Raindance Film Festival 2021
Shorts Programme: Animation 1
Best Animation Short Nominee
In the disorienting wake of loss, an artist begins to question his identity. Strange experiences – windows that open themselves, phantom dogs on the highway, and all of the brief dog-lives that chaptered an upbringing in rural Arkansas – frame this exploration of grief, mental illness, and family connection.
Hey John, it's great to talk with you, how have you been keeping during these strange times?
Thanks – I’ve been fine, really. The University where I work was very flexible during the first year of the Pandemic, and allowed us some time to adjust. We’re just now easing back into things.
Has this time offering you the chance to find some new inspiration or opportunities?
I was actually able to complete A Family That Steals Dogs during the first lockdown here in the States. We were all sent home with no real plan, and I hadn’t figured out Zoom yet, so I took the extra time to finish the film. There was a nervous energy everywhere at the time, so it was nice to have a task to focus on. I was able to set up a comfortable home studio where I could work most of the day, and now I prefer it to my larger studio.
During those months of animating, I listened to a lot of music. Most of my inspirations for this film were either musical or from books, so I was able to immerse myself in all of that while working.
Congratulations on having A Family That Steals Dogs at Raindance 2021 which is nominated for Best Animation Short, what does it mean to you to be at the festival?
Thank you! This is certainly far beyond what I had imagined for the film – way, way beyond. To be screening at Raindance is a huge honour, and the nomination feels absolutely surreal. When I first started sending the film around to festivals it was with a lot of hope, but also doubt. I’m still shocked by the reception it’s had.
As well as writing and directing A Family That Steals Dogs you also produced, edited & did the music, how do you manage all these roles on a film like this?
Yes, this was a one-person operation. My last two short films were made like this, and I really prefer it this way. I am able to work at my own pace, and I’m also able to hop between processes – the music, story and images were all coming together at the same time. Some sounds would inspire an image, some images inspired new dialogue, etc. It was all very organic, and I’m not sure I would have been able to work that way had I been collaborating. There was no explaining to do or discussion to be had – just work. Especially with such a personal story, it only felt right to be the one playing the notes, drawing the images, reading the text, etc.
Finding someone that you can work well with is a really special thing. I have worked with some fantastic, brilliant, creative people, but for this one, I wanted to go it alone.
Can you tell me a little bit about A Family That Steals Dogs, what was the inspiration behind your animation?
Yes. This film is a true story about my experiences and thoughts following the death of my older brother, seen through the lens of incredible grief. I don’t want to give too much away here, but there were some strange encounters in the weeks after his passing that led me to write the film.
What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced making A Family That Steals Dogs?
There were a lot of false starts - In the course of making this film, I animated it twice and scrapped it both times. In being such a personal story, I really wanted to get it just right. I wrote and re-wrote, tried different narrative structures, different “looks”. Giving a shape to these experiences was more of a challenge than I had anticipated. The third version is what you’ll see.
It was also difficult to be objective about the work while still in mourning. I think I could have kept making and remaking this film for the rest of my life as some sort of grieving process, but my partner let me know when it was done. I guess this is another general challenge for me: knowing when something is complete.
Have you always had a passion for animation?
No, not always. I came to animation relatively late, I guess. I’ve always loved drawing, sound and music – Animation is a way to make drawing musical and vice versa. However, since my first animated short GUSTER in 2018 allowed me to attend a few animation festivals, I’ve really fallen in love with it and with the indie-animation subculture. The stuff being made right now is really exciting and mind-blowing. I’m very happy to be a part of it.
"There’s not any one thing, and I don’t want to be too prescriptive."
As an Assistant Professor do you have any tips or advice you like to offer your students?
Yeah – I mean I try to. Teaching in a creative field is reciprocal – I think I get just as much from my students as they do from me. They are very inspiring to be around, so I try to be the same for them.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away A Family That Steals Dogs?
That’s a difficult question. There’s not any one thing, and I don’t want to be too prescriptive.
I guess I am just very trusting of the audience – I think they will take something away from it that is uniquely their own.