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Somebody on Something: Pat Smith’s ‘Blank on Blank’

Director Pat Smith talks about animating lost and rare interviews with stars like Hunter S. Thompson and Lou Reed for his new web mini-series.

Blank on Blank is a fascinating mini-series of sorts (mini in the sense that the episodes are about 5 minutes each in total) by animator Pat Smith (Drink, Delivery). Each episode uncovers a portion of a lost or rare interview with an assortment of celebrities (highlights include Bette Davis’ thoughtful and blunt dissection of gender inequality, Tom Robbin’s talking about his writing tools, a pre-Gonzo Hunter S. Thompson on his experience with the Hells’ Angels, and a fascinating 1987 interview with Lou Reed where he discusses his aim to make rock music more lyrically mature and why he thinks The Beatles were garbage). The series currently runs on the PBS website.  

I decided to join the fun and do my own Blank on Blank – with the series creator, Pat Smith.

Chris Robinson: Why the title Blank on Blank?

Pat Smith: Every episode is somebody on something (i.e. Chris Robinson on hockey).

CR: What’s the genesis of the idea?

PS: I had been playing around with animating interviews for years. I have an ongoing project interviewing prison inmates for an independent film, as well as another interviewing Singapore prostitutes… really crazy stuff.

Illustrating real audio content is something I’ve been researching for that last 6 years.  Anyway, two years ago a friend that knew my films introduced me to journalist David Gerlach, knowing that we had similar interests involving putting imagery to audio interviews. We clicked instantly, in the way a good producer and director can.  David had great access to audio content, and most importantly, it wasn't a gimmick to him. He takes the content seriously and wanted to collaborate with a like-minded artist.

CR: When did PBS get involved? Does it also air on PBS?

They got into it pretty soon after the first few episodes, which was key because it allowed us to expand the budget.  It aired for a while between shows on PBS, and I think they're considering doing more in the future, but really we're focused on continuing to do a good web series. It fits that venue perfectly.  We release a few episodes to festivals (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ayn Rand and Bette Davis), but primarily it streams off the Blank on Blank YouTube channel.

CR: How long does it take you to make each segment/episode? Are you doing it all on your own?

PS: The audio is edited by the producer, David Gerlach, and the audio producer Amy Drozdowska. It's a tough job whittling hours of interviews into 4-5 minutes, and I'm happy I stay busy doing other things. Every now and then I’ll request something be left in, or request that more visual material be used, but rarely.  When I get the completed audio, it takes me about a week to animate the whole thing. I have one or two people helping me with color depending on the difficulty of the episode - Jennifer Yoo and Diana Tantillo are both former students of mine from NYU.

CR: Do you have a pool of interviews from which to choose? How do you select an interview?

PS: The interviews are chosen based on content, quality of recording and the person (we try to be timely). Also whether or not we can obtain the rights - which can be a very daunting and delicate task.

CR: You’re independent shorts don’t use any dialogue. How much of a challenge was it to go from ‘silent’ films to ‘talkies?’ What were the biggest hurdles for you?

PS: Switching to talking wasn’t a big issue because that’s what I did when I directed television. Daria, for example, was ALL talking.

Dialogue is interesting to work with because it really guides the animation, acts like a framework. It tells you when to do certain things. Whereas when you’re doing action, the animator is pretty much left to their own devices to figure out timing etc.

CR: How much creative freedom do you have? I mean I know you are somewhat restricted because you're limited to the interview content to a degree but can you interpret the interviews anyway you like or does PBS have some involvement?

PS: The creative freedom allowed by PBS is what makes it possible to do so much footage so quickly and it's the most enjoyable part of drawing the series. Every now and then an image is flagged and debated, but generally they let me draw whatever I want.  I don't have any agenda, I'm not trying to paint anybody as anything they aren't. People allow themselves to be interpreted in some pretty interesting and bizarre ways simply by what they say.  My main goal is to draw creative and thought provoking images that will play a supporting role to whatever is being said.

CR: In a separate chat, you told me that you weren't happy with some of the earlier segments. What was it about them that bothered you? What have you changed to make them more satisfying to you?

PS: Yeah, early episodes were crap. I did them too quickly and wasn't use to the tools. This is the first time I've ever worked entirely on a Cintiq and also my first time using Flash. It's a tough adjustment for a traditional animator to make. But mostly, the imagery just didn't hold up to the quality content of the audio.  I still struggle with that, but I think I've gotten better. It's tough when you have such interesting audio content. The images have to compliment it, or at the least, not get in its way.  Additionally, I’m not skilled at drawing caricatures. I had to improve quite a bit before the episodes started to really stand up and walk. 

CR: What are your favorite episodes? What is it you like about them? And was there a celebrity you really didn't know all that well (or maybe even had negative perceptions about but saw that change after you heard the interview?) who really surprised you?

PS: Typically my favorite episodes are the characters that, for some reason or another, I really liked to draw.

Tom Robbins was one of the episodes where I didn’t know who the person was, so I read one of his books, and did a bit of research. This gig can be really educational. I liked his scratchy voice, and his delivery is similar to a lot of New Yorkers I know.

Bette Davis just owned the black and white technique (which is really a budgetary thing for us). She spoke visually, and I always have a preference for characters that smoke because smoke is fun to animate.  She didn’t have black lips, of course, in real life, but it was a design choice that I thought worked.  I take a lot of liberties, as long as it feels right. We’re doing Tom Waits right now, and it took all my energy to not put that cap on his head. I forced myself to think of some other device to caricature him. Besides, why would you want to cover that straggly hair?

Hunter was just so out there, so I could really go wherever I wanted to… and he’s so punch-able! There’s something about his face that makes you just want to draw him beaten up (just like he talks about). Same with Lou Reed. How many times do you hear someone say The Beatles are garbage?

Maya Angelou was a challenge that I’m proud of. For such a famous writer, her story telling skills were confusing as hell, so in this episode I was proud that the animation actually clarified what was being said, instead of getting in the way or just being a gimmick to look at.

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Later in the year, Pat will start production on another interview-based web series (he can’t say more). Meantime take a dive into the Blank on Blank series over at http://blankonblank.org/pbs/

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

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