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Staff Pick Premiere: or that time I went on a date with an alien

Jeffrey Bowers
November 9, 2016 by Jeffrey Bowers Staff

You know that anxious feeling you get before a first date? I’m not talking about butterflies, but rather the feeling that your date might not “get you.” That they won’t see who you truly are. For animator Zachary Zezima, that anxiety was the perfect inspiration for his latest short aptly titled, It’s a Date. Equal in parts fantasy and reality, Zezima mixes the best of both in creating a truly unique, yet familiar world of first dates.

Drawn in bright neon colors and animated within a 4x3 frame, It’s a Date comes on loud and claustrophobic, but it simmers with uncertainty, awkwardness and vulnerability under the surface. The casual, almost improvised conversation between the would-be lovers is so relatable that it balances out the more bizarre and surreal visual storytelling aspects of Zezima’s film. It’s a story about taking chances and putting yourself out there. Because maybe if you let down your defenses, despite your pimples or peculiarities, you might find someone so great that they’re out of this world.

Vimeo: First things first, you credit It’s a Date as being based on a true story. Can you shed a bit more neon light on that?

Zachary Zezima: Yes! This kind of date happened to a good friend of mine and every time I tell the story, I’m met with some pretty visceral reactions. My friend went on a date with a guy whom she met at a bar the week before and everything was normal until his demeanor sort of shifted. He began opening up about how he wasn’t like anyone else. He was different. As they continued to talk, it became clear he was insinuating that he was actually an alien in human skin. My friend obviously didn’t believe this and was a bit upset by what he was telling her, so he decided to try to prove it burning off his skin in the candle on the table. She stopped him, and then he tried to cut his arm open with a butter knife. She stopped him again and left the restaurant. For me this story is so much bigger than those strange and violent few minutes. Was he crazy? What if he was telling the truth? Should she have stopped him from trying to prove he was an alien? Where is he now? This film attempts to answer some of those questions and shed light on what may have been going through his head at the time.

Do you have a girlfriend right now? Are you relieved that you don’t have to do the whole awkward first date thing anymore?

This film took two years to make. During the first year I did not have a girlfriend but during the second year I did and still do. A lot of my own dating experiences did make it into this film (like being called a “weirdo”), but I am glad I don’t have to deal with first dates anymore. They can be tedious but as this film suggests, can elicit some great stories.

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When it comes to relationships do you tend to think of yourself as hopeful or more of a nihilist? Are you a guy who puts himself on the line like your male character?

I do have nihilistic qualities, but overall I believe the relationships you have with people give life its meaning. So I do try to be as open and vulnerable as I can with those close to me. While this film is based on a story that isn’t mine, it also became quite autobiographical. While dating, I was dealing with certain issues dating back to childhood and decided to talk more openly about those anxieties and fears. It became important to me to open up about them and build a new romantic relationship based on communication and trust, which is what I have now and I couldn’t be happier.

I find sacrifice to be really important in the act of creating.

Both this and your first Staff Picked film Cruising deal with the protagonist’s struggle with anxiety and ability to cope in stressful situations. Is that something you’re trying to work through yourself?

Anxiety is a big problem for me and not something people talk about too often, especially men. Mental illness is such a taboo in our culture but I find that talking about it is one of the only ways to really combat and treat it. I started seeing a therapist during my time making this film, and he really helped me to identify certain triggers, situations and even people to avoid in order to minimize my anxiety, while also learning how to cope when those undesirable situations occur. For me, it’s a lot like avoiding cats due to allergies or certain foods due to heartburn. I’ve learned to listen to my body more and not ignore it for fear of looking weak.

The style and story of It’s a Date is much more mature and fleshed out than Cruising. What was the process like creating It’s a Date and what drew you towards telling and drawing a more representational story?

Cruising was my first film and I made it relatively quickly, so it’s really a kind of visual diary of me exploring and experimenting with different ways to animate and express myself. With It’s a Date, I wanted to focus more on characters, script and telling a more narrative story. It’s important to me to challenge myself so a lot of things about this film were new to me at the time. I took it as an opportunity to grow and work towards becoming a more interesting visual storyteller.

What was the writing process like for this film? The narrative is so free – cutting to bizarre fantasies, dreams, and memories – yet I assume you had to have a rigid storyboard to animate from.

The writing process was the most difficult part of making this film because I was challenged with creating a somewhat natural conversation that always fed into the larger idea of the story. Almost every line corresponds to a hint of what’s really going on underneath the actual words being spoken. My original script and storyboard was about 15 minutes long, so after a lot of editing I got it down to about six and began production. The only problem was that once I started actually animating, I also started therapy and a new relationship and they both influenced my thinking so much that I ended up completely changing how the story unfolded. It became much more psychological, cerebral and nonlinear, while before it was more traditional. I threw away almost a full minute of completed scenes because of these last minute changes, but I think it was worth it. I find sacrifice to be really important in the act of creating.

You use a 4x3 screen ratio instead of the standard widescreen 16x9. This technique helps perpetuate a sense of claustrophobia, like things are tight and constrained. What other stylistic elements did you employ to aid in your storytelling?

I purposely animated in a more naive and childlike manner as well to give the film a sense of innocence and playfulness. Usually I’ll check how my animation is looking as I’m going along, but for this film I decided I would animate a whole scene and however it came out was how I was going to keep it. Sometime it came out more robotic and rigid, and other times it came out more fluid and natural. However I was feeling that day is present in the actual animation of the characters, and I think that gives the storytelling a more uniquely personal quality.


What’s with the neon colors? You use them in both of your films.

Bright colors elicit a sense of happiness and excitement, so using them in a film that’s pretty much about the exact opposite helps me to get across the idea that something’s not quite right. What happens in this film is so dark on a few different levels. I think that if I illustrated it in a more realistic and gloomy style, it would come across as morbid and morose. This film is about life, and I don’t think life is like that at all.


You’re one part of the three-person collective Circle Line Projects. Both of your partners helped animate this film and Tim Brown even lent his voice. What’s it like working with a team and how do you decide what projects you will work on?

Yeah, there’s a fun abstract scene in this film that Tim and Ana helped out on. It’s always great collaborating with them because we’re all so different. Sometimes it feels like none of us get our way, but the result is always something we never could of done on our own. Because of this, we only really work on projects that we all agree on doing. We’re best friends and we want to keep it that way. We decided to avoid doing work just for money, and continue working together on projects as a way to enjoy the work and camaraderie with each other. This results in us actually doing less work than we’d probably like, but it also allows the work we do do to have our full attention and creative effort.

What are you working on now?

I just finished up animating a couple commercials, but other than that I’m just teaching and planning a new film. Hopefully I can get this one done a little quicker!


If you’re interested in premiering your short film as a Staff Pick Premiere, please email premieres@vimeo.com for more information.


3 Comments

Jimmy Matlosz Plus

Nice job man. I'd love to show you the live action short I made of a very similar theme. Good luck!

Jimmy

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