Interview with director Zachary Ates

SHORT BIO OF THE DIRECTOR: As an avid fan of animation, Zachary Ates made it his dream to become a 3D animator and bring whimsical characters to life. Zachary was the head assistant to Professor Troy Gustafson, a Senior Effects Animator at SCAD.  Zach conceived, directed, and produced the collaborative animated short film Monkey Thief. He loves the collaborative process and wants to make amazing films with his peers that will reach audiences worldwide. Other productions he’s helped bring to life include FlockedLesser of TwoJuracán, Camping Is Cheaper, and Timeless. On this last one, he was the animator on the SCAD Digital Media Collaboration project with the VFX company The Mill. In his spare time, Zach loves illustrating characters, making home videos, and playing with his friendly Great Dane, Chandler.

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

I realized that filmmaking was a passion of mine from a very young age. I would continuously sneak out my parent’s small camcorder and start filming short skits based on Disney movies. I fell down the rabbit hole of wanting to create my own films that tell lifelong stories and touch many hearts. But what I didn’t know how to do was create animated shorts. Live-action was so tangible that I couldn’t fathom how I could take my imagination to paper or 3D render it to life. So, I grabbed books and sought out mentors to guide me to understand this craft.  Over the years, I’ve gained the knowledge of knowing how to create my own 3D animated films and begin my career in filmmaking. I thank that camcorder every day for helping me bring my ideas to life and spark filmmaking for me for many years to come.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

Film school or animation school, for that matter, is essential for the aspiring filmmaker. Yes, one can argue that you can learn all on your own and be self-taught, and I do not deny that at all. But what I feel you miss is the chance to network at a university with other like-minded individuals and brainstorm with other creative thinkers. Also, knowing how film pipelines work and how to create a smooth flow of production. Also, getting guidance from professors to give you the “inside scoop” of it all. A lot of knowledge is gained in attending a university or filmmaking institute that you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.

  •  Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

Keep going is my issue with filmmaking. I usually have wild and crazy ideas and just love to keep expanding on those concepts, but then I have to take a step back and say to myself, “Is this really needed? What does this do for the story? You can’t make a 4-hour film Zachary!”. Getting started is a difficult task for me, all my ideas bumping into one another like a tornado of thought. But once I have my view, I’m all set! Trying to stop me is the hardest part. The story can end, I tell myself, and can live forever inside your heart.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

When collaborating with my crew, I would be very defensive over the characters, story, and scenes. And would dismiss crew members on ideas that were different from my own vision. This is not how a collaborative production is run, and by any means, not how a director should treat his crew. This happened at the start of creating Monkey Thief, and I quickly realized I needed to fix this. I became more open to ideas and let the crew help push the story forward more. This led to more exaggerated poses of the stuffed animals and amazing character acting of the characters Myles and Dolores. The lesson I learned was my crew wanted to help push this film with me to be the best that it could possibly be. This was our “baby” to take care of, grow, and be the best film we could create collaboratively as a team.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

The hardest part of finishing Monkey Thief was the hit of COVID-19. We could no longer be in the same classroom to collaborate due to the virus. Many of us had to leave the state of Georgia to go back home due to Savannah College of Art and Design closing its campus and dorms. We all were scared of what would happen to Monkey Thief. With SCAD closed, this left us without the necessary equipment to use our 3D software to its fullest potential. Unable to share our animation, lighting, texturing files with one another physically. We also hadn’t cast the characters for the film yet and relied on voice actors at SCAD to audition. Without a sound studio or actors, how exactly would we accomplish this? As the film leader, I needed to put on my thinking cap and help this film and crew to the finish line. I started a shared google drive, which we shared files, images, videos, test animation, test simulation, and everything under the sun. As well as had five to six virtual meetings (dailies) a week to keep on track to film finishing on schedule. Also, casting my family to be the voices of the characters and record their ADR in my small cramped bedroom closet. I made sure we made do with the circumstances we were under. And we came out on top and finished the film, and we all couldn’t have been prouder.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

In the director’s cut of the film, towards the end of the film, Dolores (the bully) is hit by her father. We originally recorded Dolores’s father arguing with her until we heard him hit Dolores and Dolores screams. This ending section of the film was up for a lot of debate.  Some of the crew saw it as too much or too graphic. Although the audience doesn’t see the hit, the sound alone can be a lot to handle emotionally. Yet, the other half of the crew, including myself, wished to add it in. We believe this film is to bring awareness to child abuse and didn’t want to “sugar coat it” by not having this sound added. We wanted to push creative boundaries and limits. This was a huge artistic debate on whether or not we should hear Dolores be hit by her father. So, we took into consideration by creating two separate takes on the story, such as the “director’s cut” and “theatrical cut” of the short film. And we all agreed upon releasing the theatrical version instead. It was one of the hardest artistic choices I’ve had to do as a director.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

How we kept as a solid unit, team, and friendship was by planning pizza parties! As silly as this sounds, who doesn’t like free pizza and drinks! I would go out and buy the crew boxes of pizza and drinks, and we would decompress with food and no chit-chat about the film. This was vital to staying strong with one another and becoming family by the end of this film. And we did! Over pizza, drinks, board games, and quality time away from the computer.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

Audiences want entertainment. They want to see a compelling story on the screen that can either inspire, teach, scare, or laugh at. It is the filmmaker’s role to create any part of this; the audience should always be kept in mind. Will the audience understand what is going on? Sometimes, as a filmmaker, you’ll have to over-explain a story in scenes for the audience to grasp. As a filmmaker, YOU know the story like that back of your hand, but you need to make sure the audience knows it as well as you do. Putting yourself in the shoes of an audience member is crucial, in my opinion, to help understand what they want or what they need to see to understand what’s going on.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

As a crew, we want our film to reach as many film festivals as possible to help spread awareness of child abuse. As well as bullying and being selfless. We feel that film festivals will support this very idea and spread awareness! We want to create a conversation with others who have experienced this kind of trauma or haven’t. And create an open dialogue about what the film is helping audiences understand. Bullies often come from a rough home, not always but most. That can be attributed to their guardians beating them, psychologically hurting them, or neglect. While also standing up for yourself, as scary as it could be, as we saw with character Myles in the film. It is also selflessness and lending a hand or a shoulder to cry on when someone is in need, regardless of whether you know them. Film festivals have been able to create this dialogue so far that our entire crew couldn’t be more ecstatic.

  •  Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

We, as filmmakers, need to push boundaries and explore multitudes of different ideas!  By staying safe, we are not letting our creative flag fly high and wide. We need to be experimenting, exploring, and creating narratives that will inspire the next generation of filmmakers to come. Once we stop, our world will become a very dull place, we need that pizazz and spice in our films, so let’s be original, creative, expressive, and loud!