In his animated movie My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, Dash Shaw captures the insatiable teenage desire for something larger than life to happen, and explores the disastrous outcome of this wish actually being granted. Dash, a character quite loosely based on Shaw himself, is a sophomore school paper writer with markedly flowery writing, and is quite confident in his abilities, yet it becomes clear that few are quite as impressed with himself as he is. High School Sinking is further enlivened by the unlikely casting of actors such as Susan Sarandon, Maya Rudolph, and Reggie Watts in parts we aren’t used to hearing their voices in.
The film is energized not only by the humorously melodramatic plot, but by Shaw’s thoughtful drawings. Prior to the creation of High School Sinking, Shaw has released eight graphic novels with a similar sense for molecular human emotion in the midst of unreal circumstances. It seems near impossible that all of the textures Shaw presents—dripping paints, scans of ripped-up paper and hands in motion, layered brush strokes—could be the product of just one artist’s experimentation.
With the film currently playing at the Metrograph, we spoke to Shaw upon the release of the flick about the comparatively less controlled world of film, growing up with animation, and his ideal audience.
Brooklyn Magazine: While both are such visual forms, animation seems maybe even more daunting than comics. What’s the process like working so closely with your characters?
Dash Shaw: That’s a great question, I feel like I could answer it for a very long time, but I’ll try to just pick a few things. One is that, before I made movies, someone told me, or I thought, that they were a visual medium, primarily driven by the visuals. As I was working on this, I found out that that’s really not true, it’s so much more about controlled time. A music video can have exciting visuals but it can become boring very, very quickly. A lot of movies don’t have interesting visuals at all, but they’re still somehow compelling due to the control of time. Looking at this door a second before it opens, and this event happening, that leads to the other event. It feels almost like telling a story vocally, and choosing the word order, and the pauses between words to dramatically unveil something. That was kind of a learning curve. [As for] your question about the amount of drawings compared to animation, I wrote the script for High School Sinking in 2010 and the comics I had done before that were Bottomless Belly Button, and Body World. They were animation-inspired comics in that a lot of it was decompressed time. Someone would do something over many panels. The character designs were almost like animation character designs. I wouldn’t change the angle a lot, it would be a lot of the same angles of the same figure doing something. That impulse has completely moved into animation, and now when I work on comics I’m trying to make single images that are more illustratively interesting. For comics, everything has been flattened on the page so if you’re working on a house style format, you want the characters to remain consistent. Like in Archie for instance, you want Veronica to look the same in panel three as she does in panel eight. If you mess up, and you have little hiccups or idiosyncrasies in the drawing, they really stand out and you feel like, Oh, man, I messed that up, I don’t know if someone will recognize this as the same character. But in animation, at least the kind of animation that I like, when it’s messed up it looks like you’re looking at some crazy alive drawing because it’s flying past you in time. The two drawings aren’t right next to each other. I thought this movie would be exciting due to the enthusiasm, and energy shooting through the drawings all the time.
Did you always intend on working in animation as well?
I always liked animation, in particular animation that was related to comics. You know, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and when I was a kid I would read the X-Men comics, and watch the animated X-Men show on TV. Comics and animation were very connected. Honestly, I just thought it would be impossible because [I thought] I’d have to have a studio, or have a million dollars. Comics were much more accessible and easy to make. Even when I was in college, and I saw the early animations on the internet, they looked like flash animation. All of the computer animation I saw, I didn’t really have an interest in. So it was only in like 2008, when I saw that you could make gifs in Photoshop—you could just scan drawings, and line them up and press play to make short gifs. [I was surprised] that you could make traditional animation where you just scan it instead of photographing it. Then it was extremely exciting. I thought, Oh shit, I don’t need to have a studio. I don’t need to have a ton of money. I can just do a lot of drawings. Because of my comics I thought, you know, having to do thousands of drawings seemed like the one thing I knew how to do. A lot of drawing the same characters over and over.
In 2009 you made a web series based on your book The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century AD. I noticed that the series was mostly reliant on the animation, there wasn’t voice acting, but mood, and using a score, too. How did your process differ on this project since it was more reliant on the relationship to the book?
Well, for that one I didn’t know how to do any sound. Having text on screen, my friend did the score, but I didn’t really know… those shorts were essentially like long gifs. I don’t think there was any editing in it, it was just a line of images strung to play. It totals like nine minutes. After that, I tried to make an animated movie for many years but I never finished. I went to the Sundance Labs, and that’s where I met a lot of the people who I worked on with High School Sinking. Lena Dunham, the producers, Kyle Martin, and Craig Zobel, were there with different projects. I was trying to make this science fiction movie, and I story-boarded it all, but I was trying to make it in a more normal way, where I would get actors, and that would trigger financing. When that didn’t happen, High School Sinking was a project idea I had that felt doable with extremely limited means. In kind of every way, the story was very simple—I thought I wouldn’t get actors, so the main dissonance that the characters are talking about books or school while it’s a disaster movie could still work or be funny with non-actors. The characters don’t change clothes so you don’t have to keep track of that. The backgrounds are classroom backgrounds, or they’re abstract. The other story ideas, the scripts were more complicated, and had a kind of video game progression. I thought of it like the movie The Evil Dead where you can tell the director just had a cabin and a few actors, but the movie’s exciting because of the energy in it. I thought it would be like a disaster art film.
I was thinking about how different it would be to write dialogue for comics compared to a movie because the actors have so much more control over the delivery, and how it’s received by the audience, compared to emphasizing something in writing for your characters in a comic. It’s interesting to me that you had no idea who would be playing the characters from the beginning because the actors seemed to be so well cast. Did the script change much after casting?
I guess I had maybe 80% of the movie drawn before I got the producers to help me do sound stuff, and I grouped the actors under sound. They had suggested Jason Schwartzman, and I had met him many years ago, and so we asked him, and amazingly he said yes. It was drawn, but the specifics of the faces hadn’t be applied to what the characters were saying, so there was still a lot of leeway, I guess is the word. When I got [the actors], the mission for me with the voice acting was to have it feel improvised. If characters stepped over each other’s lines, it would be good. I feel like the negative way of saying it, is that a lot of voice acting I’ve heard in cartoons, they’re always the biggest takes and people are really barking at each other on these shows. It always really irritated me, and I thought that I wanted the voice acting to be more chilled out. Deadpan, that’s the word I was thinking of but didn’t know if I should use because I don’t really think it’s deadpan, but I think it’s deadpan compared to what’s happening in other kinds of voice acting. I wanted naturalistic voice acting where they’re not like screaming at each other all the time. Reggie Watts is so great at generating strange things that sound like they’re meaningful but they’re completely not meaningful. He came up with a lot of those. Jason altered things. It wasn’t improvised, but I tried to use the great actors that were participating, and strangely even if it was the same words, their personality shoots through their voice, in a really magical way.
Yeah! I thought Jason Schwartzman as Dash was such great casting.
I feel like him, more than the other characters, you recognize him in the movie. A lot of people have watched the movie, and don’t even realize that it’s Susan Sarandon, or Lena, but because we know Jason from these other movies, he shoots through more! And the fact that he’s played writers in these other movies. That was completely unexpected––it wasn’t written for Jason, and I wasn’t thinking about Jason at all, but when he showed up I was really delighted that he was in it.
The movie is about these high schoolers, and in some of what I’ve been reading online, it seems like it’s being reviewed in some places as if it’s a kids movie. Were you thinking of an ideal audience when you were making it?
That’s a good question. I wondered that a lot, not when I started but near the end. From my perspective, it was based on a very short comic I’d done, and the joke of that comic was that it was combining the different schools of comics that were popular when I was a teenager in the 90s. The majority of alternative comics were autobio comics, everyone had cartoon versions of themselves, like Chester Brown and Julie Doucet. And then the opposite end would be superhero comics. The joke of this is that it’s a fake autobio comic where everything was being warped to favor that character’s perspective. You know, I don’t know, it’s not like it was a young adult comic, it was a kind of thing that was overtly like the movie Titanic at that point. I mean it’s strange looking at it later because we didn’t like find teenagers and screen it for them to see if they laughed. From my perspective it was even more an action movie than a comedy. It also related to a lot of the anime I saw as a teenager that were about schools, danger, monsters attacking schools. I do feel like sixteen-year-olds would like it. It’s strange, when [it was almost done] I was looking at this thing that I made, and I thought, I could have done anything, but I ended up making one of those animations that were really meaningful to me when I was a young person, which is like Wizards, the Ralph Bakshi movie. If you go back and watch it, it’s not for kids and not for adults, it’s in this weird in-between area. I guess I don’t really know who it’s for, but I hope some people like it.