“Attack of the Killer Trees” | Interview with Valerie Giuili

| February 20, 2015

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Featuring snarky beavers with French accents, thuggish trees and a remorseful lumberjack, Attack of the Killer Trees is big fun in a small package. But behind the silliness, UCLA animator Valerie Giuili manages to include an important environmental message in her short film – albeit one wrapped in eye-popping colors and murderous foliage.

Attack of the Killer Trees will screen as part of Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: College Film Competition. We caught up with Valerie via email to talk about comedy and animation.


Promotional poster for "Attack of the Killer Trees."

Promotional poster for Attack of the Killer Trees.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you get into animation?

In retrospect, I think animation is a field I’ve always been destined for. As a kid, I spent the majority of my time writing and drawing, producing these off-beat comic books that I would distribute at school. It wasn’t something my parents encouraged, and I was systematically pushed into a more pragmatic career path. After finishing my undergrad degree, I got a job in web development and eventually moved into the interactive design aspect of new media, where Adobe Flash was a key component. With Flash, I discovered a whole world of possibilities and I began animating music videos to promote my band. Seeing my abstract ideas come to life through animation was enough to get me hooked. Around that time, I made friends with some dudes who worked at Pixar and it kind of dawned on me that perhaps people could make a living off of art (despite what I was led to believe). Shortly after, I applied to UCLA’s graduate program in Animation. I guess the moral of the story is, “Never listen to your parents.”

A lumberjack finds himself surrounded by nefarious trees.

A lumberjack finds himself surrounded by nefarious trees.

Where did you get your inspiration for Attack of the Killer Trees?

I came up with the concept as an assignment for a storyboarding class. Our storyboarding classes were great, [and] the assignments would help [us] weed out all those subconscious ideas so that you could grow them into tangible stories.

You start your film off with a campy black-and-white horror homage that would make Mystery Science Theater 3000 proud. What influences you stylistically?

I’m particularly influenced by ’50s and ’60s post-modern cartoons, and the often criticized United Productions of America style of animation (for example, Rocky and Bullwinkle). The simplicity of limited animation works well for the kind of humor I like, in contrast to something like Disney animation, which is so pristine and detailed that it can distract from the writing. In terms of design, I love using bold, bright colors and clean vector lines for a modern feel.

A lumberjack and beaver stand victorious.

A lumberjack and beaver stand victorious.

Your film has a strong environmental message. Would you say you set out to incorporate that message from the get-go, or did it evolve naturally as you developed the plot?

I actually didn’t initially intend to incorporate the message but decided to veer the story toward environmental issues after drawing up the first few storyboards. This was partly because of a funding opportunity offered by Matt Groening through UCLA. Matt generously funds films that promote socially conscious themes and I was able to get a fellowship for my film, as well as the opportunity to present the finished work to its patron. Fellowship incentives aside, the decision was mainly an artistic one. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to make a demented cartoon with a positive message.

It was also motivating to think that I could perhaps do some good with the film, potentially promoting the overall understanding that small changes in lifestyle habits can collectively make a huge impact on the health of the environment. In the film, the lumberjack’s lifestyle change was a major one (basically a 180°), but the idea was to highlight how humans in general affect the environment, and how we can “right our wrongs” in terms of the damage we’ve done. I also liked playing around with themes of a cyclical nature, death and the opportunity for regrowth, and how we are interconnected with all living things.

A reformed lumberjack plants trees.

A reformed lumberjack plants trees.

There are so many layers that add to the comedy. How did you develop and incorporate your sense of humor into this film?

Oh man, I’m tempted to write a ten-page essay to answer this question. I have an overwhelming list of comedic influences, but I think I’ve effectively bored readers enough with my pedantic responses, so I’ll try to keep things moving here. Let’s see… as a youngster, I spent time overseas and discovered Fawlty Towers, which got me into all the Monty Python stuff pretty early on. The Simpsons was, of course, huge for me, [as were] ’90s SNL, [Late Night withConan, South Park, Adult Swim shows, etc. Within the past decade, Arrested Development, American Dad, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Flight of the Conchords, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Archer and the late great 30 Rock. [It’s] super inspiring to see the creative output of female comedy writers like Tina Fey.

In a vague reference to all of that, Attack of the Killer Trees is basically an amalgamation of the original story, tacking on various attempts at jokes as they came to me. While animating scenes, I’d get new ideas and execute them to see if they worked. I found that in the end, it’s never really the idea – it’s the execution. It’s about timing and designing/composing the characters/environment in a way that extracts humor from the initial idea. So being able to write and animate at the same time allowed me to see if a joke would actually work visually in the story, versus just in the script.

Cigarette-smoking beavers with french accents are common in "Attack of the Killer Trees."

Cigarette-smoking beavers with french accents are common in Attack of the Killer Trees.

How long did it take you to make the film?

It took me about 7 months from concept to completion (give or take). There was a licensing issue that I had some trouble figuring out, so I wasn’t able to actually start screening in off-campus festivals until well after I started to show my film at school.

What would you say the hardest part of making an animated short was for you? The surprisingly easiest?

I think the most difficult part for me was the time crunch. I was constantly getting new ideas when animating off of the initial storyboard/animatic. I would feel compelled to try these ideas out and sometimes they were successful, sometimes they weren’t. It was disconcerting when I felt I had wasted time, which made production a struggle because while I needed to finish the film by a certain deadline, I also wanted to make sure the thing was decent. Surprisingly, the easiest part was motivating myself to work on the project consistently, taking on a somewhat hermit-esque existence. I’m pretty sure that when you’re under the spell of creative drive, you become subhuman… like some sort of Gollum creature or something.

Storyboard for "Attack of the Killer Trees."

Storyboard for Attack of the Killer Trees.

Tell us about your UCLA experience.

I’m the product of various California public schools, so UCLA fell right in line with what I was expecting/wanted from my grad school experience. Furthermore, I loved being in a film/TV program versus a strict art/animation program, because I was able to take courses in other disciplines. Coming into the program, I was particularly interested in writing, and I had the opportunity to take a comedy spec writing class with an amazing professor, Fred Rubin. This experience was a game changer for me, offering new possibilities for my intentions in the industry. Another great thing about UCLA’s film school was that there were a ton of rare opportunities to sit-in on Q&A sessions with industry greats. One particular experience I was inspired by happened during a producing class lecture that brought in Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day (creators of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). They talked about the need for an entrepreneurial “do it yourself” attitude to make your TV show a reality, and that really struck a chord with me.

In the animation department specifically, the program included many seasoned, extremely talented and inspiring professors who offered guidance, but for the most part, you had to figure things out on your own. I felt this approach helped generate a wide variety of artistic voices, as students developed production methods that were usually quite different from any standard. Furthermore, the animation program had a “one person, one film” mantra, which was perfect for someone like me (egomaniac). I felt that being in control of all aspects of the production process allowed me to fully realize my artistic vision and voice.

Animator and filmmaker Valerie Giuili.

Animator and filmmaker Valerie Giuili.

Any advice for budding animators?

Early on, I was a bit intimidated by my lack of experience and pretty sensitive about my work. There are so many incredible artists in the animation industry, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ll never be good enough. But in time, I realized that for me, animation is not just about having technical skill as an artist – it’s about combining the writing, directing, design and animation to facilitate a unique product. So I’d say, don’t focus too much on comparing your work to anything else that’s out there. Influences are crucial and it’s important to ground yourself in animation knowledge and drawing techniques, but I like to think that innovation is key. Plus, you really do get better with practice. Hopefully.

Valerie Giuili is a Los Angeles-based writer, director and animator. She is currently working on developing her animated series Legend of Vexely, an edgy comedy based on a mythical medieval kingdom. In the series, a trio of moronic knights embark on a quest for the fountain of youth to keep their elderly king from dying. Meanwhile, a devious lord plots to kill everyone in line for the throne so that he can usurp the royal position when the king dies.

Learn more on her website at www.valerieonline.com.

Head to the Attack of the Killer Trees website for more info: www.attackofthekillertrees.com

Follow @PierreBeaver on Twitter.

Attack of the Killer Trees screens as part of Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: College Film Competition showcase on Thursday, March 5 @ 10:00 pm, and Friday, March 6 @ 9:15 pm.

All screenings are at Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose, CA.

Click to read more Cinequest interviews.

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