At a time when animated features consist predominantly of CGI animation, with its immersive 3D scenarios and hyperrealistic textures of hair, fabric, and light refraction, it is refreshing to see animators and filmmakers consciously seeking a hand-drawn look. A case in point is the new, multi-award-winning animated feature for adults, Cryptozoo (2021). Written and directed by Dash Shaw with animation directed by Jane Samborski, it stands out for its retro-inspired, psychedelic aesthetic.
Set in the late 1960s, it tells the story of cryptozoologist Lauren Grey, a former army brat who’s been hired to maintain a wealthy woman’s collection of cryptids—mythological creatures such as unicorns, griffins, and the like—and keep them safe from those who would use them as weapons. This endeavor, though, comes at a price: In order to raise funds and gain support for its mission, the sanctuary has been converted into a ticketed theme park called the Cryptozoo.
The graphic style of the film is eclectic. Human characters are rendered in fine pencil lines filled in with watercolor, the endearing cryptids feature vaguely skeuomorphic chiaroscuro, and the backgrounds recall Paul Gauguin’s lush tropical landscapes. “Part of it was in response to our previous film, which had this huge, thick, wobbly black line that overtook all the characters,” Samborski told me on a Zoom call that also included Shaw. She was referring to their 2016 feature, My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea, which was done in a more abstract style. “Pencil was a natural choice [for the humans in the new film] because both of us have a deep love of figure drawing, and watercolor [seemed] natural too,” she continued. “Watercolor is a medium I love to work in; I like that water has a little bit of a mind of its own, and I thought it complemented the delicacy of the pencil.”
Shaw and Samborski wanted to rely on watercolors for the cryptids as well, but to use a style entirely different from that employed for the human figures; hence the creatures’ greater dimensionality. As for the backgrounds, Shaw said, many were inspired by painters he knows from alternative comics. “Something I learned from [animated filmmaker] Ralph Bakshi is that, instead of making a style guide and asking the animators to all draw or paint in a particular way, you cast [the artistic talent] the way you would cast actors. And so, ultimately, the movie becomes the orchestration of these different elements.”
Samborski praises Shaw’s clarity of storytelling and his storyboarding, which comes from his background as a graphic novelist. For his part, Shaw says that Samborski’s talent as an animator lies at the core of their successful collaboration, combining fluidity with old-school clunkiness (a desired effect here) as she brings to life the action that ties one storyboard to the next.
Regarding their influences, the two name Czech illustrator Heinz Edelmann’s silhouette-like ink drawings for Yellow Submarine and for the cover of a German edition of Lord of the Rings; the postapocalyptic eco-horror film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki, whose moral relativism they admire; and the dystopian cyberpunk feature animation Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo.
The creatures were partly inspired, as well, by The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. Shaw noted “that joy of just seeing all of these different beings, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. You just love seeing what all these creatures look like.”
I asked the duo to choose one scene that illustrates their creative style, and they picked a sequence featuring Lauren, Phoebe (a Medusa-like being passing for human) and the park’s keepers. The first part of this scene unfolds at a beach. “The beach itself was inspired by paintings by Odilon Redon,” said Shaw, and “the water was inspired by a 1980s anime called Gogo 13 that has a very specific water-glistening effect that’s been glued to my brain from watching anime.”
The second part of this scene consists of a running sequence, as a group of characters are chased by a mega-worm called a kamudi. The trope is well known to anyone who has ever played a side-scrolling platform video game or watched an episode of Tom and Jerry, Scooby Doo, or even The Silly Symphonies. “Something that’s cool about this kind of limited animation—and videogames too—is how to depict space with flat pieces,” explained Shaw. “We have the snake rushing toward us, the trees are moving side to side—spatially, it doesn’t make any sense, but somehow, optically, it communicates that it’s coming toward us.” For this effect, they looked to another 1980s anime, Vampire Hunter D, in which a character’s legs are walking toward us but the grass is moving left to right. Shaw said it was “like a magic trick communicating space with these nonsensical movements.”
The scene gave Samborski the chance to fully indulge her inner nerd, too. Since the film’s creatures are all based on mythological animals that have long appeared in human storytelling, she looked to images of these creatures from different cultures. Her design of the kamudi “was inspired by South American stone carving,” she said. “It’s one of the places in the movie where that angularity that you see in the original source material was able to really come through in the animation, as well as the design of the creature itself.”
On the other hand, the way the beast moves, Shaw adds, “Is [based on] the creature from Snake, the early Nokia computer game.”
As to the animated humans, “I completely believe Lauren is an action hero,” said Samborski. “She’s got these enormous boobs and that tiny waist, but she still has a masculinity in her body,” which makes her an ultimately tough, non-doll-like character along the lines of Lara Croft. “It was very fun to animate because it’s not super typical,” Samborski added. “It was exciting to work with that.”
At the same time, the pair does not mind descending into tongue-in-cheek moments. In the kamudi scene, a male character takes of his shirt to reveal a well-muscled chest, the way the typical heartthrob in an ’80s action movie might. “I really like that moment,” said Shaw. I did all the frames on that and, to me, it’s this moment where a random guy takes off his shirt—and we’re, like, See? The way he’s rendered is like a figure drawing.”
And how would Shaw sum up the film more broadly? “It’s half Saturday-morning cartoon, half [experimental filmmaker] Stan Brakhage,” he said. “If that frequency is exciting for you, then the last half hour is a total joyride.”
Cryptozoo is available on Amazon Prime Video.