I've never met Carson Mell in person, but judging from the sound of his voice and his fondness for the Southwest, I'm guessing he's a beefed up man's man who knows which plants are poisonous by their smell and how to spear an antelope with the head of a cactus. Wait--just Google imaged him and he's actually sort of nerdy looking--not at all what I was expecting. Doesn't matter, after watching Carson's animated shorts I feel like I'm ready to move to the desert, start a band, experiment liberally with psychedelics and come to some greater understanding about what it means to be a man (because I'm pretty frail and have been told I have "dainty" wrists).
Carson's films combine amazing artwork with storylines that wouldn't seem out of place in a literary journal or a great collection of short stories. It's fitting, then, that all of Carson's animated shorts have been published by Wholphin, the video arm of McSweeney's literary empire. Carson's also written a novel, Saguaro: The Life and Times of Bobby Allen Bird. Bobby is a recurring character in Carson's shorts, he's a washed up musician who has lived enough lives and wild times for a couple Willie Nelsons and maybe one Mick Jagger. All of the characters in Carson's work seem to have something desperate about them, and it's that desperation that makes the cartoons, with Carson's mouth superimposed over theirs, so tangible. They all used to be something more than they are now--it's like listening to your grandfather's stories, except instead of boring crap about walking uphill to school both ways and the economic fluctuations of a bottle of Coke, it's about shooting heroin into a Monkeys head and waking up in Fresno in your own vomit with a pocket full of tortilla chips and a fucked up tattoo on your neck.
Carson lives in LA where he works for Xenon, the guys behind the blaxploitation classic, Dolemite. He's recently taken a short break from his films and has just finished his second novel. I spoke with Carson about his work.
Where are you from?
I knew it, the southwest seems to play a major theme in your work.
Yeah, you know, setting things where you're from makes it easier. It's like John Hughes setting everything in Chicago. I was kind of nervous about setting so much of my stuff in Phoenix, but when I noticed John Huges did that with Chicago I was like, "Oh, you can get away with that."
You live in LA now, how do you like being surrounded by all the big budget, fancy pants film people? Do they ever piss you off?
It's just two different worlds almost. It's not bad because you can get work through those avenues, like the company that I work for most of the time is a B movie picture company but I don't think that they could exist anywhere but LA.
What company do you work for?
It's called Xenon, and their big thing is that they put out Rudy Ray Moore's Dolemite catalog. Do you know him at all?
The blaxploitation guy?
Yeah, Rudy Ray Moore was a huge "blaxploitation" star, but it wasn't really blaxploitation because he funded and made all the movies himself, so it wasn't really the same genre. But they put out his catalog and I was obsessed with him when I was back in Phoenix, and then I actually got to work with him on his last movie, Dolomite Explosion, but he passed away over a year ago now so I don't know if it'll ever come out.
Living in LA, do you feel like there's some sort of pressure to make your films more marketable, or something that will be accepted by a wider audience?
Possibly, the funny thing is I sort of imagine my things to be marketable, and it's only after I finish them and people tell me how weird it is that I realize I haven't done that.
I mean, I love the films, and it's just my opinion, but it seems like you have sort of a niche audience.
Yeah, I definitely want to have wide appeal. And if I'm not there yet I guess it's my goal. Not in a cheap way though, I want to get there naturally. I always think of The Simpsons and Seinfeld as the ultimate goal, you know? Something that isn't dumbed down yet it somehow reaches a level where everyone's into it. I mean, my narration is probably what's keeping it contained in a literary crowd more than anything. Also, the means of distribution, because having them published on Wholphin is how most people see them. That's the cool thing about YouTube though--with Chonto I've had a quarter million hits and I can tell from the comments that it's not all well-read people that are enjoying it, and that's a good thing.
Speaking of literary crowds, you wrote a novel called Saguaro: The Life and Adventures of Bobby Allen Bird. Where'd you get the idea for that character?
It was just a voice I started writing in when I made the first cartoon about him. The book is sort of like tall tales in the vein of rock and roll. I just started incorporating elements of my favorite musicians and what I imagine their personalities to be. I could never get it quite right though, so it just ended up taking on a life of its own.
I always sort of imagined him to be based on you or maybe your dad.
You know, that's probably the best compliment I can get, and it's a common idea, but it's pretty opposite from the truth.
Have you written any other books?
I just finished a much longer novel about a country band called The Blue Bourbon Orchestra. I got an agent while I was writing the last book, so he's reading it right now and I'm waiting to see what's gonna happen.
You sound like the narrations in your films, but there's a lack of credits at the end of your stuff except for Field Notes, which was narrated by Tom Kostan, who also sounds suspiciously like you. Do you usually narrate your own stuff, or have someone else do it?
Yeah, other than Tom Kostan on Field Notes, I've done all the voices myself which is something I'm gonna keep doing to a certain extent for the characters I've already established. I want to start getting away from it more and more though, mostly because of how happy I was working with Tom on that one.
What's your work process? I picture you sitting down with a fifth of Jose Cuervo and a peyote button, locking yourself in a studio for a couple days, and coming out with a new film.
Well, I can drink a little bit when I write, but I do mostly everything sober. I like exploring drugs in my work because it lets me get psychedelic and surreal while still keeping it really grounded. But yeah, I'm a pretty sober guy.
Is Field Notes gonna be a series, or a feature film? Or are you gonna leave it as is?
I'm toying with the idea right now, that's definitely one of the things I might do next is a feature based on that character. I have the whole story figured out but I just haven't written it down. I wanted to make it so that it could exist on its own and be kind of a mysterious thing that feels like a piece of something, but at the time I didn't have anything else to go with it, that was it.
How'd you get into making films?
Just goofing around with my dad's video camera. The whole thing has been really gradual. I never thought it would be taken seriously, especially because when I first moved to LA I submitted the short films I was making to a bunch of festivals and didn't get into any of them. So I sort of gave up on that, but I just kept making them for fun and then Wholphin came along, which is a really good venue to publish in. That was really encouraging because they actually pay you.
You've had a few things with them right?
Yeah, they've published all the cartoons. We were gonna try to do every odd numbered issue but I fell behind, so I've just been working on the novel for the past year and a half and haven't done any cartoons, but I'm hoping to get some more done in the near future.
Do you have any formal training? Did you go to school for this stuff or anything?
No, I'm self-taught. My dad's an artist, he was an illustrator and a landscape artist. He taught me a lot, so I guess I'm not really self taught, but no school. I always did really bad in art school. I went through a semester of film school but it didn't sit well with me. I always wanted to find a trade school, but it seemed like there was too much theory involved with all the classes.
You've also done some live-action stuff with your cousin. Do you like doing animated or live-action more?
I like the chaos factor of live-action, but the thing that makes it a nightmare is what makes it so good. A bunch of the shorts I did with my cousin are unscripted, so improv couldn't be any more different than sitting alone in your bedroom with a camera on your mouth, trying not to move as you recite dialogue you've rewritten ten times. With animation you can hyper control it, and I like that aspect of it, so it really depends on the story. As far as scripted live-action, I always have a really hard time with it, but I like improv live-action.
I like how you slap clean animation on top of actual photos, who are some of your influences, or how did you arrive at that style?
My friends were putting out this video magazine a bunch of years ago, and I was making my first cartoon for it, The Writer. The deadline was coming up and I had to draw all these woodsy backgrounds and alien planets and things, so I just took photos instead. I liked the way it looked and people have responded really positively to it so I just kept doing that. It was just a functional thing. Also, I don't like drawing backgrounds.
Well it looks really good.
Thanks, and the cool thing is is that I get to leave my room. Because I work in my room and it gets kind of boring, but that gives me a photo scavenger hunt.
What are you working on now?
I just finished that novel like a week ago, and I'm trying to figure out whether or not to do a feature Field Notes. I'm also working on some short cartoons about some university professors who all teach at the same college. I kind of want to develop the setting of like a Springfield, but that's it, a couple short cartoons and a feature.