articles and interviews archive

Interview by Taylor Jessen, for The Animation Show
March 2007

Because I think it intersects with the things you're doing in OK, talk a bit first about the Mystery Action section of the Bitter Films web site at It's a collection of text fragments, including a lot of commercial slogans, plus what I assume is your own photography. When did you first start posting these pages? Did it start as a forum for your photographs?
DON: the bitter films site launched in 98 so i guess that hidden area probably showed up in some early form around maybe 2000.  it was kinda just a dumping ground for half baked ideas and still births and a place to experiment... i used to regularly add new things in there over the years, but haven't even looked at it since probably 2004 or 2005... is it still there?  i used to revisit it sometimes when i was desperate enough to steal material from myself or try new things with old ideas so i wouldn't be  surprised if a few scenes of the films had primordial seeds buried somewhere in there.
OK is the first time a lot of your own still photography has made it into your shorts. How many frames do you shoot per week on average? Per month? Do you shoot more when you're on the road or when you're at home? Do you take a camera with you as a habit?
you know, i don't shoot stills much anymore actually, unless it's for one of the chapters of "OK".  i've been shooting a bunch for chapter two but otherwise the still camera collects dust. i'll have it along on trips i guess or if i see an interesting bug or something, but no, i guess still photography isn't something that's interested me as much as it used to.  although for years i've had this idea for a photography book on a certain theme, but probably two people would want to read it.
Okay, now it's three people. What's the concept?

well maybe i'll still do it someday so maybe i shouldn't say. it'd be fun though because i'd get to hit the road a little for it. i also have an idea for a war memorial if you can find a donor with millions of dollars to build it.

OK is based one of your old comic strip series starring Bill, an average guy with a top hat.
it's funny, in the old strips bill's hat looked like some sort of grotesque top hat.  in the films i've tried to tone it down into more of a fedora thing.  not a great deal of time was spent on the strips... 
Talk about your latter-day comic strip influences. Did you read Raw? Were you going for of the sort of documentary comics coming from Ben Katchor, or maybe Scott Dikkers' "Jim's Journal", stuff that wasn't aiming for humor?
i'm embarrassed to say i've not heard of those guys. i'm usually either real behind the curve with comics or reading things way off the radar. weirdly, i only discovered lynda barry like last year. usually when i find myself in a comic shop, i'd look for new stuff from guys like dan clowes or chris ware i guess and then look at the books shelved next to them. i can only really think of one time i've been consciously influenced by another artist, and that was many years ago. i always loved how sergio aragones used little dots and flecks of dirt flying in the air to represent chaos or impact... every time he'd draw a big action scene there'd be all these specks and bits of junk kicked up in the air.  or if somebody were stabbed,  blood would often come out in little black circles. it's such a simple effect but it gave the pictures so much energy. i incorporated that into animation probably as early as ah l'amour and started to get good with it by billy's balloon where i used it all over the place.
Ever considered doing an alternative strip? It's not like you couldn't get away with basing a weekly strip on pencil miniatures drawn on Post-It notes - I mean, there's a weekly strip in the print edition of The Onion that's literally the size of a postage stamp.
well i did the one strip for about 12 weeks for the website which was fun - and it's good to have constant pressure to come up with stuff, even if it's artificial pressure - but there's usually this giant lack of immediacy in them for me, and it's rarelysatisfying. maybe that's why i sort of dropped off with still photography too. certain ideas, like dance of the sugar plums, can only really be told in a comic book form, but most of the stories and ideas that really get me excited involve sound and pace and music and editing. otherwise i kinda feel like i'm limited to only firing on one cylinder.
When/why did you decide to take Bill from "Temporary Anesthetics" and build a short film around him?
i guess probably for a lot of those same reasons. bill was the only thing to come from the strip that i thought was worth expanding on, and my first thought was to turn it into a book, sort of a combination of bill strips and writing and photography and stuff...  the material was pretty ok but really unfocused. and then i realized i really knew nothing about making a book and wondered why this wasn't just my next movie. so i threw out half the material and kept writing and that's when bill's story finally deepened and took on the important dimensions in "OK", because suddenly i could use all my filmmaking tools to tell the story. and during production i kept on writing and decided it would make the most sense to keep expanding and make it all a longer three part story, with "OK" as the first chapter.
Is this the longest narrative piece you've yet attempted? Or are there unpublished short stories?
there were a couple unproduced feature scripts from around 1999-2000 but they were terrible. i had a feature film deal set up at fox before their 2D animation division imploded, but ever nothing got off the ground, they shot down all of my ideas and in hindsight i'm glad they did.  at one point, i can't remember when, but i was going to direct a long live-action short for them first, but the person in charge of me over there thought my idea was too weird. i still actually kind of like that script though.
Can you give a logline for it?

it involved a guy in a rocket ship who crashes and winds up marooned on a strange planet. and something terrible happens to him.
This is the first time your normal speaking voice has made it into one of your shorts. Did you ever consider hiring an actor to narrate or was it always going to be you?
yeah, i was going to get a movie star at first but that would have probably been a bad idea... you usually just get an hour or less with the person and that could never jive with how i work, especially when i'm rewriting and changing so much as i go. "slow and intuitive filmmaking" does not mesh with hollywood schedules. this was also the first movie i wound up doing every angle of the sound design on, mixing and recording in my apartment, so doing the narration too just ended up being a marriage of convenience.  i don't fancy myself a great actor or anything, i was just the easiest scapegoat around to torture thirty additional takes out of at two in the morning. 
What came first, voiceover or picture elements?
all the picture and most of the editing came first, but with the sound and music always in my head. sound editing and narration were last.  "OK" was an interesting one to conjure sound for because it's totally narrated so is basically a silent movie... we get all our context about these characters and images through the soundtrack. so it wasn't until i had everything shot and stitched together that you could really start to see the film come to life and find its shape, and it was great to have the freedom to rewrite the narration and refine the editing accordingly in those final steps. sound and writing are my strongest areas, so that was a good way to make the film. i think without exception i'll always enjoy working on sound the most.
This is REALLLLY INTERESTING, the famous animation filmmaker saying "sound and writing are my strongest areas". Animation cartoon drawing man who draws sez my strengths are these other parts of the movie experience and not the drawing bits. Discuss.


yeah, but remember i never went to art school, i sort of fell into animation sideways. i'm not the kind of guy who's gonna struggle for weeks getting someone's ankle to look just right, you know?  actually i don't even draw ankles. i animate to tell these stories and i'm getting a little better at it with each one, but the actual process of it has never led me to any sudden inspirations or revelations, like working with the camera or writing or music has. it can be fun and i'm proud of a few things, but animating's  mostly just the busywork i need to get through to connect A to B. it's the ideas and the humor and the sum of the shot designs and the soundtrack and performance and everything else that drives me to get through all that busywork.  animation is supposed to be secondary, it's your foundation for everything else. ideally the audience shouldn't even be paying that much attention to it.   audiences needing to be constantly dazzled with the newest technology and trying to sell tickets to something  merely on the grounds that it's animated... that novelty's long worn off for me. it's always like somebody dancing around in the yard in front of their new home video camera. "yeah, but... what else?",  you know?

Copyrighted genes, twins conjoined in various ways, and meat computers are recurring themes in the Mystery Action material. Bleeding anuses aside, did you want to explore some more reality-based medical issues in OK?
no, not really. in fact i wanted to be real careful that the medical stuff didn't become the focus, which is part of the reason why we never know the extent of what's actually wrong with bill, or what he's been diagnosed with.  otherwise it runs the risk of becoming a "cancer movie" or an "aneurysm movie" or what-have-you, when those details don't really matter.  and maybe nothing's wrong with bill at all.  what's important is only that bill is suddenly facing his death, or believes he is. because we're all going to die -- the how's and the why's of it are just trivia.
You've said OK is the first part of an intended trilogy about Bill that you eventually want to get on TV - has any broadcaster approached you yet, or have you approached any broadcasters?
yeah, it's a little early but i've started talking.  i'm only in the first half of photography on chapter 2, and chapter 3 hasn't even been written yet, so it's a good couple years away still before we have something all put together.
Obviously there's a whole lotta experimental picture techniques goin' on in OK. Talk about some of the effects clusterfucks you're most proud of.
there's a point of view shot (actually it's two shots cut back to back) as bill's drifting away, possibly dying, that came out pretty good. i had a sketchy design laid out for it but mostly it was just a matter of repeatedly running the film over lights, candles, props, out of focus photos, anything i could find, and seeing what i got. some shots you'll agonize over for weeks and still not be happy with, and other times you just get lucky improvising with the camera in five minutes and come out looking like a genius. the last shot in the movie came out nice too, though i guess i didn't think so at the time because i remember i went through the trouble of returning for a second take after seeing the footage. i think i'd wanted to try something different with the water on bill's bus window, which was a delicate matter of positioning little drops on glass above the art.
In shots where, for instance, the action takes place in several little irised-in vignettes, all of which zip in from one side of the screen and hang out and then zip out again, how did you time it all out? Did vocal performance determine all?
it was mostly just timed in my head... when i designed the shots i'd sort of approximately stopwatch myself on how many seconds each line might take, and made camera notes accordingly. that was refined a bit in editing but for the most part the narration was later adjusted and timed to fit the picture since it came last.
And how do you zip exactly? Did you use pinpoint spots or mattes with ovals in them?
it's the visual effects magic of black construction paper... i'm shooting through a little hole a couple inches below the lens. on either side of me at the camera i've got all these scraps of construction paper with different sized holes and rips in them and as i set up each shot i'll play with them until i find the right shape to frame the action and create its little window. if there's more than one window on screen, each one is burned in through a separate camera pass. it's all done in camera. when the windows move around or open and close, i'm scooting or manipulating the little holes in stop motion.
How did you incorporate the live action footage? Was it a matter of printing a lot of stills and re-shooting them?
yeah, that's exactly it.
There's some diabolically interesting sound mash-ups in OK. Did you set up things so that random bits of sound flew head-on into other random bits and you simply collected a lot of happy accidents, or was it already in your head first and you just set out to make "that thing" you were hearing?
a little bit of both... when i was mixing the sequence where bill's thinking about brains in jars, i'd accidentally left a sound effect track of freeway traffic playing from the previous shot, and was amazed by how naturally it fit and how much it elevated everything. it makes no sense on paper for the sounds of a freeway to be underneath this dialogue about brains and humanity and death,  but sometimes things just work. to some degree i noticed that with the narration too, there's certain things that read absolutely terrible on paper, things i was nearly embarrassed to have wrtten, but spoken in the right context with the rest of the soundtrack going, it almost becomes downright profound. and at the same time i quickly discovered that some really interesting points on paper can sound stupid and phony narrated.  so you just keep adding and subtracting until it feels right. many sequences have several layers of effects and subliminal things that you probably would never expect... and yeah other times there'd be something extremely specific in my head that i really needed to get in there. that's often the case with music and this time out for the handful of scenes where i was just not finding what i was looking for, i just picked up the guitar or the keyboard and did it myself.
What's the most surprising audience reaction to OK you've experienced so far? 
i guess it was seeing the occasional tears in theaters... that's when i finally knew the movie worked, much more so than hearing the laughs. talking to people who connected with bill's situation on such deep and personal levels, that was all really new for me. but i gotta say i've been weirded out talking to other animators who react as though i'd pulled off some sort of animation miracle, how amazed they are to be empathizing so much with a stick figure. i always can't help thinking, geez, c'mon guys... i mean, this is what we do, you know? my stick figure isn't any more or less real than your photorealistic aardvark so why'd you expect to be less plugged into it?  if a movie hits its notes an audience will follow you anywhere. nobody cares that E.T's a goofy rubber blob because you're there in the moment and you don't want to see the thing die. so i guess i'm still surprised that we all still seem so blinded by form and tools. everybody keeps staring at the brushes and the shapes instead of looking at the bigger pictures on the wall. it seems like every time i see an article about animation it's only about technology, when there's so much more that goes into making a movie. you could animate a feature about a red ball that falls tragically in love with a blue triangle and if you did your homework there wouldn't be a dry eye in the house. 

return to the articles page