Daniel Zvereff is a first generation American, whose Russian family emigrated to the USA in 1951 after decades of stateless exile in China. He now resides in Brooklyn, NY, where he works as a freelance illustrator and photographer. Early on in his life, Daniel developed a strong passion for travel and then, in 2007 while in Thailand, he began documenting his experiences abroad. This took the form of a written travel journal that also included detailed ink drawings and 35mm photographs. Since then, his travel writings, photographs and drawings have been featured in many online and printed publications, including National Geographic, Hypebeast and Feature Shoot.
Daniel’s recent collaboration with friend and musician Okay Kaya takes the form of a celluloid animation, which was shot with the Leica M-P. The result is a beautifully crafted music video, encapsulating Daniel’s passion for analog forms of expression, set to Okay Kaya’s heartfelt song “Emulate”. We spoke with Daniel to find out about his sources of inspiration and the fascinating process that goes into creating such a unique piece of art.
When did you first pick up a camera? And how has your understanding of the creative potential of photography developed since then?
I have been using cameras ever since I can remember. My first memory of actively wanting to capture a moment was around the age of 6 or 7 in South East Portland. I remember taking my mothers point-and-shoot camera and photographing squirrels running on the power lines.
I would say that my take on what I hope to achieve with a camera, as a tool, is constantly evolving and has been since day one.
Your hand-drawn journals are a key component of your travel stories, a number of which we have featured on the blog in the past. How did you discover your passion for illustration?
I grew up as an only child, with limited television privileges, in the era before the Internet. I imagine my passion for drawing derived from a necessity to keep my brain engaged. Thusly, it was a very natural step when I began my travel journals just after high school. It was a means of cataloging the events that transpired while I was on the road. But it wasn’t until I went to Bangkok in 2007 that I started realizing the potential of combining my illustrative style with the cultures and visuals of the foreign world I was ensconced in.
How do the two disciplines of photography and illustration influence and inform each other for you?
They don’t feel separate to me because both forms of expression come from the same place in my brain. Therefore, I often draw with photography in mind and vice versa.
How did this collaboration with Okay Kaya come about?
Kaya and I have been close friends for the better part of a decade. We’ve both been developing our passion and craft in parallel for many years. It was far from abstract for us to collaborate since we’ve had so much influence on one another for so long.
Where did the concept for the animated video come from? What was your inspiration? And what was the significance of each of the individual motifs?
The basis of my drawings is an exploration of human emotion and duality, and how they integrate into the subjective human experience. I wanted to explore these concepts from an overarching universal perspective, and create images that maintained some visual ambiguity, so that the viewers could attach their own emotions and experiences to the sequences.
During my research into duality, I discovered the fascinating theory of wave-particle duality, which subsequently became the core visual concept of the video. The theory hypothesizes that singular matter, at its sub-atomic and even atomic levels, not only exist in particles but also simultaneously as waves. As Albert Einstein put it: “It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.”
Can you describe the technical process at the heart of this project?
The video is a cel or celluloid animation. This means I draw every individual frame on paper. It is animated on “twos”, which means that there is one drawing for every 2 frames at 24 frames a second. So in order for me to complete one second of animation I would have to draw 12 individual drawings.
The animation, from concept development to final output, took roughly eight months to complete.
How did you go about creating an animation from the huge number of stills?
After creating the individual stills, I would subsequently photograph each individual drawing on a make-shift seamless on my kitchen floor. I would then import them onto my computer and sequence them in order on a timeline in After Effects.
How did the Leica M-P fit into this process?
Rather perfectly actually! This process of photographing large-scale charcoal / pastel animated sequences has been all experimentation for me. To turn the illustrations into a moving image was not simple. Developing a system for capturing and sequencing stills has really been about trial and error. I’m certain that there are experienced animators that will probably see my rig/process and laugh. Nevertheless, it was my first go.
The Leica fit beautifully into the equation because of its simplicity. I know this is one of the selling points of the M system but for animation it’s brilliant. My process requires exposure settings and focus to be exactly the same for hours or days on end. Therefore having a completely manual camera is a huge benefit because there are no automatic exposure adjustments or focus movements during an animation process, which could last days.
What were the biggest challenges in carrying out such an ambitious project as this?
Finding time for it and my sanity!
What are you working on at the moment? And what can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I’m currently finishing up my next travel journal, which was many years in the making. I’m also in the middle stage of my first animated short / narrative. Both will be released in the coming months.
What advice would you offer to anyone thinking of branching out into this form of animation?