It Was An Accident: An Interview with Cartoonist Lev Yilmaz


For the past twelve years, animator Lev Yilmaz has been writing and directing static animated shorts. His cartoons are brief and to the point, often directly getting to the middle of the painful experience it is to be alive.

RASCAL MAGAZINE:  How did you begin making your video series “Tales of Mere Existence?”
LEV YILMAZ: Very simply. I had just moved to San Francisco, and I didn’t know anybody. I was a transplant from Boston. I was finding it difficult to meet people, so I started keeping a journal just to keep myself company. I would write down what I did on any given day, and after a while, I started illustrating it as well with these goofball little sketches. One day, I woke up with a hangover, and read what I had written the night before on the bus, on the way home from a rather disappointing party. I had nothing to do that day, so I figured I’d animate that little story using a technique I had seen in an art house movie once. That was the first episode, called “Party.” It was only 20 seconds long. A few weeks later, I did a second, and then a third, and figured I may as well do a series, as I had never done one before. There was no planning, or proverbial lightening bolt of inspiration. I find that most life changing excursions can come from looking at banal events with a slightly heightened sense of curiosity.

RM: Have you always been a cartoonist?
LY: I drew a lot of cartoons when I was a kid, and I suppose I was planning to be a cartoonist  until I became a teenager. Then I started playing music, and then I wanted to be a decadent booze soaked musician.  Eventually, I found that I did not have the personality or talent to pull that off properly, so I studied drawing and video making in art school. A few years after graduating, I gravitated back to cartooning again. I swear though, it was an accident.

RM: Is there a reason you chose cartooning as a way to make your art?
LY: Again, I don’t know if it was a conscious decision. I think after art school, I started fussing about, trying to see where I could get my artwork seen, and very quickly concluded that the art world is exactly that: An “Art World”, a virtually impenetrable club. I probably looked at it thru a veil of too much judgmental hostility, but I still think I had a point. I always looked at art as a language, as a way to communicate, and I wasn’t terribly interested in communicating with an exclusive group of people. Most of America is not wine & cheese, it’s pizza & beer.  Cartooning is not an especially respected medium, so it’s ideal for reaching the latter.

“I gravitated back to cartooning again. I swear though, it was an accident.”

RM: Do you ever hesitate before making darker videos, or is the light-hearted material harder to come up with?
LY: When I’m working properly, I don’t hesitate at the moodier stuff at all. Neither one is harder or easier. It all comes down to whether or not I’m getting in my own way, worrying too much about how it will be perceived. I fall into that trap more often that I’d like to admit.

RM: Do you draw the majority of your information from personal experience, or is a lot of your material more along the lines of commentary from an outsider to some of these situations?
LY: It’s all based on stuff that actually happened, or whatever my current obsessions are. Sometimes though, I get triggered by not a particular experience, as much as watching or noticing somebody do something that reminds me instantly of a thought or emotion I had once. I know that’s vague, but it’s hard to explain. To give you an example, if I see a kid that’s being picked on, or a couple on an awkward date, it can bring me back immediately to something I have not thought or felt in a while. That sort of thing happens a lot.

RM: What’s the most recent book you have read?
LY: I read the Kurt Vonnegut biography fairly recently, and I’ve been re reading the Onion Atlas book “Our Dumb World”. That one is so dense, there’s no way it can all sink in first time around.

RM: If you had to name a couple artists or people in general who have inspired you, who would they be?
LY: I think the ones who directly inspired the “Tales” series are probably pretty obvious: Matt Groening when he was doing “Life In Hell”, Vonnegut’s “Breakfast Of Champions” are the main ones for the format, but I also got a tremendous amount from that band The Magnetic Fields. The “69” album in particular. My favorite cartoonist is probably Reuben Bolling, who hits you from angles you never knew existed. I don’t think I get inspired that directly from an actual piece of work quite as much now as I do from the mood I feel when I see something, the approach, the attitude.

I’m going off your question, but I’ve lately been fascinated trying to pin down the particular comic approaches to all the key cast members of the original series of “Whose Line Is It Anyway”. I don’t have anything to gain from figuring this out, I’m just curious. One of these days, maybe I’ll even be able to explain it.

Interview by Emily Votaw

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