Dash Shaw

Dash Shaw talks about Cryptozoo and the dream logic of movies

Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski, Cryptozoo, 2021, 4K video animation, color, sound, 95 minutes.

BEST KNOWN as a graphic novelist—Bottomless Belly Button (2008); Body World (2010), New School (2013); Cosplayers (2014)—Dash Shaw has also made two animated feature films. The first was My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (2014), an outsider’s vision of teenage angst which employs Titanic as a disaster movie template. The second, Cryptozoo (2021), again riffs on a Hollywood blockbuster, Jurassic Park, using his distinctive manner of drawing and painting that has become more sophisticated and complex in the years since High School. A cartooning major at the School of Visual Arts (he graduated just months after the 720-page, award-winning Bottomless Belly Button was published) Shaw also worked in the school’s film library. There, among the hundreds of movies he scarfed down, he discovered Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991), which showed him that an uncompromisingly personal feature film could be made for pennies. He also responded to Poison’s merging of multiple stories and genres. This collagelike structure was evident in his comics and would be fundamental to High School and Cryptozoo. But in the films, collage is also the result of the collaboration between Shaw and Jane Samborski. Shaw is the writer-director, Samborski the animation director. Both share the “A Film By” credit. The two are married and are parents of a four-year-old daughter.

There are many possible interpretations of the narrative of Cryptozoo, which is set in 1967 but is also prophetic of the transformation of the always wooly concept of creative freedom in the age of surveillance capitalism. This is a disaster film in the form of an anxiety dream. The dreamer is Amber (Louisa Krause), who in the opening scene makes naked, rollicking love with her boyfriend Matthew (Michael Cera) in a kind of Garden of Eden. But the two soon transgress and climb a forbidden wall, on the other side of which is a strange land, home to free-roaming cryptids and the Cryptozoo, the pet project of Joan (Grace Zabriskie), a wealthy, elderly woman and her assistant, the intrepid Lauren Gray (Lake Bell). After a catastrophic encounter with a unicorn, Amber disappears from the film until the very end, projecting her dreaming self into Lauren, who travels the world trying to keep the rarest cryptid, the Baku, out of the clutches of the military. The Baku, who resembles a baby elephant and is painted a lovely salmon and baby blue, has the power to suck up dreams. The army wants to use the Baku to annihilate the dreams of the counterculture. The central narrative conflict is between the military police and Lauren and her almost entirely female posse. But Lauren is not an unproblematically good character (hence her ambiguous surname, Gray). Her project of saving the cryptids also involves imprisoning and exploiting them. Thoroughly wild creatures, the cryptids embody the creative potentials captured and absorbed by capitalism. When I first saw the film earlier this year at Sundance, I wrote that what is liberating in Cryptozoo is its commitment to total freedom of the imagination, no matter how dangerous or even violent the result. After a second viewing, that remains how I see it.

ALL THE CRYPTIDS IN THE MOVIE come from actual mythologies. That was very important to me. It’s not a fantasy world. This is our world because these are beings that our cultures have come up with. When Jane, my wife, was designing the cryptids, she would look at very early representations of the creatures I was thinking about for a series of cryptid comics. But then I came across Hokusai’s 1800s image of the Baku, a dream-eating creature. This made me realize that this is a movie idea, not a comic book idea. With a comic, you decode as you read along. But movies are more like dreams. You’re in a dark space with other people and the movie can kind of overwhelm you. It has dreamlike leaps and a different kind of logic. And for some reason, my dreams always have violent imagery mixed in with mundane elements from my day. Consider the two-minute scene when Phoebe, the Gorgon, is just talking to her fiancée in the hotel room. A normal movie like X-Men wouldn’t have a scene like that.

Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski, Cryptozoo, 2021, 4K video animation, color, sound, 95 minutes.

Both of my films take a blockbuster disaster movie structure—Titanic for My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea and Jurassic Park for Cryptozoo—and defamiliarize it through how they are executed. There are a lot of things that are similar about my two movies, but a goal in Cryptozoo was fewer, better drawings. High School was drawn entirely with a thick pen on small individual sheets of paper. Because I was roping in Jane and other people to help me, I thought it had to exist in a PG-13 space. I thought the audience that wanted pop entertainment would tolerate the more artsy-fartsy stuff. But when it came out, it only played in repertory theaters and prestigious film festivals. The audience was adults, and what they liked about it was the parts that were me. So with Cryptozoo, I had the confidence to lean more into myself.

I had been interested in cryptids when I was in grade school, but I stopped playing Dungeons and Dragons in late middle school because my track was comics. When I came back to thinking about creatures in order to write something to make with Jane, I had more of an art history perspective—the unicorn tapestries in the Cloisters and Picasso’s Minotaur. Jane had an all-women D&D group—this was 2012—and I had to leave the apartment so that they could role play. I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library to research an unrelated book about Quakers during the Civil War. One of the other fellows was researching countercultural newspapers of the 1960s. The library had all of them; there would be a 1967 free weekly paper from Brazil, and one from that same week from Chicago. What was super cool about seeing those as a cartoonist is that they had a similar aesthetic. There was a global revival of an Aubrey Beardsley–like line that was attached to very real ideals across the world. I can’t think of another moment where an actual way of making lines was so closely tied to a particular ideology. And the weeklies all had incredibly optimistic, mostly one-word names, like Progress. Some of Cryptozoo is inspired by that look.

Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski, Cryptozoo, 2021, 4K video animation, color, sound, 95 minutes.

People ask about how Jane and I collaborate. I write the script and draw all the storyboards. Jane painted all the cryptids and I drew most of the human characters. But some beings have both cryptid elements and human elements. So that’s literally my drawing stitched with Jane’s painting. As the animation director, Jane is in charge of moving these elements that are all drawn or painted on paper. During High School, we realized our strengths and weaknesses and kind of sectioned each other off. She’s always pushing for things to move more and to be more animated. And I always think it’s better to be still. So we kind of meet each other in the middle.

Ultimately, the aesthetics are a collage of Jane and me and all the animation artists who worked on different scenes. I love so many things that Ralph Bakshi did, but his great innovation was that he would cast artists to paint specific backgrounds the way you cast actors, and the artists’ different styles interact the way actors do. We have different artists, and the movie is a combination of their voices. We didn’t have a style guide that tells them all to draw one way. So what Jane and I did was orchestrate these elements. The storyboards I drew for this movie were in black-and-white. And I would sometimes write things like, “Paint this a certain color.” But the artists paint and it ultimately all has to be fed into After Effects, where Jane slightly alters colors so that all of these things that were painted separately kind of cohere. With my comics, I spent years thinking about how color could add meaning, so now it’s pretty intuitive. An example of this is Phoebe being uncolored. We wanted to keep an unfinished element in the movie.

Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski, Cryptozoo, 2021, 4K video animation, color, sound, 95 minutes.

When I started Cryptozoo, in 2016, I thought it might be a more upbeat story. I was inspired by this unfinished Winsor McKay short, The Centaurs. But then as I was writing, it became more confused. The film became melancholic, to say the least. The score is sad too. I think that if the personalities of everyone involved had been a little more happy-go-lucky, the movie could have been too. But you have the death of a unicorn, and that’s a painful thing. If I was going to render it, it had to be painful and violent. And that set the tone.

Drawing is imagination. You can’t photograph cryptids. But animation’s really a trade-off, because what live action gives you is the human face, an actual person at the particular time that they were documented. You can watch some stupid movie, but what it has is this actor at this particular time, and they look incredible. And they are so full of personality. And we’re so glad the camera was on them at that moment. I’m not envious of that because I feel that I couldn’t even make a movie like that if I tried. Animation is alive in a different way.

As told to Amy Taubin 

Cryptozoo is currently playing in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime and Google Play.