Drew Christie, who contributes “op-docs” to The New York Times, is a former winner of The Seattle Times and SIFF’s 3 Minute Masterpiece contest.

Share story

A whale never looked so smart.

Drawn by hand, Drew Christie’s short animated film “Song of the Spindle” features a discussion between a sperm whale and a man, ending with the whale telling the man they have plenty in common: the appreciation of Hawaiian vacations, the ability to make music and the possession of certain brain cells. Whales and humans share special neurons called spindle neurons that are responsible for registering and interpreting emotion and pitch with regard to sound.

At the end of the lighthearted but sneaky-informational film, the whale advises the man: “Learn the song of the spindle, not only will it sound wonderful, it might just save the world.”

Whether he’s offering advice from the mouth of a whale, or imparting information about an orange-toothed rodent living in Lake Washington, Christie, a Whidbey Island filmmaker who won The Seattle Times and SIFF’s 3 Minute Masterpiece competition in 2007, uses short animated films to encourage others to sing a different song and look at life’s normal things in unusual ways.

“I always like to take whatever the most common way of viewing something is and view it the exact backwards way,” Christie said. “I’d like for people to look at things in a more backwards way.”

Christie’s “Song of the Spindle” screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 and drew attention from other film festivals nationwide and eventually The New York Times. The 30-year-old animator and filmmaker has since made his artistic passion into his full-time job, creating short animated films for The Times, Vanity Fair, Huffington Post and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

“I’ve always drawn and I’ve always written stories and I’ve always made movies,” Christie said. “I’ll always continue to do those three things, whether I’m getting paid or not. I don’t even think about it: There’s breathing, eating, drinking liquid and then doing that. That’s all I know how to do.”

At Skyline High School in Sammamish, after deciding he was tired of waiting for his friends to show up to make home videos, he merged art and film.

Through a special individual-study art curriculum set up by art teacher Dan Ramirez, Christie turned a pottery room into his own studio. He made sets and drew all day working on his animations.

In his 27 years of teaching, Ramirez has only arranged independent study for three students, he said, but knew he had a rare combination of work ethic and talent in Christie.

“It seemed like he was beyond his years already,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez still sees the same qualities he saw 13 years ago in Christie’s current work. It’s in the texture of the images, each crafted by hand. The sharp dialogue. The unique story topics.

“The best way I can put it is a child’s personality that you see coming out when they’re six months, a year old, two years old and as you see them grow, you still see that same personality,” Ramirez said. “I see obviously a lot of growth, just like a person grows, but I still see that same core to him in his work that I see now, like the nutria piece.”

In “Hi! I’m a Nutria,” Christie turns a rat-like rodent with a long, skinny tail and big, orange teeth into a historian. While floating in Lake Washington, the nutria explores the impact of the fur trade on American cities and how it came from South America to the Pacific Northwest. With their destructive feeding and burrowing, nutrias are considered an invasive species, but Christie’s nutria questions another nonnative invasive species: humans.

Drew Christie’s “Hi! I’m a Nutria” packs a small history lesson.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Drew Christie’s “Hi! I’m a Nutria” packs a small history lesson. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Ramirez said the 2012 film is his favorite piece of Christie’s.

Packing a small history lesson into his work is a source of pride for Christie.

“The more we know about history, the more we understand about everything,” Christie said. “So I would like history and all the sometimes-viewed-as-dull topics to be viewed more excitingly.”

That approach drew Dane Herforth to Christie. While he was in college, Herforth, currently Christie’s assistant animator, kept up with Christie’s work, admiring both the hand-drawn images that were filled with character and life, and the interesting stories.

“He has a different way of visualizing things, a different approach to history,” Herforth said. “He explores things that aren’t normally talked about.”

Christie gets inspiration for his content from a variety of sources, many of which are hiding in corners of his studio. Next to his desk, which he and his girlfriend and partner Amanda Moore bought off Craigslist from a former Disney animator, he keeps a nutria skull. The fist-sized white skull has the nutria’s distinctive bright orange teeth and sits below a wooden cutout of a sperm whale hanging on the wall. It’s similar to the one that encouraged the bearded man in Christie’s breakout video to “learn the song of the spindle.”

Drew Christie, an animator and illustrator, created an illustrated encyclopedia of folk instruments. The hand-drawn book of more than 100 pages was created over six years.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Drew Christie, an animator and illustrator, created an illustrated encyclopedia of folk instruments. The hand-drawn book of more than 100 pages was created over six years. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Music inspires many parts of Christie’s work. As he leans back in a rocking chair, he rests on his knee a rubab, a banjo-like instrument from Afghanistan shaped like an elongated tear drop, and plucks the strings, playing a small snippet of a melodic Middle Eastern scale. The notes climb up and down, reverberating through the small cabin he calls his studio.

Call it the song of Drew Christie.