In an unexpected plot twist, I spent yesterday afternoon in the Kennedy Center, watching Les Miserables. The plot twist is because I don’t particularly like musicals, and I can’t spell Les Miserables without miserable. I had just started working on page one of my new comic, and I wasn’t ready to call it quits for the day when my friend used the telephone function on her cell and told me she had an extra ticket for that afternoon.
I have never seen Les Miserables all the way through before. It had never popped into Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque during one of my GATE trips, and Broadway was prohibitively expensive when I was there. (I’ve seen Rent on Broadway, but that was via shenanigans.) I saw the movie with my ex-wife, and we got an hour into it when we had to give up. However, I’m trying to accept invitations now (despite my art) because I’m thrilled someone thought of me.
I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. The set was dumbfounding, and damn, these people could sing. And I knew that kid was dead the instant he climbed the barricade. Sure Marius and Cosette had the personalities of wet cardboard, Marius’s bestie (whose name I forgot because I can’t remember anything) was fun and memorable and dead early into the second act. It was nice to be able to hear what Javert was singing about.
But what really made my brain jump out of the top of my head and jump off a bridge was the aforementioned sets. Les Mis (as all those in the know call it) is epic. It takes place in France as revolution after revolution happens, in the streets, in the slums, in gated residences, etc., and through a miracle of engineering, they made it happen, from the docks at night to a wedding in a palace. There were no people in black moving scenery around—the scenery moved itself. And it did it so smoothly, the lights didn’t have to go down.
One day in the office a while ago, when there were more people willing to stand around and chat for a half-hour, one of them, who is only a couple of years younger than I said, “You have to watch A New Hope. Just try to ignore the bad effects.” I almost broke my keyboard. The original Star Wars did not have CGI. It had dozens of craftsmen making the rantings of a filmmaking lunatic look like something you’d see in real life. They were sculptors, metalworkers, electricians. Like the lighting tech and the people ultimately running the sets, they were engineers. They were artists. Tom Savini, Stan Winston, they were artists.
What disappoints me is that with CGI, you can make literally anything happen. There is no limit to the scope of your movie. As a practical effects artist, you are limited by what you have. Sometimes, while accommodating your limitations, you create something even better (i.e. hiding the shitty-looking shark in Jaws). You can’t freestyle with digital effects. The sound of the TARDIS in Doctor Who is a planer running over a piano. How did that guy figure out to do that?
Something else I don’t like about digital art is that you don’t have to make mistakes anymore. If the brushstroke you just made bleeds into the background, hit control-Z. I have correction fluid, which doesn’t take paint or most inks. It’s my responsibility to leave my error on the page or make it a part of the picture. And I love it. I have hardly any experience with photo-editing software, but I have enough that I could erase every mistake I’d made in any painting or sketch. I won’t do it. I scripted, laid out, penciled, painted, inked, and lettered a whole comic, paint and ink on paper, because I love limitations. Limitations inspire me. The woman who designed the first Cyberman on Doctor Who had some tights and a vacuum cleaner (true story). That’s part of the reason I love Classic Who so much. What they created was cheesy, but it was genius.
Digital artists are artists. I could never get into it because it required a completely different set of skills that I had been honing in my adulthood, but I recognize how hard these artists work. Sam Yang is a digital artist I admire, for example. I try to discuss it as easier than what I do, but it’s not. It’s just different.
Going back to Les Miserables and the various Cirque du Soliel performances I’ve seen**, and Rent, they have a budget, but everything they create must be seen from as close as a hundred feet away, and it has to be convincing. Everyone who’s ever done theater knows this, and it takes a particular kind of maestro to pull it off, performance after performance, play after play.
Bravo, set designers!
*My ex-father-in-law, a stoic, strong, soft-spoken, masculine man, lived near Vegas, and he had a thing for shows, especially showtunes, and he was a millionaire. I saw a lot of shows.