How A First-Time Animator Won the Hearts (and a Prestigious Honor) at San Diego Comic-Con 2017
“Just start creating and start making your own projects… don’t think too much about the end product just keep focusing on the steps in front of you.” – Denver Jackson
Steps is an understatement when it comes to the tedious work that animation filmmakers put in when creating the entire visual world of film. A world that would otherwise be inhabited by actors, set pieces, props, and exotic locations. The nuances and every sweeping brush stroke to make animation come to life, thanks to products like Adobe, is what you’re about to find out about…and be wildly fascinated.
Why? Because one young man became self-taught, self-disciplined and ultimately got his “wish” in creating a powerfully moving, animated short film that would garner critical acclaim. (More on that in a minute…)
Animation has always been magic to me. Not only do toys have voices but such characters express universal themes that make people (“real people”) connect as one. Your imagination is limitless, and so is your ability as a storyteller. With advanced computer software and tech-savvy chops behind the success of some of your favorite animated features, you would think that in order to make animation, film school would be required. [Related article: Film School Vs. No Film School.]
And Denver Jackson is proof with his award-winning, animated film The Wishing Jar.
The movie is about a young girl, accompanied by a teddy bear, who chases a fallen star so that she can make one last wish. The film will tug at your heart, but we won’t give that away (you’ll just have to see the film for yourself)!
After hearing the time and skill it had taken Denver to craft The Wishing Jar, and his other short animated films, I became more impressed with the animator himself rather than the medium he chose to use.
In 2001, filmmaker Denver Jackson decided to teach himself how to animate at the age of 15. He already had the skill of hand-drawing and wanted to merge his experience with live-action, visual effects.
Fast forward to this past summer in which Denver won Best Animated Film at San Diego Comic-Con, which (in case you didn’t know) is the largest convention and pop-culture explosion of fandom and filmmakers.
To make animation, means you gotta find funding and Denver wasted no time with his second project, Tales of Esluna: The First Monolith. Tales has already secured complete funding thanks to the innovative platform Storyhive. And the young filmmaker recently racked up another achievement: a series development deal with Corus Entertainment based on his short, SOS.
Check out Denver’s journey below with our exclusive interview, and I guarantee that whether it’s how to make animation or producing and directing film, you’ll walk away with a stash of creative tools to kick your imagination into high gear.
RB: Can you describe the feeling and perhaps the validation of winning an award at such a major event like San Diego Comic-Con?
DJ: It was very unexpected. It was really awesome to win the award and shake the judges’ hands and hear them explain why they loved the film, telling me that they understood the film and my goal in telling the story.
RB: What animated films or films, in general, inspired you?
DJ: Probably, my biggest source of inspiration was the Studio Ghibli films by Hayao Miyazaki. Almost every animator out there knows his name. He’s like a god. Even in filmmaking terms, he’s one of the highest sources of inspiration for filmmakers, too. His works are incredibly inspiring to me.
RB: You taught yourself how to make animation. What was step one in that process?
DJ: I just started drawing frames randomly and getting the movement down in a program that used to be called Macromedia Flash. Now it’s called Adobe Animate and that’s where I started. The biggest help was reading up on the process of animation from storyboards to animatix to layouts and then trying that out in a film and going through each step without trying to miss any steps. That taught me a lot.
I didn’t read any books when I first started, but later on I read The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, which is a great book for animation.
RB: How long did it take for you to be comfortable enough to start a film?
DJ: Years. I started in 2001; I just kept working at it. You don’t really think about how long it’s gonna be. You just start working at it, and you keep working. I don’t think I will ever reach a point where I think I’m the greatest animator. That’s the greatest part of filmmaking, you never get to a point where you know everything.
RB: Did you have a mentor?
DJ: Not at first. Eventually, I started meeting other people in the industry, and I started learning from them. There is a comic book artist named Kazu Kibishi. He is the author of a series called Amulet with Scholastic. His work is incredibly inspiring to me; he was my hero in high school. I finally got to meet him, and we became friends and eventually, he became a mentor.
RB: Walk us through the technical aspect in making animation: what was the most difficult aspect of learning the craft?
DJ: It’s a tedious process. I do traditional animation, so every frame is hand drawn.
I think the hardest step to overcome with any process or any film that you start, even live action, is to not think about how
much work it’s going to be and focus on the steps at hand. If you think about the whole thing, you may end up in a place where you’ll never finish because it’s just so overwhelming.
RB: What is the most important skill that aspiring filmmakers should learn to make animation?
DJ: I don’t think there is one particular skill. I think anyone can animate even if your drawing isn’t that good. I’ve seen incredible stories told with stickmen. I don’t strictly work as an animator. I consider myself more of a visual storyteller and in that sense, I’m more of a filmmaker. So the story is more important me. If a story connects with me, then that’s the most important part. With how tedious animation can be, it’s the story that drives me, that’s what keeps me going… I want the story told.
RB: Tell me about that “leap of faith” moment to start on your now award-winning short film, The Wishing Jar.
DJ: There wasn’t any particular moment; I’ve always made films. It was only until recently that I started entering festivals. So I guess the leap of faith was, is my film good enough to be in a film festival? The Wishing Jar was the first film that I started submitting to festivals. It felt like it was a film I would watch even if I didn’t make it.
RB: Your first film was Cloudrise, a nine minute short. I watched the shot breakdown video on your website. Can you explain how you implemented a live camera into the animation?
DJ: I came from live action. At that time I was working as a freelance visual effects artist so I implemented the skills that I had worked with in live-action into animation. I thought it might be cool to do tracking shots and handheld shots.
RB: How long did it take you to make Cloudrise?
DJ: That was an eight-month process from beginning to end. I’m super proud of that story, but my animation wasn’t as good as it is now. That’s just the growing process.
RB: In making animation, you’re not really directing actors. Can you explain how someone can “direct” an animated film?
DJ: A director is mainly someone with the vision. Anyone working on the film, they come to you [the director] with questions because you’re the one with the vision, and you know what you’re looking for. In animation you do work with actors, you work with voice actors. You make sure everything is played out with the characters and it is the same thing with music and sound. On a larger animation project, you would be directing the artist.
RB: In The Wishing Jar, there wasn’t a ton of dialogue utilized. Was that a creative decision to make animation – the characters’ expressions and movements – speak for themselves?
DJ: Yes. Originally, the story had dialogue and I decided to take out the dialogue because I wanted to push myself as a visual storyteller. Having no dialogue pushes you to explain things visually. It’s a really great and fun challenge to do that. Every filmmaker should try it once, even live-action films.
RB: The Wishing Jar is inspired by your mother, and your childhood in South Africa – Can you give a specific memory that you drew from?
DJ: There were two memories from my childhood that I wanted to get across emotionally in the film. One was when my mother used to own a convenient store during a very dangerous time in South Africa. The store was often robbed or broken into and that was scary for me as a kid. I would stay up and wait for them to come home, hoping nothing happened. There was a moment when they didn’t come home, and thoughts started running through my head like, “how am I going to take care of my siblings?” I tried to walk all the way to the convenient store in the middle of the night, and they came home late and saw me in the middle of the streets. It scared the hell out of them because they didn’t know what I was doing. They ended up buying a house closer to the store. The second memory was watching a VHS of my mom filming me as a baby and singing to me while she was doing it. I don’t know what it was about that video, but I just started crying. It was a softer side of my mother that I’ve never seen. Those were the two distinct memories that I wanted to portray in the film.
RB: Have you monetized your short films yet?
DJ: No not yet. They’re not made to make money necessarily. It would be nice one day to be
compensated for making my own content, but right now I feel like just creating and focusing on the films themselves.
RB: Do you have any advice when it comes to software/computers to make animation?
DJ: I use Photoshop. It’s not the best “animation” software, but you can animate in it. I am also an artist, so I love painting in Photoshop. After Effects is what I composite in. So I take the frames from Photoshop into After Effects. Anything you can draw with is really what you need. I recently just switched to PC, so I’m using Premiere which comes with the Adobe [Cloud] subscription.
RB: Can someone who doesn’t have a background in drawing make an animated movie?
DJ: I think so. I have friends who want to make an animated film so what they’re doing is using live actors and rotoscoping. That’s the animated look, and they can’t draw, and it looks great so far. Rotoscoping is drawing over live action plates. They’re using Photoshop. In Photoshop, you can import footage, then you can add a new layer and draw over top of that footage.
RB: What is your ultimate goal/dream job in the industry?
DJ: I don’t really have an ultimate goal. I like to think about working on what is in front of me. If I have a project in front of me that’s all I’ll focus on and things seem to fall into place like that.
RB: What advice would you give to young people who wish to follow in your footsteps in making animation and being self-taught?
DJ: Just start creating and start making your own projects. Like I said, don’t think too much about the end product…just keep focusing on the steps in front of you. It’s the same with writing. If you’re writing a script and you keep going back to the first paragraph and you keep changing things, you’re never going to finish the whole thing. Even if it’s not good enough in your eyes, you can always do another project. Just get as much done as possible.
What makes film and television special is its ability to tell us stories through images rather than words much like a song without lyrics. To re-create these images, filmmakers rely on memories. It is clear that in this filmmaker’s case, those memories were strong enough for him to push his limits as a storyteller. To me, it seems like the secret to this journey was trusting what was already within.
Editor’s Note: Taking a page from Master of the Cinematic Universe, incorporate this exercise when making animation or crafting your own shortform content such as a music video, especially since the latter tend to be abstract. Fire up iTunes or Spotify and listen to your favorite track over and over again. As you’re listening, can you identify one specific theme that resonates from the song? Then, do a Google Image search and start looking for pictures that capture your theme. Find at least 20-30 images. If you have your own, even better. (And if you couldn’t tell this is a really out-of-the-box short-cut to abstract storyboarding.) Next, find three people who’ve never heard the song that inspired your theme. Now, tell them the theme that stuck out to you and ask those same people to look through your images: Which of these images are most strongly tied to your theme? Finally, start collecting the images that at least two of your responders stated as pegging your theme. (You won’t need the rest of the images.) Boom. Now you have enough inspiration imagery to create your short film or music video.