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In Conversation With Gordon McAlpin- Creator of 'Multiplex 10'

Gordon McAlpin is the creator of the webcomic Multiplex which ran for nearly 12 years, and followed the employees of a 10 screen cinema. After the comic came to an end, McAlpin turned the series into an award-winning animated short and subsequent web series called Multiplex 10.

The short was funded through crowdfunding and was released in January 2018. It acted as part reboot, part prequel and it featured the origin story of how Multiplex characters Kurt and Jason's unlikely friendship began. Blending workplace humour, character comedy and geeky movie jokes it's a great watch whether you are familiar with the comic or not. 

The web series also launched in January 2018 and features the ongoing adventures of Kurt, Jason and the other staff of Multiplex 10 Cinemas. The Web series is currently on Kickstarter, with the hopes of producing another 10 new episodes. Gordon generously took the time to talk to us about his work.

AFA: We always start out by asking about your background. Multiplex 10 started out as a webcomic called Multiplex. Can you tell us how the comic came to be?

Gordon McAlpin: I was kind of a late bloomer, creatively. I double-majored in English and Art in college, because it was as close as I could get to a Comics degree, but then I ended up doing print production and graphic design work for the next several years and never actually drawing comics. I moved to Chicago in my late twenties, where I started writing reviews and drawing illustrations or comic strips for local indie magazines and locally-run websites. One of those comic strips was Stripped Books, for the now-defunct book blog, Bookslut.

Stripped Books were non-fiction comics, where I'd adapt a book related event (a Q&A or release party) into an 8–12 page comic. For various reasons, I decided to take it to its own website, but I wanted to have a backup feature that would keep people coming back more regularly, and so I vaguely remembered this idea about doing a comic set at a movie theatre, not even remembering that my friend Kurt—who was an assistant manager at a movie theatre—had actually suggested that I do exactly that, many years before and at the time, I dismissed it and promptly forgot that he'd suggested it to me at all. He's the namesake of Kurt in Multiplex and Multiplex 10, of course.

But I started developing Multiplex as a comic strip, and unsurprisingly to everyone but me, the movie-joke comic strip was almost immediately more popular than the goofy non-fiction thing about books ever was, so I quickly retired Stripped Books, moved Multiplex to its own new site, and kept doing that comic for the next decade.

Why did you decide to move into animation with Multiplex 10?

One thing I left out just now was that when I FIRST played around with the premise and characters, it was as an animated short! I was in this sort of "graphic novels only" mode at the time and webcomics weren't on my radar yet, so I couldn't figure out how to approach a movie theatre comic strip in a way that would be timely enough to comment on actual movies. This was the 90s, and Flash animation was kind of popular, so I thought, "Hey, maybe I could do it as an animated short instead." So I tried, and I failed miserably. I couldn't get a story was worth doing, and I couldn't figure out the software. The drawings looked awful, because I had no idea what I was doing. So I gave up and shelved it at the time, only to dust it off when I took Stripped Books to its own site, of course.

But then, as the comic strip got close to its planned ending, I'd been doing more and more freelance animation work. I had played around with video projects in grad school, and I did a bunch of character designs and storyboards for some corporate videos about a mobile app that never got made. So I finally teaching myself how to use Flash and Final Cut Pro, started doing more and more corporate videos and animated elements for various graduate assistantships, and by the time Multiplex was about to end, I felt ready to tackle a full 11 minute animated short.

How does working in animation differ from producing the comic? Do you find you have a preference for working on one medium or the other, or are they too different to be able to choose?

I'm basically a self-taught animator, and I'll be the first to admit, the movements are not my strength with Multiplex 10. But I can draw, I know movies inside out, and comics taught me to tell stories visually, so that balances out my limited animation skills somewhat. When you're storyboarding and designing characters and backgrounds, it feels very much like drawing a comic — but you have to draw many more pictures of the keyframes, of course.

I do catch myself "leaving room for the word balloons" (placing everything too low in the frame) a lot, though. Hah! Right now, I'm really enjoying the animated stuff, because you can play with sound and music and timing and acting in ways that you can't with comics. It's just different, not better.

Working on comics is a lot faster and cheaper, though. So much cheaper. And you can make comics by yourself easily, as long as you know how to write and draw.

Was it always the plan to use your established characters and set up for your animated short? Or did you consider starting fresh with something other than Multiplex?

I toyed around with some other ideas, and I do have a couple of other animation projects with other writers in the works (someday!). I know prequels and reboots are a dime a dozen these days, but I liked the idea of seeing how Kurt and Jason—who have just diametrically opposite personalities and taste in film—started hanging out. I thought that character moment between the two of them was the perfect distillation of what Multiplex was about, so if that ended up being my final word on these characters, I could be happy with that.

There were a couple of other advantages to doing Multiplex 10 instead of something new, too: launching a Kickstarter project to fund a short that was directly connected to my comic meant it would appeal to more of my existing audience, and that I wouldn't have to spend quite as much time experimenting with character designs, backgrounds, and so on, because I'd already been developing them for over a decade. I redesigned a few things, but I wanted to keep a similar look and feel for the animated version.

The work-place elements of Multiplex feel very familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a retail or service environment. Were you (or you co-writers) drawing on personal experience for this material? 

I actually don't know if Dana (Luery Shaw, the co-writer of the short), Joe (Dunn, a co-producer of the short), or Tom (Brazelton, a co-producer and the voice of Kurt) have worked any jobs like that. I'm sure they have. I definitely did. While I never worked at a movie theater, at various times, I worked as a bus boy, a waiter, a bartender, a barista, and… I don't know, probably a few other things. Lots of restaurants, mostly.

But my friend Kurt was a manager at a movie theater like I mentioned, and I spent a lot of time there waiting for his shift to finish or watching movies, and I noticed how they're basically the same. The smells are different. The gross stuff you clean up are different. But any time you get a bunch of 18-year-olds in a building together and give them a lot of paid down-time, you're going to get pretty similar results.

You successfully funded the short using crowdfunding (and have returned to for the series). What was your experience like crowdfunding animation? What did you learn from your first campaigns that you were able to bring to this one?

My experience is probably very different from most animation Kickstarters. I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of the backers for the animated short came from my existing fanbase doing the comic and funding three Multiplex print books through Kickstarter. I had some test footage to show, but not a lot that I could share, because it was literally my first narrative animated project. Since that short is still on its film festival run and I can't share it for free to the public due to some agreements with subscription services, I knew that I needed to have some examples of what the web series would be like in order to hook people who WEREN'T already fans of the comic or the animated short.

That's why we made those six episodes before launching this web series.

Another part of the appeal of the short and the series is all the movie humour. Do you plan out ahead which movies are going to be the basis for episodes or jokes? Or is it more of a reactive thing, based on what the movie world is talking about? Or a mix of the two?

It's a little of both. The animated short was written way in advance. We just left a few spots in the script, like, "insert movie joke here." I had a shoulder injury that slowed me down by a few months, ruining some of the timeliness of the animated short. (It was supposed to come out in September, so its references are all September or October movies. It ended up coming out in January, but it would have been too much work to change all the movie posters in the background and redo any lines at that point.)

With the web series, it's much more reactive. We look at what's coming out in the next couple of weeks. Movie schedules shift a lot, so writing scripts out in advance would just waste a lot of time and money. You can't write very good jokes about movies unless you've at least seen a trailer, so we might pencil something down like "maybe a joke about A Quiet Place?" — but then that could be anything from a horror parody with a monster eating loud movie theatre patrons or… well, that weird-ass episode we ended up making. (It's actually one of my favourite episodes.)

What are the biggest influences on your work (animated or otherwise)?

Oh, jeez. I don't know. I'm sure every creator whose work I enjoy is an influence on my work on some level. Multiplex was influenced at first by a lot of cut-paper style animation like South Park or Rene Laloux (Fantastic Planet), but I moved away from that over the years.

I love how Atlanta is just all over the place in terms of one episode being extremely grounded in reality but also darkly comedic, then another being a BET/PBS-style talk show with kind of absurdist elements…? I love how tonally all over the place The Amazing World of Gumball is; that show is a master class in doing limited animation well. Honestly, "Atlanta meets The Amazing World of Gumball at a movie theatre" almost perfectly describes how I'd love to approach a full season of 12-minute episodes, if we're ever able to do one. I'm… weird. But that kind of unconventional approach would let us deal with movies in a way that the relatively grounded webcomic never could.

Obviously, Kevin Smith opened the door for people like me to come along and try to make stuff with characters as heavily steeped in pop culture as the Multiplex 10 cast, so I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Some other creators I love are Bryan Lee O'Malley, French comics duo Dupuy-Berberian, and Zander Cannon… To some extent or another, I think I've picked up some sensibilities from them.

Assuming the new project succeeds can you tell us anything about what you're planning next? Any little teases for our readers?

Since we work so close to the release, there's really not that much I can say! We've written basically none of it. Our format doesn't let us write much in advance beyond "maybe something about this movie?"

But we do have plans for a spotlight episode on Becky and Melissa, which will be more of a direct sequel to the animated short. We'll finally be able to get Dana (the voice of Melissa) a mic, so we can bring her into the web series, finally.

There will be something related to Halloween, though I'll leave it unclear whether that's the upcoming movie or the holiday.

AND we're going to be working with Leigh Lahav of Fangirls for one episode, which is really exciting for me, because I love her work.

In addition to the animated stuff, though, one of the milestone goals we've hit was comic strip movie reviews of the first ten Star Wars movies, the Lord of the Rings movies, and the Harry Potter movies. Because I like to make things harder on myself, I won't be doing those the easiest way possible: they'll be movie reviews (from a certain point of view), but also short stories about each trilogy and the characters' relationships to those movies. I'll be doing those semi-regularly for the Multiplex 10 site and the Kickstarter/Patreon updates, when I'm not working on the animation, so I guess Multiplex 10 is going to be a webcomic again, too, for a little while.

Thanks so much to Gordon for taking to us! The Kickstarter campaign runs until July 17. Visit the Multiplex 10 YouTube channel here. The animated short is available on Amazon, Vimeo On Demand, Fearless and other platforms. You can also support the series on Patreon