by Pam Grady
“Everything you can imagine is real.” That Pablo Picasso quote lost its place at the head of Dash Shaw’s deliriously colorful animated fantasy Cryptozoo at some point during the editing process, but it is something SFFILM’s 2021 POV winner Shaw brings up in interviews about the film. And while those words serve as a perfect definition for the unicorn, kraken, gorgon, and other mythical creatures that populate the film, they also describe the arc of Shaw’s career, his vivid imagination made concrete in his work.
The die was already cast when Shaw was in middle and high school when he developed twin passions for anime and comics. In those years, he would attend Otakon, an East Coast convention that celebrates anime, manga, movies, video games, and all other aspects of Asian pop culture, the immersion furthering his inspiration.
That confluence of moving and static images is evident in his comic art and graphic novels. Some images are literally storyboards. Other panels mimic animation with actions taking place over multiple panels or angles shifting, a long shot zooming in for a closeup.
The graphic novels – a list that includes the 720-page epic Bottomless Belly Button (2008), about the ramifications on a family after the parents announce their divorce; BodyWorld (2010), a sci-fi story of a botanist researching a rare plant in a town of conformists; Cosplayers (2016), Shaw’s celebration of fan convention fandom through stories of Annie and Verti, two young women who bring cosplay into their actual lives; Clue: Candlestick (2020), in which Shaw imagines the classic game as a real-life whodunit; and the upcoming Discipline (2021), a Civil War-set graphic novel pictorially inspired by news illustrators of the era – reveal an artist with an original mind and whose imagery is always evolving. But Shaw’s comics and cartoon work also make manifest that this is a man destined to work in moving pictures: Even static, his images express movement.
Shaw entered the realm of filmmaking in 2009 with a series of shorts for the IFC Channel, The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century AD. More shorts followed, Wheel of Fortune (2011) and Seraph (2012), a Sigur Ros music video co-written by John Cameron Mitchell. He further honed his craft contributing animated sequences to two 2013 documentaries, The Film Ballad of Mamadada and I Learn America.
Using one of his own comics as a springboard, Shaw made his feature debut in 2016 with My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea. The film brings together two opposing types of stories that were popular when Shaw was a teenager, autobiographical comics that Shaw described to Deadline as “kind of mundane” and boys’ adventures comics.
If the trend in recent decades has been for more and more CGI animation, pixels replacing the handcrafted quality of the artist, Shaw’s work acts as an argument for the old ways. The imagery in My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea serves up a variety of styles from the psychedelic to strobic to cartoonish, but all of it – most of it drawn by Shaw or his wife Jane Samborski, working at their kitchen table – showing the inspired hand of the artisan.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is, at its heart, a disaster movie, no less so than something like The Towering Inferno (1974), or more to the point, The Poseidon Adventure (1972). The school day starts out banal enough. The hero, Dash (Jason Schwartzman), and his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts) are sophomores and outsiders at their school, and in the middle of a falling out after their editor on the school paper, Verti (Maya Rudolph), comes between the boys.
Hyperbolic by nature and given to hiding his insecurity under a thick layer of obnoxiousness, Dash tries to warn his classmates that the school isn’t seismically sound, but no one will listen to him. Even after the building tumbles into the sea and the halls fill with sharks, only Assaf and Verti and a handful of others pay Dash heed as the film maintains a tension between John Hughes-type hijinks and catastrophe.
Cryptozoo is yet another advance along Shaw’s evolution as a storyteller and an artist. The story begins with a prologue that both sets the time frame of the late 1960s with a couple of amorous hippies wandering into a fenced enclosure and also gives a taste of the extraordinary creatures that are going to populate the tale with the entrance of a unicorn into the frame.
What ensues is a vividly drawn, wildly hued, trippy battle of good versus evil. Lauren Gray (Lake Bell) and her allies run the San Francisco Cryptozoo, which houses mythological creatures, and is also not just a zoo, but a kind of theme park/mall. But the military looks on the cryptids as potential weapons. In particular, the baku, an elephant-like, dream-eating creature, is a prime target of acquisition. Lauren and her gorgon ally Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) are determined to protect the baku, and indeed, all the cryptids.
It is not a simple morality play: Phoebe is the one to observe that in constructing Cryptozoo as a way to protect these otherworldly beings, Lauren and her friends have, in fact, put limits on the cryptids’ freedom and how they conduct their lives.
In his Sundance Film Festival “Meet the Artist” video made in advance of Cryptozoo‘s world premiere there, Shaw said his initial inspiration for the films was his thought that drawing is the first and only way to depict the creatures contained in the film.
“Unicorns, krakens, fauns. These beings only exist in our dreams and the only way they are brought to life is through our hands, through drawing,” he said.
Shaw had two other inspirations going into the film. One was seeing an unfinished 1921 film of centaurs by pioneering animator Winsor McCay and wondering what kind of movie it would have been if McCay had been able to complete it. The other was Samborski. She leads an all-women Dungeons and Dragons group and he wanted to write something that his wife would enjoy being a part of. Indeed, Samborski went on to paint most of the cryptids and she served as the film’s animation director.
As much as he has been inspired, Shaw hopes to inspire those who watch Cryptozoo. He designs his work so that it doesn’t tell the whole story. What he loves in the art he has consumed since childhood is something he seeks to embed in his own and that is he aims to unleash the imagination.
“I feel like the fantasy art that I like really allows for the viewer to kind of participate and their imagination kind of fills in the edges,” Shaw said in an interview with the Berlinale. “It’s always so much more wonderful and personal to them if you give them that space.
“I wanted Cryptozoo to be about how imagination is part of our world.”
Pam Grady is a San Francisco freelance film writer.