Talking Paper Interview Series: Joseph Bennett

Joseph Bennett is a Los Angeles-based artist and animator. While working by day for NYC advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, Bennett began using his nights to animate what would eventually become a three-part animated saga that entwines Norse mythology with grotesque fantasy tropes found in paintings by artists like Frank Frazetta. Titled Odin's Afterbirth (see below for the full video), the project was partially inspired by his viewing the trailer for 2009 film Valhalla Rising, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Now combined into one 14-minute movie, Odin's Afterbirth will screen on Saturday, December 5, at a fantasy-themed reading/music showcase at Williamsburg games purveyor Twenty Sided Store, co-organized by Nomadic Press. I interviewed Bennett ahead of that event to discuss the making of Odin's Afterbirth, and his affinity for giving his computer-edited animations a hand-drawn look.

This is an edit of all 3 Odin's Afterbirth chapters combined.

On Creating Odin's Afterbirth

I watched the trailer to Valhalla Rising, and remember being like, "Wow!” That just really set something off for me. Then I was getting into artists like Julie Bell and Frank Frazetta, so I just sort of went in that direction—like Fire and Ice and all that stuff. But the initial thing, I think, was this trailer. Then I ended up seeing the movie, like years later I guess, and wasn’t crazy about it. I feel like it was just the way that trailer was cut.

I feel better about jumping into something I’m very unfamiliar with. It feels less like I’m up against any friction. The fact that I was completely naïve to the fantasy world was sort of fun. It’s so encouraging, since you’re not worried about trying to copy this or copy that, because you just don’t know. Frank Frazetta was new to me, and I was diving into all that stuff. so that was thrilling. The design that Frazetta was doing for Fire and Ice, or you go back to his paintings—if I was going into fantasy, that sort of darkness that he brought, that was new to me, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to work with that in some way, and give it my own feel, of course. You know, I like adding a tone of humor to it all. Animation-wise, I was also into [Hayao] Miyazaki and [Masaaki Yuasa], and Koji Morimoto. There was also an Adult Swim pilot called Korgoth of Barbaria. They just made a pilot, and I think it was just too expensive, so they dropped it. But it was so good. I was like, “That’s great!” It was an interesting area that I don’t think had been touched on much at the time. But I’ll get asked, “Why don’t you do one now?” or “Why don’t you continue the series?” And I think a big part of that is because of [something like Korgoth]. I feel like Odin’s Afterbirth is sort of a product of its place and time.

The Odin’s Afterbirth project was originally broken up into three chapters. The first chapter, I was just starting out animating. You can see that I’m just learning how to animate gradually through the whole thing. I think I did the first one maybe six years ago, and then a few years later I did the next one. It wasn’t really planned, or anything like that. I wasn’t even anticipating that I’d keep it going. The third one was actually commissioned by Liquid TV. I actually had a budget for it, so that’s when I was able to bring on all these incredible animators that I looked up to. That was great, just going from no budget, to just a little money. 

[In the beginning,] I did the backgrounds with watercolor. My friend Victor Kerlow, he’s an illustrator for The New Yorker. I kept watching him do this thing with his illustrations where he would do his inking, or he’d print his inking out if he did it online, and then put his inking on a lightbox. Then he would put watercolor paper on top of that, turn the lightbox on, watercolor over the inking, then scan both of them in, and slap them on top of each other. So he’d have a really cool inking with the watercolor, and I loved that look. I was like, “That’s just so cool,” so I said, “I’m going to try out some backgrounds.” It makes things so much easier, and paint is just so fun to work with. It’s super therapeutic to do when you’re working on it. I hate the digital look, and I wanted to avoid that. You can’t avoid it, but I wanted to as much as I could stand clear of it. I animated all the characters in Flash, and came up with different effects. But I was learning along the way. At that time, I was working in advertising and doing mostly motion graphics stuff. My daytime job was very clean, crisp work for commercials. So this was refreshing to jump on at night, and be really gritty. 

On Working with a Budget for Part 3

I was so pumped about that from the get go. I think I had five or six people help out, but I had a specific thing that I wanted each of them to do. I wanted to know what their fortes were, and really feel out what they were best at. In the beginning, there were a couple of bumps with one person who was not good with characters, and that’s totally cool, but they were really good with elements. So they just stopped doing characters. I think that was the first project where I realized it’s really hard to keep things cohesive and looking the same when you have so many hands on it. So toward the middle of the project, I realized I'd have to do all the inking and all the coloring myself. It’s the only way I could kind of crunch these into my own look. Because everybody’s style, they’re all great, but they’re so different. That was something I had to figure out, but I was working with some real talented people, and I learned a lot from them while I was on it. This guy Caleb Wood, I think he’s so brilliant.

I would try to do as many sketches as I could. But it was such crunch time. We had to make this thing in three months, I think. It got to a point where we were just like, “Let’s come up with loops.” We have a shot where it’s just a bunch of monsters running in profile. So, “Let’s just do run cycles of monsters, and just come up with stuff.“ The inking in this is really sketchy looking, so you can get away with a lot. 

On the Value of Hand-drawn Animation

I went to school for fine arts. I was into painting. I actually didn’t even take an animation class, because I wanted be a painter. That’s where my head was at from the get-go, so I think I always wanted to keep it close to paper. A lot of the [Odin's Afterbirth] work is digital, and I just wanted to kind of make it at least feel a little more hands-on, a little more drawn. I love the idea of it being drawn. Christy Karacas, who did Superjail!, I remember seeing the pilot to that and it really hit me. That’s got such a hand-drawn look to it, and it was super-refreshing to see. But I think it’s also just nice to see a lot of the mistakes, and the little flaws in a drawing and an animation. It’s kind of nice when it’s not following this anatomy perfectly, and it’s not hitting an angle the right way. Because it’s kind of a reminder that someone labored over this thing, worked on this thing. It feels way more human to me.

The whole fight scene at the end, working on that and figuring out shots, it was a total challenge, but it was a lot of fun to figure out and work on. It definitely opened my eyes for projects later on. There was a lot of problem solving. Then seeing it all come together was nice. It was like, “Okay, that’s great. I could do this again.”

On the Sound Design of Odin's Afterbirth

Every shot, I knew what I wanted to listen to. I always put in placeholder music before I actually get somebody to help me on it, and I have soundtracks for every kind of movie. I had all of these different placeholders just to at least get that feeling, that emotion on certain parts. I wanted to keep that mood and that tone. It’s hard to do that when you don’t have a big budget, and you don’t have a lot of resources. It’s a little bit of a challenge. I worked with this guy Mike Jansson, who I still work with to this day. For over seven or eight years, he’s been my sound designer, and he’ll incorporate some kind of music. We’ll sit down together every time, and it’s a blast. We understand each other really well, and it’s a really wonderful collaboration. Then Josh Pagillo is my cousin, and he was living with me at the time. He’s a really talented musician, so I got his help on figuring out some songs that we could work with. I think I’m more proud of that than anything else. Those guys really hit it out of the park. Because I just realized how difficult that is when you’re trying to do something epic with so few resources and people. It’s really, really hard, and this felt good. It felt like it worked. Mike really helped kind of clean it up. He was like the closer on it all, and it was really nice.

On the Legacy of Odin's Afterbirth

It was cool that there was a bit of a following for this. Not huge, but it was nice. I think it was just because it was something that was a little different for them to look at. I had a few people that I ended up meeting and am close with who reached out to me because they watched it, and we’re friends now. I also met other animators through it. Onion AV Club and Vice did some stuff. This was a good length. I think I closed it the length I wanted to. I’d rather things not just kind of keep going for the sake of it. Just because they can, that doesn’t mean that they should. You know, some of my favorite shows, I just wish that they had closed it after season one. True Detective, that’s a great example. Why the hell did they do that? Season one was phenomenal, then I couldn’t even get through five minutes of the second season. I’d rather it be like, “If you can wrap this thing up, and tell the story how you want to tell it, at whatever length that may be, then that’ll be that.” Just close it when you feel like you should.