Darker Magazine’s Valentin of Russia, has published an interview with me about City of Rott and the filmmaking process over the years with a few other projects that I worked on. Here is the interview translated in English, though the official website can be found at this link. Thank you very much to Valentin for the interest in City of Rott, and thought provoking questions as well. I appreciate it!
Translated to English:
DARKER MAGAZINE INTERVIEW: FEBRUARY 20, 2018
Hello Frank! Thank you for agreeing to an interview! You are a talented artist, animator, screenwriter, director, composer. Tell us a little about yourself for those of our readers who have not heard about you yet.
Hi Valentin. Thanks for the interview for Darker Magazine online.
Thank you also for the compliments, though I’m always striving to improve my artistic abilities overall. I prefer to create entire, feature length animated cartoon movies on my own, not only to prove to myself that I can accomplish such a challenge, but to also have complete creative freedom to see my vision brought to life.
These cartoon films aren’t made for everyone, but are made for older audiences who enjoy action and gory, horror themed animations. Not everything I create is horror related, but having grown up watching horror movies like George A. Romero’s classic Day of the Dead, it’s a genre I find entertaining in how it shows the less pleasant side of life and the underlying theme of life eating life, which is an every day part of the natural world as animals devour their prey. It’s a tough world we live in, and I want some of my cartoons to reflect that reality.
Can you tell us more about your work on the South Park? How did the work go, what was remembered, what caused the difficulties?
Back in 1998, after learning how to use computer animation (Alias Wavefront which later became Maya), I saw an advertisement in Animation Magazine where South Park was looking for animators. I sent in my Chicken Chop Shop computer animated short film and got the job. Work started slow as Matt Stone and Trey Parker were rewriting the script to fine tune it, but once they were happy with it, then things got very busy, with a 6 day schedule, 12 hours or more a day for many months.
My main focus was animating the mouths for Kyle, Stan, Cartman and the other characters, including Terrance and Phillip. I also took the responsibility of an assistant Technical Director, editing scene set ups, adding characters and even getting to create some characters. During the Terrance and Phillip Uncle song, at the very end of the song, I created the character dressed all in black, standing in the front, which was a representation of myself. It stands out among the more colorful clothes of the other characters, so I was surprised they let me keep that in there.
I give credit to everyone who worked many long hours on that film project, and the team effort is what got the task completed in time for the summer 1999 theatrical release date of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, distributed by Paramount Pictures. Working on a large team was a good challenge, and I value the experience and skills I learned that year. With that schedule though, it took up almost all of my free time, so after the film was completed, I would have to find another job. That’s when I decided to get back to creating my own animated films, where I could set my own hours and schedule.
In the South Park there are many cruel, cynical and sometimes unpleasant moments for sensitive people. What do you think about this, how do you personally feel about this cartoon?
South Park has some funny scenes and situations, and Cartman is my favorite character thanks to his voice and comical attitude. As far as the style of humor, it won’t appeal to everyone, but it has found its audience who help keep it going for over 20 years now. South Park is Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s life work, and quite an achievement in the history of cartoons. It’s impressive what they’ve accomplished with their creativity, talent, humor and hard work, which is inspiring. I have a couple seasons of it on DVD, and the movie on video.
As far as I know, you have 4 full-length films – City of Rott 1 & 2, Dead Fury, Shock Invasion, and Tales of the Dim. I did not miss anything?
Yes, those are the main horror themed cartoons I’ve created so far. City of Rott for 2006, Dead Fury in 2008, Shock Invasion for 2010/2011, Tales of the Dim the series started in 2015 through 2016. And then quite a few side project animations, like The Chicken Chop Shop animated series from 2003 to 2005, and Gnome in the Haunted Castle, a Halloween themed computer animated stereo 3D (and 2D) 42 minute film I created in 2012. I’m now working to complete City of Rott: Otherworld, which I hope is my best one yet.
You wrote the script, music, made voice overs of all the characters, worked as an animator in all the films. This is a huge, laborious work. Was there no desire to stop (quit) projects or share work on projects with someone? What inspired you, helped with making movies?
I agree that creating every aspect of an animated movie is a major challenge. And there are times when keeping my motivation going is not always easy when life has so many other things to be concerned with. I create these films in my spare time as a hobby, when not at work.
Lip Syncing is sometimes boring for me, so those days I have to really push myself to get through it, finding the fun in the fact that I can give the characters expression as they talk. Action scenes take a long time to animate since there is so much going on and so many assets in each set up, which slows the computer down at times, making that process sometimes frustrating. So I’m careful to shut off any onscreen objects that aren’t being animated in the moment, allowing for things to speed up in the program.
Finally completing a really tough scene and advancing to the next is a major motivation for me, as I look back and see what was created. It gives me the belief that if I could get that finished, then I can get the next step completed too. That sense of accomplishment, and taking things one small step at a time, step after step, is what keeps me motivated until it’s all completed.
The biggest tip I have for anyone striving for your dream, is to take action by taking one small step every day towards your goal. Adjust as needed, and eventually you’ll get closer to your goal. It’s easier to take one small step each day than it is to look at the full size of the giant project and be overwhelmed. Don’t let the dream sit there, waiting for it to finish itself, or it may never happen. You have to make it happen as I’ve learned. When things go wrong, I like to think, it’s not what happens, but what you do that matters. When there is a roadblock, find a way around it, but don’t give up on your goal as it’s part of what makes life worthwhile.
As before, the challenge and the creative freedom I enjoy from creating my own films is the main reason I do all the work on my own without outside help. There are other filmmakers out there doing the same thing with varying levels of success, depending on their goals and efforts.
For this year, you are scheduled to finish City of Rott: Otherworld. What can you tell us about the film? What awaits the viewers?
City of Rott: Otherworld takes place in a dark mirror realm, where Fred awakens to find himself trapped in the Hell he was trying to desperately escape in the original City of Rott. He joins up with Max and Sarah the Nurse, as they struggle to defeat the evil Stalker that haunts their every move, as well as the city itself, infested with the living dead. The consequences are very real in this otherworld, and one bite will doom the victim to an eternal life as a mindless zombie, so the trio have to fight hard to remain healthy.
Out of the many scripts I wrote, this was the one that I found most appealing and true to the original film. It’s not a remake but a continuation. It has a stronger storyline and more focused dialog, where each sentence needs to help advance the story in some way. And the animated, gory action returns, though this time I’m adding a bit more variety since I have three hero characters to animate, each with their own fighting style and weapons. Fred with his talking Walker, Max with his circular Saw, and Sarah with her nuclear power blades and energy orbs.
They’ll also find other weapons in their journey to dispatch the dead, along with other bizarre creatures that roam the Otherworld. The movie is an animated adventure, action horror film with some humor. It combines everything I’ve learned since City of Rott in 2006. I hope to have it done for mid to late 2018, and then seek worldwide distribution, so it can reach more fans.
Let’s return to the first part of City of Rott. In the form in which we see the film, was it in your plans originally? Was there any alternative endings, twists in the script?
In the first City of Rott script I wrote in 2005, Fred, the old guy with the Walker, was living in a nursing home, and one day, he wakes up to see the world has turned into a nightmare, where everyone in the building has turned into a zombie, including the nurses who are supposed to help the elderly. He used his walker to fend for himself and escape the nursing home, only to find the outside world was just as hostile. It was an interesting story, but I wanted to focus on the Rott Worms being the cause, more than a nightmare realm that Fred was experiencing, and so I wrote a new script as you see in City of Rott.
The second script originally ended at the 50 minute mark, but after the film found distribution with Unearthed Films, it was required that I add an additional 20 minutes to expand the already completed film to 70 minutes or more. That’s one reason it takes a turn and kind of strays from the main plot I originally created. I only had a couple weeks to complete the extra scenes, so I had to hurry. But looking back, I would have kept the focus 100% on Fred, rather than go off track with some of the side characters. In that sense, the original director’s cut would end around the 50 minute mark compared to the 77 minute film. I still enjoy the action scenes the extra scenes brought to the film, so that is the final version.
The main character of City of Rott Fred is a collective image of each of us (searching for ourselves, achieving the goal, overcoming difficulties in life) or just a distraught old man who needs a new pair of shoes?
Fred represents how things can fall apart in old age, losing one’s mind and how the outside world can infect and influence our thoughts and goals in life. Fred wanders the city, mindlessly searching for a pair of shoes to ease his pain, but in the process, puts himself in greater danger among the living dead and the Rott Worms that take over their minds. So in a way, he was like a zombie. Slow, foolish and had a one track mind to reach his goal no matter what. His greatest strength was his ability to improvise and use his walker as a weapon.
That’s what I enjoy about zombies; how they claw and struggle to grab ahold of their goal, even as they’re dismembered along the way. It reminds me of the scene in George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, where Miguel is being held by Steel over the zombie barricade, as the zombie is desperately clawing for him, screaming for a meal. An unforgettable moment in that film.
Do you write off characters, their characters from real people, actors? If so, who served as prototypes for the main characters of City of Rott, Dead Fury? If not, how are their images born?
For the characters, I just try to imagine what type of personality would fit the role they’re needed for, then I draw the illustration, piece by piece, assemble it for animation and then just make up a voice for them according to the script. So most times, they’re from my imagination.
With Dead Fury, I did not want to create an exact replica of Ash from the Evil Dead films even though Dead Fury is a parody of it in many ways, but a tough guy who still had plenty of attitude, and so Max Bludharte was created. That voice I originally did for The Chicken Chop Shop animated series, matched to a selfish, blue chicken named Drayne.
Your humor in City of Rott and Dead Fury is the same brand and recognizable as the style of animation, character design. You are a cheerful person in life?
I try to keep the humor subtle most times, so it’s not always obvious. In real life, I also enjoy finding the humor in many situations I go through each day, to keep things fun and not so serious. Finding humor and comedy in tough situations keeps me calm and in control of my emotions, and it’s something I try to reflect within my cartoons. To show how these characters can be sometimes joking around even as they’re going through hell. Of course Sam Rami’s Evil Dead 2 led the way with its gory style of over-the-top humor.
Technically, did you create Dead Fury as well as City of Rott – re-laying the layers drawn in Photoshop in After Effects or am I mistaken? Later you discovered Anime Studio Pro – the third movie about the City of Rott is already animated with this program? What has changed in the approach to creating a film?
In my cut-out style films, I first illustrate the characters and backgrounds, then assemble them together. Originally I used a very simple and limited program called Adobe Image Ready, which was linked to Adobe Photoshop 5.5 back in 1999’s version I believe. With that program, I couldn’t rotate or scale any of the bitmap images I created, so I had to create separate layers for each rotated angle the arm or leg would be at, as well as any image growing in scale. It really restricted the flow of my animations, since adding more layers would slow down the computer a lot.
Only after trying Anime Studio Pro many years later, did I find the perfect program for my style of 2D animation. Tales of the Dim was my practice session for learning the software, which didn’t take very long, as I found it very intuitive and easy to learn. It also has scaling and rotation built right in, and is a generally fun to use program. I rarely encounter a situation where the program can’t do what I want it to.
The main challenge was figuring out how I was going to add hundreds of zombies onscreen all at once. My solution was not to use the cloning tool, which slowed the computer to a crawl since it duplicates each skeleton object and then animates them too, but to create smaller groups of zombies, animate them, then export them to a movie file that can allow for transparencies, and then build up larger groups of zombies into a giant horde of zombies, which can then be added into a scene as a preset animation, much as I did in the original City of Rott. Only this time, the animation is much smoother since I have rotation with Anime Studio, compared to Image Ready.
And lip syncing in Anime Studio Pro is so much better now, since it allows audio to be imported, and scrubbed so I can match the mouths to the sounds in real time. With Image Ready, there was no such option, and I also couldn’t animate the characters moving freely without lots of additional planning. That is no longer a concern with Anime Studio Pro.
Do you consider yourself a fan of horror films? What do you prefer to watch, which movies are your favorite?
Even though I enjoy Sci-Fi, Action, Adventure, Comedy and other genres of films, I’m also a lifelong fan of horror movies since I was a kid, growing up watching The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Tales From the Darkside, George A. Romero’s Zombie films, Stephen King’s Horror films, Monster movies, Ghosts and Haunted House films. I have a large collection of horror movies I watch each year, with many favorites. A few of them are Romero’s Day of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Then there’s Evil Dead 1 and 2, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue), The Shining, The Woman in Black (original version), Pet Sematary, the original Salem’s Lot, The Exorcist, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre with its humor, and many more. And for action horror, Blade 1 and 2 were very inspiring for my action horror films as Blade kicked all kinds of ass.
For Fantasy Action with some monster themes, Hellboy 2 is one of my favorite films as well. Prince Nuada is my favorite character in that film, with his impressive martial art skills and style. For fantasy movies, The Dark Crystal is a good inspiration as well since I was a kid. For TV series, Tales from the Darkside has a few scary episodes, like Halloween Candy and In the Closet that inspired me. Twin Peaks has plenty of surreal horror that I enjoy. The Walking Dead’s zombies are classic zombies, and I appreciate that they don’t run, but overwhelm with their numbers.
For video games, the original Silent Hill on the Playstation 1 was the first time a game made me dread playing it, with the haunting sirens sounding off as the father walked through the alley to find his daughter, and then those demon babies stabbing his legs with nowhere to escape. I recently played Here They Lie, which has some very effective surreal horror in it, made even more immersive with the stereo 3D PSVR. The crawling antler monsters caught me off guard a few times. Fallout 3’s ghoul zombies were also great at bringing tension while wandering through the tunnels. The Evil Within I enjoyed as well, especially the nightmare demon Laura crawling after the hero.
Frank, City of Rott and Dead Fury came out under the label Unearthed Films. To fans of the genre the company is known mainly as a distributor of cult, underground horror films. Do you refer your work to the underground?
With my gory horror cartoon films, even though I add humor to them, they have only reached a small audience from my experience, with City of Rott being the most successful so far. City of Rott received a nice amount of fans, but also has an equal number of critics understandably, since the story is very basic as Fred wanders his way to find a pair of shoes, even though it reflects the simplicity of a zombie’s mind. Not exactly a deep plot there. But yes, because of the gory animations, horror and my cartoon style, I see my action horror films as underground and not mainstream at all.
With City of Rott 2 and City of Rott: Otherworld, I’ve since found the value of improving my story telling, and strive to not only entertain with action, but also a hopefully entertaining story as well. I’ve learned some important lessons about character motivation, keeping dialog to the point and improving my storytelling.
About you, almost nothing is known – you do not post photos, biography. Are you hiding?) (Joke)
Since I was a kid, I always wanted my cartoons to be the main focus instead of me, even though I use my name to identify my cartoons. If I had to say I look like any cartoon character I’ve drawn, I’d say Max has a slight resemblance to me.
On your YouTube channel, there are several videos with the process of creating movies, character animation, tips. What would you wish people who want to start working on their own animation project?
A great way to start your own filmmaking is to start off with a smaller project that will be fun, but only a few minutes in length. If you first try to create a full length movie over 90 minutes and discover halfway through that you’re not enjoying it, it will be much tougher to complete it.
When I lose motivation once in awhile, I always think to myself, “What has to happen next?” Then I take one small step towards reaching that goal, whether it’s something as simple as creating the next prop or character, to something more complex, such as setting up a scene with all of its characters and special effects, to animating it and later syncing sound effects to each action. Try to spare at least an hour each day towards completing your film, as it won’t finish itself. Don’t give up even if you feel like it some days when nothing goes right. If you need a few days to rest, be sure to return with the next small step soon, or you might lose all motivation. Keep it alive.
I sometimes think about how overwhelming it can be to create a full length cartoon movie alone. So much of your life is spent on the project that you have to sometimes sacrifice other aspects of your life to finish it within a reasonable time. But keep taking one small step each day towards completing the next goal. Eventually, you’ll finish your movie and hopefully feel a sense of accomplishment. If it’s a good movie or not depends on your level of skill in filmmaking. I’m always striving to improve my films.
3D animated film City of Rott 2 has caused your fans, judging by the commentary, quite opposite responses. How do you feel to this project?
With City of Rott 2, I fully understand how disappointing the CGI, simplistic art style could be to those who were hoping for the classic hand drawn style. I know if I was expecting the classic style and then was offered the opposite, I would be upset as well. But City of Rott 2 would not have been completed at that point in time otherwise, as it was a learning phase in my quest to find the ideal animation program. Had I discovered the power of Anime Studio Pro beforehand, I would have created it with that program.
Before making City of Rott 2, my willingness to jump back into Image Ready to animate the next film was very low because of the difficulties of that program. Because I already knew how to use computer animation, I decided to experiment and create a film using a CGI animation program. But as I began, I found out the more detail I put into each character, the slower my computer would get as the characters interacted in my animations. It slowed things down so much, that it became impractical, as moving a leg a fraction would take about 10 seconds with the delay instead of instant feedback.
That’s when I decided to go with the very simplistic style of the bubble shape figures as seen in City of Rott 2. It was one of the most fun experiences I had creating a movie since I didn’t have to animate any legs or lip synch their mouths, and so the film was created in about a year’s time. For me personally, I find the visually odd style of City of Rott 2 appealing on its own when not comparing it to my drawing style, and I enjoy the story and action scenes too.
In general, I have become very good at dealing with criticism from others since releasing City of Rott in August 2006, which got equal amounts of praise and criticism for its limited story and choppy animation. I see constructive, helpful criticism as a learning opportunity to improve and grow as an artist and I appreciate it as much as the fans who enjoy my films.
As a tip for new filmmakers, there will always be critics in everything you do in life, so it’s important to remain detached when receiving criticism. At first, you might want everyone to like your film so it does well, but it’s important to not let any initial sting cause you to overreact. Any emotional pain you feel is because you’re too attached to your project’s success. Detach from it by caring less about the reactions, because you cannot directly control the thoughts of others.
Take a deep breath and think things over before reacting. Does your movie have to please everyone? Of course not, since not everyone shares the same attitude and preferences about what a good movie is. Some audiences are more open minded, while others are more restrictive and have very high expectations about how a movie should be. The audiences with an open mind are going to enjoy more films in life, and have a better time overall in my opinion.
What is most difficult for you when working on an animated film?
The most challenging scenes in a film are when there are many characters onscreen at one time. Because I have limited resources, my computer will often slow down to a crawl, slowly moving frame by frame, making a simple task much more frustrating than it has to be. Thankfully, I’ve since learned some tricks and improved my software/hardware to better deal with large quantities of characters, and since find the experience more pleasant to deal with. My least favorite animation task would be lip syncing. With my current program, it’s sort of fun at times, but still kind of boring. Animating the motions to go with the talking is more enjoyable on the other hand.
Otherwise, I enjoy animating, bringing something to life where there was only stillness before. I used to do cel animation with an old cel animation Disney program I had, and have a few examples on my youtube channel of that old, very time consuming and challenging animation style. Cut-Out style animation is so much easier for one person, instead of having to redraw the entire character for every frame, you already have the character illustrated, so all you have to do is move them as you need. They can’t do everything a cel animated character can do, unless you create all new angles for the character, which I don’t always have the luxury of time to create.
One of the more enjoyable aspects about creating a film is when you have everything edited together and get to add the music and sound effects to really bring it to life. For the audio, I create my own sound effects in a variety of ways with real and synthetic sounds, and also my own original music. In the case of City of Rott: Otherworld, all the sound effects are ready to be placed, and the music has been completed for all of the action scenes, so that phase should go faster than usual.
Is there a future for 2D animation or soon available 3D animation with the appropriate shaders will replace us the usual patterning, re-layout?
Interesting question. If there was a way I could easily map and shape my cartoon style onto a three dimensional character model, that renders back in real time and can be animated in real time with all of the details visible as they are with 2D bitmap and vector animation programs, I’d be interested. It might be possible these days, though I question how long the rendering process would take. One frame in Anime Studio Pro 8, with tons of my cartoon details and shading, can take thirty seconds to render at 1920 x 1080 pixels per frame, compared to if it was in a computer CGI animation program, where the same level of detail and lighting might take five minutes or longer to render per frame.
The closest thing I could imagine might be something being created with Unity 3D, where like in a real time video game with high definition, you can move the character at 60 frames per second and have it look almost movie quality as you work with the animations. The render time would be a few seconds instead of a few hours per frame. Even so, I prefer 2D animation with Anime Studio Pro at this time for its fast interaction, easy to use tools, and fast rendering time. It most importantly can use my hand drawn art style for animation.
How did the idea of creating the game City of Rott: Streets of Rott originate? Was it difficult to master the game logic, to make a game?
City of Rott: Streets of Rott, lets you fight your way through the city landscape, and was released on steampowered .com in February 2017, back when enough people had to vote for a game to be greenlit on Steam. I was surprised it got the greenlight, but I’m glad to have completed the game as best as I could with the limited Game Editor software I used. It was originally just going to be for fun, but then after it got accepted onto Steam, I dedicated all of my efforts to completing it, which took away my focus from City of Rott: Otherworld for about a year. Programming everything from scratch with the C language was a major challenge for me, having no prior C programming experience, but I took things step by step till it was right. Creating that game was a dream come true for me, even if it’s unknown to most gamers at this time.
What are taboos for you – that you will never show on the screen?
With my cartoon’s gory, blood and guts animations, I believe fans have seen the limits of how far I’m willing to go with my cartoons in terms of content. There is some occasional swearing by some characters in my cartoons when they’re upset, but only light swear words, and nothing too offensive. My gory cartoons are not meant to be too serious, but entertaining and humorous most times, specifically made for grown up horror fans. As far as the future of my art, I am also very interested in surrealism, so that may be where I focus next.
Frank, thank you very much for the interview. Finally, a few words to our readers, if you can.
Thank you very much also. I appreciate your thought provoking questions and I hope some of my fans have learned a few new things about my cartoons and approach to animation and horror. Now I’ll get back to animating City of Rott: Otherworld and will do my best to have it reach fans worldwide. Thanks to all of you who support my cartoons over the years. It means a lot.