There’s somewhat of an automatic assumption that animated features today will have a certain level of sophisticated production, whether it’s hyperrealistic backgrounds or mouth and facial movements that match a character’s speech and emotions perfectly.
However, comic book artist and author Dash Shaw wants to pull audiences back into the dark ages of animation with his first feature film leading the charge.
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea follows best friends Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts) on what easily passes as the worst day of their lives. As the film’s title so accurately describes, Dash and Assaf’s high school drifts and sinks into the sea after an earthquake shakes it loose from its foundation.
Shaw based his film on a comic he wrote years ago that was meant to be a mishmash of the styles he grew up with: the autobiographical, (e.g. Chester Brown’s The Playboy and Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte) and the superhero adventures of Marvel and DC. As for how the characters were drawn and colored, Shaw, once again, threw several inspirations into a blender to create an abstract expressionist/manga cocktail that he figured could lend itself to film, despite its purposely lo-fi quality running against the grain of current animated films.
A large part of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea’s charm rests with its slapdash animation, which was equally a product of budgetary restrictions and Shaw’s distinct style of drawing.
“It felt achievable with limited means,” Shaw says. “I thought of it like The Evil Dead, in that you see the director had a limited location and limited means but the movie gets by on sheer enthusiasm. I thought this movie would be awesome if it had authentic energy shot through it.”
For Shaw, incorporating authenticity meant staying true to the influences that inspired him as a kid and that shaped him as an artist–Disney need not apply.
“My favorite animations are limited animations, meaning it’s using fewer drawings. When you watch Disney cartoons, Jafar will move his hand and all of his fingers will be like these gooey squash-and-stretch movements–it always felt like overacting to me,” Shaw says. “I know that animation is beautiful in its own way but something about the open-closed mouths of [a cartoon like] Speed Racer resonates with my personality.”
“Dash is fundamentally a deadpan writer,” says My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea’s lead animator Jane Samborski. “He’s very funny but he really likes to have his emotions reserved. So that really dovetailed with the animation style that we were doing.”
Every so often, limited-animation films like the recently rereleased Japanese classic Belladonna of Sadness will break out beyond their niche followings and find a wider audience. With My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, Shaw is aiming to do just that by expanding what’s possible within the mainstream landscape of animated features.
“There aren’t very many independent animated movies. If I didn’t make this movie, someone else wasn’t going to make it,” Shaw says. “I felt like there was a hole in animation and that I had something I really wanted to contribute.”