Cuban-American Animator Ryan Gillis on Taking His Short Film To Sundance and SXSW

The bayou comes alive in this dark and twisted tale of environmental justice by Florida-reared animator Ryan Gillis Lizama. Palm Rot, this week’s animated short, has screened at such prestigious festivals as Sundance and SXSW.

An old and sunburnt water ranger version of the Marlboro man has no regard for his lungs or anyone else’s. Using the fan on his airboat, he indiscriminately blows pesticides toward a cluster of palm trees. The floating wreckage of a capsized skiff captures his attention however. There, he will find a strange yet powerful new insect that may rid him of his fumigating ways forever.

Jagged edges and thin lines recall the look and style of action comics. There is great usage of sound that hinges on cartoonish but manages to stay dramatic. Keep your eyes open for the unexpected twists and turns to the story as it moves quickly and manages to hold your ever-dwindling, mobile-device-eroded attention. The ending is delightfully satisfying as this backwater goon gets his comeuppance in the most unique and visually inventive ways. The moral? In a case of man versus nature, nature will mutate and win.

We chatted with Gillis Lizama about the making of Palm Rot and he gave us an insider’s view of attending the Sundance Film Festival and SXSW.

Can you tell us a bit about your background, ethnic, cultural and/or otherwise?

My mother is a photographer and Cuban refugee. My father is a Miami native, and has 12 brothers and sisters. This made for a giant family growing up. I think I have something like 50+ first cousins.

Where did you grow up? What your childhood was like?

I grew up in Hollywood, Florida. It was an incredibly nurturing environment. Like I mentioned, I have a giant family and I feel incredibly lucky for that. I’ve always had an interest in drawing, but it’s a lot easier to pursue your goals when you have 100 people supporting you.

Both my mother and father’s side of the family are a lot of fun but they also both have an intense work ethic, something I never thought rubbed off on me until I started animating.

“I have a giant family… it’s a lot easier to pursue your goals when you have 100 people supporting you.”

How did you get hooked on animation?

I’ve been drawing my whole life and we watched a ton of movies growing up. My two favorite things were drawing and movies, it just took me 20 years to put the two together. I got a degree in drawing at UF as my undergrad, but slowly realized that what I wanted to do didn’t really fit into the fine art ecosystem. My last semester there, I was lucky enough to have a professor that let me experiment with my first animation. After that I was hooked.

Where did the idea for the Palm Rot story come from?

The story for Palm Rot came from a yellow crate and a palm tree. My brother is a professional beer brewer right now but he used to work in a biology lab at Barry University. One day they were cleaning house and he got to bring home some loot. One of the things he found was a yellow crate filled with jars, all covered in Japanese lettering. We found out that the jars were used to take flies into space. California has these palm trees that sheds their fronds like a fur coat. They always looked like rockets to me. Those two images stewed in my brain for years, and when it was time to make my thesis film, I mashed them together to make Palm Rot.

How did you come up with the look of the animation? Did other pieces or artists you’ve seen inspire it?

When I storyboarded Palm Rot I was taking a class with Peter Chung, the creator of Aeon Flux. Thanks to him I tried to push my angles and animated camera work. I didn’t notice how much he influenced me, but a lot of people have been saying that Palm Rot reminds them of Liquid TV. Artists I was more consciously pulling from were Bruce Conner, Kahn & Selesnick, and Mike Mignola, to name a few.

The main character has no dialogue. Can you tell us more about him? Who is he? Is he based on someone you know?

He’s an amalgamation of people I’ve heard stories about back home. Mostly, he’s based on the actual guys who’ve taken me on airboat tours. Leathery and cigarette smoking, they’ve always reminded me of swamp cowboys.

“…Guys who’ve taken me on airboat tours. Leathery and cigarette smoking, they’ve always reminded me of swamp cowboys.”

Where were you and what were you doing when you found out that you got into the Sundance film festival? Who was the first person you told?

Sundance actually gives you a phone call. I didn’t know that. It’s pretty surreal. I had just gotten home from work and when I picked up the phone I was confused. I had to have them repeat themselves a few times before it sunk in. I immediately tried calling my girlfriend but her phone was dead, so I woke up my parents on the east coast and told them. There were a few days between the phone call and the official email. I started to worry that I had imagined the whole thing. But when the email finally showed up, it was the same excitement all over again.

What was your experience at Sundance like? Could you tell us a little anecdote of something special or unexpected that happened to you while you were there?

Meeting people was by far the best part. It was really exciting to be around so many filmmakers who I admire, who also turned out to be really fun. After a few days, you were seeing friends on every shuttle drive and street. The strangest thing that happened to me while I was there was Catdance. We were leaving a party and trying to decide where to go next, a friend of ours mentioned that something called “Catdance” had easy doors. We found our way to the hotel hosting the party, we took an elevator to the 4th floor and when the doors opened, there was a room filled with people in cat makeup, cat themed movies, and a few actual cats hanging around. No one we asked seem to know exactly what was going on, so we just got some cat ears on and joined them.

Are there any movies you saw that you recommend?

Oh man, here comes a big list — because honestly, I would recommend everything that I was able to see. Every film in my animation block blew me away:

Beach Flags, Two Films About Loneliness,The Mynarski Death Plummet, Bathouse, El Sol Como un Gran Animal Oscuro,Tupilaq, Storm Hits Jacket. Other amazing shorts I was able to catch were Myrna the MonsterPapa Machete and Russian Roulette. I wasn’t able to see many features – but The Witch was an hour and a half of pure dread, in a good way. Welcome to Leith and Finder’s Keepers are both amazing documentaries.

“The struggle now is to maintain my personal practice outside of work and not destroy my body and mind in the process.”

You just got back from SXSW, what was that like?

SXSW was really great. I stayed with an old friend and had already met a lot of the filmmakers that were going to be part of the SXSW program at Sundance, so it felt like I was going to a reunion. I was only there for about 3 days, but it was 3 days of nonstop consumption. Austin has amazing food and SXSW has a lot of great movies and free drinks. Parties were going on everywhere, at all times of the day, from the moment the very first reception at Troublemaker studios where they had, I think, 4 kegs and Franklin’s barbecue. The first animation block screening was early on a Sunday morning. It was a thrill to have my film featured with such great work, but I think it was an especially fun screening because of how profoundly hungover we all were. Truly though, every film I saw while I was there was inspiring. I’m really grateful to have been a part of it.

As a working artist, how do you pay rent? What would be your advice to other creative folks who are trying to realize their visions and get their work seen, but also have to split their time with real life responsibilities?

I’m actually really lucky to have just gotten a full-time job at Disney TV animation. The struggle now is to maintain my personal practice outside of work and not destroy my body and mind in the process. I haven’t figured that out yet. Hopefully I’m going to animate something right after I finish this.