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Animator Nick Cross talks about working in the animation industry, and producing independent work including his upcoming feature-length film, Black Sunrise.

Animator Nick Cross talks about working in the animation industry, and producing independent work including his upcoming feature-length film, Black Sunrise.

If not for the sprawling, open market the internet provides, animators like filmmaker Nick Cross might be a dying breed. Instead, his independent films―chock-full of political undertones and unrelenting imagery―have garnered widespread acclaim and fans. Something that might not have been possible in a world dominated by kid-friendly, 3D-animated films.

Working off the unrestrained vibes of idol Stanley Kubrick and mentor John Kricfalusi (creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show), Cross has remained an independent spirit. Though he’s an accomplished commercial animator, he’s often bypassed studio work to pursue his own oeuvre. Projects like Yellow Cake, The Pig Farmer, and Perihelion are a few examples of his award-winning projects.


Forever committed to animation, Nick has decided to pursue his own feature-length film called Black Sunrise. Though the world of Black Sunrise is all but bright, it serves as a shining example of animation’s emerging future. One where it no longer takes 200 individuals to put a film together.

We reached out to Cross to check in on the film’s status and to hear some of his thoughts on technology within an animation context.

The main character walking down a dark, foreboding street.

The Creators Project: You’re an accomplished animation artist having worked for Disney, New Line Entertainment, and Nickelodeon. What function do your independent films serve for you?

Nick Cross: They spread out of my commercial work. You end up feeling frustrated doing commercial work, of doing the same thing all the time. It’s a way to branch out―to explore my own creativity. Generally, I work for a lot of TV shows, and it can get sort of repetitive. I get a lot of ideas and I need a way to let them all out. It’s become its own side project. A hobby.

You do a splendid job of immersing yourself in your films, so how do you filter out any ambient noise stemming from your commercial work?

They’re pretty seperate, I think. The commercial work I do, a lot of the times, is in TV production, which works kind of like an assembly line. So, you’re responsible for just one small aspect of the production. I mostly do storyboards, so you just work from a script. Everything is laid out for you; it’s really not that creative. So there isn’t a lot of overlap with my own work and the work I do commercially.


Considering the heavier elements of your independent films, have you ever had any professional conflicts spring up?

Not really. In fact, I’ve gotten a lot of jobs from them. Like a lot more jobs than I would have gotten if I had never done them. People see my work, and then they’re like, “Oh, we want you to do something like that for our show.” Someone will see the backgrounds from one of my shorts and say, “We want you to do the backgrounds for this pilot we’re working on.” So, surprisingly, even though there’s noncommercial elements to them, it doesn’t turn anyone off. That I know of, anyway.

So, because of the positive reception you’ve received, you don’t self-censor at all?

No. That’s why I do them on my own. That way, I don’t have to feel censored. I don’t have to feel like I need to cater to someone else’s whims. They’re just ideas that I have, and I let them out. So, there’s no filter at all. That’s the nice thing about it, as opposed to going the route of trying to get my own TV show, or pitching a movie to a studio. Therefore, I don’t really have to worry about any form of self-censorship. If an idea emerges, I just do it.

Dream sequence complete with fire-breathing wolf.

Speaking of heavier elements, Perihelion, is a tribute to the work of artists, like Otto Dix and Max Ernst, who lived in a time of Fascism and impending war. Does your work tap into a similar zeitgeist today?


It mostly concerns stuff I just happen to be interested in. Yeah, it just happens the be the art movement that I like. That turn of the century, German surrealism. Working on my feature, I’ve been looking at a lot of art to get inspired. A lot of imagery didn’t have a place, so I was just sketching out ideas. And I decided to put together an independent short to get some of those ideas out. They were just a bunch of disparate images until they started to make sense in my head. So, I decided to put them all together. I’m also tapping into the political situation of the world. I like politics and that factors in as well.

Black Sunrise doesn’t seem to portray a utopia by any means. Where do you think deep-seated visions of the future as some scary dystopia come from?

When I came up with the idea for it, I had been watching a lot of YouTube, and I fell down this rabbit hole of conspiracy theory documentaries. I started watching some of them and found them really fascinating―that kind of worldview. It got me thinking, “Gee, wouldn’t it be weird if the world that they believe in was real?” That’s what the inspiration was: trying to imagine a world where this oppressive police state or one-world government exists. That’s where the dark imagery comes from. It’s my take on the New World Order crowd. It’s become its own little subculture.

After exploring that online world, where would you say that culture of paranoia comes from? From an unfounded distrust of technology perhaps?


It’s a little bit of everything. A lot of people have theories about it, about where all these conspiracy theories come from. I’m not really sure. Everyone has their own reason for believing in what they do. You can do a whole research paper trying to figure out why. The internet breeds that sort of thing because just about anyone can be an expert. Everyone is capable of piecing together little bits of information even if they’re not connected. The human brain always tries to find patterns so it’s easy to want to connect the dots, even if it doesn’t make any sense.

A secret cabal of faceless people watch over an interrogation.

Keeping on the subject of technology, taking on a feature-length film by yourself seems mind boggling even in this day and age. How has technology assisted you in pursuing your first full-length animation film (Black Sunrise)?

That’s the only way I can do it. Even when I started doing films, you used to have to draw it all out on paper and then scan everything in. It was an immensely laborious process despite everything being digitized. But now with animation software, and tablets where you can draw everything directly on the program, it’s allowed me to work at a rate I would have never imagined possible even a few years ago. It’s what allowed me to make the leap. I realized it was within reach. And other people are doing [their own feature-length animation films] too. Bill Plympton has been doing it for a while. Nina Paley is another. And there’s a guy in New York named Elliot Cowan, who’s doing a feature by himself. Technology now allows people to do that.


Can you touch on some of the technological innovations taking hold of the animation world. Is there anything that has you particularly excited?

The biggest one is the internet. It’s not a new technology anymore, but with video being so good, it has opened up the world of distribution. It opens up an alley that didn’t exist before. So, it gives you an opportunity to put your work out there to millions of people. On YouTube, for example, there’s people making their living just by putting out animation. Something that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.

Going back to Black Sunrise. One of the more visceral images in the latest trailer shows a billboard sign that reads, ‘Freedom is just a click away.’ What inspired that?

Advertising tells you things that aren’t really true. So it’s like wish fulfillment. I actually think it’s a real billboard I saw from a travel agency website at some point. It seemed interesting to include that in a world where people really aren’t free. Maybe to play with the idea that clicking on a website doesn’t really make you free. So bringing up the illusion of freedom through technology is the idea.

All images courtesy of Nick Cross.