Literature and motion design: Crossing the boundaries with Warren Lehrer’s “A Life in Books”

Photo: Melvin McCray

Designer/author/performer Warren Lehrer (Photo: Melvin McCray)

Warren Lehrer, a longtime pioneer of visual literature and professor at the School of Art+Design at Purchase College, released an excellent multimedia novel last year, A Life in Books.

Described as “an illuminated novel with 101 books within it,” the hardcover book is enhanced by animations, multimedia performance and an upcoming app edition. The book has been racking up awards and inspiring a series of interesting projects.

As a designer with an undergraduate degree in creative writing, I was immediately drawn to Warren’s hybrid approach to storytelling. I saw him give a reading — more of a performance, really — at the NYU Bookstore and knew that he was blazing a new path, proving that motion design and literature (among other things) need not be strangers.

Warren was kind enough to answer some questions for us about the intersection of design, literature and animation. What follows is a stimulating look inside the mind of someone who’s built his career collapsing the boundaries that most of us take for granted.

Q&A with Warren Lehrer

A Life in Books is difficult to describe, mostly because it’s difficult to contain. While the central text is a handsome hardcover book, it’s also a collection of animations and performances presented in the language of graphic design and illustration. Would you agree with that description?

I’d say: The novel is written with words and images and is composed using the tools of graphic design—typography, drawing, illustration, photography, page layout, design thinking. Often it employs those tools as a means of critiquing design, popular culture, publishing, marketing.

Page spread featuring Bleu Mobley’s coloring book US versus Them “celebrating US military interventions since World War 2

Page spread featuring Bleu Mobley’s coloring book US versus Them “celebrating US military interventions since World War 2

The physical A Life in Books book sits at the center of a multimedia project that includes a performance, animations, short films, an enhanced book app (in progress), an exhibition, opportunities for crowdsourcing, and a methodology for teaching.

What is the book about?

The book pairs the reluctant memoir of my (fictional) protagonist — a prolific and controversial author who finds himself in prison — with a retrospective of his life’s work including all 101 of his published books.

The animations and short films allow me to bring some of Bleu Mobley’s content to life via movement, sound, timing, inflection and other attributes that are harder to get across in a printed book. In the live performance, I include some of the animations and short films, and get to present myself as a character — the obsessed chronicler of all things Bleu Mobley.

Writing and designing a book alone in my studio and watching it enter the world on its on reconnaissance is very different than performing to a live audience, hearing people laugh, cheer, go silent, and engage in dialogue. I enjoy both the solitary work time and the public engagement.

And releasing videos online is a third kind of experience.

A new kind of illumination

The design of the book is not something that can be teased apart from the narrative. It is integral to the story. But you refer to the book as “an illuminated novel,” which brings to mind illuminated bibles of the Middle Ages.

Until now, I’ve always thought of the calligraphy and illustrations in those old manuscripts as mere ornamentation. But perhaps the illumination of those texts was adding essential new information. Care to comment?

Yes, a lot of the visual activity in ancient illuminated manuscripts is ornamentation. And that part of it (decorative boarders, ornate initial caps, gold leaf for the sake of being shiny) never really interested me.

A closeup of the illuminated letter P in the 1407AD Latin Bible on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A closeup of the illuminated letter P in the 1407AD Latin Bible on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

But I am very much interested in examples of ancient sacred manuscripts that are polyvalent, like the Talmud which has a source text from the Torah in the middle of the page, and liberal and conservative rabbis expounding and debating in the surrounding columns, flanked by footnotes and other marginalia. Hypertext is alive and well in those age-old books!

I also really appreciate the artistry, care and craft that went into making hand-illuminated books and scrolls, and how — in the best, sometimes the wildest and wackiest examples — image, symbol, shape and color are interwoven with the text.

I chose to call A Life in Books an illuminated novel primarily because Bleu Mobley’s narrative — the ground of the novel — is illuminated by his life’s work which is represented by all 101 of his book covers, their original catalogue descriptions, and excerpts that read like short stories. There are also “reproductions” of letters, newspaper articles, book reviews, even excerpts of his FBI file.

Page spread from A Life in Books featuring Bleu Mobley’s first novel The Switch.

Page spread from A Life in Books featuring Bleu Mobley’s first novel The Switch.

The images really are part of the text. Together, all these elements add up to tell his story.

Movable type and gray slabs of text

If I have my history right, once the moveable type press came along, illumination became a “post process,” to borrow a term from film production, before fading out of existence altogether.

Creating an illuminated book today could be interpreted as nostalgic, but your book is decidedly high-tech, a hyperlink mosaic of multimedia. How do you reconcile the two?

I am not nostalgic, at all, but the visual history of storytelling and the printed word is fascinating to me, and worth learning from as we move into the future.

The invention of moveable type was an important advance. It helped democratize the production and distribution of literature to more people beyond the aristocracy and clergy. On the other hand, it helped destroy the artistry that scribes and craftsmen put into making books. Moveable type lead to a very mechanized means of production that churns out book after book in rote ways.

So you end up with the interior of most (text-laden) books looking exactly the same. A book about experimental jazz (even in the year 2014) most likely looks just like a book about supply side economics — slab after slab of gray text.

The advent of printed books also helped diminish the oral tradition of storytelling, a tradition that lasted centuries, in town squares, around campfires and dinner tables. As the book became the pre-eminent vehicle for telling stories, tellers became writers, and writers wrote more for the page than for oral, physical, improvisational recitation.

But the book has lost its prominence, and the digital revolution is helping to bring us back to our origins in interesting ways. The icon is back with a vengeance. A lot of poetry is oral again, music is bound to images, people are watching more than reading.

Like my character Bleu Mobley, I do worry about the future of long form, contemplative reading (and writing). But I also am glad to finally see the very conservative conventions of literary publishing start to bust open. Now that the physical book is no longer the most (or only) convenient vessel for delivering and transporting texts, there is an opportunity (if not an imperative) for writers, designers, artists and publishers to really explore the book form as a medium.

The animations, video spots, short films, website, exhibition, and performance illuminate this panoramic portrait in other ways. It’s one thing to see printed reproductions of How Bad People Go Bye-Bye, Bleu’s pull-out, pop-up book on the history of capital punishment. But to see it come to life in an animation, or to be able to interact with it in the book app, adds another degree of fun, and hopefully poignancy.

The future of the book

In 1985, the design historian Philip Meggs wrote an article about you in the AIGA Journal titled “An Oracle of the 21st Century Book.” Ten years later, the New York Times Book Review ran a profile of you that concluded, “Now the times are beginning to catch up to him.”

Yet today, the future of physical books seems… uncertain. Many of your previous works have used technology and design to question the definition of “book.” Is it important that we hang on to the idea of books as objects?

Ultimately, no. I don’t think it matters much what the containment is. If what we call books end up morphing into things that get digitally charged into our shirt sleeves or pillow cases or the back of a chair, I don’t really care. At the same time, the end of the book has been prophesied before, and the darn thing manages to keep proving itself to be viable.

The End of the End of Books Book. Cover.

The End of the End of Books Book (Cover)

At a certain point in A Life in Books, Bleu Mobley, concerned with this same question, officially quits writing and turns his writing factory into a laboratory for exploring and “entrepreneuring” the legacy and future of the book.

No more content creation — they zero in on the form and end up developing a line of book toys (for boys), book clothes and accessories (that keep you looking language savvy from head to toe), book lamps (called illuminated manuscripts that can light up a living room and give it a warm, literary feeling), and flying books (that fly over town and country).

They also develop a “multi-sensorial electronic reader” (replete with brain sensors, nose plugs, surround-sound headphones, and an electronic glove) that allows reader/users to actually smell the smells of the characters in a book, hear their cries and whispers, take hold of what they are holding, and take hold of them, “so nothing at all need be left to the reader’s imagination.”

As much as I embrace multimedia and am fascinated by hybrid platforms that bridge the physical with the digital, I do poke fun at our obsession with the next big thing and intoxication with bells and whistles, and I don’t think it would be a good thing if we reached a point where every book had to simultaneously be a video game.

Mostly, I see opportunities.

Mindful of fast-paced living and ever-shortening attention spans, Bleu Mobley comes out with a roll of haiku-length toilet paper poems. Just read, wipe, ponder and flush. (Sold originally in supermarkets and drug stores, The Poetry Roll was pulled from the shelves as soon as complaints started coming in about the contents of the poems).  

Getting it out there

Finding a publisher who “got” your project must have been difficult. What was that process like?

It was a little harder than I thought it would be at this point in my career, and with this particular book which I think is my best yet.

I can show you a stack of rejection letters from top editors at the Big 6 NY publishers that practically read like love letters, saying how “fine” the writing is, and how “thoroughly original” and beautiful the book is. But I guess it was a difficult time to ask these conglomerates to take a chance on something “thoroughly original” when the publishing industry was imploding, and their freaked-out bottom line people operate more from fear and going for sure bets which generally don’t include 4 color, 380 page novels that contain 101 books inside them written by a fictional author.

In the end, two smaller, independent presses wanted A Life in Books. I went with Goff Books because we agreed on the importance of a quality production, keeping the retail price affordable — and they have a really good distributor.

So this indie book, published by an indie press, is winning all these indie publishing awards, including the 2014 IPPY (Independent Publisher) Outstanding Book of the Year Award for “Most Original Concept,” a Next Generation Indie Book Award, a National Indie Book Award, also a Print Magazine Regional Design Award, and CBAA (College Book Art Association) Exhibition Prize for the way “the animation and video is used as an extension of the book.”

I also got an Individual Artist Grant from the New York State Council on the Arts in Film and Electronic Media to develop the enhanced book app edition and media components of A Life in Books. Right now, I’m weighing different options on who to work with on the book app.

To create the animated sequences, you collaborated with Brandon Campbell and Julie Verardi, right? How did you find them, and how did you work together? 

Brandon Campbell has been my principal animation partner since 2012. He had been a student of mine at the School of Art+Design at Purchase College, SUNY. He was a gifted and hardworking student, and combined good drawing, design, typography, and conceptual skills, and is a musician too.

He really took to animation and motion graphics, and very quickly got a job working at Comedy Central after he graduated, where he still works as a steady freelancer.

I studied animation a bit when I was in college, and made some hand-drawn cell animations with an Oxberry animation stand and a 16mm Bolex camera. The way I work now with Brandon, I make storyboards, he animates, then we get together and work through the details.

Then, we worked together on the visual projections for 1001 Voices: a Symphony for a New America, commissioned and premiered by The Queens Symphony Orchestra; 40 minutes of motion graphics and expressionistic supertitles in multiple languages. (Music composed by Frank London. Libretto by Judith Sloan. It was a thrilling project. We hope to be making a DVD of the project soon.)

For A Life in Books, there are many components: gestural moments that I use in performance, like the book Precipice tipping over — an expression of the instability depicted in a novel about a time when oil supplies have peaked in the Middle East. We animated some of Bleu’s illuminated manuscripts, Dr. Sky Jacobs’ Life Maps, all kinds of fun stuff.

Julie Verardi, also an excellent animator at Comedy Central, worked with me on a series of trailers. Instead of making one trailer for A Life in Books, (like a normal person), I ended up making a dozen trailers each featuring a different Bleu Mobley title.

Some of the spots feature short films I made of Bleu Mobley book excerpts performed by actors and performers (Caridad de la Luz a.k.a La Bruja, the music group BETTY, beatbox artist Chesney Snow, and veteran actress Mary Grace Canfield). Other trailers are entirely animated.

Why did I make twelve spots instead one?

I was thinking two things: telling this Bleu Mobley story in all kinds of ways, and extending what is normally a tiny window of time when a book is first released and considered worthy of focused attention. Even though A Life in Books came out in November of last year, I’m launching most of the video spots now.

Working with students

You’re a full-time Professor of Art and Design at SUNY Purchase. Do your students also work on projects that combine writing and design? If so, what do they struggle with most when approaching their projects? 

I teach an undergraduate class at Purchase called “Artist/Writer Workshop,” and a graduate class in the Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) called “Writing and Designing the Visual Book.” Both classes combine the tools and methodologies of design and writing toward an integrated expression.

I just finished writing an essay about the SVA class for a third edition of Steve Heller’s book The Education of a Graphic Designer (Allworth Press) with examples of some of the phenomenal work the students have done in that class. Instead of the traditional model of training designers to work in the service of a client, or “the MAN,” that whole MFA program is based on designers being the authors and entrepreneurs of their own projects, or at least co-equal collaborators.

Some design students insist that they are “visual people” and are therefore not good writers. I have ways of getting people to write so they don’t even realize they’re writing. After a few weeks, you can’t stop them from writing.

Then we get into editing, learning how to build a story, writing from different perspectives, and really crafting the writing in the same way they are used to iterating and refining their designs. Since they are composing their writing through design (typography, lettering, word+image, sequencing, books, motion graphics, cross-platform formats), the process of writing and designing becomes one and the same. At least that’s the goal.

The biggest obstacles are: getting design students to get past the need for an assignment — to generate and develop their own projects; casting off the rote conventions they come with about writing and also visualizing text; going beyond thinking about design as a matter of making things look good or snazzy or clean or wild or fun—to thinking about design as invention, storytelling, creating experiences, unveiling truth, finding where meaning and form come together, if not making the world a better place.

These obstacles are pretty easily overcome, and then the students are right there, and they often get out ahead of it and teach me what’s possible. That’s when teaching is worth it, when you’re surprised, and the students really don’t need you anymore.

What’s next?

It seems to me that A Life in Books could become a lifelong project. Are you still working on it?

Apparently, Bleu Mobley is not through with me yet.

In addition to completing the development and publication of the A Life in Books book app, continuing to tour the performance/readings and related visiting artist gigs and workshops, working on the traveling exhibition that will present itself as a Bleu Mobley retrospective, booking sites for that, and finishing a study guide for using the book/project as a teaching tool, I do have a new book I’m just about to start working on.

The surprising thing is — it’s not by me. It’s looking like it’s going to be a Bleu Mobley book. Or maybe several.

I had a residency at Rutgers University this past spring, where, among other things, I worked with MFA creative writing students and two undergraduate graphic design classes who collaborated on fleshing out two Bleu Mobley’s titles based on the excerpts in A Life in Books. It was a great experience I think for everyone involved.

Those two books aren’t finished, but I’m figuring out ways to keep the crowdsourcing of those titles going, along with another one I’ve got posted on www.alifeinbooks.net. Those are collaborative writing experiments, which I will ultimately have to pull together. But the book I’m looking forward to working on most is the one I’ll be writing alone, soon, on behalf of Mr. Mobley.

Anything else you’d like to add?

You can reach Warren Lehrer about A Life in Books performance/readings, traveling exhibition, or anything else at warren@earsay.org

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About the author

Justin Cone

/ justincone.com
Together with Carlos El Asmar, Justin co-founded Motionographer, F5 and The Motion Awards. He currently lives in Austin, Texas with is wife, son and fluffball of a dog. Before taking on Motionographer full-time, Justin worked in various capacities at Psyop, NBC-Universal, Apple, Adobe and SCAD.

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