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Deftly Blending Sights And Sounds: A Q&A With Musician/Animator Alexis Gideon

Alexis Gideon is an artist whose work spans both medium and genre. He has an extensive background as a musician, having formed one half of the Chicago duo Princess, and performed with the likes of Matt and Kim. He is also a self-taught illustrator with a knack for blending musical background with visuals. In 2009, Gideon released “Video Musics”: a definitively original animated and stop-motion opera. Now, after two years of further honing his craft, he’s created “Video Musics II”—a strange and beautiful re-imagining of the 16th century Chinese novel Journey To The West.

We met up with Alexis Gideon on his tour for “Video Musics II” and were delighted by the way he cleverly modernized the classic Chinese text with the well-executed synthesis of hand-made drawings and live musical accompaniment. The show’s illustrations are simple, yet compelling—their sketchbook style and neon water coloring convey an appealingly lo-fi, dreamlike visual aesthetic. The music is strange enough to be interesting, yet pop enough to keep audiences engaged for the show’s one hour duration. Gideon acts as a one-man band during each showing, somehow managing to skillfully operate a drum machine, play guitar, sing, and rap—all timed meticulously to accompany the video playing on a large projector beside him on stage. The audio and visuals of “Video Musics II” together engage the viewer in a compelling virtual reality-type experience as the narrative of Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his quest to India unfolds.

We asked Alexis some questions via e-mail to better understand the mechanics behind this fascinating work of multimedia art.

The Creators Project: Did you draw all the images in your animation or did you collaborate with other visual artists for the project?
Alexis Gideon: I was lucky enough to work with four great artists for this project: Becca Taylor (Punk Planet, Arthur), Cynthia Star (Coraline, Moral Orel, Robot Chicken), Ezra Claytan Daniels, and Shelley Short (Hush). All five of us made the hand drawn art. I assembled the art and edited the video using Photoshop and Final Cut. I tried to take a lot of care in deciding what to assign to whom. Becca did the beautiful flowing watercolors, Ezra did the more grotesque monsters in a more classic, comic book style, and Shelley did all the patterns, like the water and embroidered ball of feathers. I did all of the lo-fi drawings, and Cynthia and I did all the stop motion parts together.

I think that each artist’s own personal style really shines through and adds a lot of depth to the piece. I wanted to make sure that the contrasting styles were used in a way that enhanced the narrative, and didn’t distract from it. I couldn’t have created the piece without these wonderful people. They were all such a joy to work with.

Tell us a little about Journey to the West being the theme for “Video Musics II.” When and in what context did you first encounter the text, and what made you decide to use it as the source text for this piece?
When I finished the first “Video Musics,” I had a little notebook that I wrote random things in connected to what I wanted “Video Musics II” to be about: Twin Peaks, ancestor worship, reincarnation—it was a pretty weird list. I took the list to the library and checked out books that were in some way loosely related. Somehow, I landed on this book Monkey, a shortened version of Journey to the West. Two weeks prior, I had a dream about severed heads floating to the top of a river. A similar episode occurs with Sha Monk in Monkey. I got chills when I read it. I knew that this was the story I wanted to base VM2 on. I then got my hands on a copy of Journey to the West and started working on it.

From start to finish, how long did it take you to make “Video Musics II”?
From starting research to the premiere, it was two and a half years.

What was your perception of how it was received? Is it important to you that people like it? Did you play a variety of venues, and which type of venue do you think your work is most suited to?
I think that VM2 has been very well received so far—much better than my previous works. It is important to me that people enjoy it. I tried to make a work for both adults and kids. I have performed it in a variety of venues: galleries, art spaces, movie theaters, bars, clubs, record stores. I think that the piece is most suited to art galleries and art spaces, although it is fun to perform anywhere, especially movie theaters. I think it works the best when there are chairs for people. Standing for an hour is a lot to ask of an audience.

Who is Brimstone Blaine?
Brimstone Blaine is a card playing Alligator cowboy from the future and outer space. He is a character from my first video opera, “Video Musics.” He’s actually based on my friend Shane, who often freestyles under that moniker. We were playing a game of gin rummy with two other friends, and the stakes were whoever lost had to write a song for whoever won. Needless to say, I lost and Shane won, so I wrote “Brimstone Blaine” for him.

What’s the next project we can expect to see from you?
“Video Musics III” is in the research stages right now. It is going to be 35 minutes, and mostly in stop motion. It will be based on the short works of the early 20th Century Irish writer Lord Dunsany.