Dusty Deen: A Glimpse into an Animator’s Sketchbook

At least once, almost everyone has seen animation used in the most diverse contexts, but have you ever wondered whose hands are behind every single drawing? The history of animated cinema is as long as the cinema one itself, if not longer, which is why its evolutions have been and continue to be manifold. We’re talking about various techniques, experimental cinema, mainstream cinema, big productions, independent productions, etc. Dusty Deen encapsulates a bit of all this in his way. As an independent filmmaker, he started with producing, writing, editing and directing live-action films; before gradually and almost exclusively switching to working as an animator. With Red Roadrunner (his studio), he works on numerous personal and other projects, including short films, documentaries, music videos and major productions, such as Richard Linklater’s recent Netflix film Apollo 10 ½. Dusty Deen is an excellent animator and a great experimenter of the medium, thus managing to work with many different languages and projects while remaining faithful to his unique style and poetics. Peek at his Instagram portfolio to understand what we talked about in our little chat and enrich your day with new astonishing content almost every day.

Hello Dusty, it’s great having you here on JugaadMag. We are interested in the process behind your amazing work, but first of all, let’s do the presentations. Tell me more about yourself, and please feel free to do it your way.

Hello, and thank you for having me. I’m Dusty Deen, American animator and filmmaker. Throughout my career I’ve worked in the film and television industry as a director, producer, editor, and just general creative and problem solver. I’ve also been a graphic designer, sculptor, illustrator, etc., but I’ve become more recently known for my true passion, animation.

When did you get interested in animation in the first place, what was the starting point that started your career?

Though I may not agree with the statement that animation is a medium exclusively for children, a lot of animation is catered to kids. I was obsessed with cartoons through the 1980s and early 90s and always wondered how they were made. I have a very vivid memory of seeing a very early version of Adobe After Effects in our school’s computer lab in 1994 and realising how animation could be made with it. Later, in college I started taking animation classes and that is when the world of animation started to really open up for me and where I began to develop my style.

As I could see from your portfolio, your work is divided into several kinds of productions, from independent to majors such as Netflix, and some videos as a director also. This represents your flexibility in the field, and I guess also marked a turning point in a way. What was in your opinion the key moment that convinced you on following this path?

I started my career as a filmmaker on live action projects mostly because that is where the work was available and I didn’t really have the animation portfolio at the time.  That time as a filmmaker really informed so much of what I do now. I started as an editor and wanted to edit better footage so I learned to be a Director of Photography and later was recognized as a Director and Producer. When I became a freelance artist about 10 years ago I decided to transition much of my work from live action to animation. One of the first projects that came out during that time was Shiloh’s “Good Times” which was a collaborative art project featuring over 500 artists, many of them fourth grade students. When I could get that piece in front of artists that I respected they always had great things to say about it but didn’t really have a way to get it out to too many people. So a few years later I started an Instagram project where I created a new animation every day. That lasted over 900 days and really helped to get my work in front of a lot of new eyes. It helped land the Netflix gig and is the basis for much of the work I do now. Over the past four years or so I’ve been able to fully transition my work to animation.

Just talking about your flexibility as an artist: having had the opportunity to work on different levels you will certainly have accumulated different experiences and working methods. Which work environments did you prefer the most and in which ones did you feel most comfortable?

Working for a studio is nice because you know what work is laid out for you and what is going to be waiting for you the next day. It’s very calming to know that you’ll be employed for several months, but you may not have the creative freedom that you would as a freelance artist. On the other hand, working as a freelance animator does provide a level of freedom and creative independence that is very fulfilling. My clients often trust me creatively and allow me to develop new techniques for each project, so I don’t feel like I’m always doing the same thing. There are positives and negatives to both sides so I don’t really have a preference. I like to mix it up.

Animation is as old a practice as cinema itself, and there have been several approaches from various artists who have developed innovations and new techniques. Your style seems to me purely “physical”, despite your work in computer graphics, although you can also emulate techniques similar to that of collage at that juncture. By this, what was your primary influence?

There is something I really like about handmade, physical media. In film school, I’d scratch and bleach actual celluloid and I really loved the results. Much of my handmade work now is inspired by that process, but is now on paper. But with that, there is also a huge digital aspect to what I do. Combining analog and digital approaches defines my work well.

Do you feel more belonging to a modern or more old-school approach? Or do you prefer a compromise between the two?

My work definitely has an old-school feel and method of creation to it and that is what I gravitate towards, but I still see myself as a compromise between the two. While the analog techniques I use bring a certain life to my work, it’s all put together and cleaned up digitally. 

I enjoyed the video of This Time Without You, made in what seems to be a mixed technique. Can you tell me more about the creative process? How did you come up with the idea and how did you implement each component of the graphics?

That video was based on a piece I created during the 900+ Instagram project I mentioned. I developed a process of printing several frames on a single 8.5”x11” piece of paper and then hand cutting out the area where I wanted the texture to show through, then placing that texture behind the page, scanning the image, and then re-sequencing each frame. I generally work at 12 frames per second and that original IG piece was around 20 frames, so I may have gotten myself in a little deep turning that into a full 4 minute video (3,000 hand cut frames, to be exact!). It took a couple months of cutting and scanning, but the band loved it and now it’s out in the world. 

Concerning the recent controversy that arose after the disqualification of Apollo 10 1/2, a film you worked on, as a possible Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film, what is your opinion on the reticence that audiences or members of the industry themselves often have in defining animation as anything beyond traditional techniques or CGI?

Animation is a broad category to try to define. Telling people of a certain age that I’m an animator makes them think that my work is akin to Looney Tunes or Hanna-Barbera, while the younger generations think of Pixar and purely CGI films. The work we did on Apollo 10 ½ is vastly different from my music video work, in style and execution. So I understand that the majority of people have no idea what goes into creating animation, and that’s ok. 

 I felt like we had a lot of proponents within the industry on our side, but it definitely helps that our director was multiple Oscar nominee Richard Linklater. He wrote a very compassionate and accurate letter on behalf of the film and all of the animators who worked on it and it just may have had something to do with the Academy reversing their decision! As of writing this “Apollo 10½”, “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On”, and “Eternal Spring” have been announced as eligible for the Best Animated Feature category. There is constant innovation in animation and I’m optimistic that the Academy has decided to recognize that. 

I love the fact that there is always new small video content on your Instagram profile. Many are themed and many others seem to have stories or autonomous dynamics. I imagine you use Instagram mainly as a portfolio, but I also see a more playful spirit, and every now and then it seems to me that the platform represents for you a terrain of experimentation and exercise, or am I wrong? 

A lot of my portfolio work does make it to IG, but it started, as I mentioned, with the everyday project, which was purely experimental. It’s been a great platform to try new things, get great feedback, and see what other artists are doing. So when I’m trying a new technique, it’s how I get it out to people. Those experiments have the ability to not be perfect, to be short, to just be whimsical and show more of my personality. The idea is that my IG shows off a little of what I’m capable of and if people are interested they can browse my portfolio on my website that (hopefully) shows my professionalism, or at least that I’ve finished several projects, haha. 

Nowadays many young people are approaching the world of animation, especially thanks to the latest movies from Pixar and Dreamworks – what are your recommendations for them?

The best advice I’ve ever received was to figure out what you want to do and then figure out how to do it. That goes for life and art. If you want something bad enough don’t limit yourself, make a plan, and follow through. 

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