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Aaron Augenblick Talks ‘The Adventures of Drunky’

‘Superjail!’ and ‘Ugly Americans’ veteran animation director launches Indiegogo campaign to complete his epic indie feature.

Our favorite animated barfly, the clueless yet unrelenting Drunky, is back, in a self-described “epic” animated feature from veteran TV animation director Aaron Augenblick and his Brooklyn production studio. Based on the biblical Story of Job, The Adventures of Drunky pits God and the Devil against our ever determined but hapless drunken hero, always down but never completely out.

Augenblick, whose credits include production of multiple seasons on noted adult-themed animated TV shows like Superjail!, Wonder Showzen and Ugly Americans, has finally found a story worthy of his luckless “bum” Drunky, a throwback character to the depression-era days when audiences were entertained by down on their luck, clown-like characters. Played by such cinema legends as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, these characters bumbled their way through the world, continuously beset by bad luck and difficult circumstances, only to persevere each time through sheer will and determination. 

Launched two weeks ago, Augenblick’s Indiegogo campaign is designed to help finance the film’s animation production – all pre-production has been completed thanks to outside investors and self-financing. I had a chance to speak to the indie director last week about the history of his beloved character, voiced in the film by celebrated actor Sam Rockwell. He shared his insights on the indie financing process, the traditional animation techniques he continues to embrace and the lack of support he finds for theatrical distribution of adult-themed animated films.

Dan Sarto: Tell us how Drunky originated. You’ve got a long history with this character.

Aaron Augenblick: Drunky is one of the first characters I created right after opening my studio, around 2000. He was one of the first characters I experimented with. I'm a big experimenter. It's a blessing and a curse for me in that I'm a big one for playing with a character, seeing how it moves, how it sounds and then, continuing experimentation until I find that it is what I want it to be.

There's a spirit to Drunky’s character. It started as just a really simple joke, just this drunken bum character, like a classic hobo. I'm a big fan of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I wanted to create a more modern take on that bum character. I liked the idea of having a clown that is a total drunk, and the world just seems to fall on top of him and, in the classic cartoon fashion, he perseveres through it all.

That's pretty much been the concept of the character for the last 15 years. I’ve played with him. I experimented with a couple of different shorts, but they never really felt quite right for what I saw as the possibilities for this character, because I always felt he’s really like Mickey Mouse to me. He was this drunken Steamboat Willie, especially because he captured the essence of the era of cartoons where many were inspired by the Charlie Chaplin protagonist that just bumbled through the world as it fell on top of him. I wanted to do that character. I messed around with it, but was never happy with the results.

Then, fairly recently, I'd say, about three years ago, I had this idea, and I said, "Look. This is it, man. I've got to finally make this movie. It's always been my dream to make a feature film." Specifically, an adult cartoon feature film. It's the reason why I opened my studio in the first place. It's just something that I've always been building towards. Again, like an experiment, I've been building my process, my staff and my equipment to the point where I could really make this film.

So, I had this idea for a feature that I just couldn't shake. I thought it would just be so good. Basically, I wanted to make a cartoon version of the Book of Job. It's always been one of my favorite stories, even though I'm not religious. I never grew up going to church. When I heard the story of the Book of Job, the idea that God and the Devil made a bet where they would ruin someone's life, it just immediately screamed animation to me.

It felt like the lost Daffy Duck cartoon, because for me, growing up, not to be weird, cartoons were my church. Staring at Saturday morning cartoons was a spiritual experience for me. Those images of Daffy Duck and even Scooby Doo, these characters, that's what hit me like a lightning bolt, which may be difficult for other people that maybe had more religious experiences. For me, it was about cartoons.    When I heard the idea of the Book of Job, I immediately thought of Duck Amuck.

I'm sure you're very familiar with this cartoon, where Bugs Bunny was this unseen Godlike hand, coming in and destroying Daffy Duck. It's always been my favorite cartoon. When I heard the Book of Job, I saw the link immediately between these two ideas, this character that is almost too dumb to know to give up. That's to me the essence of Daffy Duck. He's got this bravado where he just doesn't know any better than persevering, and I relate to that.

That’s the idea behind creating this story with God and the Devil. They destroy someone's life, and the story would become a story of the human spirit, a hero's journey where this little pipsqueak can overcome the greatest forces in the universe, which are the forces of good and evil, which are falling on top of him.

For me, once I really zeroed in on the Book of Job as a cartoon, that was when lightning hit me, and I said, "This is the Drunky Movie. This is the story I've been trying to tell with this character for 15 years. This is it. If God and the Devil play a giant, golden slot machine in heaven, and the billions of faces of humanity whir by, and it stops on one guy, that would be Drunky.

His dumb face would be the face that this random roll of the dice would land on because he has the worst luck in the world. That was the gestation of the story. It was two-fold. It was this character that I've always wanted to do something with, which is Drunky, and then this drive to tell a cartoon version of the Book of Job. Both those things combined into The Adventures of Drunky.

DS: This story idea then really was destined from the beginning for development as a feature film.

AA: To me, the story just lent itself to a feature. It reminded me of classic, epic films like Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments. To make this kind of big movie where God and the Devil battle this one, lone guy. But what's funny is, you do that, you also have the micro scale, which is the fact that there's this little guy, this little bum, who's just making his way in the world. You get to see those big, epic, giant themes in heaven and hell and God and the Devil, but then you also get to see this guy who's just making his way through the city.

It's also a city story. There are three main locations in this film: the skid row city called "Nowheresville" where Drunky lives, Heaven, and Hell. I love the idea that we can play with those three environments.

DS: Tell me how you snagged such a great voice cast.

AA: It was one of the first things we did after we wrote the script.

DS: How long did the script take to write?

AA: It took about a year. That was done in-house here at the studio. While I was working on other projects, I was always plugging away on the script. Then we did some sketches and concept art to get the ball rolling. We started casting because this being an independent film, we knew that having a cast in place would be the best way to find the funding we needed.

Our tactic was to go get the best actors we could think of and I'll be damned if we didn't get them for the movie. A lot of it was the snowball effect. One of the first people we went out to was Sam Rockwell, because he's my favorite actor, and I just always envisioned him playing Drunky. It's a very Sam Rockwell kind of character. We went out to Sam, and he's the kind of adventurous actor that immediately responded to the material. He got back to us within a day and said how much he liked the project, that he loves doing these kinds of things and that he'd be interested in working with us.

Once we had Sam, things just snowballed, and people wanted to work with him on the movie. Pretty soon after Sam came on, we got Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Coogan and Nina Arianda. These were all people I was hoping would be working on this film, and we got them.

DS: This is a really interesting mix of actors with a great and diverse history of work. They’re great talents.

AA: If you look at all these actors and their body of work, they're nothing if not adventurous. If you look at the films Sam Rockwell has made throughout his career, they're really left of center. From Box of Moonlight, all the way up to Moon. These are weird movies he does because he loves them and because they're very exciting. I'd say the same for Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Coogan. These are true artists that get involved in these types of projects because they're drawn to them.

DS: How is the film being financed? The amount you’re looking for on Indiegogo isn’t a huge amount even for a small budget animated film. I would guess you’ve also financed quite a bit yourself.

AA: When we started the film, we got enough pre-production financing to get from the script to concept art, to hiring the actors and doing the records - that was all pre-production financing, a combination of self-financing and outside investors. We've gotten up to this point, so we have everything that we need to start actual production.

Now, we're going to crowd funding, to move into the next stages, which would be storyboards, full design and animation. For us, with independent film...look, my background is all television, which is very different, so this is all a learning experience for me. According to the people I'm working with, who are independent filmmakers that have made a lot of feature films, financing for independent features tends to come in stages. It's all about completing the next stage and then moving on from there. We've gotten through the pre-production stage, and now we're looking to get through the next stages.

To be honest, we've looked at mainstream financing through the studio system, and it seems like the mainstream filmmaking community is not interested in making an R-rated animated film.

DS: This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this from indie animators.

AA: It's just not something that has been done very much, and therefore, it's something that most investors are afraid to do. For us, crowd funding was an exciting possibility because what it does is it puts the decision making on whether this film should get made into the hands of the audience, instead of a person in an office somewhere that's number crunching and saying, "There hasn't been a lot of examples of R-rated films that have made a huge profit."

Instead of that person dictating what films we're going to see, it's the audience [that dictates]. It's the audience saying, "I'd love to see a movie like this, so I will give you my $5, my $10, my $20, because I'm excited about it, and I think more films should be made like this."

To me, that's a continental shift in the way movies are getting made. I love the idea, with art in general, to be honest. I love the idea...the choices in art being dictated by the people that really matter, which is the audience, rather than number crunchers.

DS: All told, assuming that you have continued success in your fundraising and complete the production, how long will it take now to finish the film? What’s the total budget?

AA: The total budget is roughly $2 million, and the production length will be roughly one year.

DS: What types of tools do you use in the production? How is the film being animated?

AA: We use an assortment of programs including Flash, After Effects and Photoshop among others. We do all of our animation hand-drawn using Cintiq tablets. All the in-betweening is done by hand. We shy away from doing any digital tweens and try to do everything as traditionally as possible.

Basically, I came of age in the last gasp of traditional animation taught in animation schools. I think I was in the very last class at SVA that had to finish on film. I literally was painting cels and shooting my film on the Oxberry and doing truly traditional animation. Hand-drawn on paper, painting cels, inking cels, shooting on film.

When I started my studio, having done traditional animation production, I knew there was a better way to do it, and we immediately adapted using digital animation techniques. But I always remained true to the animation system that has been in place for the past 100 years. To me, you can do things digitally while still having key animation, real in-betweens, charts and path of action. All the classic animation techniques that were established by the great animators, whether they be Ub Iwerks or Chuck Jones or Winsor McCay. We're doing the same thing that Chuck Jones was doing. It just so happens that our pens are touching a screen instead of a piece of paper.

DS: What are the distribution plans once the film is done?

AA: It's an independent film, so we have plans in place for distribution. The main thing is going to be putting it in festivals, getting it in front of people and making deals that way.

DS: So you’re looking for theatrical distribution.

AA: One hundred percent. My end goal is I want to see this in a theater.

DS: On a bit more philosophical note, what do you think about the state of adult animation? There seems to be a well-established TV market for adult animation, but very little theatrical play. How do you see things compared to when you first came on the scene?

AA: I'd say there's two sides to that question. One is the medium itself and how people are watching television, movies and entertainment in general. The other is the specific topics and subject matter people are interested in.

As far as the medium goes, there's definitely never been a more exciting time. One thing that's happening that's very interesting is just the entire concept of what is television? What is a movie? What is a commercial? All of this is eroding. Everything's going away because we're watching "Television shows" on Netflix on my phone. That's a TV show, but it's not a TV show. I'm not watching a TV show when it airs at 8:00 PM. I'm watching it on DVR, and I'm seeing commercials, but they're integrated into the program so I don't even know that they're commercials.

What's happening is the idea of what we grew up with, which is that television shows are 30 minutes, and movies are 90 minutes, and movies are something that you see when you go to a giant room with a giant screen on the wall in a roomful of people and TV is a thing that you watch on a little box in the corner of your room, all of this has gone away.

What's going to happen? I don't know because television shows now...they're an hour, they're an hour 15, they're 70 minutes. Who knows? Really, it's up in the air. And when I say, "Theatrical," it's because I am still a firm believer in watching movies on a big screen and doing it as a communal experience. I think that's a very, very valid, exciting experience that I think may go in waves as far as audience excitement, but that it's essential, and will be around forever.

Now what you're watching on those screens, whether it be musical events or sports or a movie or maybe a string of episodes of a show...look, I live in Brooklyn and people here get together. They were getting together just to watch Game of Thrones in bars because it's fun. Obviously, there's still a drive to watch things on a screen with other people and have this communal experience. The definition of entertainment and the segregation of the mediums is eroding. That's one thing I would say.

When I say, "Theatrical," with this movie, I'm sure you'll also be seeing it on Netflix or Amazon, and that's exciting too. But I would really like to have audiences experience this film on a large screen.

As far as the subject matter, I've worked in what I would call "Adult animation," which always sounds like you're talking about porno - I wish there was a better name for it.

DS: There really isn't.

AA: When I tell people, "I do adult animation," They're like, "Oh. Really? I had no idea." I'm like, "No, no. I just mean…it’s not for kids...

It's so funny. If you do live-action, you don't say, "Oh, I'm working on this adult television show," or, "I'm working on this..." If you say, god forbid, "I'm working on an adult movie," everyone knows what you're talking about. I do wish there was a better term for what we're doing, so we've just been calling it R-rated cartoons. I've always worked in adult animation my entire career because my great loves were obviously the classic cartoons, Warner Bros., Fleischer, but also underground comics, which have always been influential for me.

In fact, my first loves were Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes and Art Spiegelman. Even as a kid, I was thinking of cartoons in an adult way. The thing is, that doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be sex cartoons like Robert Crumb. It also means Art Spiegelman, creating a Holocaust story about mice in Maus. I have always thought of cartoons in an adult way.

Consequently, when I started my studio, I had no interest in making kids' cartoons because I don't watch them. It's not where my interests lie. We always were drawn to more adult programs, and we got to do them in Superjail!, Wonder Shozen and Ugly Americans. It was always adult programming. Seeing the rise of adult animation during my career was huge, and the world became the way I always supposed it would be in that cartoons can be for both adults and kids. Cartoons can be weird, and they can be handmade, and they can be idiosyncratic, and they can be personal. I think you see that on television.

What I am shocked by is that you don't see it in feature films. I just cannot believe we haven't seen animated feature films evolve the way we've seen animated television shows evolve. For the younger generation that watches South Park, Archer or any of these shows, it's commonplace to have cartoons for adults, cartoons that can be dirty or adult themed or serious. People love anime. It's like, "Yeah. Sure. Of course you can have a serious action drama that's a cartoon.”

But for some reason, in mainstream American feature films, if you make an animated movie, it has to be for child audiences. I can't figure that out. The history of animation, and the history of film…they were created at the same time. Animation, whatever you call the first animated film, whether it's funny faces or early Winsor McCay, their creation was simultaneous with the very first live-action films.

Then what you've seen is, over the past 100 plus years, films have expanded and grown into so many different genres, whether it be bawdy comedy, dark drama, surrealism or any number of others. At the same time, I could go see any number of movies right now, horror, comedy, anything. I could just leave my house right now and see at least 25 different genres of movies. But if I went to go see an animated movie, it would be one, and that would be a kid's cartoon. I just feel like the industry is letting us down, that the people deserve to see a broad range of genres like people get to see in live action.

DS: I agree. Do you find that there's any backlash on you as a filmmaker, with regards to the subject matter, for the stuff you've done on TV or with your short film work? Have there been any issues?

AA: I haven't had any issues. When you promote something correctly, and the audience for your product is an adult audience and understands what they're getting...yeah, sure, if you showed Pulp Fiction to a kindergarten class, there'd be a huge problem. But there's a system in place to make sure that little kids don't see R-rated films. No, I haven't faced any problems. We've always made the content that we've wanted to make.

A lot of it's about the morality of the artist. I don't have any axe to grind with anyone. I just want to make a cartoon as good as it can possibly be. I don't like any material that's dumb or crass or sexist or dirty, just for the sake of being dirty. I've been happy to be a part of shows like Wonder Showzen and Ugly Americans that push the envelope because there's an intelligent force behind them that is experimenting and exploring modern society, rather than just going for shock value.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.