Spring: a new Sketchbook film about, well, me

I really enjoy making our little series of Sketchbook Films. With each one we become more ambitious and discover new techniques and gear to use. Last weekend, we decided to make a fairly simple one — no dollies, Winnebagos or helicopters.  I got in front of the camera again and left Jack to man the lens for the action sequences then Jenny covered off my drawing process (the fourth Beetle, Tommy Kane, was off doing something productive and couldn’t join us on this one though he approved the final cut as being Sketchbook Films worthy).

I wanted to show a simple pen and ink drawing, done outside on a gorgeous day. The weather didn’t cooperate and instead of gorgeous we got clouds and rain which meant things got more complicated and technical and we actually had to shoot bits and pieces over the course of four days and in three different parks.

It was still fun to make though horrifying as always to see myself on screen. It may surprise you to know that no aging makeup was used on this production — that’s actually how decrepit I now look.

A new Sketchbook film: Hayley Morris in “Under the Sea”

Hayley Morris is a whimsical, sometimes dark stop-motion animator whose sketchbooks are filled with creative musings and pencil sketches. My girlfriend Jenny met her recently and immediately called me to say she thought she’d be willing to be in a Sketchbook film. I love Hayley’s films and videos and was super-excited to visit her Brooklyn studio and once again collaborate with Tommy Kane on shooting her creative process.

Despite her scratchy line, Hayley puts down each stroke with confidence and vigor. Her drawing seems to pulse and vibrate. She layers her watercolor quickly, wet-on-wet, creating more vibration and vitality. I like the ease and spontaneity of the way she makes art — you’d think a stop-motion animator would be enormously controlled in her work but Hayley leaves room for reaction and response as she makes her art. In an era of CGI and digital processes, her work harkens back to stop-motion puppeteers like the Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay. It’s beautiful and emotional.

Hayley uses her sketchbook to incubate ideas, jotting down notes in the margin to remind her of how she will execute the thoughts in film. We watched her develop creature designs for a new video, animating to the strains of a new collaboration by Hilary Hahn and Hauschka. It’s a dark and powerful piece for violin and piano and Hayley turns it into an undulating underwater dance in a densely populated tidal pool.

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We shot this film more quickly than our last one (we didnt need to stop to replenish huge amounts of alcohol or to wipe up blood) and even we managed to fit in a few crude little  stop-motion animations of our own. I filmed Hayley with a Canon 7D and four lenses (a 15/2.8 Fisheye, a 50/1.4, a16-35/2.8 L II, and a100/2.8 L IS MACRO) and Tommy used his own video camera for the aerial shots.

The music is the classic chanson “La Mer” by Charles Trenet.

PS The film was just mentioned on motionographer:

A new Sketchbook Film: Pencil & Ink


(Sorry for the delayed launch of this post; had some last minute tweaks to do)

Tommy Kane, Jack, and I have just completed production on another in our series of drawing films — this one about NY artist, Justin Klein. It was a long and grueling shoot day, a good 14 hours, and by the end of the shoot, our set was full of bloodied paper, broken furniture, and empty beer cans and whiskey bottles. We all left the set changed for ever.

As I say to myself with each subsequent film, this is the best one yet. It is a bit of a departure from what we have done in the past but I think you’ll agree that it is an interesting extension of our core idea.
I’ll try to post again with some behind-the-scenes details about the production and answer any questions you post here.

Happy New Year!

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Filmed with a Canon 7D, edited in Final Cut Pro X.
Music: “Lux Aeterna – Cum Sanctis Tuis” from the Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Color Correction by Lenny Mastrandrea at Nice Shoes.

Update on our film

Just got this mail from the Red Hook Film Festival:

Hi Danny – Just a quick update – we are planning to open the Red Hook Film Festival with your film! (Red Hook-A portrait of Tommy Kane). It will screen on Saturday October 15th at 1pm in our opening block.

The schedule is up at our myspace page right now, and will be on the website tomorrow.

Our MySpace page:

This year’s festival will take place on October 15th and 16th, 2011 at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artist Coalition (BWAC) screening room, which is located at 499 Van Brunt Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn, 11231. That’s at the very end of Van Brunt Street, across from the Fairway Supermarket.

Jack and I invite everyone who can make it to Brooklyn to the Festival. It should be a blast!

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.