A chalk image of a hand by artist Dustin Grella

Slate of Hand

By Stefan Gruenwedel

A photograph of Dustin Grella
A photograph of Dustin Grella at work.

Dustin Grella is a stop-motion animator who knows something about getting his hands dirty — not from dirt, but from dusty chalk, which he uses to draw colorful, dreamy scenes on large chalkboards rescued from century-old schoolhouses. Inspiration comes from the spoken words recorded by strangers, friends, and himself. 

His arduous artistic process destroys as much as it creates. After quickly drawing a scene on a chalkboard with multiple sticks of chalk (technically pastels), he photographs the scene and then erases it, or a portion thereof, so he can draw the next iteration of the animated sequence, photograph the chalkboard again, and then erase some more before drawing the next moment in time. After doing this a dozen times, he’s taken enough photos to last one second of video. 

The impermanence of Dustin’s individual chalk drawings is not an accident; he’s well schooled in life’s impermanence. He almost died in a freak accident that left him partially paralyzed, and his younger brother was killed in Iraq. An epiphany during a six-month road trip to the Panama Canal gave him the direction and confidence he needed to embark on his artistic career. 

He debuted in 2009 with “Prayers for Peace,” a short narrative that explores the memory of his brother in Iraq. Created primarily with his parents in mind, it won numerous awards at film festivals and continues to haunt viewers today. In early 2014, Dustin animated answering-machine messages left on special phones as part of a site-specific art project at the Sundance Film Festival. 

When he’s not attending film festivals, Dustin works in a light-filled studio in the South Bronx area of New York. That’s where I reached him. 

Art as meditation

Gruenwedel: Were you an avid drawer early on?

Grella: As a kid, I would draw these huge war scenes with my friends. They started out small, just the size of one piece of paper. Then we taped the pieces of paper together to create huge scrolls. 

But I didn’t really understand the joy of drawing until I was 30. I was drawing one day and, before I realized it, the whole afternoon had passed. I began to see drawing as a place you could go — almost like a meditation.

I didn’t chase a creative career until I was in my mid-30s. The first time I defined myself as an artist, I was 35. I was crossing the border into Guatemala when a border-crossing guard stopped me to ask what my occupation was. I said, “I’m an artist.” I remember it so vividly because I was almost afraid to say it. I was waiting to see what his response would be. Was he going to tell me, “No, you’re not!” or something like that? 

Gruenwedel: What gave you the confidence to say that you were an artist? 

Grella: It was right after my brother was killed in Iraq in 2004. I’m sure it had much to do with his death. He died at 21. I realized then that I needed to do exactly the things that I wanted to do. There’s just not enough time to do anything else. I drove down to the Panama Canal on a six-month solo journey. Once I was in another environment, in Central America, I was able to reinvent myself.

Gruenwedel: And you’ve been working as an artist since then?

Grella: Yes.


An organic medium

Gruenwedel: You create animations with pastels, an impermanent medium. What steered you toward this approach?

Grella: I was studying 3D animation at school and I wanted to understand the rendering process. We were working with [Autodesk] Maya and we’d set up keyframe A and keyframe B. Then you’d hit “Render” and go home. The next day, you’d come back to check it and see what you got. My animation projects started as tests because I really wanted to understand the rendering process.

Then I saw a Radiohead video that was a simple chalk drawing. I thought I should try drawing with chalk to study the render process. I really liked the organic look and feel of the chalk. It was a two-second stop motion, just 30 frames long, shot at 12 frames a second. 

Gruenwedel: What about the color in the animations? Do you draw with different colors of pastels or colorize in post-production?

Grella: The colors are from the pastels I use when I draw the images on slate. I only do color correction in [Adobe] Premiere Pro

In the very beginning, I tried to use chalkboard paint, but it leaves a big smear. It doesn’t create a clean line and there’s no color for just a standard shot. So I use pastels to draw on the slate. With pastels, I can create very brilliant colors and I can blend them to add just about any color I need. 

Personal project

Gruenwedel: Your “Prayers for Peace” animation is amazingly cinematic. The tilting perspective and the way things move remind me of classic filmmaking — the kinds of compositions you see in black-and-white movies. They emphasize form and structure over color or action. How did that evolve in your work?

Grella: Up until that project, I was making abstract animations, no narratives. In the “Prayers for Peace” project, I had a story to tell. And the audience that I had in mind as I created it was my mother and father.

I wanted to make the film relatable for them. I realized that sometimes chalk drawings are difficult for people to digest. So I made the first couple of shots very slow and drew them as realistically as possible to help them get into it.

Phoning it in

Gruenwedel: You’ve been working on the “Animation Hotline” series for a couple of years. What inspired you to start the project?

Grella: I had just finished the seven-and-a-half-minute “Prayers for Peace” and thought, “I have to do a bigger film next time.” But feeling pressured to make something bigger and better brought a lot of fear into my creative process. So I decided to make short animations — very short, like a 15-second or 30-second short.

I knew that most of my days are relatively boring. So I thought, “What if there was a way that I could harvest one short story from everyone?” 

I had a phone line I wasn’t using and there was an answering machine attached to it. I posted the number, asking people to please call it and leave me messages, so I can make animations based on their audio clips. By now I’ve created about 150 shorts. 

Gruenwedel: How many drawings do you make for a typical storyboard? 

Grella: I typically create about six images for a 30-second piece. They’re all different. It depends on whether I need to translate the story to someone. If the story requires displaying a lot of images in rapid succession, then I’ll draw more. 

My theory is that if the story is compelling, if the story is good, then people are going to watch it. The most important part for me is the narrative. The visuals I’m creating are just the icing on the cake; my drawings just push the story along. And sometimes it’s very simple, especially if the storytelling stands alone. 

Gruenwedel: After you create your storyboard sketches, do you start drawing from the first frame, sequentially, until you’re done?

Grella: Usually I draw from beginning to end, especially if the animation includes shots where I’m actually drawing the transition. When I created the clip in the “Ode to Bike Sharing” animation, I drew the keycard that Citibank likes to use. On top of that I drew a scene from a park in France. So really there is this one image of the keycard, but while people are watching, they are seeing the transition between the two images.

So, for those kinds of shots I have to draw them sequentially. And it can be tricky. I don’t really time it out as much as maybe I should. I just get in there and start drawing from one shot to the other. 

That’s where the Rate Stretch tool in Premiere has been really effective. I can just start drawing and capturing frames. And the clip can come out 10 frames per second or it can come out 30 frames per second of transition. I’ll just stretch it to the necessary length.

: In that animation, the bike is in the middle and the wheels are turning — and as they turn, images are going behind it. Is that something you did in post?

Grella: Yes. That was done in [Adobe] After Effects. I drew all the pieces on the chalkboard first, captured them, and then moved the project into After Effects.

Gruenwedel: It’s amazing to see the guy doing backflips. It’s so clean. I’m trying to understand how you can draw this animation frame by frame, erasing it and then drawing it again. When you draw cell animations, you can use the other pages as a reference. 

Grella: Eadweard Muybridge took thousands of photographs in sequence. To draw that guy doing that backflip, I used 12 of Muybridge’s photographs as a reference to draw the frames of that shot. I use a lot of Muybridge’s images; they’re public domain.

Sometimes I draw freehand but other times I project the reference image onto the slate and trace it, then turn off the projector and take a photograph. For the guy doing the backflip, I traced each of the 12 images.

Gruenwedel: Then when the bike key is superimposed over him, did you create that superimposition by drawing a different clip and combining the two clips in post? 

Grella: Yes, that one is superimposed. The background drawing is the locks from the bike, and the drawing of the guy is on top of that, in a separate layer. Then he jumps off the end and the rest is drawn freehand. I created the lock transition by erasing parts of the slate. I just erased the whole board. 

Gruenwedel: On average, how long does it take you to animate a 30-second video? 

Grella: In the studio, I can complete 15 seconds of an “Animation Hotline” style in a day. If I’m creating a project using the “Prayers for Peace” style, I can do about six seconds a day. 

New life for old tech

Gruenwedel: Is the “Animation Hotline” project sponsored?

Grella: I still do most of them just as a personal project. Sometimes somebody will pay for them. HP sponsored 10 at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014.  They were amazing to work with because they gave me free rein.  Since we were at Sundance, I thought we might as well create animations about stories we gathered there. 

Gruenwedel: What types of things did the team do for that project?

Grella: We built hotspot boxes for the “Animation Hotline” project. They were old televisions with retro telephones mounted on top. 

Life’s turning points 

Gruenwedel: What sequence of events led to where you are today? 

Grella: In 1995, I was 24 years old and at a Grateful Dead concert. A roof I was standing under collapsed and fractured my C7 vertebra. I am a C7 quadriplegic. I have full use of my right hand. I can still use the fingers on my left hand to type, but it’s not as nimble.

My brother was killed in 2004. That was the next major event.

I drove down to the Panama Canal in 2005. I was coping with my brother dying while I was traveling on that trip. I spent a great deal of time driving through 11 countries for six months — just driving and thinking. 

Before that trip, I was doing things — going to school and taking computer studies — but I wasn’t drawn to anything in particular. When I returned from that trip, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. After I graduated in 2007, I got my master’s degree two years later and then it was like boom-boom-boom: I started working as an animator. 

Gruenwedel: Do you think your accident affected the subject matter of your art, or is it irrelevant?

Grella: It’s impossible for it to be irrelevant because I have to navigate those issues every day. When you said you wanted to ask some questions about me being in a wheelchair, I was a bit hesitant at first. Obviously when people see me, they see me sitting in a wheelchair, but a lot of times I’ll forget that that’s part of who I am.

Take Chuck Close, for instance. He is a painter and you see his work exhibited all over the world. He has all kinds of shows going on in many galleries. However, I didn’t know he was in a wheelchair until just a couple of years ago. I heard that his style changed at some point in time in his career. However, I didn’t know that it changed because of the wheelchair, because of his disability.

I thought, “Wow, that’s really something. I want to live up to that. He’s on a level playing field with other artists and not known for being a disabled artist.”

Learning from mistakes

Gruenwedel: Any tips for people who are interested in doing animation?

Grella: Animators need an opportunity to explore and make mistakes. It is really important. That’s the first thing I suggest. 

A lot of my original work was just about trying new things. I’d make mistakes, try another thing, make more mistakes, and then ask people for advice. I definitely didn’t develop my technique in a vacuum. I asked a thousand people a million questions.

Another thing is to actually do it. Physically get in there and put the pen to the paper, or put the pencil to the paper, or the chalk to the chalkboard. Get your fingers on the keyboard of a computer — whatever your medium of choice. 

Do not let distractions or fear divert you from doing it. For me, there was a lot of fear in the beginning when I started creating animations. I would come up with a million excuses to not do something. I think the key is to just roll up your sleeves, get in there, and start doing it.

June 18, 2014

Video: Dustin Grella