Leon Butler – Visual Narrative Designer
Leon Butler is a filmmaker, animator, graphic designer, print designer and musician. The Chair of Galway Design Week 2015, Leon also lectures in animation at Galway Technical Institute (GTI).
Can you tell us about your background, and what you've been doing up to now?
I'm originally from Longford. I went to Sligo and studied industrial design and that was good - it was really tactile. I did a lot of 3D modelling and animation and that tangent towards graphics. I ended up in the housing market doing stuff like building houses that weren't built yet in 3D and we'd make a DVD of it and sell them off the plans sort of thing. It was a small start-up - that was cool. I always played in bands and we never had any money, so I designed the posters, and I designed the EP cover. Then someone would be putting on a DJ night, so I'd design the posters and I ended up doing that stuff all the time. I was starting to feel that I was getting a bit railroaded into just straight graphics, that I had lost my animation side and my modelling side, so I went back and did a Masters in Digital Media in the Huston Film School. At the same time, we had a lab there, so I set up my own practice at the same time. It was nearly like a start-up incubator because I had access to a big computer and a lab 24 hours a day on campus in NUIG. At the same time, I was getting work in and getting to build a small client base and make music videos, so it was really, really worth while. That's when I decided it's just me and my practice now, and set up Bold Visual Narrative. That Masters flipped me and opened me up to the bigger range of stuff that I do now, compared to when it was just graphics at the start.
I've worked with a lot of companies since, but I haven't worked for a company since - I haven't been embedded, so it's been really good. I've got really great clients and I've got really good relationships. I did some wine menus for Loam when they started out - I did it on a greaseproof paper with a lamination on it so it's sort of see through. It's so amazing to see that Enda got the star - it's just so good for the town. I've just been working on Tribeton, taking the first meeting two years ago. I couldn't even say it about town - there was this thing that was going to happen and they didn't know what it was and they didn't know what it was going to be called. I worked with David Barrett - he's a dear friend, and we just developed this thing, came up with the Tribeton theme. It's such a different project to Loam because it's big and it's loud and it's written in gold and then Loam is on greaseproof paper in monotone, but it's about trying to find what they're trying to say and say it in the best way possible to deliver what they want.
"You're not going to leave behind your nights out, but you might leave behind something beautiful that you create."
What is the most important thing for you to get across in all the work you do?
It's about communicating what needs to be said in the right way and eliciting the right reaction from people with that. You're interpreting someone else's voice and you're filming someone and you're trying to hear what they're saying. There's a saying that the sculptor finds the statue waiting in the stone. It's kind of like that with my work. For something as simple as a poster, you're given a word file and some images and logos and you have to say, 'What's important here and what do I need to get people to think about this?' When they look at it, are they going to say, 'This is really fun' or 'This is a really serious thing that's going to happen'. With the NUIG Students Union, I worked with them on the design for a breast cancer and testicular cancer awareness campaign where we made these shower card that said, 'Feel your tits' and 'Grab your balls' on either side of it. It was really funny - all the students took them home and loved them, because that was the right voice for that. But if you're going to give them out in the hospital, you probably wouldn't have the same thing so it's about communicating in the right way for the project.
Looking at your work, it's all quite varied - film, animation, the design side of things...
I don't think they're mutually exclusive. They all inform each other and I kind of umbrella them at the moment under visual narrative - that's what I work at. The moving image really interests me and that's something I've always worked with best. The skills that I use to develop things visually are the sort of graphic design skills and sketching skills that I start with, so there's a massive ability to do everything now in a way. With playing in bands, there was never any money, and no one was giving us money so were were like, 'Let's make a video, let's borrow a camera and we'll make a video and I'll edit it. I'll just learn how to edit to make a video' and then, 'We need to record this, how do you record? We'll just get some mics, and we'll learn how to use the production tools'. The same when we were putting on nights, you'd borrow gear. They're probably the best club nights that you end up at - the ones that are grimey, but that's doing it and that really instills something into you, a sort of doing spirit.
There's a new can-do attitude with your generation too...
A lot of people are talking about building a municipal gallery to hang stuff, but when you talk to younger people, they're saying they want a space to create stuff. They're saying, 'We'll find somewhere to hang it; we'll hang it on the street if we have to. We just want to make it and put it out there. We'll get an old warehouse to put it in. But you've got to give us time and facilities to make and develop that sort of stuff'.
That seems to be a definite divide or seachange within it. I was on the cusp of it in industrial design - half of my class did their final products in marker rendering and half did it on computers, so there was a tipping point that I was on the cusp of a wave of new digital technologies that were available and allowed you to do things and I embraced those.
What is it about what you do that excites you?
Creating. Creating in any form really just does that and I always feel better for it. I always feel better for having created something or having something that's an artifact of time that I'd spent. I got to do a residency in the School of Visual Arts in New York for the summer and I developed a generative typeface - a sort of future narrative typeface. It's not one that's laid out that you can type on your computer. I wrote a small programme that generates random characters - the character looks different every time. To make the final poster for the piece I generated over 500 versions of each character. And it wasn't arduous - it was challenging. There was work to do and it had to be done. I was in a studio from 9 to 6 every day and I wanted to be out exploring New York, but I was like, 'I have to get this stuff done', but what came out at the end was so rewarding and so beautiful. It's the same with writing a song or a making a film - there's always a moment where you think of something and just the desire to bring that to life, to create, is always there.
Do you find that you focus on one particular area for a few weeks, and then say you want to start working on another area.
It's more that I'm invested in an idea at the time. So I'm invested in an inspiration and I like to follow that through. The variety of the work is what really keeps it interesting. I love doing print work, and I still do a lot of it - much of it is very bread and butter stuff. It's really rewarding to put something on the 29.7 by 42 or whatever an A3 sheet is and that's your bounds and you have to communicate within that form. But when you get a call from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis to say can you come up and film for two days in Dublin, you're like, 'OK, fuck that other shit'. We went up and spent the two days with them and just caught everything. They're really, really nice people. They're very family-orientated, as in, their friends all work for them. I made an 11-minute doc and it got absorbed into their tour documentary, so there's just a 3-minute cut, but the longer one has a lot more narrative. It was kind of disappointing that it hasn't seen the light of day, because we worked really hard and created something great, but I wasn't the producer on the piece, I was the creator; I got hired to do it, and obviously they absorbed it because they're doing a bigger tour documentary.
You still play music yourself?
I'm still in a band called The Debutantes with Paula Cullen and Sarah Grimes who are in September Girls, but we haven't done anything for a while because they're really busy with their band. We did release a 7-inch in the States this summer, which was brilliant. I've always wanted to have something on vinyl. Hopefully if we can find some time in the new year, when the girls are free and I'm free... I've got a couple of songs rattling around in my head that I'd really like to do. I write songs, and sing and play guitar in that band. I used to play synth and sing in the other band. It's just a lot more simple and a bit more honest. I'm not a very good musician, so the songs I write are really simple anyway, so that's something that appeals, to get back to that simplicity. We toured for a while afterwards, doing gigs and supporting bands, but when you're in a band with two girls, you have to lift all the gear! And it's not just that - when you're in your 20s and you're going to a different town every weekend and you're having a massive party and playing to loads of people, it's brilliant, it's absolutely the best thing. You're automatically friends with 100 people in a room after you play a gig, so you have a great time, but at some stage, you don't have the steam for it anymore - especially if you're working full time and have the candle going at both ends. It's going to catch up with you.
Did you tour much?
We toured around England and toured around Ireland pretty solidly in our 20s, but we never really reached the next level. We did a session for the BBC and a session for RTE and we were played on BBC Radio 1. We were brought over for a showcase in London and record labels came to see us, but the industry at the time was definitely on a total crash anyway. They didn't know what they were doing because there was digital music out, all those things, and we just never reached the next level. You have to push through and have someone believe in you at some stage. We could do all the punk rock self-release stuff, but life just gets in the way - people wanted to go to different countries and see different things and you just kind of call it a day.
Have you had a vision for where you wanted to go with your life and career?
There was definitely a time in my 20s where I was going with the flow and work was coming and everything was grand, but I definitely started getting more deliberate and thinking about what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to get into working in film and visual narrative and refine my craft in those - it's something that I take really seriously. So I do have plans for a lot of projects that I want to work on...and there are more projects than there is time, so everything is deliberate. The stuff that I'm working on doesn't always see the light of day. Sometimes, I get frustrated by going: 'I'm working really hard here, but it's not out there'. I developed two projects with the Film Board for animations that were shortlisted for 'Frameworks' and it's down to the last eight people in the country and four got funded and we weren't one. They decided to fund bigger people who they knew could deliver and I know why they did that, because at the Fleadh, there are slots there and they have to know that they're going to be delivered. But that's a project now that's a PDF file that's sitting there waiting. There are other things have to happen to make that possible - there's development work going on on an awful lot of stuff, but it's just trying to find the right place and the one to click in.
Do you collaborate much or is very much solitary work?
I do collaborate quite a lot. I used to do all the camera work myself, but I found myself getting lost in the technicals of it; I was worried about this and that. So to be able to stand back and wonder about what the story is and let someone else look after it. I thought, 'Yes, you can do that - you're good at film, you're good at all that, but by removing yourself you can do it better'. And the same with editing - I will edit and I can edit, but getting someone to do something rough and having a look through it is sometimes a better way to remove yourself from it and get a certain distance from it, because when you get too close to something, you can't see the wood from the trees.
What is a typical day for you?
In Shantalla, we've got these blackberry bushes out in the back garden. All summer, I go out every morning and I pick them and we freeze them. I always have porridge with the blackberries - that melts them and I get Burren honey down the market - it's so good. Then I get a cup of coffee from the stuff they sell here. You know that app, Headspace, the mindfulness app? I try and do that, then I check emails and I look at any work that I've been working on the day before. I try to leave stuff overnight in terms of an edit or a poster I'm working on and not send it off straight away if I can, because you just get a different perspective overnight. I remember reading an article about a designer in London who when they were creating, they'd come up with an idea, then go to the pub, then come back the next day and check the idea and then they'd have a couple of more drinks that evening. They said that what they were doing wasn't right - they shouldn't have been out drinking, but what they were doing was staying with ideas and letting them develop. You can produce something and send it off straight away, then never get a feeling for it, so sometimes it's important to let stuff go overnight.
Then I get on my bike and spin down to GTI and teach there. I mostly teach animation and gaming this year, but I teach sound production to the film guys as well. It's really good - they've just been in secondary school and they're learning how to animate and make games and they can't believe it, that this could be a thing. They're really, really good and they constantly surprise me. What they come up with really reflects in my own practice, so I can't let myself away with taking shortcuts, because I'm always teaching them about process. I'm like, 'Get out your sketchbooks, work out your idea, don't even turn on your computer until we get this idea worked out and then we'll bring it onto computer'. Because the notebook is king with me, there's a process of brain to hand that can't be replicated on computer - you've got to get it down. Usually after that I go home, get some work in, meet friends for a drink in Sheridan's, or go home and cook, I love cooking.
I'm the chair of Design Network West, so I'm also volunteering on top of having two jobs. There's been no organisation representing design and with the Year of Design, we've put together some great stuff. The design week programme looks amazing; Laura Rigney is our Festival Director and she's just absolutely killed it. We erected a white board on Shop Street today with a sign over it saying, 'Make Galway Better', and two signs to say, 'Ideas Welcome Here'. So we're going to put out whiteboard markers for the week and capture everyone's ideas and see what we can come up with. It's sort of a design thinking process that the whiteboard is king, so we can just sketch out, people come up with some ideas and see what happens - so it's really fun.
"When people describe themselves, they always come off like that bad bit at the end of your first CV where you don't know how to tell your employer you like drinking, so you put down: 'I like socialising with friends’. It's always the worst lie."
What drives you ?
It's creating; it's always been creating - in whatever form that takes.
Have you always been like that?
No, there was a time when I was just floating along with it; things were great and I was having loads of fun, but I remember one day having another conversation with someone about, 'What did you get up to last night?', and that's just what everyone asked whenever you met anyone. There's more than 'What did you get up to last night?'. There's, 'What have you done? What are you doing?'. There's something about that...you're not going to leave behind your nights out, but you might leave behind something beautiful that you create.
Did you have any major influencers along the way?
There's lots of people during my life that have been really important, but it's my mam and dad really. Mum's a teacher, a business teacher. She runs this young entrepreneurs thing with them every year where she gets the kids to come up with and develop a business idea. Every year, she completely buzzes off it and they really love it - they come up with some really great ideas. I've always seen that and she was always pushing me to do those sorts of things. Dad is an engineer and has his own company. He designs these environmental products to catch oil if it's coming out of a carpark so it doesn't go into a river - so its environmental protection stuff and he's had that for 30 years. He set that up when he was 28 and they sold to every continent in the world. He's a councillor now in Longford.
And my friends are so talented that it drives you to be better. Andrew Meehan is a writer and he just published a short story called 'Difficult People' in Kevin Barry's Winter Pages. It's just so good. Seamus Sheridan just released a book, Counter Culture: The Sheridan's Guide to Cheese - it's so nice, so pretty. Dave Barrett just opened Tribeton. When they're all doing this sort of stuff - that drives you.
Do you work on instinct or do you think things through?
There's a moment of inspiration and that's what you're always trying to get back to. When I come up with a song or an idea for a film, I've got a moment of clarity, a moment of pureness and the process is just a work back to that..it's like, how can I achieve that?
How do you record it?
I've got loads of notebooks and recordings on my phone of little things - it's really not a well organised system. Sometimes they go away, and they come back stronger and I go through my notebook and say, 'That... I completely forgot about that - it's brilliant, why didn't I do that?' So it's always a moment of inspiration and trying to get back to that. When it works out, it's just beyond - that's when it really pushes it over the edge.
How would you describe yourself?
When people describe themselves, they always come off like that bad bit at the end of your first CV where you don't know how to tell your employer you like drinking, so you put down: 'I like socialising with friends'. It's always the worst lie. I think I'm detail orientated and creative, but it's not for me to say what I'm like. Other people have different opinions I'm sure. I'm different things to different people.
What piece of work are you most proud of?
The first song I wrote for The Debutants - Kids - that's the best thing I've ever done. It's exactly what I wanted to do. On the demo of it, I did the drums, I did the base, I did the synth over the top, so it was just me realising the whole thing. It's one of the songs I played on the 7 inch and when I hear it now, I'm like, 'That's the best thing I've ever done'. I completely got back to the moment of inspiration with it. And probably the same when I did the 2011 Galway Arts Festival poster - that was a moment In terms of pride. To be up there with Joe Boske and Ted Turton and the people who've done Arts Festival posters - to be in that sort of clique is amazing. It's so Galway and it's so iconic and when it went up in Neachtain's... It's not a great spot, it's up on the way to the toilets, but Sorcha (Leon's partner) said to me, 'It gets a lot of passing traffic'... so that's a good way to look at it.
Do you suffer from creative doubt?
Sometimes. I love simplicity and I tend to stick to very few typefaces that I use and sometimes I go, 'Am I just relying on the old classics here?' But it's just that I love simplicity of form and simplicity of sound - not over complicating stuff. Sometimes I worry that I'm being too simple with it. But who am I worried about? Other people thinking that it's too simple? Or is it something that I like? If it's something that I like, in the end, I don't really care what other people think about it. I do care if they're a client and they're going to give it back to me, but…
"Because it's a small city and it's got this fast-running river through it, you're forced to meet people and through those meetings there's creations that happen."
What are you currently working on?
I'm trying to finish off Tribeton stuff. I've got a good few things in pre-production - I've got a short in production called 'Dreaming of Sleep', an animated short. I'm working on an illustrated children's book with my little sister - she's doing a PhD and she wrote a story about a narcoleptic bear and it's just brilliant - it's so cute. I'd love to do something with the record company - so maybe do an EP with them. And I've got a production film and a documentary I'd like to do...
What impact does living in Galway have on you creatively?
It's funny, my friends get this when they get back at Christmas or come back from travelling and everyone goes, 'Do you hate it, being back?'. When I came back from New York, everyone said, 'Oh, you must hate being back'. I was like, 'Why would I hate being back? This is where everyone I know is'. There's no other place in the world like it. New York is amazing; I could have gotten a visa if I wanted, but I was like, 'I don't want one, I want to live in Galway'. The work-life balance here is like nowhere else. There's nowhere else you can jump on your bike and cycle down to the market on a Saturday morning, do your full shop, then cycle to Salthill, swim in Blackrock and be home and it's 10.30. Even being on the bike, it's flat roads most of the time. Ok, you struggle at the hill at Cooke's Corner there heading towards Shantalla, but it's the only hard spot I've got on the way home. Because it's a small city and it's got this fast-running river through it, you're forced to meet people and through those meetings there's creations that happen. You just see people here or you just go to the same places. So it's been amazing and the people that I've got to work with in terms of the Arts Festival, Druid, NUIG and the GTI - there's such a collection of stuff here to work with. Because of the quality of the work of those people, your work just has to be better to work with them.
What do you think would make Galway a better place to be?
I think an indoor market needs to happen at some stage. We're producers, we're food producers - there's stuff produced here that people would kill for in other parts of the world, and we're getting that every day of the week. We can do better here, we can do something that's municipal and brilliant. In terms of the arts and culture here, I keep describing it as the Republicans in the US - they've got this policy of trickle-down funding that if you fund the big organisations, it will benefit everyone in the long run. They're funding the big arts organisations and then it will eventually get down to the small producers somehow, but it's not true. The city and the funding are based on hotel beds. Discover Ireland are always going, 'How many hotel beds did you sell?' and this is in all the reports. Stop making stuff for tourists or bringing outside stuff in here. If you start creating stuff in the city that travels around the world, that affects people in a positive way. If people see a play and they go, 'That's from Galway, we need to go there', not, 'Do you know Galway have this street performer over from Russia - it's going to be amazing, we should go to Galway'. What if the street performer was someone from Galway in Galway and they went to Russia and they did it and the Russians go, 'We need to go to Galway, it must be a creative hotspot'. So I think microfunding a lot of people and taking that big bundle that we give out to certain people and go - 'There's 500 quid, go and record an EP; there's 1,000 quid, make an animation in your bedroom'. When I was living in College Road, I made an animation in my bedroom. I used to animate all evening and then I'd turn on my computer in this small bedroom and it would run so heavily all night because it was just rendering - it was making this fan noise and every morning I'd get up and check it. No one was funding me to do it, but I was just doing it because I loved it. But then I got so used to the sound of it rendering, when I went to bed and I didn't have it on, I couldn't sleep as well. I think small loans for people to produce in the city, small pieces of work, small games, small animations - then we become a city of production, a city producing things. Tourists will love that just as much as they will the single big production, because there's so much going on. It will transform the city and it will be an actual city of culture producing as opposed to an imported city of culture, which doesn't make any sense because that's not going to leave a legacy.