For celebrated comic book author—and now filmmaker—Dash Shaw, technical limitations aren’t a “concession,” but a defining trait of the films he aspires to make.
“I always thought that that limited mode was the coolest, like the anime version of independent cinema, where it’s poetic or personal or idiosyncratic,” Shaw says of the style he pursued with his feature debut, the aptly titled My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.
Fusing the styles of two genres—the autobio comic and the boy’s adventure comic—Shaw brought to the screen a unique aesthetic vision, made possible by scanning original acrylic paintings into a computer. With My Entire High School, part of the intent was to produce a “sensory experience,” bringing to bear liquid light effects, a stroboscopic sequence and other visuals that would evoke a sense of freshness.
Speaking with Deadline, Shaw discusses the idiosyncratic animations that have inspired him, the process of making the film alongside his wife, Jane Samborski, and his next animated feature, Cryptozoo.
What inspired you to make My Entire High School as your first feature?
I had done a comic with the same title many years ago, and the premise of that comic was that it combined the two opposing schools of comics when I was a teenager. There were tons of autobio comics in the ‘90s—that was most of alternative comics, and they were kind of mundane stories. Then, boy’s adventure comics, superhero comics.
It was just a very short comic that smashed those things together. It was this one character who would have the same name as the creator, and it would be their warped perspective in an adventure setting.
So, it’s kind of a parody of autobio comics. When I was making animations, I had very limited means, so this story felt doable. It felt very clear; other story ideas I had felt too complicated. I didn’t think I would get good actors or money or anything, so I thought that I could feasibly paint all of those backgrounds myself, because they are just school backgrounds or they’re abstract.
The joke of the movie is that as it’s a disaster movie, people stay talking about school things, or acne, or friends. That kind of dissonance and the voice performances would be possible if it was just recorded by my friends, or non-actors. So, it was the combination of that story, but also trying to do something that could actually be done independently, and have the limited means become a strength instead of a hindrance.
How limited was the set-up on this film? How many people worked on it?
Mostly it was myself and my wife in our kitchen, and other people came on from alternative comics—friends would paint flashback sequences. But for the most part, it was Jane [Samborski] and I.
What was it about this film that allowed two people to bear the brunt of the effort?
It helps that all of the animation I really love is what I call ‘limited animation’—meaning, it limits the number of drawings. It’s low-budget animation, like the Speed Racer series, or the original Astro Boy series. I never had aspirations to work in a different mode; I always thought that that limited mode was the coolest, like the anime version of independent cinema, where it’s poetic or personal or idiosyncratic, based on harnessing limited means.
It helps that that was always the goal—I wanted it to look like that. It wasn’t a concession. But also, the technology makes it very possible. The reason there aren’t a lot of animations that look like this is because when computers arrived that did computer animation, people thought that they should look like flash animation. But you can still make traditional animation: You just scan it. You make an actual acrylic painting, and you just scan it instead of drawing it on the computer, or instead of having to photograph it like they used to. It’s traditional animation that’s just composited digitally.
A lot of the work goes into making those actual pieces—the drawings—and that took a long time, but then when you’re writing the script and you’re storyboarding it, you make decisions that make it easier to draw. Like, “Okay, [for] all of this, the characters won’t change clothes,” so you don’t have to keep track of that. Simple decisions like that, that are similar to decisions that live-action independent filmmakers have to make to get the project done.
Bearing in mind this notion of limited animation, what other aesthetic choices are most central to your work?
I guess I’d describe it as idiosyncratic animation, or messed-up, damaged cartoons—like, the Ralph Bakshi Spider-Man cartoons, or the Pokemon cartoon that gave kids seizures. There’s a Japanese series called Devilman that was created by Go Nagai; it’s like a ‘70s TV series. You watch it and you can’t believe that it ever aired. I don’t know: You’d have to watch it. I don’t know what words would pop into your head, but the words that pop into my head when I watch it are things like ‘brutal’ or ‘extreme.’
What went into producing the unique stroboscopic effect that is central to the film’s opening sequence?
The idea was to use all traditional animation, meaning it could have been made before 1990. It’s all paintings, and liquid effects, or liquid light show effects that are famously tied to the 1960s, and you would see in psychedelic movies.
The idea was to use that material, but to not have it feel nostalgic—just to make it feel new or fresh or exciting. It’s all reinforcing this character’s perspective. I wanted it to be like a sensory experience in the way video art is a sensory experience. It’s like an optical, disorienting effect that mirrors the state of the character.
There are moments in the film where the visuals feel tactile, almost photoreal.
That comes from seeing those effects in old cartoons, and feeling like they still had some freshness in them. There’s still some juice there, with using that kind of collage-y placement for fire, water. Those liquid light show effects feel spiritually related to this kind of animation.
Like I was saying before, it’s like: How do you make a little thing powerful? Can just these dots for eyes be emotionally engaging? Can just looking at a scanned Q-Tip be kind of striking or strange? Those liquid light show effects, a lot of them are just tiny drops of ink in small dishes that are filmed and blown up. When you see what made those huge, strange effects, it’s this tiny little thing. It’s really beautiful and alchemical and touching.
What was the guiding principle when it came to your color palette?
I could talk about that for a really long time, but I guess in this movie, the purpose is to reinforce the heightened state of this character, where things are kind of unmoored from reality.
I had drawn a comic for Spider-Man for Marvel, and something that I love about those older comics is the colors won’t quite be correctly aligned. When you look at an old comic, because they’re printed very cheaply and they’re often colored very quickly, Spider-Man will have a blue shape on his body to be a shadow, but it’ll be misaligned, so it’ll go outside of the lines of the figure. I thought, “Well, I’ll just do that more—more extremely unaligned.”
Then, it turned into this other element that’s kind of colliding into the line art. When I was a student of comics, in college, the main comics were either in black and white, or they were very inspired by Chris Ware kind of coloring, where it was very naturalistic. Everyone’s skin was skin-toned, or the sky was blue.
So, it felt like color was this whole open area. It was exciting to feel like, “Oh, there’s this whole other thing that can add meaning to a comic if it was explored.” A lot of the things in my movie are kind of interpreting or adopting things I was doing in comics into this other medium.
Are you a cinephile at heart? It seems as though you’re tapping into all kinds of cinematic storytelling devices with your first feature.
Yeah, but I will say that I was very interested in this zone of limited animation, and a lot of it grew out of comics. I feel like when it’s working, you don’t know that it comes out of comics, just like how storytelling devices used in movies will originate from prose books, but you don’t have to know that when it’s done well. It just feels exciting or unusual.
Like the beginning Astro Boy series—you can just watch them like you watch a Saul Bass title sequence. Saul Bass, before he was a title designer, he was just a print designer, so he was taking a lot of those things in print graphics and adapting them into animation.
[With] split screens, you could point to Brian De Palma. His first use of it was filming a play, right? Dionysus in ‘69. So for him, he was just trying to interpret the experience of a play where everything is in focus, and you can see the audience and the stage at the same time.
He’s trying to think of, “Well, how do I adapt this kind of experience into a film?” So, he reached into using split screens, which then became this whole thing that he did in these incredible ways throughout his career.
I guess the answer is, I wanted it to be a rad movie, and not feel like a motion comic or something. But I didn’t go to film school, and I can’t talk on the level of independent filmmakers that I’m friends with.
My Entire High School features quite an ensemble of voice actors. How did the likes of Jason Schwartzman and Lena Dunham come to be involved?
Some of them were friends, but I feel like I’d be trying to seem cooler than I am if I said they were my friends. It sounds cliché or disingenuous, but obviously they were really great, and they are kind of the soul of the cartoon.
Everything is very abstract, and so we have this human voice that is coming out of these drawings, and I was very lucky to get them. It was drawn before they came on, so they were kind of a late addition to this thing, and it was like, “Oh, wow.”
For the movie I’m working on now, I’m hoping to write it more, thinking about using actors’ talents. But I think everyone did a really great job. Everyone who sees the movie always comments on Susan Sarandon’s performance. I was really nervous, of course, recording with them.
Is there anything you can share about your next film project at this point?
It’s a movie called Cryptozoo. It’s about a zoo that rescues and houses mythological creatures, and it’s a painted movie. It has some live-action elements in it.
Do you have some expectation of when that will be released?
No, I’m still working on it. I hope it won’t take me a million years, but I’m still working on it.