“Steadfast Stanley” | Interview with John Cody Kim

| February 3, 2015

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It’s like you can’t throw a stick without hitting a zombie story these days. Aside from the canonical Romero film series, there are graphic novels, literature, video games, board games, TV shows, web series, and everything in between to satiate your undead cravings. But ever notice that, most times, animals seem to be immune to the deadly infections? Mark Tufo’s The Book of Riley has tackled this interesting dilemma and told his tale from the perspective of some four-legged creatures. In John Cody Kim’s immensely entertaining Steadfast Stanley, the tale of an abandoned corgi desperately tracking his best friend through literally the worst day ever, the zombie genre has never been more adorable, nor as touching.

Made at Cal Arts School of Film/VideoSteadfast Stanley arrives to our third season of Film School Shorts and will also screen at the SF Independent Film Festival (SF Indiefest) in the Shorts 5: An Animated World showcase at the Roxie Theatre.


Hey John! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born in South Korea, raised in the rainy part of Canada, now living in California! I’m currently attending California Institute of the Arts, aka Calarts, enrolled in Character Animation as a BFA 4. A few of my hobbies other than filmmaking are board sports, training dogs, and LEGO!

The idea of an innocent little dog and his boy overwhelmed by a post-apocalyptic world sounds daunting but you managed to make a very genuine, heartfelt film. Where did the inspiration come from in creating Steadfast Stanley?

The inspiration comes from my love for dogs. I wanted to loosely portray a dog’s feelings the moment when it’s abandoned from its owner. I thought to myself, it must be no different from an apocalypse. Another [idea] would be how a dog can help humans who are suffering through hardship and depression.

Steadfast Stanley

Steadfast Stanley

There are hundreds of dog breeds out there, so why is it that you made Stanley a corgi? Was it to break the internet?

From the visual standpoint as far as the size goes, if the breed was too big like a German Shepherd, it would seem like it would have a better chance of survival in the apocalypse. Vice versa, a breed too small would feel more vulnerable, yet less believable. I thought corgi was right in-between: they are intelligent, royal and agile. And their short legs gave numerous opportunities to animate quirky and clumsy movement. Not to mention, due to the nature of their short legs, corgis were much easier to animate than other breeds.

Concept art Steadfast Stanley

Concept Art Steadfast Stanley

Can you tell us a little bit about character creation, including Stanley, the humans and the zombie horde?

The setting itself takes place in a city which is heavily influenced by Vancouver, Canada. It was one of the reasons why I gave the boy a hockey jersey. Stanley is named after a park in Vancouver, “Stanley Park.” Many of the zombies are inspired by figures [that] dogs often view negatively, such as animal control and mailmen.

Steadfast Stanley Concept Art

Steadfast Stanley Concept Art

OK, the dog is cute. Really cute. But that’s not enough, because Steadfast Stanley does a great job of communicating a need and, hence, a strong narrative. What went into writing the story?

I went through many story passes. Obviously the first several passes are very different from the final ones. Research and observation are key as well. Since I don’t own a dog of my own, I had to observe dogs greeting their owners (without internet, this would’ve been very difficult.) I wanted to capture the joy between the two and tried to stay true to their relationship.

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” Talk to us about this quote.

This was a quote which I really appreciate written by wildlife preservationist Roger Caras. I believe it’s a great message and a great reason to own a dog.

Steadfast Stanley

Steadfast Stanley

The film is really, well, sweet. But it’s not saccharine. It’s genuine. Can you tell us about balancing tones, especially since the film treads horror, dread, laughs and heartbreak?

In movies, documentaries, etc, I think variety of mood/emotion brings richness in film. It gives depth and makes the characters more believable. But balancing this out is tricky as the mixed genres may confuse the audience [on] how to react to each…sequence. I was occasionally concerned if the film’s genre wasn’t clear. However, a lot of establishing certain tones came from an attempt to staying true to each characters and gut instincts.

How long did it take you to make Steadfast Stanley?

I worked on the story for Steadfast Stanley for about a year. The film itself took about approximately 8 months to make.

Steadfast Stanley

Steadfast Stanley

Can you walk us through a typical day of the animation production?

During the heart of the production, I would wake up and work on it until I go to bed. Most of the time goes to the repetitive drawing which is the nature of a 2D animation.

Hardest part of the production? How about the surprisingly easiest?

Coming up with the story was one of the most difficult part of the production. A great story often comes from personal experience, however I never owned a dog of my own. This made some of the emotional scenes much more difficult to approach.

Steadfast Stanley

For those who don’t know, how does one work with a background painter, like Olga Sokal?

Around third week before the deadline, I was overwhelmed with all the backgrounds I had to paint. There were approx about 110 backgrounds. Olga offered help and ease my workload. I gave her color script which shows the tones and certain shading I’m looking for the specific environments. Olga would roughly paint the backgrounds and then show them to me. I would give her feedback by writing notes on top of the Photoshop file. Notes are usually about certain lighting and tones to fit with the animated characters later on. She would also pitch her ideas and suggestions about the color and the tones. Overall, the backgrounds would not have been where they are now without her.

Steadfast Stanley Color Script

Steadfast Stanley Color Script

Tell us about working with your two sound designers Micah Smith and John Xarros.

I never met them in person. Everything was done over the email and phone. They were great to work with, however as far as communication goes, I learned that meeting the persons face to face is essential. I just generally find the conversation over email too slow. Even with phone, it’s hard to express certain ideas and notes. Yet, they were very helpful and provided some great recordings for sound design.

Steadfast Stanley: recording the zombie voices

Steadfast Stanley: recording the zombie voices

The film originally used Devotchka as its music, but now that it has a new score, can you tell us about working with your musician?

I originally used Devotchka as a temp track during production. Unfortunately previous composer had to leave the project within a week before the deadline. This was one of the most hectic and difficult time during the production. I had no choice but to use the temp track to meet the deadline. However afterwards, my composer from 2nd year, Sam Lustig kindly stepped in and composed a new score.

Why animation? What got you into it?

I remember in my 2nd grade, I had a LEGO car go down a sloped path way. I’m not sure why, but the toy moving by itself really fascinated me, and I wanted to see it over and over again. And soon enough I realized people make animation with LEGO (stop-motion) And from here I became interested in filmmaking and animation.

Steadfast Stanley

Steadfast Stanley

What animators/filmmakers/ illustrators/ storytellers do you look up to?

Several that comes to my mind are… Steven Spielberg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Park. They are able to execute each scene in a such a clever, meaningful way. I think their sense of storytelling is incredible .

Tell us about your CalArts experience. What was it like, especially the animation department?

The school really encourages you to develop your own style of many different aspect in film-making. This really let’s you to be creative and you learn so much about yourself and how to make a film. Many of the projects I worked on were usually encourage and supported with very helpful feedbacks along the way, and I value that “you get to make your very own film”. Because once when you step into the industry that opportunity becomes rare.

Steadfast Stanley Concept Art

Steadfast Stanley Concept Art

Were you considering any other schools?

I would love to attend AFI and learn more about live-action filmmaking.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

Whenever you are collaborating on a project, communication is essential. Also stay honest about your opinion.

Did you have any jobs either prior to filmmaking or while at CalArts?

During summer I was an assistant trainer at a dog obedience school where we train to housebreak puppies.

Steadfast Stanley's brightest vocal actor

Steadfast Stanley’s brightest vocal actor

Who were your favorite professors and why? How did they influence the film?

David Wolter who gave me some great feedbacks, and advices for story-telling. Jen Heger who taught me 2D animation. She looked over many of my animation and helped me so much, especially with the quadruped/corgi’s leg movements.

What’s next?

For my 4th year film, I’m currently working on a live-action, animation hybrid. It’s definitely a lot of work, but I’m learn so much from it.

Any advice for aspiring animators out there?

Stay inspired, and don’t forget to have fun! If you are working really hard, remember that health is always first priority so eat healthy and get enough sleep.

John Cody Kim is a Los Angeles-based animator. He is enrolled in the Character Animation program at CalArts.

Steadfast Stanley screens at the SF Independent Film Festival (SF Indiefest) in the Shorts 5: An Animated World showcase at the Roxie Theatre on Sat, Feb 7 @ 5pm and Wed, Feb 11 @ 7:15pm.

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Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

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