Whitlow blends photography and writing to create a new form of graphic novel
Aunspaugh fellow Colin Whitlow
Photo by Dan Addison
By Jane Ford
The graphic novel, which explores the exaggeration of space, time, color and perspective, is making inroads into American popular culture. Frank Miller’s “Sin City” has been adapted into a critically acclaimed movie. And graphic novels as a whole also are being carefully considered as part of the modernist literary and artistic genres of the 20th century.
Now U.Va. student Colin Whitlow is adding yet another dimension to the graphic novel with his multidisciplinary project, “Lavender and
Other Colors.” Whitlow’s hybrid of the graphic novel, which he worked on during the past year, brings together his love for literature and his passion for photography — both of which were his majors as a U.Va. undergraduate.
“I’m not a comic pro,” Whitlow said. “I never really read comics or graphic novels before I did the research for this project.”
However, through his research, he has developed an appreciation for the celebration of exaggeration — a major focus of the genre.
“Comics are over the top, but they celebrate that,” he said. “They lack sound and music. The exaggeration of dialogue and image perspective fills that void.”
Whitlow’s major concern when creating “Lavender and Other Colors” was how to bring this hybrid of comic book and film to life.
Chris Ware’s 400-plus-page graphic novel “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” was a key influence on the way in which Whitlow paced the images he shot and edited for the project. The 1999 movie “Magnolia” also affected his approach to the story. Both “Magnolia” and his work begin as everyday stories that become more bizarre as they progress, said Whitlow, whose project portrays three members of a small-town family who are unhappy. The son’s departure for college is the catalyst for each to take charge of their lives, make changes and recognize their interconnectedness.
Whitlow will pursue a career as a director of photography for independent films, and sees this project as an exploration of skills that will carry over to that field. Last summer, he worked as a driver at the Sundance Institute, where he had direct access to many top Hollywood actors,
directors, producers and production experts as he transported them to and from the Salt Lake City airport. He also spent much of his free time helping the production crews. Spurred on by the creative experimentation he saw happening there, Whitlow decided to tackle his own huge project this year.
“I saw professionals doing what I thought I could do — it gave me confidence,” he said.
Whitlow dusted off a screenplay he had begun four years earlier; spent the summer and fall writing, and began photography and editing in January.
U.Va. faculty provided support for the undertaking in several areas. Karen Chase, his former English professor, critiqued an early version of the script. Drama acting professor Richard Warner set up an independent study acting class that provided the dramatic talent for the project. Studio art professor Kevin Everson lent his expertise as a filmmaker to supervise the crew. Whitlow called on his former classmate and fellow U.Va. alumnus Benjamin Bolling, who majored in English and drama, to handle the directing.
With other areas of production covered, Whitlow was free to focus on the subtleties that make the genre unique. Whether he was behind the Canon Rebel digital camera or sitting at his computer manipulating the images in Photoshop, making minute changes in pacing, color or
image size and adding the dialogue balloons and text graphics, Whitlow was free to devote his artistic talents to the bigger picture.
For each scene he shot more than 1,000 frames to assure that the images worked in consort with the words.
“The manipulation of time is conveyed through the repetition of images on a page,” Whitlow said of his montage-like approach. “There are subtle changes from frame to frame. It’s the small things you begin to see as you read the novel.”
The color manipulation is accomplished on the computer. “In the most poignant moments in the story, the color drops out and the images go to black and white or I accentuate colors,” Whitlow said, adding that these time-consuming techniques challenged his creative license.
Financing “Lavender and Other Colors” with a budget of $14,000 was another challenge. Whitlow received funding from U.Va.’s Independent Student Arts Project Fund, the University’s Parents Program, the Virginia Film Office in Richmond, family members and a bank loan.
“I’ve also worked a lot of jobs and lived very frugally,” Whitlow said.
The largest expense was printing the novel: $9,600. To recoup project costs, Whitlow is printing 1,000 copies to sell on a book tour, where he will visit book shops, coffee houses and galleries, mostly around Charlottesville.
The Aunspaugh Fellowship brought his art into focus for him, Whitlow said. “I needed this year to figure out what I would do if I had to be my own motivator and who I am as an artist.”