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Frog Farm interviews

Graham Mason!

Source: Milna Vasquez Designs
Source: Milna Vasquez Designs
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Graham was one of those people I discovered early on when I moved to New York who really excited me, and confirmed my move here was a good move. He was making really cool live action shorts, pretty often, and very well, in a way nobody else was really doing. A focus on everyday life situations, inside of weird worlds or circumstances and with the well thought oddball characters that reflects those settings. When I started seeing him at screenings and other events, I learned from him that he’s super into comics and animation, and that he actually makes those as well. Which made a lot of sense in retrospect on why I liked his shorts so much.

Also don’t let him fool you, Graham’s comic and animation work is much much better than he lets on. I think this new short “the Quarry,” that was just recently released on Adult Swim Smalls, is a testament to his universal skill at visual storytelling. It’s a skill that enforces itself no matter what form you're working in at that very moment. The new short rules big time, and is a very sweet story to boot.

We caught up a few days ago after the holidays, and I asked him a few questions about the new short, and other fun related stuff ahead of our next show on Friday 1/12.

Hi Graham! Ty for chatting! What’s something that’s really exciting you right now? In film, animation, comics, or beyond?

Over the holiday break I watched two movies that I absolutely loved, and it felt like I was able to put my head on straight after spending the past few months catching up on new “awards season” movies (Some of which are very good! But I have found it can become numbing if I don’t mix up new movies with weird old movies. And I’ll sometimes go long stretches of time without doing that, and then when I finally do, I’m so psyched to feel truly inspired again).

The first was The Appointment (1981) which is a visionary made-for-TV movie from the UK that’s like being stuck in a slow-motion nightmare for ninety minutes, and completely sticks the landing at the end. This was the coolest movie I saw all last year, and I watched it on Dec 31st!

The other was Welcome, or No Trespassing (1964) which is a delightful Russian comedy about a group of children staging a rebellion at a strict Soviet summer camp. It has unreal cinematography and staging and is also super funny. The director Elem Klimov later made the notoriously disturbing movie Come and See, which I have always been too scared to watch, but now I probably will.

In comics, my favorite recent reads were (of course) Monica by Daniel Clowes and the final installments of Sunday by Olivier Schrauwen, which I think is a comedy masterpiece. I also had my mind blown by 2120 by George Wylesol earlier this year.

In TV animation, Scavengers Reign was (of course) amazing, and I thought Fired on Mars, also on MAX, was cool as well. I’m curious who the development people are over at MAX giving hope for the future of adult animation.

Lmao I’ve literally just written one end of year essay for an animation fanzine about how much I loved Scavenger’s Reign and then another end of year essay about how 2141 was my favorite comic of the year. I’m very excited to read Sunday. I just got my hands on the entire collection.

Do you look for different things in different types of media?

I think the main thing I’m looking for in all of my art consumption is something that feels like a unique personal vision, and I find that always happens in indie comics, often happens in animation, and rarely happens in movies. I think that aligns with how expensive it is to produce each respective form of media.

Is there any reason a project of yours feels it needs to be an animation vs live action (vs a comic)?

When I have a new idea for a video, the aesthetic is a big part of it. I’m immediately picturing a specific style or visual device, and that is baked into the initial spark of the whole thing. For example, trying to recreate a 1970’s murder mystery with Inspector Ike, or telling a romance via two characters yelling back and forth from windows in Whenever.

For comics (which I honestly haven’t done too many of), I have found that the initial spark feels a little more literary. It’s about language or describing some image I find poetic or funny, like Santa having an annual DJ gig in Ibiza.

I’ve only really done two proper animated shorts, and they both came about in super specific ways:

The first one, Rock Cowboys, was an extension of a photo project, where I wanted to play around with designing miniature sets and characters in my studio space. After I took the photos, I decided I wanted to hear the Rock Cowboys talk, and then went down a ridiculous yearslong rabbit hole searching for audio clips of real American cowboys talking about their lifestyle on Youtube. I pulled down the audio of the cowboys and cut it together to make all the dialogue (inspired by the Aardman animation Creature Comforts). I did this very weird analog / digital combo process where I shot plates of each rock character with a 35mm point-and-shoot camera, and then used Photoshop and Premiere to animate their eyes and mouth. I never really knew what the next step of that project was going to be until it was completed.

My most recent animation The Quarry needed to be animated because that was what Adult Swim was asking to be pitched. I had been learning about and re-appreciating traditional 2D cel animation for the past few years, and I was also playing around with the animation features in Procreate. I had always wanted to try to make a cartoon, so I just took a leap of faith and pitched one.

Have you had an idea that started as live action and moved over to an animation or a comic? Or vice versa? I’ve definitely had ideas migrate to another medium. It can be a headache to do the mental gymnastics of visualizing how that idea will work in its new form sometimes, but is also kinda fun.

I did this comic called Klaus and Karl that’s about two krautrock musicians recording an album in a remote recording studio, and the session devolves into a battle of wills between them, but that battle ends up producing a really great record. That has always felt like a good movie idea to me, and I’ve worked on adapting it into a script, but it has never quite clicked together (yet).

This isn’t exactly an answer to your question, but I always draw storyboards for my live action projects and think about the shots very illustratively. So I think it’s like the root system is the same, but it produces different types of trees.

Could be cool to collect these storyboards into a big book one day maybe…

You now have two rock animations under your belt. What draws you to rock characters? I can picture you sitting at your desk really enjoying drawing the rocks.

Yes, they are very fun to draw because you can get very cute and expressive characters with a minimal amount of shapes - just the body, mouth, two eyes, and eyebrows. They are basically big smiley faces.

The other benefit of the rock characters is that they don’t have legs, so I don’t have to draw walk cycles (which I don’t know how to do). So it’s a character design that looks charming to me and can be executed within my (very limited) skill set.

Did you think about animating “the Quarry” like how you did with “Rock Cowboys” at any point?

That would have been amazing! But I never really considered it because I don’t have the space any more. I used to have a wonderful shared studio in Greenpoint, where I was able to build the miniature sets for Rock Cowboys, and also shoot a bunch of other short films with handmade sets, but the studio didn’t make it through the pandemic. So I’m just working out of my apartment now, which meant it was easier to go 2D and digital for this project.

I remember chatting with you about the workflow for making “Rock Cowboys” when it came out and being jealous that you had access to a big studio space to make it. What was the process/workflow for “the Quarry?” How did you figure out what it was?

The first step was making a pitch deck for Adult Swim Smalls, which had sample images in it and a description of the characters and story. I knew that I wanted to have a Dr. Katz / Home Movies-style “boil” on all the characters, so I embedded gifs of each of the characters into the deck that had the wiggle.

Once I was greenlit and off to the races, I wrote the script, and then recorded the dialog with the wonderful actors Grace Rex, Matthew Maher, Peter Smith, and Brad Howe. We did the dialog recording all together in a studio so it could be more conversational and loose, and they could improvise off each other. I think that helped a lot with getting it to feel sort of naturalistic.

I honestly did not know how I was going to do the animation when I pitched. I just sort of prayed that I would figure out something that worked and didn’t kill me.

I drew all of the backgrounds and characters in Procreate. The whole time I was drawing and designing the shots, I kept trying to think of each shot as a stack of animation cels, and I tried to “ink” and “paint” the characters in a workflow that felt analogous to how characters were drawn and painted for cel animation.

Then the big breakthrough for executing the project was learning this very unique (and I imagine somewhat dunked-on) animation program called Adobe Character Animator. The way the program works is you rig “puppets” of your characters and then use your webcam to act out the performance, almost like a Snapchat face filter. So I did all the character animation for the project by acting it out in front of my webcam (and then tweaking it frame-by-frame, which took a lot of work).

I am honestly a little insecure about whether my technique would be considered totally hack by the animation community, but there’s a lot of mocap stuff happening in the 3D space, so I think it’s not completely hack (?). It helped a lot that the character designs were so simple, and that the action was so conversational and “covered” in deadpan shot-reverse shot.

I edited it in Premiere, “stacking” each shot like they were cels on an animation table. I am curious if anyone else out there does this - it seems pretty bonkers to me, but it works!

How long did it take from beginning to end?

I think it took about seven months from closing the deal to delivering the final animations.

What was pitching this idea to adult swim like?

Very good! I have made four videos for Adult Swim Smalls and the pitching process has always been fun and straightforward. Dave Hughes is a national treasure. I always make a deck with images and visual references, I think that helps a lot.

How was the reception online? YouTube comment sections for adult swim shorts are pretty fun sometimes. Anybody accuse you of doing too many drugs to come up with an idea like that??? lol

So one thing I’ve tried to do with the projects I’ve made for Adult Swim is not have them feel overly “adult swim-y” or go too hard on the stonery vibe. I kinda think the most subversive thing to do in that space is make something that feels sincere and even…emotional.

And whenever a new project comes out, I always get a little nervous that the cynical 14-year-olds on Youtube are going to rip it to shreds for being lame and not Aqua Teen, but in the case of The Quarry, it seems like people for the most part really vibed with it and were moved by it, which was awesome!

Yeah I’m kinda intimidated by that comment section sometimes.

Ok last question: Do you have any fun new project(s) in the works?

I produced and edited a movie called Good One that is live action and very cool and it’s premiering at Sundance in January.

I also shot a live action short last year with Brad Howe and Eric Rahill that I still need to edit.

And I would like to make a couple more episodes of The Quarry and carry on the soap opera romance between Karl and Penny.

There’s more crap I hope to make this year, but those are the next ones in the hopper. Thank you for asking :-)

You can say hi to Graham and watch his new short “the Quarry” in the Frog Farm crowd, next Friday at Purgatory.

PHOTOS FROM THE SHOW!!

setting up for the show!

we’re back!

frogghoul was bummed about being an empty nester after his son left for college!

cristian!

olivia!

aidan’s short!

alex’s new segment: his weird little film corner!

we tried to cheer frogghoul up by showing him weird little vids.

intermission!!!

merch table set up in the back with work from olivia, juliette and also molly dwyer!!

master filmmaker emma simpson’s new film…

watch here…

austin!

juliette!

graham’s new short “the quarry!”

watch here:

hanging out after the show!!

ok this last one is from the next day. we got some flowers from the far mar. it was on the same camera roll, sue me!

thanks so much for coming! another successful show with lots of laughs and love.

next show will be in late feb or early march. keep tabs on our insta/newsletter for the announcement etc etc

p.s. animated frog gifs by alex swift!

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