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Dash Shaw's animated feature is a mash-up of art film and disaster flick

by Jonathan Shifflett | The Frame

Director Dash Shaw attends a screening of "My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea" at the Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles. John Salangsang for GKIDS

Cartoonist Dash Shaw's debut film, “My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea,” is as out there as the title suggests. 

Made with the use of hand-drawn animation and acrylic paintings that were scanned into a computer, the story follows a high school journalist and his friends trying to escape from — you guessed it — a campus that’s sinking into the sea. Complete with an '80s-inspired synthesizer score, the film combines elements of a disaster movie, teen comedy and experimental animation. 

For his first film, Shaw managed to attract a cast of voice actors that includes Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, Reggie Watts and Maya Rudolph.

When Shaw came by the Frame's studio, he began by telling us what inspired him to make the leap from drawing comics to making films.

Interview highlights:

On his animation influences:

The animation that I always liked came from comic books or cartooning masters like the original season of "Astro Boy," by Osamu Tezuka. He was a great cartoonist and used his skills as a comic artist to make cinema. "The Charlie Brown Christmas Special" is another example where everything in it is derived from comic books, but it has a beautiful poetic quality that's different from Pixar animation or Disney animation. It felt like some sort of pseudo comic/animation hybrid.

Shaw's film uses a combination of hand-drawn elements and acrylic paints.
Shaw's film uses a combination of hand-drawn elements and acrylic paints. GKIDS

On making a low-budget animation film:

I always wanted to make animations but it felt really impossible because I knew the studios were huge expensive operations that had a lot of people and had a lot of equipment. When I saw that you could just scan actual acrylic paintings and put it into the computer through Photoshop, it was super exciting and made the whole thing possible. Everything in the movie was compiled on the computer, but there's nothing in it that breaks the rules of old animation. I basically only watch animation that is pre-digital, so my idea of how space moves comes from the flat, plainer movements of "Scooby-Doo" cartoons or early "Speed Racer" cartoons. Also, the main goal of the movie was, even though everything was traditional or "old" animation, to make it super new feeling and fresh feeling. I really don't think it has a nostalgic tone.

(L-R) The film's voice actors include Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman and Reggie Watts.
(L-R) The film's voice actors include Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman and Reggie Watts. GKIDS

On working for his high school newspaper:

I did work on a school newspaper and when I was a teenager, I remember there was a [story] about when there was a fire alarm in the school and they had the students line up around the school bus gas pumps outside the school. So I made a joke about it. I made some kind of editorial cartoon about that idea and then I got called into the principal's office and the principal thought it was really funny.

On the influence of Japanese animation on the film's disaster theme:

The disaster school thing — again, when I was a teenager in the '90s, I loved Japanese animation. There was a huge explosion of that in the States. So many of those cartoons were about schools in danger ... monsters attacking a school. Even the period in Japan between high school and college translates to "study hell." In my mind it wasn't really like Irwin Allen or John Hughes, it was more like some kind of U.S. alternative comic version of all of these anime that I had seen.

Shaw's film takes inspiration from experimental animation as well as Japanese anime.
Shaw's film takes inspiration from experimental animation as well as Japanese anime. GKIDS

On incorporating elements of disaster comedy and art film:

I think that this movie — when it's rockin' — in my mind, it's like somewhere between an art film and a disaster film. An adventure film [will] have explosions, but somehow the explosions in this movie are more like color appreciation or something. Or characters will climb, but they'll climb too long until it's like some kind of expression of ascent. That to me — mashing up art film and disaster film — I always thought there was a connection there because of the spectacle. It's like a light show. 

A climbing scene from "My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea."
A climbing scene from "My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea." GKIDS

On working with the film's voice actors:

I was incredibly nervous because I had never directed actors before. Something that helped me is that, even if I was an idiot in all other areas, I had a very clear idea of what this particular movie was. I had an idea for voice acting that I hadn't seen in movies. A lot of cartoon voice acting to me is really over the top. I love goofy stuff and this movie is extremely goofy, but I wanted there to be a dissonance between what's going on and how the characters are reacting, where the characters move in an unnatural way and the voice is like the soul shooting out of this abstract world.

While mostly hand-drawn, Shaw's film also uses a combination of photographic elements.
While mostly hand-drawn, Shaw's film also uses a combination of photographic elements. GKIDS

On Rani Sharone's score to the film:

Since I had mostly drawn comic books, I had no idea what to do with music. Obviously, books are silent. But Rani's music coded the whole thing. In my mind, the score says, This movie is carnivalesque and fun, but there's still danger under there. There's kind of a danger beat going through the whole thing. I also loved how Rani was so generous with it. There are Looney Tunes sounds in it and real action movie sounds. He had a huge enthusiasm that I hope is in the movie.

"My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea" arrives in theaters on April 14.

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