A bipedal horse writes a letter to Death to make a change in his life: embracing risk instead of playing it safe.
Interview with Writer/Director/Producer Kate Isenberg
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
More than fifteen years ago, I made my first drawing of Stewball, the star of my animated film Dear Death. I drew him in my sketchbook: a bipedal horse wearing a necktie and a crash helmet, knocked off his bike by a rock in his path. A blend of animal and human, Stewball has always been a metaphor for the struggle of body versus soul, life's daily obstacles versus the human ambition to live close to our best dreams. When I made the drawing, I was an editorial intern at Mother Jones magazine, in San Francisco, checking other writers' facts for scant pay while dreaming of having a creative voice of my own.
Stewball, the horse of small means and big dreams, remains my perfect foil. In the Stewball comic strips I drew over subsequent years, I expressed my determination to hold on to that dream of having a creative voice. After working many jobs that didn't fully answer my creative ambitions, I enrolled, in 2012, as an animation graduate student at UCLA film school. In 2016, I created my first Stewball film: Dear Death, a seven-minute animated short in which Stewball forges an uneasy friendship with Death, spurring him to recalibrate his balance of daily grind versus imagination.
I believe that Stewball is like no one else in animation. Stewball is about childhood wonder staring down the sometimes crushing realities of contemporary adult life, and adulthood looking back at childhood. So often our media targets only one of these ages at a time, when in reality, adults are motivated by timeless hopes and fears. Stewball offers an invitation to laugh at our predicament, and to be as wondering as we are wise (or even, at times, jaded).
With screens lit up everywhere we look, we may think we’ve seen it all, but we haven’t. Most of all, we haven't seen ourselves as clearly as we could if we were to look closely, with all the humanity we can muster. That is what my short film attempts to do, for me and for anyone who watches it with a dream in his or her back pocket.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
Stewball is Hamlet, Ulysses, and a grown-up Charlie Brown, in bipedal animal form. He is an equine Little Prince, in an animated world of iPhones and reality TV. He is an everyhorse for our time. He is each of us when we believe we are greater than our current circumstances reflect, and when we are afraid to risk those real circumstances for an idea that may or may not come to fruition. Stewball's drama is the same drama that animates many of our lives. We need stories, like Dear Death, to confront it, to reimagine it, and to inspire ourselves for our own struggle.
Stewball provides something that's missing in adult animation: nuanced character-driven narrative. Currently, an aesthetic chasm divides adult animated series (sex, drugs, and violence) from kids' series (saccharine, saturated with neon emotions). My film's aesthetic is something new: visually childlike and emotionally sophisticated, with the elegant simplicity of a New Yorker cartoon. Stewball is for smart adults who appreciate both wonder and satire, humor and emotional dilemma. It's for audiences who want to see contemporary consciousness reflected in animation, with blank space in the design and room for interpretation in the characters. My prospective viewers want more than the pat quality found in most animated films. They want to laugh, to feel, to be entertained, inspired, and even changed by what they see.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
The fairgrounds were crowded, and Stewball was there,
But the betting was heavy on the bay and the mare.
Away up yonder, ahead of them all,
Came, a-dancing and a-prancing, my noble Stewball.
I bet on the gray mare, I bet on the bay;
If I'd have bet on old Stewball, I'd be a free man today.
(From "Stewball," a traditional folk song)
Soon after my Harvard graduation, I drew my first Stewball cartoon. Having constantly drawn and made up stories as a kid, I wanted to be a novelist, a songwriter, a cartoonist, or, even better, all of the above. Yet as a recent college grad, I bet on journalism, a more respected career path (despite earning me $100 a month, those initial 60-hour weeks). The field was crowded: there were countless young writers and artists with as much ambition as I had. Like my education at Harvard, journalism appeared to give me reasonable odds of success.
But existential fulfillment isn't about what's reasonable. I had success: my cover story and illustrations published in The New Republic magazine, my editing skills hired for books, newspapers, and marketing copy. But they only deepened my real ambitions. On my corporate lunch hours, I'd look out my office window, wondering how to get out of that stable. I drew Stewball in the margins of my meeting notebooks, and distributed comics around my city after work.
In my nearly 20 years since college, I have realized that to win my personal race—becoming an artist with a cultural voice—I have to bet on Stewball. That is to say, I have to bet on myself, believing I can reach my artistic potential, just as would-be poet Stewball, deep down, believes he can reach his.
Drawn in the simple, line-drawing style of a New Yorker cartoon, Dear Death is childlike in aesthetic and sophisticated in content. The contrast between its whimsical visuals and Stewball's workaday concerns is on point. Buried under the adult troubles we muddle through is childhood valor, winking at our long faces in unexpected moments. To outrun self-doubt, we have to call on that valor, just as Katie (Death's emissary) helps Stewball do. To win our prize, we not only have to soldier on, we have to dance and prance—to have fun in the struggle. It's the only way to be fully alive.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development and production
In creating this film, I was lucky to be mentored by Sam Hood, a story artist at Pixar who has worked on some of the most iconic features in contemporary animation (Finding Dory, Inside Out). Sam saw right away that I didn't draw like a typical Pixar story artist; my drawings were quirkier, more impressionistic, and driven by a very strong writing voice. Under Sam's guidance, I learned to trust my writing voice first, letting my drawing be loose and rough until quite far into the process.
Sam taught me that "writing is rewriting, and boarding is re-boarding." I storyboarded Dear Death about 30 times, and rewrote the script about 15 times, before I began animating. Sam's lesson was to get the story as tight and clear and resonant as possible before launching into animation, because otherwise I would have a film that might look good but had no emotional center.
A central task throughout was getting very comfortable with Stewball. I thought I knew him, as I had drawn comics featuring him for years, but translating that intuitive connection into an animated character took a lot of trial and error. At one point, Sam encouraged me to draw a set of Stewball emojis to increase my fluency with his emotional range.
Another major piece was casting an actor to play Stewball. In comics, we have the luxury of hearing the character in our heads, however we want. For this film, I had to find a Stewball voice that fit and could be accepted by all of Stewball's readers. I auditioned many actors, including some very experienced feature-and TV-animation voice actors. In the end, though, I chose Alexis Harte, an actor who had less professional experience but a more intuitively accessible voice. I believed that would allow people to feel Stewball's angst more easily than if Stewball sounded like a trained actor.
Overall, the journey of the film's story, visuals, and casting share a common trajectory: I had initially to let go of my idea that my film would be visually impressive, as a necessary step in making it emotionally resonant. Stewball is about heart, intuition, and the private fears we all have. Yes, it is also about how we long for acceptance in a world where appearances matter. But appearances are not what make Stewball an unforgettable character. I have had to hew close to Stewball's awkward rawness in order to make a film resonant with my character and with the essential dilemmas of being human.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
The script and storyboard for Dear Death received two grants: a Matt Groening Production Fellowship in Animation and a $10,000 grant from the National Association of Theatre Owners of California/Nevada. It also won Best Of Show at UCLA film school's annual animation festival.
Dear Death began traveling the festival circuit in 2016, premiering at Animaze, Montreal's International Animation Festival. It was an official selection at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival and is slated to play at several more festivals, domestically and internationally.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
Every filmmaker must believe, on some level, that his or her film is going to do very well. You have to, in order to put in the long hours it takes to make an independent film. I have been reminded, since finishing my film, just how many filmmakers I am competing with, the world over, to find an audience. Though it is not a zero-sum game, there are limited hours in the day, and everyone's attention span is limited. At times it is frustrating, when I get turned down for festivals I had dreamed of being part of. However, that's what Stewball is about: staying true to yourself and your art, even amid a din of ambition and sometimes disappointment. My ambitions are just getting started, and I have come to see setbacks as ways to strengthen my resolve to do more than I ever thought I could with my creativity.
Also, I have had to adjust my thinking about a Stewball series to consider the current TV landscape. In 2014, the animated series BoJack Horseman first aired on Netflix. Even though that show’s tone is quite different from Stewball’s world, BoJack, a former sit-com dad who happens to have a horse head, has made the field more crowded for animated horses. To address the superficial similarities, I made some changes to Stewball’s design and personal history, different from what you see in Dear Death. I have found these changes to be much more valuable than a marketing strategy: they deepen what makes Stewball unique, and what makes his plight relatable to many. Stewball has a long track record of coming from behind, and we look forward to seeing BoJack at the races.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
My goal is to use Dear Death as "proof of concept" for a TV series. I hope that by meeting Stewball onscreen, potential audiences for such a series can come to know and love him, and to connect with the array of comics and other materials I have created based on him and his friends.
I also hope that by seeing my character and storytelling aesthetic onscreen, animation and publishing industry professionals will see an opportunity to create something that doesn't currently exist, and will want to partner with me to see how far we can take it. I think we could use more inspiration in our media--inspiration that is smart and edgy as well as affirming of our humanity. I hope to bring more awareness to Stewball and my storytelling aesthetic.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
I need two things: a larger audience for Stewball the character, and a distribution platform that would like to capitalize on that audience. Therefore, I need festival programmers to select the film for audiences that enjoy adult animation and are looking for whimsical, intelligent storytelling. I also need development executives and producers looking for new animated TV content for adults who are looking for pitches for new shows. To them I would pitch a series based on Stewball and the storytelling aesthetic in my film. Finally, I would benefit greatly from attracting an agent or manager to help me strategize my approach to both groups (the audience and the development professionals).
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
I would love this film to help Stewball find a much larger audience that will follow him through comics, short films, and TV series (potentially) in the future, extending the community of Stewball fans. I would like development executives to see in this film, and in that audience, the potential for a new kind of animated show for adults, and to discuss with me how far we could push the creative and distribution limits of the concept.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
What is the significance of Death appearing as a little girl in the film?
If you were to write a letter to Death, what would you say? What would you ask?
What lesson does Death teach Stewball that allows him to make a change in his life?
Many films exhort us to follow our dreams, suggesting everything will be OK if we do. What makes Stewball's journey different, and the film's message different from this?
Would you like to add anything else?
What are the key creatives developing or working on now?
As director of the short film, I am now developing a complete Stewball series. I am interested in pitching an adult animated TV show to networks and streaming platforms, and I am actively seeking those collaboration opportunities. I am also serving as a consulting writer on an animated feature script, and creating character animation for the animation property The Beef Sumo Show, which is in development.
Sam Hood, my mentor on this film, continues to work as a story artist at Pixar.
Alexis Harte, who voiced the role of Stewball in my film, is also an accomplished musician and composer. His company, Pollen Music Group, just won an Annie Award for its song "No Wrong Way Home," which appeared in the animated short film Pearl, produced by Google Spotlight Stories. Pearl has also been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Animated Short category.
Interview: February 2017
We Are Moving Stories embraces new voices in drama, documentary, animation, TV, web series and music video. If you have just made a film - we'd love to hear from you. Or if you know a filmmaker - can you recommend us? More info: Carmela
A bipedal horse writes a letter to Death to make a change in his life: embracing risk instead of playing it safe.
Length: 6 minutes 51 seconds
Director: Kate Isenberg
Producer: Kate Isenberg
Writer: Kate Isenberg
About the writer, director and producer:
Kate Isenberg is a Los Angeles–based writer and animator. In 1998, she began publishing her comics about Stewball, the bipedal equine with an existential dilemma. In 2015, Isenberg earned an MFA in animation from UCLA and created the Stewball film Dear Death, which won a Matt Groening Production Fellowship in Animation.
Isenberg is also a singer-songwriter. Through eclectic artistry, she explores how individuals—humans, horses, or Death in ponytails—improvise their own hero's journey.
Alexis Harte: voice of Stewball
Mia Harte: voice of Katie/Death
Looking for (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists): producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists (ALL)
Matt Groening Production Fellowship in Animation
National Association of Theatre Owners of California/Nevada
Made in association with: UCLA Animation Workshop/UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television
Where can I see it in the next month?
Tuesday, February 14, at SF IndieFest
Tickets and info:
For more screenings (continually updated), please go here: http://www.deardeathmovie.com/screenings.html