Since the days of watching Celebrity Death Match reruns on MTV, I’ve always had a real fascination with claymation.
It’s almost as interesting imagining the work that went into creating these little animated puppets as it was to watch Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman fight to the death.
That’s why the second I came across the Instagram feed of AZXD, I was hooked. His blend of athletics and stop motion animation through a series he called “Sports Claymation” mixes themes from sports, animation and viral videos perfectly in quick posts.
However, there’s more to AZXD’s films than meets the eye. He’s received numerous awards for his short film Baby Chicken, which was eventually turned into a children’s book and has even collaborated with companies including Preacher Austin and Victory Journal on a SXSW installation this past year.
I had the chance to talk with AZXD about “Sports Claymation,” growing up in Mississippi and kicking himself in the head on national TV.
Looking at your work, it’s clear sports plays a pretty big role in your life. Growing up, were you able to balance art and athletics, or did you have to choose?
It played a huge role. You know, there are no pro teams in Mississippi, so I tended to just pick the best team growing up. But for me, the biggest decision was probably having to choose between art and sports. There didn’t really seem to be a harbored option, until I grew up and realized I could kinda go both routes. So that’s what was interesting about starting the Sports Claymation series, in that I could kind of bridge sport and art into one. But, I actually did choose sports, initially. I didn’t really get into making any type of art stuff until after high school, really. I always played sports growing up and it didn’t seem like art was a real path for me. It didn’t seem like I had any hidden art talents, so I always gravitated to sports up to that point.
Usually when Mississippi is referenced in pop culture, there’s a sort of negative interpretation of Southern life. But looking at some of your films like A Mississippi Love Story, you can tell there’s a pretty thriving arts community in Mississippi that shows a different side of the state.
Most of the stuff you see with Mississippi in film always seems to have these negative connotations to it. There are usually these films about race or something like that. But I think it’s a lot more interesting to hear the voices of the people who grew up here and see what they have to say, because most of my friends who make stuff aren’t making the type of work you see in Hollywood everyday. So, I guess I was always pretty fortunate to have a lot a lot of friends that were into film and got to work on a lot of their stuff.
I was reading somewhere where you mention that when you were in film school, all of your classmates looked up to these legendary filmmakers, but you always drew more inspiration from sports stars. Why was that?
Ha, that’s excellent research. I didn’t know that was even out there. Early on in film school, I wasn’t the most comfortable and I really didn’t find my voice because I had to do a lot of catch-up with the other students. I had to learn stuff like the history of film and tried to find a place that I could really fit in there. But, it wasn’t until after film school and after working in film for a while that I really went into more of the stuff I wanted to do, which was stuff that wasn’t so self-serious and a lot sports related work.
Well, the influence of sports on your claymation is pretty evident. Not having a background in art, how did you figure out you wanted to get into claymation?
Getting into animation was something I’d always wanted to do, but never thought I’d actually work on. I figured I’d just stick with post-production and editing. But one day I had this plan to make 10 animations—different forms of stop motion—all about basketball. The first one I made was the “KLAYMATION” video about Klay Thompson, ‘cause it seemed to good to resist. So after that, I realized I really liked claymation, because that was the first time I’d sculpted anything. I think that’s what kept me doing Claymation, ‘cause I was so bad at it and so bad at sculpting in general, so it was really this unique challenge I wanted to take on. It’s kind of fun to watch them over time, ‘cause there’s something really nice about them from a post-production and film perspective, but when you look at it from an art perspective, those early ones are so bad.
The production quality is definitely impressive, it’s pretty amazing you’re basically self-taught.
I figured it out along the way. The sculpting and craftsman side of it has definitely improved, mostly because of the amount of time it takes to make one of them. So, doing something over and over—with or without teaching—is going to make you better in some ways. That element and the element of animating is constantly getting better, as I’ve learned to be more patient with it.
You touched on the process of creating these short videos. What exactly goes into making your animations?
Some of them are really fast, where I just want to make a video based on something that just happened and those are usually pretty reactive. That process usually includes me staying up all night to build the characters, build the assets and write it. I’m usually writing the video as I’m sculpting. It’s always fun to look for these audio clips to cross-reference like the bowling one or whatever in order to build a reference point for the animation. And then, just animating and getting out the video as soon as possible. Some things aren’t always that tedious, though. Like with a fight, or something I know I’m gonna cover, it’s nice to have that broken up a bit where I know I can prepare those puppets in advance and just animate right after the event.
I’ve noticed that in a lot of clay animation videos, you can usually see a lot of the bumps and bruises on the character along the way. How do you deal with keeping your puppets in good enough condition without manipulating them too much?
The process has about three different forms it can take on. One form is like with Preacher, where you can sculpt things really nicely and have it almost gallery-quality where you can put it in a show or something. The next form, which has always been the intention of these little puppets, is to bring it to life in an animation. During this process—especially when it’s warmer—details start leaving immediately and things start to warp a bit. In this form, things might look good at first, but you can tell in the videos where it starts to wear and I’m trying to re-sculpt throughout and try to keep it timely. And the third form is after they’re all retired from the animations. Some of them survive and sit in my studio, which has now become kind of like a museum of these figures. But a lot of them don’t quite make it. They get too beat up along the way and either get turned into someone else or get thrown in a box to be used a skeleton later on. That’s one of the fun parts for me, ‘cause I can look at somebody I made and turn into someone completely different. It’s always funny when you have someone like Kevin Garnett and then a year later it’s being used for Frida Kahlo.
Obviously, people like Lebron James or Russell Westbrook are gonna come up a lot in your work. Do you ever find yourself re-using certain puppets?
Yeah, it’s different for certain situations. Sometimes I reuse what I have and sculpt it just enough to use it if it’s gonna be fast. But, a lot of times I go through multiple figures. I’ve probably made about seven or eight Lebrons and some people—there’ve been more than others. And then for some people, there is just a new version that’s just constantly evolving until the wire breaks and I have to make a new body.
In the short time you’ve been doing the Sports Claymation series, you’ve gotten some pretty good recognition for your work. One that sticks out is your recent collaboration with Preacher Austin and Victory Journal for a small showcase at SXSW. How’d that come about?
A good friend of mine named Alex Warren—who I grew up with and made a lot of films in Mississippi with—introduced me to somebody at the Victory Journal. So I met them through Alex and got to drop by their studio and meet some of the people at the agency. So, we were just kind of on each other’s minds back and forth and something came up with Preacher at SXSW that Victory was supposed to help out with and they thought it’d be a good opportunity with me.
Did you ever imagine showing your work in a gallery setting like that?
Ha. No, not at all. Like I said, the goal was to only do 10 of them and that was it. I was gonna be done after that. So it was interesting to see how even with the second one I ever made—the “Beast Mode” one—got all these outlets’ attention. And then, like the seventh or eight one—the Ronda Rousey one—got picked up all over the place, like Rolling Stone and these crazy publications. That’s when I started realizing I should probably do way more than 10.
So, how did that initial 10 snowball into what it is today?
It started out where I didn’t even plan to make more than 10, and then they were just received so well and it seemed like there was a real opportunity to market for it. But at first, I just did them ‘cause I enjoyed making it. Once it started picking up, I realized I didn’t want to go backwards. So I just kept making them consistently for about a year. After about a year of making them, I started getting back to working with the people I’d been working with and different agencies and jobs. But up until that point, I’d always turn down work.
Your background is mostly in filmmaking, aside from your current clay projects. Do you ever feel as if the Sports Claymation series takes away time you could be working on more passion projects of your own?
It’s definitely helped to have a little bit of notoriety in order to get some of the opportunities I’ve gotten since starting these. But, it does take up a lot of time. Eventually, I’d like to work on something original, like a show. That’d be really nice. But it’s just so much work, and it’d be really hard to do that without getting interrupted doing these Sports Claymations.
Just getting away from your work for a second, I came across a video while researching to this interview. Apparently you were on the Tonight Show back in the day showing off a skill where you kick yourself in the head?
When I was at film school, the best thing to do during the day was to go to the Tonight Show ‘cause it was free and since you’re in film school it’s pretty cool to see in person—plus I was pretty broke at the time. So I’d just go and sit in the audience all the time. I’d always think, “One day I’m gonna be on the other side of that,” but in my head I was probably thinking it’d be ‘cause I’m a famous director and not for having this weird head-kicking trick. But I came across this link for the show asking for weird human tricks and submitted something without even thinking much about it. Before I knew it, I was sending in this video and got on the Tonight Show for kicking myself in the head. It was pretty cool, ‘cause I got to meet Dwayne Johnson, which was awesome ‘cause I love The Rock.
Speaking of The Rock, it’s pretty clear you have a love for wrestling. A lot of your videos usually feature some sort of WWE background announcing. Did you grow up watching wrestling?
I grew up on wrestling and it’s so different now than it was in the ‘90s. But that was just something that my brother, dad and I would all watch together. We’d watch pretty much every time it was on. So, I always gravitated towards that in the same way I gravitated towards basketball, really. During that time, that was the kind of pop culture I was exposed to—WWF and Michael Jordan. That’s also probably why I’ve gravitated most towards UFC and MMA, because wrestling is so different these days. That’s probably got a lot to do with Celebrity Death Match, too, for paving that way.
Now that you’ve built this pretty big following on Instagram and started getting featured elsewhere, do you have any big plans lined up for the future?
I guess I’m at the point for the first time in my career where I can finally start to kill off a lot of stuff. So I don’t have anything pending right now, which was always a big goal of mine, were I could always just really be in the moment and not have to worry about anything other than the day-by-day work. Part of that started when I moved to New Orleans last year. So, now I’ve kind of been in this full reset. Having a new studio space, being caught up on all my projects and having this blank canvas of what to do next—that’s pretty exciting for me.