Comic book writer-turned-director Dash Shaw (“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea”) has conjured the wildest, most surreal animated feature of the year with the 2D “Cryptozoo.” It’s about a group of cryptozookeepers in the late ’60s who create a utopia safe haven for rare, fantastic beasts to protect them from becoming weaponized by the U.S. military. However, the search for the most revered creature — the nightmare-sucking Baku — by cryptid hunter Lauren Grey (Lake Bell) reveals the harmful implications of such an idealistic pursuit.
Shaw, who collaborated with his animator wife Jane Samborski, described “Cryptozoo” as a counter-culture version of “Jurassic Park.”
“When the movie starts, your mind goes to ‘Jurassic Park’ and you’re thinking how it’s going to fail in ‘Cryptozoo,’” Shaw said. “But whereas ‘Jurassic Park’ has a cleaner, allegorical space that’s defined by Spielberg, ‘Cryptozoo’ makes more unusual associations and a collage of different tones.”
Shaw has always been fascinated by the genius of Disney Imagineering, and patterned the concept of “Cryptozoo” after Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center for its utopian vision. “Amusement parks are supposed to be places where imagination runs wild, like a dreamworld, but, of course, when you’re there it’s not like that,” he added, in reference to how commercialism dilutes the impact of imaginative invention.
Shaw’s inspiration came from seeing footage of Winsor McCay’s unfinished feature “The Centaurs,” and its iconic thin-line style and adult, sexy quality with half-nude centaurs. He was also drawn to the Art Nouveau line drawing of underground magazines of the ’60s.
“Drawing was the only way of depicting the cryptids and Jane painted most of them when creating the menagerie of characters,” he continued. “The idea was to portray existing mythological creatures because I wanted it to be about our world. Baku was central because [they devour nightmares]. When I came across the Baku,” Shaw added, “I thought it would make a great movie idea because it was very dreamlike.”
Shaw pointed to “an experimental manga anthology called ‘Atomic Baku’ and that’s when I first encountered the world. Japanese artist Hokusai had done a drawing of a Baku, so I thought in the universe of the movie, a Baku being the very most important cryptid on the planet would be exciting.”
However, Shaw was most intrigued by the inclusion of hybrid cryptids such as the gorgon, Phoebe (voiced by Angeliki Papoulia), because of the moral ambiguities associated with blurred identities. “That’s when the movie gets more interesting and convoluted and you’re drawing a line of when something counts as human and has to be treated differently than what looks to us as a ‘monster,’” he said.
For Samborski, who supervised the animation, a key factor was the experience she gained from organizing an all-female Dungeons & Dragons group. Since the ambition and scope of “Cryptozoo” far exceeded the more limited demands of “My Entire High School,” she had to cast a team of animators and best utilize their various skill sets.
“The role that gaming played provided good improv practices to how I handled the work of different artists,” she said. “How do I make their work shine and be a part of the cohesive whole?”
One of the early aesthetic decisions was distinguishing between human and cryptid characters. “We wanted the human characters to be thin-lined, watercolor wash, flickering eyes, and then the cryptids to be more fully realized, gauche painted with still eyes,” Samborski added. “And then we broke all those rules [with hybrids]: Phoebe, because she’s looking for her place, has her own entirely separate aesthetic [a combination of styles], which at the time was an intuitive decision that felt so right for the film.”
There were no strict production guidelines. Samborski brought in mostly finished pieces and then figured out the visual identity to push it over the top. It was a puzzle involving the visual improv that she also learned from her gaming experience.
“Virtually everything started as a physical object,” she said. “We did pencil and paint on paper and, for one scene, photographed a model. We took the raw materials through Photoshop and After Effects, where I’m using some rigging tools to create articulated puppets in some cases and more traditional replacement cel sort of animation in other cases. Dash did the majority of the line drawings of the characters and I did the majority of the watercolor backgrounds of the characters, and then the more realized cryptid paintings, and then he did many of the backgrounds.”
They started “Cryptozoo” in 2016, and both Shaw and Samborski were amazed at how much the world had changed in the last five years. Their adult animated adventure about inclusion (currently in theatrical release and on VOD through Magnolia Pictures) has captured more of the tumultuous zeitgeist than they ever imagined. “When the project started, we were interested in idealism and in the intervening time, it went from feeling interesting to surreal,” Samborski said.
“Normally you have hopes and dreams. and then reality sets it,” added Shaw. “For this movie, it turned out better than I hoped for. That’s because, even though Jane and I are married, this was a social activity where you’re collaborating and learning from each other. There’s a beautiful lesson there.”
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