Animated films typically require a team of dozens of artists working full-time, but Nova Seed isn't your typical animated film. An old-school 2D sci-fi adventure in the vein of Saturday morning cartoons, the 80-minute movie is animated entirely by one set of hands, belonging to Nick DiLiberto. By the end of the four-year project, those hands were so blistered that he was forced to cover them in Band-Aids, athletic wrap, and a glove.
“At a normal studio this would commonly happen, once it does, you take a break. But in this case, I was getting so much done that if I took a day off, it was like the entire staff taking a few days off. I had to get re-used to drawing all over again. Now if I take the glove off, I feel naked,” says DiLiberto.
DiLiberto's path to auteur illustrator started long before the first sketches of the half-lion Neo Animal Combatant was tasked with saving the world from Dr. Mindskull in Nova Seed. It began with a 2D animation degree from Sheridan College in his native Canada, where his lack of formal drawing background put him at a disadvantage to the other students.
“The first year and a half, I was doing bad. Everyone else grew up drawing Disney, they seemed higher in skill. But I'm a Saturday morning guy, I was used to drawing cartoon characters holding guns and stuff,” says DiLiberto.
That changed thanks to a class taught by Ricardo Curtis, whose House of Cool Studios worked with DiLiberto on post-production and distribution for Nova Seed. Soon DiLiberto's rougher style, reminiscent of MTV's Liquid Television or cartoon classics like Thundercats, rebounded him to the top of his class
Edmonton-based gaming company BioWare gave him his first professional experience taking storyboards to completed scenes, then after BioWare he moved with his girlfriend to Japan, taking animation jobs at a pair of studios while working on his first short film, Medusa. The two-minute battle scene eschewed traditional static camera framing for the type of psychedelic perspective work that characterizes Nova Seed's action sequences.
Throughout his gaming career, one theme stood out: he was much faster than his fellow animators. At BioWare, his coworkers might produce five scenes for Mass Effect, while DiLiberto made 25.
Even so, collaboration slowed down his process. By becoming his own cottage industry he did away with many of the inefficiencies that stem from traditional project workflows. Conventionally each character requires a three dimensional model sheet so that the team can maintain uniformity. DiLiberto skipped that stage, keeping the concepts in his head and improvising physical details on the fly. Similarly the level of detail typical on first pass sketches didn't need to be as high, since he'd be the one completing them.
“A lot of what slows down animation is telling the next person what to do. If I draw something really scribbly, I have to leave a lot of notes for the next guy. The same guy needs to leave notes for the in-between drawings. I skip all of those notes, I have it all in my head,” says DiLiberto.
But no matter how efficient the workflow, an 80-minute film is still a seemingly impossible task. DiLiberto estimates the film includes roughly 1,000 scenes, which required a pace of one scene a day to meet his self-imposed four-year deadline. That meant 15-hour to 18-hour days—the type of schedule that can't be maintained if any part of the process feels like a chore. If you're going to animate a film on your own, you need to love every minute.
“It's a weird thing in my brain, I really do enjoy every job. I even punch my own animation paper. Nobody wants to do that, that's why they sell it prepunched. Scanning would be the next job you'd give to the intern, but for me it's an opportunity to take a break and look at the artwork,” says DiLiberto.
The advantage of this gluttonous approach is an omnipotent level of creative control. In the wrong hands that could lead to disaster, but with Nova Seed it results in a product that feels child-like in the best way. The universe is as idiosyncratic as a daydream and feels as spontaneous as a doodle, mixing mad scientist sci-fi tropes with the type of toy action that fills the sandboxes of elementary school boys. That element of play is amplified thanks to vehicle sound effects DiLiberto creates not only in-house, but in-mouth.
“I did all the temp sound effects with my own voice. I was imagining the sound effects you'd make when you're playing as a kid. There's an area in the opening fight where a sword hits a wall and it makes a shiinnnng sound. I wanted it to be in the uncanny valley, if it's too obvious, it becomes a joke,” says DiLiberto.
Another advantage of the auteur approach is geographic freedom. After a few years in Japan, DiLiberto and his wife lamented that they couldn't return to Canada to visit family. Leaving his full-time job and collaborating with Toronto-based House of Cool on post-production freed up their schedule to return to Canada much more frequently.
“By making my own studio, I was able to balance my family in Canada while living in Japan. That was a major decision we made together, it helped my wife get on board,” says DiLiberto.
But despite the freedom of travel, a project of that magnitude takes its toll in other ways.
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“The disadvantage is that it's fully time-consuming. You almost have to sacrifice your favorite thing. I am a die-hard film fan, I love going to the movie theater even if there's nothing good playing, but I don't even remember the last time I watched a movie. To make a movie, there's no time for enjoying film, and that sucks.”
Nova Seed is playing film festivals and currently seeking broader distribution.