My sincere thanks to Muddy Colors for allowing me to hijack the blog as a Guest Contributor today. I’m here because an idea-generating card deck I created, called RECKLESS DECK, has a new Kickstarter that’s launching today. I’d like to use this opportunity to share with you some of the deeper creative motivations behind why I made this thing.
A very quick lowdown on Reckless Deck for the uninitiated: It is a card deck that contains 72 individual cards, each one offering a different object, character attribute, weapon or trope from the Fantasy, Sci Fi, Horror, or Steampunk genres. The idea is to shuffle the deck, draw some cards, and then, as Artists & Creatives, make something new happen out of the random, incongruous hand you’ve drawn.
The strength of Reckless Deck lies in the idea of TROPES... How to use them, and how to subvert them.
I feel (and this may be the first of several things I say that might get me lit on fire, making this the briefest debut in the history of blogging), the world of Science Fiction and Fantasy Art gets a great deal of its mojo from the "Set Design", "Costume" and "Prop Shops" of your imagination.
Let’s not joke - Sci Fi and Fantasy tend to be realms of "cool stuff". Because otherwise, we’d just be painting naked people on blank backgrounds, or pedestrian-attired people doing very everyday things (see also: Fine Art, Portraiture). What makes it "Fantastic Art" oftentimes is a function of the personal vision of your inner production designer, and how big a “creativity budget” you have stored up in your head to “fund” your next production.
CLASSICAL THEATRE AS A MODERN PERFORMANCE
For those of you who don’t know me, I left my illustration education mid-stream to be a professional actor for 13 years, finding my way back to illustration only after a lot of stage work, a lot of “suffering for my art”, and a Master’s Degree in performance from the A.R.T. Institute at Harvard University.
I want to share with you some of the performance-related lessons I learned that ended up fueling the creation of Reckless Deck, and how my creative process continues to shape itself as a result.
I performed in a number of Shakespeare (& other classical) plays, and witnessed countless more. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw a doublet-and-hose, traditional period rendition. (Or, what we used to call “pumpkin pants”. Never wore ‘em once.)
“In sooth I know not why I wear this ridiculous getup.”
Modern Shakespeare performance tends to exist in either:
A) a different historical context a director might use to frame (and hopefully thereby inform) the production, or...
B) a kind of theatrical nether-realm, which to our Sci Fi/Fantasy eyes can often be actually an exercise in really intriguing world building.
And, it’s in this nether-realm that I learned that it’s possible - and often preferable - to have a world that can encompass both swords and handguns, a pocket watch and a cell phone, an hourglass and a laptop. Some recent examples you may already be familiar with:
Kate Fleetwood &Patrick Stewart, MACBETH, 2010
Alan Cumming, TITUS, 1999
Steven Waddington & Andrew Tiernan, EDWARD II, 1991
Creating Reckless Deck did an interesting thing - it allowed me to see that the various objects & tropes we traffic in as Sci Fi Fantasy illustrators can behave in very startling and unexpected ways, once you lift them away from the snug surroundings of their native genre and make them interact with unfamiliar companions. The inherent nature of a thing suddenly can fizz and pop in surprising new ways, similar to the shades of meaning of words in a sentence, or (in an analogy-tip-of-the-hat to Lauren Panepinto and other Mixologists) ingredients in a cocktail. Often, the incongruity between one thing and another creates a visual tension that can be really interesting - something akin to an unscratchable, never-ending itch in your brain.
THE KULESHOV EFFECT
Something unique to the nature of film as a medium is the act of film editing, or Montage. In the 1920’s, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein credited montage as “the nerve of cinema”. He stated, “Montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots” wherein “each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other.”
The term “montage” was first coined in 1916, however, by filmmaker Lev Kuleshov. In a now-famous film experiment, Kuleshov combined independent shots of a man, a bowl of soup, a woman in a coffin, and a woman on a sofa. The strategic ordering of the shots had a marked effect on audience’s interpretation of the man’s neutral expression. Although the man’s expression doesn’t change, when juxtaposed with the three images, the resulting mini-narratives suggest that it does. Essentially, Man + Soup = Hungry, Man + Coffin = Sadness, and Man + Woman = Lust.
For me, Reckless Deck acts as a kind of portable illustrator’s Kuleshov Effect Kit. Each card becomes like a snippet of film that can endlessly be edited and re-edited together in different combinations.
We all know well the resonance & frequency of combinations like “Sword + Shield + Dragon”, or “Laser Pistol + Robot + Spaceship”. And, no arguments, these are good frequencies, that most of us revisit often, and some among us wield with superlative skill. But what happens when you go jumping Once More Into That Breach with a montage like “Sword + Robot + Suit & Tie?” or “Shield + Laser Pistol + Angel Wings?” The results, admittedly, could be a hot mess. But, they could also be amazing - and have a freshness and a vibrancy that are borne directly out of the inherent risk - and dissonance - of such a montage.
The last thing I want to leave you with is a moment from the completion of my undergraduate education at UC Santa Cruz. The 'Shakespeare Santa Cruz Artistic Director' at the time, Danny Scheie , showed us two opposing clips of the same aria from different versions of George Bizet’s CARMEN.
One was from the 1984 film by Francesco Rosi. This one was…about what you’d expect. Spain, stucco, petticoats, peasants.
The second was from a stage production of CARMEN by British director and theater pioneer Peter Brook. (Apologies in advance, I’ve scoured the internet looking for this footage, to no avail. The best I could do was this photo from a remount of Brook’s adaptation at Baldwin Wallace University in Cleveland earlier this year.)
Brook’s production has become legend in the theater world for its brazen stripping down of this pageant-like opera to its barest bones - a small cast, reduction of the full orchestra to 14 musicians, and all the lavish costumes and sets reduced to a blank, Zen-garden sandbox and minimal props.
Seeing the juxtaposition of these two interpretations of the same material was one of the seminal moments of my education both as an actor, and, as it turns out, an illustrator, as well. This freedom to upend and subvert expected tropes (sometimes replacing them, sometimes obliterating them completely) to suit one’s own personal vision has become something that is central to my work, both in my own work in the studio, and with the creation and expansion of Reckless Deck.