Erin Cosgrove’s New Animation Puts Culture in Space

If you survived an apocalypse, what culture would you take with you? In Erin Cosgrove’s feature-length animation, her Creative Capital Project, The Living Book, two characters travel through space with a cargo of frozen children and “culture files” in an effort to save civilization. When the files are corrupted, they have to recall and invent all of human history, philosophy, and culture to pass on to future generations. The film’s dark satire coupled with a dizzying array of influences and references is key to Cosgrove’s work, and it presages life during the pandemic. The work premieres online through the Cartoon Crossroads Columbus animation festival presented by the Wexner Center starting September 30.

We talked to Cosgrove about whether art was important in a post-apocalyptic world, what goes into making an animation film from beginning to end by herself, and how all of art is in some sense a struggle with failure.

Alex Teplitzky—So, tell me about the film. How did it get started?

Erin Cosgrove: The Living Book is a project that I have had in the works for a very long time. The first feature-length animation I made, What Manner of Person Art Thou?, was a quasi-experimental film about two characters that wander around in the present time with a Middle Ages mindset. That was a response to 9/11—the way people use religion to justify violent action. The mental time-travelling went backwards in that one, so I thought what if I did another piece but with time tossed forward.

What Manner of Person Art Thou? was an apocalyptic film, while The Living Book is post-apocalyptic. It also has two characters who, instead of running around killing people for their perceived sins, are trying to save the rest of humanity—the frozen children aboard their ship that they’re supposed to find a new home for. In relation to that, it’s strange that these films are book-ended in time by 9/11 and the pandemic. Those of us who remember 9/11 can’t, I think, help comparing the two in terms of the seismic shift in our lives, and the way we think of our world.

“In a way it’s also an allegory for what it’s like to be an artist—entering an empty studio where you can make anything… That’s sort of daunting, and it’s a responsibility.”

It turns out that The Living Book is an apt response to the pandemic because it depicts a couple stuck on a ship with only each other to talk to. Many of us were shut in our domiciles, some of us alone, and some with other people. We were sometimes going bananas—if we were lucky, that is, as opposed to the people that had to risk exposure. While the couple on the ship are trying to complete their mission, their cultural files get destroyed. So, the whole animation is ostensibly about the characters trying to recreate the files which encompass the entirety of human history.

Alex—There are so many sly references to present day politics and realities. Can you talk about some of them, maybe some of your favorites?

Erin—It is quite apocalyptic, so there’s a lot of talk about global warming, corporate mergers, the decay of civilization, classism. But the weird thing is, while you’re right—a lot of this does resonate with what we’re experiencing today—I wrote it in 2013.

Alex—Oh!

Erin—Yeah, exactly. A lot of the stuff I predicted in the film came to pass, sadly. There is even a virus that is one of the reasons Earth declined. Which references are you referring to?

Alex—The first one I remember is the mention about corporations becoming sentient. I love those little references that kind of fly by in the script.

Erin—That was a reference to Mitt Romney’s outrageous quote, “Corporations are people, my friend.” Of course that’s not true. Corporations are much more important than people, or so many politicians and businessmen think. There’s a lot of references like that, and it was some of the funnest stuff to write—little history lessons that are a version of hell. It all goes by really quickly. There are instances when their computer is speculating on why the Earth ended, and a corporate merger singularity was one of the possible reasons for Earth’s end. This carving out of the middle class that has been the bane of a lot of our lives is something that plays a big part in this film. You know: the film has all those cozy things that you want to bring your kids to see, right?

For example, all the children were sponsored by companies and that’s how they got a place on the ship. So they all have company names, and one of the character’s goals is to strip away their sponsors’ names before they become unfrozen.

Alex—The other one that resonated with me is when the computer tries to define what a cultural file is. For the computer it’s something that doesn’t have any purpose. It seems like something that would happen in space. What is culture in space, where two people have to carry on the future of humanity?

Erin—Like I said, this is ostensibly about them making up all of culture from scratch and about their space journey. But, in a way it’s also an allegory for what it’s like to be an artist—entering an empty studio where you can make anything. Especially if you don’t have market pressure, and I am so pleased to be free of market pressures, then you can actually do whatever you want. That’s sort of daunting, and it’s a responsibility. The two characters are in this realm where they have nothing. It’s almost like an artist’s nightmare. They have nothing except their dwindling memories, and they have to invent everything for the future generations.

Like most artists, I think, I’m an abject failure at most everything I do. So, this is also a story about failure. They ultimately don’t succeed.

Remember Marco Rubio talking about how we need more plumbers, not painters or something. There’s such a disdain for cultural workers now. I think that disdain is always present in discussions about culture—what is culture for? Of course, in pandemic times one wonders that too, right?

Alex—Well, yes and no. During the pandemic, when we were all locked down, we all sort of turned to some form of art.

Erin—I agree. Obviously, I think culture is important, but on a lifeboat you might be the first person to be jettisoned, right? That’s sort of my point: who do you want around you during a pandemic: Dr. Fauci or Banksy?

Alex—Maybe Banksy has some real-world skills.

Erin—Like, anonymity and spray painting?

Alex—Can you talk about your process? You said you wrote the script in 2013, and it sounds like you made the film from beginning to end, which is rare for a feature-length animation film.

Erin—Yes, for the most part. Animation takes a long time to make, and I averaged two minutes a month. And those were only months where I could really dedicate myself to working on it. Sometimes I had a heavier teaching schedule, or other life things would get in the way. But the way I would work is I would spitball stuff to myself, then write from the collection of ideas. Then I edited, then expanded, then edited, then expanded. Then, I hired the voice actors who were excellent, and edited it again as a vocal piece. That acts as a kind of backbone to making the animation over it. After that I started drawing the key frames.

My assistant and I went through a grueling process in front of a computer to make the film, especially the lip syncing. That went on forever. By the time I got to the end, the characters looked so different from what they did at the beginning that we had to go back to redesign them so there was some continuity. By normal animation standards, it’s still visually all over the place, but at some point you just have to say, “it’ll do!” So that was the process.

Alex—As far as I know, regular animation films require hundreds or even thousands of people to make. With your film, it’s just you and your assistant, and of course the voice actors.

Erin—Yeah, and it probably is hundreds of people more because big studios have their core group of people, but then they send the project to another country where they can get cheap labor. That’s how they save a lot of money. I teach animation, and this is what I tell my students: look at the credits of any animation and you have to remember that is just the tip of the iceberg because they are sending it somewhere to finish it. Those people aren’t necessarily named.

Then the students begin to get humble about the process, whereas I’m an idiot because I think, “I’ll just do another feature-length animation.” Then I become an indentured servant to it for the next decade. You really better like what you’re doing if that’s the case.

Alex—Can you talk about some of the styles of animation that you did in this film? There are so many combined elements.

Erin—When I started the project, it just seemed so big. I didn’t know where to start, so I began with an idea and just pulled it out. When I started working on it, I thought, “that idea could be a project on its own.” I’m a gallery artist—I make sculptures and drawings too. So, I had a show with two live-action videos with some animation, and five giant wood sculptures that came from one of those early ideas. Another Living Book idea was in a short animation in an earlier show. The short animation and the two live action films then became part of The Living Book.

Film still from The Living Book by Erin Cosgrove, 2021

I did a lot of the work for the visuals of The Living Book—first, hand drawings, then those are colored in Photoshop, and last I used After Effects to move things around and for special effects. It’s a mish mash, a little bit of everything in it. I also stole a few things, so they can come get me! I took some clips from a Turkish Star Trek from the internet. It’s so wonderful and wacky that I couldn’t resist it. It’s my satire on the Turkish satire.

Alex—I didn’t know there was a Turkish Star Trek! What other things are you inspired by with regards to the film? I was thinking of Douglas Adams, I guess because I know Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy through the video game instead of the book.

Erin—Oh you played that? I read about it but I never met anyone who played it! Yeah, I read widely, all sorts of random things, so it’s hard for me to say what I’m inspired by. I taught art history for more than ten years, and my favorite class to teach was the ancient history stuff.

I’ve also always been really interested in obscure religious sects and all of the weirdos out there. One story in The Living Book is about Danilo Filipov. He’s a Russian army deserter and a kind of seer, and people began to follow him and his religious teachings. At some point he realized that it’s all bullshit. He throws all of his books into the Volga river and says, “We are the living book.” That’s, of course, where I got the title.

It’s about oral history, and this idea that it all must be thrown away to start anew. Culture is a living thing. We are made of stories. In The Living Book, jettisoning cultural files is a way of having it both ways—if you are ruled by oral history there’s a lack of accountability, but on the other hand it can make things more mutable. It seems like right now we need a lot of change, and those of us who are very impatient wonder why we can’t just rewrite it all. But it’s never that easy.

I think a lot about Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” too, especially where it talks about culture as part of the procession that the victors carry as they march over the defeated. Benjamin talks about how art has to brush against the grain of history in order to not be a part of that procession. Whether or not my film is doing that is another question, but it’s certainly one of the subjects within it.

Another writer I would like to be influenced by is Beckett—his way of breaking language down to play. So, it’s not all just straight politics or passing information, a lot of it is playing in real time. One of the things I like to do in my work is to take one idea and extend it for way too long, which apparently I did a really good job—or a bad job of, because I ended up having to cut out 20 minutes of material from the film.

Alex—Did you work with an editor, or did you do that too? I know some artists don’t always work with external editors, but some do for longer films.

Erin—I did all the editing. I think it makes sense to work with an external editor for filmmakers. I see my work not so much as commercial, but as an artist. Whatever ends up being funky about it is endemic to the piece. This piece basically had no budget, whereas an animation budget, a small one, would be ten million dollars. And that would be very small.

Alex—How was Creative Capital helpful to making this film?

Erin—Most of the money I received went to paying the excellent voice actors: Scott Keely, Janelle Ranek, Dawn Krosnowski and my father, Don Cosgrove, and my assistant, Chelsea Keene, and the people who did the original sound, one of which was my brother, Kevin Cosgrove and Elaine Evans and the International Novelty Gamelon group. I didn’t really get any money out of it at all. But it’s fine—if I wanted to go into art for money I would make abstract art. Burn!

Alex—Aside from the money, how else was it helpful? You got the grant in 2008!

Erin—It was a long time ago. For me, what was most helpful about Creative Capital were the retreats. They were also kind of painful because I’m an introvert, and it was pushing me in ways that are counter to my natural instincts. But, honestly, just being able to stand in front of people and talk about what I do in front of people who might be interested was wonderful. And all of the other artists that I met were inspiring. It was worth all the difficulty that the rest of the retreat was for me. So many things came out of the retreat that were more important than the money.