Caricature is about Honesty

The last few weeks have definitely been interesting for me.  One of the things I’m happy about is I finally got both of my Toon Boom animation software programs all paid off, Storyboard Pro 3D and Harmony, which is my current 2D animation software.  So I am currently in Cartoon Happyland in my little office space! 

What I love most about working with Storyboard Pro is that it’s really been a blessing in disguise in bringing me back as a filmmaker, where I can make films instantly without having to scan drawings, and having the ability to time out the action right in the computer and make the film as I’m drawing it.  Over the holidays, I made 3 “fake/gag storyreels” as personal gifts for my friends.  The first one was a fake trailer, which was less than 2 minutes.  For the next one I got even more elaborate and worked to tell a complete story, which ended at about 8 minutes in length.  That film was made for a group of several people I hang out with, and makes fun of every single one of them.  However, while that film got a lot of laughs, I feel the story petered out a little bit at the end when I had to wrap things up.  Part of it was that I was in a rush to get it done before Christmas, and the last time we were getting together before then, so I don’t think I quite hit the exact note I wanted to end it on.  It ends fine, but it could have been better.  

It wasn’t until I got to the third story reel I made, one I did for a close friend, that I started to feel more comfortable with myself.  That story reel ran about 10 minutes, 30 seconds, and while there are a few scenes that went a little long, its the best paced, has my favorite ending out of all of them, and the story itself feels much tighter.   

Since the story reels were gifts I can’t really post them publiclyBut working on them and starting to make films again was not only a thrill, but it only took me making those three films before I started feeling comfortable with myself again as a storyteller, so long after I’ve graduated from Cal Arts.  I’m not saying it’s going to be easy for me from now on, because the process of making movies and telling a story can be really fucking hard!  But there were a lot of important things I had lost for awhile that started to come back to me.  

All three of these films were parodies.  I find that there are MANY filmmakers out there who don’t understand how to use parody properly.  What I mean is, most filmmakers use it arbitrarily for the sake of being clever in their stories.  I’m more of the mind that parody is a device that should be used when you feel you have something personal you want to say with it.  The greatest examples of this would be the early films of Mel Brooks, such as Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.  The reason those two films stand out among the rest of the parody films he did is he actually had something personal invested in those films.  Blazing Saddles, of course is a reflection of the times, making a hero out of a black man in a world that’s against him (You could have learned a thing or two about this, Tarantino…timing is everything).  With Young Frankestein, not only is Young Frankenstein a wonderful film, but you can tell this movie was important to Brooks.  It manages to construct its own story within the parody, and in a heartfelt moment, the message of the film is portrayed beautifully in Peter Boyle’s speech at the end.  I don’t care for Spaceballs or Men in Tights as much because to me those films are more straight riffs on the original subjects.  But like I said, parody is a device, and should be used as just that.  In the case of making my fake story reels, parody was used as the framework, partially because it gave me something to work with when I wrote the story.  With this in mind, I just went straight ahead and started drawing the story, making it up as I went along, seeing where the story would take me.  I’d walk away for awhile if I got stuck, but really it’s more of a matter of figuring out what I want to say about the person or the people I was making fun of.  

Along the way, it was a matter of finding things that would make me laugh out loud.  It’s a lot harder when you work on an industry project and figure out what‘s going to make everybody in the world laugh as opposed to one or a few of your friends.  But in making it for my friends, its not entirely without risk, especially when I had something pretty truthful I wanted to say, even when that meant going for a really raunchy or racist gag…I may be laughing my ass off drawing it, but in the back of my mind I would be wondering weather that person is going to kick my ass!  For me, its not a matter of playing to my friends sense of humor, but in a playful funny way, finding a sense of truth about who that person is.  Even though I’ll rib somebody pretty hard, I still have to make sure it doesn’t go too far and I wind up hurting them.  Sometimes going far means telling somebody how you really feel about them,  but if you know a person well enough that they can handle it, it might result in some serious blushing, they’re is an appreciation behind it that you were willing to tell someone how you really felt about them.  I made the second film for my group of film historian friends.  When I hang out with them on a regular basis, they always made jokes about how quiet I was sitting in the corner, because I would rarely say anything when I was with them….at least until I made a film tearing them up!  After I showed them the film, one of my friends came over and said “Now I know why you were so quiet all this time…you were taking NOTES!”  

The other thing too is that when I caricature people, it always varies person to person.  Sometimes the personality trait that always comes out of the person I’m making fun of is the one people least suspect, but they still manage to respond to.  For instance, I have one friend who is a stand up comic.  He’s “always on” when he’s around his friends, doing impressions, making jokes, and getting excited about things in general.  He’s an actor, what can I say.  I’ve done a lot of caricatures of this person, but the funny thing I noticed is that when I play him as a character in a comic or in the storyreel, I almost always play him just the opposite of who he is in real life.  It’s not done on purpose, it’s just what came out of me when I would draw him.  In my cartoons he’s not after attention or trying to mug the camera.  But people who look at the comic and see the caricature still recognize that it’s him.  I suppose its my connection to him as a friend, and what I also see of myself in him…the quiet observer.  

In college, sometimes when I would see my animator friends do caricatures of other people, but many times I felt they didn’t always go after the most truthful observation.  The caricature they did of someone either only tackles how the person acts on the surface, or is merely playing up the artists style of drawing, but it never quite captures the actual person behind the facade.  When we do our work as cartoonists, I think one of the most important aspects of our job is not being afraid of offending people, especially if you feel you have something truthful to say about them.  If you are doing caricatures of your friends, it has to a lot with the company you keep and how far you are willing to go to show that person who they really are.  Like I said, you wouldn’t want to go out of your way to personally hurt one of your friends, because it’s not about out right attacking them, but instead the idea is holding up a mirror of truth.  

One of my best friends is not an artist or a cartoonist, but he once did a cartoon stick drawing of me with my Indian name, Chief Head In The Clouds, with a picture of me dressed as an Indian and a cloud covering my head.  He did this many years ago, and at the time the cartoon made me blush, because it’s true!  I’m off in another world much of the time and don’t always see where I’m going.  But the truth of the drawing is neither a slam or is it saying something negative either.  It’s about giving a person insight into someones own personality.  

On a much larger scale, this ability to caricature is a strong part of our job as cartoonists and storytellers.  It’s our job to give people insight into themselves, by holding up the mirror and saying, “this is you.”  This is who we are as people.  A show like South Park is one of the most successful examples of this which, through humor, cuts straight to the heart of the problems of our current society.  We really need more stories and cartoons that speak to people right now about current issues, about the things that are currently going on in the world that show us as a society where we are.  I’m not talking about just finding what’s “popular”, but tapping into the emotions of what people are currently feeling about the world around them.    The films I made for my friends are personal gifts, but at the same time I also found them to be important practice for being honest and having something to say, at least for the day I’m ready to take my abilities on a much bigger scale.  

One of my biggest cartoonist inspirations growing up was Berkeley Breathed, creator of the comics Bloom County, Outland, and numerous children‘s books.  Bloom County and Outland talk about A LOT about political/social topics that were happening in the early 80’s and 90’s.  But they are cutthroat and truthful (in a hilarious way), and also reveal the voice of many people frustrated with the serious ongoing problems happening in the world. Topical cartoons such as this also give people historical insight into what the people were really feeling about themselves, the government, etc. during that point in history.  Breathed was in his 20’s when he made Bloom County, but what’s great about his age then is seeing how much of that insight he had as an artist when he was at that young age.  It takes courage, and a good amount of pissing people off to really get to the heart of something.  The thing is, the truth is always going to piss people off at first (or at least make them blush if they can take it), especially when many of the people around us can be so far in denial about themselves.  But it can also open eyes and give understanding…there are people who are listeners with the ability to open up, even if they’re unsure or don’t agree with what you’re saying right away.  The important thing is you have their attention.  



Being completely truthful and honest is the most important aspect to understanding caricature.  It takes courage to step outside and show people what you really feel inside, even if its something as personal as a joke cartoon for your friends.  It’s not about jabbing, its about the wall coming down for a brief moment, when you are willing to show people the real you, and what you feel about the world around you.  

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