ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.2 - MAY 1999
The Vague Rumor of Independence in New York Animation
A conversation with John Schnall and Steven Dovas
Late February 1999
John Schnall has been independently producing singular and highly individual short films from his home-studio in New Jersey for almost two decades. Schnall's work has been described as wittily sardonic, mordant, along with both morose and funny-as-hell, and all are wildly inventive both graphically and intellectually. In addition, he has worked for several different animation studios in New York. Since last year, he has completed The Great Switcheroo, produced for Nickelodeon's Short Films For Short People, and is presently working for Jumbo Pictures as an Assistant Director on PB & J Otter. He has also produced a series of PSA's about Tourette's Syndrome. He recently went to contract on his first home, and would appreciate your congratulations.
John Schnall (left) and Steven Dovas exult in their bright future as air conditioning and refrigeration repairmen.
Steven Dovas has been working in animation in New York City for the past 16 years. His recent award-winning cartoon Call Me Fishmael has played at festivals across the world and will be seen next at the upcoming New York Animation Festival. He is represented as a commercial director by Class-Key-Chew-Po Commercials in L.A., for whom he just completed a 60-second spot for Dockers Europe. He is presently animating a film for the Ink Tank, directing a pilot for Nickelodeon, teaching at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and working on new films of his own. His studio in Brooklyn also holds his extensive collections of flipbooks and eyeballs.
Dovas and Schnall met in a dank Times Square bar one evening in late February to talk about the business of animation as an individual artist in New York at present. They are joined by their acquaintances Johnnie Walker Black and Jim Beam, each of whom did their best to prod the conversation along, with water and ice. We join them in mid-sentence.
Steven Dovas: We are here to talk about independent animation in New York. So, since you are an independent, or an ex-independent, let's just talk and see what comes up.
John Schnall: Ex-independent. That's interesting. You're one too.
SD: I don't know.
JS: No, no, everyone is.
SD: You, to my mind, were one of a very small number of people that I considered the quintessentially independent animators.
JS: There was awhile where I would definitely say that.
SD: You were turning out a film every year, or year and a half, or whatever, as fast as you could, and it was astonishing to me. I was struggling just to pay my rent. Doing a lot of work for other people, maybe not commercial work, but work that I enjoyed, I felt like I was learning, but you were turning out films. I gravitated toward commercial work whereas you were steadily making short films. How was it possible then that it isn't possible now and what happened?
JS: It was possible then for me to keep making my films, because I really almost felt like I didn't have a choice. You draw a hell of a lot better than me. You're much easier to hire than I am. I've found a different niche, but I can't do what you can do. What you can do is everyone's style, in a way that I just can't.
SD: Now I'd disagree with that (laughs), but that was where the work was from the beginning. I wasn't making shorts.
JS: Yeah, and I got less work. I was living at my parents' house for awhile accumulating some money, then when I moved out, the money got spent, and I was living damn cheap too.
SD: What changed?
JS: My lifestyle changed, in a lot of ways. You know, thinking about two people instead of one person, and where we're going to be ten years from now, is much more of an issue.
Steve Dovas'Comic Book ID for MTV. © MTV.
SD: I would agree. I was working right out of school in a 'freelance' way. It was fun and an education to draw in the style of a children's book illustrator or something, which is why I still don't feel like I have a personal style. Although my MTV ID (Comic Book ID, 1993) was as close to a personal style as anything I've done. It's less a graphic style than a sensibility. But what is interesting about both what you do and what I do isn't so much about the drawing, but the sensibility.
JS: The movement, definitely.
SD: I realized very early on that I was more concerned with being able to make a life, whatever that life was, than I was about some illusory idea of being a 'filmmaker.' Richard Protovin said to both of us when we were at NYU, to his credit, thankfully, 'You're never going to make a living doing short films.' He was able to give us sufficient motivation to do something that you felt was consistent.
JS: He was also about ten years ahead of his time in that, his first class assignment was to make a film with 10 different styles of animation. In certain ways, we came close with the mixed styles to a look that is now trendy. That was the stuff that we were doing in school that he said we'd never make a living doing. Look at it this way: What got you started? What was the first film that you saw that made you say, 'Wow, I could just make films!'
SD: [George Griffin's] Lineage.
JS: Hey, one of my two is [George Griffin's] Head. The first one was when I was five. I saw The Hand, by Jiri Trnka. It blew me away. I thought it was just so beautiful. Then I saw Head on PBS and it scared me. It was not the way I thought you could make a film.
The Hand by Jiri Trnka. © Kratky Film.
SD: I remember seeing it slackjawed in amazement.
JS: This is the reason I'm bringing it up. That's how we got started doing what we are doing. That is what got us to go, 'Wow! You can make films of your own.' I really feel no one is doing that now. There's a lot of people making great films, but when George was making those films, while he was surely thinking about putting bread on the table, he was also clearly thinking more about making something different and exploring his muse.
SD: Exploring an artform at its boundaries. Does that world even exist anymore?
JS: Do you know anyone, including me or you, who's made a film in the last few years completely because they just wanted to do it and not because they were thinking about their next job?
SD: Debbie Solomon. She says she made Mrs. Matisse, which Ken Kimmelman animated, with definite commercial considerations, which frankly ended up disappointing her, while Everybody's Pregnant she did to prove to herself that she could animate. She wasn't sure she could but she was gonna try, which kind of neatly paralleled the situation of she and her husband trying to have a baby. She 'threw caution to the wind,' she said, and made a cartoon. That's independent. Pregnant turned out to be a more successful film too.
JS: But maybe that's an exception. If it was like that when we were in school, would we have seen these films and gotten started in animation? It makes me wonder what the students now are seeing. If it's become just, 'Hey, I can make a buck at this,' or if it's anything like that feeling we had when we saw these films that jolted us into becoming filmmakers. Kids who are watching new films now, are they going to feel the same way? Are they going to be shocked by our films and never forget, and want to go into animation?
SD: Are they even going to see our films?
JS: Well, there are more venues now.
SD: Or is it going to be Mulan, The Prince Of Egypt, Tarzan, Fantasia 2000 and Iron Giant, that's going to motivate them? Does that by its nature define whether they'll think of themselves as 'independent animators' or not? Does it matter? Are we close to defining what independence means anymore?
JS: Independence might mean just finding a way to make it in a way that I don't think anyone in animation is now.
SD: So what happened John? From the conception of the idea of independent filmmaker to the reality of what the situation turned out to be, what happened?
JS: It didn't go like that. It wasn't like I wanted to be this independent but I hit this cold, cruel world. I made a whole bunch of films. I'm sure I'll make more down the road. I've had no interest in it for a little while now. The thing I'd like to blame is that I put together a collection of my films, Death Laughs Among Us, and because I put together this collection it's hard to do the next film. But I already know what the next film is, started it and didn't want to do it. That's never happened to me before. Part of what happened is I'm at a point where I am concerned with getting out of debt, buying a house; finances happen, love happened.
SD: Life happens. But do you think that real life precludes independent film making?
JS: Absolutely not. I've always said that I'm not going to make a film just because I can. I always want to make a film only when I have something to say.
SD: I felt the same way.
JS: ...even if what I have to say is as simple as, 'Isn't this funny?' I mean really, my films Norma And Milton, Grim, I had no concern about if there would be work coming from them. Jobs were an inconvenience while I worked on the films.
SD: It's your addiction.
JS: I didn't have much more of a financial cushion than I do now. I could do it now, but I don't have that burning desire to say what I have to say. I said what I said in Frankenstein and the films since have been kind of redundant.
SD: Okay, then what's different now?
JS: Good question. I'm not sure I have an answer. In a way I really do need to fall in love with an idea to keep doing it. While I have ideas of things I want to do, I haven't fallen in love with an idea to want to do it enough.
SD: Are you in love with the idea of working on Doug or PB & J?
JS: No but that's different...
SD: So what happens now?
JS: What happens now is: do I sit around and wait for it, or just pursue what I am pursuing, and hope that kind of enthusiasm comes up again? It's the whole difference between making a film no matter how stupid it is just because it is something you want to say, and making a film because, `Look what I can do with my style and look at how much money you should invest in me!' is blurred and blurred and blurred to the point where it is almost pointless.
SD: I would argue with you. It's not blurred. I think it's even clearer.
SD: I think it's so crystal clear right now that all these kids in my classes, and many of the adults we work with, want to make the best film they can make, in their own style, so someone'll hand them the US$2.5 million contract like this kid [Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy] at Fox.
JS: But how many people are making that film that really communicates something? No one cares.
SD: But do you think that the film that this guy made that got him Family Guy was a heartfelt example of an artist's expression?
JS: No, I don't, but what was? Recently? That's my point. Maybe that distinction is clear.
SD: Maybe Frog Baseball was as heartfelt an expression as Mike Judge was capable of making. He did all right by it. And he made it independently. George Lucas is an independent filmmaker, just to further confuse the issue.
JS: Yeah. You could argue that Matt Groening is an independent for having managed to keep an original idea consistent from his mind to the TV screen.
SD: Whoa, whoa, whoa...Do you think there's anyone who looks at Matt Groening and sees an independent filmmaker? I don't know that he sees himself as a filmmaker. Am I an independent filmmaker? I haven't had a staff job doing animation in the last ten years. Now, I've worked for reasonably big studios doing commercial stuff, I've done my own stuff, I've done commercial stuff that's started and ended with me. Thankfully, I'm always busy...I'm reasonably comfortable, even on my modicum of talent. Is that independence?
JS: Am I an independent filmmaker? I've spent so many years making films that I've considered independent, but I look at them now and think that I see a certain point where it was less pure than it was at another earlier point...
SD: When was it less pure? When did it become less pure?
SD: Why? Frankenstein is the greatest film no one's ever seen.
The dream sequence from Schnall's Frankenstein. © John Schnall.
JS: It was the last pure film, where I wasn't thinking of commercial considerations. It's a gradual shift. What I'm asking is, we can both define ourselves as independent animators, or not define ourselves as independent animators. Where is it that we draw the line now?
SD: Well, why is 'purity' measured by commercial considerations? You said at the beginning of this conversation that, 'Independence is dead.'
JS: No, what I said was that whole environment that got us turned on to animation, that the films that we saw were independent films in a purer sense, and that doesn't exist now.
SD: When you say, 'purer,' does that mean that you're putting up a fence that has one group on one side and everyone else on another?
JS: It is a matter of degrees. The line has shifted. I don't think there's a fence, maybe it's a gulf of 256 shades of grey. Computers are part of it, which is why I think the 256 shades of grey seem to work as an analogy. I know artists who work exclusively with computers that I consider closer to independent than I consider myself at the moment.
SD: Because they're doing it all themselves, except they can afford a $10,000 desktop video system and $4K DV camera...
JS: Or maybe they teach in a school where they have access to it. Like Jim Duesing, for example. I can't think of a lot of people who are independent as opposed to commercial in their orientation working in the digital domain.
SD: There's one place where the line is very blurred.
JS: There's a price tag on it, but it's never been about having the right toys.
SD: Having a more expensive pencil doesn't make the films any better.
JS: Does it make 'em any worse? I sometimes think it does.
SD: You're over-intellectualizing. It's very easy to dismiss the people who follow you, by virtue of the fact that their circumstances are different, and maybe better than yours were. But the same bunch at NYU, shooting in Washington Square Park, are making the same stupid movies today... Back then we watched Point Blank and now they're watching Payback. They're also not watching the Hubley's Everybody Rides The Carousel, or Moonbird, or Tale Of Tales, or Starevitch, or George Dunning, or George Griffin.
George Griffin's Lineage. © George Griffin. George Griffin's Head. © George Griffin.
JS: Although Tale of Tales is out on a recent tape of Russian Animation. Carousel is now easier to get than it was when we were in school. We were watching Tale Of Tales at work, Willy Hartland brought in a copy, and some people half-watched it, and some people reacted like they'd never seen it before. Then they discovered it was cut-out and couldn't believe it. It's as powerful as it was when we saw it and it's easier to find now.
SD: So is Starevitch. Not that anyone cares. Has the world changed so much that something does not exist if it's not in Entertainment Weekly?
JS: The world has changed so much that clips from [Starevich's] The Mascot can be used in a music video by the hot group of the moment and kids would react to it and not know.
SD: We wouldn't have known either. If someone took clips from The Mascot and used it in a music video, kids would look at it and say it was a rip-off of the Tool video. Because people think Fred Stuhr came up with something new who never saw the connection between what he was lifting from the Quay Brothers, who called their stuff an 'homage' when they were lifting from Svankmajer...
JS: Well that's as old as the world. That hasn't changed.
SD: What's changed is the level of saturation by which people's level of cluelessness has actually gone up.
JS: They should because you have to know the past if you're gonna get anywhere.
SD: You sound like my father. How do you make that argument and be persuasive to people who look at it and only see `boring, old stuff' and can't look at it without laughing?
JS: We laughed when we were students too, but some of it soaked in... You just have to hammer at that brick wall.
SD: Y'know what's amazing? Even the most jaded students still flip out when they see the Fleischer 3D backgrounds. Nobody knows what the hell they're looking at!
JS: That's the biggest kick I get out of the technique I used in Frankenstein; animation using posed photographs combined as animation art. People are just blown away by it, and ad agencies spend tons of money to duplicate the look you get by shooting still photos and then re-shooting it as animation.
SD: This whole thing started when I told AWN, 'John Schnall has this film [The Great Switcheroo]with a look that's different and an interesting technique and we should write about it.' That technique came from you taking your process in Frankenstein and Buy My Film! and messing with the photos in the computer before cutting them out and using them as animation art.
JS: It's not new anymore. It's everywhere.
SD: Using the Inferno, the Flame, the Paintbox, or maybe just After Effects.
JS: They're spending tons of money. They could spend it on me.
SD: And you'd do it for $1.20.
JS: $1.25, please. But that extra 5 cents went to the lawyer.
SD: Your lawyer works cheap.
JS: I had this great idea for a project that combined still photography and animation. I pitched this idea emphasizing my technique in Buy My Film! because that was what they wanted. Then I started doing this other short project for them, and I developed this other style for it. In that short time, the style that to them was 'John Schnall' became not the Buy My Film! style but the style of that short film done for them. So by the time I got back to this short pitch, 'what John Schnall, does best' became the style of the recent piece, and the pitch was 'what John Schnall did best last year,' which now doesn't fit in with this style. They can't think of a person doing two styles at once. It's the whole 'development' process which I think is really messed up. People get drawn to a project and decide to 'develop' it, but almost without fail, the first thing to go, or to change beyond recognition, is what drew them to the project in the first place.
John Schnall's Opposing Views. © John Schnall.
SD: You're generalizing. It's not all bad. Your film Opposing Views was in Cartoon Sushi.
JS: And I thought it was the worst collection of films I'd ever been part of.
SD: Well, then you stood out.
JS: Frankenstein was shown as part of the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and I thought it really stood out.
SD: Because of you, not because of the content of the film...
JS: No, it's funny how in that context it made sense. To me, the film is about raising children, but you could also see it about a repressed character who is watching an idealized image of a woman on a TV screen... With the gay audience, it took on a different interpretation.
SD: To your credit, Frankenstein is a film with more depth than the average cartoon.
JS: It felt good for one of my films to stand out in that context, standing out in Cartoon Sushi didn't make me feel that good. I thought Fishmael stood out on Cartoon Sushi.
SD: Thanks. I was just happy that MTV pays as much as they do.
The pitch from hell in Dovas' Call Me Fishmael. © Steve Dovas.
Click here to view a Quick-time movie from Call Me Fishmael.
© Steve Dovas.
JS: Here's a question about independence. You made Fishmael. You've had it screened with great success.
SD: Mostly live-action festivals. A few insightful animation festivals (laughs), but it went over amazingly well in a whole lot of 'film' festivals.
JS: Have you ever seen audiences react to it and felt kinda sick, because it didn't reach people the way you wanted it to? That's a feeling I've had.
SD: No, because I'm easy, I guess. If an audience reacts positively, I love it. I was in a festival out in East Hampton, and this was the most dead audience I've ever screened for. No reaction from the audience, and I was horrified. But afterwards, people came up to me and told me they liked it, and suddenly that made it all right.
JS: I've shown Frankenstein to no reaction, and found out after that they were silent because they were all blown away by it. I don't know if I'd feel the same if it was a comedic film.
SD: Isn't Frankenstein a funny film?
JS: I don't think so. People laugh, but it's not like Grim, which started out as a goofy, funny film and got sad when I put the soundtrack on.
SD: Do you think it works better because of the soundtrack?
JS: Definitely, it's a film about loneliness.
SD: I don't mean working for you, I mean working for an audience.
JS: I've never really understood how to make a film for an audience other than me, I'm sorry.
SD: Is that the difference between an independent filmmaker and a 'commercial' filmmaker?
JS: You can be commercially successful and still make films to please yourself.
SD: Of course, but I'm not talking about your intent. Is the difference between what we're defining as a 'commercial' filmmaker and what we're arbitrarily calling 'independent,' that one makes a film that everyone watches and laughs at and the other first makes a film that satisfies themselves and then takes whatever audience the film finds? There are those who would say that pleasing yourself first is more important than trying to please an audience. There's a lotta self-indulgent crap that gets made for that reason.
JS: I'd rather see that crap these days.
The subject turns to being 'pigeon-holed.'
JS: Bill Plympton has a style; you wouldn't hire him to do someone else's style. I think being pigeon-holed is a real advantage that neither one of us wants to fall into.
SD: Well you're a lot closer to it than I am. You have a body of work that is substantial enough to show themes and a particular perspective.
JS: Themes and perspective would never lead to work.
SD: Really? I think they do. I don't think it's just his drawing style that gets Bill Plympton jobs.
JS: That's true, his humor, his sensibility. Let's face it, the thread that I've got going for my stuff is more conceptual than a style of humor.
SD: Although your graphic style up until you took that radical left turn working with photographs, was fairly consistent. I happen to think that the sequences of cartoon animation in Frankenstein are among the best stuff you've ever done.
JS: I was always happy with that. Done in crayon and really, really loose.
SD: Radically different from everything you've done before.
JS: Well I followed with a film that had a very standard drawing style, which I think is better animation in some ways, Opposing Views. Character animation was something I hadn't done in awhile and wanted to get back to. I also like that I did the children's film for Nickelodeon, followed it with some PSA's about Tourrette's Syndrome, with a possibility of a children's thing next. After that, the back burner thing is a series featuring skeletons, a nice brain eating kind of series. Now you're part of that group of directors that Klasky Commercials put together...
SD: They're all that kinda-independent-ish animator...Sally Cruikshank, Corky Quakenbush, Debbie Solomon, Stig Berqvist, etc. The point that I'm making is that if we're defining them as independent, all these people were making films that they wanted to make. For the most part, they weren't making films aimed at any particular demographic, or market. Maybe they were making animation for a group beyond that kid specific market, without it being for TV. Like Bill Plympton is doing. And y'know as far as market-wise nobody knows Bill Plympton, and he's arguably the best known independent animator in the country.
Debra Solomon's Everybody's Pregnant. © Debra Solomon.
JS: I saw The Tune twice. Once I saw it at an ASIFA screening where, you know, it's interesting or whatever. Then I saw it in New Brunswick at Rutgers, at a college screening. It was a huge, packed auditorium. It was the funniest film I had ever seen. It was just so great with the right kind of crowd.
SD: So why do people say that Bill Plympton can't make a good feature?
JS: Like I say, he did, but I didn't know it until I saw it with the right crowd.
SD: Well he's making films that are unlike anything else being done.
JS: I will never cease to have anything but complete respect for Bill because he's independent.
SD: He's it. But is that it? Is that the only venue? He would say yes. He would say, `You gotta do things you can't do otherwise.'
JS: He's the independent who understands the way things get done. But Bill has managed to work his aesthetic into the market without any conflicts. He's got his vision, and he's completely working in the market.
SD: He's driven. His work is consistent and he's done it.
JS: So we've got him on one side and we've got Faith Hubley on, I would say, another side.
SD: But in a very real sense she isn't on the other side. A studio doing TV shows might be better on the other side. Let me try an example: a kid who discovers he can draw reasonably well and spends all his time drawing monsters and car accidents and naked women...and getting off on it. How different is that, not `aesthetically,' but in the long run from someone who makes their own films, magnificent films, that only a hundred and fifty people see?
JS: First of all is that kid an independent animator? I mean, does it matter what audience you reach, or the fact he had something to say? It may just mean getting out something that is inside you like that kid is doing.
SD: Are you saying that all independent animators are essentially masturbatory?
JS: I've always thought so. I know I'd say it of my own work in an instant.
SD: It's not very satisfying, and it's an expensive way to get your rocks off, but how far does that analogy travel? What are you hoping to accomplish?
JS: Well the difference is, whether you show it to three people or a thousand people, if it reaches one of them in a way they can really relate to on a level where they understand something they didn't before, well that's just great.
SD: Michael Sporn told me a long time ago...
JS: There's another independent who's working in the studio system. He's found a niche. It may not be as lucrative a niche as some of these other folks, and at the same time he can compete doing what he's been doing.
SD: Alright, valid. He would always be vocal about saying, 'I am independent' based on the fact that it's all his work, that he runs his entire operation. He didn't have a spouse. He didn't have a trust fund. He didn't have any of that 'cushion' we were talking about.
JS: That makes him more of a self-made man, does it make him more of an independent?
Schnall's self-portrait from Buy My Film! © John Schnall.
SD: That depends on how you're defining 'independent.'
JS: Then let's get back to that again. There's a sense of going your own way without restraints.
DOVAS: That's true of a fugitive criminal, too.
JS: Now is it financial restraints or is it something else? I remember George Griffin dealing with the question of, 'Is my film independent if I have people working on it?' Yes and no.
DOVAS: Do you know anyone who makes the whole film themselves?
JS: I've done it. You've done it. I think that's part of what defines 'independent' that's been lost.
DOVAS: You can arbitrarily set your definition to exclude anyone you want.
JS: What do you mean? I don't think it's arbitrary to say...
DOVAS: But by a definition you are able to make a claim about the relative validity or invalidity of their work versus someone else's. That is setting up a set of parameters that, by definition, lets them fit their own definition in any way that lets them live with themselves.
JS: First of all it's not saying, `Valid or invalid.' It's saying, `Is it independent or not independent?' And of course I'm not saying it's only a yes or no answer. What I'm saying is that the lines have been blurred because things that we just took for granted as independent years ago...
DOVAS: Like what?
JS: Like doing everything yourself, even to the point where some filmmakers are scratching right onto the film. Well now when the filmmaker scratches right on the film it may then be composited in a computer, or can be used to pitch a pilot, so once again the definition slides and shifts and maybe that's healthy.
DOVAS: But the definition slides and shifts depending on the point the person making the argument wants to make. So the person who is making an independent, black and white or whatever, stop motion picture, like a Tony Nittoli...
Tony Nittoli'sJunky. © Tony Nittoli.
DOVAS: He did a film called Junky, about a parrot who's a cracker addict so in order to feed his cracker-jones he lets his owner screw him. You may not be missing anything, but he's a darling of the alternative indie film festival circuit. Nittoli thinks of himself as a more legit 'independent' than someone who gets public funding. The people who get public funding but make the movies they want to make feel they are more independent than those who sell their film to a video distributor. Those who run their own production studios consider themselves more independent than someone who is either in a relationship with someone who helps pay for their way of life, or who works at a corporate animation house; who thinks of themselves more independent based on the show they're working on than someone who's working at Hanna-Barbera or some other corporate animation house; who look with disdain on the guy who's making schlocky black & white pictures about a junkie parrot who's screwing its owner.
JS: While what you're saying is undoubtedly true, do you not think there's a certain value in every once in awhile stepping back, and even though no one can be objective, trying to say, 'Where did we lose sight of that which we thought was important when we were making parrot fuck films?'
DOVAS: It's debatable whether anyone making a parrot-fuck film thinks they have anything important to say.
JS: I don't think it has ever been quite as hard to say where we are in the sense of what comes next with independence in animation.
DOVAS: If we deign to call ourselves independents, what are the choices that are available to us? Plus, for you to be saying you're an independent working for jumbo, is almost just as hypocritical as me saying I'm an independent, when my next commercial gig is coming from a large production company, in order to help pay for a film that I want to make which may have no commercial prospect whatsoever. Though I'll make that next film, so will you.
JS: No complaints of that here. At this point I say I was an independent. I will be again, I think. But I don't feel I'm an independent right now in any way. If you don't go through periods where you are really dependent how do you know when you're independent?
DOVAS: Waxing philosophical. Is it a label that has completely lost its weight?
JS: I sometimes think so, but we've pointed out good examples of people today who are still doing it, like Bill or Faith.
DOVAS: And Debbie Solomon, who's directing a pilot. And who else?
JS: And who else? Like Barry Purves, who with tons of money and backing is still being an independent, he's making films that are...
DOVAS: But is it an illusion, that kind of independence? The 'independent' who sells a series to TV...
JS: I don't think so. How can you say it's an illusion when you choose between...
DOVAS: When you choose between what? What are the poles?
JS: So many compromises have been made along the way, that at this particular point the question's in flux.
DOVAS: Is the question in flux or is the question just not real?
JS: I think it's in flux, the same way independent films have a certain validity even though the big hype kind of hides it. There are still people making their rotten pirate films, or whatever the joke was in Fishmael. I think the question has been put on hold for awhile because of so many opportunities to exploit it commercially. You know that's not going to last. I think we ride out this dependent form of independence. The fact that there is a market isn't a bad thing. The fact that we can't really define a term right now doesn't mean that what we're doing is any less valid. We need to ride out this particular period of ambiguity.
DOVAS: I might get into the validity of working for Jumbo.
JS: Well, I might too. I don't question the validity of buying a house. Come on I've already expressed my opinion on how perfect it is to sell out.
DOVAS: Especially since once you have a mortgage you have to make those payments...
JS: Then the films that I manage to sneak in on the side will be fascinating. I don't think that's what stopped me from making a film.
DOVAS: But the films that you manage to sneak in on the side are always going to be fascinating, I would say. It doesn't mean that the films that pick up and fly...
JS: Fly, payoff and independent film? What are we talking about here? What about all those people we haven't come across because they're a little bit more obscure. Is what they're doing any less notable? We know Jim Duesing's films. How many people know him? Chris Sullivan? I mean there's plenty of people, still completely independent.
DOVAS: But the aspiration has become, 'I want to get a job at DreamWorks,' or as some student said to me the other day, 'I just want to make a film that will get into the Sick and Twisted Festival.' And I said, 'That's all you want?' and he said, 'That's all I want.'
JS: But Jim hasn't done that. Chris hasn't done that.
DOVAS: Does it matter then, that so few people know who they are? Who any artist is?
JS: Paul Glabicki hasn't done that. You know who he is.
DOVAS: Emily Hubley hasn't. A lot of people haven't, but I don't know that they'd turn it down, though...
JS: Let's face it, George Griffin hasn't done that, and we'll always admire him for it. What about all these people I've been skipping over as we try to say there's no independents? There's a lot of people still doing it. I got an email from Luke Jaeger a little while ago. Did you get that? Asking everyone to just create a character and have it get hit by a train?
DOVAS: Oh yeah.
JS: I sent him a Quick-time movie that same day of a character being hit by a train, because I thought that it was so cool. Somehow it just struck me as awfully fresh and keyed and enthused and...
DOVAS: ...and Luke-like.
JS: That's it. We know Luke.
DOVAS: Nobody knows Luke and Luke works for Disney.
JS: Yeah, but who cares how many people know what he does?
DOVAS: Does your work have any value if no one sees it?
JS: Absolutely. If you're happy with it, absolutely. If you've gotten out something that you needed to get out.
DOVAS: We're back to the self-abuse analogy again.
JS: Which I'm all in favor of.
DOVAS: We have no conclusion, you know that don't you?
JS: Yeah, we have no conclusion whatsoever. Let's stop the tape.
Steven Dovas' film Call Me Fishmael will some day, maybe, be released as part of the Cartoon Sushi collection, or can be acquired directly from the filmmaker.
John Schnall's short, The Great Switcheroo, won a prize for "Best Animation" at this year's ASIFA-East Animation Awards. One can purchase his video collection, Death Laughs Among Us, from the AWN Store.
Video sources for many of the other films mentioned by Steve and John can be found in The Animated Film Collector's Guide: Worldwide Sources for Cartoons on Videotape and Laserdisc, which is also available in the AWN Store.
This conversation was transcribed and edited by Steven Dovas and copy edited by John Schnall and Steven Dovas.
Note: Angry tirades, guileless expressions of love and admiration, offers of employment or threats of violence may be directed to either or both John and Steven by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to email@example.com.
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