Inside Joel Trussell's Brain

What drives Knoxville's most famous cartoonist? Total fear.

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Knollwood lies on the outer reaches of the western frontier, not far from the cinder-block bunkers of the Turkey Creek Shopping Center. Its small, vinyl-clad homes are nestled in a tight circle like a collection of leftover Barbie dollhouses in a second-hand shop, awaiting new owners to come along and claim them. On a crystalline fall day, beneath open blue skies, it is the perfect realization of suburbia as dreamt by Knoxville’s pioneering subdivision developers.

But one house has its shades drawn. Inside the 1,400-square-foot house, behind the closed door of its master bedroom, the unnatural glow of a computer monitor spills its rays upon the beige walls. It is here that creatures stir.

From a humming notebook PC wedged into a corner, a bizarre menagerie flashes across its screen: a laptop-stealing kitty cat traversing dangerous Aztec jungles, a tattered stuffed doll armed with a Swiss Army knife seeking respite in a motel pool, a vengeful astro-babe battling to rescue her girlfriend from space pirates. And then there are the rock-star Vikings.

But today, there are also new characters coming to life: a group of senior citizens performing paganistic rituals atop cemetery graves, transforming themselves into anthropomorphic beasts. Perhaps awakened by the ceremony, ghosts rise from the graves to grab the animals and surf the clouds with their tombstones.

“I have no idea where that came from,” admits animator Joel Trussell as he sketches out concept art for “Enjoy the Ride,” a music video for British trip-hop group Morcheeba. “The worst thing about music videos is that they’re such an exercise in paranoia for me. All the time, I’m second-guessing myself, never sure what I’m doing. I work alone, so there’s nobody really to bounce ideas off of. You just have to convince yourself that you’re doing the right thing. This one may be the nail in the coffin for me, this Morcheeba video. But so far, I like the concept.”

You may be wondering: Why did a groove-oriented electronica band in London with a global following select Joel Trussell of West Knoxville to create their next video? And what’s up with the Vikings?

From the bedroom of his suburban house, Trussell has managed to create a small, quirky animation empire of music videos and TV commercials. His videos have been shown at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Platform International Animation Festival in Portland, and the Ottawa Animation Film Festival (among many others), winning first-place awards and earning him invites to festivals in Spain, England, Scotland, Australia, Austria, and Korea. He gets friendly phone calls from executives at Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network who want to see what he’s up to or to hire him for character design work. He’s even done illustration for companies on the opposite ends of the hipness spectrum: American Greetings and Gama-Go.

“When you meet him, you would think he worked as a librarian or in insurance,” says local filmmaker Michael Samstag, organizer of KnoxvilleFilms.com. “It’s still hard for me to believe that behind the walls of his suburban home lurks the twisted and mad creative genius of Joel Trussell. He seems to live in two worlds at the same time.”

But behind his boyish grin and easy wit lies the heart of an anxious freelancer: What if the jobs dry up? What if the studios in San Francisco or Los Angeles or London forget his phone number?

“I’m always afraid that the bubble’s going to pop,” he says. “This year has been so amazing for me, Iâ’ve gotten to work on so many great things. But who knows? You make a few bum music videos, and people are going to be like, ‘Forget this cat. He’s not making anything.’ I’m very worried about that constantly. Constantly. And I wonder about my options, too. What do you do then?”

With his biggest music video yet, Joel Trussell is on the cusp of an even bigger career. But will it be the career he wants or the one he’s afraid of?

***

By the standards of children’s television programming, the new Nick Jr. series Yo Gabba Gabba! is a critical smash-hit. With coverage in such disparate publications as The New York Times and PRINT Magazine, this colorful assemblage of living vinyl-art dolls, indie rock bands, Krofft Brothers-style sets, and a DJ host who looks like a preternaturally happy orange popsicle has made a big splash after just a few episodes. One of the show’s defining elements is its artful, blissful animation shorts, which are unlike any other kiddy-show cartoons.

“I think with most animation and children’s programming, the scope of the design and style is limited to whatever is currently established as mainstream commercial animation, but with our show it’s really wide open both in technique and aesthetics,” says Yo Gabba Gabba! animation producer Kevin Lee. “We have lots of room for experimentation and to try things no one else is doing on TV, whether it’s for kids or adults or anyone. I believe we’re opening the door to a lot of great animation that most people have not seen or knew existed, let alone children."

When it came time for Lee to find fresh animators for the show, he immediately recalled a video for break-beat musician Jason Forrest’s “War Photographer.” It featured two warring clans of Viking sailors engaged in a battle to the death via electric guitars emitting bolts of pure rawk power. Lee tracked down its no-doubt demented creator and offered Trussell cartoons on three Yo Gabba Gabba! episodes.

“I thought he would be a good match because he has a nice, clear, colorful style that I could see working for a very young audience, but is so different from most stuff you see offered on children’s TV,” says Lee. “Yo Gabba Gabba! has a certain gut-feeling sensibility that is hard to quantify. It just is or it isn't Yo Gabba. I had no doubt in my mind that Joel was totally in sync with us and what we were going for.”

In the Joel Trussell Career Timeline, there is Before War Photographer and After War Photographer. B.W.P., animation work was hard to come by. Previous to going freelance, Trussell had worked for three years as a director and lead animator at Smashing Ideas Animation in Seattle. This was during the first great Internet gold rush, when it was assumed that all entertainment would soon be on the Web, whether it had an audience yet or not.

“Man, it really was a dream job at first: ‘Great! Original content on the web is awesome!’” recalls Trussell. “It was almost like being at a real animation studio. I got to story board, I got to voice act, I got to do concept and character design, all the stuff. It was fantastic. Those were the salad days. It was fun while it lasted. But after the dot-com crash, about 2000, everything took a turn for the worse in a big way. We just all started doing the games.”

Fearing he’d end up making Flash games for the rest of his career, Trussell quit. And when his wife Kelly became pregnant with their first child, Elijah, the two University of Tennessee grads decided to return home in 2002. Knoxville promised friends, family, and an affordable cost of living. But not exactly a burgeoning animation scene.

“When we moved back here, I had quit my job and had no jobs lined up here. I was working in the basement of Kelly’s grandma’s house, with real mice in it and two computers,” says Trussell. “I just shot out e-mails to everybody—anybody who had any type of inkling of work, profitable company or not. I had built the website before I left and put up all my latest stuff and emailed everybody from clothing companies to ad agencies to rock bands to T-shirt companies to poster places. Of course, the majority of them I didn’t hear back from, or they didnâ’t really need anybody. But a few would respond back.”

While he spent just as much time looking for work as actually working, he did finally get the new opportunity he’d been looking for: his first music video. Oakland electronica artist Kid606 made the offer after Trussell drew an album cover for him in 2003; Trussell responded by visualizing “The Illness” with a black-and-white high-speed chase between a fleeing cat and spirit monsters that’s simultaneously bizarre and mesmerizing.

“I did that for next to nothing,” says Trussell. “But I knew that was the kind of work I wanted to do. Even if it didn’t pay this time, maybe it’ll pay next time—which it didn’t. So I did that job, and what really helped me was I put it in some film festivals and people started recognizing it. God bless the Internet, where people started e-mailing it and it was on blogs.”

As he eked out a living doing covers for alt weekly papers and motion graphics for cable TV shows, “The Illness” was getting attention, snaring him another music video job, “Float” by the Atomic Swindlers in 2004. It won awards at the L.A. Hypefest and at AIGA’s Ten Show. But it was his next video, “War Photographer,” that put his name on the lists of agencies and record labels.

“I think it hit at the right time—YouTube had popped up, the blog world had never been bigger before, and that thing took off like wildfire,” Trussell says. “I got bombarded with people coming to the site, I couldn’t keep it up—I had to get a new web server. And ever since then, I haven’t even sent out an email. From the beginning of 2006 'til now, I have been working constantly. So I’ve been lucky, but that’s how I did it.”

The battle of the Viking rock bands struck a chord with its fresh concept and distinctive imagery, winning Best Music Video at the Ottawa International Animation Festival and at the Channel Frederator Awards. ChannelFrederator.com is an online cartoon network with episodes featuring the work of leading animators.

“There’s a lot of great cartoon talent, veterans and newbies, studios and individuals, and we’re determined to present the best the world has to offer. Whether it’s scratches on film, claymation, or full-on computer generated animation, we play it,” says Fred Seibert, founder of Channel Frederator. “Around the time Channel Frederator was getting started, CartoonBrew.com’s Amid Amidi joined the chorus of blog love for Joel Trussell’s ‘War Photographer.’ Our programming team got on the horn right away to Joel and ‘War Photographer’ was the first cartoon in our second episode.”

‘War Photographer’ also hit the LA Film Festival in 2006, and ever since then Trussell has yet to send in a film for consideration. Festivals call him.

“I’ve been lucky for the past year or so where I haven’t really submitted anything to a film festival that hasn’t been solicited,” he says. “They’ve come to me and said, ‘Hey, we want you to be in here, we’re going to waive fees, we want your piece.’ Amazing! In my inbox right now, I just got an invitation to be in the San Francisco International Film Festival. So the film festival circuit has been really kind to me ever since ‘War Photographer’—it’s sort of like the magic piece. We’ll see how long it lasts, I’m not expecting it to continue.”

***

How does a kid growing up in Knoxville eventually create visions of rock 'n’ roll Vikings? Well, you probably won’t find many clues among his childhood TV shows. A non-super-hero kid, his favorite cartoons weren’t always auspicious pieces of pop art.

“I just liked the silly cartoons, like Archie and Casper, and I used to love the Terry Tunes that came on. Really early morning, there’d be Tennessee Tuxedo the penguin. And Fat Albert—nothing that I look back on now and think ‘Wow, what a rich source of inspiration!’”

But he nevertheless started drawing what he saw to impress his grade school friends and make some milk money on the side by selling his portraits of E.T. and Michael Jackson. And like many kids, he thought that becoming a cartoonist sounded great. But it wasn’t until he was older that he found his true inspiration: “When I saw something like Akira, I was like ‘Holy smokes! Wow, you can do something like that?’ That’s where I was really like, ‘Man, yeah, I’m in the right field. This is what I want to do."

When he was ready for college, he entered UT"and discovered there weren’t many options for someone seeking to become an animator. At the time, the closest he could find was either the drawing program or the graphic design track.

“I was talking to a counselor and I told him what I wanted to do was animation, comics, cartoons—and they were like, ‘Well, thatâ’s not what college is for. If you want to do that, you just have to have a knack for it.’ And I was like, ‘But, oh, my parents want me to go to college.’ ‘Well, you could be a graphic designer, which makes $100,000 to start out, or you can be a starving artist.’ So I said, ‘I’ll be a graphic designer!’ not really knowing what that meant. So the first thing we’re doing is playing with type, and I was so bored I totally failed. I failed graphic design!”

Consequently, he switched over to the drawing program; and in his junior and senior years, Trussell stopped turning in drawings and turned in short films for his assignments. He also began learning more about the history of animation, discovering old studios that had created cartoons that truly affected his direction as an artist. Foremost was United Productions of America (UPA), a studio founded in the 1940s that pioneered “limited animation”—or consciously not trying to emulate reality like Disneyâ"and found success with its Mr. Magoo series and the Oscar-winning Gerald McBoing-Boing.

“You look at UPA cartoons and they’re not so much about recreating life or exaggerating life, it’s more about layout and composition, interesting interpretations of characters,” he says. “That started to guide my style a little bit. I really wanted to do Akira when I saw it, but it just didn’t come natural to me; this comes a whole lot easier. It makes me laugh to see something drawn totally wrong, but it still looks really good.”

This urge toward simplicity has informed his drawing style even as it enters ever more bizarre realms.

“He just has a very distinctive style and look,” says Yo Gabba’s Lee. “His work is fun, it can be very playful and funny, but at the same time there’s sophistication and thought behind it. His sense of movement is great—you really feel his characters are living, breathing things, not just trendy artwork moving around.

Trussell describes his style as “economic.” He is perpetually on guard against over-rendering his characters, or scenes with too much detail when what he truly seeks are funny shapes. He especially doesn’t want things to be “perfect.”

“I want it to be entertaining, and I don’t even mind if it’s a little bit off or wonky, as long as you can tell it’s purposefully made that way,” he says. “It’s hard to describe my own style because I really don’t feel like I’ve locked into it yet. But Yo Gabba Gabba! really helps me find my own style because nobody’s saying, ‘Okay, I want you to do this in a Disney style. I want you to do this like Spumco.’ They’re just like, ‘Do your own thing.’ Yeah, OK, great. But what is my own thing? Hmmmm.”

That is the big question in Trussellville: What will be his next “thing?”

Opportunities keep appearing before him like those ghosts surfing clouds on their tombstones, flitting in and out of view. There was the time last year when he was mingling with other animators at a bar during the Platform Festival in Portland and a rather tipsy woman blurted out: “Are you Joel Trussell? I’m a huge fan of your work!” Startled at being recognized by a total stranger, he muttered some polite thank-yous. Turned out she’s a senior executive at Cartoon Network—good fan to have, you’d think. But so far, no big offers.

Then there was that sunny afternoon in Los Angeles when he got the call from the Mouse House.

“When I was in L.A. last year, I was meeting with a few people at Nickelodeon, and I got this phone call while I was driving in Burbank. And it was a guy from Disney. He said, ‘Hey, we heard Joel Trussell is in town and we want you to come by because we know you’re only here for a little bit. Word got around, and we need to talk to you.’ I was like, ‘Holy ___! Yeah, mark me down for an appointment!’”

He eagerly showed up the next day, was given a deluxe tour of the Disney facilities, and learned about how they were looking for new directors to create one-off films. Awesome! But he still hasn’t worked out a big contract; he sent them a proposal that they felt targeted an older audience. However, he’s not sure whether to be disappointed or not.

“I don’t know if this is something I should admit to, but it’s hard for me to figure out what I want to do,” he admits. “Do I want to do a series? I’m having a lot of fun doing these short films and segments. I like that freedom. I wonder if you get locked into a show if it’d be sort of exhausting. But I think I would like to do a show, at the same time. When the opportunity is there, what are you going to do? You’ve got to take it.”

He still hasn’t figured out what that next big opportunity will look like. In the meantime, he’s been taking on TV commercials through the hip San Francisco animation agency Wildbrain, resulting in the latest retro sci-fi Esurance ad on TV, “Attack Of The Over-Priced Auto Insurance Monster.” Then there have been odd jobs, like painting his interpretation of Family Guy for the Fox Network. It’s great work, he’s lucky to have it, though will this really be the height of his achievement?

“At one point, at least for me when I was a kid, I felt like, ‘Hey, if you hit that one big break, it just gets easier from there. People know you and you just sit back and let the work come in.’ But the pressure gets to be more and more as you go along: ‘I’ve really got to stay in the game.’ And is this as good as it gets? Have I already reached the top? This isn’t the top, is it? I need to keep going up! So you have to keep working harder and harder at it.”

When he’s not working on multiple jobs, creating pitch materials, attending festivals, or spending time with his family (son number 2, Josh, arrived almost two years ago), he’s also trying to find the time to come up with his own project. Something distinctly Trussell-esque.

“I’ve got to do personal work. Because if I stop doing personal work, that’s when it’s dead, that’s when it’s over,” he says. “That’s what’s great about this Morcheeba video: I get paid, and I get to do more personal work. I get to say this is a Joel Trussell piece when it’s all said and done. I guess the mountaintop of that—as tired as you get hearing people say it—would be making a film. I would love to spend a year on just one project.”

***

Looking at his bare workspace crammed into one corner, you wonder if he can pull it off. But this spartan set-up is testimony to his single-minded pursuit of his ultimate cartoon.

“When I worked in a studio, everybody always had toys around. I’ve never had toys around. Especially when I worked there, I liked to keep my area as depressing as possible. It always motivated me to get out of there, to do something better. I feel like if I ever get to a stride where I’m feeling comfortable, then I’ll decorate my area. But what I want to do right now is stay hungry. I want to keep active as much as possible, limit distractions, and just pour myself into work.”

But, on the other hand, he also wants to enjoy what he’s doing—the perennial artist’s dilemma of finding the balance between doing what makes money vs. what’s personally fulfilling.

“I want to have fun,” Trussell says. “As shameful as that is, that’s really what I want to do because growing up, seeing my dad, he got a good government job, steady check, rock-solid retirement set up. But he really didn’t like it, though: ‘One day I’m going to retire!’ I don’t want to be like that. I just want to have fun.”

© 2007 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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