SXSW 2012: Beauty is Embarrassing

Disclaimer: Wayne White was a speaker at the 2011 F5 festival. His talk there makes an appearance at the end of this film. We covered Beauty is Embarrassing as part of our SXSW 2012 coverage and were unaware of its inclusion until the film’s premiere screening.

In Beauty is Embarrassing, director Neil Berkeley and his subject, Wayne White, create one of the funniest, most thoughtful, and well-articulated documentaries of the highs and lows that face all professional artists that I have ever seen. The film explores balancing work and personal life, the fickle nature of success, and what motivates us to keep going with our often difficult jobs. Not to make it sound like a serious affair – as you’ll see from the trailer, it’s impossible to spend time with Wayne White and not laugh your ass off.

Wayne White is the production designer/puppet master behind the legendary Pee Wee’s Playhouse. His surreal set designs and subversive characters like Dirty Dog and Randy set the precedent for TV like Adult Swim and Yo Gabba Gabba! Designer, painter, puppeteer, sculptor, and musician, White also art directed the seminal music video for The Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight. Most recently, he’s been embraced by the fine art world for his tongue-in-cheek word paintings.

The never-before-seen footage of the making of Pee-wee’s Playhouse alone makes the film worth watching. But this art-doc doesn’t fall into the trap of simply just documenting its subject’s process.

Balancing Work and Personal Life

Some of the most poignant moments in Beauty is Embarrassing are between Wayne and his wife, Mimi Pond. An accomplished artist in her own right, Mimi is also an amazing partner and mother. The pair talks openly about the give and take of supporting each other’s careers and family. From the woman’s side of things, I found it a refreshingly frank and sincere discussion on motherhood and one’s career. The work/life struggle doesn’t have a straight answer; it’s a work in progress. In the later moments of the film, we see the very real consequences of extreme workaholism. It’s not only Wayne who is a survivor of the work/life struggle, it’s his family and friends as well.

The Fickle Nature of Success

After hitting it big with Pee Wee’s Playhouse, the show’s abrupt cancellation leaves Wayne with a very harsh dose of Hollywood reality. While the commercial world can provide an oasis where an artist can make a good living doing what he loves, it can also be very demanding and sometimes unforgiving.

The fine art world seems no less a cautionary tale. Art critic David Pagel admits, “In the art world, funny isn’t taken seriously. People want more than just a joke.” Wayne counters, “I’ll settle for laughter any day. Laughter is a deep thing. Most people don’t think it is, but it is.”

What Motivates Us to Keep Going

Throughout the film, Wayne White’s infectious attitude and unstoppable desire to create pulls us with him. Plywood scraps and recycled cardboard get turned into magical sculptures. Another of my favorite moments shows Wayne with his childhood friend Mike riding at breakneck speed in a homebrew topless van through the Tennessee forest. One friend went to the big city to find his dreams while another stayed home. They reminisce on their different paths, but it’s not any sort of overwrought, tortured thinking. These guys have great friends and close loved ones, and they’ve each found their own way to make art a part of their every day.

Storytelling’s power comes from its ability to communicate a single, specific experience, that can also convey underlying themes that anyone can identify with. At its core, Beauty Is Embarrassing shows what it takes for one uniquely talented, profanely hilarious, and utterly uncompromising artist to make it in America. In Wayne White, Neil Berkeley has found a universal story that anyone, artist or not, will find inspiring.

Where to see Beauty is Embarrassing

• Thursday, June 21, 7:30pm, LACMA/Bing Theater, LA Film Festival. Tickets
• Saturday, June 23, 5:30pm, Silver Spring, MD, SilverDocs. Tickets
• Sunday, June 24, 8:15pm, Silver Spring, MD, SilverDocs. Tickets

At the time of publication the film has not been picked up for major distribution. There is a Kickstarter campaign in progress to distribute Beauty is Embarrassing to theaters nationally. Help Neil and Wayne bring their story to as many people as possible!

Q&A with Wayne White and Neil Berkeley

While Motionographer was at SXSW 2012, we were able to meet with Wayne and Neil shortly after the world premiere screening of Beauty is Embarrassing. They generously shared more insight into their film and their process. This interview was conducted with the help of Motionographer author Lilian Darmano.

How did you meet?

Neil: When Wayne and I met eleven years ago I was interning for a broadcast design company and he was drawing Priceline commercials. Wayne hired me to install his first gallery show, and I was a PA on the Snapple commercials. I actually puppeted the Axl Rose Snapple doll.

I ended up starting my own motion graphics company, BRKLY, at the same time I started the movie. It ended up being the perfect match for a movie like this. BRKLY did the end credits in addition to opening titles and other credits. I’ve always wanted to animate Wayne’s work because it’s very lively and kinetic, so that ended up being a big part of the movie.

How has Wayne influenced Neil?

Neil: from the time I was seven years old, my appreciation of pop art has tracked Wayne’s entire career. Anytime I was curious about anything – Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Beakman’s World, music videos, or fine art, Wayne was right there whether I knew him or not. Without even knowing who I was he influenced me.

Beyond that, I think we share a work ethic, a blue collar, ditch digging, get your hands dirty, work ethic. Just put your nose down and work hard. You can have a lot of talent, but you got to get in there and stay busy. I really appreciate that he works as hard as anybody I know. And he was an influence on me in that way. Knowing that Wayne could produce this much stuff, than I should at least try.

Throughout the film there’s a presentation by Wayne that acts as the anchor for the film. What is the origin of that artist talk?

Wayne: that talk began as the usual slide talk that artists do at universities and galleries. It was kind of disorganized and rambling as they often are. Neil had the idea of making it the heart of the movie.

Neil: The first time I saw it, the projector and microphone didn’t work, but I realized he was telling his story. At the time it was shaped around his influences and work, and I said maybe this can be about your past, your mom and dad, etc.

Him telling the story is it’s own thing. It’s more interesting than talking heads or other people doing it. If Wayne does it, it’s fun, and he’s funny and irreverent.

Wayne: That inspired me to tighten it up and make it into a piece of theater. I scripted it, added animation and banjo, rehearsed it thoroughly and created that one man show that you saw at F5. That’s the origin of it. It was created to help facilitate the film, born out of cinematic necessity.

How was the jump from a motion graphics background into a feature-length documentary?

Neil: This was my first movie, so there was a big learning curve. But I’m also a director. I direct all of BRKLY’s green screen work and commercials, so I know the ins and outs of handling a camera and getting a shot and composition and following a story and listening. I had the nuts and bolts.

Also we got some companies to do some great work for us. Lifelong Friendship Society animated the Pee-Wee drawings. Gentleman Scholar animated the car crash scene, which is beautiful. They saw the teaser trailer and jumped on board right away. I went down there with a bunch of drawings and Ralph Steadman work and the narrative and they came back with amazing work.

The film feels very intimate. It was nice to see your relationship with your family and your work. That’s a big issue in motion graphics.

Wayne: Yes, that’s something that a lot of people identified with when they saw the movie, especially artists. How do you balance your family and your day job, with your creative spirit.

I think they also identified with the honesty of it, because it’s an ongoing process, even with me. It’s still a daily struggle for me to balance all of this stuff.

I think it shows that we weren’t trying to whitewash anything or say it’s better than it was. It’s very honest and it’s something that all artists deal with and it’s not something you see often in a documentary.

That was an issue too when Neil first approached me about making a documentary. Especially two years ago, when I heard doc I thought, I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t pollute the Gulf of Mexico. I didn’t make genocide in Europe. I’m not a secret closet maniac. Those are all what documentaries about.

Little did I know that my story was relevant, and Neil brought out the salient points. The movie is really about the hero’s journey and that’s why everyone identifies with it. It’s that prototypical story. Country boy goes to the city. Working stiff tries to balance life and work. It’s all the universal themes that may not on the surface seem terribly dramatic or documentary worthy but Neil brought those out with his art.

There’s a part of the movie where you’re animating an entire show by yourself in the basement

Wayne: That’s the part of the movie when I go off the rails. I was trying to be one man animation team, and I kept it up for a couple years. But it exhausted me and I was completely burned out. That’s when I started painting again. I had come to the end of my rope as far as Hollywood and production. Working myself into a dead end gave me the inspiration to go back to painting.

Do you think you might go back into the computer land?

Wayne: I still do occasional freelance in Illustrator, but I haven’t done animation in a long while. I’d love to. Animation, regardless of the cruelty of the work, and how hard it is, I still love it. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your drawing come to life. That was probably the most satisfying artist buzz I’ve ever had.

That’s what drove me so hard. That’s what made me work all night – just to see that little guy walk across the frame. I would go to any length to see that.

Neil: Wayne actually art directed the final credits to the film.

Wayne: I didn’t see the movie until the premiere. I wanted to give Neil the respect that I would want as an artist. But I couldn’t keep my hands off the credits. I love animation. The movie even has some ancient examples of my early computer art. My animation from Beakman’s World was done on a Commodore Amiga, frame by frame, with a mouse in a program called Deluxe Paint 4.

How do you feel about people borrowing, adapting, maybe even stealing your work?

Wayne: Complicated feelings. It’s a strange mixture of flattery and – how would you feel? But that’s the marketplace. That’s the dangers of the game of working commercially, because ideas are up for grabs and an idea goes viral and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I learn to just grin and bear it. Everyone uses the ideas that are out there. I’m not completely original myself. I have to keep reminding myself that ideas are a big pool and nothing is new under the sun. I didn’t invent giant block letters. I just used them in a new context. Everything is inherited. The challenge to the artist is to reinterpret.

I’m not the first guy to use text in paintings. Ed Ruscha may be looking at me and thinking, “That bastard”. I’m part of a continuum and I’m contributing to the culture.

What are the plans for the film and what is in the future for both of you?

Neil: The film is hitting the road. We’re going to Cleveland and Oklahoma and Boston. Hopefully the whole world can see it. BRKLY is going gangbusters.

Wayne: I will be at most of the festivals with Neil. I think this is a once in a lifetime experience.

Editor’s Note: See our notes above for upcoming screenings and the Beauty is Embarrassing Kickstarter campaign for film distribution.

Thank you to Wayne and Neil for their time. Good luck!

Beauty is Embarrassing End Credits
Company: BRKLY
Principal: Neil Berkeley
Creative Director – Milan Erceg
Art Direction and Character Design – Wayne White
Lead Animator – Michael Wynne
Additional Animation – David Kerman
Modeling – Noah Rappaport
Textures, lighting and add’l animation – Michael Murdoch
Producer – Liah Corral
Music by – P. Michael Quinn

Beauty is Embarrassing: Car Wreck
Created by: Gentlemen Scholar
Creative Directors: Will Johnson, William Campbell
Illustrators/Designers: Heather Aquino, Will Johnson, William Campbell, Joseph Chan
Animators: Heather Aquino, John Patrick Rooney, Nicole Smarsh, Rachel Yonda, Joseph Chan, Sang Shin
Executive Producer: Rob Sanborn
Producer: Tyler Locke