Brian Joseph Davis Drags Famous Literary Characters Into the Future | JOB HACKS

The artist behind the Composites talks books, art, and how popularity changed his life.

Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.

Name: Brian Joseph Davis

Original Hometown: Windsor, Canada

Job: Davis is a filmmaker and digital artist best known for the Composites, in which he used law enforcement composite sketch software to depict literary characters according to their descriptions. This project went viral, garnering stories everywhere from Buzzfeed to The Atlantic. Davis also writes books and co-founded Joyland literary magazine. His work has been collected in Richard Prince: American Prayer, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, and Always Apprentices: The Believer Presents 22 Conversations Between Writers.

Most of your projects have to do with areas that are widely recognized throughout the culture. What attracts you to that?

I’ve never been a fan of art that’s afraid to be understood. Like using common languages, something that people can understand. You get more feedback; it gets out there more. Also I just think it’s nice to do.

How did you get the idea for the Composites?

I originally heard about the old-school version of what was called identikits — that’s just pieces of acetate. The hundreds of different kinds of facial features are on sheets of acetate and you would assemble these. That’s what people used if you didn’t have a forensic artist around in 1955. You use these identikit boxes to create a facial composite. To me I thought that was a weird collision of art and weaponry, almost.

Smith & Wesson, an arms company, put out this kit to make art. I thought to myself, if I bought one of those it would be a neat collectors item, but could I make art out of it? I realize that a couple different versions make digital versions of these now and I thought, “Oh, a digital version? I could have a lot of fun with that.” I actually bought the program before I knew what I was going to do with it. It’s no fun to create people who actually exist, so I thought what if you combine that with people who don’t exist, fictional characters. And also added literary criticism layer onto it.

Did you expect it to take off the way it did?

No. I’ll tell you what the first week was like. I made four images, put it on the Tumblr, and I had just started Tumblr that day. On my Facebook I put a link and then for a while went through my Facebook. An old friend of mine, a professor, shared it on his wall. Then Clive Thompson from Wired shared it, and from there … so we’re talking in a matter of five hours, it went from me posting one or two images on my Facebook wall and a link to my Tumblr, to me getting phone calls from the Atlantic.

Jane Eyre: “Jane, you look blooming, and smiling, and pretty,” said he: “truly pretty this morning. Is this my pale, little elf? Is this my mustard-seed? This little sunny-faced girl with the dimpled cheek and rosy lips; the satin-smooth hazel hair, and the radiant hazel eyes?” (I had green eyes, reader; but you must excuse the mistake: for him they were new-dyed, I suppose)… Having ascertained that I was myself in my usual Quaker trim, where there was nothing to retouch—all being too close and plain, braided locks included"

What was it like to be swept up in that?

It was a very crazy two or three months where I was doing about two or three interviews a day. I worked as a journalist for five years as well so I thought, “No matter what, if someone’s interested, I’m going to do an interview.” But after awhile I had to stop because with the attention it was becoming a full-time unpaid job. It feels weird to say it, but it was. So I decided to concentrate on the site itself and not so much talking about it for a while.

Daisy Buchanan: "Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth…a conscientious expression…Slenderly, languidly…an expression of unthoughtful sadness…her cheeks flushed…a bright ecstatic smile…"

But it’s still ongoing now, right?

I took a break because of other commitments and work. Then around December it started picking up again. Probably because in our culture right now people are really obsessed with true crime. You have Making a Murderer, Serial — that wasn’t around when I started the project.

Sherlock Holmes: "His eyes were sharp and piercing...his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination."

What about your voiceover project?

That’s going back six or seven years ago. At the time, IMDB had a section for tag lines. I remember looking at it and thinking it was a really weird, unique, and funny language. I was talking to a friend asking if there was a way to just harvest tag lines from IMDB. He did a script for me that collected them. Once I got the collected list, I said “Okay, we have five or six thousand tag lines we can use. Is there a way to order them into a kind of narrative? From the thousands of different stories make one story.”

It becomes the ultimate film trailer somehow. I originally wrote it and I was going to just have it as a text piece, but I realized if I could find a voiceover artist who would feature the insanity of this and actually perform it, that it would just add that level of realness to it to have a performed version of it.

Do you usually work on several projects at once, or one at a time?

I am a bit older, I have a family now, so the just for fun art projects are kind of being pushed in the background. So I’m doing more commercial work now, music videos, and hopefully will be starting work on a TV show soon.

What show?

I can’t say!

Since you do so many different types of projects — from film to art to writing— which area do you find the most fulfilling?

When I’m shooting a video or working with people like on this upcoming show or on a short film, that’s my favorite because it combines everything. It combines telling a story, like when I was a journalist, it combines the visual thinking that I got from years of working as an artist, and then you combine the working with great people, it’s a blast.

What do you find to be the most challenging?

Right now, because I have a 4-year-old kid, it’s time management. It’s boring but it’s true! You have to say, “Well, what’s the most important thing right now, what makes me happy, what will be successful?”

Nurse Ratched: "Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh-colored enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils—everything working together…Confident, patient, and unruffled."

What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?

It comes back to maybe not the most exciting answer, but just doing it yourself, don’t wait for anyone else. Especially with the technology we have right now. When I was in film school I was probably the last generation in the early to mid-‘90s that actually learned in 16mm film stock. By the time I finished we were moving to digital. So with all the tools around there’s just no reason to wait for someone. If you want to make a short film, do it, if you want to make a weird project, just do it.

When the Composites went viral, what was it like for you to go from a person observing pop culture to be thrust on the other side of that window — as the one being observed?

The thing is, commenting on pop culture is a form of pop culture now. There are the barriers between people who make things and people who comment on things and people who remix things. That is just so porous right now. I don’t think it’s unusual to be in the role of both commenting and making stuff. Even on a totally different scale you have people like Steven Soderbergh — he’s doing remixes of 2001 or Raiders of the Lost Ark. So even an Academy Award-winning director is now commenting on pop culture and putting weird art projects online.

Do you think that’s the future of digital art?

It certainly is. The core media of visual art, like painting, will always be around, but media art 20 years ago was rare. Not many people had access to this equipment. Twenty years ago, you had to be lucky enough to have an editing suite in the city you lived in to do this work, and then find distribution for it. Now this is just how we communicate. We all have our own little media empires.

What are you most excited about for the future? That TV show you mentioned?

There’s that and, with the Composites, I am actually excited that people are paying attention to it again. I thought it was a really good idea. Then what happened was I got really exhausted. Because it was so popular, I felt like it was my job to keep the content going and to do a really good job — that’s also just who I am. After awhile, because it involved having to go through multiple books and series, all the weird niche research and making the images and getting them up there, it got to be overbearing. So the fact that it’s got some attention again, I can go back at my own pace and put my own interest back into it.

Captain Ahab: "His eyes like powder-pans… It almost seemed that while he himself was marking out lines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead…His firm lips met like the lips of a vice; the delta of his forehead’s veins swelled like overladen brooks…Supper he never touched; nor reaped his beard; which darkly grew all gnarled, as unearthed roots of trees blown over, which still grow idly on at naked base."

What was some of the weird niche research?

It’s a strange way to read a book. It could be a great book, but you’re going to ignore everything except descriptions of characters. That changed my approach to reading for a while. I had to stop reading for a year because during the first year of the project I burned through about three or four hundred books. That’s a lot of speed reading, but I still felt like I had to get away. Now I’m just getting back to reading for pleasure again.

Is it more difficult for characters who have been depicted onscreen? Do you ever think of the actor’s features when you do it?

It is difficult. I wondered how that would take. My brother is actually a big fan of Game of Thrones and he explained to me that there are actually two cultures: There’s the book culture and then the TV show culture. They don’t really get along in the world of fandom, so I figured I would be saved if I was only working with the book culture.

Brienne of Tarth: "The hair beneath the visor was a squirrel’s nest of dirty straw…Brienne’s eyes were large and very blue, a young girl’s eyes, trusting and guileless…her features were broad and coarse, her teeth prominent and crooked, her mouth too wide, her lips so plump they seemed swollen. A thousand freckles speckled her cheeks and brow, and her nose had been broken more than once"

Have you gotten any negative feedback?

We’re all scared of the internet sometimes. I’ve never gotten anything outrageous. Mostly just people saying, “I don’t think it looks like this.” When the project was really up and running I actually worked with people who would come in with their comments saying, “No, I think you missed this part, you did this with the nose.” I would record the feedback and do a couple different images for a few of them.

So you’ve gone back and changed some?

Yeah, several of them. For one, Neil Gaiman wrote and corrected some of them. For Mr. Wednesday he wrote, “I love the eyes, but come on, way older!” That actually goes back to the original genres as a medium. It shouldn’t be a fixed thing. If you have a suspect’s image and you have new witnesses you go back and redraw it with that new information.

Mr. Wednesday: "His hair was a reddish gray; his beard, little more than stubble, was grayish red. A craggy, square face with pale gray eyes…There was something strange about his eyes, Shadow thought. One of them was a darker gray than the other…"

Are you happy with the fact that the Composites is the project you’re most known for?

It’s interesting because I understand the Composites is a very likable project. It’s very visual, it pops, it involves books you’ve heard about, and you can look at it in about one second and get it. I completely understand why it’s the most popular thing I’ve ever done.

What’s a lesser-known project you hope people might discover?

Voiceover. The two are almost connected in that likability factor. If you listen to it you’re going to get it. We all know what it’s referencing and playing around with.