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Interview: Tod Polson (Part 2)

Last week we posted Part 1 of our interview with animation designer and producer, Tod Polson. Tod has worked extensively as a director, designer, and teacher, helping develop a variety of projects all over the world, including the Oscar-nominated feature The Secret of Kells, and the Golden Globe-nominated The Book Of Life. Tod is one of our AniMissions guest instructors. Here is part two of the interview.

Q: We love the films that come out of Cartoon Saloon. Can you share any interesting stories about working with Tomm Moore?

A: Tomm is one of my favorite people. Actually the entire Cartoon Saloon gang are amazing. Tomm and his partners have built such a special place. It’s a unique environment where special stories can be told. It’s a business of course, but it’s one of the only places I’ve ever worked where the message and heart of the story are valued more than the almighty dollar. They aren’t thinking about selling happy meals, they are thinking about creating moments that will make audiences stop and reflect on their own lives; all the while dazzling audiences with some of the greatest art in the history of animation. All of this said, as much as Tomm likes making films, I think he would rather be holed up somewhere making comic books. Tomm is an artist who would find a way to share his passions and his stories whether he had a studio or not

Q: What has been your greatest joy as an animation designer?

A: The greatest joy about designing animation has been all the interesting people that I’ve got to work with over the years. For example, on 21 Martyrs I traveled to Egypt and worked with iconographers, clergy, and the families of the martyrs. Their faith will influence how I see the world for the rest of my life. I’ve gotten to know incredible musicians, animators and other other animation designers that both inspire and humble me with their skill. It’s been a wonderful journey. Each project is a new journey.

Q: And how about your biggest challenge?

A: As far as challenges go, I suffer from ADHD, anxiety and depression. It’s been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, in that it’s helped me get where I am creatively. But most days it takes all my effort to stay focused and stay on task. If I have more than one project, it’s even more challenging. It’s difficult for me to organize my thoughts and put them down in a way that make sense to others. I often feel overwhelmed.

I mention this only because over the last 6 months or so I’ve discovered an entire creative community that suffer from similar challenges. Many who have never been diagnosed and have spent a lifetime feeling like they can’t connect their ideas and have always fallen short of their artistic potential. Quarantine and isolation tends to bring out the symptoms of ADHD, I guess. It’s so common in creative fields that I’m guessing that many at YWAM and Create are also struggling... and I’m also guessing that many aren’t even aware of why they struggle. All I know is that after I was diagnosed, I’ve learned coping strategies that have helped me become much more effective in the things that God has challenged me with; including being a father and husband, as well as an animation designer.

Q: Can you talk about the 21 Martyrs project?

A: 21 Martyrs recounts the events that led to the martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya in 2015. The film’s story is based on an interview by an ISIS guard who took part in the murders and was later captured by the Libyan army in 2017. The guard is a hardened jihadist whose life mission has been to kill Christians, but the faith of the martyrs, and the things the guard witnessed around their imprisonment changed him forever. Many claim that after years of violence, the guard has gone insane. I’ve tried to leave the telling of the story neutral, through the guard’s eyes. I leave it to the viewer to decide what is true or not.

This brings up another huge challenge we’ve faced working on Christian films. Of course I hope that Christians will be touched by the stories we tell, but truthfully I’m more concerned that the films we make will reach the lost. A lot of our funding comes from Christian donors and organizations who would like a film to show their congregations. They have a specific agenda, and of course there is nothing wrong with that. But my heart burns for those who have never heard of Christ and what he’s done. At times it’s been difficult balancing something “churchy” with something more challenging and raw. For 21 Martyrs, the church has spun its version of events, which are mostly based on reality, but sometimes are also in direct conflict with eyewitness accounts. To me, the actual events glorify God in an even greater way. That’s the story I’m pushing to tell. We are praying for wisdom and leading in what to include and what not to in order that God’s message is revealed.

“Of course I hope that Christians will be touched by the stories we tell, but truthfully I’m more concerned that the films we make will reach the lost.”

Q: Finally, what advice would you have for someone wanting to use their artistic talent and skill to serve God in missions?

A: After prayer, I think the most important thing is getting a good solid education and if possible working at least a few years in the industry to hone your skills. It’s changing, but honestly most Christian media is pretty bad. Christian Animation being on the bottom of that bad pile. I don’t mean to sound snobbish, but as Christians we are to called to work as if we are working for God. And I’m not really seeing that. To me, if an artist feels called to use their talents for God’s kingdom they are required to develop those talents as much as they can. This means continually taking online courses, experimenting, learning. A good education doesn’t have to be expensive in this Internet age. I emphasize this because Christian media is in direct competition with all sorts of things. If our films are going to touch hearts and lives, they need to be at a level where viewers aren’t distracted by poor storytelling and poor quality production.

Another important thing is finding like-minded Christians that share your vision. Finding an environment where you can grow both artistically and spiritually. Animation is so tedious and takes so long that an individual animation artist will make minimal impact. Our last few shorts each took over a year to make, and involved dozens of people. I’m excited about what Create and other Christian media ministries are now doing. It really feels like we are all taking part of something new and powerful that God will use to help reach the 45% of the world who receive their entertainment over cell phones and such devices. God willing, this will continue to grow and grow.

- Dave H.

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