I was a library kid.
On weekends my parents would drop me off at the library and leave me there for hours while I explored the stacks and exhausted the local supply of books about drawing, graphic arts, comics, animation, and movies. I couldn’t get enough. Still can’t, tbh:
And when I think about what fascinated me the most when I was devouring these books as a young person who wanted to make his own books and comics and movies, it wasn’t any specific knowledge or technique or method. What really fascinated me was when I read about a creator having solved a problem, and the author of the book didn’t divulge how they arrived at the solution, and instead seemingly chalked it up to some innate otherworldly sixth sense. Call it genius, or just intuition, but it sometimes felt as if I was reading books on how to perform magic tricks, and the secret was to simply have magical powers.
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The most memorable example of this is when I was a kid reading about Charlie Chaplin directing 1931’s City Lights.
The author of the book explained how Chaplin was faced with a dilemma. In this film, he needed a blind flower girl to mistake the penniless Tramp for a man of wealth and means. But how? Because the character was blind, he couldn’t rely on his usual visual gags. So, how was he to communicate this to the viewer—and not only that, but with simplicity and clarity? He was flummoxed.
The answer—ironically, for a silent movie—was to use sound.
Here’s a clip that shows the elegant solution. We see the Tramp weaving through a cluster of cars when, in an attempt to avoid a traffic cop, he ducks into a parked limousine, shutting the door behind him as he exits on the other side. It’s the sound of the car door that sets this case of mistaken identity in motion.
It took weeks to complete, but the sequence moves like clockwork. At no point does the maneuvering through the cars seem like a belabored set-up for this pivotal encounter. Everything flows so effortlessly from one moment to the next that you’d never know that it was difficult to write and choreograph.
But then there’s me reading about it as a kid, and thinking, “okay, yeah, but… how?” One moment he didn’t know how to solve this story problem, and the next he seemed to have conjured the perfect solution out of thin air.
How did he know how to do that? Where did that idea come from?
The Magic Triangle
My mom always says she knew I was going to be an artist when at Age 5 I drew Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and I accurately depicted their distinct designs. Pretty close at least:
I think most of everything I know about character design comes from these two friends and their opposing but complementary shapes and patterns. And having so accurately captured their simple likenesses at an early age, you’d think there wasn’t any real mystery to it, but then I read about The Magic Triangle.
Attributed to Don Sahlin, Jim Henson’s main designer and puppet builder in the ’60s and ’70s, The Magic Triangle, as it’s now known, is the placement of the characters’s eyes in relation to their nose and mouth to create a central focus point, bringing the puppet to life.
“It would be the last thing [Sahlin] would do,” said Henson, “and he always wanted me there, to make sure it was right for both of us—making sure the eyes had a point of focus, because without that you had no character.”
Part of this placement typically has the pupils positioned not in the exact center of the eyes, but toward each other, somewhat cross-eyed. For example, here are Bert and Ernie with their pupils centered perfectly within their eyes:
Now compare that to how the pupils are actually positioned:
The difference is subtle but undeniable. With the Magic Triangle employed, the characters look focused… engaged… real. Without it, they look sort of lifeless.
But again: how did he know how to do that?
I was accustomed to how-to-draw-cartoons books with step-by-step instructions, but this Magic Triangle was not a formula that I could follow. This was something different. It was a feeling.
When I read about it as a kid, it seemed like secret, arcane sorcery. Like magic. I guess it’s right there in the name.
Not knowing how these various tricks were done never deterred me. I think it was enough to know that they were tricks, and that maybe the secrets would be in the next book I picked up. I was a curious kid, and reading these books from the library set me on a path to a career that finds me still being curious about all this stuff—solving story problems and refining visual design—on a daily basis.
And that’s the thing about libraries. They reward curious kids.
In 2012, I was invited by Seth to contribute to The North Wing—a series of short comics adapted from works of Canadian literature—for CanLit magazine Canadian Notes & Queries.
Seth asked if I might adapt something from Robertson Davies, and I knew immediately that I wanted to draw the moment in Fifth Business in which the young Dunstan Ramsay takes stewardship of the Deptford town library, and discovers the books there that would alter the course of his life.
Your bookshelves! Amazing. No wonder you can always find an image for a word.
The Magic Triangle, when I first learned about it, left a big impression on me too. Love all of this John. I think we share a common curiosity for these sorts of things—I too was a curious kid. Still am!