TB: I played a lot of D&D as a kid, and Cryptozoo definitely called to mind the hours I spent paging through Monster Manuals. The film itself is like a bestiary, but of a very unusual kind, because it brings together creatures from such a wide range of mythological traditionsóthe gorgon of ancient Greek legend, for instance, here shares a narrative world with the Japanese baku. How did this menagerie come together?
What drew you to these particular cryptids, and how did you learn of them more generally?
DS: I played D&D when I was younger, but I don’t play anymore. That’s Jane’s territory now. I fell in love with cryptids through much older art—the unicorn tapestry at the Met Cloisters, the gorgon mosaic at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The baku was the most exciting for me. Hokusai did a drawing of a baku in the early 1800s. Comic Baku is also an experimental manga comics anthology. The idea of eating dreams, for good and for bad, is so compelling. Especially as a subject for a film, because great films can really replicate a dream state, or dip in and out of dream logic.
I wanted all of the cryptids to come from actual mythologies. While it’s a fantasy film, it was important to me that it be about our world, our reality. For instance, Angeliki Papoulia is a Greek actress voicing Phoebe, the gorgon, and she said she read lots of Greek legends growing up. Obviously, the Cryptozoo is in the United States. It is a failed attempt at a melting pot, or salad bowl, housing and exploiting the cryptids from around the world…
In a way, like everything I do, the film is a big collage. It’s about drawing connections and juxtapositions. In the writing and literal composition of the film, I’m trying to create interesting relationships between all of these different elements—the characters, content, and the formal properties.
TB: Speaking of the actors, how would you describe your method of working with performers in voiceover? Did you already have a sense of what you wanted out of a given voice as you were writing and animating? Or did new possibilities emerge through the process of recording?
DS: I didn’t go to film school—I mostly drew comic books—so working with actors was a completely new experience on my first film. The voices for High School Sinking were all done after the character design and drawing. We had over half of the film done and drawn before I thought about casting. For this one, I only drew a character after they had been cast.
For Cryptozoo, I video recorded the voice performances. For instance, in the opening scenes between the two hippies, Louisa Krause and Michael Cera, I video recorded them physically performing the scenes and I drew reference from that. I didn’t trace the photos. I just looked at them and drew them like in figure drawing classes. You feel it in the opening scenes: that these are two actual people who actually like each other, even if the drawings are strange because it’s being filtered through my hand. It has a realism I didn’t have on High School Sinking.
Also, knowing the cast members inspired their character designs. None of the characters look exactly like actors, but I tried to take some spiritual element or sideways inspiration. Lake Bell, who plays Lauren, is a perfect example of that. Her voice and appearance suggested she could have been a Pre-Raphaelite woman. The Dante Gabriel Rosetti paintings of Jane Morris are so hugely iconic, on every teen girl’s bedroom wall, but I had never seen that look in a film before.
TB: I’m curious about how the characters evolved. Did you begin with a central figure in mind? Were they modeled on specific people in any way?
DS: I began with a trio of characters who all approach the zoo from different angles—Joan is the financial backbone of the zoo, and she’s not afraid to sell souvenirs or install a tacky carousel to
ensure profitability. Phoebe, a human-passing humanoid cryptid, sees herself as the champion of the cryptids. She views the zoo solely as a vehicle for educating the public. Meanwhile, Lauren needs the zoo to continue her personal quest of rescuing all of these legendary beings. From there, it spread out. Part of the fun of the movie is that it should feel huge, globe-trotting, a large cast, but obviously be done in an independent, idiosyncratic way.
When you ask about if they’re modeled on particular people, strangely my mind went immediately to Jay, Phoebe’s fiance. Jay is voiced by my friend Raj Parameswaran, who is an author of the book I Am an Executioner. He’s drawn to look like Raj and he’s holding his own book. The goal for that scene was to be a realistic domestic moment inside of all of this fantasy, so I tried to make it as specific to him as possible.
TB: Cryptozoo is a departure from your earlier work in a number of ways, but it also struck me that this movie has, like your book New School, a theme park at its center. Is there something about the theme park—as an environment, say, or as a concept—that fascinates you?
DS: Like most aspiring cartoonists and animators, my first exposure to the medium was through Walt Disney. Disney’s venture into theme parks is fascinating, particularly his original concept for Epcot Center. Originally, Disney wanted Epcot to be an actual city where people would live. It was his ultimate utopian vision. Then, when he died, in 1966, they just altered and executed it as another amusement park. A tragedy. Construction began in 1967. We see it under construction in Cryptozoo when they’re in Florida. Ideally, a theme park is a place where imagination reigns, a dream space, but of course in reality you’re trapped in a shopping mall.
TB: Cryptozoo is technically set in the 60s, but like any good period piece it’s actually, as you suggest, about the present. The tragic prospect hanging over the film is that the military could harness the baku’s abilities for nefarious purposes, and siphon away the counterculture’s dreams for another world.
What I kept thinking as I watched, though, was that this already happened—it’s a 21st-century story. Our generation has been told, over and over, about what isn’t politically possible, with “pragmatism” held up as some kind of
Our imaginations, in other words, have been everywhere hemmed in. Though in recent months, as crisis piled atop crisis, it felt like something shifted, and all these “impractical” otions about how we might organize society, from healthcare to housing to public safety, effloresced across the country. What was it like finishing the movie in 2020, a year like none other?
DS: I know what you mean. This is why the baku is the most important cryptid in the universe of the film. Joan says, “without dreams, there can be no future.”
A blessing and a curse with comics, cartoons—my chosen mediums—is that they take forever to make. I wrote and storyboarded Cryptozoo when Obama was president. We cast it, and the first voice recordings were in the first months of the Trump presidency. Then, the last pick-up voice recordings, four years later, were done remotely because of the pandemic. Over all of those years, we worked on this every day. The script and plan never changed, but when you’re drawing someone, or painting a background, everything happens in its present moment.
TB: Compared with live-action filmmaking, animation like yours seems like more of a solitary pursuit—just you and the drawing in that present moment—but you’ve also had a couple of key collaborators for this piece, outside of the cast, like your wife, Jane Samborski, and the film’s composer, John Carroll Kirby.
How did you and Jane go about sharing the task of animation, and how did you work with John to develop the score?
DS: There are a lot of different artists who worked on this, painters doing backgrounds or props for distinct sequences.
Jane really took charge of the animation on this one. On High School Sinking, Jane was so upset with how I was organizing and laying in images that she banished me from that part of the process. She is the Animation Director of Cryptozoo. She created a Google spreadsheet to organize all of the different assets and the steps for each asset and shot. And she manages Emily Wolver, the lead animator. When I watch the film, I see Jane in every frame. She is not only in the details—gestures in the character performances and what would be considered the cinematography of the movie—but also in how whole sequences appear. We share a “film by” credit because that’s the most accurate description of the film.
About the score, the filmmaker Rick Alverson also lives in Richmond, Virginia. He put me in touch with the label Jagjaguwar. I told them I was looking for a composer with a really unusual, new sound. I described Cryptozoo to them. The films that Cryptozoo are in the lineage of, like Akira and Fantastic Planet, all have really startling, original scores. The kind of score that you wouldn’t expect, but completely align with the picture in an intuitive, magical way. I felt if we didn’t find absolutely the right composer, it would be a colossal failure. The first person they thought of was John Carroll Kirby. I had never heard of John before, but I listened to his album Travel and fell in love. He describes that album as “third generation exotica.” I had never heard anything like it, and it was perfect for Cryptozoo. So, I met him in 2017. And then a few years later he had made a bunch of other albums and become more well known. His manager said he only had time to score Cryptozoo because of the pandemic. The tour for his latest album had been canceled.
TB: Well, any ambitious endeavor in filmmaking entails an embrace of chance, the unexpected, of whatís in the cards. Itís a relatively brief sequence in the movie, but Iím quite fond of the tarot scene. How did it find its way into Cryptozoo?
DS: My dad read tarot and, as a hobby, paints copies of Pamela Colman Smith’s illustrations for the Waite-Smith deck. So I grew up with that deck and books about the tarot around the house. However, I myself only got into it seriously much later, in my twenties.
I collect different decks and tarot-related books. I had never seen a very long, serious tarot reading in a film before. I do four card readings with the Waite-Smith deck almost every day, and record my readings as a diary. It’s part of my regular practice and I wanted to incorporate it into the film at a key point. It’s in the center of the movie and I hope it deepens the characters and film in a way that tarot does for me.
Tarot is like comics in that it’s a visual sequence. It’s also like comics in that you can study the history of different decks and see how different artists interpret the same characters, like the Marvel universe. It’s fun, and increases visual interpretation skills. The tarot has dramatically improved my visual literacy. It’s taught me to see more clearly. It taught me that something is both its particular self and a symbol of itself—and that the difference between the distinct thing and the symbol is fluid.
TB: I’ve always admired you as a colorist, and I feel like the coloring is especially consequential in Cryptozoo, in terms of the way the forms are felt and understood, the way we perceive a figure itself as well as its symbolic charge. How would you characterize the film’s palette and its conception?
DS: When I started doing comics in college, color felt like an unexplored zone, because so many of the alternative comics of the 1990s were in black and white. So that led to me making a lot of comics that would use color-coding, or expressionistic, unusual colors. Color that would add meaning, rather than describe naturalistically things that were already delineated in the line art. Anyway, at this point my color is totally intuitive. It’s personal and can’t be imitated or put through a production process. It goes in and out of naturalism.
TB: Contemporary Hollywood is dominated by comic book movies, and I wonder, as a cartoonist, how you see a work like Cryptozoo relative to that vein of pop culture.
DS: I know the comics that those movies are based on extremely well, especially the Ditko [Spider-Man, Dr. Strange] and Kirby [Fantastic Four, Avengers] ones. To me, Steve Ditko is comparable to William Blake—a visionary storyteller. Utterly unique. Kirby is more like Picasso—a world-builder, endlessly innovative. The fact that they worked in a popular, disregarded medium doesn’t matter. They were true, visionary artists. So, when their work is adapted a million times, by literally millions of different people, the force of their visions are so strong they shine through. Their imagination was so powerful, millions of people were inspired to contribute! In my own way, I hope Cryptozoo is like those original comics.
Someone watched Cryptozoo and told me, “it’s like recreating some half-remembered Hollywood adventure movie that you watched as a child when you had a fever.” That’s exactly what I was going for—a big movie, but warped, personal, idiosyncratic. When I go to the movies, I want a spectacle, but I want it coming from a unique perspective, full of real imagination.
Thomas Beard is a founder and director of Light Industry,
a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn,
and a Programmer at Large for Film at Lincoln Center.