Film and TV

Drew Hernandez Makes Cartoons for a Better, More Whimsical World

A piece titled "Rage Flight" by Drew Hernandez.
A piece titled "Rage Flight" by Drew Hernandez. Drew Hernandez
There is a distinct lack of whimsy in the world these days. Luckily, we have Drew Hernandez.

The Phoenix-based cartoonist/filmmaker (who sometimes works under the Givasti Hawking pseudonym) has spent the last few years creating some compelling DIY animated films. And he's not only the creator but the artist, animator, director, designer, and voice talent — he even records the soundtracks. Hernandez's two homespun features, October 2020's The Late Great Garden Witch and last spring's Magnolia Manor, not only offer the aforementioned whimsy, but prove he's an exciting talent among local indie creators.

And we have Wes Anderson to thank for everything.

"I used to draw in my notebook a lot," Hernandez says in a recent call. "They'd say, 'Oh, there's Drew, drawing. You know, living up to his name.' Then I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I never thought that a film could be, like, an art project."

There's even a kind of Anderson-esque flair to Hernandez's elevator pitch for these first two "episodes."

click to enlarge Artist Drew Hernandez. - DREW HERNANDEZ
Artist Drew Hernandez.
Drew Hernandez
"There's four friends and they're hanging out in high school doing their thing," he says. "They've heard rumors that there's weird things that are hidden in the woods that may or may not exist. And, unfortunately, they start to realize that the rumors may be more true than they'd thought."

Given the nature of the projects, it makes sense that Hernandez also drew upon Disney cartoons and even more recent Cartoon Network offerings. But it was Anderson's more understated skills that influenced Hernandez's larger approach.

"I would say it has to do with the world-building," Hernandez says of his admiration. "It's not just that the characters have lines and whatnot, but the set has personality and every little minute detail was sought out."

But given his lack of ample resources, he says that "I didn't think anything of" life as an artist, adding, "I was like, 'That's great. I could never do that. Moving on.'" Of course, then he saw another major inspiration, Steven Universe.

"Maybe I did have a chance in drawing [stuff] on my own," Hernandez says of the show. "I don't need to shoot on location. I don't need a lot of actors, and I can just change my voice a little bit. So I bought a drawing tablet ... and that's what did it."

Hernandez's DIY approach also stems from having never studied art or filmmaking in college. Regardless, his degree did shape his perspectives and creative efforts.

"I have an education degree in science," Hernandez says. "I had classes where it broke down the adolescent mind and the experiences that they go through and how you can best accommodate those interests in your classroom. So to have that background and input helps me to make more realistic characters in fantastical settings, which is kind of my goal to juxtapose the fantastical with the mundane."
He adds, "The biggest quality that they taught us is that you can teach the best science, but if nobody wants to listen to you, then you're speaking on dead ears."

While Hernandez is the first to recognize his unlikely path, there's no refuting that it's resulted in entertaining animation. Because where some creators spent years developing and testing their style, Hernandez jumped right in immediately.

"I [didn't] want to just make an animation test, because that's kind of boring," he says. "So instead, I made a really short short film. And so that's kind of how I treated all the earlier works. I think it's mainly rooted in the fact that I really do have a story to tell."

It also means Hernandez may not see animation in the same way, and that's given him a different perspective on things.

"There isn't really a thing out there for kids that shows [kids] what growing up is and what it's like losing friends or leaving for college all that stuff wrapped in a bow of absurd and curious animation," he says.

From there, it was about trying to combine his skills and ongoing studies to create the projects he wanted to see in the world.

"It starts with where do I want this to be," he says. "You know, do I want it to be in an old witch's house? Do I want this to be in a mystical manor? And then I take a step back and think where's the humanity? What's the story that needs to be told that is short and small and not grandiose, and then I have the setting."

And, of course, it helps to have even more influences to build upon. Hernandez names two in particular. There's Lost, because "every character in that show had backstories and had personalities and weren't just extras." Plus, Midnight Gospel (from Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward) for showing "how creators can express themselves without the restrictions of a network."

This whole approach has even given Hernandez the courage to do things outside his comfort zone, like recording music. While he originally composed pieces "not to get copyright claims," it's been a chance to further his creative skills across the board.

"I want to make music that I would want to listen to," he says. "Everything past that has just been an extension of the animation. This all kind of goes back to when I first watched The Grand Budapest Hotel and saw the set pieces having a personality, I wanted to make sure that the music that I made had a character as well."

He adds, "While Garden Witch was a more standalone soundtrack, the OST for Magnolia Manor was arranged to tell a story themselves. For example, 'Prelude' (from Manor) has motifs from 'The Solitary Practitioner,' 'Scarlett,' and 'In Memoriam, 19XX.' Each of the three main characters has their own theme."

This amalgamation of ideas and experiences has created some truly compelling entertainment. (As Hernandez describes his work, "It's a catharsis to sit down and watch something that's an escape from reality.") While he's clearly leaned on his influences the absurdity of a Steven Universe, the nuance of Grand Budapest Hotel, and touches of the Her soundtrack from Arcade Fire Hernandez's work is entirely his own. Each episode is a heartfelt slice of life, and as bizarre as things get, there's clearly a beating heart of humanity in every frame. It feels like something close to life, even if it's not at all our own world.

"It's a black mirror, and not like the TV show," Hernandez says. "It's just reflecting on your own society and taking that to an extreme. What I'm intending to do is just throw that humanity in there. I guess plant that seed and have everything else see the fruit that grows around it."

Part of that process is now thinking about what comes next. That means expanding his list of collaborators beyond one other person. Even if that means, as Hernandez explains, giving up some of his own creative autonomy.

"I think through making these things myself, I'm able to sort of show people that it may just take a while," he says. "I think it's also strongest when it's such a small team with no limits. There's nobody telling me, 'Oh, you don't have to have that 30-second shot where somebody is standing in front of a microwave waiting for a cup of noodles to be done.' I think with that comes power and stress."

He adds, "If more people decide to join in, I want to give them the opportunity to flourish and follow their own creative vision as well."

He'll likely need that extra help as Hernandez launches into the "the biggest piece" of this trilogy. Due out potentially in late summer , the feature-length Queen of the Bugs is a direct sequel to Garden Witch and "what happens immediately after [the kids] go in the woods and find out that a witch is real. What happens to the reality? And what do they do next?"

It's the most extensive thing Hernandez has done to date, and will test most of the creative skills that he's cultivated along the way. But as he tells it, Hernandez is ready for the challenge. The world needs more of that whimsy and escapism, and if he has his way, it'll be like nothing you've ever seen and also everything you love about genuinely great animation.

"I'm throwing a bunch of nostalgic things into a massive blender," he says. "That's kind of what they did with It Follows, where they don't emphasize a certain time period. So that feeling, that uncanny valley, is good. Something that drills into something more, because there is a grand ending to this. It'll take a while to get there. It's not just a SpongeBob episode where you watch it and it's done."

For more of Hernandez's work/portfolio, visit his official website.
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan