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The Animation Hotline: Innovative Shorts Just a Phone Call Away

Dustin Grella’s Animation Hotline turns anonymous voice mail messages into compelling micro-animated shorts – each produced in a single day.

The Animation Hotline

I first met Dustin Grella in October of 2010, at the Ottawa Animation Festival awards ceremony. I had to meet the young man who’d just won a couple awards for his 2009 film Prayers for Peace, a beautiful, haunting and poignant film about his younger brother Devin’s death during combat operations in Iraq. The film’s rich visuals were made by projecting images onto a slate, drawing over them with pastels, removing the image, then shooting the frame, a technique perfectly paired with the gentle, almost matter of fact narration that describes his family’s heartbreaking task of looking through Devin’s personal laptop for the first time at his funeral. You watch a film like this, a graduate student film no less, and mutter to yourself, almost with embarrassment, how many filmmakers out there should just pack up their toys and go home. Or get off their behinds and get serious. One or the other. For the sake of the community.

Fast forward to 2011 and Dustin has embarked on a unique and utterly brilliant project – the Animation Hotline. The idea was deceptively simple: setup a telephone hotline, encourage people to call in with any story they wish to share, and each day, he’d pick a message and animate it that same day. These micro-animations, as he calls them, would vary in length, style, technique and tone. Like the daily comic strips he uses for comparison, each short is unique in its inspiration, story and impact, each capturing a tiny slice of someone’s life, that hopefully resonate a bit with each of us directly as well.

Fast forward once again to 2015. On top of his teaching and commercial studio work, Dustin is back with more Animation Hotline stories. We spoke recently about his crazy notion to animate a new story every day, in one day, all taken from anonymous voice messages. You can see all his Animation Hotline shorts at the Dusty Studio website, Better yet, call the hotline and share a story or two of your own - (212) 683-2490.


Dan Sarto: Your Animation Hotline project is so unique. Such a simple idea, with such powerful and interesting results. Walk me through the genesis of this project. You’ve been doing them on and off for quite some time.

Dustin Grella: I started the project in February 2011. The line I use is, Animation Hotline is a series of micro-animations. They're super short. Under a minute. All of them. They use crowd sourced voice mail messages for content. That tells you the most about this project in the least amount of words.

DS: That's the sound bite.

DG: Right. So, the story is, I have a voice mail setup and it's a 212 public New York number and anyone can call it. When I first started I was going to make it all about New York stories. Then I began to realize this can be more than just New York stories. It can be stories about anyone at any time and it actually would be more interesting if that were the case. It’s almost like you don't know where it's going. Some days it will be funny. Some days it will be serious. Some days it will be something else.

Dustin Grella

The Animation Hotline is different from traditional animation where you make a series, promote it, release it and then see if you get season two. This is more of a personal project. It's not funded. It has no financing. It's an off the cuff kind of thing.

The content requires going back-and-forth with the viewer. If there are no calls coming…we can go pull from old ones but in the ideal world it would be one short a day. And the calls would be from that day or the previous day.

So it would be real current content. It would catch the edge of the world. If we're experiencing a heat wave, we’d be talking about the heat wave. If there was a blizzard coming then the calls would be about the blizzard.

DS: How many of these shorts have you made?

DG: I'm not positive but it's more than 170.

DS: You make these incredibly fast, but they have such deep visuals. Do you use the same tools and techniques to animate each short? Tell me a little bit about how you actually produce these.

DG: Because it's my own studio project, I can do it anyway I want. That's actually the absolute joy about doing it because when it's a commercial job you have to get it right the first time. You have to give them exactly what they want. It has to be right. You're not really allowed to experiment that much. With a personal project you're allowed to experiment. Like tomorrow, we're doing a time lapse of melted chocolate we're going to composite. We're going to melt the chocolate and pour it over a doll which we're going to paint using a greenscreen. Just so we can see how the compositing play with some compositing. It's realistically a chance to experiment.

Tribeca Clock

DS: How many people do you have working with you on this?

DG: Right now I have Melissa Ferrari. She just graduated from the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston. She's been helping with the pastel drawings. I also have Kimberly Ho, who has been coming in and helping me with the compositing in After Effects. I told them, we sit down at the beginning of the day and we go through the messages. If anything inspires them or if there's any techniques they want to try or learn…experiment in some way…then now is the time to try. Then that reflects on the studio work because if we try something and it's horrible, then we can change this one thing and maybe it'll be better. Or, we know not to do it. Then if we try something and it's great we can apply that to the commercial jobs. So it's almost like a playpen for animation.

You get to try different things. The drawback is that it's fast. We have to be quick. We need fast turnaround. We're not really getting in there and worrying about every single pixel. The strength of the whole project is in the voice mail messages. The little stories. These little vignettes.

If I harvest one good story from each person then there’s seven billion possible stories out there. I know I've got one good one and you've got one good one. Everybody's got a good story.

DS: That’s what they say. Everybody's got at least one good story.

DG: Right. So that's the idea behind the project - harvesting these little slices of life.

DS: What creative itch does this project scratch for you? How does this inspire you as an artist, an animator and a storyteller yourself?

DG: I feel like this is the creative itch. It's where I'm allowed to be creative. Where I'm allowed to take chances. Where I'm allowed to make mistakes. I was desperately trying to get commercial jobs. I was working just to get on these big commercial jobs. You land 'em and then there's this huge team of people critiquing every pixel. Every frame. People that don't understand animation or even media for that matter. There was one job where they handed it up the line all the way to the vice president or some such position. There were a thousand faces on the screen, and he wanted this one face to be a little more smiley. That was his input.

DS: Well, you should have done it that way to begin with…

DG: Yeah, that was his touch. His mark. That's great. I'm glad he put something into it. But what happens in my opinion...take finger painting for instance. When you put the paints down on the paper and swirl them around a little bit it looks amazing. It's like, “Oh wow! I'm doing this!” Then you keep swirling it and swirling it and eventually it turns brown no matter how much more you swirl the paint. You're never going to get it back to those great original colors. It's always going to be brown. On some level, that's what I was experiencing with the bigger jobs. There were just too many people with their fingers in the paint.

With the hotline, I get to mess around and try things, and then I'm done with them. You go on to the next one…


DS: Get in, get out, move on.

DG: You release it, that's the other part. You get it out to the viewers, to let people see and digest. On some level...when I first started I really thought of it almost like a comic strip. They’re not necessarily always funny. Sometimes they are humorous. But the comic strip was always my favorite part of the newspaper and I would go to that back page and always read Calvin and Hobbes, always Peanuts, always Family Circus. I would read these comics and then close the paper. Sometimes I would cut one out and put it on my refrigerator. It didn't change the world, but it was something I enjoyed experiencing while I was there.

On some level the Animation Hotline is like a modern day comic strip, where you go there and it might be funny and you show it to your friend, or it might reflect on something you're working on and then you show it to your mom. They can be passed on as something greater, but at the same time they're simple and innocent. They’re something that people can digest and then move about their day. It could be something they go back to, check it, and move on.

DS: So you’re open for business then, looking for people to call in with their stories?

DG: Exactly. The hotline number is (212) 683-2490. I know from experience that it's hard for people to call and feel they have a story. They're like, "My story isn’t good enough" or "What if I do it wrong?"

People should feel comfortable calling, not just once, but ten times. Call often. Multiple times. Sometimes something that seems easy might be difficult to animate. Sometimes the story is just not easy to animate. It doesn't convert well.

The stories that get used…I've used stories from one person probably five times and it's because he's probably left 150 messages. He'll call all the time and 99% of them I haven't used. But because he's left so many, there's something there to use. We’re looking for calls from anyone with something to say.


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

Dan Sarto's picture

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