Richmond husband-wife team Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski’s “Cryptozoo,” a dreamy, artsy animated fantasy feature that’s entirely hand-drawn, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was quickly snapped up by Magnolia Pictures.
The movie is about a cryptozoo: a zoo that houses mythical creatures, such as centaurs, griffins and unicorns.
“I started drawing it four years ago, after our daughter was born,” Shaw said from the couple’s Jackson Ward home. “I drew thousands and thousands of drawings for it. Jane hand-painted all the cryptids [or mythological beasts].”
“Cryptozoo” has already been compared by critics to the fantasy cult classic “Fantastic Planet” or The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”
Both Shaw, 37, and Samborski, 36, grew up in the Richmond area. In his teens, Shaw got his start as the lead illustrator for the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s teen section, inSync.
He graduated from the Center for the Arts at Henrico High School and then went on to get a degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Samborski graduated from the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School and studied in the kinetic imaging department at Virginia Commonwealth University.
For 10 years, the couple, who have a 4-year-old daughter, lived in Brooklyn, where they launched their careers. They moved back to Richmond about five years ago , and now live and work in Jackson Ward, where they drew the film.
Shaw is a cartoonist. His edgy comic books include “New School” and “Cosplayers” from Fantagraphics Books. His latest and most ambitious book yet, “Discipline,” is due in September from New York Review Comics. The 300-plus page graphic novel is about a teenage Quaker who joins the Union Army during the Civil War; it uses many actual Civil War-era letters and journals that Dash discovered when he was a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library. Samborski is an animator who has worked on several films that have played at Sundance and other festivals.
In 2016, the couple released their first film, “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” about students at a sinking high school who work on the school newspaper and record the experience. It was voiced by Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph and Susan Sarandon, and picked up by Gkids, a distributor of high-end animated films. It’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services.
“For Dash, comics were very attractive. It’s a solo pursuit. He’s very driven and can make something magnificent with very simple materials,” Samborski said. “When Dash realized he could make drawings on paper and use the scanner, it made animation accessible. He was like, ‘Let’s do this.’”
All the artwork in their films is hand-drawn, then scanned into the computer and animated.
“Cryptozoo” was a more ambitious project than their first film, requiring thousands and thousands of drawings, characters and plot points. The story is much more complicated than that of their first movie, and an “organizational nightmare” that took five years to put together, according to Samborski.
Part of the idea for the film came from Samborski’s Dungeons & Dragons game-playing.
“Jane ran an all-women’s Dungeons & Dragons group. They would come over to the apartment every Sunday, and I’d have to leave the apartment and wander around while they role-played,” Shaw said. “That made me think of the mostly female cast for the film, and also of writing something with a lot of creatures that would be fun for Jane to paint.”
The cryptozoo is a bestiary of sorts, filled with mystical creatures from across the ages. Shaw took inspiration for the animals from many places, such as the famous unicorn tapestry at The Met Cloisters museum in New York or an 1800s drawing of a baku, an ancient dream-eating creature from Japan.
In the movie, three main characters care for the animals in the cryptozoo and try to protect them, but begin to wonder if they should keep these rare beasts or set them free. Actors such as Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Angeliki Papoulia and Zoe Kazan lent their voices to the characters.
The Sundance Film Festival was different this year due to COVID-19 and social-distancing restrictions. Instead of hosting one festival in Park City, Utah, festival organizers set up online screenings and drive-ins across the country.
Shaw and Samborski drove to Atlanta to debut “Cryptozoo” at a drive-in screening.
“This is the sort of movie that lends itself to that. It was like a crazy, midnight movie. It had a fun energy. Everyone was in their car. Instead of applause, to show their excitement, they would flash their lights,” Samborski said.
“It was different to hear the score coming from inside your car rather than the screen, but I liked it,” Shaw said.
The couple was holed up in an Atlanta hotel room to take press interviews during the festival when they discovered they had won the Sundance NEXT Innovator Award and that Magnolia Pictures had picked up “Cryptozoo.”
“People sent champagne to our room,” Samborski said. “I was so emotionally exhausted; I was like, ‘Yay, we can relax!’”
Magnolia Pictures hasn’t disclosed its plan for “Cryptozoo” yet, but the couple hope it will be released theatrically later this year. They especially hope “Cryptozoo” will be screened at Richmond’s Byrd Theatre, where Shaw and Samborski had some of their first dates.
“The Byrd is so beautiful. I would love to see it there,” Samborski said. “I don’t know when it will happen — due to COVID and all — but there will be a Byrd screening someday.”