For juniors Andy Schlebecker and Ali Dokus, cartoons were more than a way to kill time over a bowl of cereal on Saturday mornings. They were, and continue to be, a potent medium for evocative storytelling—one whose influence has stuck.
“Everyone in our generation is so nostalgic for our childhoods,” said Schlebecker, a visual and media arts major. “I mean, how can something that affected your childhood not be important for the rest of your life?”
After two years of hard work, dubious rewrites, and countless creative arguments, the duo has an animated series of its own in the works, and the passion the two hold for cartoons shines brightly in its engaging and complex story.
Titled Canvas, the series revolves around a fictitious, paint-filled world in which two species are at war: Anima and humans.
“Anima are like incarnations of nature, like Nymphs from Greek mythology,” said Schlebecker. “They have the ability to paint this world and use their hands like brushstrokes to make things out of it.”
As a visual and media arts major, Schlebecker has experimented with different production mediums during his time here at Emerson. While the choice to go the animation route was certainly emotionally charged, he also stressed its importance as an artistic aesthetic.
“For me, animation is the only medium that can take directly from imagination to reality,” said Schlebecker. “It doesn’t have to go through any sort of physics or realism, nothing. It can go directly to paper.”
This past Monday, the two put on a staged reading of Canvas’ pilot in the Multipurpose Room, which helped create some buzz within the Emerson film and television community.
“The casting worked very well,” said Ricky Downes III, a junior visual and media arts major who attended the event. “If they were to continue using this process of going through readings in segments, it would definitely be very useful for them.”
While the reading was aided merely by a display of some rough concept art, the voice actors kept the audience rapt with their colorful contributions, acting out some of the more physical stage directions and interacting often with the crowd.
“One of the most rewarding things about this was getting to see the actors speak the lines and having them do a better job of bringing the characters to life than we could have ever imagined,” said Dokus, a writing, literature, and publishing major. “When we were doing the read-throughs that was really special.”
The show, as Schlebecker and Dokus explained, is meant to be a comedy, albeit one whose darker tones are well-suited to a slightly older crowd—Schlebecker called it a “TV-14 program.” The main characters Ko (voiced by junior visual and media arts major Charlie Fay) and Moss (voiced by Schlebecker) are opposing species yet, as shown in the pilot, the two must reluctantly work together to end the long-standing feud between their people.
A Lifelong Interest
While Canvas as a structured idea has been a working concern for the two since the end of freshman year, Schlebecker in particular has been working on stories like it since childhood.
“When I was a kid, I used to run home from school to act out scenes based off the animated shows I watched, stuff like Yu-Gi-Oh and Shaolin Showdown, so I would always have a story growing up,” said Schlebecker. “I would take these ideas and fully flesh them out until I got bored, so I guess Canvas is story number 13 in my life, and it’s pretty far removed from some terrible card game show.”
In Dokus, he found a kindred spirit, someone with an equally intense love for all things animated. The two lived on the same floor of the Little Building their freshman year and quickly bonded over a shared love for animated shows and movies like Princess Mononoke — a movie that similarly features a warrior struggling to settle a war between people and the environment.
“Both of us always had stories running through our heads as kids,” said Dokus. “So we both kind of got each other riled up for it.”
With a shared history in cartoon obsession between them, Schlebecker and Dokus have proven to be quite the writing team. Schlebecker holds down the conceptual end while also directing; Dokus, an aspiring fiction writer, is more involved in the narrative minutia.
Bringing it to Life
Despite not having much of a creative influence, the actors portraying the characters have also played a big role in Canvas’ production.
“I’m very much able to connect to the story they created because both it and the character I’m playing are so strong,” said Fay, the voice of Ko. “There’s still something very creative to lending your voice to a page or a story like this.”
Other than the crude designs she created herself, Dokus outsourced the artwork duties to high school friend Ellie Bosworth, an aspiring artist from near her native Tewksbury, Mass.
“Ali got in touch with me not too long ago and asked me to draw some designs for a show she had been working on for the past couple years,” said Bosworth. “This is the first time I’d done any sort of cartoon work, but it was really fun.”
While both Schlebecker and Dokus are quick to point out how far they still have to go to fully realize their dream, the current iteration of the project still managed to show plenty of promise.
“I think it’s really inspiring to see someone you’re close with work so hard on something and then have it come out so well done,” said Matt Buckley, a junior writing, literature, and publishing major, and a friend of both Schlebecker and Dokus. “It makes me want to do something on this scale and really put my heart into it.”
Even without formal art or any sort of animation, Schlebecker and Dokus were able to effectively introduce and portray the entirely new world they created in the pilot.
“They were very good at creating a world. Many times I could close my eyes and see exactly what they were describing,” said Downes. “Even without the pictures, it was easy to see the world, which was one of its best aspects.”
As the crowd’s glowing response at the script’s end highlighted, Schlebecker and Dokus have accomplished quite a bit at this stage of Canvas’ creative development. However, the story is likely far from over.
“This is really great ‘cause I know they’ve put hours and hours of work into the show,” said Schlebecker’s mom Judy, who was in attendance. “I just can’t wait to see it as a full animation.”
Without proper funding for animation, Canvas will remain merely a work-in-progress. However, it’s a project neither of them plan to abandon.
“We know this is something we’ll be working on for 10 or 20 years,” said Dokus. “It definitely could be a fully realized series someday, but maybe when we’re middle-aged when people will actually listen to us.”