Local artist Sean Donnelly has made contact with extraterrestrials. In this case, the ET’s are animated characters he co-created for Jeff & Some Aliens, a Comedy Central TV show that celebrated its premier in 2016.
The recent Comedy Central show is one among many music videos, commercials, and films that feature Donnelly’s unique drawing, animation, writing, and direction. He grew up in Santa Cruz, gravitated towards art at a young age, and pursued it. His distinct creative style, diverse characters, and blend of humor and humanity have kept us entertained ever since.
While studying film and TV at NYU, his short live action and animation film won a screenplay award, an acting ensemble award, was a Wasserman award finalist at NYU’s First Run Film Festival, and played at the SXSW film festival. And that was just the beginning. Since then, his mixed media art has continued to reach an international audience and receive prominent awards.
Donnelly’s animation company, AWESOME + modest, created the animated sequences in numerous documentaries, including Waiting for Superman, U2’s From the Sky Down, Last Play at Shea, and Resolved. He has directed music videos and spots for a long list of influential clients. Donnelly also formed a production company called Video Lou in collaboration with longtime friend, Alessandro Minoli. Video Lou has made over 20 shorts on the adult animation TV series TripTank, won the prestigious Playboy animation award, and developed several shows for Fox primetime and Comedy Central.
His local roots still influence his work – his captivating feature length documentary, I Think We’re Alone Now, focuses on an individual from Santa Cruz. The film played at Slamdance, IDFA, Fantastic Fest, Melbourne, and True False, and won best documentary at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.
Read on to hear from Donnelly about his experience working with art and Aliens; and how it all began in Santa Cruz, many years ago.
Local Santa Cruz: How did you get started as an artist, and what led to your work in animation and film?
Sean Donnelly: There are probably a number of different answers to that, and they’d probably all be true in their own ways. But the one I’m going to go with right now is about the time I was in the Santa Cruz Montessori school in 6th grade. In retrospect, it’s a pretty cool and powerful thing to let a kid that young decide what they want to focus on everyday. I was really into Mario Teaches Typing, Making random Hypercard games and drawing. I remember thinking I was cheating the system by picking all the best acceptable activities on the list while the other suckers were doing real school stuff. But looking back on it, I think that freedom lead me to be able to find what I naturally gravitated towards at an early age, and paved the way for me to be to basically keep doing those kinds of things to this day. I know a lot of people who didn’t get to go to schools like that who were never really given any freedom over their lives until they got to college. They’d kind of freak out about all the sudden options and change majors a million times trying to figure out what they actually liked doing.
What inspires your artwork?
I think one can find inspiration in the darnedest places. I think for me, it’s good to keep a somewhat balanced input/output ratio. If I were to just watch movies all day and go to concerts and hang out at BBQ’s, I think I’d feel a little antsy and unfulfilled. At the same time, if I were to sit in a room all day everyday trying to make as many things as I possibly could before I died, I think that for 1) it would be pretty miserable, and for 2) I’d start to run out of creative fuel and ideas I cared about. When you can strike some kind of balance between the two, then reading the right short story will blow you away and make you want to try and go in new directions with your work. Or a random conversation with the guy cutting your hair can work it’s way into whatever you’re making. Also I get a lot of inspiration from my brothers and things that annoy me.
How has your connection to Santa Cruz influenced your creativity?
When I went to college in New York and met a lot of people who were raised in very competitive communities, it made me really appreciate my relaxed Santa Cruz childhood. I’m not sure any of the local schools I went to even had grades. Because of that, I don’t remember comparing myself to other people ever. It felt like we were all on our own unique quests, and everybody seemed very encouraging of each other. Also there are a lot of great characters around town that have found their way into some of the things I’ve made. Most notably local Tiffany fan Jeff Turner, who became the subject of my documentary, I Think We’re Alone Now.
Take us behind the scenes of Jeff & Some Aliens. What has it been like working on that show as a director, writer, and artist?
I feel like in interviews, people who make TV are always like “Getting to make TV is the best job in the world, it’s just nonstop fun 24/7!” That is definitely the case sometimes, but without a doubt Jeff & Some Aliens has been the hardest and most exhausting thing I’ve ever done. Part of me feels like I’m not supposed to say that though, and I’m only supposed to talk about the good parts like other people do. And there are many, like the fact that I get to work with my childhood best friend every day and write weird stories about whatever we want, and somehow somebody pays us to make them and then put them on TV. And we get to bring in lots of my favorite actors to work with, like Pamela Adlon, Malcolm McDowell, Keegan Michael Key, Richard Kind, and Brett Gelman just to name a few. Or, that I get to hire one of my best friends from high school, and the most talented painter I know, to design all of our backgrounds. And I get to be able to bring on my college roommate to do all the music. And we got to move up to Portland and make the whole show in a magical warehouse with a bunch of amazingly talented people who work hard to improve everything Alessandro and I come up with. And that’s all very true. But also true is the fact that writing and producing 10 half hour episodes on a tight schedule doesn’t leave much time for any other elements in one’s life. And that can make a person go a little crazy. I guess it all goes back to the old input/output ratios.
What projects are you working on that we can stay tuned for in the future?
Every time I finish a project, I find I want to try and switch it up and do something a little different. In the past, I’ve bounced around from documentary, to experimental animation, to comedy and so on. So when our animated show comes to an end, I think we may want to try and make a live action movie on a slightly more relaxed timeline. Alessandro and I have a couple movie ideas we’re writing that we’re excited about. I’m also in the middle of writing a more dramatic little movie that I’d like to make soon.
See more of Sean Donnelly’s work HERE.