When I think of Zombie Cat Studios”, I imagine a mesh of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Andy Warhol’s Factory, early Industrial Light And Magic and maybe a touch of Sesame Street. Love the community vibe.
Omg. That is the most amazing description. Zombie Cat is constantly evolving. It has been an adventure finding our place in the world. Its a balance of figuring out how to get paid while using the shop to produce our own art but you can absolutely see all of those things happening within our walls.
How did Zombie Cat come about? Great name by the way.
Years and years ago, two of my friends actually came up with the name when we were making a series of silly youtube videos. Lightsaber battles and fake movie trailers and the like. Eventually, they found other things to do with their lives and I kept the name. If I had realized that I would be going to so far with the name, I probably would have thought about it at least a little longer but when you start building something and people start associating you with a name, there’s no going back. It has worked out okay for us. I don’t want to ever take myself too seriously so it is more fitting than I probably want to admit. As far as the studio as a whole, that was mostly to fill a need I saw. When I first became interested in working in the film industry full time, there was a place called Studio Outpost that existed. There was an entire community of filmmakers that were producing quality, serious work in different positions within the film industry using the space as their production hub. The only thing that I knew was that I needed to be around what was happening there. Fast forward two years later, our space functions for all of us a creation hub where we can all make each other better. Being artists/creators can be such a solitary experience.
When I first saw your work I instantly thought of Wayne White. Ever see his documentary, “Beauty Is Embarrassing“?
Ha! I always joke that everything I make is derivative of Wayne White in some way. I am only partly joking. “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” really did shape me in my youth in ways that I’m still unearthing. Recently Wayne had an art show in Chattanooga and a bunch of us traveled up there for it. I got him to sign the door to my “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” playset and tried to explain to him how much his work meant to me. Then I went off into the corner and cried like a weirdo. It was amazing.
You’ve worked with the Georgia Aquarium, numerous Film and TV projects, etc. Does the client often have a set idea for a project or do they just let you run wild with your collective imagination?
It depends on the project. Often times, the client knows EXACTLY what they want. If that is the case, then hopefully they listen to our experience when it comes to the actual design. When it comes to puppets, simpler is always better. And clients often have to be walked through the physics of what they want. Sometimes we do bids. A potential client will be interested in pieces that fall in a more abstract way. We submit designs/budgets/timelines along with other people and they decide whether to go with us. Both are equally as challenging just in different ways. Something like the Georgia Aquarium, we have to take into consideration who will be using the puppets and how long the puppet needs to last. Nothing is harder than making something light, amateur-friendly and long-lasting.
Zombie Cat embraces practical effects. Do you ever see yourselves steering towards digital effects in any capacity?
The most successful effects really are when someone marries practical and digital. A mind-blowing example of that recently is the crystal foxes on “The Last Jedi”. I don’t think we will personally ever handle any kind of digital effects in house but we have created a professional alliance with companies like Moonshine Post and Crafty Apes and have leaned on them more than once for help on digital effects on shows that I production design. I relish the opportunity to get to work with them more directly on bringing actual digital effects to life in relation to our puppets and creatures.
Loved “Magic: The Gathering – The Musical”. How does a unique project like that typically get developed from inception to finished product?
MTGTM was developed purely one night when I was drinking with friends and listening to showtunes just like totally normal cool people do and a song from Jesus Christ Superstar came on. There is a line in which Judas is speaking to Jesus and says “You would have managed better if you’d had it all planned”. I got hysterical laughing at the idea of a MTG tournament, someone singing “You would have managed better if you’d added land”. [Spending Land AKA Mana is how you cast spells in MTG]. It was so silly but the idea didn’t let go. Mostly I knew I wanted to make a film about tournament day in a comic shop. I was always fascinated by the dynamics between the tabletop kids versus the roleplaying kids versus the comics kids versus the anime kids in a comic shop. The one thing that non-geeky folk don’t understand is that no geek fandom is the same. Obviously, things overlap but everybody definitely doesn’t get along. The choice to make the film solely with puppets came out of necessity. I realized that on a puppet scale we could build our locations ourselves and there were no limitations to what we wanted to do. We didn’t have permission from Wizards of the Coast to use any of their intellectual properties so the limitation of having to make our own cards and art and props, inadvertently created the wildest design. The actual production just ended up being a ton of Atlanta film and puppet people coming together for an incredibly fun shoot. People ask all the time how you get people to help with your project. The answer is simply make something worth people’s time and then feed them well.
How cool is it seeing your fabricated art on a show like “Atlanta”. How has your experience been on that set?
Set decorating the first season of “Atlanta” is still one of the highlights of my career. Not just because of the acclaim that has followed it. The experience on set was truly collaborative in a way that you only get on a show that size. It was amazing how much trust FX put in Donald and that trust trickled down. I would say even after production designing so much this year, I can see more of my ideas and work directly represented in the first season of “Atlanta” than on anything I’ve done since. They deserve every bit of success that they have had. I can’t wait to see what happens with the new season.
I think that is crazy that you were able to create your own Phone Card machine for “Atlanta”. Impressive.
That was so much fun! That set, in general, was a library converted to a jail intake area. We scouted lots of locations and the phone card machine is one of the things that we saw in every holding area and it is something that no local prop houses had. Nobody in the show had expressed wanting the machine. It was something that Timmy O’Brien, the production designer really thought that we needed and after not being able to find one, I didn’t hesitate at the prospect of just making one. Hopefully, it adds a realism to the set that people that have been through that experience will appreciate. Working in the art dept is always about the little details that often never make it on screen. Luckily that one did.
How fun is the DragonCon parade? Do the fans go nuts?
The Dragoncon parade is one of the single most insane experiences. It’s always funny bc you line up so long before the parade starts and so you start to get tired just standing around. But when you come around that corner and it is just the roar of people, your adrenaline will not let you down. The highlight was getting to build the worm from Labyrinth to walk beside Karen Prell (puppeteer of the Worm and Junk Lady in Labyrinth). She mentioned to Beau Brown who is the director of the puppetry track a desire to do something special for the anniversary of Labyrinth for the convention and he immediately called me. He started the conversation with “This is going to be a lot of work but….” It was 100% worth it. Karen was incredible, the reception to the Worm was incredible, and we got to show off our skills to our puppetry peers who are top notch at the convention. Beau brings in incredible puppetry guests from all over the world.
Will we see any more of “Pepper’s Place”?
Aw, man. I hope so! It’s funny that every time I start working on another project, something happens with Pepper’s Place that puts me back to working on that as opposed to my new idea. We keep getting a little bit of traction. Lots of people have seen the project and a few networks are aware of it. The hope is that as I am building my career in the industry, people will trust me more to produce the project myself. That’s the dream. We are posed with three seasons of the show written so we only need the go-ahead.
How do you enjoy working with the Goat Farm? You both share that commune sensibility.
Absolutely. And it’s interesting to watch their growth as well. Every year, their community, mission statement and business plan change a little to adapt to the changes in the industry, artistic climate and just what people are producing in Atlanta. It is why they will be around 20 years from now. They consistently are trying to further the art industry as a whole in Atlanta and contribute to building something tangible here. Those are all things that we strive for as well and are hopefully successfully adapting to.
You wear many hats. Set Decorator, Production Designer, Props, Actress, Writer & Director. Any preference or do you enjoy each of those roles?
I do enjoy all of them. I definitely would never claim to be an actor. I get to make little appearances in the things that me and my friends do, but acting isn’t something that I would ever strive for. There are people that are just brilliant at it and work very hard and that isn’t me. I have so much appreciation for actors. My end goal really is just to create content. Production designing, writing and directing all feed that need. It obviously depends on the job as to how much input you really have but I have been very lucky to be able to chase the creative relationships over the money. Getting to have ideas that you have help make telling a story better in some way is the most incredible feeling. I don’t have an ego that needs credit. I just like being a part of something.
I know you are invested in Geek Culture. Do you ever fangirl out on sets like “The Walking Dead”, “The Vampire Diaries” or “Stan Against Evil”?
It was incredibly surreal starting out in the industry. I definitely wouldn’t say that I have become jaded but I rarely get overly excited about the people that I am working with. I think it’s more about the experience. The first time walking through security to a studio stage, the first time visiting a set that was shooting miniatures, puppeteering a creature on a show, it can get emotional and doesn’t seem real sometimes. Probably one of the most fangirl moments that I had was meeting Dana Gould on Stan Against Evil. I am an incredible fan of his work and his career. And not only have I gotten to work closely with him, I’ve gotten to contribute to the show in incredible ways and he has put a lot of trust in me. He also has watched Pepper’s Place, loved it and shared it with his kids. Seriously. How did we get this lucky?
How cool was it being a part of “Too Many Cooks”?
I had no idea what we were making at the time. The script was essentially a collection of scenes and as we shot them, I seriously turned to people multiple times and asked what in the world we had gotten ourselves into. It was a ton of friends hanging out on a stage and making weird fun stuff together. It’s kind of magical. I think some of that magic made it on screen. There were no strangers on that set. I also think that Paul Painter deserves some kind of Telly or Emmy for that editing job that he did on that thing. So good.
What’s your involvement with the Atlanta Film Podcast?
Chuck Thomas is one of my fellow Zombie Cat residents and has co-written almost all of my projects with me. We were trying to go out and network like film people do, but pretty much continued to talk to each other exclusively like the socially awkward people that we are. At the same time we had spoken many of times perplexed why no one was doing a local film podcast. We realized that if that is something that was missing, we were just as responsible in needing to make it happen as anybody else and in the meantime it would force us to practice talking about ourselves and our own work. I feel like people that naturally come by the hustle have a superpower. After that the podcast really took on a life of it’s own. We have been going for over three years, an episode a week. There are spinoff series and we are hosted on multiple websites with over 165 episodes. Anything that we can do to build the community and make it stronger. We all benefit from the growth of our peers.
What’s next for Zombie Cat?
Hopefully, we keep evolving. 2017 has been an incredible year for me as a production designer and I am shooting a short film on 16mm mid-December. Everyone in the shop has come such a long way in their careers in the last couple of years and as we all keep growing in different impressive directions, Zombie Cat is the anchor that brings us all together. We bring out the best of each other as builders and artists and people. I wouldn’t want to be doing this with anybody else.