Featured Image for A conversation with Nate Theis, director and animator of ‘DRIVING’
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A conversation with Nate Theis, director and animator of ‘DRIVING’

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Road rage is a problem no matter where you go, and one talented animator and director knows the ins and outs of the issue more than most. Meet Nate Theis, the filmmaker behind DRIVING, one of our favourite short films of the year.

We caught up with Nate to ask him all about his short film, how he got into filmmaking, and how to break into the biz.

DRIVING had us experiencing the road rage your characters feel throughout the film! What made you create a film that explores this topic?

‘I tend to like cartoons that make fun of human nature and I’ve always been fascinated with how the stress of driving brings out the worst in people. As a kid, I saw an old Disney cartoon called “Motor Mania”. In it, Goofy is a mild-mannered suburbanite, but once he gets into a car he becomes a crazed psychopath. I realised that this cartoon was making fun of something I noticed the adults around me doing and I thought it was great. That cartoon stuck with me through the years and, since then, I’ve always paid attention to how we act when in our cars’.

Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process for this film? How long did it take to produce from start to finish?

‘The film took about nine months to produce. Before DRIVING, I hadn’t made a short film for a long time. I kept trying to get back to one, but work always seemed to get in the way. Eventually, I decided to save up for a few years so I could take time off and make this film.

‘For the most part, I think my creative process is pretty standard. I usually sit down with an idea and start doodling. I try to be really loose at this point and get down as many ideas, characters, styles, and gags as I can. I also start forming a sense of what the film might look like at this stage.

‘After that, I make a rough thumbnail storyboard. Again, I try to stay loose here and focus on how the story or idea will be told. I figure out what shots will be used, what the pacing will be like, etc. Once I have a thumbnail storyboard, I spend some more time on what the design and style of the piece might look like and try to develop that further.

‘At this point, I will sometimes make a more detailed storyboard, but usually I go straight into the animatic. I like to plan things out, so the animatic is really the most important part of the process for me. Since it’s not the final, I don’t feel the tension of having to make the film look exactly how I want it to. It allows me stay a little more relaxed and explore a lot of options. I usually create very detailed animatics. Even going so far as to roughly animate parts of it. I also do extensive sound design at this stage. For DRIVING, the sound design didn’t change too much from my first animatic to the final cut.

‘I use the finished animatic as a blueprint to do the final animation and backgrounds. Besides planning out the story, a big reason I like to do detailed animatics is because it really helps me push the exaggeration. The first time I pose a character, I tend to be a little conservative. So, when I do the final animation, I push the designs and poses further and try to make them as extreme as possible.

‘As for tools, I animate digitally with a Cintiq in Flash. Textures and backgrounds are drawn in Photoshop and everything is put together and edited in After Effects. Sound design is done in either Premiere or Final Cut. For DRIVING, I worked with a fantastic studio called Tanner-Monagle, Inc. to do the final audio mix’.

How did you get into animation? Did you go to school for it?

‘I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design where I double-majored in two-dimensional animation and video/film. From there I created a reel and sent it out to any studio I could think of. I worked in video games for about a month before I got hired at a great studio in my hometown called Planet Propaganda.

‘I was the first motion person they hired so I was able to be involved in a lot of different types of projects. The projects ranged from live-action to animation to motion graphics, and I was able to do a multitude of tasks right from the start including concepting, boarding, shooting, animating, etc. That experience really helped me work on my skills and figure out what I like to do best. Eventually, I chose to focus purely on animation and now I work freelance’.

Where do you get your ideas from for filmmaking? Do you have intense brainstorming sessions?

‘I usually get my ideas from observation around a theme. For instance, I knew I wanted to make this film about people driving, so I would watch people a lot when I was sitting at a red light. Or I would take mental notes when I was a passenger in someone else’s car. Then I try to distill all these notes down into a simple concept or story.

‘I don’t know if I’d describe my brainstorming sessions as intense, but I like to spend a lot of time on them. Usually, I doodle for a while and then start pacing around my house going over the ideas in my head again and again. Sometimes I’ll go for a walk outside, then I’ll sit back down and continue doodling and the process repeats.

‘It’s kind of funny, but I always feel guilty when I’m concepting. From the outside, it probably looks like I’m wasting time or being lazy, but I’m definitely thinking about the ideas obsessively. It also helps to step away from the ideas for a little while and come back to them with fresh eyes. There’s been many, many times where I’ll get an idea or figure out a solution to a problem right when I wake up in the morning’.

You’ve done work for Cartoon Network and JibJab — is there one place you’d LOVE to animate for?

‘This is a tough question for me. There are so many places and people I would love to work with. If I had to pick one, I think it would be really fun to work with Rubber House. I love their animation and sense of humour.

‘I know I’m supposed to name only one, so this may be cheating, but a few other places that I’d love to work with include Cartoon Saloon, Animade, Screen Novelties, CRCR, Rauch Bros. and Moth Collective’.

What tips can you give to those who are trying to get into animation and directing?

‘First off, I would say watch a ton of films covering all genres and time periods. And when you’re watching them, try and pay attention to the choices the filmmakers have made. I was given this advice from a producer I met while I was in college and it really opened me up to the possibilities of the art form. Watching a wide variety of films also helped me figure out what I liked and what types of films I wanted to make.

‘This next one might be a no-brainer, but I would say work hard. I’ve had to sacrifice much of my social life, but working hard has allowed me to overcome many of my talent deficiencies. It also has allowed me to show my value to clients and employers.

‘Third, try and learn how to finish a film. This is something I still struggle with all the time. For me, the issue stems a lot from insecurity and anxiety. The film will never be good enough in your eyes and you need to push through that self-doubt and get it done.

‘There are times I absolutely hate DRIVING, but, even though it’s far from perfect, I’m so happy I finished it and put it out there for people to see. Starting is the easy part. Get your film done!’

What’s next for you? What can we expect to see in the next few months?

‘I’ve been working a lot with JibJab on a new show they are creating around their Storybots characters. I’m not sure when it will be wrapped, but the first season should be a lot of fun. I also hope to start working on a new animated short soon’.

See more of Nate Theis’ work here, on Vimeo and follow him on Twitter, here.

About the author

Rachel Oakley is an Aussie writer based in NYC with an obsession for the creepy, cool and quirky side of life. Some of her main passions include philosophy, art, travel, and sarcasm.

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