Death Row Diet
Animator Mike Salva Talks About His New Short
If any of you out there remember the cult film “Repo Man,” there’s a scene with Tracey Walter where he explains that people “view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything… suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly someone'll say like plate or shrimp or plate of shrimp out of the blue. No explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.” Well that’s a bit of a long winded intro to a “plate of shrimp” incident that led me to the work of a talented animator.
Mike Salva is an animator in Nashville whose FaceBook profile states “I make videos and retarded little cartoons.” Okay, how could I resist that? So I asked him if I could see his “retarded little cartoons” anywhere. And it turned out that I could but that I had actually already seen one – “Max the Hero” – as part of the entries I was screening and judging for this year’s Comic-Con International Film Festival. So that was the “plate of shrimp” coincidence that then led me to offer him a place to crash during Comic-Con since I would be staying at a hotel and my house was serving as a dorm for Comic-Con attendees. My parents were concerned and said, “what if he’s a serial killer?” But since I’d be at a hotel, I wasn’t worried. Anyway, I always like to help out filmmakers whenever I can, it creates good cinematic karma.
Anyway, back to Salva’s cartoons. He showed “Max the Hero” at Comic-Con this past July. The witty super-hero satire was co-written with the MST3K guys Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy, and Michael J. Nelson who also did the voices. The animation style and character designs had a certain crudeness (along the lines of "South Park") but the humor was sharp and the approach clever (like making a meat couch out of photos of real meat products).
He had also made “Back to Life,” an homage to “Frankenstein” in which the monster wakes up none too pleased to have been badly reanimated to life. This short was done in black and white and fittingly scratched to call to mind the Universal Horror classics of the thirties but with a contemprary comic spin.
But the cartoon that intrigued me most was the one in progress, “Death Row Diet.” This was animated to some audio that Salva found on Jonathan Katz’ website. Katz is the writer, actor, comedian responsible for “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist” on Comedy Central. Katz describes his character in “Death Row Diet” simply as a man on death row and weight watchers. I was intrigued by the idea of working with a soundtrack that was fixed and that was never intended as the basis for a cartoon. Plus, Salva was going to experiment with hand drawn and painted elements for the first time. As technology advances, I’m always interested to find artists who return to old school techniques and reject state of the art technology to take a more DIY approach. So if you look at “Death Row Diet,” you can appreciate the textures and richness in the backgrounds that come from not doing everything on a computer. Plus it's hilarious. Katz' dry, biting, observant humor is smartly complimented by Salva's animation.
Now that the cartoon is actually finished and available to view on YouTube, I thought I’d highlight it here. I also did an interview with Salva to get an insight into the process (although I rarely got a straight answer). Also check out my interview with Jonathan Katz.
BETH ACCOMANDO: How did you find the audio you used from Jonathan Katz and what made you decide that it would be good for a cartoon?
MIKE SALVA: I have been a huge fan of Jonathan's work since “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist” ran on Comedy Central. (I felt genuinely wronged when that show was canceled.) I had contacted him about a year ago about providing a voice in one of my cartoons. I didn't have a particular project in mind at the time, so Jonathan suggested that I make a cartoon out of one of the comedy podcasts that he has been producing. After listening to all of them, I thought “Death Row Diet” was one of the funniest segments and it seemed like it would translate well into a visual medium. I think it also appealed to me because it features a lovable convicted murderer.
BA: For a cartoon, this is very dialogue driven, did that worry you?
MS: Not at all. I want to do more cartoons where the visual takes a back seat to the humor. If you look at any of my cartoons, you'll see that nothing is being done to further the art of animation. I just want them to be funny. And when it comes to making funny cartoons, I have found that it helps to use people who are actually funny.
BA: What are the challenges of working with an audio track that's fixed as opposed to doing animation where you are having voices recording specifically for it?
MS: Somebody else recorded and edited the audio. You say "challenges," I say "less work for me!"
BA: How does this compare to other animation you have done? Why did you feel it was important to not do some elements for this on the computer?
MS: I was concerned about the fact that the entire cartoon takes place in a tiny prison cell. The backgrounds had to look more interesting than the usual crap that I make. For years, all of my artwork has been made digitally (almost always with Adobe Photoshop), but for “Death Row Diet,” I made all the backgrounds with watercolors and watercolor pencils. I had pictures drying all over the house.
BA: What are you most proud of?
MS: I am proud that I can fix the toilet all by myself. I'm not very domestic. Making cartoons is pretty easy; fixing toilets is hard. I'm really proud of my cartoons “Max the Hero” and “Back To Life.” People seem to like them. I hope they like “Death Row Diet” just as much. (I'm also proud of the fact that I got called into the principal's office of my kid's school once. I had changed my wife's voice mail message to make it sound like she was running a phone sex operation. Yuk yuk yuk...)
BA: What do you like about working in animation?
MS: I'm not very grown up. I have always loved cartoons, and I like working in a medium where I pretty much have complete control over everything that you see. I could never have that much control with live action. I can't even get my kids to do what I say; do you think actors and a production crew would ever listen to me?
BA: What did you hope to achieve by doing “Death Row Diet”?
MS: I want to make its viewers laugh, and its creators money. At least one of those things should happen. Can I have a dollar?
BA: Are there many outlets for short animation these days?
MS: There are a lot more outlets than there were a decade ago, thanks to the Internet. And I think there are more film festivals that take animation seriously. (That's saying a lot, since most film festivals take themselves far too seriously.) Seriously, can I have that dollar?
BA: What do you have planned next?
MS: My next cartoon is going to be about a dog in the dog pound, trying to get adopted on the last day before he gets put to sleep. And he's kind of a jerk, so no one wants to adopt him. He's going to be voiced by Ryan Williams, the comedian from my “Back To Life” cartoon. I know a couple of people who work in animal shelters who aren't going to like it, so please don't tell them. It's going to be another 2-D animated cartoon, but all the characters will be made from baked polymer clay. I will flatten the clay with a rolling pin, cut out the characters, bake them in the oven, and scan them into the computer. This will be the first cartoon that I make with my kitchen.
Oh and if you want to send Mike that dollar, he can be reached at email@example.com. If enough people support him, maybe he can make another toon or get Max a series on Adult Swim.