Thomas DeCarlo’s Little Pixar

Illustration courtesy Thomas DeCampo

The Encounter movie poster.

Filmmaker Thomas DeCarlo is making a movie about the difference one person can make. Which is fitting, because he does most of the writing, directing, and illustrating at his little Bloomington studio DeCarlo Animation himself. He’s currently expanding a 13-minute short film into a full-length animated feature called The Encounter. In it, novice secret government agent Aldrin Calloway must prevent mankind from instigating a war with an alien race.

The $900,000 budget for The Encounter is much lower than that of most animated features, which can cost many millions of dollars. The production location is also rare. “There have been no other animated features out of Indiana, so when you say you’re not making it on one of the coasts, it actually intrigues people,” DeCarlo says. “A lot of people are excited to embrace something that’s different.”

That includes two prominent actors who signed on to the project. Geoffrey Arend of Grey’s Anatomy provides the voice for the main character. And Laura Gómez of Orange is the New Black voices another lead character, agent Gabrielle Rodriguez.

DeCarlo is unusual in the animation world in that he comes from a live-action background rather than the design realm. He started learning film techniques in high school and earned a cinema degree from Denison University. Balancing multiple roles was his favorite way to create from the beginning. “It allows me to engage with the story on every front,” DeCarlo says. “I get to marry all of those parts of production in my head as I’m developing it.”

In an ideal world, he would bring the voice actors for The Encounter to Bloomington, but that’s not feasible because of his small budget. Instead, DeCarlo has been flying to California and renting a studio for the audio recording. He ultimately hopes to have about 12 contributors working on the film, but only half that number have been involved so far. DeCarlo has the pre-production done and most of the cast solidified, and hopes to finish the film in 2023.

Along the way, he’s making some unique choices. He’s recording the voice work first, then tailoring the animation to match it. Most animation companies do the opposite. He also plans to host practice sessions with the actors via Zoom.

DeCarlo aspires to make The Encounter appealing to both adults and kids. At first, his plan was to create a film for grownups, but he quickly realized that he needed to be more inclusive. At the short version’s first showing at the Columbus International Film and Animation Festival, the bulk of the audience was children. Adding material that would speak to kids meant weaving in lessons they could grasp. “This film is about an alien, but it’s really about otherness,” he says. “I can address that without ever talking about racism or sexism.”

As for the size of DeCarlo’s studio, he’s unfazed by the notion that it takes a large operation like Pixar to make great animated films. “There’s a lot of skepticism, especially from people in the animation world,” he says. “It’s something I’ve always faced. I made my first feature film when I was 19, and everyone told me, ‘You can’t do that.’”    

DeCarlo is more focused on creating Indie films—which he defines as those led by artists rather than companies—than packing movie theaters across the country. He hopes viewers appreciate the quirkiness of The Encounter in addition to understanding its message.

 “We absolutely embrace the Indie-ness of this production,” he says. “It’s OK if this is a niche.”