Award-winning creator Gordon McAlpin wears a lot of hats. Cartoonist, animator, graphic designer and occasional film critic, Gordon is a man in perpetual motion. So what makes Gordon McAlpin tick? I’ve often wondered about this. I’ve followed the creator for years, starting with McAlpin’s hilarious web comic Multiplex all the way to his latest project, Multiplex 10: The Web Series. How does one person go from creating a popular webcomic to launching themselves into the world of independent animation?
To find out, I sat down with Gordon to talk about comics, movies, and life at the Multiplex 10 at C2E2 2019.
ButWhyTho: Thanks for talking with me today. For the folks at home who might be unfamiliar with your work, can you tell me a little about yourself?
Gordon McAlpin: Sure. I’m a Filipino-American cartoonist, illustrator, designer, animator, and writer. And probably some other stuff. I grew up in Peoria, Illinois. Lived in Chicago for a decade. Went to grad school to get an MFA in Design at the University of Minnesota, and I currently live in Boston.
For about twelve years, I did a comic strip called Multiplex. Then or the last year and a half, I’ve been doing an animated version of Multiplex called “Multiplex 10,” starting with an 11 minute short and then following it with a short-form web series.
Multiplex the comic was about the staff of a movie theater. The main characters were Jason and Kurt. Jason is a film snob who’s kind of perpetually grumpy and short-tempered. Kurt is a low-brow movie nerd who it’s pretty much always in a good mood and has a super-immature sense of humor. Gordon McAlpin. How Jason and Kurt meet and become friends is actually the story behind the Multiplex 10 animated short, so honestly, I’d just say “watch that” to get the basics of it. There are a few minor continuity differences between Multiplex 10 and the comic, but the short is meant to be kind of their origin story.
The other characters include Melissa, Kurt’s girlfriend, a gregarious young lady who enjoys movies but is nowhere near the same level of geek that Kurt or Jason are, and Becky, her best friend and roommate, who’s more bookish and introverted. Those are the most important ones.
It started off as more of a gag strip, but my interests quickly evolved to a bit more of a character-driven approach. It stayed a decidedly short-form comic, but it told a story in real time over the course of its 12 years, about (among other things) a sort-of coming of age of the main characters and of the movie theater and the changing movie theater industry in some ways. Which all makes it sound very serious and grown-up, but there were also lots of stupid jokes.
I was interested in exploring the kind of story you can only really tell over the course of twelve years, which is long-term change in people and industries.
ButWhyTho: 12 years, that’s a long time. I think I started reading Multiplex around year two? If I did the math right that would put the start of Multiplex right around the early 2000s webcomic boom. What was it like to launch a comic strip in the middle of that?
Gordon McAlpin: Oh, I think I launched at the tail end of the boom. Far enough back, even strips with garbage art could get super popular fast. haha — I came in just late enough that my garbage art only worked so well. Multiplex grew pretty quickly at first, but by the early 2010s it kind of levelled off. Webcomics sites made it easy to discover new strips, partly because there weren’t a billion of them all competing for the same eyes. Those don’t exist anymore. Honestly, I stopped paying attention to the webcomics community “at large” after a while, because I just focused on drawing my strip and didn’t bother much with the promotion because I was in grad school or working on books or whatever. I talked to (and still talk to) other webcomics people on Twitter.
Later on, I mean. Twitter didn’t exist in 2005, I don’t think? I wasn’t on it, anyway.
ButWhyTho: Oh man, a world without twitter, it almost seems like a dream. When did you decide to make the shift from gags to long form storytelling?
Gordon McAlpin: It kind of happened on its own? When I introduced the character Devi, the strip started shifting more towards relationships—but really Jason’s relationship with other people in general, because he was an asshole and the point of it all was that he needed to grow up.
I think around year 3 or 4 sat down to write up an outline, thinking “okay, what’s the end game here? where’s this all headed, what needs to happen before the big finish, what should the big finish even be…”
And that outline LARGELY didn’t change. It obviously got fleshed out. Some stuff moved up sooner or got dropped or got combined into other storylines, but for the most part, the things that needed to happen all needed to happen. In order to have the strip end with Jason and Kurt as the theater’s managers, these characters needed to leave. What was going to happen with these characters, and how do they help Kurt and Jason get where they need to be? Etc.
ButWhyTho: Now right when you were taking Multiplex to new places, crowdfunding was just getting started.
Gordon McAlpin: Yep. I was the first webcartoonist to use Kickstarter. It was still in beta, and I was searching for ways to fund art projects — like grants or fellowships, and it popped up. I think there was one Bible comic before mine, and possibly Jamie Tanner launched one around the same time, but he was more print-based. I was on some panel in Chicago with some other Chicago-based cartoonists, and I talked a little about Kickstarter, and Spike Trotman, who was also on the panel, was like “Kickstarter? What’s this?” haha
And then of course she’s built a publishing EMPIRE around it. I’ve just funded three books and some animated shorts.
ButWhyTho: So, after 12 years of making comics, you’ve pivoted to animated shorts. That’s a huge change! What prompted that shift?
Gordon McAlpin: I learned how to do animation! Kind of. (Laughs)
When I first worked on the idea for Multiplex, I actually wanted to do it as an animated short. But it was in the late 90s, and the internet wasn’t really good at meeting or finding the kinds of resources or collaborators that you can now, and I didn’t know what I was doing in Flash to save my life, so I abandoned it, only to dust it off as a comic strip many years later.
While I was in grad school, I started doing some freelance storyboarding and animation design for explainer videos and things like that, and after a few of those, I realized that the actual animation they were doing wasn’t that complicated. So I used a few grad school projects, classes, and assistantships as excuses to learn how to animate, edit video, and so on, and by the time I finished grad school, I was animating a series of food safety videos for some group, and I realized that if I ever wanted to make that Multiplex 10 animated short, I should do it right after the strip ended. I could capitalize on all the goodwill from the end of the strip (that sounds so crass — but it’s also about just having the time to work on something of that scale), and so there you go.
We got nearly $20,000 in funding, a lot of which went to voice actors, co-writers, the sound designer, the composer, etc., etc., but a good chunk of it was just for me to hole up in my apartment and work on the thing for several months. That got stretched out significantly because of a shoulder injury, but I finished it! And I’m still really proud of it. And we had a good enough time working on them that we decided to keep the band together and keep making shorter episodes.
ButWhyTho: Who are some of the people you’re working with on Multiplex 10, the series? That’s got to be different from working on a comic.
Gordon McAlpin: Definitely. Film is a collaborative medium, for sure. The animated short was co-written by Dana Luery Shaw, who has worked on a bunch of web series. The animated short has been largely written by Joe Dunn of Joe Loves Crappy Movies and myself, with Tom Brazelton chiming in on a bunch of them. Dana is helping out with the final episode in this last Kickstarter batch — which might be the last episode for a while.
Tom, of course, is also the voice of Kurt. I voice Jason, because of typecasting. (He’s a grumpy Filipino, I’m a grumpy Filipino.)
I really wanted Joe and Tom in the writer’s room because their taste and sensibilities felt really appropriate for Kurt. (For instance, with all the movie reviews, Joe writes Kurt’s opinion.) I wanted the web series to be more about Kurt AND Jason, not just Jason. The comic was about both of them, too, of course. The final strip should have made that impossible to ignore. 🙂 But Jason always kind of took over, because… well, he was the easiest for me to write — and so here I am hell-bent on forcing Jason to share the spotlight more.
We also worked with sound designer Ian Vargo and composer Tangelene Bolton on the short. I muddle through and do the sound design on the web series myself because of budget and timing reasons, and we use (often heavily edited) stock music and some pre-recorded clips by Tangelene for the soundtracks.
ButWhyTho: What goes into making an episode?
Gordon McAlpin: We start off just shooting the shit about what the episode is going to be about. Pretty much like writing a comic strip, we figure out what we think is a funny angle, one or, in a couple of cases, more of us go off and write up a rough script, then we throw it back to the “room” to make it funnier. At some point (usually pretty early) I do my “showrunner” pass to make sure the characters are all talking the way I want them to… Once the script is solidified, I start scribbling out storyboards.
Because I’m literally the only animator and the director and the executive producer etc., these start off really just embarrassingly bad. And if a background doesn’t exist yet, it looks even more ridiculous.
The storyboards need to show every significant movement in the short, including the camera movements. But I edit in Final Cut Pro and cut together these garbage drawings against temp dialogue of the script performed entirely by me, and sometimes that shows me where the script needs to get a little tighter and we have to cut things out, or if something isn’t really working well and we need to add a joke, or if the dialogue is just clunky — whatever.
With the web series, I tend to find the music at this point, too, because it helps with the energy and flow. (I get almost everything from PremiumBeat; their stuff is great. This is not a paid endorsement.)
Eventually that stick figure version feels right to me, and I start drawing all of the poses and backgrounds — basically going through every shot to make that rough version LOOK final. With the final timing in place, I know how long to make the shots in Animate CC and/or After Effects, and I start finishing up the animation. This whole time, I’m tweaking the editing, too, but EVENTUALLY every shot gets animated roughly, and I go through over and over until I’m happy with everything.
After all that, I do the sound design, which involves foley sounds (footsteps, room tone, button presses and other noises that the characters create) and any sort of atmospheric stuff I want to add. The episodes tend to be wall to wall music, because they’re so short and it keeps the energy up, so the fact that I’m not the most experienced sound designer hopefully doesn’t matter that much.
So the VIDEO is done at that point, but then I have to do the closed captions, make the thumbnail for YouTube, set up all the posts to start promoting it, etc. It’s so much freakin work, dude.
ButWhyTho: Most episodes play off of recent film releases or movie news. Do you have any favorites?
Gordon McAlpin: I love Self-Help, which is the one where Sunny teaches Jason a lesson a customer service. More Than Meets the Eye cracks me up, too. Both of those were moooostly written by Joe Dunn, I should mention — AND I can’t believe I forgot to mention the voice actors earlier…Dana Luery Shaw has been the voice of Melissa in the short and now the web series, too, and Aiyanna Wade has been the voice of both Becky and Sunny. (As well as a customer in This Is a Quiet Place.) Aiyanna is like our go-to when we need a woman’s voice. She’s so good. And Javier Prusky was their shift manager Neil in the animated short and an episode (or two? I forget) of the web series now.
But yeah, I was especially happy with MTMTE because it, more than any of the earlier episodes, introduced the weirdness that I want to incorporate into Multiplex 10 that wasn’t in the much more grounded/”realistic” comic. Stuff like there being a bear employee in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” or Kurt literally using the Force in “Enough with the Last Jedi” were pretty solid nods to that idea, but… the surprise… in MTMTE is pretty undeniably weird. In a perfect world where we didn’t have budgets to consider, we’d also be doing a lot of long genre parody episodes, like a zombie episode (based on the zombie movie the characters shot in the comic, of course), or a slasher film episode, or a sci-fi episode.
But that stuff would be impossible for us to produce on the budget we’re working with.
ButWhyTho: That actually ties into the next question, where do you see Multiplex 10 going from here?
Gordon McAlpin: (Laughs) Honestly, right now, we have three videos left. One long movie review, one short web series episode along the lines of our early episodes, and then one longer web series episode with Becky and Melissa taking the spotlight, finally. We absolutely want to do more. I would love to do more. But we need to figure out how to pay for them.
It’s literally a full-time job for me to do them. The web series Kickstarter we did last year raised $20,000—almost a year ago! I make a bit off Patreon, but I’m also not the only expense involved, and that’s not a lot of money. I’m considering a Kickstarter for another handful of episodes, but I want to work on something else for a little while. I have some Multiplex 10 “review comics” left to do, though. I’ll start drawing that after the last video drops, but it’s basically a goofy strip where Kurt and Jason argue about movies for 22 pages or so. That’ll be hand-drawn and probably collected into a short eBook. eComic? Whatever they’re called.
ButWhyTho: Where can people got to see and support your work?
Gordon McAlpin: WELL, Multiplex10.com has all the episodes and links to social media nonsense and all that. And all 12 years of the comic are still up at multiplexcomic.com, and I’m on Patreon as well.
Thanks again to Gordon McAlpin for taking the time out to talk. To find out more about Multiplex 10 and Gordon’s other projects you can follow him on Twitter at @gmcalpin, as well as checking out the links below.