Twenty-something years ago, I was at the start of my career. As a young animator and director, I often had people in the field asking me if I'd seen this film or read that book, if I was familiar with the work of a particular artist or animator or painter. I think my colleagues were astounded at how little I had read or seen or was aware of. I would often tell them, "I try not to make myself familiar with what's going on in the art world or look at other people's work so that it doesn't influence me. What I do is pure. I want to put on film, the images I see in my dreams. These ideas come straight from my subconscious mind. They are not influenced by the work of anyone around me and I want it to stay that way."
That was a very, very long time ago.
Recently, I was invited to make a short animated film for a project called the Creepy Christmas film festival hosted by horror film producers, Glass Eye Pix. The project was the brainchild of Beck Underwood, a film production designer who had designed a Christmas advent calendar. Now, I did not know what an advent calendar was at the time, but Dictionary.com tells me it's " a calendar for the days of the Advent season leading up to Christmas, with flaps to be opened on each day, revealing pictures appropriate to the season". And that is exactly what this was, except spooky. In the case of the festival, Beck selected twenty five filmmakers and assigned them each a date and corresponding window on the calendar. I felt honored and excited to be selected. We were then each to make a short film based on the image we were given. I was assigned December 18th. The corresponding image was of two vintage dolls. I remember thinking something like, "Oh cool. This will lend itself well to stop-motion animation. It will be sort of Brothers Quay-like" For those who do not know the Brothers Quay, they are stop-motion animators that make creepy, stop-motion films using mostly what appear to be old, discarded dolls. That's an over simplification, but it's to the point.
I met up with Beck at some point and she gave me the very dolls from the calendar. I cut them up, rigged them from stop-motion and made my little film. It's called "X-mess Detritus". Along the way, I animated a box full of meat that is a Christmas present under the tree. I should point out that the Brothers Quay have animated raw meat in one or two of their films. I should also point out that another stop-motion animator, the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, whom the Brothers Quay were originally inspired by, has animated raw meat several times as well in his films. I had a great time making this film. There were no storyboards, I just shot it as I went along coming up with ideas on the spot and then animating them. I animated a black ooze that threatens to get on everything. It was actually just really thick black paint that moved slowly enough when poured that I could "animate" it by taking a frame every few seconds. I thought that worked out pretty well. I had some fun pulling focus one frame at a time during shots to make the whole thing look a bit more like live action. And not having the "motion control" computerized camera system that I usually use, I experimented with animating the camera one frame at a time. That worked out better than I'd expected. In the end there is a shot where one of the vintage dolls is transformed into a weird, zombie-like creature with antlers. That was a nod to Glass Eye Pix president, Larry Fessenden's film "Wendigo". I've seen that film a bunch of times and I know he loves those antlered monsters, so I threw one in for him. All in all, it was a fun and exciting experience, though it was extremely draining. After all it was done in stop-motion which is done one frame at a time. And, of course, I was the only person on the crew!
Later, some wonderful sound design and a beautiful little score was recorded by Amar Ibrahim based on a melody I hummed to him, over the phone, I recall. I wrote a narration that came to mind which transformed the film into a little parable about the dangers of holiday gift-giving and the effects materialism has on the Earth. And of course my friend Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance very generously agreed to lend his talents to voicing the narration. All in all, I was really happy with the film and feel the animation is really smooth and of a great quality. I handed in the film and everyone at Glass Eye Pix seemed really pleased with it. On December 18th, 2008 it went live on their website. And that was that. Mission accomplished!
Almost immediately I began entering the film into film festivals. My last film, Transrexia, played in twenty one film festivals the previous year and I was determined to enter double the number of festivals with this one. Only half way into the year, X-mess Detritus has been accepted to twenty film festivals and not accepted to four. That is an amazing success ratio! Furthermore, I'm waiting for another thirty festivals I've entered to announce their selections. All in all, it's been an amazing run so far. And then a curious thing happened.
I noticed on Withoutabox.com, a website I use for researching and entering film festivals, that there was a festival called Animazing Spotlight. Since my film is animated, I decided to look into it. The entry fee was markedly higher than the rest of the festivals. That's usually a warning sign to me. You can usually expect to pay between twenty to forty dollars to enter a festival. When the fee is upwards of a hundred dollars, that usually means it's a money-making scan. Some festivals will charge you hundreds of dollars to enter, but then almost everyone who does receives some sort of award. It's a racket. But then I noticed that this festival offered something unusual. Rather than just accept (or not accept) your film and screen it somewhere, this festival offered feedback from animation industry professionals. I figured, why not give it a try?
Oh boy! One month later I received the feedback for X-mess Detritus and I was blown off of my chair. These guys tore me to shreds! In all fairness, out of about nine pieces of feedback I received, about half were complimentary. But even some of those mentioned that the film was clearly inspired by the Quay Brothers. One of those said, "Of course it reminds me of the Quay Brothers, they were themselves inspired by Svankmajer". The other half were not so kind. They told me straight out that it was just a lift of their work. Some said it was "Deja vu", ''Needs to find a personal style" and "We all like the Quays, Burton, Gorey and Svankmajer. So when you come close to this kind of world, you better bring something new!" and one said, "Well crafted and animated, but not original at all ... Jan Svankmajer and Quay Brothers should be quoted in the credits" Ouch! heh heh. Naturally, my first inclination was to think, "Who the hell are these people, anyway?". But a few minutes on Google revealed that they are all successful animation industry professionals, so I just had to eat it.
I will be the first to tell you that I am a big boy. I can take criticism, especially when I agree with it! Honestly, even I knew right away that if I was doing a stop-motion piece with vintage dolls, that there would be a Brothers Quay comparison. But how far does that go? Are vintage dolls and the animating of meat ruined forever for stop-motion? Is that combination, for all of eternity, destined to be reserved for the Quays? Was it wrong of me to even think about making this film? It got me to thinking about the nature of originality. It shook me a little bit. I thought, "well, this piece obviously owes a lot to the Quays, but everything else I've ever done is original. Right? I mean it is, isn't it?"
And a miniature panic set in.
I instantly started to think about the things I've created. I thought about my latest comic book character, Deady. "Oh, that's probably a bad example," I thought, "the world certainly has more than its fair share of evil teddy bear characters". So I went further back and thought about "Oh My Goth!" It certainly wasn't the only Goth comic book or the only funny take on Goth, and I'm sure it wasn't the first. I thought about Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and of SNL's hilarious "Goth Talk" skits though I couldn't recall if I was aware of those things before I made my comic book. I had to go further back. I thought about my first comic book character, Chi-chian. Oh, no. I distinctly recalled that I was inspired to create Chi-chian after seeing the Miyazaki film "Laputa, Castle in the Sky". And at some point after creating Chi-chian, but before I published a comic book of her, I remember seeing Aeon Flux on MTV. And I remember wanting to shoot myself in the head. I started to wonder if anything I've ever done has been even remotely original.
And then this mania started to get downright existential. I thought, "if I make a film, and it has a protagonist fighting against an antagonist, how can that ever be original? That's what every narrative film is about! Hell, if the film has a protagonist at all, then it's been done. Perhaps the only way to ever make an original film is to make experimental movies, movies with no narrative at all, because after all narrative is based on life and everything in life has been shown at some point in a film somewhere. And I started to think about an experimental film I've been wanting to make for years and I cringed when the images of it flashed before my eyes and I saw that even they had succumb to the conventions of experimental filmmaking! Even this idea looked like other experimental films I have seen! And I thought that maybe film was dead. And I thought perhaps that any time you shine light onto a screen through a piece of celluloid you are just aping what millions have done before you. And I thought that maybe I should make a book instead, but books are made of words and all of the words have already been used. Millions of combinations of them, many the same. And I thought maybe that's it. Maybe it's about the combination of the words, a combination of the elements...
...and I had a breakthrough.
I would like to mention that at no point during this bizarre meltdown had I eaten any funny mushrooms or smoked any peculiar-smelling cigarettes. Though it does certainly seem like I did.
I took a deep breath. I needed to sort out my thoughts.
We live in a world. And that world is full of people and we share similar desires and emotions and needs. So obviously, our respective stories will share certain elements, like the fact that there will be a protagonist. And because everyone seems to love conflict, there will be one. I can't think of a single story whether written or filmed that doesn't have one. That conflict will either be an antagonist or some hurdle that the main character needs to overcome. And presumably, the struggle will teach our character something or cause them to grow or will at least be something extremely memorable or amusing and noteworthy otherwise it stands to reason that there'd be no sense in telling the story at all.
And I decided that it would be okay in the creating of a story if I were to use words like "and" and "but" and "the" and "because" and that the use of words in and unto themselves did not automatically constitute plagiarism. I figured that words are like the ingredients and the final piece is the recipe. If you use the same ingredients, in the same proportions, in the same order as someone else, you will end up making the same dish. If someone uses tomatoes and water and salt and pepper as their recipe, they will likely end up with tomato soup. There are millions of tomato soups in the world and there is certainly no reason why I couldn't make one as well. But for mine to be special, it would be wise to use a different combination of ingredients, in different proportions to any of the other recipes. And it would certainly help if there was a secret ingredient, something special and uniquely mine.
Similarly, someone could write a story that took place in the future and involved space travel and perhaps the existence of alien life. And many people have. It's called science fiction and there's lots of it out there and despite similar qualities, there is a good deal of diversity in the genre. So I decided that it would be okay to have created something that fit into a genre and that the sole act of doing so did not mean I was a hack.
We were getting somewhere. Though through this thought process I did feel like I was looking at a computer screen rebooting, watching as the operating system and all of the little basic programs were loading one by one.
And then there was the vehicle. Comic books already exist. Films already exist. Books already exist. So if I think that to make one is to just keep rehashing what's been done before than my only option is to create a completely new form of communication. For starters I'm just not that smart. Secondly, it would probably require me being a scientist to be able to even approach embarking on a task of that magnitude. As it happens, I'm an artist, not an engineer, Jim! So I have to accept that whatever story I create, it will be told in an already-existing format like a book, comic, film, song etc..
All that was left was to try to uncover what my personal list of ingredients were. And to do that, I went to my past.
I thought of the very first thing that I could remember that caught my imagination as a child, the very first thing that excited me. And that was monsters. I loved them. I couldn't get enough of them and no one, including myself, knew why.
So I put monsters on my list of ingredients. It's safe to say that anything I do will likely include them.
The next thing I remembered was stop-motion animation. As a fan of monster movies, I could tell at a very early age that there was something fantastic about stop-motion. These creatures, unlike the men in rubber suits trashing miniature sets of Tokyo or the guys in capes with oatmeal on their faces were brought to life using means that I did not understand and that was magical to me. To this day, stop-motion has a surreal quality about it that most reminds me of the way things look in my dreams. So I put stop-motion animation on my list as well. However, I'd likely put in under a sub-header of "techniques" as I'm more likely to tell a story using the technique of stop-motion animation rather than tell a story about stop-motion, if you see what I mean.
Then there were the films of Ray Harryhausen (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, etc...). They became my favorite of all of the monster movies and at the age of ten, I got a super-8 movie camera and began attempting to make stop-motion films. I wanted to be just like Ray Harryhausen. We all do that. As children or teenagers or even young artists, there are people we admire and whether we realize it or not, we copy them. We try to emulate them. So I will not put Ray Harryhausen on my list of ingredients, I will put him on a separate list called "influences". Because after all, I'm on a search to discover what is inherently me as opposed as to what artists have shaped my work.
I had my first crush in second grade. Her name was Christina. She had pale skin and raven black hair in a China doll cut and she would become the prototype for damn near every woman I found beautiful for the rest of my life. She happened to be caucasian, but since I was attracted to pale girls with jet black hair, it wasn't long before I noticed Asian girls and appreciated them for sharing the same aesthetics. My next crushes were Sherry in fifth grade (pale Jewish girl with black hair) and Giselle Tan in sixth grade (pale Asian girl with black hair). When you get a bit older, those pale girls with black hair tend to be Goths. So there's another one for my list of ingredients. If I'm working on a story and there's a love interest or a lead female, count on her being a Goth chick, an Asian chick, an Asian Goth chick or better still, a Eurasian Goth chick as she's all of the above!
Christina, my second grade crush, was one of the only other caucasian children in the elementary school I went to in Newark, New Jersey. The rest of the school was black and Hispanic. I'm Hispanic too but none of the kids accepted me as such because my skin was light in color. One day I was walking passed a classroom and Christina was sitting at her desk. She was wearing a little plaid dress and little white socks and black MaryJanes. I was overcome with a feeling of love for her and before I knew what was happening, I had blown her a kiss. She looked surprised to say the least. But far more surprised were the boys sitting behind her and they had quite a surprise for us during recess. They felt that the kissing should continue, for their amusement. One grabbed her and the other grabbed me, twisting our arms behind our backs. They pushed us together, forcibly shoving our heads towards each others so that our lips should meet. She whimpered and squirmed, turning her head away. And I struggled, but there was nothing I could do. I was powerless and unable to help her. Needless to say the whole affair was extremely humiliating. It would be just one of countless events like it I would witness or experience throughout my childhood where innocence and beauty struggled desperately to survive in a world full of evil and cruelty. So you can add a heavy dose of that to my list of ingredients.
Incidentally, Tim Burton is a director whose films often revolve around the innocent-but-misunderstood outsider who is set upon by the so called "normal" people of society who in actuality are desperately cruel. For that and for his love for the pale Goth chicks, he gets added to damn near the top of my influences list. His films are also filled with Gothic architecture and that brings me to my next ingredient...
While a child living in Newark, I had grown fascinated by Gothic architecture, in particular the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart. This massive cathedral sat smack dab between my grandmother's house and ours which is to say that we drove by it all of the time. I can not tell you why, but I was absolutely convinced that this thing was a space ship and that any day, it was going to blast off into outer space! So there you have it, Gothic aesthetics and combined with Science Fiction, no less. This is an element that creeps into my work a lot and it started while I was a small child.
(By the way, you should have seen the look on my face many years later while seeing Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time. At the end when Dr. Frankenfurter's castle takes off into space I nearly crapped myself!)
That cathedral had another element about it that drew my attention and that was the gargoyles way up top. I was already a fan of monsters so naturally those eerie, stone beasts fascinated me. Moreover when I was a small child in church, I would thumb through the bible (we didn't have one at home) and I would be just absolutely enthralled by the images in there depicting demons torturing people in hell. I'm not sure if they were Albrecht Durer woodcuts or not, but they were just absolutely amazing. I would stare at them for hours while the pastor gave his sermon, not hearing a single word he said. Those bibles instilled in me a fascination with hell and the devil. Moreover, it puzzled me that anyone would create such terrible imagery in the hopes of scaring someone into believing them and following them, because even at that young an age, that is exactly what it appeared to me to be. So besides introducing me to the Devil, the church had also created in me the feeling that religion was a potentially evil and certainly manipulative force. And that is an element that also pops up in my work from time to time, more often in my songs than anywhere else.
Lastly, I will relate one final event from my early childhood. I was at my grandmother's apartment in Newark, New Jersey one day when I noticed a cockroach on top of the refrigerator. It appeared to lose it's footing and the creature plummeted to the linoleum-tiled floor below. Completely unfazed, it just continued merrily on its way. I ran to my grandmother with an exciting revelation. I told her, "Abuela, cockroaches are better than people because they can fall off of the refrigerator and walk away." She looked at me incredulously.
She barked, "A man can too, that's nothing special." Truth be told, she wasn't the type to take being compared to bugs lightly.
"You don't understand," I insisted, "if a man falls off of the Empire State Building, he would die!" She became more and more agitated.
"So would a cockroach. Stop this nonsense, right now!" I was too young and had too limited a vocabulary to express myself. Simply put, I didn't know the word "proportionally".
Because in my mind the cockroach falling from the refrigerator and the man falling from a tall building, were the same thing. I understood things then about the power of insects and the place of humans in our world that adults around me didn't grasp. To this day, I can see the insects outliving us and maybe even them being cognizant of that fact. So add, "advanced, intelligent race of insects" to my list of ingredients.
So here it is! My ingredients list:
Asian or Eurasian Goth girls
Innocence trying to survive against cruelty
Gothic aesthetics mixed with science fiction
Demons, the Devil and hell
Religion as a potentially evil force
advanced, intelligent race of insects
I'm delighted to say that as I think about Chi-chian and also to a large degree Oh My Goth!, they are largely comprised of the elements on this list. And the fact that these things are close to my heart because of personal connections or experiences I had as a child, make it all the more reassuring to me. I'm glad I took the time to reminisce. For one I'm far more calm than I was when I started this blog. And secondly, it has given me some direction. There's a fresh wind in my sails and I've just re-learned where north is for me. So now you know what to expect. And of course that means that I'd better start adding things to this list lest you start to tire of me.
I've also put together a short list of my influences:
H. R. Giger
Guillermo del Toro
The Brothers Quay
I think that perhaps the most valuable lesson that I've learned from this exercise is this; It's important to know who you are as an artist and what you are about. And writing a list of the things that move you personally is a great way to start and a great way to understand how much of your work is you and how much is emulation. However once you're done, write a list of your influences....
...and then work extra hard to insure you work doesn't look like theirs. I've figured that out over the course of writing this piece. And now I will put it into play.
Twenty-something years ago I said, "I try not to make myself familiar with what's going on in the art world or look at other people's work so that it doesn't influence me."
Everything we know we've learned from observing the world around us whether consciously or otherwise. I know now that it makes more sense to know what's out there to have a better understand of what's good and what's bad and what's been done over and over and beaten into the ground, and where you fit into the equation as an artist. But sometimes, I wish I could go back to knowing nothing.
Recently a fan on Myspace asked me, "When will you make another record like The Devil's Bris?"
And I answered, "Never, because I wouldn't know how. The record came out the way it did because back then, I hardly new anything about song writing or recording. It sounds the way it does because I was naive. I've learned so much over the last ten years. I know so much now. And unfortunately, there's no way for me to unlearn it."
ps: If you're an artist, make a list of your own! It really helped me and maybe it will help you too.