+2: One Animator's Quest to Make a (Mostly) Solo Feature Film
Talking to Jonni Phillips about 'Barber Westchester.'
Welcome to the second bonus issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter! Glad you could join us.
This week, we’ve got an interview with animator Jonni Phillips about her new feature film, Barber Westchester. It’s due out in November. It’s 90 minutes long. She’s animating almost all of it by herself.
Based in California, Phillips is only 24 — but she already has an impressive track record. While still studying at CalArts, she turned heads with a pilot for Frederator Studios. Her work on the Weird Helga series for Buzzfeed was even more popular. Since going independent in 2019, she’s kept up a number of high-profile fans in the industry.
Phillips is a one-of-a-kind animator. Her work pushes 2D cartooniness to warped extremes. It’s filled with raw, nervous energy — and a deadpan sense of humor, which carries over into our chat. But her work can be painful, too. With films like The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia, Phillips lays claim to some of the most emotionally evocative animation coming out of California right now, studio or indie.
In our talk about Barber Westchester, Phillips breaks down her methods and influences on the film — and gets honest about the realities of making a 90-minute animated feature mostly by herself, with no major backing. We loved talking to her and hope you’ll love reading it.
Animation Obsessive: To kick things off, could you introduce the whole Barber Westchester project to the uninitiated?
Jonni Phillips: Back in 2017, when I finished my first big film Goodbye Forever Party, I was bored in an experimental film screening class and randomly drew this drawing:
I immediately named the character Barber Westchester because it just seemed right to me. I wanted to give them a little story, so I made up a joke plot based on an extreme exaggeration of how I felt about the animation world at the time. Barber’s a budding astronomer who gets a job at NASA, but, on their first day, discovers that space is fake and that NASA’s only purpose is to keep up a ruse.
When I graduated from animation school, I was working a job that was very creatively unfulfilling for me (especially after the high of finishing Wasteland), and had been trying to find other work to no avail, and was just generally frustrated with my life as a whole. All of a sudden, a bunch of ideas started filling my brain about making another feature film, with Barber as the main character.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it, it drove me crazy and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I tried pitching it as a feature to a big studio, but they weren’t interested, and I kind of felt like there was no other way to make it unless I just did it myself. I had been growing my Patreon for almost a year at that point, and I figured I could keep growing it while I made the movie.
So, in November 2019, I made the decision to quit my job, and decided to go fully independent, living off the $3,000 in savings I had at the time and whatever I made on Patreon. I just figured if it was meant to work out, it’d work out, and if it was a mistake, I’d figure out what to do.
That turned out to be lucky timing on my part, because the pandemic hit shortly after, and I had already dedicated my entire life to staying in my apartment 24/7 and never leaving.
When I actually did it, though, I found myself creatively blocked on the project, so instead of starting the film right away, I decided to do a 10-episode prequel series for the film, called Secrets and Lies in a Town of Sinners. I decided to do it because I realized that the main issue I was having was that I didn’t have a backstory for Barber, or any context for their life, so my goal with SALIATOS was to build the world Barber lives in, so that the film could be higher quality story-wise.
I finished that series back in May of 2020, and then began to work on Barber. I had trouble, until I got visited by an angel in a dream and she solved all my problems for me. And now the movie is 90 minutes long and I am going to finish it this November. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever made.
What’s involved in managing a project as complex as a feature film as an independent? How do you structure it and keep everything running smoothly?
Honestly, I just use the same methods as my other work! Goodbye Forever Party (20m) paved the way for The Final Exit of the Disciples of Ascensia (45m), Ascensia paved the way for Secrets and Lies in a Town of Sinners (50m) and Secrets and Lies paved the way for Barber (90m).
The production pipeline for Barber is an amalgamation of everything I’ve learned over the years, with stuff thrown out and other stuff added. I’m really good at getting organized, but then also using the organization to give myself room to improvise and figure stuff out as I go.
So, I have a lot of intense documents and schedules and spreadsheets, but doing that kind of work means I get to have more fun with the actual animation process. I really care about keeping my art expressive and loose as much as possible, so I have to find ways to structure everything so that I can maintain that aspect while also being on top of everything and making sure I’m on track.
You’ve said before that animating becomes much more enjoyable when you drop the focus on perfection and “realism.” Can you break down exactly how that ethos impacts the film?
My taste in art already is centered on wonky, funny-looking stuff. My favorite animation artists are Richard Condie and Sally Cruikshank, who are majorly inspirational to me in regards to my work in general, but especially for Barber. I’ve been obsessed with independent animation since I was a kid, and even before I knew about that world my favorite shows were always stuff like Chowder and Ed, Edd n Eddy, so I just gravitate to that kind of stuff to begin with.
But going to animation school made me realize that a lot of people get super bogged down with perfectionism, or shooting for some standard that I personally find to be irritating and missing the point of making art. There’s only so much you can do with the limited amount of time we have, and not everyone is going to be Da Vinki. Especially not me!
My goals are firmly rooted in just trying to take advantage of whatever situation I’m in, and to make something that feels as honest and true to how I feel about the world as I can. Since I’m always in a situation where I have to work very fast, that means whatever I make needs to be of the moment, so I try to make every drawing as emotionally expressive as I can.
I also keep my boards as loose as possible, so I can rely on whatever drawings I do in the moment when I’m actually animating. I can usually tell what kind of mood I was in depending on the way a drawing in a certain shot looks.
Again, a lot of my process is planning everything out as best as I can, to allow for everything to at least have time to be fun to look at. At this point, I’ve gotten really good at knowing how long stuff will take me, and accounting for burnout and stuff, so in regards to my own process I’m pretty much a genius at it. My artmaking process is probably the thing I’m most smartest about.
On Twitter, you keep up an extremely positive and enthusiastic attitude toward Barber Westchester and your work in general. It’s really refreshing to see. How do you maintain that?
I just honestly love the project! I tried to make it exactly what my favorite movie would be, and it worked. I think it’s the most “me” thing I’ve ever made. Not that the other stuff wasn’t “me,” but it definitely feels like the culmination of everything I’ve done at this point.
My friend described the movie as, like, “If they made a juice out of your brain,” or something. I forget what the phrasing was exactly, but it was something like that. It’s hard for me to take artistic freedom for granted anymore. I think I’m so lucky to be able to do this.
Although you’re creatively fulfilled by Barber Westchester, you’ve also been very public about how expensive this project really is. Can you talk about the financial reality of funding a film like this as an independent in 2021?
I mostly mean that it’s hard to make enough money to live every month, especially since all my money comes from Patreon, YouTube, etc. I have a very dedicated and relatively big audience, but I’m still a smaller creator. It usually means I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel to afford my rent and stuff.
I feel like it’s worth it because I know it’s temporary and I’m going to have a project that I’m proud of at the end of all this. But it’s definitely financially terrifying. I’m doing like 80 minutes of animation and color and backgrounds and compositing myself.
I have a bunch of my amazing friends contributing multimedia guest animation (Emily Martinez, Benni Quintero, Ian Worthington, Chris Kim, Yasmeen Abedifard, Mel Murakawa-White, Frankie Tamaru, Kelly Ficarra), additional artwork (Tyrell Solomon, Zaria Bohanon), additional character animation (Maddie Brewer, Sidney Gale) and music (Dylan Kanner). They’re all doing really amazing work for it. But it’s kind of like a house of cards that could topple over if I got some disease or something.
But it’s okay! I’m taking care of myself as much as I’m able to, and I know this is just a temporary situation that I signed up for. I’m lucky because, at the end of it, I always find a way to afford my rent and food, even in months where I didn’t perform as well as I needed to. I’ve also been able to take on side projects and small commissions that have helped (and unemployment benefits).
How do you look for ways to save time and money during such a long production, while keeping your vision intact?
The thing I care most about is the foundation — I work really hard on the writing, story and editing, so that I’ll have something that says something that I think is important, even if the end result isn’t perfect. At the end of the day, with all of my work, I feel like the main thing is that I try really hard to keep the soul intact, regardless of whether the animation is exactly how I wanted it to be.
That’s how I felt with Ascensia and Goodbye Forever Party. Everything was in there before I even began the animation, and they made people emotional even at the rough animatic stage, so I knew they would work as films, even if the animation wasn’t exactly the way I wanted. Same with Barber. Emotionally, it’s all there, even when you can’t see everything, so I know everything’s going to be okay.
For Barber, I wanted to shoot for a more consistent visual look. But, because I’m doing it mostly by myself at a breakneck speed, I don’t hold myself to it if I don’t need to. I’m very forgiving of myself. I let stuff be what it is, and just move on and keep working. All progress is progress to me. I’m just trying to finish it.
Can you tell us when and where to expect Barber Westchester? Your films have hit the festival circuit in the past — will you be aiming there again?
It’ll definitely be up exclusively on Patreon for a while, but after that it’s still up in the air. I want to release it for free on YouTube, but I think I might need to strategize a little and maybe submit to festivals (in my experience, festivals don’t like it when your film is already online). So, I don’t know yet! I’ll definitely keep everyone updated.
Finally, what do you hope people will take away from the film?
I think if I boil it down, the main idea behind the movie is that life is a constant struggle, but it’s worth it to keep trying. It’s worth it to try and experience life for what it is, and people for who they really are. Life is messy and scary and creepy and confusing, but, one day, everything is going to be over, so I think it’s just worth it to try and live inside the chaos and figure out how to exist as yourself for your own sake. That’s the movie! Thank you!
We’d like to thank Jonni Phillips for taking time away from Barber Westchester to chat with us. Find more of her work on YouTube and Twitter. If you’d like to support Barber in its final stretch, or if you want to watch the film when it’s complete, head on over to Jonni’s Patreon page. Just a few dollars will get you access to the film.
Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this bonus issue, we’ve got another free one coming next Thursday, September 16. Bonus issues will continue on Thursdays after that — but only for paying subscribers (members). If you’d like to keep reading them, you’ll find everything you need on our new and improved subscription page:
That’s all! We’ll be back on Sunday with our regular animation news, lookbacks and more. The Sunday issue, as always, is free for everyone. If you missed us last Sunday, we dug into the so-called “UPA style” — and the response from readers was a really nice surprise. Thank you to everyone who checked it out!
Hope to see you again soon!
Wasteland is a feature-length anthology compiled out of five other films (including Ascensia and Goodbye Forever Party) that Phillips made between 2016 and 2019, while at CalArts.