Film: Shaun Pitz on Espresso Manifesto

The secret history of your morning cup of Joe.

By , Columnist

Given that I concentrate so much on covering comics, it’s sometimes easy for me to forget that there are plenty of projects being done in the other arts and mediums that are worthy of coverage here. Still, every now and then something comes along that instantly grabs my attention and I know in my gut that I need to talk with the creators behind it.

Today’s case in point: Espresso Manifesto by Shaun Pitz.

Although he’s based in the same area that I am—the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—I hadn’t heard of Pitz or his film work until a local news program reported on his efforts to fund a new short animated feature via Kickstarter. And while that would have caught my attention under most circumstances, what really made covering this project inevitable was the combination of the circumstances that inspired it and Pitz’s obvious dedication to seeing it through to the end.

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What’s your elevator pitch for Epresso Manifesto?

When life hands you beans, make coffee. The question is, where did that savory cup of coffee come from? An alternate roast of reality.

Espresso Manifesto is a seven-minute animated film that reconsiders the origin of coffee through a colorful world of fantasy and science fiction.

A mysterious cafe set beside an ocean of grass, a silent observer, metallic serpents, rolling robots, and one lingering question: Why is coffee just so delicious? The answer may be more sinister than you think!

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What gave rise to this project, and why does it mean so much to you? And why have coffee play such a central role?

Nearly every person in a creative field will tell you that they want one thing above almost anything else: freedom. Creative freedom is a rare commodity in today's world. Most people I know that work in a creative field always have that one project that's been rattling around in their brain for years, but they rarely get to work on it due to a lack of funding, support, or time. I've been around coffee for a long time, and it has grown into another passion alongside animation. Those two things are nearly always on my mind, coffee and animation, so their eventual collision was not a huge surprise.

However, the story's rise into my consciousness did catch me off guard. After a stroke, my late grandfather found himself battling dementia late in life. The descent was gradual but obvious. He would stare out of his window for hours, not saying a word, just sipping on a cup of coffee. I began to wonder where he was in his own head; was he daydreaming? Had his dementia robbed him of his imagination? Or could it be just the opposite—was it running wild, creating fantastic worlds for him to explore? Espresso Manifesto is the world that I've created for him, born of my own imagination while rooted in the question of what may be inhabiting his own.

Working on an independent short film gives me unlimited creative freedom; it's what we would often deem a dream project.

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If memory serves, you’ve been working on this for a while now. So, how far along in the process are you, and what’s kept you going during all that time?

I've been working on Espresso Manifesto for a couple of years now. It's unfortunate that my grandfather passed away last year; it would have been really interesting to see his reaction to the finished film. The animation and computer rendering is nearly complete, I'd peg it at over 95%.

I've always been told that the final 10% of a project is the hardest, and that has certainly held true. You have to begin making cut-throat decisions on what to edit out of the final film. I've often had to scrap shots that I've worked weeks or even months on, to ensure that I don't bog down the story. It's a fine line, but the story must always be propelled forward, even at the cost of something you may have found entertaining or visually interesting.

Throughout this entire process, I've never lost interest in the project or the story that I'm trying to tell. I think that creatives are often driven by an internal motor that just never stops running. When it does, that's when you're in trouble. In the purest sense, animation is problem-solving, and I think that you have to love that constant struggle or else you'll lose your way. That's what keeps me going when things get really tough, finding a creative solution, winning those small battles that hopefully build to something great.

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Well, why do a Kickstarter campaign?

While the animation is nearly complete, I still consider the film only half-finished. Can you imagine Star Wars without the film's brilliant John Williams score? No title theme, no imperial march, no cantina band! Well, two out of three at least. In my mind, music is no less than half of a film.

Unfortunately, I have nary a musical bone in my body. As the animation began nearing completion, I started contacting several music and sound design studios, and as the price quotes rolled in, I only then realized that I was in over my head. I wasn't so naïve as to think that the audio production would be cheap, but I received quotes as high as $18,000! That's a lot of cash for an independent animator that works at a coffee shop on the side. These studios are some of the best in the world, and while I won't be hiring any that will charge me the price of a fully loaded Kia, I completely understand this seemingly high cost. These are teams of brilliant artists who will be tasked with completing the second half of my film, a task that I could never accomplish myself.

Also, some of the Kickstarter funds will be going to countless film festival submission fees for when Espresso Manifesto is ready to make its appearance on that circuit.

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How important is the concept of crowdfunding, and sites like Kickstarter, to artists like you?

I have been aware of Kickstarter for about three years, and when I realized that I couldn't finish the film without help, it just felt like a perfect fit. I love the Kickstarter structure. As of this moment, I've supported 69 different projects, beginning three years ago with an animation project called Aiko & Egor. Aiko & Egor is an educational animation produced for children with autism. It's a brilliant project, and without an outlet like Kickstarter, it very well may not have been funded. Ever since then, I've been hooked. It's become hard to not help out these great projects.

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How did you develop the script? And do you do all of your writing on a computer, or is it more of a mixed media approach where you use whatever’s at hand?

When scripting the film, I first come up with the core concepts and characters involved. This process varies wildly across one medium to another, it's all very fluid. I'll do a couple of rough sketches on paper and then open up my computer software and play around with several ideas revolving around the sketches.

When I have an approximation of the characters I intend to use, I'll then sketch out storyboards of different arcs that could come about in the story that I have in my head. Storyboards are very much my scripts, they give me an idea of how the story will unfold and flow.

After I have a rough story laid out, I'll create a color script. A color script is basically just a series of thumbnails consisting of the main color scheme that I intend to use in any given scene. The thumbnails are then laid out chronologically in strips, showing the intended mood of the scene, such as red often signifying danger.

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Did you have the script completely worked out when you began the actual animation process, or was there some room for serendipity and spontaneous inspiration in there?

At the beginning of the animation process, I always think that I have the script pretty locked in, and then eventually the world takes on a life of its own, leading to some of the most fun involved in the entire process. This is often where the problem-solving really begins.

For example, with Espresso Manifesto, I knew that I wanted an “ocean of grass.” It just began as long grass waving in the wind, but I kept pushing it — why not make this an actual ocean, with the combination of the blowing grass on top of the motion of actual waves? The evolution often involved moving further away from realism and more toward fantasy and science fiction.

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How about the character and background designs? How do you approach creating those, and how much did those change, if at all, during the actual animation project?

While working on characters and background designs, I love creating new worlds in my mind and then seeing how they translate to the screen. Sometimes I'll sketch out a thought on paper and other times I'll build it directly in the computer. Even while working in software, I still consider this sketching, just in a different medium.

I've always enjoyed product design and architecture, so it's fun to play around with the infinite possibilities that creating an animated world allows. When in the software, after I've modeled something I think that I may use, I'll apply dozens if not hundreds of different textures until I find something I really like.

In Espresso Manifesto, there are trees that grow eggs and inside the eggs grow baby serpents. I began with traditional tree bark textures, but ended up with what is basically an ornate glazed ceramic texture. Often I may want to make what could be ordinary objects into characters in their own right, and that was the case with the egg tree evolution.

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What do you get from working on films, in general?

Animation and film in general is about creating a world, breathing life into it, and then telling a story that you feel needs to be told, while always making sure that the story stays at the forefront of your efforts. In animation, when you breathe this life into a character, there is really nothing like it. Seeing something that you've created come to life is really quite thrilling.

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How about Espresso Manifesto? What has making this film given you that you haven’t gotten from your other work in the medium?

As an animator, more often than not you’re visualizing someone else's ideas and then adhering to their direction. While this is certainly not always a bad thing, it's a breath of fresh air to create something free of any shackles or creative limitations.

Espresso Manifesto has allowed me this freedom while telling a story that is very close to me, a story that I think is uplifting. In the end, the story is about the uncanny power of the human imagination. Even when we have nothing, we have everything.

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How about your audience — whether it’s the supporters of Espresso Manifesto or other viewers — what do you hope they get from your work?

I hope that people who see the film enjoy their time in this world and may take a moment to ponder our amazing capacity to imagine.

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Let’s say there’s someone out there who’s still not entirely convinced to contribute to the cause. What might you say to them that would sway them in favor of helping make Espresso Manifesto a reality?

I really urge everyone to explore the Kickstarter website. Even if my own project doesn't pique your interest, there are bound to be several others that excite you. On Kickstarter, if you don't reach your goal, you get nothing, so it is really quite nerve-wracking!

Everyone who pledges gets something in return. I have Espresso Manifesto t-shirts, custom coffee tumblers, DVDs, the option to be featured in the film's end credits, and more. I truly want to thank everyone who has helped support me up to this point and send a million thanks to those who may support me after reading this article. Aside from allowing me to complete this project that is so dear to me, it's hard to put into words how the support makes me feel on a much more personal level. It honestly just means the world.

I also want to thank you, Bill, and The Morton Report for having the interest in this interview and the Espresso Manifesto project. Always remember, when life hands you beans, make coffee!

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It really has been my pleasure, Shaun. Anything else to add before I let you go?

Just this: As Carl Sagan observed, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.”

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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