Seattle-based GIF artist Kelton Sears talks about the future of narrative, recycling web garbage and taking on the system with a trashy new animated comic.
They say limitations can lead to inspired breakthroughs, and Kelton Sears certainly came up with a novel solution when hitting a visual stumbling block as an editor at his local paper. "I was the culture and comix editor at Seattle Weekly, the Emerald City-based artist explains, “but the paper didn't have a budget for a photographer, and I couldn't take a good photo to save my life. I’m trained in video and animation though, so I started shooting ‘journalistic GIFs’ of article subjects as a way to get around the fact."
Kelton’s novel way of storytelling via the art of Vine-like loops has led to a long-form animated comic called Trash Mountain. Telling the decidedly wonky story of factory-labourer hero Globby (below) in his fight against the CEO of the malevolent PHALLOCORP, the three-page strip stems from the artist’s journalist background and strong social concerns.
After falling in with the comics community in his home city, Kelton started making so-called journalistic GIF comics for Seattle Weekly, stacking GIFs comic panel-style while animating lines from the interviews on top inside speech bubbles. "Even though I was trained to use a video camera, taking proper photos was something I'd never learned to do," he explains.
"One day on assignment, I just decided to switch the newspaper's staff DSLR camera to video mode, which I was more comfortable with, and found the image quality I got was higher that way. I was covering this scuttle between a tenants’ union and a landlord/developer, and it just suddenly struck me that I could kind of cheat by making GIFs of the video I'd shoot of the rally and use those as the article's ‘pictures’, since so much of the writing was going online rather than print anyway."
While Kelton’s novel method was an instant hit with readers, it may not have pleased all of his subjects. “I made this GIF of an old woman in the tenants’ union talking while raising and lowering her picket sign, which people immediately reacted to in the comments section of the article. They kept comparing it to the moving portraits in the magic newspapers from the Harry Potter films. The woman who was in the GIF hated it though; she emailed me after saying ‘I can't show this article to my children when there's this looping video of me prattling on over and over forever.’”
"Although they were popular with our readers, they took a lot of time, so my editor-in-chief asked me to focus on writing normal articles again,” Kelton continues. “The format still felt full of unexplored potential though, so I started working on Trash Mountain as a way to feel out what I could do with the idea. Nearly two years later, here it is."
Trash Mountain’s story of Man versus the Capitalist Machine - as symbolised by the very-phallic pipe that uproots our hero Globby from his home in the woods - stems from another real-life story of civil disobedience. "At the time of the last presidential election I was very much a Bernie Sanders supporter,” Kelton recalls, “and I began reading more and more about socialism, Marx, and critiques of capitalism."
"I'd also been reporting on local indigenous campaigns and issues for the newspaper, and the Standing Rock/Dakota Access Pipeline conflict was also very much at the forefront of my mind. It was just grotesque, blatant, modern day colonialism; a group of people, the Sioux, who simply wanted the right to clean drinking water on this land they'd lived on forever, getting blasted with freezing water cannons by soldiers and police in riot gear in service to this private company."
"When I sat down and started storyboarding Trash Mountain, I think all of that just kind of came out. The story is pretty simple and the symbols are pretty blatant, but the state of America felt like an overly simplistic cartoon at the time - and it still does. That’s why I decided not to try and complicate it and really just channel all these feelings I was having, mixed in with everything I was reading about capitalism, socialism, and American history."
The comic’s title is an apt one, with Kelton always having followed what he calls his ‘digital trash’ aesthetic, something developed from his first dabblings in animation at high school. "I had an amazing video/film editing teacher who let us experiment as much as we wanted with the software we had available. My impulse was always to take video I shot and try to do the most surreal things I could with them - I'd film my friends opening their mouths and then use motion graphics software to make flaming unicorns shoot out."
"I made this very long, awful ‘cartoon’ that was cobbled together entirely out of textures and free images that I would layer, mask and animate using the software. Since then I've always thought of ‘trash’ as my medium in a really loose sense. GIFs are really trashy, they're 256 colors maximum and very ephemeral by their nature, so they felt natural to work with."
Though Kelton’s vision was driven by both personal concerns and a very singular aesthetic, the making of Trash Mountain was very much a collaborative process. A friend and musical collaborator recorded Kelton performing the songs that soundtrack each page of the strip; Kelton then animated the resulting GIFs by both drawing from scratch using his imagination, and rotoscoping more complicated movements.
"My girlfriend, Allyce, is an amazing photographer, so she started helping me shoot and frame video reference for that rotoscoped character animation. Also, I was originally building the GIF comic in New Hive, a net art platform, but in late 2017 the site crashed and I couldn't save anything new to my page. As a solution I had my web-developer friend Jeff look at New Hive's code and try to mimic what I was doing, stacking the GIFs like comic panels as close as possible using Wordpress." The actual animation itself was done in Photoshop, as laid out by Kelton on his Surface Book.
On the future of digital storytelling, Kelton is excited about its applications within both fact and fiction narratives. "The cartoonist Scott McCloud talks about the unique way time is conveyed in comics, how the passage of time can be shown within a panel, but also how it flows in the space between panels. With GIF comics, you're adding this whole other layer of time on top of that, which I've only just started to play around with."
"I've also seen outlets like the New York Times, Pitchfork and Vice start to incorporate GIF-like animations in their reporting too. As newspapers continue to struggle and the blogosphere gets more and more saturated, GIF journalism can bring a fresh new lens and angle to how we tell stories, but also to how we can keep people's attention while we tell these stories."
Looking to the future as a whole, Kelton’s vision is one of a trash-strewn landscape. "I think it's interesting that once humans are gone, most of the artifacts from the Anthropocene era will be all the garbage we produced buried in the ground and floating in the sea. I think of certain internet memes and my own particular style as a way of recycling or reclaiming that ‘web garbage’ of watermarked clip art and gross fonts, and making something new out of it. I think my generation and the generations after mine will very much need to learn how to make novel new things out of garbage, since that's the world we've been handed."