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.