Making a ‘Monologue’: A Conversation with Lyndon J. Barrois
It took Lyndon J. Barrois only six weeks to make the animation that accompanies this month’s Monologue with Ta-Nehisi Coates—six weeks working at all hours of the day (and often night) in the studio behind his home in the Lafayette Square neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sometimes he was so engrossed in his work that when his wife, Janine—who, as the showrunner of the TNT drama Claws, has her own set of crazy work hours—came home at the end of the day, she would have to go out back and holler his name. (“I’m also the cook,” Barrois explains, with a chuckle.)
Barrois, a native of New Orleans, got his start in animation while attending graduate school at CalArts in the early 1990s—but he had begun using tiny human figures made out of chewing-gum wrappers to tell stories long before that. As a child, he would collect the refuse from his mom’s substantial Wrigley’s habit (“She chewed so much that the doctors told her to stop,” he says) and turn it into art.
Barrois’s talent for miniatures has made him the subject of segments on the Today show and HBO’s Inside the NFL; he currently has a miniature sculpture and animation piece, titled Futballet—consisting of reenactments of great moments in World Cup soccer history—on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami until early September. He plays around on much larger scales as well, having worked for two decades as an animator, supervisor, and character animator on feature films, including the Matrix trilogy, Tree of Life, and Happy Feet. We spoke with Barrois, a newly instituted member of the board of the National Portrait Gallery, about his inspiration, his process, and his love of working with “trash.”
What sorts of ideas went through your head when you first got this assignment and heard the audio interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates?
Obviously, he’s a writer, so I wanted to figure out how to make the miniatures play with real-world objects. That’s when I thought about the pencils and books, and then the Black Panther thing—the black turtleneck and beret. And the comb. That’s such a powerful, iconic image of that era. We all had those combs. I’m older than [Coates]. His dad had them, I had them, and I really wanted to use that image because the metal teeth said “prison bars” to me. I was trying to meticulously design the whole thing within a three-minute context that I could execute. I just wanted to keep it active—this is one of the first narrative things I’ve done that didn’t involve sports. I wanted to [make it so] you’re not just looking at an animated piece, but [watching] a story and a narrative play out—a short film of someone’s life.
As the father of a son, did working on a piece about a father and his son resonate with you?
It made me think of some of our experiences that I could bring to it. In terms of black fathers and sons, we have the same goals and wishes for them as anyone else—safety, happiness, success, et cetera, in whatever forms they manifest. But we can never deny the added layer of fear that is placed on us and our sons by society’s depictions and assumptions of us. It’s literally fuckin’ life-threatening. And you can’t go around being paranoid about it, but you always have to be conscious and cautious. White people will never understand what that feels like, where “the talk” isn’t just about sex but also staying alive daily under normal circumstances.
Your son, Lyndon Barrois Jr., is also an artist, right?
Yes, he is! I would’ve loved to have him work on it with me, but our schedules and logistics didn’t favor us this time. When I was at CalArts, he would come on weekends, and once he did a pencil-test animation on a down-shooter [a camera set-up used in animation], he realized then that was all the animation he ever wanted to do. It’s not for everybody.
But in terms of my miniatures work, he’s probably my biggest fan. He and his wife, Addoley Dzegede, who’s also an incredible artist, were professors in residence at the University of Kansas this past year, and he invited me to talk. It turned into a Q&A, with him doing the interviewing, and I was blown away by his critique, interpretation, and admiration he’s always had for my work. I never realized it existed at that level for him, and it’s probably the main reason why I’m [having] this renaissance. He’s always told me to keep doing it, in spite of all the features work. So I’m finally listening to that chump. He knew all along ... thanks, Pud’n!
“White people will never understand what that feels like, where ‘the talk’ isn’t just about sex but also staying alive daily under normal circumstances.”
Where do you buy, and how do you build, the props for a production like this? Are they items meant for, say, dollhouses?
Amazon has everything. And then art stores. For most of the miniature props, I have this site called Shapeways that I go to—they’re all 3-D-printed. [For] the stuff I don’t have the time or, ironically enough, the patience to make, I will just get 3-D-printed props, which paint really well and photograph really well.
And then we just had to build everything. And again, I needed to design it in a way that I could build all of that stuff and execute it within the time frame. You can see in those pictures the sets are really cool—it’s like a real set, it’s just 1-4-3 scale. I gotta tell you, I had so much fun making it. As time-consuming as it is, and even though I’m all by myself, it’s fun and it’s focus.
What was the most challenging part of this particular piece?
The turtleneck was tricky: trying to prop it so he can jump out of the neck and down the shirt. I basically did a process called “down-shooting,” where the shirt is lying on the flat plane, and I’m animating [the character] vertically down.
The hardest set to construct was the apartment. That was the last thing I did because I really wanted it to be convincing. There’s an ironing board, the purple chair, the radiator, a stroller, a crib, Ta-Nehisi’s desk with books and papers, a printer, a bookshelf, and a painting of [African American cyclist] Major Taylor that I did and shrank down to put on their wall. Because I want to do something on Major Taylor someday.
Can you say more about the process of creating the figures?
I had some [already] made that were unpainted, from my World Cup show; they didn’t make the cut to be in the sculpture. The brothers raining from the sky, I painted them for those roles.
Ta-Nehisi was made for the piece. And you’ll like this: his dad, in the prison scene, when he raises his fist—that was a miniature that was in my thesis from CalArts. It was the horse trainer for Secretariat, and I was able to use him for this film. That film was done in, what, 1994? So I just did a little touch-up on him, and he performed beautifully.
You talk about the figures as if they’re human.
It’s going to sound weird, but it’s really a whole casting session. I have lots of [miniature figures], some already made—but I specifically also make new ones, because some of the ones I made don’t look right for the part. I can tell by the shape of them how they’re going to look on camera and how they’re going to perform.
[Coates’s] miniature went through so much. I don’t do any replacement animation, so every figure that’s in there performs every piece of his move. He did everything, from walking through the campus, falling down the hole, and even when his arms get thrown up. Then he had to do all the stuff where he’s sitting and turning in his chair; then he had to battle with the tree, the whole Atlas sequence. It went through some paces, and it held up. I was like, ‘Wow.’ There was a moment where I had to give him a break.
How do you fashion a figure from a gum wrapper, exactly?
I start at the end. I do the legs first—the legs are always first. I go from the bottom up: legs, torso, arms, neck. And no tearing. You cannot tear—if you tear, it’s done. You weaken it. I just pinch it and twist it.
What brand of wrappers are you using?
They’re all Wrigley’s chewing gum wrappers—Spearmint, Doublemint, Juicy Fruit, or Big Red. [Each figure is] one wrapper, with an additional piece for a head. And then I use speaker sponge for their hair. The texture lights really well.
I have thousands of wrappers. I started doing this as a kid, with my mom’s wrappers, and then I just brought them all out to California with me. I drew a lot, and when I realized that it was paper on one side and foil on the other side, and I could twist it with the paper side out, I would grab markers and put colors on it. I was actually making people to put in Hot Wheels cars. The cars had no drivers.
I still have some of those earliest figurines. Thank God I took them, because [Hurricane] Katrina would have taken them all away.
So you’re using Wrigley’s wrappers? Are you worried about running out of them?
I’m mostly using the older wrappers. The paper stock is heavier, and therefore the armature is better. And I can move them in such small increments. The new paper doesn’t do that as well; the foil and the paper are different.
I’ll never run out. Cause I didn’t just buy the stuff—you’d be amazed how many you can find on the street.
You pick them up off the ground?
My eye is still scanning the ground for wrappers, and when I see something, I’ll pick it up. I’m using recycled paper. I’m actually making art from trash.
You shoot on an iPhone?
Two iPhone 6s. I use a fish-eye lens, or a macro, or a normal 35. Macros are really tough because I’m close to the object, and I have a shallow space to move them around. The wide angles are tough because there’s more area I have to cover, like with those tree shots—I had to cover the ceiling in my studio to make it look like the sky.
You’re working all alone, right?
Yes. It’s very meditative, and I like it because, you know, I’m an animator and a director. I’m a ham at heart—I like getting the performance out of the miniatures and just the challenge of doing that. It’s very meditative and it’s very challenging, and there’s no feeling that is as cool as when you look at a shot and you feel like you got it because you get all excited about cutting it in and seeing how it’s flowing.
I might have a TV going for the sense of company, or music. I play the soundtrack for Hamilton a lot. That shit’s inspiring. I play the Unforgivable Blackness soundtrack a lot that Wynton [Marsalis] did. Also Willy Wonka—the original soundtrack.
“I’m a ham at heart—I like getting the performance out of the miniatures and just the challenge of doing that.”
Where do you edit?
We have a guesthouse that’s two stories, and my shooting studio is downstairs: I shoot down there, then I go upstairs to edit. Most of the editing I do on my phone—between iMovie and an app called Videoleap.
You edit on the phone?
Yes. I was working on that thing when I wasn’t at home—I’d just whip out my phone. These things are walking studios!
I’m interested in the fact that the figures don’t have facial features.
I’ve tried painting faces on them before, and they just don’t come out. And it really does work without the faces being there. I wanted to see if I could really get—like when he turns around and puts Samori’s chin in his palm, that you know what he’s thinking, and then his dad when they’re looking at the prisoners; there are thought processes going on that they’re emoting. That you don’t really need faces for.
Do you prefer digital or stop-motion?
I enjoy the hell out of both of them, but stop-motion is much more tactile, and I’m really fucking good at it. I can execute some really convincing performances.
You’re working on a short about the boxer Jack Johnson, right?
It’s called Prizefighter. I’m going to put it on the festival circuit. Right now it’s slated to screen in downtown LA in October at the California African American Museum—that will be a big deal. Then I have to re-create how I shot it, in the museum: I have to re-create my studio space and my sets with the miniatures and the cranes and the lights, and that’s going to be an all-encompassing piece.
The cool thing is when you work on something for a while and step away from it, you get fresh eyes on it. And just revisiting it after doing this piece [about Coates], I just cut two minutes out of it. I’m just tightening it up, and it feels closer to what I’ve always intended it to be.
Jack Johnson has been in the news a lot lately because President Trump, at Sylvester Stallone’s urging, pardoned him posthumously.
Jack Johnson was civil rights before civil rights was a term. The ironic thing is [Trump] would have been the guy trying to lynch Jack Johnson. Fuck him. He’s got no business touching that fucking history. It’s all just for the publicity. It’s all bullshit.
Monologue: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Dreams of a Father
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoirs and essays on race, politics, and culture are now some of the most widely read in American letters. In an interview with Topic recorded in downtown Manhattan in April, Coates reflects on his childhood, the process of becoming a father, and how parenthood made him the man—and the writer—he is today. Listen to a longer, audio-only version of the interview below, and check out our discussion with animator Lyndon J. Barrois about how he made Coates’s story come to life.