Class of ’11 | The last project that Dan Markowitz EAS’11 undertook for his Mixed Media Animation course this past spring was a 60-second film about a “corkboard jellyfish” that he ended up titling Board to Death. He describes it as an “animated aquatic action-adventure,” made in stop-motion using such high-tech props as rubber bands, thumbtacks, and paper clips.
Shortly after graduating from Penn as a Digital Media Design (DMD) major, Markowitz submitted his film to some competitions and festivals. It was shown at the SoDak (South Dakota) Animation Festival and the CutOut Fest (Queretaro, Mexico), earning him some positive feedback. Then, on Halloween, he got a call from someone at the Vidi Entertainment Online Student Film Festival, telling him that Board to Death had won the top prize in the Action category. Oh, and by the way, the prize was worth $10,000.
“I thought it was a prank at first,” says Markowitz convincingly. “I’m still kind of in shock that it was real.”
These days Markowitz works part-time at a video-production studio in New York and does “lots of freelance animation and cartooning work” on the side. (You can see all of his work, including Board to Death, at www.defectivity.com.) He spoke with senior editor Samuel Hughes a few weeks after getting that non-prank call.
When did you first get interested in animation? What role did the DMD program play in that?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved cartoons, and I used to fill tons of spiral notebooks with doodles and comic strips. When I was in high school, I spent several summers at various colleges taking summer courses in cartooning, video-game design, and animation.
Even though DMD students have gone into other fields like video games and Web design, I gravitated towards animation and movies from the start. (I got a Cinema Studies minor at Penn, too.)
Do you have a favorite type of animated film?
I grew up watching Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. That’s probably what influenced my love of [the kind of] animation that tells stories without dialogue—and movies that involve two characters chasing each other, like Road Runner and Tom & Jerry.
What inspired Board to Death?
I enjoyed stop-motion a lot, so I wanted to do something in that medium for my final project. My room is covered in bulletin boards and whiteboards with rubber bands and pictures and strings and things pinned to them, so I settled on doing something with a bulletin board pretty quickly. Initially I was going to animate with Post-it notes on a board, but I realized that rubber bands wrapped around thumbtacks was something I’d never seen before.
For the story, I decided on using fish because they can be made from really simple shapes, and the rubber bands would let me do lots of squash and stretch and other fun animation techniques. I was trying to think of an ending that would involve one character reaching out of the board—literally “thinking outside the box”—to do something. Originally I had a story about two jellyfish on different bulletin boards trying to reach each other, but I figured that a chase would be more dynamic. The idea of one character using scissors to cut the other one’s rubber bands came pretty quickly after that.
What are the challenges of making stop-motion film?
All animation is incredibly time-consuming, and I shot this one at 12 frames-per-second (and at a little over a minute of animation, that’s more than 720 pictures). With stop-motion, the physical demands can be frustrating as well—I set this up on a bulletin board in my room, and had my still-camera on a tripod a few feet away. I couldn’t get a camera which could take photos by remote control, so I had to keep leaning around, move the thumbtacks for the rubber bands, move the pins for the eyes, and then get out of frame to take the picture. After shooting everything, I had to line up the photos in Photoshop, since the camera moved a little bit for every one.
Is there a software program that could have saved you the manual labor of moving the thumbtacks and rubber bands?
There are computer programs for stop-motion that can assist you by showing your previous shots (which helps with the timing), but I didn’t have any of those, so I just had to trust that the animation was looking OK and hope for the best. I actually put the tripod and bulletin board in front of my door—and didn’t realize that until it was too late and I had already taken a few dozen photos—which prevented me from leaving the room without messing up the set-up.
I shot for about 16 hours over the course of a week, and then spent another week doing some post-production work in Photoshop (like erasing strings that I used to hold up some of the props) and making the camera moves in After Effects.
I’ve got dozens of ideas for new projects to work on—probably nothing as painful as stop-motion, though. I did some live-action movies at Penn too, so I’d love to do that again soon. One of those was called “Socknapped,” and was about a sock that gets kidnapped from the laundry and held for ransom. I really want to make a sequel about a hostage situation in a laundromat.
What’s your dream job?
I’ve always dreamed of writing and directing my own full-length animated movie. Obviously, I’d love to be at someplace like Pixar or Disney, but one day I’d love to be in charge of my own little studio, rather than work in a company of thousands of people. I’m kind of a control freak, so I wouldn’t want to be the director of a gigantic team. If I’m going to micromanage everybody, I might as well do it with a smaller group of people.