Justin Murphy is an animator that has turned to technology. But Murphy isn’t using technology to create his movie for him, but to get it funded. A traditional animator playing in the sandbox of computer animators. We sat down with Murphy to talk about Dawgtown, the future of animation and movies, and his Kickstarter campaign.
Why a traditionally animated cartoon?
Even though Pixar and Dreamworks have made some great films over the years, there’s a coldness in CG animation that I find very unappealing. It does wonders with backgrounds and effects, but the characters always seem a little plastic. Hand-drawn animation has a look about that is warmer, and maybe that’s because of the imperfect human touch. Also, from a strictly budgetary point of view, a low budget hand-drawn feature looks 100 times better than a low budget CG feature. Ever seen some of those direct-to-video CG movies? They’re horrible. CG costs a lot more money to do right, and that is why the average Pixar movie costs $200 Million. On the other hand, look at The Triplets of Belleville made by French filmmaker Silvain Chomet for only $7 Million. It looks amazing. Ironically, technology had made traditional animation more affordable for the indie filmmaker than CG. Lastly, I like to draw. CG is more like digital puppetry, whereas with traditional the animator must draw each frame of movement. They are completely different approaches to the medium.
What inspired you to do a cartoon about dog fighting? Is there a larger message you are trying to convey?
While I love dogs as much as the next person, animal cruelty is merely the framework for a much larger story. We live in an era where our society is choosing security over freedom. Over the last decade we have been convinced by those in power that being safe is more important than our individual liberty. In Dawgtown, many of the dogs there are been slaves under the system for so long, they don’t even realize it anymore. It takes an outsider like Max to come in and wake them up. I drew some inspiration from animated classics like Watership Down and Animal Farm, because I’ve always liked films that use animation in a subversive way to tell allegories about tyranny and freedom. Benjamin Franklin said it best, “those who would trade freedom for security will lose both and deserve neither.”
How long have you been animating?
On and off for about 15 years, though most of my experience is in illustration and writing. The great thing about animation is that is about acting more than anything else, and my experience in theater and on the stage helps tremendously. Of course, draftsmanship is key, but if the acting isn’t there, even the best looking drawings will fall flat. Im also working with a very talented team of animators for Dawgtown with some pretty impressive credits, and they are bringing their expertise to the film.
What do you think traditional animation brings to an audience that computer animation can’t?
Diversity of style. Most CG films are starting to look the same, and it is easier to design characters and backgrounds in the 2D world that look distinct and unique. A lot of this has to do with line quality, and since CG has no outlines, it lacks that advantage. Just compare something like The Powerpuff Girls (with their thick black outlines) to Beauty & the Beast (with its soft colored outlines) and you can see the extreme difference in style. With traditional animation, the viewer is looking at hand-drawn art, but with CG the viewer is looking at a computer model. It’s a huge difference in medium and style, and that is why, no matter how much money it makes, CG will never fully replace traditional animation. It’s like trying to replace watercolors with oils; some people just prefer watercolors. Disney may have closed down their department and fired some of the most talented animators in the industry, but hand-drawn is still thriving on television and in the foreign and indie film markets. What’s great is now we have no competition because all the major studios have gone CG. There’s also an experienced talent pool available now who before would have been exclusively contracted at Disney and Dreamworks. Many of them still want to draw and indie filmmakers like myself are providing the opportunity. CG is overused these days, in both animation as well as live action. It’s a powerful tool, and necessary at times (I use it some in Dawgtown) but it’s not the only tool.
Everything in entertainment is moving into smaller and smaller pieces. The bite size cartoon, movie, video is all the rage. Do you think full-length features are eventually doomed?
Not at all, because certain stories can only be told at feature length. And movies these days are getting longer, not shorter. Animated features are also more profitable than ever. In fact, that’s part of the problem. They’ve become mass-marketing tools to sell toys and Happy Meals. They’re big business, and the bottom line is far more important than the artistic merit. That’s why we got films like Cars 2 and Planes. Was anyone screaming for those films to be made? No. But they are cash cows for the Studios. If anything is doomed it’s probably comic books. We’ve become such a multi-media, video-game culture that it’s hard for static artwork to compete anymore. Though, I’m glad to see the Graphic Novel market still surviving. And of course you’ve got things like The Walking Dead, which has become an industry itself.
Just like sports stadiums, movie theaters are seeing a huge drop in attendance. Is it the internet? Our attention spans? Or the fact that we have so many entertainment choices at home?
In many cases, it’s technology and the theaters themselves. Some of them are so run-down, dirty and out of date, that people would rather stay at home. We can have home movie experiences that rival what the theater offers. You can sit on your own (clean) couch with friends, complete with surround sound and a HD television. There’s a kitchen full of food, and you don’t have to worry about obnoxious audience members or crying babies. There is more control to create the experience you want, rather than being at the mercy of the theater you’re going to. That’s why studios are offering all the gimmicks like 3D and IMAX. They are trying to give an experience that can’t be found at home. I heard that ideas were even being tossed around at having moving seats and scent machines installed, which I think is ridiculous. It’s a movie, not a theme park ride, but Hollywood will do anything to make a buck. I think audiences are tired of the games and just want to see good movies again. It all starts with the script, and most scripts that are produced these days are just awful. The best writers seem to be in television right now.
Tell us about Dawgtown.
Dawgtown is the story of a young Pitbull named Max who is taken from his owner and thrown into the brutal world of underground dog fighting. As a competitor in the most well-funded pit-fighting organization in the world, he becomes a sign of hope to the others, and must lead them in a dangerous fight for freedom. It’s Gladiator meets Animal Farm. I’ve been researching this subject for years, and talking with various rescue organizations. Refreshing about Dawgtown is that it is being produced in the style and technique of traditional hand-drawn animation, which audiences are seeing less and less of these days with the proliferation of CG.
Did you draw the character of Max from a real person or dog?
Not really. He is the reluctant hero; a character who can be so much more than he gives himself credit for. He’s more of a symbol of individualism and personal liberty. Most people settle for mediocrity when they could be so much more. We rarely tap into that inner strength until we are put in extreme situations. I remember hearing how two teenage daughters lifted a tractor that had fallen on their father. They saved his life, but the act defied logic. He doesn’t know where they found the strength to do it. They were not big, muscular girls at all. Max is similar in that he is not imposing, or outwardly showing any signs of leadership, but inside is a leader waiting to come out.
What has been the good and the bad of this experience with Kickstarter?
It’s great for publicity in the social media networks. I’ve more than doubled the amount of ‘Likes’ on my Facebook page. The downside is of course if your campaign doesn’t succeed in raising the amount needed. It can be discouraging. Crowdfunding requires a lot of online press, and if you don’t get a lot of it, you will not meet your goal. Friends and family can only do so much, and any project looking to raise more than 20K is going to have to get some serious press. If I run another campaign, I would probably hire a PR group to handle that. I’ve also heard that Indiegogo is a good option, because they let you keep what you raise. Kickstarter is all or nothing.