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Web Exclusive: Interviews with Dino Stamatopoulos and Company

By Stephanie Ewing ('12)

Read more about Starburns Industries' Dino Stamatopoulos ('87), Duke Johnson ('95), Jay Johnston ('93), and David Tuber (BA '05).

Dino Stamatopoulos ('87)

Dino-200x200.jpgQ: What are you working on now?

DS: We just finished a special for Moral Orel, which was a show I did in 2005 to 2009 for three seasons.

The first season was fairly satirical, almost a parody of early television like Leave It To Beaver and Davey and Goliath. Then, by the second season we drifted away from that into concentrating on some of the more peripheral characters on the show. By third season, it became an all-out dark comedy and was promptly cancelled by [Cartoon Network's] Adult Swim.

[But recently,] it started doing pretty well in re-runs, so the head of Adult Swim offered us a special and maybe another season of the show, so we’re still waiting to hear about that.

Right now, the special is more of an origin story about how the main character, Orel-- who’s this really religious character-- became religious in the first place.

Q: What are some of your favorite professional partnerships from back in your Columbia years?

DS: Back in those days, [Scott Adsit (’89) and I] did a few comedy bits together. We were both big Monty Python fans, so we did a bit called Python Fans or Python Nerds where we would go out on stage and nervously admit we’re really big Monty Python fans. We'd call them “the Beatles of England” and just giggle and hyperventilate. We [pretended to call] them, but we were so nervous we couldn’t even put words together. Then we started doing Monty Python bits and giggle all the way through it, and would eventually pass out and drool on each other. It’s sort of a ridiculous bit.

[I also] opened up a theater with Tom Bell (’88) that eventually became Big Game Theater [on Loyola in Chicago]. It was an old submarine sandwich shop and we converted it.

Q: You worked as a movie extra while hunting for your big break. What was your most memorable gig?

DS: I did two months [with a] full beard in the desert playing a knight for [Bruce Campbell’s campy film] Army of Darkness where we were dressing in chainmail in over 100-degree weather and would run next to horses all day.

I never really got on camera, though. So after the two months were over, I took a bath and shaved. Then they called me in for another day in the studio. And after all that time [with a full beard], they then had to glue a fake beard onto my face!

But I’m actually very prominent in that shot. It’s in the palace where the witch throws scalding water into a knight’s face, and it’s me, but I’ve got a fake beard. I also look ridiculous, like I’m just standing there. I look like Peewee Herman at the end of his movie when he’s an extra in his own movie and looks really out of place.

Q: Speaking of facial hair, you recently played the oddly groomed character Star-Burns on NBC’s sitcom, Community. How did you get the role, and are your star-shaped sideburns real?

DS: Dan [Harmon, creator of Community and co-founder of Starburns Industries] texted me at one point and said, “Start growing your beard out. You’re going to be Star-Burns.”

So I said okay. I grew [my sideburns] out and went into makeup. I thought they were going to shave stars into my face or take away what wasn’t a star and leave the star here. But they shaved everything and said, “Here, we got these sideburns that are stars.”

They glued them on, and they looked horrible. And because it was such a hassle, [after the first episode], I just grew my real sideburns out and shaped them into stars the day before shooting. My hair is so gray that the sideburns blended in with my gray, ashen, old-man face, and no one really noticed that much.

It was definitely an achievement to get those stars looking star-like every night before I went to sleep. I did it mostly so I wouldn’t have to go into makeup at 6:00 a.m. I could traipse in at 8:30, and all we’d have to do is darken them.

Then by the end of season three, [makeup] had perfected the fake ones, so I think the last episode or two, I had the fake ones again, but they looked pretty good.

Q: Do you have any advice for current Columbia students who are looking to either get into comedy writing or film production?

DS: Well, the only advice I could give is what got me into this business, which was just being passionate about your work and not trying to do this because you need to make money. Be ready to be poor, and happy, and creative, and just love what you’re doing. Meet like-minded people who you can work with.

Back when I was doing it, it was [all about] just finding a space and performing. Now, you could do everything through the Internet. You could go on YouTube; you can create things. And if it’s good, the cream always rises to the top, and people are going to like you and eventually want to work with you. That’s how careers start.

Duke Johnson ('95)

DukeJohnson-200x200.jpgQ: How did you meet Dino Stamatopoulos?

DJ: I met Dino in New York. I graduated from NYU and was working at a restaurant called Café Noir in New York. And Dino was, for lack of a better term, a barfly there. He used to come in during the day to sit there and write when there was nobody else there. So he was friends with the staff, and he would just hang out and talk, and he and I became friends.

Q: How did you get from film student to directing and producing for Dino?

DJ: We were friends, and then 9/11 hit and Dino left New York and went to LA. I stayed in New York for a little while. But eventually, I came out to LA for grad school.

I went to grad school at [The American Film Institute] and I made a thesis film and had a screening for [it]. I knew Dino was out here, so I thought, hey, it will let me reconnect with Dino and I’ll call him up and invite him to the premier.

I invited him to the premier, and he came and he saw it, and we met up afterwards. He was doing season two of Moral Orel at the time. He said, “I like your film, and I can see you can direct. You want to direct an episode of Moral Orel?”

I was like, “Yeah, that sounds great!”

So I pretty much hung out with him all through season two of Moral Orel. I shadowed him, hung around the studio, and learned the process.

And then season three came around. I directed one episode and we really hit it off. I understand Dino’s humor and his sensibilities, and it all just went really well and snowballed from there.

Q: What’s one of the coolest things about working in stop motion animation?

DJ: The coolest thing about working with stop motion is you can do anything-- anything’s possible. These puppets can blow each other’s heads off and then the next scene they’re fine. There are no rules; you don’t have to obey physics. That’s what’s so fun about animation.

What’s cool about live action is that [the viewer] knows it’s real, and that those are real things existing in real space.

Stop motion has the best of both worlds. You can do anything you want, but at the same time, you as a viewer know that what you’re seeing is real.

I think it gives it a sense of authenticity. It’s somehow more relatable. And also, these things are all handcrafted and you can sense that. You can sense the imperfections and the people behind the craft that are making these things. It comes through on a subconscious level.

Q: How big are the puppets you work with for Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole?

DJ: They range in sizes. Like people they have different heights, but they’re approximately 10 inches tall on average.

[In stop motion more generally], they range anywhere from 6 inches to 12 inches. Twelve inches seems to be pretty standard for features, because the bigger the puppets get, the bigger their world gets. The set has to get bigger, everything has to get bigger. So 10 inches is on the higher end of what’s reasonable for television.

Jay Johnston ('93)

JayJohnston-200x200.jpgQ: How did you get involved with comedy?

JJ: I wanted to do normal straight theater. I was terrified by comedy—it was not something I wanted to pursue at all. But then I took [Comedy Studies professor Norm Holly’s] class and he approached it from a different angle. Comedy’s not impossible to nail down. And not to say that we would dissect it, but we would definitely examine the elements [of comedy]. We would watch Monty Python sketches and tidbits from movies and TV shows that had aired as examples, and we would write sketches. It was really about the idea of producing comedy in the sense of performing it, writing it, directing it.

I went into comedy workshop thinking it was something that I’d gotten out of my system—I’d try it and [leave] it, but instead, I decided to pursue it. And I worked with Second City and Annoyance Theater in Chicago and had a small success with it.

Q: How did you meet Dino?

JJ: I heard a lot about Dino before we met. [In the comedy workshop with Norm Holly], Dino was always held up as an example of a former student who had excelled. This was a good example of a student writing a script based on a format or formula of a scene. We would sometimes do his material in the class to learn how to perform it. So I thought, "Who is this [guy]? What is he like?" because his accolades reach far beyond him.

After comedy workshop, I became friends with Norm Holly. He was friends with Dino and would still hang out. [Dino] would come back occasionally to school to visit Norm and the friends of his, which is how we met, through that world. We hung out a couple times and he seemed like a very precarious and fun person. I built him up in my mind to be more scholarly than he seemed—and he wasn’t like that. As time went on, I thought, "Here’s a guy I’d like to work with."

A year later, I visited California for a couple of weeks while on a job for Second City. I met up with Dino to show him something I wrote and see what he thought of it.

I’d seen lukewarm responses before, but lukewarm would have been great compared to what his response was…But Dino has this amazing ability to give people a chance and allow them to make mistakes and then be clean of those mistake. ...So we became chums before Mr. Show.

Q: What’s it like working in stop motion animation?

JJ: I love watching stop motion; it’s so fascinating. But there are very few cool things about stop motion animation, so I can get them straight in two seconds-- which is half a day’s work for most stop motion animators.

I got involved with Dino for Moral Orel and got to go behind the scenes. I realized that [stop motion animation] is one of the most tedious possible things on the planet. The minutiae, the attention to detail, the dedication to each millisecond is incredible. Not to say I don’t have attention to detail, but I don’t have that kind of attention to detail.

Working at Shadowmachine for Moral Orel [as a director and producer] wore me down. When you give a direction, you tell the guy at 9 or 10 in the morning when he starts his day: “So in this scene, I want Orel to come in, walk across the room, and say, ‘I’m fed up!’ and put his hands on his hips.”

Then you come back after lunch to see the progress, and Orel is just opening the door. They work their asses off for seven seconds of product at the end of the day.

But it is cool because the animators (and also the directors) essentially become the actors. You literally get to mold the puppets into the shapes like an actor expressing movement--raising their eyebrows or wiggling their mustache.

Q: I have one last question for you. How—

JJ: Dino is 6’3”. You were going to ask how tall he was, right?

David Tuber (BA '05)

DavidTuber-200x200.jpgQ: How did you get involved in animation?

DT: I’ve been drawing since I was 4, and I knew I wanted to be involved with cartoons…, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with cartoons specifically. Then in college, I became very interested in animation. Not just as someone who wanted to draw and illustrate, but as someone who wanted to animate and then someday maybe write and direct and do all the things.

In my junior year, I started getting more involved with stop motion, and stop motion was just a medium that I always admired, but never thought I would work in it. I continued training in traditional [2D animation], but I started working in stop motion more than anything else. There was a teacher at Columbia who got me in touch with his relatives out in Hollywood, and that got me working in the stop motion industry for the last 5-6 years.

Q: What are some animated works that have had an impact on your career?

DT: The Nightmare Before Christmas changed my life. When I saw it in the theater--I think I was about 10-- it captivated me from start to finish. I knew there was something really special about it, and it wasn't just the movie itself. It was the medium. We’d all grown up with stop motion, seen it before in our lives, but that really changed the way I looked at it.

Junior year, more stop motion animation came out, like Robot Chicken and The Corpse Bride. I [used to think] it was a dead horse of a medium…, but it’s back. There’s a lot more interest in it. It’s still a very small community. I mean, I know just about every major player in the industry of stop motion. It’s amazing how it came back with just a few projects, but they’re great.

I remember watching Robot Chicken and thinking: “I would like to work on that show,” and then I did. Second season, I was an intern on it.

Q: Who were some of your professors that influenced you?

DT: Major, major props to my professor Dino Crisanti. He was my stop motion teacher, and he was really cool. We just got along great. I became his TA my senior year…he took my under his wing and taught me how to animate better. I was doing little shorts for myself in my senior year, and that helped my reel a lot. That’s what really got me the [Robot Chicken] job.

Q: What was it like to transition from storyboard artist to writer and director?

DT: It was unexpected for one thing. I didn’t set out to be a director—it just kind of happened. I knew I wanted to animate. That was my real goal in moving to LA, and I would spend my lunches walking around the studio, trying to learn what I could without bumping into a set or interrupting anybody. Regardless of how it interacts with you, it’s good to know everything, and I wanted to know inside and out how a studio works.

Working with Dino [Stamatopoulos], I learned about the writing process and I helped out once with the voice record storyboard. But I never really directed before, so it was pretty hard the first go at it. It was incredibly challenging. The easy part was the animation. Giving direction to an animator was good because that was the field I always felt the closest to, but it wasn’t easy to communicate with the [Director of Photography] to tell him how to light the set. I had never done that before, so I had to fake it really well and learn as I went.