This is the 41st article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni.
Joe Ksander ‘91 spent his time at M-A “running around town with a video camera and [his] friends.” Since then, Ksander has animated, co-written, and directed several films, from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005 to Next Gen in 2018.
Ksander found that he was always a big fan of movies. “I’d watch Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and other movies that had lots of special effects. Special effects were fascinating to me and I would watch documentaries on how those movies were made. When I was a little kid, I would try to recreate things like spaceships in space–stuff that I saw in movies–but I could never get it to work,” he said.
Ksander’s filmmaking journey began in his AP European History class with Bob Hasbrook. “We were supposed to write a big essay and, instead of doing that, me and some of my friends–who ended up recruiting most of the class–shot a full short film about the Dreyfus Affair,” he said. “The film was way more work than just writing an essay would have ever been, but it was a lot of fun because we got everyone to play different parts and we wrote and cut together the whole thing.”
“In the film, one of the characters gets shot and we made it look like his leg gets blown open using fake blood and gunpowder and fireworks,” he said. “We also went to San Francisco and shot footage at Fort Point. We ended up staying after hours and the Military Police sent us home.”
The class itself also inspired Ksander. He said, “At one point we were learning about antiestablishmentarianism. At the same time, the staff started locking the gates after school started so people couldn’t leave. My friends and I thought, as high-schoolers do, that our fundamental rights were being taken away. We went and bought Kryptonite locks and locked the gates open before they could shut them in the morning. It went on for a couple weeks before they ended up leaving them unlocked.”
“We weren’t doing much, but we acted like we needed to make a point in the name of freedom. At the time, we thought we were badasses, but, of course, we were just dumb kids. It was definitely fun though and we had a couple run-ins with the administration about it,” he said.
He remembered, “We took a class trip to Europe and went to France, Germany, England, and Russia, which was a big deal in the 90s. Russia was not a great place at the time and, while that leg of the trip wasn’t super fun, it was a good experience.”
After M-A, Ksander went to UCLA and majored in Japanese because he hoped that he could “learn the language and write samurai movies.” He said, “I spent my junior year in Japan learning Japanese, but I was also always studying Japanese films. I wrote my thesis paper on Japanese filmmakers.”
While he was in college, Ksander slowly found his way to film. He said, “I thought I needed a real job, which is why I became a Japanese major as opposed to going to film school. I saw academia as more of a real job, but it’s just as hard to get a job in academia as it is in the film industry. I also didn’t know that I could make a living doing animation.”
Ksander returned to the U.S. and studied animation at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and film at UCLA. “At the Academy of Art University, I had teachers from Pixar and from Lucasfilm who taught us how to animate the way they did it. I realized that stuff I used to do as a kid, just drawing and puppeteering, could be a job,” he said.
“While at UCLA, I got an internship at Rhythm & Hues, a visual effects studio, and started doing animations in big productions like The Chronicles of Narnia and the X-Men movies. After that, I went back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles working for different studios,” Ksander said.
Most notably, Ksander animated the Lion, the lead animation in The Chronicles of Narnia. He said, “To get new jobs, you need a strong demo reel, a bunch of clips of work that you’ve done, so to have the Lion on there helped get me more work.”
Ultimately, in 2016, Ksander stopped working on other people’s films and started writing and directing his own projects. “I teamed up with Kevin Adams in LA. The two of us wrote and directed an animated film, Next Gen (2018), for Netflix,” he said. Next Gen, a Netflix exclusive that also premiered in theaters in China, is about “A rebellious girl and a runaway combat robot unit[ing] to stop a madman’s technological plan for world domination.”
Originally, Ksander and Adams were brought in to rewrite the script, but, “the producer liked what we had to say and asked us to direct it. Halfway through the process, Netflix bought the movie,” he said. Ksander and Adams are now developing a new animated series with Netflix.
Ksander’s advice to current M-A students: “Take big chances. You get to try new things and the mistakes that you make are almost never as problematic as you think they’re going to be. That being said, don’t drive your car off a cliff.”
Ksander’s advice to future filmmakers and animators: “There’s a saying in art, ‘We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out, the better.’ Make lots of stuff. Most of it’s not going to be very good, but continue to learn from it all. To make a living out of filmmaking, you have to compare your current work to the work you want to be doing. If you want to work at Pixar, look at what Pixar is doing and try to be as good as them. That sounds like an impossible task, but you’ll get there, just one film at a time.”