Director’s Commentary – Laurie J Proud
One of the books I have really been looking forward to this spring has been Laurie J Proud‘s Peepholes, just being released this month from Blank Slate Books. The work of several years while he laboured as an animator and storyboard artist, Peepholes is a collection of ten tales showcasing Laurie’s quite unique artistic style (I should perhaps say styles as he offers up several different visual approaches, all of them quite fascinating, some with a compelling grotesqueness that your eye just cannot leave alone); I have to say from the advance glimpses I’ve been afforded over the last few months I’m totally taken with the book even before I lay my hands on the finished article – sometimes you just know a book is going to be good before you even pick it up, and Peepholes is giving me that bookseller’s tingle (which is an instinct that rarely steers me wrong in my reading, by the way, not a medical complaint caused by lifting too many hardbacks).
The various tales include a fine cocktail of the real world and a distorted, off-kilter, surreal reflection of it, as if David Lynch and Lewis Carroll had decided to make a giant funfair house of mirrors and hold it up to the world. I think this is going to be one of the most unusual works of the season and one we should all be picking up, especially those of us who love the Absurd and the Downright Odd. I am delighted to say that today we welcome Laurie to the blog, where he is going to talk us through the creation of one of Peephole’s delightfully odd denizens, Hotel Charlie, which I have to say from my own advance look at the book has been one of my favourites in the collection, harking back to classic silent era comedies and with panels that look like they are frames cut from an animated short; over to Laurie:
Hotel Charlie began life as a sketch on a piece of A4 paper from a few years ago (I forget when exactly but I drew it on the train back from London to Brighton). The sketch showed a character stealing a ladder in the street in order to use it to spy into a girl’s window. The character at this stage was a street urchin type and the setting was the steep, cobbled back streets of a town, probably somewhere in France in the early 1930s. You can see in the sketch (below) the railway viaduct and broken ladder which are both in the finished story (railway viaducts feature prominently in the commute from Brighton to London and I’m sure that’s where it came from).
Apart from this slight scenario I had no other particular ideas for this as yet unnamed story, so it probably languished in a pile of other A4 sketches for some time (I sketch on A4 paper then bind them later after discarding the rubbish ones). Another unrelated sketch done randomly in Flash was a picture of a brute of a man:
… a traditional hulking villain in the manner of Bluto from Popeye, this character also seemed to inhabit the same French vagabond world and could easily be the thug in the above scenario who breaks the ladder in two. At some point the two characters came together and I began working on some before-and-after events to this story fragment. I worked on the main character and initially I toyed with the idea of him being a bell boy in a seedy hotel, hence the name Hotel Charlie:
Here are some versions of him without the bell boy guise and in no specific place or era. You can see the shape of his head is fairly consistent:
Around this time I began watching a 9 DVD box set of Harold Lloyd films, and although I never made the conscious decision, that is undoubtedly where Hotel Charlie’s new look came from. Rather than a street urchin or bell boy he was now an early 1920s dandy with straw boater, bow tie and starched collar. There is also the suggestion that he is basically a moneyed young man of leisure, with not much to do but promenade about all day seeking amusement and buying gent’s fashion accessories and fine pastries.
When it came to actually drawing the comic I decided that I wanted to produce it in a ‘line-free’ style composed of flat shapes. I had been looking at the work of Edward Burra, in particular some images that looked almost like little cardboard cut-out worlds composed of stage-scenery-like facades and flattened perspectives:
I should point out that this sort of style had never really appealed to me before. I am much more of a traditional, correct (but slightly warped) perspective, non-naive, observed dynamic anatomy type of draftsman (with a background in storyboarding) but I’m always ready to push my work into new territory rather than opting for an easily repeatable style. I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking when I tried out this flattened Burra influenced style, but there was something about creating Hotel Charlie’s world as if it was a little cardboard set that got my imagination going. I moved the setting from France in the 30s to an anonymous European town of the early to mid 20s, a slightly bleak edge of town area. The kind of place where you find factories, rail depots and cheap hotels. I took many of the details of buildings, street furniture and trams directly from the paintings of the German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) school of the 1920s and 30s. A lot of those artists also simplified, flattened and separated forms in a manner similar to Burra:
The final artwork is created in Flash using flat vector shapes. I find Flash much more basic and easier to use than Illustrator. These shapes are exported as separate layers into Photoshop and look very uninspiring like this:
The skies in Hotel Charlie are always grey and softly overcast. There are no hard shadows. I imagine it is always a cool, autumnal grey day. I like the idea of Hotel Charlie being such an optimistic dimwit that he’s oblivious to the somewhat shabby nature of his surroundings. Sure, he can be plunged into despair when things go wrong, but only for about five minutes. At this stage technically speaking, I slap a scanned-in texture over everything and begin buffing, polishing, grubbying-up, contrast balancing and general ‘shading’. Eventually it looks like this:
The characters are basically created the same way, first as flat vector shapes which look horrible:
Then with texture added, and areas burnt and dodged away to create form:
Several people have asked if there will be more Hotel Charlie. There is a second story in Peepholes and I’ve already deviated slightly from the style above, drawing the characters with a painted-on-cel look. I like the idea of the style continually evolving by small steps. Almost as if we’re viewing the same character through slightly different filters. I’m now thinking about a longer book project that is completely unrelated to Hotel Charlie, so can’t say when I will have the time to revisit his world, but I have a strong feeling that we haven’t seen the last of him yet.