Levni Yilmaz is a freelance artist and the creator of Tales of Mere Existence, an animation series that “explores subjects people THINK about, but do not talk about.”
The World of Apu interviewed Lev over email, in an attempt to understand the artist and the person behind the creation.
TWoA: You said in one of your other interviews that you drew a lot of cartoons as a kid. What were these cartoons about?
Lev: A lot of it was standard Superhero stuff, nothing very good at all. Last time I went home though, I found a drawing of a little dragon beating his head against his desk, because he had embarrassed himself in front of the girl dragon he liked. I was probably eight when I drew it. Apparently, my fate was sealed.
TWoA: You’ve also said before that Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip was your biggest influence. What did you like about it? In what way do you think Tales of Mere Existence has been influenced by it?
Lev: I first got obsessed with it in College. I had no intention at that time of getting into comics, but there was something about it that just grabbed me. Its approach and general disposition, it was just the way I felt. It represented the way I looked at things, or perhaps more importantly, the way I WANTED to look at things. It was a way to laugh at stuff in my own life I found disappointing. I used to keep the books by my bed. It was the first thing I read in the morning, the last thing I read before I went to sleep.
When I started fiddling around with what became TALES, Life in Hell was a good starting place, a good ground zero. It also didn’t hurt that the drawings were so simple, I didn’t have to feel intimidated by my own limitations in drawing. The message was more important than the drawings themselves.
TWoA: The Lev in your older videos doesn’t look the same as the Lev in your more recent videos. Could you share with us how the look of your protagonist evolved over time? Have any character traits changed as well?
Lev: The first incarnations of him have a mustache and beard, and his hair is like Sideshow Bob’s. I only did that for the first two years I think. I remember wanting to make him look a bit more neutral, like you wouldn’t attach him with any sort of style or scene. I wanted to make him look like he did not belong to anything or to anywhere, so the viewer would have little to no preconceived notions about him at first sight. Also, I wanted him to be instantly recognizable in silhouette. Another bit of influence from Groening.
TWoA: You focus on little details like socks or the way a person sits in the bus; to make a comment about something much larger. Who or what was your inspiration for your approach of zooming into details? Were you always obsessed with details?
Lev: I did not need an inspiration there. I have always been like that. I always operated on the periphery of any group of people. When you’re standing by watching and not feeling like a part of things, you have a great tendency to observe minutiae that other people may miss. You’re trying to figure out how it works, how it all fits together. You look at accessories, facial expressions and body language. It sounds like spy training, but I think of these things as a kind of primal communication.
TWoA: One of the comments to your videos said, “The endings to these videos hit you like a brick.” Why do you think people like to be hit by bricks?
Lev: I had not seen that one. I’m happy someone feels that way. If I had a choice between a brick and a limp, flaccid, deflated water balloon, I’d prefer the brick. I suppose because then at least, you can be reminded that you’re still alive.
TWoA: Have there been moments when you put a lot of effort into a video, but it did not get the response you were hoping for? What did you tell yourself then?
Lev: That happens all the fucking time. Very often, the stuff that you pull your hair out over isn’t as vibrant as the stuff you make off the cuff. I think though, that when you’re doing one of those mentally constipated, difficult pieces, you are further honing your craft. This will later make the execution of the off the cuff piece easier and better.
Recently, I spent a lot of time on a comic I found difficult to write, it took a while. But it’s one of my favorite comics I’ve ever done. You never can tell.
TWoA: Which among your videos would you call a personal favourite? Tell us why.
Lev: The ones I care about the most are the ones where I felt like I got something off my chest. My favorites are not always the most popular ones. Among more recent ones, I dig The Like Button and Today On The Internet. If I had to pick out an all time, one called “Conversation” would be up there. It’s about an argument over what movie to watch. That one means a lot to me because when I was making it, I kind of knew I was taking a step forward in my writing. I premiered that one at a festival, and I remember finishing the edit, drunk as hell, and then taking the file on the bus to drop in the festival mailbox downtown. It was great.
TWoA: Surely many of your episodes are based on your real life experiences. Have there been moments when people you know recognised themselves in your videos? How do they usually react?
Lev: Oh yes. Most of the time they are amused. Sometimes they say nothing, which I interpret as them being a bit pissed off. I always try to disguise things, so nobody else will know who I’m talking about. When I do that, I’m not trying to embarrass them. If anything, I’m trying to communicate what I’ve been trying to get through to them. You know what I mean?
TWoA: We think we do. You’ve said that Lev the character doesn’t act the way you act, he acts the way you think. What’s the fun in having a character like this?
Lev: I think it’s really just the freedom to express a side of me that’s a little screwy, a bit damaged, a bit ridiculous. I find that immensely liberating, to be able to tell people that this side exists. I don’t give a fuck if anyone perceives this as weakness, because I know it makes me feel stronger for some reason.
TWoA: Would you say making yourself the main character is a way for you to laugh at yourself? What would you say is the benefit of this?
Lev: It just puts my thoughts and emotions in perspective. It’s the same principle as a Political Cartoon. Taking something or someone and skewering it, this reduces its perceived importance and invulnerability. It takes the idiosyncrasy down a notch, as a cartoon can take a Politician down a notch.
TWoA: Let’s talk about your comic Sunny Side Down. You started working on the comics while still making animated videos. What do you feel is the difference between these two mediums when it comes to expressing your ideas? Do you have a slight preference for one over the other?
Lev: It varies. I flop back and forth in preference. I still do comics, lots of them. When one is going badly, the other is usually going well. The comics came after the videos, and for what may be an interesting reason – I wanted something to sell at film festivals. I figured that people would not want to buy an independent DVD, but they WOULD consider buying an Independent Comic book with a DVD in it. I recently put out another one, called Messages From The Mess-Age.
TWoA: Could you tell us more about this new book “Messages From the Mess-Age”? What is it about?
Lev: It’s a comic collection of work from 2015-2016. Only by accident, did it wind up having a general theme, a lot of the comics wound up being about technology. I did not notice this until it had been out a few months. I did do a series of around 12 comics last year with a central theme, called “I Want To Change”. That was fun, and I want to try that again.
TWoA: How did Levni the Artist start making corporate videos? Has it changed the artist in any way?
Lev: It hasn’t changed anything at all. I was influenced by the Wilkins Coffee advertisements Jim Henson did in the 60s. They were totally irreverent, really fun, and did not compromise the Muppets in the least. I actually like doing those. As with everything, it’s all about communication to me.
TWoA: May we know what the name Levni Yilmaz means?
Lev: I don’t know if it means anything. I think the name ‘Levni’ though, was taken from a pre-photography painter, who specialized in raunchy paintings. I hope it’s true. I love the thought of being named after a respectable pornographer.
TWoA: Looking back at the path you’ve taken to get here, in what way has art school helped you with what you’re doing today?
Lev: Oh sure. My school was all about the process, and the self discipline to keep doing things. That’s the lion’s share of the game. It’s worth noting that a very important element, I did NOT learn at school: The part about how to deal with adversity, build up an audience, an approach, a campaign so to speak. That part of it, I was mostly influenced by trashy Rock And Roll autobiographies. I’m not kidding. From a marketing perspective, The Motley Crue book can be immensely educational if you can read between the lines.
TWoA: How would you describe your life as an independent artist? Is it everything you hoped it would be?
Lev: It is challenging, difficult, always stressful, probably because I can be really hard on myself. This year, I had offers for several freelance jobs that looked like sure things, that all fell apart. There’s a lot of worry. But when it works, when I feel like I did something good, you get reminded that it’s worth it.
TWoA: How has the response to your work been so far? What motivates you to keep going? Is there any specific feedback that you cherish the most?
Lev: Oh yes, I’m probably proudest when people say things like “Get Out Of My Head” or “This is me.” The one that means the most, is when people say the work made them feel less alone. That’s when I feel like I did something right.
TWoA: What would we catch you doing when you are not sketching or making a video?
Lev: Trying to clear my head, so I can get to work sketching or working on a video.
TWoA: You made a passing mention in one of your videos about reading existential philosophy as a teenager. How do you look at it now?
Lev: I still get it, I still think about it. But if I met a sunken-eyed-espresso-fueled guy who wanted to discuss existentialism in a coffee house, I’d run like hell.
TWoA: We know what Lev the character thinks of God. What do you think he would say or do if God suddenly appeared in front of him?
Lev: I would probably ask his opinion of people like Pat Robertson. The answer to that would determine everything else we may chat about.
TWoA: What phone do you have now? (This is the reason we are asking!)
Lev: If I may, I’d rather not talk about it. Everyone’s too defensive about their phones, and how they affect people. If anyone wants to continue arguing about it, they can go ahead. I’ll be in the parking lot with a bottle of Vodka, if they need to find me when they’re done.
TWoA: Do you have a team or friends helping you with the videos?
Lev: For the videos themselves, I have people who do some guest voices – my great friends Edna Raia and Sebastien O’Brien. I do everything else in the videos myself. Besides that, I do have some friends who are just very encouraging about the whole project, and means a lot. The smallest amount of encouragement can fill up my gas tank for the next 50,000 miles.
TWoA: We noticed that you have a Patreon campaign going, for a 25-minute episode titled “Fling.” What can we expect from it?
Lev: It’s a continuous story, I’m doing it in 5 parts. I just finished the second episode. I’m pretty happy with it so far, something feels different about it. It’s been challenging to do, but it feels good. I can already tell I’m taking a step further. Exactly what direction that step is in, I still haven’t figured out.
TWoA: What are your aspirations for Tales of Mere Existence? What are your plans for the YouTube channel, from here on?
Lev: I’m not thinking in terms of the channel at all, I’m thinking about the work. Who knows what YouTube is going to do next, and I don’t like the thought of being at the mercy of someone else’s algorithmic whims. I know I am enjoying doing longer stories, I like that challenge, and I like that I’m able to go a bit deeper into the character and how he thinks. I know I want to do that.
TWoA: Do you think the protagonist of Tales of Mere Existence will ever be at peace with the world?
Lev: I don’t think I ever will, so I’m not holding out much hope for him either.
All images have been provided by Levni Yilmaz. They may not be reproduced without permission.