BEARS: This is one of the most inventive films I’ve seen at Fantastic Fest in a long time. I’ve been coming for six years. I always want to talk to animators when they have an animated film and say, ‘this is a story that could have been shot live-action, so why choose this method.’ Yours probably would have been 100 million dollars to sink a school under the sea. But tell me why this story had to be animated and what that brought to it.
Dash Shaw: The first thing that pops into my head is I love to draw. I love comic books and drawing and cartoons. So I never had any live action film aspirations really. The kind of animation that I really fell in love with was limited animation, particularly Japanese cartoons, like Speedracer and the original Astroboy series. Those felt really connected to comic books for me, especially Astroboy. Tezuka was a cartoonist, so he wanted to get into animation like Disney but he couldn’t get a lot of money. So he invented a system of using fewer drawings to tell his stories. I always thought there was something really beautiful about that kind of limited language that I really wanted to celebrate in this movie where — like the Charlie Brown Christmas Special has a limited number of facial expressions but those facial expressions are incredibly moving and empathetic for those characters. That idea of amplifying the less is awesome, like independent cinema and what independent cinema should be. Can putting just a q-tip on the screen be an awesome, bold gesture in a movie? Can looking at a dot be thrilling and as awesome as a big budget Hollywood movie?
BEARS: That seems to play directly in to what I think of as your animation aesthetic— what you put in the frame and how you do it. It doesn’t look like anybody else. The closest thing I can think of is it reminds me of a Keith Harrington painting. It’s focusing on figures, and the simplicity gets the message across. But you also have a lot of other things going on, so you’re pulling the eye in different places. I would love for you to talk about your thoughts on what you wanted in frame and why, and how it helps you tell the story.
Shaw: I storyboarded the whole thing in color markers, so there were indications of the composition— how the colors would look right there in the storyboards. The first thing is, ‘I have to show a close-up this character in this shot.’
BEARS: The action of the scene.
Shaw: Yeah. I want people to be able to follow what’s going on. Then at the same time there’s the people who basically view everything as an abstract movie or as an experimental movie, where I just can sit and watch. So I want the movie to function as a story but also function abstractly. There is a ‘stoner-y’ thing there, where like people get stoned and just want to watch cartoons and want to have an awesome light show. I want it to work on that level.
BEARS: There was actually a very specific 2001 moment where it just goes into a series of dots. I think it’s when he falls into the water and it takes him five minutes to fall a foot and you take us down this rabbit hole of visions, that’s where I think it gets the most abstract.
Shaw: That’s true. That sequence in particular . . . they’re climbing up through these bleachers but they climb for way too long. There’s some dial where it turns into avant-garde cinema and then the dial moves back again to a Saturday morning cartoon. That stretch to me is exciting. There was a movie called FIST OF THE NORTH STAR that’s an anime and a lot of those Japanese cartoons would be trying to interpret comic book drawings into an animation language. The comic book was drawn in a very densely hatched in kind of a chiaroscuro style [Bears an effect of contrasted light and shadow created by light falling unevenly or from a particular direction on something], but that’s very difficult to do animated because you have to do all these drawings. In FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, someone would punch a guy and you’d see the hatching under the person’s arm flickering, to different ways of cross-hatching muscle. As a kid, when I saw that, I thought, ‘this is awesome.’ I’m understanding that this person is punching this other person but there’s this whole other abstract story, where I’m seeing these marks flickering and changing.
BEARS: It seems like it’s a big risk for somebody working in animation to go the more abstract route, which I love that you did. I don’t see people making a lot of animated movies that are taking risks. Everything looks like everything else. Everything is either trying to look like Pixar, live-action, CGI thing, or it’s trying to look like a Studio Ghibli thing. I love that your cartoon can only be your cartoon. It has your voice just in the picture. I don’t feel like enough people take advantage of that.
Shaw: I think the reason for that is it’s a ton of work to make all of those drawings. Even though the tools now are very accessible— like I just made this with a scanner. Really, the same tools that I could make a comic book, I used to make this movie with. The tools are there to make a movie like this, a lot of people have those tools. But it’s a lot of drawing. My experience in comic books both helped me know how to do a lot of drawing because I would make books that were hundreds of pages long. I would have to draw the same character over and over and over. So that experience prepped me for this. Also, the alternative comic world, to me, is the most exciting and diverse place for graphic personalities and sensibilities. When I think of the visual storytellers that I like, it’s 99% comic book artists. I love Miyazaki but I think these comic book artists are the coolest.
BEARS: So to get to the story a little bit, I love the idea of climbing out of a sinking school as being a metaphor for making it through your high school experience especially because they’re climbing from one floor to the next. Did you draw on a lot of frustrations of growing up and high school and put them into the film?
Shaw: It kind of relates to comics because when I was that age, the main school of all alternative comics were auto-bio comics. Part of the joke of it initially was to have a character with my name who ( it’s his auto-bio but it’s clearly not auto-bio) has a warped perspective of things. I was on a school paper and things like that related to my real life. I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to make comic books. But so much of it is not from my life. So much of it is a joke — like the school being each grade and moving up through this thing. These video game-like systems that we have in place in schools and our view of moving up in society, that is— to me— ridiculous. When he’s like, ‘we have to move up to the junior floor and graduate to the roof.’ Like, what does that mean? To be on the roof?
BEARS: They even break through the glass ceiling.
Shaw: It’s very silly. Even that the director would have his character be the one person who is trying to warn everyone— it’s as if Indiana Jones was just named Steven Spielberg. It’s this person’s fantasy of being the one who is guiding everyone as the hero. It’s like participating and also mocking the system, mocking the state.
BEARS: You mentioned Charlie Brown. There’s an overt Charlie Brown reference at the end which I thought was amazing. They end with the dance, and it’s clearly the way they dance at the end of Charlie Brown. I cheered. Tell me how Charlie Brown influenced this film.
Shaw: The Charlie Brown Christmas Special in particular I think is just one of the greatest pieces of cinema. It’s so incredible and moving. The perfect example of limited animation. We did overtly steal that wide, dancing, moves of that shot. And inn the faces of the characters I used a lot of these kind of parenthesis eyes that I associate with as something that Charles Schulz created. He was so great at using a few lines to really shoot personality into characters. Those parenthesis eyes, it’s almost like someone being flustered or Charlie Brown is confused by the state of things. I think of that as a very specific Schulz thing that is used throughout the movie. I was actually surprised by how much Charlie Brown is in the movie because those kind of influences you don’t really plan.
BEARS: It’s deeper. You can see a movie when you’re 18 and you’re like, “oh this is one of my influences now.” But if you’ve seen a movie all your life, it’s like everybody knows every Beatles song. It’s in your heart. It’s instinctual.
Shaw: I knew I wanted it to end with them dancing. But then when it got to them dancing, it’s like, ‘of course it has to be the Charlie Brown dance.’ The teachers in Charlie Brown would be in a different world [insert Charlie-brown-teacher-noise-here, you all know it]. The teachers in my movie, they don’t speak like that but they’re drawn like they’re some kid’s idea of what adulthood is. The man has an eyepatch and is very manly. The women are very breast-y and look like Centurion people. They’re on a separate plane than the kids.
BEARS: It’s cool. The cast is pretty amazing, since you are not doing any sort of motion capture/simulate facial expressions thing it must have been easier to get high profile names involved. You mentioned in the Q&A they weren’t usually there at the same time recording.
Shaw: There’s a closet scene in the movie and the actors are Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, and Reggie Watts. One sessions would be with Reggie and Maya, and I played Jason’s parts, and we’d record it. And another session would be Jason and Reggie and I would play Maya’s parts, and we’d record it. And we collaged them together. It was done that way because everyone was in different places and had different schedules. Everyone was completely on board with the sensibility of the movie. It helped a kind of deadpan quality to the dialogue because all of these things are happening, but all of the kids are staying, talking about books and publishing. Then I’d draw the scene and realize we need a line of dialogue so we’d get Jason for another day a year later to come in and do all of these things. It was just how it was made. The whole thing was very collage-like in its creation.
BEARS: It seems like you really had to keep track of what you had done and what you still had to do -your task list. Your task list is like each frame, all the layers you’re putting in animation-wise, and the dialogue on top of that.
Shaw: Maybe this is too, ‘inside-baseball’ to talk about, but what helped (because I could draw it) I just put shitty placeholders for shots. Like, ‘oh, what if Jason says something like this: “hi there.”’ I’d just record it and plug it in. The whole time I had a vision of the movie that we’re replacing with better elements. And that line, let’s have Jason say it a bunch of times; which one is the best one? With a live action movie, it seems like you have a plan and then you have to execute that plan and if you don’t have a shot you need, you’re fucked. Or maybe you get it days later to record. But for me, I could always redraw things. I could always put in new things.
BEARS: I think it could be very liberating but also— how do you know when you’re done?
Shaw: More than how do you know when you’re done is the problem of ‘animator burn-out.’ It’s a lot drawing. That’s a high focus thing and when you’ve done a ton of drawings that don’t get used, you have to psyche yourself up again to draw this stuff. I had never made a feature length film before so I didn’t know that it would be like this. It might sound ridiculous, but freakily, the movie starts to know what it wants more than you. This movie is a rocket. The movie has a personality or a sensibility of its own that tells you to take something out, put something in, or redraw this.
MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA made its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest this week. Dash Shaw is known for such celebrated graphic novels as Bottomless Belly Button and New School. He is also responsible for the Sigur Ros “Seraph” video, the best animated music video since Take On Me.