Chances are, you are aware of the 45th POTUS’ April 23 press conference in which he pondered some novel ideas about treating the novel coronavirus. Carrying on the longstanding tradition of mixing politics and cartoons, director and 2D/stop-motion animator Pete List was inspired to immortalize these controversial words with a new short, COVID-45 — brought to life with crunchy, cheesy snack puffs.
Now marking the first anniversary of his big move from New York City to the Italian countryside, List has more than 20 years of experience in traditional stop-motion, hand-drawn and Flash and After Effects animation for film, TV, web and apps. In addition to personal projects, he has created animation for clients including MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., PBS’s Reading Rainbow, Cartoon Network, Lavazza, Starbucks, Oreo, Walmart, Walgreens and McDonalds. He has directed music videos for Marilyn Manson and Fuzz Townshend, and animated videos for Jeru the Damaja, Razorkat (Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa) and Train. Recently, List has enjoyed collaborating with children’s book author Mo Willems on 11 film projects and two apps.
Check out the short and scroll on to learn more about List’s lockdown production experience in our Q&A.
Animag: Thanks for taking some time to answer a few questions. First off: How did you end up quarantined in Italy?
Pete List: My wife is Italian, and she lived with me in New York City for a little over four years, but she is from the Italian countryside, and she missed her land and her family very much. So, we decided to move to Italy. Last May we moved into a country house in the middle of rolling farmland hills just down the road from a small medieval village. Quite a change from New York, but I’m enjoying the slower pace and the quality of life.
What is your daily life there like?
During the quarantine here in Italy, everything is in complete lockdown. You can’t go outside your local town, and you need to wear a mask and gloves everywhere. If you are stopped by the police you can get a pretty sizable fine for not obeying quarantine rules. But we are very lucky. We have a sizable yard, and some fields around the house so we can walk the land if we like. My wife is a dance and yoga teacher, so we have been doing yoga together five times a week. And the panorama and sunsets are amazing!
What prompted you to create this short?
Trump’s reaction to this virus has been irresponsible. During a global pandemic and a national emergency, there is no clear message from the government, and he seems worried more about the state of the economy and his re-election than the health of people. On April 23, during the White House coronavirus press briefing, Trump suggested injecting disinfectant as a possible treatment for the virus, following it with, “Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. I’m not a doctor, but I’m like a person who has a good you know what.”
It makes me so angry that as the president of the United States, Trump cannot suppress his need for attention and defer to more informed people to take the lead in a health crisis. I felt I had to make something in protest. Something to put another context to those words so that in the barrage of crazy that comes out of his face, these specific words are not forgotten. So I chose to associate his presidency with a virus on the country: COVID-45. Given the situation with the lockdown and the constant turnover of the news cycle, it had to be something created quickly with available materials, and cheese puffs seemed perfect.
How have people responded to it? Any crazy reactions?
I shared the animation on Facebook and Instagram where most of my connections are animators, artists, musicians and dancers, so most reactions have been very supportive. There was one reaction saying I took his words out of context and he didn’t say to inject anything, and what did I do with my Trump check? Burn it? But I just used his words as they were said. And the Trump check [is] another example of Trump’s ego, trying to get personal credit for my tax money being used for COVID relief (…and BTW, I have yet to receive a check for COVID relief from the government).
Another post suggested I shouldn’t touch on politics with my animation, but if I don’t use my animation skills to express my feelings and beliefs, what is the point?
Which animation tools did you use?
I did some reference drawings and a quick animatic using Adobe Animate, and then shot the piece with a Sony a7 III using Dragonframe, and did some real quick rough composite in After Effects before publishing the film. I didn’t want to clean it up too much because a timely turnaround was important.
In Italy during a quarantine, I had to improvise a little. No camera stand? Tie your tripod to a ladder. No diffusion for the lights? Baking paper. Camera cable too short? I stacked my computer on my guitar amplifier. I wanted to make the animation of Trump with Cheetos, but the closest I was able to get was one bag of generic cheese puffs and one bag of Fonzies (think crunchy Cheetos), but that was enough to get the job done.
You were previously based in N.Y.C. … have you been keeping in touch with everyone back home?
Of course. I miss New York and all of my friends and colleagues there. I’ve been back a couple times for stop-motion shoots and to visit my family and friends, but mostly we keep in touch through WhatsApp, Zoom and Skype.
Do you have delicious pasta and wine every night?
Haha! Of course, but you should know — in Italy, pasta is for lunch! This is everyday Italian life. The wine is cheap and good and comes in five-liter bottles, and the food is amazing. It’s an Italian obsession. If nothing else, you always have good food and wine. And I must say, my wife is a pretty amazing vegetarian cook. And I’ve learned a thing or two about making a good pasta dish myself.
What is your take on the state of animation in 2020?
I think the animation industry is in an interesting place. I think some networks are supporting more interesting and strange stories, like The Shivering Truth and Midnight Gospel and Love, Death + Robots. And for me, living in the Italian countryside, as long as I have internet, I am able to collaborate with people on the other side of the world. End of last year I directed animation for a show with children’s author Mo Willems for HBO Max. I was able to work with Mo in Massachusetts; my friend, animator Mike Foran, in NY; and producer Jay Judah at Stampede Ventures in L.A. at the same time. I also recently collaborated with Visual Creatures in L.A. to do a fast turnaround animated spot of “Middle-Aged Mutant Ninja Turtles” for SNL. Now you can work with anyone anywhere at any time.
Any advice for shut-in creatives who want to make an animated gem like you did?
Honestly, for the first part of the quarantine I was not very productive with animation. I spent a good amount of time cutting bushes and trees around the yard, stacking firewood, doing yoga with my wife, writing some music, playing guitar. I did do some research watching lots of short animation, and sketching ideas in prep for a music video project I’m doing with the band SeepeopleS, but I did no real concentrated work. But that press conference really affected me and gave me some focus. I conceived the idea and cranked through the animation in five days, feeling the pressure of the current news cycle. During this shoot, I was really trying to work fast and not focus too much on perfection but to create an interesting piece that hopefully makes people think a little about Trump’s words. We’ll see from here.
I feel that this can be a very productive time for work, but it’s also a good time for reflection and stillness. This is a worldwide slow down. There seems to be a lot of social media pressure to be productive in quarantine, but you have to do what feels right for you. This is a time when artists have an opportunity and responsibility to stand up and have a voice, and with social media we can reach people all over the world instantly. But also. everyone can easily critique and react to your work — you need to trust your gut, and do what you want.
Learn more about Pete List’s work at www.petelist.com.