February, 2008

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                                                                                                            The veteran effects animator writes about printing.

I do Letterpress Printing. This technology is completely obsolete. 

Early in the 20th century, automatic typesetting like Linotype took over, and by the mid-1960's the equipment that I now use was being stacked up for scrap metal.   I've been told that by 1970, there were only three guys left in the typesetter's union in Los Angeles.  

At the same time, artists bought this equipment for great prices.   This seems to be a pattern: technology to art.  Some area gets pushed aside by advances and the technology gets handed off for artists to play with.   Lithography was invented to print commercial sheet music. Later those litho stones were handed over to the likes of Daumier and Toulouse Lautrec.

I started printing while an undergrad student at UW-Madison in 1979.   I had asked people in the art department which teachers I should make a point of not missing.   The name that kept coming up was Walter Hamady.   People had two reactions to him: to flinch away or unbounded adoration. His classes were rumored to be hard, that he had due dates, that he had fierce opinions, that he swore.  Students in his paper making class were said to have their samples lifted between two fingers, shaken, and judged by the sound it made.  

I approached his office, gut churning, to ask to be let in the class. He walked me to one of many cabinets holding twenty-four job cases.  He carefully slid the second from top case half way out, then slid the top drawer out most of the way to reveal all the compartments.  (This careful procedure was to keep the top drawer from slipping and spilling the type on the floor.  In letterpress printing. this sort of accident is "to pie the type". )

"In your first class," Hamady said, "you will be given a drawer from the shop.   A sheet of masonite will be placed over it, and the whole thing carefully flipped over, emptying the type onto the sheet.   You will put the pile of type back in it's proper place,   removing the dirt and odd bits from other fonts."

"I suspect I will know where they belong by the time I'm done." I replied.

"And if there is any word in the English language that would offend you, " he said, "let me be clear, I will probably use it."

I was in!
 Walter Hamady, lead eater         

For class we had to print a broadside, and then a book. A broadside is a respectably sized sheet with something on it - art and type.   The book could be anything we wanted, but it had to meet the definition of a book, as per Hamady:

"A book is a sequential picture plane, the order of which can not be changed by the viewer. A box of pages is NOT a book, (expletive) it."

Later, at CalArts, this seemed like as good a definition for film.

We used Printing for Pleasure by John Ryder along with a book binding text to get started.    As to my project, I had been looking into the subject of censorship in the USA - it's history, who was behind it, and how it affected the arts and literature. One guy popped out, named Anthony Comstock. In the 19th century, he wrote a censorship law, got it passed through Congress with his name on it, and got the job of enforcing it for decades.  The term Comstockery describes a blue-nosed prig bothering people. Comstock had a stump speech that he'd give about the Victorian view of evil in the world.   For Hamady's class,   I illustrated his morality tale with wicked etchings and set his rant in type. It spoke for itself. Ten copies.

Then I shifted to animation work. Letterpress was too heavy a hobby for the animation gypsy phase I was heading into.   I put my type tweezers away and Hot Press, my
letterpress identity, went dormant for almost ten years.

This is where my wife, Nancy Turner,   folds into the story.  


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Al setting type for Sarah Bates' "Horsey Tales", 1989. Read more about this in FLIP's Cartoon Brat article.

In 1988, we met in Glenn Vilppu's life-drawing class.   I was intrigued that she worked at the Getty learning to conserve medieval manuscripts.

On our first date I came over to her tiny apartment in Santa Monica. On her desk was a book press, a device with a horizontal wheel at the top and plates used to compress glued stuff together.

"I haven't seen one of these since I printed a book in college." I said.

"You printed a book in college?" Nancy said.

"Yeah, I studied with this guy named Walter Hamady..."

"THE Walter Hamady?"

"Yeah."

"Follow me."

She lead me out to the back alley and opened her garage door, to reveal a painted, carpeted "chapel" containing her press and type collection.   This was going to be an interesting date.

Nancy's been a member of a group called Women of Letters who get together  and show the things they're working on. They had a show of work at the Clark Library here in L.A. last spring that gathered a large and tony crowd.

Al in the chapel of the Asbern, 1989.

I have a lot of respect for Tim Ely's work and Daniel Kelm, a former chemist who turned to the book arts. 

Letterpress hobby printers favor certain types of machines. Vandercook or ChandlerPrice (C&P) are names you hear a lot. They are dinette table length but a bit narrower.   Nancy's is an Asbern proof press, German made.   It fills a good 6 x 3 section of our single car garage. The rest of the garage is filled with the type collection, cabinets for ink, paper collection, trays for tied up type, a slanted work table to set type and a place to put printed paper to dry.  

The trick is to arrange things to have the greatest amount of horizontal flat space to spread out the pieces you're printing.   It also has to be clean. This is tricky because on one hand you're dealing with machinery, moving parts,   grease and oil,   and rollers covered with ink.   In contrast you have paper - this pure, clean material that's maddeningly easy to foul with smudges.

It is possible to print with much smaller equipment.   A Kelsey press and is fun to print business cards or postcards.

The much smaller Kelsey Press.

The way our press works is that the art and type rest in the bed of the press and are shimmed with blocks of wood (called Furniture) and locked into place with wedge devices. Ink is smoothed out onto rollers, which roll in front of a drum that the individual sheets of paper are clipped to.   As the apparatus is cranked forward, the ink transfers onto the type.   Then the paper drum rolls across the type. When it reaches the other end of the bed carriage, it hits a trigger that releases the paper, which is set aside.   Roll back to the beginning and repeat, repeat, repeat.

A project begins by getting an idea of the scale involved.   If you have a hand written text, type it out, print it, then scissor and tape the lines onto folded pages. When you find the largest block of type you'll be dealing with, you can start to figure out the page width and height.  This is an organic phase with a lot of push/pull work in composing the text to illustrations as you build a dummy model of the book.

Then you have to figure how many times you'll need it run it through the press. For technical reasons you might not want to print the text and illustrations together. Different colors each call for separate runs, in order to clean and re-ink the rollers.

The rule of thumb is that each run through the press will destroy 10% of the stack (through mistakes). So, if you want a hundred things with three colors you need to start printing about 140 to be safe.

One of the hardest things to print is large black areas. It just takes so much ink and a slooow roll of the drum over the plate to get enough ink to transfer without leaving your paper spotting through.  Printing fine lines is also trouble because it's so easy to over-ink and make delicate lines look like tar dipped phone poles.   Printing an image with both delicate lines and big black areas is very troublesome.  

A very hard to print image from Steve Moore's "The Indescribable Nth", 1992.

When Steve Moore and I did "The Indescribable Nth" book I didn't get a chance to confer before his illustrations were finished.  To print the above image, I had to mask off the fine lines, thin the ink with some special stuff I got from an old printer, and roll the drum over the black area so  slowly it took about a half a minute to move across what usually takes one or two seconds.

If you take up any old technology, you get plagued by running out of the stuff you need with no easy way to replace it.   Simply put, people are just going to run out of type. The stuff wears out.  The foundries that used to supply the letterpress industry can't be supported by so few hobby printers.   It is rare to find new sources.

Given the constraints it seems that a choke point would end the process and the joy of seeing pages with impression will be gone. - but not so. You can now compose type in a publishing program like Indesign or Illustrator and take it to a service bureau and have your page made into a film litho.  This is used to burn the shape of the type onto photopolymer plates with a steel backing.  By using a custom made block of magnets that snap to the bed of the press, presto! You can print with impression.   No more worries about running out of letters. Letters are all consistent. No sorting the chipped type out of the bed of the press. And you can't 'pie' a photopolymer plate.   A local printer/teacher, Gerald Lange of the Bieler Press, has published a great book on how to do this sort of approach.

Both animation and letterpress demand a depth of attention to detail that seems completely insane to uninitiated civilians    You bring your training,   judgement and powers of observation to the task in both cases. 

The oddest overlap was during Prince Of Egypt.  I was the FX lead, and we were looking at one of the end shots with massive crowds. While pondering this crowd scene, something odd became clear.   Director Simon Wells and I  turned to each other and both said "Rivers!"  

Now in typography, one of the things that can go wrong is when the break between words matches up to the break between words in the line just above it. If it also happens on the next, and the next, and the next, the gaps begin to align in a thin white negative space that flows through the block of text. This is called a "river".

As for the crowd scene, maybe the "rivers" would have been noticed at some point, but that it was noticed by two people who'd stood before the jobcase for hours fiddling with type was very satisfying.

Vance Gerry, who worked story at Disney, had Weather Bird press.  I met him at a book show opening in 1994 and we discussed his early years working in press rooms where the old guys would whack you if you didn't distribute type properly. 

I mentioned that I worked in animation and his face froze.

"Get out." he whispered. "Run."

To me, art is about arranging certain stuff, in a certain order, in a certain place, with a certain end in mind. (Walter Hamady)