It makes sense for a successful comic book artist to bring their visual sensibilities to film, though doing so requires working with talented animators. After creating several shorts independently, cartoonist Dash Shaw (known for graphic novels like BodyWorld, Bottomless Belly Button, and Cosplayers) found a partner very close to home: his wife, animator Jane Samborski. Their latest collaboration is Cryptozoo, about an island menagerie of mythological creatures — gorgons, griffins, bakus, and many more. Lake Bell, Zoe Kazan, Thomas Jay Ryan, and others voice the cast of characters, which includes both the cryptids’ caretakers and enemies seeking to destroy the sanctuary. While the pair’s first feature, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, credited Shaw as director and Samborski as an animator, Cryptozoo is billed as “A film by Jane Samborski and Dash Shaw.” This equal fusion of their sensibilities has resulted in one of the most compelling American animated films in years.
The film’s art style represents the most noteworthy change from My Entire High School. That film looked very much like one of Shaw’s comics, utilizing rounded characters with simplified features. Cryptozoo revels in realistic detail. Gone are the bubbly figures, replaced by an acute understanding of musculature, demonstrated at the very start by nude characters in a woodland tryst. This detailed portrayal of bodies is fitting, given that the plot revolves around biological abnormalities and fusions.
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During a Zoom chat from the couple’s home in Richmond, Shaw shared that the guiding ethos to his figure work in Cryptozoo was “fewer drawings, but better drawings,” reusing certain character renderings at various points. Each shot of My Entire High School incorporates several unique drawings, which led to constantly wobbling lines defining the characters — a characteristic known as “line boil,” which keeps animated stills from appearing frozen. He sees it as contributing to that film’s sense of teen angst. The use of fewer drawings in Cryptozoo eliminated this element, and Samborski looked to anime for a more engaging substitute. “In almost any anime you see, that same boil is definitely happening in the eyes.” Accordingly, she created watercolor loops and laid them into the characters’ perfectly round irises. The color moves inside their eyes, offering brilliant bursts even when their bodies are at rest. Shaw believes this “made [them] feel like they had a soul.”
The use of color also represents a significant maturation from My Entire High School. Like Shaw’s graphic novel New School, it had vibrant color washes full of visible brushstrokes superimposed over thick black pen on white paper. Cryptozoo is more intentional. Despite the fantastical subject matter, the colors are used in a more true-to-life manner. Though brush strokes are still visible, they suggest contours and shadow rather than expressionistic flourishes. It’s a matter of consistency more than restraint; one look at the rainbow pastels of a winged horse’s mane makes it clear that every possible color is in the film’s palette.
Samborski noted, “Dash likes to draw big, and I like to draw small. He’s kind of loose and bold, and I am tight and fussy. I am an engineer at art, and Dash is kind of this big-picture person. I’m all microscopic, and he has this wide-ranging view of the whole project. But despite how different our approaches are, we are still heading to the same destination.” With Cryptozoo, these conflicting impulses create a singular animated vision. If My Entire High School brought the style of Shaw’s comics to the screen, this is what can happen when the best impulses of two creative minds converge.
Cryptozoo opens in select theaters August 20.