Interview by Sean Boelman
After winning the NEXT Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, the animated adventure flick Cryptozoo was quickly snatched up for a summer release. From the team behind My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea and featuring a voice cast including Lake Bell, Michael Cera, and more, this is definitely one of the most visionary animated movies of the year.
We at disappointment media had the honor to talk with writer-director Dash Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski about the film, its influences, and the nature of independent animation, among other things. Check out the interview below and watch Cryptozoo!
On the Film's Influences
disappointment media: What were some of the stylistic influences on your animation in Cryptozoo?
Dash Shaw: Well, you know, a bit a big part was Jane, who painted most of the cryptids in the movie, the way that those are modeled, is kind of after the French movie Fantastic Planet by René Laloux, in that they're like painted pieces, and it's technically stop motion, but it doesn't look like stop motion, because they're each done by hand.
Jane Samborski: Another thing that I know was a big pillar, when Dash was writing the project, he had a fellowship at the New York Public Library. And one of his fellows was working with counterculture newspapers from the '60s, which even ones from all over the world had this very consistent thin line look. Pre-internet, it was just in the air and so that and the desire for much more specific drawings in reaction to the broadness of the previous film.
Shaw: The Winsor McCay short, The Centaurs from 1921. That has a great sexiness, adult quality.
Samborski: And then also, I mean, the whole film has a collage look, so we're bringing together a lot of disparate ideas and really trying to honor the work that each of the individual artists did, but still create a cohesive whole and then you know, playing and making it exciting and just following where the art leads us.
disappointment: So there was definitely a very strong mythological foundation in the film. You based a lot of it in real mythology, what was your research process like for this film?
Samborski: You know, I always end up talking about every single creature is from a real mythology. We did not invent anything for the film. My research project was largely internet-based, as so many are these days. I was specifically looking for the older images from the cultures of origins. Everything does get run through the Jane paint filter you know, I am the artist that I am, so things that I make look like I made them. But those older images are just so wonderful and strange. And you know, it was a great place to start.
Shaw: And like when I started writing and I came across the Baku, that's when it really became a movie idea. Because movies can be so dreamlike and so the Baku as a centerpiece of a movie sounded like a good idea. And you know, like Hokusai had drawn a Baku in the 1800s and there's an experimental manga anthology called Comic Baku, so I had heard of it that way.
On Making Cryptozoo
disappointment: So do you have a particular cryptid that was your favorite to animate and why?
Samborski: I have two. I am in love with the Tengu and the Camudi. The Tengu being kind of the bird creature that tears apart the helicopter, and the Camudi being the giant Angular snake at the end. And what really excited me as an animator in both of those cases, is that I was able to take not just the visuals from the source material, but the actual motion. The Tengu has that sort of stylized Japanese woodblock posing, and the Camudi has the angular movement of the South American stone carving. Which I'm in the weeds as an animator, that's where my heart is.
Shaw: You know, I like that because Jane has her paintings. And then, I do most of the human characters when they kind of crossover and it's these humanoids like, like Gustav the faun so like, Jane painted his legs. And the blurring of the boundaries, I think is, I hope, an interesting part of this movie and just these kind of moments, I think are what I think of.
disappointment: So something that stood out to me about Cryptozoo is that it tackles some pretty weighty and important themes. Do you think there is a single most important message for audiences to take away from your film?
Shaw: You know, that's the kind of thing where when you say it in a sentence, it immediately feels like it's somehow deflating, like, you know, making a sentence kind of summary of a movie. You want the movie to be like, an hour and a half, like experiencial ride that's kind of full of contradictory feelings, and it has a wide range in it. So um, so, you know, leave the unicorn alone. When you come across a unicorn, leave it alone.
Samborski: Yeah, I mean, I think we just want to have the conversation. You know, if there were easy answers to these problems, we would have found them already.
Shaw: Leave the unicorn alone.
Samborski: Leave the unicorn alone.
disappointment: So Cryptozoo is a female-led globe-trotting adventure. I kind of saw Lauren as almost like a female Indiana Jones in a way. Where did this inspiration to tell this story in this way come from?
Shaw: Yeah, it was making that network of characters that all had a different relationship to kind of the idea of the Cryptozoo or the Cryptozoo being a potentially good idea: Joan, Lauren, and a cryptid herself, Phoebe. So I had that network. And you know, Lauren, traveling the world, getting all of these cryptids and it being connected to her childhood, which I think many people have that feeling with mythological beings. But I felt like I couldn't start with her like she's like Lara Croft, or like you said Indiana Jones. And it felt like, not the way to enter the story. Especially she's much more morally ambiguous than then those characters. So I wanted to start with two people who don't know anything about cryptids, you were just stumbling across it. And that kind of became the beginning and the bookend of the film.
disappointment: The voice cast of Cryptozoo is obviously magnificent. What was it like working with and recruiting all of these stars?
Shaw: It was totally great. And, you know, Lake Bell, like I said, the movie, that character looks that way because of Lake, you know. And the first movie she wrote and directed was about voice acting, voice recording and female voices in particular. So that felt interesting.
Samborski: She had skin in the game. It wasn't some weird side project she was picking up.
Shaw: You know, for these movies, like, I might record an actor for two days. And then Jane and I are drawing and painting for four years. So I knew that Lake Bell would approach this with some extra personal motivation. And I mean, Angeliki Papoulia as Phoebe is totally incredible. Of course, I love all of the Yorgos Lanthimos movies and, and she really…
Samborski: She brings the heart.
Shaw: Yeah, the heart. They're really like this soul that's like kind of shooting out inside of a very artificial world. Grace Zabriskie. You know, if you know Grace Zabriskie from other movies, I think it's really fun to kind of see her soul shooting out of this drawing.
On Making Independent Animation
disappointment: So something that makes your films really special, both your films Cryptozoo and My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is that they're independent productions, which is getting kind of rare in feature-length animation. What do you think is special about independent animation projects like your own?
Shaw: Well, a key inspiration for me was, was when Disney released Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, they put it out as a two disc set. And one of the discs was just the storyboards by Miyazaki. And I love the Nausicaa movie. But also you're seeing those storyboards are like the dream of the movie. It's like the hope for the movie, and Miyazaki draws in quite an idiosyncratic way, compared to many anime artists, he has almost like, part European or a lot of different sensibilities inside of him. So then it goes through a production line that equals something that's quite consistent. With an independent film, you know, it's very obvious on Cryptozoo that we had a very unusual production line, and that we allowed for idiosyncratic voices, that it wasn't like it went through a machine to equal a consistency. And I really think that formally, at least, or it's even hard to say, formally, because I hope that, like the figure drawings, the beginning of the movie, it is a formal unusual thing, that characters are off model. And it's more like observational art school figure drawing of seeing someone in different sides. So that is a formal thing, but I do hope that it's an emotional thing where it has that thing that figure drawing has where people have contradictory personalities inside of themselves that you're sensing through these drawings. Doing it independently really allowed for that. It made that possible. I mean, you could talk about it for a long time.
Samborski: I mean when you are figuring things out from scratch, you're desperate to figure out how to do it. And so you, you're wishing someone would tell you how to do it. But in that act of experimentation, you're maybe finding a solution you never would have found if you haven't gone through and established. And there's flexibility that's gained by small teams, there's inventiveness. There's a big risk of failure. So you get some pros and cons. When you're really lucky, it ends up greater than the sum of its parts. And we really hope that that's what's happened here. It feels like it has.
disappointment: So I personally found it very exciting to see your style evolve from My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea to Cryptozoo. What did you change about your approach for your sophomore feature?
Shaw: Thanks for saying that. Yeah, I mean, it was very, like conscious, a lot of very conscious decisions. We had most of High School Sinking drawn before it had been cast. So you know, I didn't think we would get good actors. And that was kind of like very built into the initial script and how I was kind of envisioning that movie. But when it came time to Cryptozoo, I thought maybe I could probably get good actors for this. So I promised myself I wouldn't design the characters until after they had been voice recorded. So also, like the main character of High School Sinking has this kind of dot eye thing that's like a Charlie Brown, kind of Scott McCloud idea of the main character being a bit more blank, and that you could project it onto them. But in retrospect, I thought it was kind of the least interesting character in that movie, that I liked the side characters more, which is a problem that a lot of first movies have, actually. So when it came time to Cryptozoo, I was like, all of the characters have to be interesting looking, they have to look great on screen and be full of unusual ideas. You know, fewer drawings, but better drawings, more specific painting, more complicated, a story we can travel all over the world, it's like, a lot of things I hoped to kind of course correct from the first one. But then there are things, like I really liked the last half hour of High School Sinking when it's really a disaster movie and an experimental movie at the same time. And I thought that part was rockin' and good. And so I really tried to lean into that with this one. And I tried to lean into the parts that I liked about the first one.
Samborski: You know, I think one of the big questions for us as a creative team in High School Sinking is can we even do this?
Shaw: Yeah, it was kind of part of the motivation.
Samborski: Yeah. How can we movie? And so with the second one, we knew we could movie and so we're like, how high can we shoot?
Shaw: How high can we movie?
Samborski: Yeah. Can we have huge action scenes? Can we hire people and have them help us animate it? And so it was just, you know, I think that's where a lot of the growth for me was is just how do you even make these things happen? And there's like a technical component. That's hard. There's a human component. It's hard.
Cryptozoo is now in theaters and on VOD.