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Kenya's Symphony: An Interview with Carlos Douglas Jr

Please tell us what inspired you to enter into the world of directing animation?

My journey into the animation world stems from a lifetime of drawing. When I was young, my favorite thing to do was the furthest thing from athletics; drawing was an activity that I never got bored of, even with video games and other distractions nearby. I would draw characters and create situations on the page, similar to that of a comic strip, and this helped me build a world around my creations. It was something that came easy to me since I watched cartoons day and night and usually had a pencil and paper in front of me when inspiration would strike.

I made the decision pretty early on to pursue animation as a career, and I know that because I would oftentimes daydream about what it would be like to work for a big animation studio in Hollywood. To this day, that’s what I’m still doing! To do my research, I would watch the behind-the-scenes portions of animated film DVDs and just be absolutely fascinated by the complexity of an animated process. It was the exact kind of job description that both terrified me due to the amount of socializing necessary for the task (I grew up a very shy kid!), and also reeled me in, little did I know.

By the time middle school came around, I felt confident that I would one day go to college to study animation and then pursue my dream job. It’s a perfect plan for me, as it combines my loves for art and collaboration. I think as a kid, the idea of taking my drawings one step further and making them move is what really got me excited about the animation world. As I mentioned before, I created so many characters that I pictured moving on a television or movie screen; that’s what lit the fire underneath me to go into hot-pursuit.

How much patience is required in this field?

If you are looking to test your patience at a professional level, animation will give you a run for your money. For example, Kenya’s Symphony runs at twenty-four frames per second; this means that there are twenty-four drawings that make up that second of animation. You multiply that by five minutes and you get a total of 1,440 frames of animation! Now, that doesn’t mean that I had to draw a new image on each frame, because the film wouldn’t be complete yet! However, it does mean that you have to create enough drawings in order for the animation to be smooth when watching at full-speed, and that takes some time.

For reference, it took a year and a half to complete Kenya, and this was me working at my absolute full-speed. Luckily, most film productions have a larger team of artists working on them, but it still goes to show you that as an individual, you must practice discipline when sitting down to create animation. I feel that it is much harder for someone new to animation to begin creating because you have to get used to the process involved. Once the bug gets you, however, you won’t want to stop on some days; you might realize you’ve worked the whole night on a shot of your character doing a walk-cycle without even thinking about the time!

It not only takes time to do the work, but also to find your way into the industry itself. The animation industry is very competitive and centralized on the coasts; as a Midwesterner my whole life, this is something that has continued to be an adjustment for me as I look for my next endeavor. Making short films can be a great place to start because you don’t need to have a large amount of financial support to create something on your own. If you have the get-up and go to create a film, the only one stopping you is yourself! Please talk about the Kenya's Symphony's idea. Kenya’s Symphony is an idea based on the chemistry between a real-life mother and daughter that I witnessed while working for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 2018, I was in my sophomore year of college searching for a story idea to create a short film out of. At Columbia College Chicago, students are encouraged to take a series of classes during their final years that involve working on your own solo animation project. I came up with a few fun ones, like a story about two classy English Bulldogs getting into a food fight at the dinner table, or the one about a wizard creating a magical concoction in a cauldron. However, I was really interested in creating a film about music! Working for the Symphony definitely helped to get me in the right mindset.

I worked as an usher during concert nights, which involved helping people to their seats and standing near the doorway to observe the crowd while the performances went on. Once night, a mother came in with her young daughter for a classical performance and this stunned me! I was thinking to myself that this was a recipe for disaster. We were always told by Symphony staff that there is a recommended age limit for shows like these. Regular concerts were for those ages eight and above; for younger audiences, there were separate performances that were curated to keep a little one’s attention (and for much less time). The mom and daughter sat right in front of my post near the back door, so I saw all of the antics that happened on this night.

The music began, and the little girl was not thrilled to be held against her will for two hours during this concert. It wasn’t long before she was making faces at her mother, stomping up and down the aisle, making noises and bothering the surrounding patrons with all the commotion. It was a nightmare for the girl’s mom I can imagine, but I was captivated by the interaction between those two. It was enough to make me go home and start conceptualizing a film about a young girl at the Symphony.

The year before starting on Kenya’s Symphony, I met Michael Van Bodegom Smith (the composer) at a networking event for filmmakers at Columbia College Chicago. My intention was to sign up for one of the upcoming productions as a storyboard artist; ironically, my primary take-away from this event was meeting Michael. We hit things off immediately, talking about writing music and our favorite composers. I reached back out to him a year later when I began working on Kenya, and told him that I would be interested in collaborating with him on a project like this, as it seemed right up his alley. A year later and the music was ready to go! The score was recorded all in Michael’s bedroom on our own shoestring budget, but it ended up sounding like the big orchestra we strived for. Music plays an integral part to the film, and both he and I could not be happier with the end product.

What advice would you like to give to aspiring filmmakers?

If you’ve got a killer idea for a film, don’t wait for your “dream” budget to come first. I think that budgets can truly affect the quality of films in many cases; there are both big budget flops and low budget blockbusters that have made it to theaters. It sounds cliché, but there’s never been a better time than the present.

How important role editing plays while making an animation?

In animation, it plays as essential a role as it does in live-action film. The only difference for animation is that the animator serves as an editor as well because their shots are planned with a finite length from the start. Animators will take a shot and block out every key frame before going through the process of creating movement; oftentimes this entire shot will end up in the movie unedited, but that doesn’t mean that productions will be fine without an editor. They certainly need one!

Post-production editors compile all the shots and piece them together for the final picture-lock. Cuts can still be made, but it is generally not as rigorous a process as it is in live-action, where the camera remains rolling upon the director and DP’s command; there’s generally a lot more film to cut in live-action. Animation is a time-consuming art form that requires a lot of moving parts (which are certainly shared traits of live-action), but the world on-screen is built from the ground-up. With that being said, the production artists are constantly concerned with how long each shot is in order to stay on budget and on time. How do you choose a script that you are going to direct?

I look for concise, clearly-executed narratives to direct. Many times I have decided to turn away from a project because there are too many on-screen incidents stepping on each other’s toes. The stories that carry the most weight in my eyes don’t waste the reader’s time by displaying unnecessary details or making the main character encounter too many outside forces to make them act; it’s a very easy trap to fall into as a writer to force change upon your character, but that’s not natural to me. I believe in introducing carefully-orchestrated incidents in the story that affect the character enough to bring about change. The proper pacing is another key factor in keeping me locked into a script. Let’s say that same script with the plethora of character actions is rewritten to keep all of the same events in the story; with a much more believable pacing, that can save the script.

Stories that are effective at presenting something unexpected grab my attention. At this point in the 21st Century, most typical stories have seen a screen adaptation (ex: the Spaghetti Western, underdog superhero flicks, slasher genre films, etc.) and have made enough impact on pop culture to inspire numerous repeats of the same-old story. If a story puts a certain spin on the formula and makes me turn my head and say “huh, that’s different” then I’m sold! Being smart about telling new stories can make the recycled idea fresh again.

How tough it is for a producer to keep the budget unaffected?

Producing a film is a multi-faceted affair that has to be balanced with as much attention to detail as possible. It can make your head spin when you think about the departments involved on a film project. You can make one creative decision as a director and immediately have it shot down by a producer simply due to budgetary reasons. But those are the tough calls that producers learn to make with their hands being on funding. The balancing act is made difficult when you take into account that films can become amorphous at any point due to changes being made to the script, and this all can (and will) come at a cost.

The producer is involved at every stage of production to ensure that the final delivery of the project is sound and on-schedule. They are at the helm of the ship, but the waters behave roughly throughout the process with many, many people aboard. Once the project has veered into creative differences, production delays, and reshoots, it’s all on the producer to correct the problems before the project comes tumbling down at the foundation.

For animated content, a production pipeline can be very lengthy due to the amount of set-up and outsourcing required to bring the project to fruition. Budgets vary depending on the style of animation, size of the team, timeline for completion, requirements laid out per the script, and talent involved. There are even more variables than those, but that would be difficult to list during this interview! Producing for animation or live-action requires knowledge of every department and role on the project and learning how to traverse through the problems that any project faces when dealing with so many creatives in one setting.

One advantage that animated projects have over live-action films is that there are no needs for location permits, insurances, and many other legal certifications required to shoot a film on-site. Creative changes in animation can happen all the way through post-production, schedule permitting. This can be both a blessing and a curse for the poor producer!

How do you think the industry is changing?

We see that the pandemic has brought about change in the way that people consume content; the digital era of this decade helped prolong the industry’s presence in our lives even while being stuck at home. Streaming has a hold on the film and television market right now, and I know this will continue even after the pandemic has subsided. Animated films and TV are actually seeing a Renaissance era as we speak! While live-action productions slowed down, studios ramped up production on new animated content because of the unique ability for artists to create animation remotely. Without the need for in-person shooting days, this made many people and companies turn their heads towards animation.

I can see this Renaissance continuing for some time before anything affects the efficiency of studios to sustain themselves in any way. I am certainly happy to be entering the industry in such an exciting time as this. I also see the expansion of adult animation happening; this area of the market has been dominated by major players for so long that it is refreshing to see new creators jumping in to make their work known. Now, I hope to see more adult animation outside of the comedy genre soon, but maybe that is a pipe-dream. It’s only a matter of time, but I believe Western studios will open their eyes up to it eventually; at the moment, not many risks are being taken on that front. How you describe the Kenya's Symphony plot?

Kenya’s Symphony is about a young girl discovering her passion for music at a symphony concert. Kenya is our spunky, bold protagonist who has no intentions of sitting through a long and certainly dreadful orchestra performance. Her mother Gina drags her into the concert hall and sits her down to watch the show. Little does Gina know that her daughter is about to wreak havoc on tonight’s performance.

Once the music commences, Kenya cannot resist the urge to perform practical jokes on her mother and the surrounding patrons. Her weapon of choice happens to be a plastic straw which she can wield with incredible accuracy! She blows spitballs at the audience members and goes into full-artillery mode with every spitball in her arsenal. She even attacks the tuba player on stage!

Gina puts an end to the onslaught…or so she thinks. Kenya rears up to blow another spitball when suddenly a sour music note launches from her straw. In confusion, she stares at her straw and questions the source of the music. Turns out, she is being summoned by the siren song of the oboist on stage, which is playing the most beautiful solo. When she blows into the straw again, a pleasant note emanates, and the menace has finally got it! A musical epiphany follows as she pictures herself playing with the orchestra, and even conducting the piece. What once sounded dull and drab, has now become a syncopated dance rhythm that plays in a key she can understand!

The piece ends, and so does the daydream; Gina slyly looks back at Kenya and realizes she’s got her hooked. When the sounds of music crescendo, menace turns maestro!

Who are your favorite filmmakers?

I grew up watching cartoons daily, and they ended up being my first inspirations for creating characters and being an artist. Chris Sanders is a filmmaker that I truly admire for his eye for characters and storytelling through composition. I grew up a Disney kid like so many of us animators, and when I first watched Lilo & Stitch I didn’t realize the amount of impact it would have on me later on in life. The film, co-directed by Sanders and filmmaker Dean Deblois, was the most fresh and original art direction of any Disney films from that era, and I took note of it. I studied every frame of this film & every note of music from the score when I returned to it in high school.

I also define film composers as filmmakers; although I only have a handful of specific directors and films that I can confirm affected me directly with their work (there are tons of second-hand influences from watching cartoons and animated films at a young age), I have a plethora of film composers that continue to shape me not only as a creative, but as a person. Composer Alan Silvestri influenced me first with his score for Back to the Future, followed by Lilo and Stitch and the dozens of works that fill his catalog of film scores. John Powell, Michael Giacchino, John Williams, Danny Elfman, and so many more composers showed me the power of music, or the absence thereof, in film. I appreciated the medium of cinema so much more when I began collecting soundtracks and studying. Every day I use music to help me on my filmmaking journey.

Any book on which you would like to make an animation?

At the moment, I don’t have any books that have piqued my interest for making a film out of. I personally enjoy the idea of coming up with original story concepts and building off of those. That’s not to say that I would never do a book adaptation, but just not for the time being. What inspires you to work?

The ballet of film and music together is what inspires me to create. My first film being Kenya certainly shows that my interests in both drive my creative vision. Even if my next endeavors do not center on music directly, it will play an important role in in telling my stories. Although I personally feel that I am a better storyteller on screen than I am in-person, it is something that brings me a lot of joy to call my profession.

I love the community aspect of creating a film as well; the collaborative nature of animation is something that is so unique and exciting that I knew it was right for me at a pretty young age. When working on a film, you get to work with so many types of people with a plethora of skillsets and interests. There are many folks that I have met on my filmmaking journey that I hope to work with someday, and that’s the other exciting bit that keeps me going. What projects are you working on next?

As I mentioned before, I am not looking to turn books into films, however I am looking to do the opposite; I am working on adapting Kenya’s Symphony into a children’s book for this upcoming fall. The opportunity to return to the project from a completely different medium excites me, and I hope that this allows me to expand upon areas I was unable to work on for the short film.

This year I am also completing work on another short film I produced, titled Buster & Jamson, directed by Adele Sego. This film was based on a project by one of my Columbia peers, Frank Porcello, who created the concept and developed a story based on fun, food-themed characters with an old-fashioned appeal (think Fleischer Brothers cartoons from the 1930s-40s, but in color). It will soon be completed this spring and this will allow me to dive back into the festival realm. Also, I would like to create some smaller-scale shorts/animation bumpers to experiment with new animation mediums in the meantime. More to come soon!


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