Hello cruel world!

by Brian Belew on September 25th, 2009
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Welcome to my new website.

Story versus Spectacle

by Brian Belew on April 6th, 2009
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I almost titled this post, “Story versus Style,” but that would have been misleading. I believe that it is very possible to have style without spectacle and that’s the point that I think I’m trying to make.

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been watching the first series of Doctor Who (2005) and I’ve been thoroughly impressed. On the surface, the show is a series of preposterous scenarios, poor special effects, and clumsy editing. Once that surface is cracked, however, the viewer finds a television show that is immensely fun, imaginative, and witty.

Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston in Doctor Who.

Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston in Doctor Who.

When the series was conceived in 1962, it was intended to be an educational science fiction series for children. With a central character who can travel through time, the episodes were intended to be split between historic and “future” episodes that would introduce children to history and science. The goal was to educate and entertain. Over it’s 27-year history, the show evolved and the “future” episodes came to dominate the series. Still the whimsy of the show’s origin remained.

Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005

Me and Dracula and Gene

by Brian Belew on March 21st, 2009
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I discovered comic books when I was ten-years old. The first comic book that I even bought was “Conan the Destroyer” #1, in 1985. I didn’t know what to buy and my budget was small; my brother, Mike, was buying a “Wolverine” comic and he suggested Conan for me. I took the book home and I read it over-and-over again. I copied the cover art and my favorite pages until I could draw it without reference. I discovered comics.

A week later, with allowance in hand, I returned to the comic book shop to buy the second issue of Conan. I didn’t understand publishing schedules, nor that I would have to wait until March to read the second installment of the series. It was a setback that changed my life forever. I had made the trek to the comic book shop, I had my money waiting to be spent and I wanted more.

Conan the Destroyer #1

Conan the Destroyer #1

I wandered around the comic book shop for ten minutes, maybe more, looking for something that would occupy my time until I could buy and read “Conan the Destroyer” #2. In my search I found the quarter bins. Every book was a quater, or you could take home five for a dollar. Many of the books were old superhero books, but none of them interested me. Instead, the book that sparked my imagination was a book about Dracula.

The art was amazing: It was dynamic, it was dark, it was about vampires. I bought five issues on the spot, the earliest being the first that I saw, “Tomb of Dracula” #4. In the following weeks, I cleaned out the comic books shop’s entire inventory of “Tomb of Dracula” comic books, between forty and fifty issues in all, and I never did see how “Conan the Destroyer” concluded.

Tomb of Dracula #4 (Cover by John Romita)

Tomb of Dracula #4 (Cover by John Romita)

Last weekend, I went to the Cartoon Art Museum, in San Francisco. There, they were featuring the art of Gene Colan, the man that illustrated every one of those “Tomb of Dracula” comics that I read and loved as a kid. The exibit was called, “Visions of a Man Without Fear,” and it featured about forty examples of Gene Colan’s work, mostly from Marvel Comics.

What I didn’t know about Gene Colan was that his pencil work was nearly production ready. His pencil control and his attention to detail exceeds anything that I have ever seen in comics. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about most of his inkers. Tom Palmer, the inker for most or all of “Tomb of Dracula” is the exception to this.

It was good to see Gene Colan’s art. It put me in touch with something from my childhood, something that shaped a lot about who I am today. It also reminded me that a true artist is a master of his craft. A true artist does not rely on technology to hide what he cannot do, nor to skip the steps necessary to create art. It’s inspiring in many ways.

The Tomb of Dracula #6 (Page Art), by Gene Colan

The Tomb of Dracula #6 (Page Art), by Gene Colan

Mono No Red Dwarf

by Brian Belew on March 14th, 2009
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The Japanese have a concept known as mono no aware; I’ve always translated this to mean, “sensitivity to things,” but I like the Wikipedia translation [1] better: “An empathy towards things.” I’ve spent the last five years trying to explain this concept, or at least my understanding of it to anyone who will suffer my interest in the subject. And though I don’t believe that I’ve ever become particularly good at it, I will attempt to discuss the matter here:

My most summary explanation of mono no aware as a story-telling technique is: It is the function of emotion as a near tangible element of a story’s narrative, often expressed by the over arching context of the physical space within which the story takes place. As one might map a character’s development over the course of a story, in stories that use mono no aware, a similar map might be plotted for a specific emotion.

Mono no aware, in my opinion, is not exclusive to Japanese culture and Japanese story-telling. James Joyce’s, “The Dead,” [2] from Dubliners, and “Araby” and “An Encounter” are all English-language stories that exemplify the use of mono no aware. This, from the final paragraph from “The Dead,” is illustrative of the technique:

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

This passage offers and introspective look at Gabriel’s inward development as expressed by his surroundings and the context of his surroundings. The thick, soft, dampening effect of the snow is a literal whiteout over his past and an indicator of his future.

Where this technique shines the most for me is when it is used in comedy. For example:

Rimmer and Mr. Flibble in Red Dwarf's, Quarantine

Rimmer and Mr. Flibble in Red Dwarf's, Quarantine

Red Dwarf is a British sitcom about a man named Lister, his roommate, Rimmer (a hologram), and Cat (a Felis Sapien). Red Dwarf is set 3-million years in the future and 3-million years away from Earth.

Lister is the last living man on the mining vessel, Red Dwarf. He was in protective stasis when a nuclear accident killed the rest of the ship’s crew. As a precaution, the ship’s computer sent the ship into deep space to ensure that no-others would be exposed to the deadly radiation, while Lister was held in stasis until it was safe to release him. What this means is: Lister is probably the last living human being. Everyone and everything that he has ever know is probably gone. And even if some semblance of the world that he once knew still existed, it would take him 3-million years to get back.

Everything about that setting is tragic. There is something deeply sad about the scene from the pilot episode, “The End,” in which Lister is released from stasis to find that everyone he knew, all of his friends and peers, every-living thing is dead.

LISTER: Where is everybody, Hol?
(The Ship’s Computer): They’re dead, Dave.
Who is?
Everybody, Dave.
What, Captain Hollister?
Everybody’s dead, Dave.
What, Todhunter?
Everybody’s dead, Dave.
What, Selby?
They’re all dead.  Everybody’s dead, Dave.
Petersen isn’t, is he?
Everybody is dead, Dave.
Not Chen?
Gordon Bennett!  Yes!  Chen, everybody.  Everybody’s dead, Dave.
He’s dead, Dave.  Everybody’s dead.  Everybody is dead, Dave!
Wait.  Are you trying to tell me everybody’s dead?

It is deeply sad and memorably funny and it’s an example of mono no aware. The desparation of the setting serves to reinforce Lister’s development as a character, while acting as a foil for the audience to heighten the humor and reinforce the humanity of this rediculous character in a rediculous setting.

The Visual Language of Emotions

by Brian Belew on March 8th, 2009
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Michel Gondry is the writer and director of The Science of SleepSleep (released in 2006*) attempts to reveal the workings of the mind as it reconciles inward, emotional expectations with outward, somatic truths**.

Gondry seems to be fascinated with the mind and how its rational workings try to cope with its emotional foundation. In his films, like The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry tasks himself with showing thoughts and feelings. He has to create a visual language to describe what takes place in a pre-visual state of our consciousness.

Still from "The Science of Sleep," by Michael Gondry

Still from "The Science of Sleep," by Michel Gondry

Showing emotion is more than showing a smile or a frown. It’s more subtle than a tilted head and a distant gaze. Those are indicators of a state, not the state itself. Gondry’s visual language, the images that he uses to showfeelings is a language that manipulates scale, color, light and texture. These are the tools that he uses to alter an image and shift it from the real world, from what we expect to see, to something different, something that reflects the fuzzy nature of our thoughts and mind.

For example, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the protagonist, a grown man, is reduced to the size of a child and placed in a world that is strange in its scale, but familiar in its context in order to reveal elements of his insecurity and fear.

In both films, Sunshine and Sleep, the fantasy worlds are painted in a pallet of desaturated colors, with carefully selected highlights and contrast. Gondry’s fantasy pallets are are clearly distinct from the rest of the narrative and indicative of a shift in perspective and occur with regular thematic repetition; for example, the fantasy worlds of Sleep rely heavily on blues and whites.

The addition of contextual texture shifts is also an important tool in his language of visual queues that describe emotions and inward reckoning. In Sunshine, there is a use and reuse of irregular line, such as in striated ice and linear, sea-side landscapes. In Sleep it is the repetition of irregular surfaces, such as crumpled paper and cellophane, and coarsely knitted fabric. These queues represent a change in the psychological landscape of his characters, from state-to-state, from outward-to-inward, from controlled-to-free.

Gondry’s characters are often frantic, almost manic, in their interactions with others; their subtlety comes from their interactions with self. This contrast is what highlights all other changes. And though words like frantic and manic sound like emotional states, they are also visual.

In comics, stories are told in static representations of motion, scale, (sometimes) color and (always) light and texture. Like Gondry, comics artists must develop a language of visual queues that represent emotion, inward and outward displays that carry a narrative on multiple levels.

As a comics artist, I find Gondry’s creativity inspiring. His work is not limited to traditional constraints of film. Watching Michel Gondry’s work reminds me of early cinematic works, like Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. Cocteau didn’t have any rules, or many models to follow, instead he invented his own story-telling techniques. Gondry’s work reminds me that fifty-years of film making doesn’t have to result in stale and stagnant film. Even though much of it is, and even though the same can be said about comics, it is still inspiring.

* I’m a little slow to move through my Netflix queue.
** This sentence almost resulted in a tangent about Proust, but three references to French artists would be too much.

The Theremin and Clara Rockmore

by Brian Belew on March 5th, 2009
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I have always been a fan of the Theremin, even before I knew what to call it. As a kid, I loved its use in science fiction movies from the fifties and sixties and as an adult I came to appreciate its expressive nature.

Today, I came across an article in the Guardian; it’s a regular feature in which celebrities give and write about a playlist of their favorite songs. In the most recent installment, Erasure’s Andy Bell describes his favorite music. In his description of, “The Swan,” by Clara Rockmore, he writes:

I received this track on a compilation someone sent to me. When I heard it I thought it was the most beautiful thing, the sound she creates from the theremin is the closest you can get to a human voice.

Inspired by Andy Bell’s description, I searched YouTube for examples of Clara Rockmore and her Theremin and I found this:

Something about Clara Rockmore’s performance, despite poor audio and the grainy image conveys everything that I love about this instrument. It’s an instrument that is characterized by contradictions.

It, for example, is the instrument that is most like a human voice. Yet, its sound is derived from a waveform that is a cross between a sawtooth wave and a sin wave*. As such, it can be described and visualized mechanically and consistently.

Space Jake, from Thumbuki has posted an image here of a typical Theremin wavefore. You can compare the image of a Theremin waveform to that of the human voice here. Unlike the very regular wavefore of the Theremin, the human voice is made up of many different and layered waveforms.

There is also, because it is so expressive–because of it’s dynamic range, natural glissando and vibrato and tremolo (rapid changes in pitch and amplitude respectively)–a kind of intimacy with the Theremin that I would argue does not exist in most other instruments. For example, when I think of a piano, I don’t think of it as being an intimate instrument.

There’s something about the sound of a piano that conveys it’s mass, even when played delicately and quietly. It’s hard to imagine the sound coming from something organic. Perhaps this is because the piano is a polyphonic instrument. For whatever reason, a piano (as much as I love it’s sound) cannot convey the kind of intimacy that is natural to the Theremin.

Additionally, the Theremin is an instrument that is typically played without touching it. Watching someone play a Theremin is like watching someone sculpt in invisible clay. They hold and shape and contour and form the sound from nothing. There gestures are deliberate, often gentle and sometimes violent. Their hands flutter like leaves in the wind, but with distinct intent. It’s a marvel to watch really.

About a month ago, I attended a Boutiki gallery show that hosted the artwork and music of Andy Ristaino. Andy Ristaino plays the Theremin. His technique is one that screams and cries and sometimes sings, just as we do. It’s the fact that I can write that sentence, that makes the Theremin so powerful.

Andy Ristaino, performing live at SLG’s Boutiki

Andy Ristaino, performing live at SLG’s Boutiki

For more about Clara Rockmore and another sample of her music, visit: The Nadia Reisenberg and Clara Rockmore Foundation website.

* Similar to the waveform produced by a cello, which, too, is often said to sound like a human voice.

Hello World!

by Brian Belew on February 28th, 2009
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This website has been re-launched. I have moved much of my content from my Blogger site to this server. Thank you for your interest.

Mountain Goats and Monologues

by Brian Belew on February 27th, 2009
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John Darnielle, also known as the Mountain Goats [1], has a way about his craft that I admire: He does with words, what I, as an illustrator, wish to be able to do with a pen (or stylus). He distills univerisally recognizable emotions into actions.

John Darnielle, live in San Francisco (by Nicole L. Browner)

John Darnielle, live in San Francisco (by Nicole L. Browner)

Unlike many song writers, Darnielle doesn’t depend upon metaphor-heavy lists to convey sentiment in his songs. Instead, he describes a scene, an act that carries with it a kind of meaning that works on many levels, an act that is more visceral than many other commonly used poetic devices. For example (from “Woke up New,” on Get Lonely):

On the morning when I woke up without you for the first time,
I felt free
and I felt lonely
and I felt scared
and I began to talk to myself almost immediately,
not being used to being the only person there.

The first time I made coffee for just myself,
I made too much of it.
But I drank it all,
just ’cause you hate it when I let things go to waste.

The beginning of the first verse is like the establishing shot in a comic book or movie in that it gives the context for the rest of the narrative. “Here’s what happened,” he says, “and here’s my state of mind.” The speaker then begins in the second verse, to describe his actions and it’s in those actions he affirms the established context and “describes” how he feels.

The short list of feelings from the first verse is made up primarily of single-syllable words in simple, declarative statements. George Orwell liked words and statements like these because he felt that English speakers reacted to them almost instinctually [2]. We don’t think about them, we understand them. That, I think, is what John Darnielle does so well, he anticipates a reaction to his work from the actions that it describes.

Darnielle’s songs remind me of the poetic form called Dramatic Monologue. The most well known modern examples of this form can be found in the works of Emenem, in songs like, “97 Bonnie & Clyde.” Not that I’m comparing Darnielle’s work to that of Emenem….

Dramatic Monologues are poems in which a speaker attempts to explain his or her actions. They are often written in a voice that is not intended to be the voice of the author. This form of poertry was popular during the Victorian period and was typical of writers, such as Robert Browning [3]. When I studied Robert Browning in college, I had much of the same reaction to his work that I have when I listen to songs by the Mountain Goats. From the described actions, I perceived feelings–strong, visceral* feelings that worked on a visual level for me.

What Darnielle does, what a Dramatic Monologue does, and what I am trying to understand and learn, is create a visual representation of feeling and emotion through the description of action. A different part of my brain works when I hear pieces like this, the part of my brain that understands and doesn’t think–it’s that instintual reaction that Orwell described. I don’t comprehend the words, I see them. What I’d like to to do is to learn how to take those same pictures, put them on paper, and with them generate the same kind of emotional response.

I saw John Darnielle perform last night (2/24/2009) at the Sweedish Hall in San Francisco [4]. It was a wonderful show and we had great seats with the stage, maybe, 30-feet from us. Still, I attended much of the show with my eyes closed. As pretentious as that sounds, it was like looking up towards to sky when trying to remember something; it was hard not to do. With my eyes closed, I could see the words better that way.

* I hate using visceral twice, but I hate using a thesaurus more.

(The picture comes from The Bay Bridged)

Brian Belew, Design & Illustration

by Brian Belew on February 25th, 2009
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My new website is now live. My Blogger site is now closed.

Manga Studio (First Impressions)

by Brian Belew on July 28th, 2008
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I bought Manga Studio 3 EX while at Comic-con last weekend. I was impressed by the tool set that I saw in the demos online and at the Smith Micro booth. I was also inspired to investigate the software after seeing the work that Ethan Nicolle did with it in his book, Chumble Spuzz.

Manga Studio Splash Screen

Manga Studio Splash Screen

Before buying the software, I wanted to try it out. So, I downloaded the demo from the Smith Micro website and installed it and the anti-piracy software they Smith Micro uses to protect their demos. I don’t know why, but having to install the anti piracy software really bothered me. The anti-piracy software comes from a third-party, I believe, and I just don’t know that I trust them.

Once I had the demo installed along with the associated crud-ware, I attempted to run the Manga Studio demo. It crashed upon start-up. It turns out that the demo for Manga Studio 3 EX is not compatible with OS X 10.5.4. There was no indication of this that I could find on the demo download page and the Smith Micro support pages are difficult to navigate and obtuse. The support search results are filled with more Google adds than support hits. I didn’t learn of the compatibility issues until I was able to talk to a sales rep at the Smith Micro booth the next day.

It turns out that a new version of the software will be released later this year and that the Japanese firm that makes the software did not feel that it was worth their time and expense to patch the demo. The full version of the software has been patched.

After a lot of internal debate and some time online, looking up reviews and criticisms of the software, I decided to buy the heavily discounted version being sold at the Smith Micro Comic-con booth. (They sold it at the convention for $99; it’s regularly $249-$299).

My experience with the sales representatives at the Smith Micro booth was very positive. They answered all of my questions clearly and honestly and at least one of them was a fan of SLG Publishing. (I was working at the convention as an exhibitor with SLG Publishing).

After booth break-down and a late diner, I made it back to my hotel room, I sobered up and installed my newly purchased software. Everything was going well until it was time to unlock the software with the serial number that was printed on the packaging. I typed in the numbers time and again and they would not work. Honestly, I thought I might still be a little tipsy, so I asked Jennifer to double check my typing and to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything. She did and I wasn’t. After saying a few bad words, I decided to give up. As I was packing up the software, I notice that the label on the software read Manga Studio Debut. I had purchased Manga Studio EX. The CD jewel case was mislabeled. I searched the internet to see if anything like this had been reported elsewhere; I found nothing but reports of slow tech support from Smith Micro.

I was eager to work with the software and did not want to wait for tech support to reply to my email, so I called once I returned home. Smith Micro does not have a toll-free tech support number, which I suspect is to discourage phone calls. I was greeted by a support representative name Aaron. After I explained my situation, he described the extensive procedure that I would have to follow in order to obtain the correct serial number for my software. It involved scanning and faxing and waiting. I couldn’t have that–for one thing, I don’t have a scanner that works with my Mac and I don’t have a fax machine. I was told that they would make no exceptions. I was able to provide Aaron with my order number. While he could not research the number that I provided, he was able to forward me to someone else. My called was transferred to Junior and Junior was able to locate my order number and generate the serial number that I needed. Junior also gave me his direct email address. Finally, he replied to me almost instantly with the information that I needed.

Three days after my purchase, I was finally able to run Manga Studio for the first time. The menus are cluttered and don’t follow the standards of other graphics applications (not exactly). But, they are easy enough to decrypt with a little effort. The biggest obstacle that I encountered came when I tried to use my Wacom tablet:

The response was terrible. There was a terrible lag with each stroke that made the tablet useless. There was no lag, however when I used a mouse. Some people can draw with a mouse, but I can’t–not the way I want to draw. Again, the support pages at Smith Micro were incompressible and of no help. I searched the Wacom site and found nothing there. I uninstalled my driver and installed the latest driver and there was still a lag. I searched the internet for more than an hour and still found no help.

Finally, I resorted to an old PC trouble shooting technique: I uninstalled the Wacom driver and then restarted the computer. I then installed the Wacom driver and restarted the computer. Everything worked perfectly. Almost.

I tried to create a multi-page project and was greeted with a message that read, “Error 37″ and nothing more. Again the support pages at Smith Micro told me nothing about Error 37. I resolved the problem by shortening the file name. First I tried: The Adventures of Red Bean & Mochi. Then: The Adventures of Red Bean and Mochi (I thought that the ampersand might have been the problem). Finally, I tried with success: Red Bean and Mochi.

Comic Book, Page: "The Adventures of Red Bean & Mochi"

My 1st Page with Manga Studio

In summary, this was the worst software installation experience that I have ever had. The customer service was mixed, but mostly positive. The tech support was entirely useless. The software seems functional, but a little awkward.