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Prague: where life becomes art

There are always the photos or hand-held video footage to remind us of our trips to other lands. And the train ticket stubs, expensive dinner receipts, postcards. Items purchased, small as key chains or grand as exotic carpets. For Kim Janson, her 2008 trip to Prague has a very unique piece of memorabilia - a flash cartoon, based off of sketches she created during the trip to capture her experiences.

click image to view to the film

This is no 3-minute YouTube video. It is a lengthy, highly artistic and clearly time-consuming work of art, perhaps the closest thing to "television" we have found in the realm of webisodes. We enjoyed it so much, we had to learn more, and invited Janson for a little Q&A.

BH: Prague 2008 is an amazing work of art. Are you a designer and artist by profession, and if so, for how long?

Janson: Thanks! I received a MFA in 2002 at the University of Arizona and continue to draw and paint, occasionally showing and selling artwork. In fact, I was able to go to Prague because I sold some artwork which gave me the exact amount I needed for a plane ticket. My staple occupation though is not in the field of art. But I do work for myself so I am able to to take time off and travel and draw and paint in my home studio. My husband Mike Janson works as a freelancer doing computer motion graphic work. Here's his website: furbubble.com.

BH: You started the initial sketches during the trip, correct? Did you anticipate what they would turn into, or was it completely organic in process?

Janson: I began drawing aboard the plane. I was traveling by myself so it was a way to occupy time and also keep travel anxiety contained within the little moleskin sketchbook I had with me. I was too wound up from having missed my first flight and from the anticipation of traveling by myself to a place I had never been to before to either sleep or read (I brought no laptop). I spent pretty much the whole 10 hours of flying drawing and writing in the sketchbook. When I got to Mike's hotel room, I showed him what I had been doing. He laughed at my foibles and encouraged me to keep up with the sketchbook drawings during our 10-day Prague stay. It was unplanned, totally organic.

BH: Mike, from the story, is also the motion designer. Did he have something to do with the decision to animate the project?

Janson: It was Mike's idea. Mike had planned to animate the story while we were in Prague. He vaguely mentioned doing so but kept his animation plans more to himself. It was good for me to not know this, I think, because I might have edited myself in some way.

BH: The original notebook - priceless. Did you purchase it during the trip?

Janson: There are two sketchbooks from the trip. I started out with one of those (9"x14") moleskin sketchbooks. I often carry some sort of drawing pad with me in my non-traveling life so it was natural for me to have one with me. About midway through the trip I realized I was just about done with the moleskin book. The end of the first journal led us to set out on a quest to find another one. We ended up - from searching for stationary stores and book shops - discovering streets that we may not have explored... No moleskin notebooks with blank pages were to be found in our search of Prague. Instead I found a substitute sketchbook: the one pictured at furbubble.com/prague (see above). It turned out to be even better since the cover featured Krtek the Czech cartoon mole. The sketchbook became a souvenir in two ways - inside and outside. I think we got it from a toy store.

BH: It seems like there are illustrations that never made it to the film - how did you choose what to use, what not to use? And how long do you think the film would be if you included it all?

Janson: Once we got back home to NYC, I handed the sketchbooks over to Mike and he edited the drawings into a story using FLASH animation. I think he picked the funnier things that fit more into a storyline for our travels. The whole thing would have taken a really long time! Making (months) and viewing (hours!). He broke the animation up into chapters thinking that viewers would probably not want to watch it in entirety as it is. He didn't want to feel like we were making people watch a slide show of the family road trip to California.

BH: We're curious: from sketching to animating - about how many hours does it take to create a project like this?

Janson: The sketching part was easy! I just made myself draw and reflect on the travel days every morning for at least an hour during breakfast or during a down time in the hotel room. Plus I had ample time to sketch during the 20 hours of plane travel. Mike scanned my drawings into the computer and just used rough sketches, photos and videos to make the animation. That took 3 weeks off and on. Mike points out that in the beginning of the animation there is a lot more detail but towards the end, not so much.

BH: On the one hand, there is a travel element - the “this is Prague” of your story. But you don’t solely focus on the location; instead you tell the complete story, down to the gritty details of snoring and stomach bloat. It’s very “real” in that sense.

Janson: Well, it kind of stems from me not being a great traveler. I love taking trips but feel an uncomfortableness about being in a foreign place (foreign meaning different from my daily routine) - physically and mentally. Also, I tend to observe and find amusement in human behavior - especially my own - and use the notebook to write down funny or awkward situations. I feel that I am somewhat compelled to put myself in new situations and then document my discomfort.

BH: We love that you and Mike found a “haunt” - a restaurant to continually go back to. Some people feel they must constantly try something and someplace new while traveling, but it seems like you treated Prague like home, in a way? Can you tell us the name of this joint and where we can find it?

Janson: Mike and I both like a certain routine for sure. Generally we have to have a long breakfast and once that is out of the way, we can tour around. Eating is always hard for me because as far as routines go, I tend to eat the same few things most of the time. Once we find a good place to eat we are loyal customers! We try to find places that locals enjoy and steer clear of tourist traps. Doing so, I feel more comfortable as a traveler just being a part of the culture for a week or so. Once we find homey comfort of our surroundings, then we can tour around and see the sites in a relaxed fashion.

Our breakfast was usually at Bohemia Bagel. We could get the greatest bagels there and free refill drip brew coffee. We could linger for a while and use their clean, floor-to-ceiling door toilets before heading out to explore. Plus we could check email with the computers set up there.

Dinner: Kolkovna Celnice was a few steps away from our hotel. Delicious Pilsner Urquell beer on tap. Nice kind of brewery atmosphere during the week. Weekend nights it became like a discotheque - not our scene. The best thing to eat was the potato soup. I also got a sort of cucumber salad to get some greens into my system.

BH: Aside from this film, what are your most profound memories from Prague? What did you take away from the experience?

Janson: Really what makes any of my memories of the trip profound for me is when I am walking along doing my normal thing and then I smell a certain smell or see something that takes me back to Prague in my mind - a memory that would not be present if I had not taken the trip. For example, whenever I hear the world weather report on our local news channel, NY1, the graphics and music are exactly the same as the BBC World news we'd watch in Prague. Thus, I am often taken back to the importance of the weather report for us in Prague and how it changed from rainy to sunny (finally!) as the trip progressed. But probably the most profound thing I recall about the trip is the feeling of being at home in our tiny hotel room (Ibis Praha Mala Strana). It was always a relief to take shoes off and lie in the most comfortable bed.

Oh and the best memory is... I had one of those neck pillows given to me by a friend. When Mike saw it he said it looks like the lower half of a cowboy, or cowboy legs, so we called it "Lower Half." When we'd return from our daily treks, the hotel maid always, after cleaning, place Lower Half on the pillows as the centerpiece of the bed. Mike and I created the notion that the maid had feelings of endearment towards old LH. Really no matter where Lower Half was in the room when we left, he'd be central on the bed when we came back. We could tell when another woman had cleaned on one of the days because she did not take care to tend to LH's comfort. So in the end, we left Lower Half to spend his days in Prague with his beloved cleaning lady.

What I took away from the experience is to not work the day that I am flying anywhere (trying to finish up work is what led me to be late for leaving for the airport) and plan to be at the airport 3 hours before traveling.

BH: Will there be other flash illustrations for future/other trips, or will Prague remain an anomaly?

Janson: So far Prague is the only one. Last year we spent 3 weeks in Hawaii and I did do a series of drawings (tiny drawings) but they have yet to become animated. We are back again in Hawaii this year and again I am keeping a sketchbook but I think the element of distress that I had in Prague was key in making the animation funny. In Hawaii, a jump in the ocean takes away woe. But perhaps...? I think I will have to animate it this time.

Watch "Prague 2008" by Kim & Mike Janson >>
View the original sketches >>

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