How Dash Shaw Broke into Hollywood—By Leaving it to Make 'My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea'
Just because this is a survival story doesn't mean there aren't penis jokes.
Dash Shaw may be a first-time filmmaker, but he's a household name to comic book aficionados. With his TIFF 2016 premiere My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, he melds the two mediums; the result can only be described as a dazzling high school disaster comedy. Starring Lena Dunham, Jason Schwartzman, Susan Sarandon, and Reggie Watts, the animated film follows teenage Dash and his nerdy friends at the high school newspaper as they try to revitalize journalism, one school story at a time. In an effort to make themselves relevant, they often resort to hyperbole and speculation (including locker room ghost stories), but when Dash uncovers his first real scoop—the high school didn't pass the California earthquake code inspection, and the principal lied about it—no one listens.
That's to their detriment. Just minutes later, an earthquake causes the entire school building to dislodge from a cliffside and float out to sea. It's every man for himself. Chaos and panic ensue, and the high school devolves into a triage war zone governed by the capricious social code endemic only to high school.
The movie is equal parts hilarious, dramatic, and charming, bearing the idiosyncratic touch that can only emerge from a film made in the kitchen of a one-bedroom apartment by a husband and wife (Shaw and Jane Samborski, the film's lead animator). No Film School sat down with Shaw at TIFF 2016 to discuss the film's intricate handmade process and how, after failing to get a Hollywood film off the ground, making his own "weird" little movie led to an A-list cast and high-profile screenings at TIFF and NYFF.
"We had a lot of the movie drawn, but when we got that cast, that was when it became, 'Oh, other people might see this.'"
NFS: Can you start by telling me what it was that was specific to your high school experience that you felt could become universally relatable?
Dash Shaw: Well, I was on a school newspaper in middle school, so most of the characters in the movie are based on a middle school experience, kind of into high school. It maybe wasn't a goal of universality, but just to move things into the emotional world—which maybe means the same thing as universality. I wanted to warp things into the dream version of reality so that feelings have been amplified in this unusual setting.
When I was a kid, like the characters in the movie, I loved books and wanted to be a writer and thought about writing and editing, especially comic books. Titanic came out when I was in high school. I really loved it, and I would imagine the classroom filling with water, water creeping along the floor.
NFS: How did you attract this awesome A-list cast?
Shaw: The short answer is through comic books. I had known Jason Schwartzman and Lena Dunham. They had read my comics before I'd met them. When we had them, we could branch out to other people, but they had read my books and everyone who came on board knew my sensibility from all of these graphic novels.
NFS: Was the process of writing the script different from the process of writing dialogue for comic books?
Shaw: When I started making this movie, I thought that [my experience in comic books] would be more applicable than it was. I thought, well, I can draw and tell a story, and I've created a lot of characters. I can scan it just like I would scan my comics, only now it's going to go into After Effects. I thought it would be a much smoother transition. But when I was in it, I realized that there were so many things that I had no experience with.
The movie does have a dry humor that is like my books, but in film—in some kind of bizarre, magical way—you can have people say one thing but it means something completely different based on how they say it, which is obviously something that you don't get from just reading words. Things are more powerful when the literal words that [characters] are saying aren't what's being communicated.
"We used After Effects like how Disney used a multiplane camera."
The time factor is huge in movies, too. In a book, you can leave a character for ten pages and come back to them, but in a movie, if you leave the main character, you're immediately wondering, "Why did we leave this main character?" In a movie, the audience can go from being interested to being uninterested in a split second. I think books are a lot more lenient and pass a lot more control to the reader.
NFS: When you were actually going through the process of animation, you were working with Jane, but were animating a lot, too, correct?
Shaw: "Animating" means a lot of things. Some of the scenes I drew, and others Jane drew. The silhouette sequence in the elevator is Jane's section. There's a moment where a character is wrapping a bungee cord around herself, and Jane penciled it and I would ink it and go over the lines with a pen. Other parts are just my drawings, but then a background will be by Andrew Lorenzi [another animator]. Then it'll go into a face that I drew, but Jane altered the expressions to better match what the voice was, so it's my lines, but she went in there and altered it. And then it would go into a flashback sequence that would be painted by another alternative cartoonist. There's no easy answer about who drew more or less of anything.
The way I thought about it was the Ralph Bakshi movies. I always liked that, in those movies, you could tell he cast the artist like he would cast the actors. He knew what someone was good at or what they drew like, and he tried to incorporate that into this bigger vision. I thought of the artists as a cast of people: I knew what they would bring to it, and I tried to get the best out of it. Frank Santoro, a great comic book artist, was trained as a landscape painter, and I knew that it would be awesome to see waves painted by him in a movie, that he would bring to it something that I hadn't seen in an animated movie before, a real kind of painterly quality.
NFS: The process of casting animators is in and of itself its own form of directing. Were you and Jane generally on the same page? How did you navigate when you weren't?
Shaw: Jane and I are married and we live together. When we were drawing this, it was a small apartment, so discussions from the movie would comically fall over into other aspects of life. It would be very long talks when there were disagreements about what a face would be like for a certain line. Somehow it would work itself out. Our marriage survived this movie. A great example: there's a part where all of the characters are running and the background moves while they're in silhouette. Jane does all the silhouettes. I did the collage paper that's flying past them, and I think that's a good moment to point to where it was Jane in full force juxtaposed with something that I did and it equals something that's more than the sum of its parts.
"Jane and I are married and we live together.... Our marriage survived this movie."
NFS: It does have an incredible composite quality. I know the specifics of the process probably varied from scene to scene, but do you think you could walk me through the steps you took from drawing to end product?
Shaw: I storyboarded the whole movie in colored markers, so there were indications of the color and how it would look. Then, most of the time, the main figures are just drawn on 8 1/2 x 11 paper with these Tombow brush pens that are the same things that I drew a book called New School with, and it has a very blunt line that I think of as like a coloring book line—in coloring books, the lines are very thick so that kids can color over them in strange ways but the figure remains legible. I thought that that would be the best tool for this story, and it kind of reminds me of Archie comics.
The color of those figures are painted with acrylic paint on Bristol board, and the background is acrylic paint on Bristol board, and they're scanned in and aligned in After Effects. We use After Effects basically like how Disney used a multiplane camera. All the lines are made by hand and the backgrounds are painted—it's just the foreground layer vs. background layer are laid over each other in After Effects.
"We'll decide to move a character's line to the right or left on the timeline a hair and have to adjust the renders based on the new audio edit."
Jane is a master of After Effects and figured out how to do all of these amazing things that I don't know how to do, an example being the shots of snowflakes falling. Jane did the cut paper of those snowflakes and scanned them in, and the movement of them sliding is done in After Effects, and the background painting is by Frank Santoro.
From After Effects, we shoot out a render. Lance Edmonds and Alex Abrahams, the editors, arranged the renders in Premiere. The editing part of it happens there, and then there's a lot of back and forth because we'll decide to move a character's line to the right or left on the timeline a hair and have to adjust the renders based on the new audio edit.
NFS: How long is the animation process for a single shot?
Shaw: Some shots happen very quickly. Some of them were being changed up until two weeks ago. An important philosophical approach to this was to get something in there so that we had a vision—a view of the whole movie—and then be able to change things. There would be lo-fi versions of shots that there would be a shitty painting as a placeholder, and then I'd try to do a better painting and plug it in.
There's a part where Mary says to Dash's character, "I'll never be a friend to you," and the expression that that character makes had to go through a lot of different versions. Sometimes we'd say, "Okay, is he upset and then looking down?" We used these Charlie Brown parentheses eyes a lot. The end of that was something that we slightly changed over years to arrive at something that we felt like was the right performance inside of this limited language of facial expressions that we have.
NFS: For many of us, a part of our high school identity of gets lodged into our personalities and we carry it with us for the rest of our lives, regardless of how we turn out. When you think back to your own experience in high school, what would you tell your younger self?
Shaw: That's a super good question. That's almost like it could be unrelated to the movie. But actually, my answer is related to the movie.... I was a workaholic as a kid. I was 3000% devoted to comic books, to wanting to be a good comic book artist. It dominated my every thought.
In this movie, while all of these events are happening, [the friends] stay talking about this book that they're working on, and I think it's clear that they're not processing what's happening around them. They're removed from the reality. If I could go back in time, I would say, "Chill out on the comic books. Try to take in some more life experiences. Try to talk to some other people. Let people in. Don't just be sitting at home drawing all the time." But I know that if I did travel back in time and say that, I wouldn't listen to myself.
"I'm glad that this was written in some kind of weird place that was about amusing myself."
NFS: I love that the book turns out to be cheesy and receives what the friends call "mixed to negative reviews." You could have just gone for the whole Harper Collins success story.
Shaw: When the book gets the mixed-to-negative review, Dash says, "Oh, I've learned my lesson. I'll water it down and make it shitty next time." I think that that's funny because it's poking fun at these kinds of movie things where the character's supposed to have learned a lesson. We know what the trope is and we're kind of participating.
NFS: What do you think was the most surprising part of this process from start to finish?
Shaw: The first thing that popped into my head was the cast coming on board, because I toiled on it for a long time, then Jane and I toiled on it for a long time. We had a lot of the movie drawn, but when we got that cast, that was when it became, "Oh, other people might see this."
I had tried to make another movie that was going to be done in a more normal way, where we would attach cast and get financing, but it never happened, and I found it frustrating. I thought, "Well, I'll write something that I feel like I can do, and I'll record it with some friends. Everything will be lo-fi." Everything in this movie was lo-fi, except we have these great actors. That was amazing because they amplified the quality of what I thought the voices would be.
I think maybe I'm glad [it worked out this way]. If I had known at the beginning that this would be the movie I would have, with this cast, premiering at TIFF and New York Film Festival, I don't know if I would have done it. I would have thought, "I should do something different."
NFS: Something more conventional?
Shaw: I don't know what. I don't have a project that I thought I would do, but I think it would have been some kind of head trip. I'm glad that I didn't have that head trip. I'm glad that this was written in some kind of weird place that was about amusing myself. Everything was kind of built on the sensibility. You know, if I knew that all this [success] would've happened in the end, it would have just been paralyzing.