What Do You Want To Do Before You Die?

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A worthy question. A crazy project.

The question doubles as the title for MTV’s The Buried Life‘s first book. If you gave up on MTV the way I did in college, I needed to be reminded (and a little restored) that every once in a great while, the channel puts out something with an interesting hook. So for the uninitiated, The Buried Life is a group of four friends from LA with a substantial bucket list. Such examples from the list include but are not limited to: playing basketball with Barack Obama, teaching an army of fire ants how to Dougie and streaking a football stadium. They ingeniously scored a way to get MTV to pay for their cross country travels (for at least one season), documenting the execution of these big list items one by one.

One item on the list, as it happened, was publishing a book. Since publishing a book makes for lousy TV, they teamed up with Artisan Books to make it happen. The resulting tome is an illustrated bucket list lending a kind of absurdist visual aid to 100 goals which they intend to accomplish before passing on.

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Myself, Chris Brand, Matthew Hollister, Ted McGrath, Oliver Munday and Jeff Scher were recruited by Kevin Brainard (who designed the book) to illustrate nearly all of the bucket list items page for page. The brief was, for me, the best kind of crazy. We each had to incorporate the list item typographically into each image using handmade means whenever possible. The images had to comment on the list item in question rather than simply reinforce their intent. Each image had to retain a sense of swift execution and immediacy–as if the image was conjured and illustrated as quickly as the corresponding thought was conceived. Of greatest significance to me was a specific request regarding execution. Because the aspirations on the list ranged from globally altruistic, to personal, to whimsy, to obnoxiously self-serving (i.e wanting to deliver someone else’s baby), we were asked to throw any kind of stylistic consistency out the window. Each image had to give the impression that it was being fostered from a different voice. That hooked me.

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The process was a little intense. Among the recruited illustrators, the full-time freelancers were given 30-40 list items to illustrate. Those of us who were pre committed to a full time job (like me) were given 20-25. The sheer number of items and concepts helped to fulfill the brief’s request that the images retained a sense of immediacy insofar as that all of us had to work as swiftly and as thoroughly as possible in order to keep pace and deliver on time. There wasn’t too much time to obsess on the details which made another component of the brief: that each image stand alone stylistically, a little easier to accomplish. Because we were working so fast, we became exclusively focused on the storytelling component of each image. If a wash of watercolor on canvas felt like a form-fitting solution to the item at hand but watercolors weren’t your technical strength, you had between 60 and 80 minutes to make your case, as your list was long and available time was short.

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In the end, some of my experiments were more successful than others. And even if certain images I worked on came up short in my own personal court of opinion, the opportunity to freewheel so thoroughly is rare enough that it’s tough to regard any one illustration I took a crack at as an out-and-out failure. Feelings on The Buried Life and MTV notwithstanding, the book is worth spending some time with just to see how much visual variety and inventiveness came from all of the contributors’ speed, imagination and instincts.

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