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Pride Month: SYFY & Tongal Short Creators Use Genre-Bending Art To Celebrate Identity
Sometimes, otherworldly stories end up being the most human.
Pride Month invites us to shine a spotlight on members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer comminities in the ongoing fight for civil equity and justice throughout history and across the world. To celebrate, SYFY and Tongal, a global community of creators, invited artists to create video shorts that reflect “who you are and what you love about genre.”
The result of this collaboration are three wildly different and stunningly poignant shorts that will be featured on SYFY network and our SYFY social media pages. We spoke with the three artists, Tortor Smith (@animatortor), Phoenix Rose Hoffman (@ivoxus), and Zach Macias (@minggamestudios) (in separate interviews) to understand their points of view on genre, identity, and artistic inspiration.
Tell us about yourself!
Tortor: I’m Tortor, a stop-motion animator and filmmaker based in London.
Over the last decade I’ve turned my hand to many things: TV, film, graphic design, photography, video editing — I’ve tried a lot. It can be hard to find your ‘thing’, or at least with me that was the case. It quickly became apparent that stop motion animation was my one true love — it satisfied everything my soul desired and gave me the perfect outlet to share the stories I want to tell. We were a match made in heaven.
Outside of work I have a pet tortoise called Charles, he’s about 70 years old. I’ve taught myself to read tarot cards, grow vegetables and more recently play golf. In fact I am now absolutely, completely, obsessed with golf — I am starting a 6-month Academy next week. It’s going to give me a reason to get out of the dark room I animate in more often and lap up some of that essential Vitamin D. So yeah, that’s me in a nutshell.
Phoenix: My name's Phoenix Rose and I’m a storyteller and animator. I was born and raised in California and that’s where I am today. I work primarily in stop-motion animation but mixed media animation is my favorite. I love combining 2D, CG, stop-motion, live action, whatever will work to enhance the narrative visually.
Zach: Let’s see… my name is Zach, I’m 31 and a native of California. I’m masc-leaning non-binary (he/they), and for as long as I can remember, I’ve always been an artist. Before I was animating and filmmaking, I was painting, writing, acting, singing, and drawing since I was able to hold a pencil in my hand. In many ways, art has been like a lens or a gateway into the world for me — I have just always had this great curiosity to learn and know how to create things, and see everything for the story behind it.
My primary trade has been stop motion animation for the last 17 years, many of my videos done with LEGO bricks (also called brickfilms). In my career I’ve been lucky enough to work with brands such as Star Wars, Taco Bell, Nickelodeon, and of course, SYFY! I was also a Cinematic Artist for a couple of years at Telltale Games from 2015 to 2017, where I worked on games like The Walking Dead: A New Frontier (S3), Minecraft: Story Mode, and Batman: A Telltale Series.
Once in a while, I also go golfing or play a baseball tournament with my dad, and I used to be a decent little skateboarder when I was younger and I’ve been slowly trying to get back into that lately. Golfs left, bats left, throws right, rides goofy (go figure).
What about genre inspires you the most as an artist? How about as a person?
Tortor: As an artist and as a person I love how genre is all-inclusive, non-discriminating, and that anything is possible. There are infinite possibilities, you can remix a genre, do a hybrid-mashup or keep things more traditional.
This very idea is at the essence of all of us, it’s not just for fictional worlds. We can design ourselves, and our worlds, and be whoever we want to be: quirky, fabulous, goofy — all beautifully unique.
I’ve never conformed to any one thing in life, or genre of work. I think it’s most exciting to be playful and use all genres in fresh and creative ways.
Phoenix: What about genre doesn’t inspire me?
I definitely have favorite genres (horror, comedy, and feel good to be precise) but even within each genre, there are so many sub genres! And even if 2 creators tell the same story using different genres, you’d get such drastically different outcomes.
That’s part of why I think telling stories from new and diverse perspectives is so important. No two people will approach the same genre in the same way and that’s so incredibly fascinating to me. Storytelling is such an intimate thing; whether it be horror, comedy, romance, or just retelling an experience. You learn so much about the creator.
I want to make stories that resonate with people in some way. I want to make people come to a realization or even just feel something through the narratives I tell.
Zach: What I’ve discovered about myself is I’m someone who loves to lose themself in a world filled with unique characters and endless possibilities for stories. When I was a kid, I had a Nintendo 64 and by far my favorite game for it was Zelda: Ocarina of Time. For most, the game needs no introduction today, but especially in 1998, it was one of the first and best of its kind – this massive fantasy hero’s journey set in this gorgeous open world filled with all this history, unique locations and characters with different cultural customs, side plots and side quests you could explore and discover at your own pace. I absolutely ate this game up — I must have beaten it cover to cover upwards of 20 times in my lifetime and have played all the 3D Zeldas since. But what I found myself doing more than anything was letting myself imagine the stories that were happening in that world outside of the game. Where did some of these characters go once the game was done? What other adventures would they get into, what relationships would they form? Some of my favorite times when I was that age was just getting to just let my imagination run wild like that and be inspired. I used to fill notebooks and sketch pads with art and stories either set in or inspired by that world of Zelda. In many ways, the experience of falling in love with that world I think would go on to profoundly shape the way I perceive storytelling and character-building, and why I can feel so drawn to the idea of walking around in another person’s shoes, so to speak — everyone is the hero of their own story.
What inspired you to create this piece and what does it mean to you?
Tortor: Gender can be very misunderstood and so I’ve always had this burning desire to express creatively how I feel about my gender identity, non-binary, gender neutral.
I suddenly had this lightbulb moment - what about comparing gender diversity to genre diversity?! Not many stories can exclusively say they are just one genre, not really. Different themes exist within stories that can skew narratives into a hybrid sub-categorised genre box. A bit like how I feel with my gender, a mix.
So yeah, this film means everything to me. Many people still won’t ‘get it’ (and that’s totally okay), but I think it is important to be authentic and share my lived experience.
Phoenix: I didn’t know what I wanted it to look like but I knew what I wanted to resonate with the audience.
I wanted to make something as complex as queer coding in horror as concise and clear as possible so even someone who had never seen a horror movie or even talked to someone from the LGBTQIA+ community could still understand the perspective; maybe it would leave enough of an impact to make someone look into it more or maybe help a queer teen watching feel less alone in a world where they feel like a monster.
Zach: To be honest, I was actually nervous and even a little reluctant to pitch for it in the first place when I first saw the opportunity listed. I have only been officially out for a couple of years and was afraid that I didn’t have enough of my own “authentic” queer experiences to know what story to tell. It was only when my friend Nathan messaged me the project out of the blue saying I’d be a good fit for it that gave me the push to put together a storyboard and pitch.
The prompt asked for videos exploring genre, its relationship with queerness, and our relationship to both.
When I finally took a deep breath and started really unpacking all it asked for, I let myself think over how I’ve responded to “genre” media over the years and how I was affected by them, from Star Wars to StarCraft, Lord of the Rings, Mass Effect, The Last of Us, and of course, Legend of Zelda. I recall just what it was about them that drew me to them, that inspired that kind of creativity that made me feel so happy and energized. The commonality I found was that connection I had to the characters and that desire to see them grow into fuller and more realized versions of themselves. Digging a little deeper and applying that to my own relationship to my queerness, what I realized is that it, too, has been a journey. For many years I knew that I was different from others somehow, but didn’t have words or ways to describe it fully and thought myself weak and too sensitive, stuck conforming to a world I just didn’t feel a part of. When I did finally discover the words for it, I wondered if I wasn’t queer enough because I had been cishet passing for so long that I would always feel fraudulent. My own road to understanding and acceptance hasn’t always been an one, but one that’s shaped and defined the person that I am now, and now, I say with confidence that I am a queer person. I think that at the core of all of this, I have been drawn to stories of people in the act of becoming themselves.
That idea, the “act of becoming yourself,” became the key that unlocked the project for me. I recalled all the times that I would daydream and imagine and create as a kid, and feel that kind of inspiration that “genre” works helped provide. I remembered all the times that I was able to sit contentedly in the back of my mom’s Camry just staring out the window and watching the scenery go by as I would just let my imagination run wild. That’s a very strong memory for me and I had a vision of where exactly this car was driving and what was going to be out the window. I think once I found that connection I had to genre and honed in on that key little personal memory, the rest of it just poured right out of me and fell into place.
You just got the keys to a time machine — what artists/creators are you visiting to collaborate with and why?
Tortor: This is exciting, I feel like I’m now Doctor Who! So in terms of stop motion animation, I’d love to have been able to meet the Hollywood greats, the pioneers of the technique. I did actually have the pleasure of meeting Ray Harryhausen back in 2010… but it would have been even better to have met him in his prime. To have observed first hand the ingenuity and mastery of the art form that I love.
Zach: Some might accuse me of not thinking far enough, but taking what I know now about filmmaking and visual effects, I’d like to travel back to the mid-'90s when George Lucas was working on The Phantom Menace and be a part of that. I have a soft spot for that film, I saw it when I was 8 and it made such an impression on me at the time. I really loved Star Wars and getting to see the process of how a film like that gets made on such a scale as that would be really cool.
Also, I wouldn’t mind trying to be the little bug in George’s ear to … y’know, maybe change a couple things. Just here and there, maybe rewrite a few scenes, rework some characters, y’know. Just a few things. I’d be curious to see what butterfly effect that might have on the series from there.
Stories can be used to change the world. How do you think talking about queerness in art impacts real life?
Tortor: In a world so connected we are disproportionately lonely creatures — too many of us don’t really have like-minded souls to connect with. Queer art makes connections possible. It opens up conversations and talking points that can be difficult. It represents minorities in a way that positively amplifies those voices. Stories can make us feel less alone.
We all consume art on some level, it’s a staple of our diets, an essential vitamin that we all need to feel great and thrive every day. It would be hard to live a day in real life and not be impacted by art on some level, however small.
Phoenix: Basically it’s Mere Exposure Effect. The more queer stories that are out there that are witnessed and told by other people the more normalized it becomes. Storytelling is such a powerful tool for shaping our future. We need more diverse stories from many voices. And more queer kids need more role models out there that look and sound like them. They need stories to know they aren’t alone.
Zach: I believe that people can have a profound and personal response to art when they allow themselves to be vulnerable to it. I think one sign that art has done its job is when a viewer is able to respond to it not just by seeing themselves as they are, but see parts of themselves in the experiences of others. I remember reading Roger Ebert’s review of Brokeback Mountain back in 2005, and there’s one quote from it that has stuck around with me all these years later:
“The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone. I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it, because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist or a cabinetmaker.”
I’m a firm believer in the power of empathy and its ability to let people experience the lives of others and, hopefully, gain new perspectives about how they interact with the world. It is my hope that more queer stories can continue to be told that showcase the depths and complexities of queerness and allow people to connect with it in ways they may not have realized before. That queerness is not just some put-on type or an “otherness” that lives just off-screen, but a core part of a person’s being informs their choices, their relationships, their sense of self, why they become who they become. And that it’s normal, and there will always be queer people, and our stories, too, can be universal.
It's hard to define, but what makes for “good” LGBTQIA+ representation in media? Are there any projects you think are doing things well?
Tortor: In terms of mainstream media I think that Sex Education on Netflix sort of nails it. On the diversity front it represents a whole spectrum of identities. If this show had been on TV fifteen years ago it would have helped me a lot as a confused and questioning young person. I think the way it opens conversations and normalises everything is fantastic.
Phoenix: Good representation to me, just has to feel real. No cardboard cut outs of what people think queer people want to see. Get queer/BIPOC voices on projects. Ask them about their life. Learn from their stories and let them put their experiences into a character.
Stories don’t have to be “realistic” to have fully fleshed-out and understandable characters. We don’t all live in JRR Tolkien’s LOTR but we can still empathize and relate to the characters of this world because they are fully realized characters with lives that span outside of their books and film and you can feel that the author could really convey that. Make gay characters just like you’d make any other. The best characters and stories are written based off the creators personal experiences, which is why it’s so important to let queer storytellers tell stories.
As far as examples of good queer storytelling, my current favorite is Dead End: Paranormal Park (2022). It has AMAZING trans-masc representation wrapped in a Gravity Falls-esque package and I love it!
Zach: This is a tricky question to answer because I think the definition of “good” is inherently different for different people. I also hesitate to make any grand sweeping statements for the risk of potentially speaking out of line on behalf of a larger community, so I can only give my own ideas on the matter. I think for me, it’s always a matter of authenticity – people tend to know when they’re watching something that’s real and genuine, and something that…isn’t. This is why it is important to have queer creative voices bring those authentically lived perspectives to inform creative choices about characters or even whole stories.
If I had to think of any projects I’m watching that I think are doing representation well, the first thing that comes to mind is Arcane on Netflix. I am going to shamelessly admit that I am fully on board the Vi x Caitlyn ship because it is portrayed excellently and so beautifully written and performed. You watch the show and you see the relationship develop and unfold and the ways they become slowly and more and more drawn to each other, and it all feels so natural and its full of empathetic interaction and moments of real character growth. There’s a terribly romantic Romeo & Juliet quality to it, Caitlyn being from the posh Piltover and Vi from the slummy Undercity, and so far, that seems to be the only thing characters have hesitation about, not that they’re two women. One of the best things about it is that no one wants to argue or stir up any controversy about it because you see the show and you see them, and you come away like, “well I mean of course they’d have feelings for each other, duh.”
Looking forward, what do you hope the future of storytelling looks like?
Tortor: Essentially we tell stories to share something that we have learned in a creative way, but the way we choose to tell that story is where things get most exciting. Perhaps stories will become more interactive, the types of stories where the viewers can influence how the narrative progresses? Perhaps we will go back to more traditional ideas? Things have a habit of coming back around in fashion and I believe that this is true of storytelling as well… so who knows — anything is possible. All I hope for is that voices get heard, that stories get told and that those voices without traditional privilege are elevated too — after all sometimes those stories are the most expansive.
Phoenix: More diversity in who tells the story. More diversity in characters. More diversity in how the story is told. There’s so much more to do with storytelling and we’ve just scraped the surface in cinema so far. There’s so much more room for new perspectives!
Zach: In general, I think the quality of storytelling is in a really good place and somehow even getting better. Every generation has their great storytellers if you know the right places to search, but in recent years especially there has been so much access to so much spectacular work being done across so many platforms. The other night I just got caught up on HBO’s Barry, which is the best thing I’ve seen since finishing up Better Call Saul, which is the best thing I’ve seen since The Northman and Everything Everywhere All at Once before that, the list goes on. There are so many brilliant writers out there with amazing stories and visions that are being brought to life in the most spectacular ways, I do not doubt that storytelling is in a generation of very good hands.
My hope moving forward is that it continues to be this strong and takes chances on unique voices and brings about more chances for marginalized people to share their perspectives and experiences and connect with audiences in ways perhaps still unexpected. For people who are struggling to understand themselves and find solace in a character that shares their experience and gives them the strength to know they aren’t alone, or to find a common ground and a compassion for someone they might not have known before. Stories are doing some truly powerful things these days, and I’m excited to see all the different kinds that are still to come.
You can watch these creators' shorts above, on the SYFY network, and our YouTube channel. Make sure to check out their Instagram and Twitter accounts to find even more of their awesome work!