We all know the virtues of pet adoption — but if pets had a choice, they surely would not want to be “rescued” by the family in this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “Ghost Dogs,” by Joe Cappa. Oscillating between wry, dark comedy and satanic ghost horror, this short is an imaginative exploration of genre tropes via a dog’s POV with vintage MTV animation vibes. Needless to say, it’s a wild ride.

The film starts simply enough with a cute rescue puppy, gated in the laundry room, waiting to meet its new owners. However, before the owners show up, things start to get weird. A robot vacuum starts to stalk the halls as the owner’s former dogs, now mutated anthropomorphic ghosts, walk through walls. Cappa brilliantly mines humor by subverting human horror tropes: when observed by a dog, the ghosts aren’t scary so much as intriguing; while the robot vacuum becomes the villain.. These differing tones and atmospheres are conjured beautifully through a grungy, heavily outlined, and color saturated style reminiscent of MTV’s Liquid Television and early RAW comic anthologies. 

This film is a long time coming. Cappa decided he was finished working for others and wanted to go all-in on a personal project — so he gave himself six months to complete his first animated film. Cut to two years later, post-steep learning curves, mistakes, and a debilitating arm injury, his risk paid off. “Ghost Dogs” premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2021, before going on to play a number of domestic and international festivals. 

Ahead of the Staff Pick Premiere, we reached out to Joe to learn more about his inspiration, style, challenges and more. 

On the inspiration:

“I had been drawing these dog people that crawl around on their hands and knees for quite some time.  They were weird looking and made my coworkers laugh. A few years ago I finally decided to buy a Wacom tablet that allowed me to draw straight to the computer. The first thing I thought to animate was a dog person crawling across the floor. It turned out okay, and I thought I could make a little short film out of it.

At the time, I was making music videos for friends’ bands but I had never worked on a passion project for myself. I think I just wanted to prove to myself that I could create something that would have aired on MTV’s Liquid Television back in the 90’s. I wanted to make something that inspired me as a kid when I first discovered my family’s camcorder. I think that’s where the whole vibe came from. The story was just inspired by the trope in all horror movies where a family’s dog is barking at something unseen to the rest of the family. I figured there could be a really interesting story if dogs could sense the spirits of deceased pets.”

On the dog’s character design:

“I find myself attracted to movies and art that ride the fine line between humor and horror. I think a lot of my art goes there as well. It’s just such a funny emotion to evoke out of people where they don’t know if they should be scared or laughing. I think the dog people create that reaction. There’s also something mysterious about a dog with human legs and arms. Is it mostly dog or is it mostly human? And how would something like that behave?”

On the visual style:

“That goes back to Liquid Television. My producer JW Hallford and I were adamant about the texture of the film feeling dated. Like an obscure short film that’s resurfaced. We gave the film some film shake, but I didn’t want to add any dust or hair. I think the animation style speaks for itself. I also want to give a shout out to the background artist, Patrick Carroll, who I think nailed the aesthetic and attitude so well.”

On point of view and influences:

“I think what was most fun about writing ‘Ghost Dogs’ was playing on horror tropes from a dog’s perspective. Like the underlying joke of the whole piece is that the dog isn’t scared of the things it should be scared of, and scared of things that it shouldn’t. So I had to make reference to ‘The Shining’, obviously. ‘Poltergeist’ was also a huge influence tonally. There’s even a reference to Michael Mann’s ‘The Keep’. But I think the spirit of the actual ghost dogs characters (no pun intended) is borrowed heavily from ‘Gremlins’ Are they silly? Are they dangerous? How dangerous?”

On conceiving of the robot vacuum character:

“The first version of the film that I wrote centered around three dogs stuck at home. I really was just storyboarding out each shot as I was writing it and just coming up with interesting gags and what not. My brother came up with a run-in with the Roomba. After I rewrote the film with just one dog protagonist, the robot vacuum just seemed like such a fun character and a huge plot device for tons of misdirection and humor.”

On challenges faced:

“I mean this was my first animated film so it was a learning curve from day one. Everything was a mistake after a mistake after a mistake. What I thought could be accomplished in six months ended up taking two years. The biggest challenge for me, however, was animating the psychedelic sequence. The animation ramps up from 12fps to 24fps so it became a very labor intensive segment. The repetitive motion of effectively drawing the same frame over and over blew out my arm! I got a frozen shoulder and couldn’t lift my drawing hand past my belly button for a good two months. Not to mention it hurt like hell. So I had to take a six month hiatus while I let my arm heal. That was a major setback.”

What is your best piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers?

“If you want to make your own stuff — like, not for anyone else — I think it’s hard to find that motivation when there’s the incredible risk of going broke. I sort of lived with that anxiety my entire adulthood. At some point, I really saw no future in what I was doing for other people. I had no endgame. And at the same time, I had no endgame for making my own crap.

At the end of the day the only option you have is just to follow the bliss. Ignore the doubt. You make the sacrifices, and you take the risk to follow your own passions. I was just looking for something that felt fulfilling to me and it miraculously is beginning to pay off. It’s such a yogi thing to say and I don’t really feel qualified to give career advice like that, but it’s currently working for me and it’s something I wish I did sooner!”

What’s next? Any upcoming projects? 

“Yeah! I’ve been making minute long short films you can find on my instagram @joecappa.”

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