Filmmaker, comics artist and writer Dash Shaw’s parents were hippies. When his dad was a young man, he even lived in the Haight-Ashbury — specifically on Haight Street. When Shaw was a little boy, he came across a box in a crawl space in his family’s home and discovered treasure: his father’s collection of tarot cards and a pile of Zap Comix, the underground comic books created by Robert Crumb that were produced in San Francisco.
Shaw’s mind flashed back to that memory when he was writing “Cryptozoo,” his new animated feature set in the late 1960s, which was supported by the SFFilm Makers program and earned him the POV Award at April’s SFFilm Festival. In it, the hero, Lauren Gray (voiced by Lake Bell), travels the world rescuing cryptids — mythological creatures such as a unicorn, a Pegasus and a kraken — and bringing them to the sanctuary of the titular San Francisco zoo.
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“A lot of this imagery is associated in my mind with my parents, so that’s why” I set it there, Shaw said during a recent video interview with The Chronicle from his home in Richmond, Va. “Also, while I was writing this, I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library. One of the other fellows there was researching counterculture newspapers from the 1960s … and they all had this utopian spirit.”
“Cryptozoo” is a partnership between Shaw, who wrote and directed the film, and wife Jane Samborski, who is its animation director and a producer and who painted most of the cryptids. The movie, which won the Next Innovator Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is kind of a gift to Samborski from Shaw, who took his inspiration from her participation in an all-women Dungeons & Dragons group. It is their second film together, after Samborski served as a one-person animation department on Shaw’s 2016 debut feature, “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.”
“I would say I’m trying to marry what Jane is doing with other elements of the movie,” Shaw said. “I feel like Jane is the one with a specific character’s movement of performance in her head, and I’m the only person with the thrust of the whole movie in my head.”
“When things end up on my desk, it’s my responsibility to make sure that they’re married with the other images that I have and that the voices of each of the artists involved is shining through,” Samborski confirmed, in the joint video interview. “I’m also physically doing a lot of the animation. I did a ton of the drawing and painting.”
When Shaw made that first movie, he designed the characters before casting the voices, certain that his little independent project would never attract top talent. When Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Susan Sarandon and other stars signed on, not being able to use his voice actors’ faces and bodies for physical reference felt like a missed opportunity. It was not a mistake he would make twice.
“So much of a movie is looking at the characters, and you want those faces to be really interesting,” Shaw said, using Bell as an example. “Her face suggested these Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti paintings of Jane Morris, that iconic fantasy art look that you see on posters but that I hadn’t seen in a movie before. If it was a different actor, the character would have looked different and I think it would have been a very different movie.”
“That also translates to physical movement,” Samborski added. “I could get all this physicality out of her, because it’s believable. It was fun, too. The character design suggested the way the character ought to behave.”
When it came to populating the zoo, Shaw and Samborski leaned into world mythology, striving to fill the movie with fantastical creatures that personally excited the couple. At the heart of the story is the baku, a nightmare-eating Japanese being dating to the late Middle Ages with roots in Chinese folklore. The baku saved Lauren from bad dreams when she was a child. Now, she wants to save it from an American military bent on capturing and weaponizing it.
“Movies can be so dreamlike when they’re working well, so the idea of a dream-eating creature felt like a great centerpiece,” Shaw said.
An under-construction Walt Disney World Epcot Center makes a cameo appearance in “Cryptozoo,” presaging an argument over whether the zoo is really a refuge for cryptids or, with its exhibits and gift shops, a theme park exploiting its otherworldly inhabitants. Shaw, who has been interested in theme parks for a long time, wanted to explore how Disney’s “idealistic vision for a city of the future … ended up actually being kind of like airports with fancy decorations,” Samborski explained.
“We’ve seen how so many of these utopian things of the ’60s have panned out, and it’s hard to look at that now without a melancholic edge,” Shaw said. “I love utopian art, but this particular movie is not that. This movie is more like ‘Jurassic Park.’”
“Cryptozoo” (not rated) is in theaters and available via video on demand starting Friday, Aug. 20.