Who Did the Animation for Keith Maitland’s Documentary Tower?
Minnow Mountain’s Craig Staggs talks art & drama & Austin & Earp
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
11:30AM, Fri. Mar. 25, 2016
The Tower documentary itself focuses, as Richard Whittaker points out in his recent review, on the victims and survivors and not the gunman who killed 14 people on the UT campus in 1966.
This article here focuses on the man responsible for the animation in that documentary.
The man responsible, in this case, is Craig Staggs – who, when we last spoke with him, was working on a comedy series called Earp, about the misadventures of that legendary Western lawman. As circumstances have it, the artist currently has an exhibition of his work up in Salvage Vanguard Theatre’s lobby gallery. But that show’s coming down after this very weekend, citizen, so you have only until Saturday night to see it.
Austin Chronicle: OK, here we are, because Tower has taken not just local accolades, not just SXSW accolades, but it’s being reported about all over the nation and all over the world.
Craig Staggs: Yeah, that’s crazy.
AC: How did you first get involved with this project?
CS: Keith hired Aaron Sacco and I to work on the trailer, way back when. Like 18, 19, maybe 20 months ago. And we were just for-hire animators. And from that, it kind of clicked and blossomed, as those things do. And after that, Keith approached me about maybe directing the animation, seeing if I could handle the volume that he expected it to be. And I’m silly and ambitious, so I said yes.
AC: So is this a Minnow Mountain joint, or is it your personal thing?
CS: It is a Minnow Mountain joint. We’re co-producers: I’m the animation director and Steph Swope is the Producer of Animation, that’s our team. It moved from trailer, to directing, to producing, to skin-in-the-game, to let’s make a movie.
AC: And what kind of animation team did you assemble, where’d you draw – ah, heh – where’d you draw the talent from?
CS: We had an 18-member team, most of them on-site, some of them off-site. Our production schedule was about 18 months. We sort of ramped up to full staff and then kept people as long as we could, so at the height it was 18 people. Which is the biggest staff I’ve ever run. Big job!
AC: Did you know all the animators already?
CS: Some of the senior artists were, like, guys I met on A Scanner Darkly. And some of them were people that we had worked with on Earp. Which we were working on when we booked this and put into hiatus so that we could make Tower. And now we’re coming back to it.
AC: You’re coming back to Earp?
CS: We’re back to Earp. After some sleep, we’re gonna be back to Earp.
CS: But working with Keith on Tower was just such a good opportunity, we didn’t want to pass it up. And Robert Lambert – who’s in Earp and produced us, financed us – he was kind enough to let us hold off and do this other job. And we weren’t sure if it was going to be a good business idea, but [laughs] now it seems to have softened the market a little bit.
AC: Yeah, this might open some doors.
CS: Yeah – and Chris Cubas is a little more famous, so we’ll see.
AC: There’s no way that Earp could continually be put on the back burner, right? Because now everybody wants you, like, “Can you do our project? Can you do our project? We’ll pay you more!”
CS: No, it’s time for Earp. I’m so tantalizingly close to finishing. So I just wanna do the due diligence to have it be good. We’ve been working on it for so long, and putting it off for so long. And it’ll appear like we’re having a great 2016, but it’ll be five or six years’ worth of work coming together all at once.
AC: You have a scheduled release date for Earp?
CS: We don’t. I’m not making any more promises until I’m done and have it in my hot little hands – and then we’ll see.
AC: Are you a native Austinite? One of that rare breed?
CS: I’m originally from Humble, which is near Houston – it’s a suburb. And I came to Austin in ‘95.
AC: Do you have any connections with any of the people who were killed or, ah, affected by the shooting?
CS: Nothing other than living in the community. It’s kind of the urban legend of Austin. But. no, I didn’t go to UT. I do have kind of a thing for smart girls, so I hung out on campus a lot –
CS: – but the university never got my tuition money, lemme put it that way.
AC: Working on Earp, you’ve got animation that’s definitely comedy animation. But with Tower, you’ve got something that’s not only real and documentary, but also fucking tragic. Was there a difference in the feel of working on it?
CS: Definitely, yeah. And it is unusual to use animation to do do drama – it’s rare. And this project was dangerously close to journalism. And I’m not smart enough to write like a journalist, but maybe I can draw like one. [laughs] But, yeah, it was a lot different. And I never thought that I’d be doing rotoscope drama or anything like that, but it was such an interesting process that I couldn’t turn down the challenge. And I guess we did all right.
AC: The response – both critical and popular – seems to indicate the answer is yes.
CS: I think everybody, including me, were like, “Are you sure? Animation?” But I’m not afraid of drama, I’m not afraid of filmmaking. And I like stories, and good comedy comes from stories. And even Tower has some funny moments in it – it’s not all tears. There’s a lot of tears, but there’s a lot of laughter – I know that’s weird to say, but you do laugh a few times.
AC: So Tower was rotoscoping, and Earp was all original animation?
AC: And what about the differences there? Do you prefer one style over another, or … ?
CS: Well, Earp is a lot lower of a budget. It's a lot more like your low-budget TV animation.
AC: Like South Park?
CS: Yeah, very similar in production level. And Tower was more like – a limousine. So the amount of time we spend drawing per second, per minute – it’s different. But I love the look of Earp. It’s a lot more working with digital puppets and that sort of approach, rather than doing frame-by-frame animation. But our voice-acting, the performers are so spot-on and hilarious, and so you, as an animator, just try to stay out of the way of the performances. So I can do real simple animation, and I can do cheats and stuff, as long as I know I’m not getting in the way of the performances – which are just gold.
AC: And if people head down to SVT this weekend, what will they see in your art exhibition there?
CS: Well, it’s billed as a poster show, but most of the pieces are India ink drawings of celebrities and popular icons. And then a few posters. And I’m featuring a poster called Levitation that is my sort of – I don’t wanna use the word send-off – I think of it as more of a celebration of the Salvage Vanguard location that will, um …
AC: Cease to exist?
CS: Cease to exist, exist only in our memories, that sort of thing. The poster’s inspired by a wish to kind of grab the theatre and put it in somebody’s backyard so we can all hang out on the front porch forever. And that poster will be available only at that show, and then it’s taken off the market.
AC: Do you have anything planned after Earp is wrapped, any other projects waiting?
CS: Well, I want to do a documentary about Texas swimming holes.
AC: Really? Like Hamilton Pool and all of those?
AC: That sounds like it could be … beautiful.CS: That’s what I’ve kind of been working on developing now. Something happy and light and colorful. We’re describing it as a truck commercial for goin’ swimmin’. AC: Dude, you could sell that to the Texas Chamber of Commerce or something.
CS: I hope so! So, if you’re reading this, Texas Chamber of Commerce … [laughter] But that’s the next thing after Earp. But we’re, you know, we’re so surprised by the response to Tower. And we realize that things may be a little different than we anticipated prior to winning three awards at South By. We were just glad to get a hit. We were wondering who was going to accept the weird little movie. So it’s been really sweet.