As any self-respecting strange kid can attest, there’s only one thing better than monsters in movies and that’s… monsters in animated movies! Cue Zach Bellissimo, a recent animation graduate whose thesis film Blenderstein just picked up top honors as an official selection for of Cartoon Brew’s Student Animation Festival.
Like the rest of us, Bellissimo is a total horror junkie with a true appreciation for the classics and with his twisted talents he’s sure to be one animator to watch in the coming years. We were lucky enough to catch one of the first interviews with the emerging artist.
Congrats on being selected as one of the winners of Cartoon Brew’s 2nd Annual Student Film Fest! What was the first thing you did when you heard the good news?
Thanks! Well I kind of knew about it before it was announced. I’ve met Amid Amidi on a couple occasions and he had me call him after I submitted to ask me some questions about my film and told me I was in. Then I told all my friends and family! Its a big deal for me since I respect the people who run the site so much.
What inspired you to become an animator? Was there a signature moment– like you were eating Count Chocula while watching re-runs of Ren and Stimpy?
I do love Count Chocula and Ren and Stimpy, that sounds like a party! I don’t think there was a definite signature moment, though, I just always loved cartoons and anything animated. It just seemed like the next step for my art, to make it move, but in high school I got really into comics and wanted to be a comic artist. Once it was time to chose a college major, however, I chose animation; with comics I felt like I could teach myself how to do them, but with animation I definitely needed the help of professionals.
Blenderstein is your final year thesis film, right? Where did you go to school?
I attended the School of Visual Arts for 4 years. At first it was a struggle, (what isn’t at first?) but I really grew to love it. I tried to absorb everything I could when I was there, even if it didn’t have anything to do with animation, I could try to connect it somehow so I could benefit from it. I met some really great friends there and like-minded animation people. A lot of industry big wigs say they didn’t go to art school or they didn’t finish, and a lot of people are confused about going. I’d say go if you’re able to! The things I learned and the whole experience of college improved both me and my work for the better!
Can you give us a brief breakdown of the plot and main characters?
Blenderstein is about a teenaged girl named Sydney who isn’t too thrilled about her job delivering packages for a post office. She delivers a crate to a strange house which she ends up being abducted into; tied up and gagged by Boyle, the hunchbacked caretaker and assistant of Dr. Frappe, the demented monkey scientist. She’s made to watch the horrifying plans unfold as Dr. Frappe takes out a blender from the crate she delivered and fastens it onto Oogle’s head, a large brutish monster. It turns out she’s part of the plan too… or rather the recipe!
How long did Blenderstein take to complete?
It took about 8 1/2 months. I started storyboarding in August and finished up in mid April. It was the longest I ever spent on a project.
Was every frame drawn by hand or was it all done digitally?
Everything is drawn by hand but its drawn digitally. The computer is a tool that makes an animators job easier, but the animation is still done the old school way, every drawing is one frame, but instead of being drawn on paper its drawn on the computer. Still by my hand and still painstakingly tedious.
As a student, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced during its production?
Getting a computer to work on at our school’s studio, haha. Everyone was usually there and staying late so the lucky number of us would have to go in right after a class ended to grab a computer. Another challenge was finishing certain things for deadlines, since we had specific dates to hand in specific things so our grades could be calculated, but the whole production itself was a challenge since I never made a complete film before. I was just glad I had my friends, other students, teachers and my advisor Biljana Labovic to help me with these challenges.
The lack of dialogue reminded me of old Max Fleischer cartoons like Out of the Inkwell. Was this a conscious decision or a technical one?
It was kind of both. Conscious because I liked the style of a no dialogue piece, where the story and characters can really stand out. Its also universal, it can be viewed and understood by everyone everywhere. Technical because I didn’t want my time to be weighed down by seeing if lip sync looked right, we only had so long to finish. Also, I needed to listen to music to keep me going and I couldn’t do that if I had to listen to character dialogue the whole time I was working. The pre-code Betty Boop shorts are a huuuuge influence on me but I was really inspired by The Terrible Thing from Alpha 9 a thesis film made by SVA graduate Jake Armstrong which I saw at the SVA Dusty’s Student Screening one year.
Your style is so distictive- is there a process you follow for creating character designs?
I don’t really have a process, I just like certain things and draw them! I like adding something unique to a character, something that maybe hasn’t been done or isn’t done as much. Its a little like grocery shopping…take some of these… some of these… haven’t had these in a while… ohhh these are on sale…
Obviously Young Frankenstein was an influence for Blenderstein, but who/what else served as a source of inspiration?
I love Young Frankenstein and did use influence from it, but I was more inspired by what its based off of: the original 1930’s Frankenstein (at least the first three films). Things like that have always struck a chord with me ever since I was young. The characters featured in classic horror films, especially the Universal Studios films, are some of the most iconic and recognizable characters ever played by some of the most iconic and recognizable actors ever! Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre… all helped me develop Frappe, Boyle and Oogle.
As for Sydney, I just tried to make her cute and trendy since I like drawing cute and trendy girls. A lot of people see my girlfriend, Tara Billinger, in her although it kind of just happened that they looked similar and Tara ended up providing the voice. Other things that inspired me were probably… Ren and Stimpy, Betty Boop, Jamie Hewlett, Tim Burton, Ward Kimball and random artists I find on the internet.
What’s next for you now that you’ve graduated?
Well right now I’m employed at Titmouse Inc. a great animation studio thats responsible for Adult Swim hits Superjail and Metalocalypse. They started out in California but were so awesome they had to make a 2nd studio in NY. How about that! I also do work for Furry Puppet Studios designing puppets and recently got a gig doing work for the Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine! I also want to try to make some more films and maybe a comic! Who knows?
Time for some Extra Credit: What’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
The question should be “whats the most normal thing I did as a kid”. Lets just say I really wanted a tail, a peg leg and a bucket of lizards.