An Interview with Joanna Davidovich – By Philip Smolen

“Monkey Rag” is a brand new three and a half minute animated gem from cartoonist Joanna Davidovich (for my review, please go here). It tells the fantastic story of a vivacious, curvy redhead named Mitzi who’s romantically interested in a tall Lepus-like creature named Spanko. And all the while Mitzi chases Spanko, the incredible Dixie land-flavored title romp by the Asylum Street Spankers plays along. It’s a wildly infectious short, full of bubbling energy and incredible backgrounds.

Joanna’s been developing her animator’s chops for a few years now and has started to make some headway in the industry, including working on the cult animated TV show “Ugly Americans.” I reached out to the Floridian native last month and she graciously agreed to answer my questions about her latest and greatest animated creation.

RC: Joanna, when did you know that animation was your calling?

JD: I always loved cartoons and I think I just never grew out of it. But it was probably when I was ten and “Animaniacs” came out that I realized making cartoons was something people could do for a living, and I never really considered another career after that.

RC: Did you spend your entire childhood absorbing Saturday Morning cartoon shows? What were your influences growing up?

JD: Yes, Saturday morning (although where I lived the “Saturday morning” cartoons always played on Sundays!) and after-school cartoons- I couldn’t get enough. I remember watching “Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers” one day and my sister walked into the room and told me I was killing my brain cells. The thought panicked me, but not enough to stop me from watching. My favorites were the classic Warner Bros. shorts, Disney features, anything by Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, and anything Friz Freleng did in the 40s. I loved the 90s Warner Bros./Spielberg shows too, like “Tiny Toons”, “Animaniacs”, and “Freakazoid”. I also became a real fan of Nick At Nite and watched “I Love Lucy” religiously.

RC: Do you have a philosophy when it comes to animation?

JD: I sure do, but probably none of it is original. But I do have a philosophy on cartoons.  I think for an animated work to be called a “cartoon” it should first and foremost be fun to watch- visually interesting in design and movement, with humor in expressions and gestures. Right now, there are so many animated shows and animated features out there that I love, but wouldn’t really call them “cartoons.” And that’s ok!  I just sometimes miss cartoons.

RC: Joanna, tell me about some of the other industry jobs you’ve had.

JD: I’ve worked as an animator, character designer, storyboard artist, and once in a while I get to audition to do voices (that is the best! I’d drop everything to be a voice artist.)  It’s mostly been on commercials and promos and stuff like that. I have worked on a couple of TV series doing boards, and I found it pleasant to spend more time with the same characters because you get to think about them more.

RC: “Monkey Rag” is a wonderful three minute burst of atomic animated energy. Tell me about its creation.

JD: I was feeling kind of sad about my life and career, and decided I wanted to do something on my own. Making a cartoon to the Asylum Street Spankers song “Monkey Rag” was an idea I’d had for a long time, and of all my ideas for shorts it was by far the happiest. The song had been in my head for years and I had already planned out the characters and the action, so I got it down as storyboards as quickly as possible and sent it to the band to get their permission.

RC: Was the band receptive to your idea?

JD: Yes, they were! They had said that years before they had wanted to foray into animation, so they let me use the song completely free of charge. They’re really cool people.

RC: The backgrounds in “Monkey Rag” are captivating. What were you trying to accomplish with them?

JD: Originally I wanted the backgrounds to be very simple- fields of color with just a prop or two as needed. But I did the first background with the mountain path and the palm trees in a more vibrant style, and my husband Nate insisted that I do the entire film that way. I pouted and stamped my feet for a while, because I’m not a background artist and knew it would take me forever to craft anything usable, but in the end I came around to his way of thinking.

RC: How did the characters of Mitzi and Spanko crystallize for you?

JD: After years of listening to the song, the characters just sort of developed on their own. They are certainly influenced by Betty Boop and other classic cartoons. (I made Mitzi a redhead in honor of Betty Boop’s surprising color debut in “Poor Cinderella [1934].”)  I also think their relationship is interesting– very frustrating but lots of fun.

RC: Your sly nod to Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” at 2:07 is brilliant. What made you add that in?

JD: It’s an old gag that’s been in so many cartoons I just felt I had to do it, too. I can’t think of an example right now (of course) but trust me, it’s out there!

RC: Was “Monkey Rag” all animated by hand?

JD: Yep!  I drew everything on paper, then inked it on paper, and then my husband Nate developed a pipeline for getting the inks digitized for color and comp.

RC: How did you keep the energy level up in the short? To me, it would seem that it would be very easy to lose track of the rhythm of the song while animating.

JD: The song just has so much energy all on its own, and suggested so much to me visually. There is actually a lot I had planned to put in but couldn’t find the frames for.  Maybe that’s why it’s so frenetic- I’m trying to cram in a lot of action.

RC: How long did this masterpiece take you to finish?

JD: Masterpiece- thank you!  It took about four years from boards to final product. I was pretty busy with work over that time period, so most of “Monkey Rag” had to be done in snatches on nights, weekends, and any bit of downtime I had.

RC: When did you know that you had something special?

JD: I can’t really gauge how special “Monkey Rag” is from where I’m sitting.  Hopefully time will tell. I can say that I still have lots of affection for the song and the characters and I still want to use Mitzi and Spanko for other things, and I am proud that I was able to finish it.

RC: What has the reaction been to “Monkey Rag”? Have you shown it at any festivals?

JD: It has screened at a number of festivals, and generally the reactions have been good.  But people have also been confused by it, and don’t know how to treat it. Is it a music video? Is it a commercial cartoon? Is it an artsy animated film? What’s the message? How is it relevant? But the people who like it are very kind about it- like you!

RC: What makes proudest about the film?

JD: It’s done!

RC: What deviltry are you working on now?

JD: Just trying to pay the bills, Phil! My personal artistic goals for this year are to make a short in four weeks (instead of four years) and to start developing and pitching my show ideas.

RC: Tell everyone at Rogue Cinema how they can find “Monkey Rag” and how they can find out more about you!

JD: You can see “Monkey Rag” and find out more about it at monkeyrag.cupojo.net, and my portfolio site with my other work is cupojo.net.  You can also follow me on twitter as “JoTheZette.”

RC: Thank you Joanna! Everyone here at Rogue Cinema wishes you tremendous success with “Monkey Rag.”

JD: You’ve been so kind! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.  Thank you so much Phil!

Final Note: To see exactly how Joanna created “Monkey Rag”, please visit this website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBpghnnsQec&feature=youtu.be