Chroma Chameleon: Wayne White

His mission, in his own words, has been to bring humor into fine art. For years he covertly imprinted the minds of children and injected fantasy into the rock scene. Wayne White's body of work is eclectic to the point of defining and iconic in its absurdity. 

 

To children of the ’80s, Wayne White is the creator and voice behind Randy the bully, Dirty Dog, Mr. Kite, Roger the Monster, and much of the wonderfully wacky world of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. To art aficionados, he’s responsible for turning thrift store paintings into social commentaries and injecting some much-needed humor into the scene with installations like the world’s largest George Jones head. To rock fans, he’s the mastermind behind iconic music videos for The Offspring, Smashing Pumpkins, and Peter Gabriel.

But to Neil Berkeley, he’s the ultimate documentary subject. 

For Berkeley, it all began 12 years ago with an internship. While working as an unpaid intern for an L.A. design studio, Berkeley met White, who was using the studio’s space for his own projects. “I would hover around him and bug him all day to talk to me about the Smashing Pumpkins and Randy…” says Berkeley. “…[I] just stuck around, stayed in his life as much as I could.”

Neil BerkeleyNeil BerkeleyNine years later, Berkeley graduated from interning to production to executive producing and finally to opening his own design and animation studio, Brkly. Looking for an artist whose work he could animate for a demo reel, Berkeley reconnected with his pal. “Next thing you know, we’re shooting 300 hours of documentary footage and tons of photographs and 50 hours of Wayne’s home videos,” Neil says. “Then we’re at South By Southwest … with a real movie.”

The result is Beauty Is Embarrassing, a film that’s partly Wayne White’s history and partly a love letter to the creative process. We caught up with both the director and his muse to get the inside scoop.

Get In Media: Wayne, you originally didn’t want to do a documentary. What convinced you to do it?
Wayne White: Well, at first I thought it was not a good idea because nobody had ever heard of me really and there wasn’t a lot of drama in the story. Documentaries are usually about a crisis or an expose about unpleasant facts of life. None of those were there, plus I still thought of Neil as that unpaid intern so I had no faith in it at all, either conceptually or professionally. I thought it was never going to happen. He even pitched it to some other directors and they all turned him down. And then he decided he was going to direct it himself. He’d never done it before. Again I thought, “How can he pull this off?” But he very much pulled it off and very much impressed me with his professionalism and his persistence and his ambition. And like he said, here we are, three years later and it’s a hit.

GIM: The film credits success to talent as well as the ability to make the right connections. How do you recommend that new people starting out can make those right connections?
Neil Berkeley: I believe in tenacity as one thing Wayne mentioned, but I also believe in faking it ‘til you make it, especially in Hollywood. Nobody out here really knows what they’re doing, so as long as you act like you know what you’re doing, they’ll believe you long enough for you to figure it out. Get out there and work hard, dig ditches, do what you’ve got to do to get your foot in the door and act like you know what you’re doing.
WW: Yeah, what he said.

GIM: How did you guys weather financial downs of your job before you started making any money on your art?
WW: Well, it’s just plain old common sense that it’s going to be difficult to weather the marketplace if you don’t have work. There’s no money. You might have to do things you don’t want to do job-wise and I did. I had to be a short order cook. I had to deliver food. I had to be a moving man, different things like that, but I never let it get me down. I always kept some kind of project going on the side. If you stop the projects on the side, it’s all over with. You’ve got to find time to keep going. There’s no real insight there. You’ve just got to persist in making your art. That persistence will pay off…

GIM: Everyone in a creative job has voices, whether internal or external, telling them that they’re not good enough. How do you each deal with that?
NB: That’s usually a good thing, having something to push against. That kind of keeps you going because if you don’t have that, you get complacent, get content. If you have something to rail against, something to force you to get up and do it, that’s always a good thing.
WW: You have to be defiant to be an artist.

You’ve gotta have huge amounts of energy and sometimes that will backfire on you. There’s no easy answer there and there’s no resolve. Yes, danger ahead…it’s dangerous. It’s a dangerous thing to be an artist and that’s why people like it, because you’re taking a risk.”

GIM: Throughout the years, has your creative process changed?
WW: The creative process changes depending on the project. When you’re alone, it’s definitely different than when you’re working with a group of people and I do both. I go back and forth. Sometimes I have to work with a group of people because the project is so big, the scale is so big, and I have to learn how to treat people decently to get the job done. Because if you alienate people and you’re a prima donna and a diva about it all, they’re going to hate you and they’re not going to do what you want them to do. So the creative process when you’re working with other people is about other people’s feelings. Balancing their feelings with the end product you want and if you treat them decently, they’ll do anything for you. They’ll follow you anywhere.

The creative process when you’re alone is exactly the opposite. You’ve got to beat yourself up. You can’t be sensitive towards your feelings. You’ve got to get tough with yourself, because it’s a really challenging thing to see something through to the end and oftentimes people want to baby themselves. People naturally want to be lazy. People want to cut themselves some slack, so it’s the opposite. You’ve got to get really tough with yourself, but you’ve got to be really sweet to other people.

"Big Lectric Fan to Keep Me Cool While I Sleep" by Wayne WhiteBig Lectric Fan to Keep Me Cool While I Sleep” by Wayne WhiteGIM: The film depicts art as a lifestyle for you Wayne, but it also shows a time when you were working too hard and “went nuts.” How can students live the artistic lifestyle without that aspect?
WW: [laughs] Good question. That’s the one I’m still trying to figure out. Being an artist is a risky endeavor and it will drive you crazy from time to time. There’s just no getting around it. That’s the risk. The story about the crazy artist is a prototypical thing and it’s true because it’s hard chasing a vision. It demands a lot of energy; it demands a lot of nervous energy, which can turn into just this case of nerves. You’re going to have to face that. You’re going to have to be ready to drive yourself to the limit.You’re like a marathon runner. You’re like an athlete that wears himself out and that’s just the way it is and if you’re too mellow, you’re not going to be too good.

You’ve gotta have huge amounts of energy and sometimes that will backfire on you. There’s no easy answer there and there’s no resolve. Yes, danger ahead…it’s dangerous. It’s a dangerous thing to be an artist and that’s why people like it, because you’re taking a risk. You’re up on the high wire. People love risk takers, it’s thrilling, but there’s huge liabilities.

GIM: What advice do you have for people who want to follow your career paths?
NB: You can do what I do. I bought a camera and started shooting. That sounds simplistic but that’s kind of what I did. If you want to make a movie, you can make a movie. The cameras are cheap, they’re small, they’re rugged, and easy to work with; that’s kind of how this happened.
WW: I would tell them not to listen to the naysayers and there’s going to be tons and tons of them everywhere you look, especially when you declare that you want to be an artist. Most people think that that’s a bad idea. You’ve got to tune them out. Number two: never give up. Persistence, persistence, persistence, and that’s it. If you’ve got the talent and the vision, they’ll take care of themselves. But those are the two things and the two toughest things you’ve got to learn, and that’s what makes most people give up and throw it aside. They listen to people try to give them common sense advice and they don’t work hard enough.

Beauty Is Embarrassing is available for download and streaming through iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo and at BeautyisEmbarrassing.com. 


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