Hello animation addicts! We are so excited to have the first in our series of interviews where we’re talking with animators that are presenting films, short films, and feature at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And today we have director/animator, Joe Cappa, with us. His short Ghost Dogs has been selected as part of the Animation Spotlight and can be viewed throughout the festival by all attendees.
Joe, we like to start our interviews by asking how you ended up becoming an animator and creating this film? What was your inspiration for starting down this career path?
I started film-making when I was seven. It had always been a passion, and then went to film school at the University of Oklahoma through their arts program. So it was pretty small. Then I got into advertising as a career, and decided to move to Denver from Oklahoma about eight years ago, where I just kinda wanted to do my own thing. So, I had done some motion graphic stuff for some commercials. Never any character animation or anything like that, but over the past eight years, I just started dabbling more and more with it.
Ghost Dogs was my way of learning character animation. So, I bought the book. What is it? ‘The Animator Survival Kit’ by Richard Williams and went from there. The first frame of Ghost Dogs is me trying to figure out how to animate, and I found it very rewarding. I thought I would be pulling my eyes out by the end of the process but even after two years, I’m still excited and ready to work on the next thing. And, of course, Sundance definitely gave me some wind in my sails.
That’s great. So, you grew up loving animation, watching animation, animated films?
Actually, not too much. The thing with me is I kinda come from a filmmaker perspective. I honestly want to make live action stuff, but because I’m introverted. And I don’t really wanna go out of my way to team up with a bunch of people to make an idea come to life; animating was my way of being able to execute an idea by myself.
So, do you have experience in art and or were you kind of working on it as you went?
I love drawing, and I’m surprised it took me this long to realize like, hey, I could kinda combine the two! Like the characters for Ghost Dogs com from watercolor paintings I did from 10 years ago for some art show that I made. And the paintings are really bad, but the idea of dogs with human arms and legs was funny and it only occurred to me just recently: “Hey, I could bring these guys to life.” So, I’ve always enjoyed art and definitely went to an art school in Oklahoma, but I didn’t really get back into making art until I moved out to Denver, which was about 8 years ago.
How did you end up getting accepted into Sundance? What was that process like?
We finished the film around June, and we were trying to hit some deadlines with festivals and submitted to a few. We premiered at Fantastic Fest, which was really cool. It’s a big horror show festival. And my producer was the one who got the call because he’s the one who had been submitting it [to] all the festivals. And so, Sundance called him up and told him the good news and then he called me immediately after and I was just… Sundance is a pretty big deal. And I couldn’t believe it! I said “Is this some sort of scam?” But it turned out to be real. So, it was really nice to get a personal phone call, for sure.
And Sundance has been incredible. They’ve been holding our hands through the entire process. Like three emails a day! Starting from the announcement in mid-November, and we couldn’t announce it till mid-December. So it’s been a great process, but truly outstanding that we got into Sundance. I did not see that coming!
For Ghost Dogs, why don’t you tell us a little bit about it and how you got the idea for it?
I made some water color paintings for this art show. I always thought it was funny, these dog characters with human legs and arms, and I had been drawing them every once in a while for years. And then when I realized I could animate, and I bought myself a Wacom tablet so it changed things. Before that, I was doing stop-motion animation with construction paper. With the Wacom tablet, I could do something that could be something like Disney where it’s frame-by-frame cell animation. So I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna bring these Ghost Dog characters to life.”
Then I made a sample drawing. In fact, I thought it was kind of funny looking- them just crawling around. And I wanted to make a short and my producer, we randomly ran into each other in Boulder, Colorado, truly randomly, and he was like, “Yeah, I know you’re animating, I would love to help in any way.” So then I started to really take it seriously and started story-boarding and really didn’t know what the story was gonna be. I knew that they were haunted dogs but not much else.
And ever since I can remember, I’ve had recurring dreams where I’m stuck in a haunted house; it’s like a labyrinth, and I said, “I’m just gonna go with that and put the Ghost Dogs in this situation.” And in the horror genre, the biggest trope is when the dog is barking and they’re like, “What the heck? That’s creepy.” But I thought it would be a really cool idea if it was a puppy that could see deceased pets of the families.” And so that’s kind of where it went from there, and storyboarding was just going shot-to-shot, asking myself, “What would be… What would happen next; what would be an interesting way to tell the story?”
That’s an exciting journey that you went on. I wanted to know about the music. How did you come up with and who did you work with for the music?
The music was everything for this movie. I’m a cinematographer, and I shot a couple of movies with my friend, Mickey Reece (who has kind of blown up in the indie film scene). And he works with a guy in Oklahoma City, and I’m like: ‘I”m from Oklahoma City, Mickey’s from Oklahoma City, and he works with this guy, Nick Poss. And Nick’s a cool dude.” I loved the music that he made for Mickey’s movies. And so I hit him up. And it was just nice knowing what he had done and knowing that I wanted very similar music to what he had already been making. Originally, I thought Ghost Dogs was gonna be very sporadic with music. I just wanted rain sounds and little dogs pitter-pattering on carpet but I realized it needed a lot more music.
The initial score I was like, “Oh man, this is not what I want.” So I was really dreading confrontation and telling him… So I just drafted this email, trying to give them all this critique, positively, as best as I could. And he took it, ran with it, came back within a few weeks with another score and he just nailed it, and it was amazing!
Yeah, it definitely gave it some nice atmosphere, and so I think that paid off.
What would you say to somebody that is interested in creating an animated short, is interested in starting down that path of, hopefully, maybe being at Sundance someday, what would you be your advice for them?
Yeah, I was asked this question with another interview. I don’t really have a good answer other than just watch Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill and just make those shows, ’cause I wanna see more of those shows. So that would be my advice to anybody who’s animating LOL
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. We’re excited to see Ghost Dogs and the whole animation spotlight at Sundance; it’s gonna be great! And congratulations on your successful short film!
Rachel is a rottentomatoes approved film critic that has loved animation since she was a little girl belting out songs from 'The Little Mermaid'. She reviews as many films as she can each year and loves interviewing actors, directors, and anyone with an interesting story to tell. Rachel is the founder of the popular Hallmarkies Podcast, and the Rachel's Reviews podcast/youtube channel, which covers all things animated including a monthly Talking Disney and Obscure Animation show.