Animation &Commentary &Independent Animation 11 Jul 2008 08:03 am

John Schnall

- I’d like to talk about a film, but actually it’s not the film but the filmmaker that I’m interested in.

A couple of weeks ago, Mark Mayerson wrote a piece on his blog about Animation and Theater. Mark has become something of an authority on acting and animation. This piece was, in ways, an extension of past comments he’d made about the subject. Having attended a one-man show about Theodore Roosevelt, which was entitled “Bully,” Mark discussed the possibility or the likelihood of animation pulling off such a subject with as much success.

This made me think about the subject that has fascinated me for years. Animating long monologues with any such success. A year or so ago, I’d gone through a number of theatrical monologues thinking I’d have an actor record the piece (or pieces) and try getting them to work. Using animation as a medium to delve beyond the surface to understand character and characterization. One thing leading into another, I never got to complete that project – though I haven’t given up on it.

Now I find, thanks to a correspondence with John Schnall that he has done this.

John is one of the more daring animators/animation directors out there. He has for years chosen difficult subjects and difficult projects to animate. They all have a strong sense of the bizarre, but they’re all breaking molds that I don’t see others even trying to break.

His most recent film, Dead Comic, is as difficult as it gets. The film is a monologue by a dead comedian, and it offers a gruesome exploration of the afteryears of someone married, eternally to his job. The film could have been called Dead Animator, in my case, but it wouldn’t have been as funny. John has animated a monologue – a difficult monologue.

The film is so difficult that audiences seem to be afraid of it. (Is the subject of death that difficult?) The recent ASIFA-East festival didn’t have the patience even to sit through it, though, in my opinion, it’s better than most of those that won prizes. It’s just more challenging, and the audience wanted more of the expected rather than something complex and difficult.

I don’t think it’s the greatest film of all time, but I do think it’s brilliant. You should watch it and understand that the staging is incredibly complex, the timing is very sharp and the design and writing are wholly original and unafraid. it took hard effort, knowledge and ability to make it work.

In any case, I am always eager to see what John is up to. He’s one of the few artists working in New York and in Independent animation.

Go to John Schnall‘s website here.
See Dead Comic here.
Buy a 40 min. compilation of John’s films here.

The last two illustrations are from Ha Ha Ha and The Binding of Isaac.

16 Responses to “John Schnall”

  1. on 11 Jul 2008 at 9:27 am 1.Plush said …

    Interesting subject, since monologues are so theatrical way of expressing one self. Translating it to animation I think is not going to work by trying to mimic the theater way, which is what I think Dead Comic does. It only has one element that can be executed solely in vocabulary of animation, which of course is the physical breaking down of the main character. Everything else would work better in other mediums, and one “joke” in my opinion is just not enough to carry the whole film.

    The thing that still bugs me in animation is that people are trying to replicate human emotion by acting. Even the best actors get it rarely just right and they are working with their own bodies, the place where human emotions originally come from! Why should we even think about taking the same road?

    I think Chris Landreth’s film Ryan was onto something, with the purely graphical representation (in the body, or sometimes on the body) of the what the character is about. I’m talking about the physical being of the body mutating corresponding the thoughts in the characters head. But I think even Ryan didn’t explore all the possibilities. Most of the mutations and graphical symbols are only adopting the characters thoughts. Why not having them be in contrast, like how great actors use their body?

    Also, of course the fact that the film was made in 3d got in the way of using this thing wholly, but my point is that it was a method that can only be utilized purely in the art form of animation and it has ability to communicate the characters thoughts and emotions. Even in animation one can find ways to express things in the context of theater in a way that uses animation fully. Why should we try to replicate something that is done better in other art forms when we have these amazing possibilities on the offer in our own?

  2. on 11 Jul 2008 at 9:35 am 2.Michael said …

    Asa you write, “It only has one element that can be executed solely in vocabulary of animation, which of course is the physical breaking down of the main character.” Since this is the physicality of the film, it would seem that this could only be done in animation. It could also be done using cgi effects on live actors (as in “Death Becomes Her”)or cgi animation.

    However, only hand drawn animation can have the art style that is used in this film. It is solely and wholly John Schnall’s personal style and cannot be done by anyone else. Personally, I think that’s enough reason for the film to exist and work and succeed as it does.

  3. on 11 Jul 2008 at 12:05 pm 3.Dave Levy said …

    John Schnall is an indy animation hero, and an important member of the New York animation community. I’ve long ago purchased the Schnall films collection, which contains some of my favorite animated shorts of all time. I love that his films can be viewed each on their own merits as well as belonging to a singular body of work. Clearly, Schnall has his recurring themes that he loves to explore. And his HUGE amount of festival awards from around the world prove that, most of the time, his work connects with an audience.

    I agree Dead Comic is challening but for some ways you haven’t explained. What Schnall has done is give us a deliberately unappealing (in all ways) character, monologuing a stream of terrible (unfunny) jokes. Here is a character we wouldn’t have liked any better when they were alive. The film is an interesting audience tester. Having been at the ASIFA jury screening I could feel the audience squirming, and they called time on the film after 3 minutes. But, what do they know? A few years earlier, our jury failed to award Canemaker any prize for his film that went on to win an Oscar.

    Since, I couldn’t watch the rest of the film that night, I was able to view it on my own at home. I wondered, after the three minute mark, would the film deliver a surprise or defy my expectations? Does the film deliver? That’s a matter of opinion. But, Schnall’s creative risk was the whole point. The film, like any film worth discussing, has an element of experimentation. Does any of us know that our films will be successful or acknowledged? We make films because we need to make them.
    I love that as an indy film it can be anything the artist wants it to be–even if that means it may not connect with an audience.

  4. on 11 Jul 2008 at 1:02 pm 4.Michael said …

    I would guess that John’s problem isn’t so much that his film doesn’t connect with an audience but doesn’t even make it through festival jury screenings. It is a challenging film on many fronts and I don’t think younger audiences (ASIFA East’s primary) just don’t understand the animation challenges John is fighting through.

  5. on 11 Jul 2008 at 3:49 pm 5.Ray K. said …

    Dave, you ask if DEAD COMIC delivers after the three-minute mark —- and the answer, I think, is a strong Yes. And though John has indeed made better films too, (to my mind, FRANKENSTEIN still stands as of the smartest, finest, most beautiful indy films I know), DEAD COMIC is still among the best shorts I’ve seen this year.

    It is certainly a challenging film for asking us to keep company for its seven or however many minutes with a truly unlikeable character. That said, if we’re paying attention, the film is both compelling enough to hook us early to want to see where it is going and, more importantly, delivers. It’s a slow, relentless build that starts as disquieting and, the longer we watch the character struggle internally and externally (I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet), drives us, as the best of John’s films do, to think about our own condition and the sort of self-anesthetizing sleights-of-hand virtually all of us at times indulge to make our way in the world. (John’s twist here is to invite this behavior into the next world to see what happens there!) The film develops quietly, but delicately and deliberately, and is stronger, not weaker, for allowing us the time to meet its theme on its own terms rather than bludgeon us with it.

    Not least—especially given the heaviness of its subject—DEAD COMIC is funny. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be as good. Go see it!

  6. on 11 Jul 2008 at 5:38 pm 6.Jenny Lerew said …

    Well…I think I can understand why audiences including ASIFA-East don’t want to sit through it, and I very much doubt that it’s because of a fear of its supposed boldness or a general discomfort with death.

    The films of Pasolini(“Salo”, for instance–a genuinely difficult film to sit through-though I did manage it and was glad I was able to), Fassbinder, some Fellini and definitely some Paul Morrissey and John Waters–all those are highly personal, weird and “difficult” experiences for the audience. A few have humor so black it’s a real effort to get into them, but always there’s a lvele of imagination, technical expertise, and usually a deep sincerity one way or another that’s communicated from the filmmakers to the viewer.

    This one comes off like too many sophomoric student films that have been made in the last 40 years. I see a concept that’s very obvious and never went anywhere but exactly where you’d expect from the beginning. It was also unappealing, by which I mean actually “ugly” in it’s design and color and overall style.
    And it’s simply not funny or clever. What are the gags? What’s the irony-that this guy is decaying and he’s still a lousy comic? It’s killing a flea with a sledgehammer. It’s about 4 times longer than it needs to be to make its point. Employing animation offers us nothing that a bad fx makeup on a live actor wouldn’t(though both would stink-pun intended).

    I love and am a champion of independent short films of all styles and designs, even ones so offbeat that some (by no means all) of my animation friends eschew them. This isn’t in that league at all for me. It’s genuinely amateurish in concept and execution.

    I’m sorry to be so harsh as I greatly respect Michael’s opinion and expertise, but in this instance the gulf is so wide that I have to offer my reaction. I have a cast-iron stomach for gore, sick humor, conventionally “disgusting” imagery–but this was just a zero–for me.
    Bambi meets Godzilla at least was short and a bit of a surprise in its day.

  7. on 11 Jul 2008 at 10:15 pm 7.John Schnall said …

    Hey Michael; I really appreciate you posting this article. I’m so glad it generated such a wide range of emotions; heck, that’s what I strive to do in my films; I don’t need to agree with all that’s brought up, but my job is complete if strong feelings are brought up in the viewer. That said…

    Plush, I agree with you in more ways than you know; I just wish you caught some of the nuance of this film; as on the surface there’s a level that most people see I do wish you’d have caught some of the double meanings/puns beneath the surface, such as:
    *the “leg” trilogy: first its “break a leg”, then its “I give you an arm and a leg”, then it’s “he hasn’t got a leg to stand on”; all very clear visual puns that I think you’ve missed. But I think my strongest point is this: you say even the best actors often get it wrong working with their bodies; perhaps that in itself is a reason why animators can get it better, no? After all, emotions don’t reside in those flawed bodies; they are in another realm; I say animators, working frame by frame, are more likely to hit that realm, not less likely, no? Don’t lose the forest from the trees, my friend.

    David; you’re a friend and a colleague, a very talented fellow; you’ve got my complete respect and admiration. We’ll never agree on some things, I’m afraid, but that’s cool; I can’t stand people that agree with me for the most part.

    Ray: your film “Uncle” is a shining beacon; anyone can make an anti-Bush film right now when it’s safe; you did it before it was OK; you’re eternally A-1 in my book.

    Jenny… hard to write a response to you without being condescending I’m afraid. But I’ll try. To answer your question: “What’s the irony-that this guy is decaying and he’s still a lousy comic? It’s killing a flea with a sledgehammer”… Well, have you ever tried killing a flea with a sledgehammer? they are slippery buggers; soon as you aim the sledgehammer they slip off to another Passolini movie and escape unharmed. But, I’m sorry, no; the irony is that YOU, my friend, are decaying, and, sorry, you’re a lousy comic. So am I. This film isn’t about gags and a punchline. This film is about that pool of flesh you just dripped in front of you. Don’t put your foot over it; it’s still there. As to the “amateur” nature of this film, well, I have the ultimate respect for my Sound Lords Stuart Kollmorgen and Lou Esposito at Big Yellow Duck for taking our perfectly recorded soundtrack and adding mike distortion, florescent light sounds and everythingthing else they did to help me make the film feel amateur; hats off to them for your analysis. Thanks for watching.

    John Schnall

  8. on 12 Jul 2008 at 4:32 am 8.slowtiger said …

    I am surprised to learn that the ASIFA jury actually stopped watching the film after just three minutes (if I understood correctly). From my personal experience with festivals in Germany over 25 years, knowing members of selection and festival juries, and even personally attending jury screenings I can say that, as a rule, films are watched from beginning to end. There may be rude comments or stupid jokes during the screening, but the film is not stopped. If a film appears to be really unbearingly long, there’s a fast forward button on the VCR, but this is considered to be the last resort.

  9. on 12 Jul 2008 at 10:26 am 9.Dave Levy said …

    Hello Slowtiger,
    You are incorrect about ALL festival juries, although I know your own experience is different. I’ve been on international juries from New York to South Korea, and films are sometimes stopped before their completion if the jury has seen enough. This is usually a time factor because there are too many films to process and not enough time for a jury to watch them all. When a jury believes they have seen enough to judge a film they may have to stop it and move on.

    ASIFA-East is unique in that our jury screening is open to all voting members and the public. We had 75 people in the audience watching the night Schnall’s film was screened. Unlike other festival juries that do the whole process behind closed doors, and then have those results overturned by a festival director, we are open and let the people choose the winners. And, obviously, we never please everybody all of the time. It would not be possible to do so.

  10. on 12 Jul 2008 at 10:38 am 10.Michael said …

    Most particularly, the film maker (who is usually in the audience for the judging screenings of ASIFA East) is more than “not pleased”; he is hurt. Perhaps the “democratic vote” thing doesn’t properly work with the “cut and move on” thing.

  11. on 12 Jul 2008 at 3:25 pm 11.Jenny said …

    It occurred to me after writing what I did that this filmmaker might be personally known to Michael and some of the others here, from the wording of the comments and the general goodwill. I second guessed myself when realizing that, wondering if I’d write as I did if I too knew John Schnall. The answer is that I likely wouldn’t comment at all, in the spirit of “if you can’t say something nice” etc.

    But I don’t know him, and I was only reacting to a screening of it as I would to anyone’s work that I don’t know personally–where there’s nothing to mitigate my impressions, and of course, that’s all I have: my own impression, no more or less. : )

    Bad reviews are unpleasant for everyone no matter what they may say (I for one think Woody Allen is full of, well, beans when he insists he “never reads reviews”/doesn’t care what audiences think–bushwa), but I’m certain that making a film like this means that one’s well-girded for them.

    I simply want to add: I got the idea. I GET that I and you and everyone else is decaying, friend. I got it in the first half-minute and the perfectly recorded soundtrack has nothing to do with my reaction-it isn’t their work that is the issue for me as I think you know from my remarks above. I think you went too long. I think this idea is so old it’s got long whiskers-and I’m not being sarcastic here, please don’t think I mean it in anything but a sincere way.

    As for my cognizance of the putrefaction of we human beings and whether or not I rate as a comedian–a very good one–in the face of said decay, wait for my film to judge me. I guess I fundamentally disagree. Having been around more than a few dying people and a rare few living ones who are well aware of the delicacy of life, actually a lot of them are brilliant comedians–Jack Bennys and Marx bros and Bob Hopes aplenty.
    You and I just have a different take on whether the human race is covered in flop sweat or killing out there. I say the latter.

    My chief comedic chops in the chimerical show that is life: I just spent 15 months living it up in the face of a slow and hideous death, which happened to be the end of the person most important to me. Perhaps you’ve been through that experience too-sooner or later, everyone will. Perhaps there’s a film to strike the right(i.e. moving, thoughtful, funny, or different) notes about it one way or another. This one wasn’t it for me, but again, that’s just one artist’s opinion and it doesn’t matter a fig to anyone but me, I am sure. I will say that I respect ANYone who finishes a project like a short film and gets it out there somehow. That is way more than I have ever done, is another subject entirely(as is the technical expertise and hard work or yourself and your colleagues), and one that I stand in awe of.
    And I really hope if we ever meet you don’t punch me. ; )

  12. on 12 Jul 2008 at 4:05 pm 12.John Schnall said …

    Nicely done! In my book you’ve just earned the right to dislike my film. Hats off to you.

    But please, finish your film! It’s an incredibly rewarding experience; you’ve gotta do it.

    John (no punching, promise) Schnall

  13. on 12 Jul 2008 at 11:41 pm 13.Dave Levy said …

    Michael, Agreed on your comment. But, I was speaking more on the fact that each year there are jurists and non jurists that disagree with some of the selections. Of course, the film maker who is in attendence would be more than “not pleased.” I fully appreciate that. And, there are some steps we will take next year to improve our process.

    For one, we will make sure it is clear that only voting members may call “time” on a film… and we will do our darndest to secure four evenings of jury screenings so that we’ll have a better shot of having the time to watch all the submissions through. If each evening does not run past two hours, the audience may not get so restless and might be more inclined to stay with challenging films as they ought to.

    We can do better and we will.

  14. on 21 Aug 2008 at 9:10 pm 14.Tom Pepowski said …

    I don’t get why John Schnall has this film online if he’s doing the festival circuit???? That turns a lot of festivals off and is bad form to have it online during your festival run.

  15. on 25 Aug 2008 at 11:00 pm 15.John Schnall said …

    No mystery to that, Tom. This film was completed a tad over a year ago, and by now I see it will never make it’s mark in the festival circuit. The only way it will ever get noticed is if I put it out there for anyone to see, and to hope for the good graces of folks like Michael to point people to it.

  16. on 27 Sep 2015 at 5:37 am 16.Slanje Cveca said …

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