fair bit but they were a really helpful road map:

Unfortunately, Jack, my boy and usual collaborator, could only consult from afar. He had to take the SATs on the morning we shot. He was very helpful through post-production, as was Tom and my friend JJ. They all helped curb my tendency to make things fancy and we ended up with a taut little film I really like.

I hope you enjoy it too.

41 thoughts on “To El and Back: a film about Butch Belair

  1. wow!! simply fabulous indeed. I am awed and amazed at each of your films is so different and suites the style of the featured artist so well. And I love how you transitioned into the color. Bravo. Can’t wait to attend the Danny Gregory Film Festival!

  2. Probably no one else has ever looked twice at that metal arch as they speed past in their cars, but the artist showed how we can appreciate the beauty in even the smallest insignificant details if we stop and take a moment to look. Thanks for making this film and sharing it with us, it is so worth all your hard work. I really enjoyed it!

  3. As I sat here just enthralled with watching Butch paint, I imagined someone asking me what I was doing, and laughed, because it seems like such an odd thing to do. But really, it was fascinating, and I could probably watch for hours. Great job, Danny and friends!

  4. WOWOWOW!!! What a great movie!!! Such a nice environment- great with the black-and white- and then only the orange cup- and finally the Paynes Grey and other sophisticated colors on his great drawing. What a great movie!!! Feeling so rich to get to watch your fine films!! Thank You all for this pure joy!!

    Love from Stockholm.

  5. Just excellent in every respect! Butch is an inspiration – an overused word but apt. And you are really putting that Canon through it’s paces, Danny. I am not as happy with my results with the same tool (camera or sketchbook!!), but your example will keep me at it.

    BTW, how does Jack think he did on his SATs?? Good luck to him on that!

  6. This had me smiling from ear to ear from start to finish! The look and feel of this video, the music, loved that it’s in b&w and then shifted to desat w/ some colors popping out. Moments, too, when I got goose-pimply :) when Butch finally added the watercolors – this being my favorite medium – especially the dotting touches at the end. Bravo, Danny and team! Keep us the excellent work. ^_^

  7. Brilliant video Danny. You have done it again. I love the polished and documentary feel of these. You can see alot of thought and preparation has gone into them. Good luck to Jack in his exams. I am going to have to bring my art mad 16 year old to New York. I think she will love it and how different it will be to here in the UK.

  8. Thanks Butch!
    You helped me decide which paintbox to take on my trip this afternoon (to Paris).
    Love the whole concept and the results.
    Love the gradual change from greys to color.
    Now where to get a car in Paris..?
    Must learn to drive too…ahem

  9. watched this twice, first on the iPod and then in HD on the big screen. Delightful interlude on a Sunday morning. I have to ask is Butch’s car always that clean and sparkling or did the Art Director roll up his sleeves? ;)

  10. A BIIIIIG thank you for creating and sharing these films with us. They are original, inspiring and definitively they brighten my day the moment I watch them.

    Love from France!
    Gabriella

  11. I found this to be a gentle production about a man who creates for the sheer joy of creating. Thank you, Danny. Your latest production was a gift.

  12. Terrific movie. Love the dash of colour from the orange cup (I thought Sir Butch was going to have some tea from a flask), love the music, the gleam on the Mini, the beams, EVERYTHING!

    Methinks you are a filmmaker in the making. Brilliant stuff.

    (Although I’d like to disagree with “The End.” I for one wanted to know what happens to the sketch and Butch and the car and all the rest of it.)

    Thank you for this wonderful movie. Très inspirant!

  13. Mesmirising and fascinating. This is beautifully shot and edited. -not to mention the actual sketching and artist ! know that I don’t look that cool when I sketch, as I am hunched over, intently staring and a funny grimace on my face. And yet I am probbaly getting just as much enjoyment from my sketching as he is.

  14. Butch’s painting is terrific….and I love your film. I think many of the individual frames are outstanding, the music is very nice, the editing is excellent, and I very much appreciate the fact that you (and Butch) have shared Butch’s process so generously.
    Thank you both.

  15. Another wonderful film! And more great talent. Butch’s work is amazing – what patience he has! And your film is equally creative – the black and white and then color when Butch uses color, the music, the editing – wonderful!

  16. Gorgeous! Such a beautiful framing of the craft and the environment that inspires it. I love the shots through the windshield.

  17. Pingback: Superschönes Vi(d/m)eo oder Mini Viral? « mogreens weblog

  18. I think I love this one even more than the first.

    I love the addition of the noise of the pencil on the paper as the drawing happens- so lovely.
    And, as a fellow mini driver who has a tendency to leave the back seats folded down, I was immediately connected to Butch.

    Keep em coming!

  19. I am so proud of my cousin. Growing up together I was constantly reminded of his natural talent to draw anything to perfection. Even as a very young boy his hands managed to bring forth what his eyes could see. I am so happy that he found his way back to his love of drawing. Don’t ever stop Butch. I love you!!

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