Interview: Jim Tozzi
Jim Tozzi is an artist and director but equally versed in animation, voice acting and music. As part of PFFR, he’s created characters and puppets for the cult MTV show, Wonder Showzen as well as co-creating and producing Xavier: Renegade Angel on Adult Swim. He’s directed commercials for Miller Lite, Sony Play Station and Rice Krispie Treats but had his start directing a music video for Mercury Rev. I’ve known Jim for some years and he possesses the genuine spirit of a true artist, one that is uncompromising and devoted to process and craft. He’s brought a sense of levity and surrealism to the world of commercials and black comedy which can otherwise be quite unremarkable. I sat down with Jim in his east village apartment to talk simulations...
Let’s start from the beginning. Where'd you grow up?
I’m from Everett, Massachusetts which is just outside of Boston.
How were you influenced in art growing up in Everett? I know you went to RISD.
It was an urban area but not suburban and there wasn’t a lot of nature. There was a lot of Irish and Italians. And there was a sort of jock mentality mostly permeating, I suppose it’s just like anywhere else, where sports is really big. I guess I exposed myself outside of where I grew up through television. I watched a lot of television as a kid. I loved cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Sesame Street was obviously a big influence and Little Rascals. Growing up in the 70s there was also a lot of reruns of Leave it to Beaver, Andy Griffith—stuff like that. But in high school I had a close friend Sean Reese, who was into art so we would draw together and make little super 8 movies. In high school my art teacher told us, “RISD is the Harvard of art schools”. So I was like “Wow” and it always stuck with me.
And you decided to apply.
Well first, I went a to liberal arts college called Fitchburg State and it was there that I realized that maybe I should go to art school because it was like a repeat of high school. Also, I was drawing stuff and people were actually responding to the stupid little comics I was drawing. Anyways, it all pushed me to get out. So then I was like fuck that, I took a year off and work on my portfolio for RISD and took a p/t job as a telemarketer at Arctic Windows. Their whole spiel was, “We’re not really selling anything, we just want to tell ya about these great windows and how you can save on your heating and cooling costs. We’re just calling because we’d like to send over somebody to come out and demonstrate the windows”.
Wow that sounds creepy.
Yeah it sounds horrible but I was actually pretty good at it. Anyways, I ended up getting in and after graduation, I had a friend who lived in New York working at an animation studio called Broadcast Arts. They were looking for freelancers at the time. They had done the first season of Pee Wee’s playhouse before they moved it to LA. So I started off painting and inking animation cells which was all filmed on a Oxberry animation stand, this huge 10 ton machine that just had a camera hanging over it. This was pre computers. Beautiful machine though, traditional animation is awesome. They were doing ads for MTV and Krafts Macaroni and Cheese’s character called Cheesasaurous Rex. So that’s when I became interested in commercials. I wanted to direct a big orange macaroni dinosaur!
Then how’d you transition to directing?
I think the easiest way in was music videos. At the time my girlfriend and I would approach bands that we liked and just ask them if we could make their video.
The first video you made was for Mercury Rev, not bad for cold calling it.
Yeah, they had actually seen my girlfriend’s thesis project where she used music from My Bloody Valentine. Then after that we started to make a reel with a stream of fake commercials. We liked Nick at Night and we ended up showing our reel there. As luck and timing would have it, it was right when they started TV Land. They asked if we’d like to write some promos based on parodies of old commercials.
Your body of work is pretty diverse. How’d you go from directing commercials for Miller Lite, Kellogs Rice Crispies and Sony Playstation to creating characters, puppets and animations for Wonder Showzen, which is kind of the antithesis to mainstream?
That's what I'm striving for and the commercials were mostly comedies. I was always drawing characters on the side for my own personal sanity and pleasure—that sounds gross. Anyways, National Geographics had a kids show and I made animations for these music segments. I became friends with John Lee the co-creator of Wonder Showzen through their production company and he asked me to create some puppet characters. He and Vernon Chatman were shopping around a 10 minute pilot and USA network gave them funds to do a full episode. They ended up hating it. The quote was that, “they killed comedy but not in a funny way”. But then someone at MTV saw it and really liked it.
Let’s talk about the puppet characters like HIM, Wordsworth and Chauncey, they’re hard to explain. It seems like they are based on archetypes but not quite—there’s a dark humor to them.
I think part of it is that they feel recognizable to what we saw as kids, for example taking elements of Cookie Monster mixing it with Ernie and Burt to create something weird and then putting it into a satirical context. It obviously took great and funny writing from Vernon to take it to the next level so that it’s a social commentary rather than a parody. Creating the puppets and characters were a collaborative process, they’d describe something and I’d start sketching it.
Was there any point working on the show where you thought it was too extreme?
Well not really, everything had to go through the censors. Actually, there was a segment called, “What’s Jim Drawing”, where I’d draw something and the kids have to guess what it is. I ended up drawing a cartoon penis and the kids guess it’s a priest. It aired that way but behind the scenes it’s all scripted.
Haha so no kids were harmed in the making. So you were involved in the creation of Xavier: Renegade Angel. I watched some episodes and it’s hilarious but left me with a unsettled feeling. Can you tell me about Xavier whom wiki describes as an “itinerant humanoid pseudo-shaman and spiritual seeker”?
He was based on one of my paintings. I was living in LA at the time and I was missing the east coast and wanted to paint these bizarre American myth like creatures, so I started to paint this hairy man-hawk-beast walking across the country in high tops. I wanted it to be in the style of bad Saturday morning live action like Shazam but due to budget we went with an intentionally bad early computer animation style.
One of the episodes is about a computer virus that infects the town through it’s water source. What're your thoughts on people speculating that we’re living in a simulation?
Maybe there will be a real-er reality to compete with alternate reality. I really don’t think about it, I’m just trying to survive and maybe that’s a generational thing. Although, when technology is changing society and has an impact on all of us, it’s something to be concerned about. But have you had lucid dreams, where you’re aware that you’re dreaming?
No, I don’t think so.
Well basically you’re dreaming and then it’s like “Oh shit this is crazy, I’m in a dream”. They’re good but they can end bad. When I know I’m dreaming I’ll do whatever I want like shoot straight up into the air but then you feel queasy and get vertigo, only to dive back down into the middle of the earth to find yourself trapped in a cement box with a brass number on it and you look around to see billions of other boxes—all with respective brass numbers.
Amazing. I’ll try to work on it tonight. So back to real-er reality, let’s talk New York..
I love New York and it’s the best city in the world. It’s like being in art school all over again, meaning it encourages creativity. The way it’s condensed and easy to get around where you can walk from neighborhood to neighborhood and experience each culture.
Speaking of creativity, how was it like working on the cover series animation?
I wanted to do something that felt handmade, that would bring together the feel of my painting with the emotion of motion. I decided to incorporate old animation techniques, the ones I learned in school, just drawing on paper with a light table and bring in other elements on the computer. The animation became fairly ambitious and as I was using CS4, my old computer would wheeze and struggle with each successive layer...don't ever do animation with CS4.