Lines on Paper
Georgia Webber talks to Dash Shaw about his first animated feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea
In the wildly entertaining animated film My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (playing now at TIFF Bell Lightbox), a group of adolescents (voiced by Lena Dunham, Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, and Maya Rudolph) have to fight their way to the top of their high school, lest they drown into the ocean. This is the chaotically glorious vision of Dash Shaw, a graphic novelist, animator, and well-loved artist whose cult comics like Cosplayers, Doctors, and New School have been published by Fantagraphics. TIFF asked Georgia Webber, a comics artist and writer whose autobiographical comic series DUMB chronicles her prolonged voice loss and slow battle with recovery, to have a chat with her friend Shaw over email.
All drawings made by Dash Shaw and Georgia Webber
What if I interview Dash Shaw, the character from your movie? Would you be able to write answers in his voice?
I'd rather not, because on the internet sometimes people just scan and it wouldn't be understood. It's more interesting for me to be myself.
I'm really curious what you mean when you say it's more interesting to be yourself. Could you tell me more?
I'd have more interesting things to say as myself than trying to do some persona. A movie is a whole universe — the character with the same name as the director is participating in all of these other decisions — it isn't like someone just speaking.
That makes sense to me. There's already a lot going on — the movie is about a character who shares your name, but isn't quite you; it's a story being told in this mixed fantastical and referential style, like a reimagined memory of events, inherently influenced by the teller. Then the characters write a book about the adventure, so we aren't sure if we're in the story as they remember it, or if we're present for the events they will then write about. (I love it.) Does Dash contain remembered (and maybe exaggerated) parts of a younger you? Did you want viewers to connect this movie to your life, or did you just make it and accidentally infect us with curiosity?
When I was younger, like the characters in my movie, I was obsessed with books and I wanted to be a writer. I was also in a school newspaper club. So it's partially based on real life, as all stories are. When I was a teenager, most of the alternative comics [I read] were autobiographical. All of the post-Crumb people, like Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, [made work that was] more about the storyteller's perspective than about reality. The mainstream comics were mostly boy's adventure–type stories. So the joke of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea was to combine those two "schools."
The story is obviously the main character's warped view of reality. It was just one of the many things I brought into animation from the comics I was making. As a movie, it felt funny that the director would give himself the main character's name who is trying to warn everybody; he's the one who knows that disaster will strike. Indiana Jones is based on George Lucas's interest in archaeology and it's his fantasy, but it'd be strange if he just flat out named the character "George Lucas." Most movies, particularly adventure stories, are the director’s or writer's fantasy. Isn't part of cartooning exaggerating pre-existing states?
Shortly after HS Sinking played at festivals, I went to see the new Tim Burton movie. It has a character who's obviously a young Tim Burton stand-in, and the movie is that kid's fantasy. As I was leaving the theatre, I wondered, "What if that character had been just named 'Tim Burton'?" Obviously it's different because Tim Burton is famous and I'm not, but I think it'd do a similar thing in that it would personalize the movie. In a way, it deflates it, because the movie is assuming that this young skinny pale goth boy is the eyes of the audience. However, we know that not everyone is or was a skinny pale goth boy. Changing the character’s name would take away that assumption, but maybe that's an assumption worth taking away.
About your other question: I didn't think people would ponder how it relates to me. I figured people would realize it's a joke, maybe optimistically? I don't know. Anyway, the idea was embedded in the movie early on. If the main character didn’t share my name, I think something would be missing.
Well, learning your sense of humour is a big part of the movie's charm, so if people didn't understand right away, it's still serving that role. I haven't seen it in your comics before, but this movie has Charles Schulz's Peanuts all over it (among many other influences). While it's exciting to see your rich and varied aesthetic, it also feels really familiar, almost classic. I think that transition from comics to animation was done really well with Peanuts. Did you feel like you were translating from the comic you made, or did this project always want to be more than that? How did the addition of motion and sound — and other people, since film is always a team effort — expand what your story was able to become?
That's true, although there's a lot of Peanuts in Bottomless Belly Button and BodyWorld. This movie was written in 2010, shortly after those books came out. The comics just got darker for a bit, while I was working on the film.
The original comic short story was very short, it was just a title and a general simple idea. But when I was working on other animations, my mind went back to that story... It felt do-able, meaning that it took place in a simple, single location (a school). The progression was clear. The character designs were simple. Other animated movie ideas I had were too complicated. Even though other artists came on board to help finish the movie and execute many of the more beautiful backgrounds and animations, I didn't know that when I started. It was important to attempt something that I could feasibly finish myself. This story felt the most practical. I thought of it like that horror movie The Evil Dead. You knew the filmmakers had very limited means, one location, only a few actors, but the movie gets by on sheer enthusiasm. I thought this movie would get by on the energy I could shoot into the drawings and sequences. And I believe all of the energy in this movie is real!
When other people came on board, they did a lot. Jane Samborski really made it possible, with her technical skills. She was the wizard behind a lot of it. Drawings are all abstractions, and this is a strange story where people are reacting in strange ways. So really the actor’s voices are the human element shooting through all of this abstraction and strangeness. Rani Sharone scored it. I'm not a musically knowledgeable person, I don't play an instrument, or even listen to much music because I don't listen to music while I draw. I didn't provide any temp score for Rani. Before Rani scored it, there were sections that were funny and other sections that weren't funny at all... it was tonally all over the place. What Rani's score did was unify the whole movie under an umbrella of "this is carnival-esque and fun, but there is still real danger here."
Have you ever adapted one of your comics into another medium? Or dabbled in a different medium?
I've never been drawn to make films or animations at all, but I have heard people describe my comics as having a musical sensibility. I've actually been playing and singing a lot lately, and it feels like a perfect balance to my comics practice. I have to be so much more in my body to sing and play instruments, there's a different flow that comes with writing and drawing something slowly, over and over. One thing I really enjoy are interviews because they're always collaborative. The voice itself conveys so much about a person, before you even get to the words. I like giving people experiences, making the form of something be just as significant as the content. Your work is the same, especially with this movie. There's the hierarchy of the school's floors. You mentioned once about having the characters reach the lunch room halfway through the movie because lunch is halfway through the school day. What other devices did you hide in the film that would entertain my concept-obsessed mind? And Q-tips, cotton swabs, whatever you want to call them: why are they everywhere?
Yeah, I tried to structure the movie around actual school structures. People move up through the grades. The lunchroom is where students divide themselves in real life, so in my movie that's where the students divide themselves over what to do. The gymnasium is where students are physically tested, so the same thing happens in the climax. The principal even gives a "graduation speech" near the end: "write your books and live your dreams.” I tried to keep it as much about real school as possible, while still being a disaster movie.
I thought the Q-Tips would be funny, but also hoped it'd be more than that. I knew it'd be striking to see a real object in the middle of a hand-drawn cartoon. I also knew the movie was super widescreen and the horizontal Q-Tips would look great in a widescreen aspect ratio. It also felt appropriate to what the driving motivation of the movie was: "How can I make small, limited forms as awesome as possible?" Can just looking at a dot be exciting? Can simple drawings of faces be emotive and powerful?
That's what I feel like independent cinema is, or should be. The budget is connected to the aesthetic. The restrictions are harnessed to make the movie more powerful. We don't want Godard to have a million dollars [to make a film that] looks like a Hollywood movie, it'd ruin it. He can just put a camera in a bare room, and it can have everything — all of the existential power of 2001: A Space Odyssey! That's also similar to comics, in that comics say: “Look at what I did with just lines on paper.”
If you get a chance to watch someone draw live, that simple magic becomes very apparent: a line in space connects to another in an order you couldn't imagine or anticipate because only the artist can until it starts to reveal itself. I used to draw in a very photorealistic way. I was literally copying photographs with pencils or a ballpoint pen and found it to be so soothing. I would try so hard to replicate the distance between the corner of someone's eye and their hairline, the relationship to the shadow of jaw bone and eyebrow. It felt like that person I was drawing was emerging and receding one pencil mark at a time, playing hide-and-seek with me. But there are so many ways to portray reality beyond light and shadow, creating contours to suggest a three-dimensional image. Your whole approach is very exaggerated, impressionistic, and emotional — intuitive to you, it seems — not to mention that there are five dream sequences in a film that's just over an hour long. I was glad to see so many characters get these backstories, or moments to unfurl themselves a little. I'm a fan of your experimentation, it never seems to quit! Have you fulfilled your animation curiosities, or are you exploring the medium further with your next projects?
I'm finishing a graphic novel titled Discipline about a Quaker soldier. Part of it ran in the last Kramer's Ergot, volume nine. I'm also working on another movie. It's also going to be limited animation, but expanded a bit. I learned a lot making HS Sinking and want to apply what I learned. I have other stories I want to tell; it'd be a mistake to stop. Nobody else is going to make these movies if I don't.