Nick Cross is a two time Emmy Award-winning Canadian animator. You may know him best as Art Director of Over the Garden Wall (2014), the Cartoon Network mini-series that demolished long-sniffed presumptions about visual beauty in TV animation. Watching “Yellow Cake” (above) and Nick’s other great films leaves no doubt as to why he was pegged for the job; reading this interview, you’ll see why he was keen on the challenge. Nick weaves elements of old cartoons – whimsy, innocence, and yes, even cutesiness – into cynical social narratives. As Art Director of the Cartoon Network Shorts, many titles he’s worked on are becoming hotly-anticipated new series—I’m as excited for his upcoming short,“The Clockwork Elves,” as I am for them (very).
What inspired “Yellow Cake”?
The Iraq War: when they were trying to justify invading Iraq, “yellow cake uranium” was the phrase repeated. Yellow cake sounds like a delicious treat, but they made it sound so ominous. So I thought, what if it actually was a dessert, being made out as a threat? It’s also a cat and mouse cartoon—so sort of using the language of old cartoons to tell a different kind of story.
Do you set out to make cartoons that deal with class division and war, or do they just go that way in the making?
I think I just get really bummed about current events, and this is how I can put them into a context I can control. Class definitely exists and people, in the West especially, don’t want to admit it. And when we invaded Iraq, it really struck me that this horrible war was going on, and people weren’t bothered. I grew up hearing about WWII and Vietnam; how with rationing and the draft, everyone felt it when the country went to war. And now it’s so easy for people to pretend it isn’t happening. Same as how people get away with viewing global warming as an abstract concept, and ignore the environmental disasters that are ruining lives—just as long as they’re not affected.
Why do you gravitate toward the old cartoon style?
My favorite cartoons are the old Hollywood ones from the 30s and 40s, especially old Warner Bros. And my background is in painting—I love classical art. Someone recently said, “I thought you just liked old paintings?!” and I was like, “Yeah… but I like Bugs Bunny and seeing someone get punched in the face, too.” It’s that mix of low and high brow. Which is part of why the films I make are cartoony with darker themes. It’s just what I like.
Who are your biggest artistic influences?
René Magritte is a huge influence. In high school art class, he was my introduction to surrealism. It blew my mind. He’s been a major influence since. Besides him, there are just too many…. I’m influenced by pretty much everything. Turn of the century and 20th-century art; German expressionism might be my absolute favorite. For like two years all I watched were silent films. And then with Over the Garden Wall, people have actually gone through and identified all of the inspirations. We were just copying stuff and putting it in. Like the old Disney Alice Comedies, with a real girl in a cartoon world, we blatantly pulled from that. We didn’t try to hide the influences.
Before OTGW, you were a background painter on the preceding short, “Tome of the Unknown.” How did that opportunity come about?
An email out of the blue. The art director, Sue Mondt, asked if I was interested and I said, “Sure.” I was doing storyboards at the time and a little background painting seemed like a fun distraction, extra money or whatever. They didn’t send me any visual material and I assumed it was going to be something simple. Then I received the first background design by Chris Tsirgiotis, in pencil and rendered. It looked just like a beautiful old Disney background. I was like, “Oh okay, THIS is what it’s going to be.” I quickly got on the phone with Pat (Mchale, Director) and he told me to, “Just paint it however”. So I went nuts with it. Elaborate stuff like that, you never get to do for TV. It was nice because he trusted me to do it, and yeah… I just went nuts.
You lived in Canada at the time – how’d they find your work?
Later, Pat said he’d always wanted to make something with classical painting backgrounds. Since everyone’s gone digital, that’s kind of dropped away. He saw one of my films online, “The Pig Farmer,” (below) where I had painted backgrounds and thought, “Like that!” So I guess when CN asked who he wanted to work with, he put my name down. I had a lot of fun with it, sent in my work and they were like, “Okay great! You’re done!” I didn’t hear anything for months, until Pat reached out to tell me it’d been picked up as a show, and would I want to art direct it? I was like “Yeah!”