August and October 1999
Assorted interviews with Don
Evan Backes, staytooned.com
Did you ever think Ah, L'Amour would become a cult animated classic? Sort of following in the footsteps of Bambi meets Godzilla.
is it? you think? maybe. god i hope not. it's always going to be the one thing that you work the least on and is your earliest, most careless project that's going to be what you're remembered for, isn't it. i don't even know why i made the title in french. i think it's sort of fun and endearing because it's so shaggy. it's not easy to explain how the cult stuff happens though, but spike just kept showing the thing night after night, year after year. i can be embarrassed with its age but i can't complain, it's a cute and dumb little movie.
Have you had any crazy old ladies or sensitive types bitch at you over any of your films?
no, the strangers who approach me are usually interested in looking for weird deeper meanings... to find out or confirm somehow that their interpretations were "right". billy's balloon seems to be the one that's gotten under skins or has disturbed people but i wouldn't have it any other way, extreme responses tells me it's doing its job. it's fun to test and play with those little boundaries of what's still funny. those uncomfortable moments where you're kinda not sure if you should really be laughing anymore, but you're swept along anyway. there's that little "point of no return" in billy where the laughs slowly die out and people start to look a little bewildered. that excrutiating long shot where the balloon drops him and picks him back up over and over again and people start looking at each other and then i'm the only one laughing.
What are some of your influences that have inspired your films or your profession in general?
i'm very, very inspired by music. people can spark plenty of things as well. certain people. i'm almost always reading about five books at a time, but almost never any fiction. i think i'm very rarely inspired by other films, and never by other animated stuff. i'm actually really not much of an animation buff at all - i'm certainly aware of who's out there doing interesting things, but i'm not the type to go out to see a new animated feature just because it's animated.
What is it about the suffrage of humans and cute little animals that appeals to you so much?
this interview is over!! (storming out of room) uhh.. give me a second on that one.. i guess half of that needs to be answered by the theorists and the critics because it's not my job. i've always been attracted to dark humor because it makes you think about why you're laughing. and that's a very powerful thing. there's a bit of guilt involved that sparks a thought and a conflict, rather than those blank laughs you might get from a harmless joke about a carrot.
but i've heard that comment before, after i did lily and jim - someone mentioned that a common thread in the films was "innocent creatures suffering." and i was a little disappointed to hear that, because at the time i thought i had shown restraint in lily - at least there weren't any lazy "easy ways out" for myself like more exploding rabbits or whatever. but it was a pretty thorough lesson in romantic suffering. and i guess i failed miserably in disproving that theory with billy afterwards, didn't i? maybe some of it's also in playing with what we've come to expect from cartoons. it's hard to deny that we've all been dying to see just ONE roadrunner episode where the coyote finally gets the little bastard and throttles the fuck out of him, you know? maybe that's all of billy right there.
So explain to our readers what your next film is about and when we might be able to see it.
it's called rejected, and beyond that i can't say much. not only because i don't want to give anything away, but it's very difficult to explain and a good half of it is still being... formed. ok, it hasn't all been written yet. there. all of the movies have started production well before their stories (and mostly their endings) have been fully fleshed out, but never before to this extent, which has been interesting. it started out as one idea in march, and since two days ago has grown into something more structured yet wonderfully not at the same time. that probably doesn't sound like it makes any sense. but i'm a little halfway through animating and still haven't figured out how i'll end it yet, which makes everything both frustrating and exciting. it's a good project for that sort of stream-of-consciousness humor, but it's got a very clever and meaningful structure to it. it's probably my favorite overall premise of all the shorts so far. what i can say is that um.. it's going into extremely experimental comic territory. it's unpredictable, very uh.. LOUD.. in many ways, and loose.
and there are some innocent creatures who will be suffering. but not that many. it will more or less be one of the funniest things i've done, or an absolute disaster. no safe middle ground with this one. and that's what makes it a great thing to work on. there's just too many animators (and creative people in general) out there doing very safe things. they challenge themselves a little when they're young maybe, but once they hit on one or two successful ideas, they milk them to death and ever after do the same things over and over again. resting on laurels and getting predictable is just as bad as quitting altogether. evolve or die, you know?
as far as a completion date on this one, i have no idea - it's taking a little while longer also because i'm in the middle of building a little studio from the ground up. i'm hoping to be shooting this fall and will easily have something ready for spike's show next summer. the PG classic show's already in the spring, but if spike shows it there he'll have enough complaints to wallpaper my place with. and it will definitely premiere at film festivals well before his summer dates.
i'll probably need to do a much, much quieter film after rejected. and if there are no innocent creatures suffering in it, you will owe me one dollar.
Think you'll give in to the big studio market of animation? or is independent animation your forte?
well, to "give in" implies resistence, and i have none. there are plenty of people who hate hollywood film and it's always been a very hip thing to hate, but there's an equal percentage of awful indie films being made as there are awful studio ones. they're just awful for different reasons.
i'm not sure if i'm allowed to say this yet or what, but i'm actually in the process of writing a feature for a studio, and i'm meanwhile developing another animated project elsewhere. it sounds like a bigger deal than it is, and on the whole the studio process is very tedious. my biggest personal hurdle so far is just learning how to play well with others. i've gotten so used to complete autonomy that it's difficult to deal with getting ideas and stories approved under a contract. we'll see how it goes and if anything ever comes out of the marriage.
many of them seem to think of animation somehow as a genre unto itself and so they've become programmed to expect certain things, which is a shame. the negative notes i get on these pitches and writing projects are often, "too cerebral to be a cartoon" which is obviously, endlessly frustrating. everyone comes to expect villains and happy endings and fluffy singing sidekicks. they want to compete with disney on a feature level, yet are terrified of doing projects that disney would never touch, which is actually exactly what they need to do. and i'm constantly saying that stressing the art and animation alone is the same thing as stressing only the cinematography in a live action piece. you simply will wither and die without good writing first, which you rarely see anymore in studio animation.
another thing i hear myself repeating alot is to for them to picture hollywood movies of the past 100 years, if filmmakers had never made anything but musical comedies over and over again. that's exactly where feature animation's been stagnating. they've convinced themselves that there's no audience for anything other than musical comedies without ever having the guts to really take a shot at it. there's an enormous audience out there that nobody's tapped. just look at what they've been doing in japan. there's plenty of room for an intelligent woody allen kind of animated film on the big screen. i rant.
but no matter what happens with the larger projects, i'll never stop doing the independent shorts. the cash isn't very significant but they're just such a blast to do and the most directly rewarding. it'll always be my retreat - when everything else of mine gets creatively shot down in the industry, i'll always have that outlet, that soapbox, and that audience.
What are the best and least rewarding factors of independent work?
the most rewarding is the ability to work largely alone, atleast creatively. that control and freedom. the only thing that ever matters is if it makes you laugh. also the drugs. lots and lots of drugs. i make joke.
the least rewarding factor is that i was very disappointed to learn that there is no such thing as animation groupies. somebody had to explain that to me and i was very upset.
Microcinefest Film Festival, Maryland
You graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in film studies. What were the advantages and disadvantages of actually going to school for film?
ucsb isn't a production school, the 16mm gear they had was less than bare bones, all older than our professors and in rickety shape. i've still never even seen an avid. "billy's" picture was locked on a rusty italian silent movie projector from the 20's, projected against a wall. what is at the school though is a lot of support, blood, sweat, and tears. and i guess i really couldn't have asked for a better learning atmosphere for production because it simply doesn't get any worse than this... what the department is better known for is being one of the best in the country on film theory, history, social issues, analyses, etc... beautiful philosophies and photography theories which none of the other heavy production/industry schools come close to. often our work looked kind of shoddy, but had interesting things to say, whereas those production-only schools' work looked gorgeous, but were empty and dull. but i was easily able to make 4 films in 4 years there, which is just unheard of at any larger film school.
i've never understood the people who curse film school on principle, those arrogant "just pick up a camera" guys. maybe they've had bad experiences, but i can't think that education is ever a bad thing. jumping into film without knowing the medium's history or basic principles is going to cripple your work. it's like wanting to learn how to play the guitar without ever bothering to listen to music.
Was "Billy's Balloon" influenced at all by the French short film, "The Red Balloon?"
"the red balloon" was one of my earliest film memories. they used to play that filmstrip in my elementary school on 'film days.' that one and one about doughnuts... and i remember another one about a drowning dog. anyway, billy has some influence there, but it was really an after-the-fact thing. at most, it's the reason the balloon is red, which was sort of a no-brainer decision anyway. i got the idea for billy out a dream and then worked it backwards and sort of made it up as i went along
You avoid using computers in your animation. Has that ever gotten in the way of being able to get the concept in your head onto a final product on film?
no.. i'm probably more limited by the fact that i hate using cels, meaning i'm forced to draw everything over and over again. which means using backgrounds is limited, and the drawings need to be relatively simple if i'm not in a masochistic mood. it's pretty bare-bones. but sometimes i think the computer guys can be limiting themselves in other ways. they're all using the same software and bags of tricks and a lot of their stuff is starting to look the same to me. i was talking to an old fellow who used to shoot the old "peanuts" cartoons, who wondered aloud why these days, snoopy has to have 3,000 shades of gray across his nose. people are getting too wrapped up in windowdressing without remembering that they're working in a storytelling medium. they're putting all their eggs in one basket and don't seem to care that the script was written by 10 year olds. they have absolutely nothing to say, but snoopy's nose looks awesome.
What can you tell us about the film you are currently working on, "Rejected"?
ummm... very little? heh. um.. i just finished animating a little while ago after a 7 month stretch. shooting is underway, with the easy goal of a locked pic by year's end. the film is very difficult to explain. very unusual comedy. experimental comedy, if such a thing exists. i really like the structure, which is something i've never seen before.
What are you working on now?
before rejected was out of the gate, production was already underway on the next cartoon. that sort of work never ends, it's probably unhealthy. i've been meanwhile working on giving a studio feature project some wings, and developing an assortment of other little projects of interest that are probably too young to comment on just yet
What is the litmus test to qualify as "sick and twisted" in terms of the animation festival?
after 5 years with spike, i'm still not entirely sure ~ i guess it's a case of "if spike likes it, you're good to go". i'm a bigger fan of the regular festival. lots of the "sick and twisted" cartoons are like reading a paragraph where every sentence ends in an exclamation point. there's not really an affect anymore, it can get too obvious, too loud, too desperate.
Is anything too twisted for Spike?
i think the line has always been drawn at anything involving racism or pedophilia. sexism, necrophilia, ponies wrestling dwarves, that's all ok i guess. so much for my racist pedophile film.
When Billy's Balloon was shown at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival last year after winning second place in the George Sidney Independent Film Competition's animation category, children laughed, their parents held their breath and the oldsters clucked in disapproval. Is this a typical reaction around the world?
no, we usually take first place. ha ha ha. ahem. uhh, well, a typical reaction is hard to report because it obviously depends on who's doing the reacting. kids love the short. i've never had a child tell me it was not funny or inappropriate for him or her to watch. if a child is laughing uproariously at something and totally getting it, how could it be deemed wrong and/or "over their heads"? adults tend to be split, and i love that. provoking any passionate response is a sign that the film is doing its job. the only reaction i don't like is boredom.
What is the most common question viewers ask you about that film?
"what does it mean?" which is a darn good question i guess. but much more interesting to let people develop their own answers. i always hated it when you fall in love with a song and listen to it for years and attach so much emotional weight to it, only to read an interview with the band who says it's actually a political song about farm taxes or whatever and now it's forever ruined for you. art isn't supposed to be invalidated like that. you just have to let it go and let it breathe and do its own thing, often independent of your original intentions
How many film festivals are you able to attend each year? Out of how many invites?
you are technically invited to every film festival your film plays at - we usually have two films actively screening at festivals every year which amounts to several hundreds of festivals and venues. i'd love to travel as much as the films do, but time and money is not on my side. i do try to get out to atleast 2 or 3 a year. places like cannes, park city, telluride, the aspen comedy fest, are places you would be a fool not to attend given the opportunity. meanwhile some smaller festivals i always love returning to just because of the people and the location - new orleans and athens,ga spring to mind
What's the animation scene in Santa Barbara?
it's me. i think. there really isn't one. there is a small film community thanks to the university, but i don't think anyone else is animating anything.
When do you plan to get tricked out and start making cartoons the newfangled way?
i think i'll be shooting on film with traditional cameras until the last camera is broken and the last lab is shut down. i'm not saying that any one format is "better" than another, but my 16 & 35mm tools are the ones i've learned with and grown attached to.
What sets you apart from other animators?
i guess i do everything "wrong". never took an animation class, don't use cels, don't use key frames, don't use a light box, rarely apply a finished script, probably use the wrong kinds of pens and papers, etc. everything was self-taught and trial and error.
What will you be doing in 10 years?
hiding under my couch and avoiding such spooky questions
What advice do you have for kids interested in animation? Should they start by making a stick figure flip book?
do whatever feels right. try to avoid too many technical books on the subject because they will bog you down with details and make things sound overly difficult. just play and have fun and see what happens. that's always the most important. and there is nothing wrong with stick figures.
i just bought this new fruity soap and it smells so good i want to eat it. i am resisting this primal monkey urge to place things that smell pretty into my mouth, which is rarely a good idea