“Spreadsheets Are the Best Things in the World”: Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski on Animating Cryptozoo
Cryptozoo, Dash Shaw’s beautifully animated follow-up to 2016’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, begins with a stark, colorless prologue in which a couple, Amber and Matthew (voiced by Luisa Krause and Michael Cera), scale a fence that seems to be randomly placed in the middle of the woods and find themselves staring at an honest-to-God unicorn. The ensuing scene is delicately handled, conveying both the beauty and fright of the encounter and, eventually, its tragicness unflinchingly, without sentimentality. It’s a wonderful introduction to the weird world of the film, where not only unicorns but also gorgons, griffins, krakens, and other mythological creatures—called “cryptids” in the film—are not only real but hunted or otherwise mistreated.
That prologue makes way for a brilliant title sequence and the colorful world of the film, where we meet the architects of the cryptozoo—who aim to provide a safe place for cryptids to live while gradually allowing more and more humans to acclimate to their existence—as they traverse through a startingly diverse series of set-pieces to track down a baku, a dream-eating cryptid with roots in Japanese folklore. The stylistic breadth on display is the work not just of Shaw and his wife Jane Samborski, who served as the film’s animation director and whose own paintings are on full display throughout, but also an array of carefully selected guest artists. The script, meanwhile, overflows with political allegory but approaches its subjects not with dogma but a more careful, probing attitude. The final product is among the year’s most visually engaging films, one that prefers to allow the viewer to form ideological conclusions rather than inundate the text with clear indicators.
Ahead of the release of Crypotzoo, Filmmaker spoke with Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski about the rationale, advantages, and challenges behind their move to limited animation, their collaborative process, and the myriad influences the duo brought to the project.
Filmmaker: The prologue is stylistically very different from the rest of the film. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to decisions on the art style? Is this something you two discussed and had planned out, or did you draw it a few different ways before deciding what to do?
Dash Shaw: I always loved figure drawing. Going to art school, the figure drawing classes were my favorite part, and after graduating school I worked as a figure drawing model just to stay in that environment because I loved it so much. Part of the magic of it is that you are drawing one person for half an hour and they are five-minute poses, and that person looks a little different in each of those drawings. It has that Picasso thing of all these different personalities existing in this one being, and in your rendering in that moment you’re capturing all the contradictory nature of the human condition if the drawing is good. So, two nude people in a mostly dark space where we are just looking at their bodies, and they love each other, I thought could be super powerful, especially knowing that the later movie would be much more colorful. Starting in this dark space with them stumbling across the cryptozoo was the right way to have the rest of the movie be more meaningful—not only formally, but also the story.
Jane Samborski: I think if you were to have started with Lauren [voice of Lake Bell], that would frame her as a protagonist in the style of an Indiana Jones or a Lara Croft. While she is that kind of action hero and obviously one of the stars of the film, giving a little bit of space allows the viewer to step more in the shoes of Amber and the person encountering this for the first time rather than instantly feeling like they should root for Lauren.
Shaw: Indiana Jones is doing good. With Lauren—especially when we hit that scene where she is buying a child—we’re a step removed.
Samborski: It highlights her ambiguity more than an Indiana Jones.
Filmmaker: I counted 11 guest artists in the credits, including for the titles, the map coloring and a dream sequence, but also sometimes for set pieces, like the hotel room or the tarot reader’s room. Did you have a particular style or tone you wanted for these sequences that you thought these artists could capture?
Dash: That’s exactly right. Ben Mara is a great example of that. He’s a fellow cartoonist, I’ve known him for many many years. We’re friends. He rides motorcycles and knows all about these vehicles that I don’t know about, so I thought the motorcycles should be painted by him. And I knew he had this acrylic painting style that is different from his comic style that he wanted to do more of.
We did pay the artists, but you’re still asking them to participate in your thing. So I wanted to make sure we were going to people—
Samborski: Who would have fun doing what we were asking them to do.
Shaw: Yeah, totally.
Filmmaker: Were you ever worried that all these different styles wouldn’t mesh together? One of the remarkable things about the film for me is that they do.
Samborski: I think that’s the most amazing thing about the film, that we managed to get that all to work together. There was this phase of the project—we called it “scene look”—where I would try to make each scene feel like a fully realized visual idea and bring together those different parts. There are scenes where it’s more or less successful, and there are scenes where it stumped me that I had to come back to over and over again, but I think the through-line for the film is the really wonderful tension between the things that I’m visually excited about and the things Dash is visually excited about. We both have our things that we do, and they are complementary and contradictory, but in that way it’s very consistent.
Shaw: I was never worried about that part of the movie because I knew I could cast well. With casting of a movie, you wouldn’t say, “There are so many different actors, how are you going to get them to interact with each other?” That’s just part of what makes the movie. Especially having watched and looked at Ralph Bakshi movies so extensively and seeing how he orchestrates different artists and asks for them to do their own thing and participate in this larger story, I always thought that it would work.
Samborski: Something that Dash talks about when he talks about the genesis of the project is that I play a lot of role-playing games. There is this idea in role-playing games of “yes, and.” It’s like a sub-game that you play: “How can this be true?” When you’re making any collaborative project, things are going to be discordant. The key is to never say no, but to say “OK, yes, but…” and move it forward.
Shaw: It’s also an improv acting thing.
Samborski: Very much an improv acting thing, yeah. And it’s exciting to see that it can work visually the same way it works in narrative.
Filmmaker: What is your process working together like? Jane, you mentioned trying to work to make a scene cohesive. Is that where it starts?
Jane: Dash writes the script and does the storyboards, then those are handed off to me. We divvy up the labor—there’s a spreadsheet involved. Dash and I are drawing huge portions of the movie. Dash did virtually all the pencil drawings that you see; I did most of the watercolor paintings underneath. I did most of the cryptid paintings; he did many of the backgrounds that weren’t done by our guest artists. Then there is this pipeline—we get some animators working on it, and when the animation is close to where we want it, there’s a process where I try to marry those images. I spend a couple days just tinkering. Sometimes Dash will bring me a painting or a bit of animation or something to help zero me in on where I’m going, but it’s a super intuitive process.
Filmmaker: How about the scene—I believe there is just one—that is an actual set?
Shaw: I had a dream where one of the backgrounds was real.
Filmmaker: And you just decided to go with it?
Shaw: Well, there are real elements in the movie. Some of the insects are real. We don’t have a normal production line. An advantage to that is that you can be inspired and have unusual ideas and try them out and see if they can fit inside the movie. If we had an unusual idea, we would at least entertain it. I think also, in retrospect, it might have been inspired by the Suzan Pitt movie Asparagus, because that’s an animated film that has a stage—it’s the only thing that’s real in that film—but I only thought about that later. But it could have been that I unintentionally ripped that off.
Filmmaker: Did working with something real enable you to do anything—or on the flip side, cause any limitations—that you weren’t expecting?
Samborski: I found those backgrounds to be some of the hardest to work with in the movie. There are a lot of things you can fake in a drawing or a painting that are much much more difficult to fake with a photograph. It was a technical challenge.
Shaw: Nobody has ever mentioned it after the movie. No one has ever sai,d “Why is that one thing real?” There are so many different things happening in the movie.
Samborski: And I think I married it to the rest of the elements that it doesn’t read so obviously.
Filmmaker: Definitely, I think I only recognized it because I knew to look for it. But Jane, you said there are certain things you can hide on paintings that you couldn’t. What’s an example?
Samborski: Normally I manipulate Dash’s drawings so much because they just come to me as line drawings, and I’m applying the paint underneath, and there are separate layers, so I can just move his lines around if I need them to line up differently. If I need to repeat things or stretch things [with the set], I’m with kind of a wishy-washy, “generally sort of works” perspective.
Shaw: That’s the thing I would say about particularly background paintings. We have Cubism and all these things that have happened in painting that are not photorealistic, but depicting things in different ways.
Samborski: It’s very forgiving if you need to hide something.
Shaw: I prefer it if the backgrounds in an animation aren’t photorealism.
Filmmaker: Then would you consider something with more real sets?
Samborski: Totally, yeah.
Shaw: Depending on the story, yeah.
Samborski: If we weren’t going to do things just because they are hard, this film would not have been made.
Filmmaker: How did your process on this film differ from My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea?
Shaw: There were so many differences. A lot of this movie was trying to course correct or look at things that we had tried in the first movie that I didn’t like, but also to lean into things that I did like. An example of that: High School Sinking was voicecast when we had 70% of it drawn already, so none of the character designs could be inspired by the actors. That script was also written assuming that I would not get any good actors like I ended up getting, so I had to try to make it something that could be done with non-actors.
So, when it came to Cryptozoo, all the characters tried to take this sideways inspiration from the voice actors. For Lake Bell, Lauren in Cryptozoo has this very iconic kind of fantasy art look of these pre-Raphaelite paintings. That came from how Lake Bell looks and sounds. If it were a different actor, that character would have looked differently and I think it would have been a very different movie to spend an hour looking at different kind of face and performance. Just like a live action movie.
Samborski: When we were talking about the specificity in the drawings, we said we wanted fewer but better drawings. In traditional animation you’re doing thousands of animations, but in puppet animation you have this ability to make each drawing really count because it is going to be on the screen for a while. That was also a huge logistical hurdle, because while we were making fewer drawings we needed to be able to reuse those drawings and know when a drawing was ready so we could proceed with these eight different shots. Just keeping that organized—there was a really scary period at the beginning of the film before I figured out how to do that where I just had sticky notes all over my desk. I also had a six-month old baby, and Dash would come into the office asking where things were. I was having a meltdown. But we figured it out—spreadsheets are the best things in the world. They saved the project and saved the marriage. But just in terms of logistics, it was a very very different project. Much more ambitious.
Filmmaker: Were there any tradeoffs in the other direction? A time where you had an idea while you were drawing something but because the voice recordings had been done, you couldn’t change something?
Shaw: The only thing I would kind of say is that if you start drawing the movie it can be much more self-propelled. With High School Sinking we were only able to get those actors because I was able to show them a Vimeo link of a bunch of the movie and say “We already have it all drawn.” You get a huge advantage in being able to start working on something, especially for your first movie, obviously.
Samborski: Something that was a great bonus for Cryptozoo was that the first two actors we got in were Luisa and Michael Cera, which allowed us to start that opening sequence before everything else was cast and recorded. That rhythm allowed us to really dive right in in a way that was similar to High School Sinking. Not to spoil the next project, but it’s one where we are still working on that casting and it feels like it’s in a bit of a holding pattern. That’s frustrating.
Filmmaker: The voice-acting in this is not like the voice-acting in an animated film for kids. It’s more restrained in its tone, less exaggerated in its annunciation. How did you get those kinds of performances from your actors?
Shaw: I think even before they recorded anything, in my first conversations with them I told them that I hate cartoon-y voices. I hate cartoony voice acting. That big, you know, “BWAH WAH WAH” kind of thing is a huge turn-off for me and prevents me from watching most animated things. My memory is that all of them were immediately like, “Great! Sounds good.” They were happy to do what I think of as more realistic or subtle, sincere voice-acting. Animated movies are already so unreal that I think that decision for so many of them to do those voices—at least for me—is very distancing. It has to be the human element shooting out through the artifice. It has to be real. It was a very intentional direction given as soon as possible.
Filmmaker: To talk a little bit more about the limited animation, you mentioned that for production purposes there are a lot of advantages. Dash, you mentioned Belladonna of Sadness in the past, and I was wondering if you had other particular aesthetic touchstones in mind in that style.
Shaw: Belladonna was one of the Mushi productions that [Osamu] Tezuka created, part of its experimental film wing. And the very first season of Astro Boy by Tezuka to me is the greatest. That’s when you see a cartoonist, a comic book artist, translating their knowledge into cinema and coming up with a unique cinematic language. The Japanese television company didn’t give him as much money as he wanted, so he had to come up with all these creative ways to depict space. I think I only cited Belladonna whenever I did is because for some reason that movie is known right now. If you had told me when I first saw that movie that it was going to become popular, I wouldn’t have believed you, just because it’s very very still.
Samborski: René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, is obviously a huge touchstone. I like puppet films in general. Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed was a transformative moment in my arts education.
Filmmaker: And Dash, you’ve mentioned Suzan Pitt, Ralph Bakshi, Astroboy. So Jane, are you bringing a different set of influences and references to the work, or are you two pretty simpatico?
Samborski: So, dirty secret, I don’t watch nearly as much as Dash does. My media consumption tends to be more interactive medias. I think that in terms of influences, when something excites Dash, especially in the animation sphere, it’s often going to excite me. But I think really the difference in what he and I bring to the project aesthetically is innate to us. Dash’s drawings are super bold and expressive and not so concerned with 100% accurately depicting a thing anatomically, but trying to capture that figure drawing essence he was speaking of earlier. I’m a little bit more tightly wound. There are other differences in our aesthetics. Dash is really comfortable working large. I have to work really small so that when I blow things up they loosen up a little. Dash’s work we are trying to shrink down and tighten.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you mention interactive media being one of your things, because I detected a kind of D&D, quest-driven quality in the script. Is that something you had in mind while writing, Dash, or just something that has rubbed off?
Shaw: High School Sinking is even more structured like a video game. I didn’t play a lot of video games growing up, but I had friends who I would visit and would force me to watch them play games. It kind of instilled in me games not as a participatory experience but as entertainment. Even now when I go to the gym, while I’m running, I’ll watch video game playthroughs. It is connected to limited animation, because it’s about communicating all these things with limited means and in how space is depicted. And in Cryptozoo’s tarot card scene, how the cards are being shuffled is how you see that in some solitaire computer games. So it’s definitely there. I really really enjoy watching playthroughs and walkthroughs of early computer games just as a cinematic experience.
Filmmaker: Shifting gears: there are at least a couple allegories operating on the film with contemporary relevance, but the film is set in the 1960s. Why did you set it in the ’60s, and when did you decide on that?
Shaw: That was very early too. Around when I was getting interested in drawing as one of the first ways of seeing mythological beings, I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library. One of the other fellows there was researching counterculture newspapers of the ’60s from all over the world, and the library had them. It would be this 1967 free weekly paper from Brazil, and in that same week from Chicago, and they all had this incredible optimism paired with this fantasy art aesthetic. So when I thought about setting a fantasy film there and it being connected to EPCOT Center and this idea of a museum or a zoo where they’re trying to summarize and introduce the world in an amusement park setting, I thought the idealism and damage and all the associations of that time period that it would have would be powerful. Maybe people don’t know this, but EPCOT Center was originally going to be an actual city where people would live. Then when Disney died in the ’60s they transformed it into just an amusement park.
Filmmaker: That was actually my next question. You’re obviously drawing on that intentionally, but was it just a starting point or did you set out to critique it?
Shaw: I tried to create a network where that conversation could happen, where you had characters who had a sincere motivation for why they thought the cryptozoo would be a good idea. So if the movie is working well, it feels like a collage where different associations are happening and you’re aware of why. You might not agree what they’re doing, but you can see why they would do that. To me that’s how a movie should be. It can’t be completely with or against the person in the movie. But I think my mind veered into that territory because of seeing how radical artworks or radical ideas, when they’re being attempted to be introduced to the wider public, often damage those imaginations. There are countless examples of this. But someone else could make a cryptozoo movie that would be very very different and would not veer into that concept at all.
Filmmaker: You’re pulling cryptids, including some lesser-known ones, from lots of different global mythologies.
Filmmaker: When you’re doing that, are you approaching it first narratively or in terms of what’s going to look good on the screen and be fun to draw?
Samborski: Dash picked most of them.
Shaw: I wrote it, but with Jane in mind. I wrote it thinking, “What would be fun for Jane to paint?”
Samborski: There are certainly places where “what does this creature need to do?” does come first. We needed a big destructive creature at the end, so I’m sure that story element came first. The only one I think I picked was the Jersey Devil at the end that was originally written as a harpy, and I said “We don’t have anything from North America!” We needed something from North America.
Shaw: And there are so many female human-headed, you know—
Samborski: Bird creatures.
Shaw: —in the movie already. And in all these mythologies everywhere.
Samborski: Obviously Greek mythology is going to be a part of it, it’s such a pillar of Western culture. But it would have been too many if it was the gorgon, the faun, and the harpy.
Filmmaker: I think the score of this film is really distinctive and memorable. How much direction did you give John Carroll Kirby? Were there other films or works you pointed to? Or did you just give him the film and say, “have at it”?
Dash: I’m curious as to how John would answer this question. I’m not a musical person. When I found his album Travel, which was recommended to me by the label Jagjaguwar, he hadn’t scored a film before. But I thought, “This album is it. This is the right person.” Often my conversations with him were saying, “I want it to be more like you. I want it to be more like how I heard you do this one thing on one album.” Because he had never scored something before, sometimes he thought, “Oh, does Dash want something like a horror movie score right here?” and some of his first ideas were a little more typical. And I would always say, “no, I want it to be like you. I think you paired with this kind of imagery would be interesting.”