Azod Abedikichi, Animator

Azod Abedikichi

Magee native Azod Abedikichi is known for his viral sports claymations that he shares on his Instagram, @azxd. He’s also an experienced editor and cinematographer. He was a 2011 recipient of the Mississippi Film Aliiance Emerging Filmmaker Grant, which supported the production of his animated short film Baby Chicken.

Where did you grow up and go to school?

I grew up in Magee and went to the public school there. After I finished school, I went to New York Film Academy in Los Angeles, which is on the Universal lot.

At the time, I knew I wanted to do film school because I started with editing on VCRs sort of daisy chained together. And that’s when nonlinear editing became a thing on computers. I started using programs like Pinnacle, iMovie and Final Cut. I knew I wanted to go to film school, but I didn’t really have the money to go to film school. And then I read an article that I believe was with Quentin Tarantino that said, “Save your money, don’t go to film school, make a movie instead.” I thought, well, let me just find the cheapest film school possible, and it was a short program. So, I was able to save some money and keep doing my own little films.

How did you discover your interest in working in film?

I was in middle school when I first started. I think my dad came home with a camera and me and my brother got a hold of it and we started experimenting with it. Our big inspiration at the time was the TV show Jackass. (laughs) We thought it was fun and funny to do stunts and skits and stuff like that. And to include our friends, so it was a fun way to hang out and entertain each other. I gravitated toward it because the reaction of getting laughs and getting my friends’ attention was infectious. I realized then that filmmaking is something I would not see as work. And if I could do it for the rest of my life, that would be really awesome.

Where are you living and working now?

I’m in Portland, Oregon. I was in Mississippi for a long time. That’s where I started. And that’s even where I got into what I would call a transition from film to animation, particularly stop motion claymation. Eventually my wife and I went to New Orleans and I got a job offer to do advertising at Weiden + Kennedy and work on the Nike account in Portland. I worked there up until last year. I’m still in Oregon, but I’m not doing advertising anymore.

What kind of training have you had and where?

Before I went to the film school, I did do the Canton Young Filmmakers Workshop. That was awesome to see and meet other people who were interested in film in the same way. Then when I went to New York Film Academy, that was a big push to understanding the industry—at least the Hollywood version of it—and get a little bit of history and learning the different roles. But the biggest piece of my understanding of film really came when I came back to Mississippi and I got connected with Don Warren, who became a film mentor for me. I worked with him and just kind of shadowed him as he worked. And that was probably the biggest catalyst for me to see this as a career path.

What about claymation, any formal training for that?

It was self-taught. The origin for it goes back to watching stuff like The Nightmare Before Christmas and the California Raisins, different kinds of stop motion. What I really gravitated toward was seeing the imperfection in it. I remember seeing like a frame where the character might have partially fallen down, or a hair or some dust or something from some of the older work like Rudolph. Something about that handmade imperfection made it seem like there was space for me to be a part of it and do it. I kind of accidentally got into it. I was lucky enough to get pretty good as an editor after film school so I had at least a crutch to work with. I couldn’t sculpt to save my life, but I knew that I wanted to do some animation.

My brother bought me what I would call like a hundred-day program where you set a goal, and it’s supposed to be ambitious. If you work within this program in a hundred days you achieve your ambitious goal. And mine was 25 animations. They were sports animations, and I was going to do 10 at first. And my brother told me to add to that, and I’m like, “You don’t know what it takes to make these things! That’s a big goal!” But he was right, and I ended up making 25 in that amount of time. They weren’t originally all going to be claymation. The first one came from just a pun. It was of a basketball player named Klay Thompson, so the pun was right there. I tried sculpting and it looked so bad!

I had just started Instagram, so I was going to use that as a platform to put them out there not thinking anything about it. And I remember it was probably like a 10-year-old kid who was an absolute savage. He commented, “You know, you could use Legos.” Really just throwing shade on my sculpting ability. (laughs) So that lit a fire under me. I’m like, “Well, I need to get good at this.” I said I’m just going to focus on claymation until I get good at sculpting. And I guess I haven’t really gotten good at sculpting yet because I’m still doing it. (laughs)

What was your very first industry job?

I did a lot of stuff that would be considered industry jobs that was more hustling freelance in middle school and high school, like shooting stuff for my school, for weddings, for churches. But once I went to film school, I was able to get on some sets to do PA work. That was really the first industry job I had. Probably the first one that really stands out was working with Don Warren, and that was basically being a camera assistant-slash-grip on the World Poker Tour.

What are some of your current and recent projects?

About a year ago, a music video I did for Kanye West was released. It was a claymation, and it was probably one of the most controversial and talked about pieces of art, especially in the realm of music video, in 2022. The name of the song is “Eazy.” It’s Kanye West and a rapper called The Game. What I’m working on right now is mostly my own art, which is the sports claymation stuff that I put on my Instagram. I consider that like journaling, in a way. It’s more about quantity. But that’s what I consider my art. I mean, there’s some other things I do, but that is kind of my calling card.

You haven’t mentioned it, but I saw online that you did some of those amazing Claymation Trolli candy commercials?

Oh, yeah. I’ve done some work for them in the past, and I’ll probably do some more in the future. I started doing those when I was at Weiden + Kennedy, and I know a lot of the creative directors for the Trolli account. Those commercials have some dark, twisted humor. I really like their branding.

What has been the most surprising thing about working in the industry?

I think I’d say the restrictions. I know this isn’t going to be a positive spin, but I’ll try to give you the yin and the yang. But to me the most the most surprising thing is the restrictions and the lack of freedom given on some creative projects. But at the same time, I would say the most exciting thing in the industry is the possibilities of what you can do and who you can work with and what you’re able to pull off, especially coming from a place like the last four years spent at Weiden + Kennedy with Nike, where you’re able to basically build worlds. So, yeah, the restrictions and the rigidness of it is surprising, but it’s exciting when you can do really cool and unbelievable world building stuff. I think you have to be truly independent to exercise that full creative freedom, and that’s something that is imperative to me. That’s why I have my Instagram account that I feed as often as I can. It’s a lot of sacrifice because it’s animation. They don’t happen in a couple of hours, a lot of times for me it’s 20, 30 to 40 hours to make these bite-sized pieces of content. Because the name of the game in social media is to be reactive, make it fast, it’s a massive sacrifice to give up big chunks of time usually non-stop, which sometimes means skipping a night of sleep.

Who has been an influence on your career and why?

Don Warren. To have had somebody who was willing to take me under their wing, especially at the level that he’s at now, and show me the ropes and to do it with so much patience, and to not try to change who I am, it made a huge difference for me. If I wouldn’t have had that, I probably would have ended up getting a normal job. Not in the creative industry, probably.

How does being from Mississippi help you stand out in the industry?

Being from Mississippi definitely shaped what I do and how I do it. It’s shaped my desire to be truly independent and have a free spirit with what I make. Because I think in Mississippi, there’s usually not the type of resources that you get in a big market like Los Angeles or New York. You kind of learn to be a jack of all trades. I think that that really made me develop that “one man band” type of mentality and be like a Swiss Army knife, I think. Because I was able to do that, I also had to use my imagination a lot more.

If you could create a scene built around a location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?

I would say the Mississippi River. I’ve always been fascinated with the Mississippi River and just bodies of water in general. I don’t know how I’d be able to make a stop-motion animation with the river, though. But I’ve done them outdoors before. Usually you have to really play into certain things. Weather and other circumstances need to be ideal, or if they’re not, they need to play into whatever the creative idea is to use that to your advantage. I think the Mississippi River would be a fascinating, challenging and exciting location to be able to make an entire film based around.

Do you have a favorite moment with a project?

It’s tough, because I can pinpoint so many moments that might fall into that label. But if I was to identify one, I feel like it goes back to getting into regularly practicing stop motion. There were no expectations and zero pressure. I was building the plane while I was flying it. That was exactly what I needed to quench that rebellious side of my creative spirit.  As a byproduct, it has opened doors that I never could have imagined and allowed me to be able to work with some of the most talented artists, athletes, entertainers, and brands in the world as a trusted collaborator-slash-co-creator. Most importantly it really pushed me to sharpen my best skills and challenged me to add some new ones to the bag that I had not previously possessed.

What would you say to convince or encourage a producer to bring their project to Mississippi?

I think it goes back to what I was saying earlier as far as freedom. I feel like there’s a lot less restrictions. There’s not as much red tape. And I think there’s an enthusiasm for creating, that, to me, kind of traces back with personal inspiration to somebody like Jim Henson. There’s still a crazy untapped amount of creative energy that’s here. That’s in the place, that’s in the people.

What would your hopes be for the future of the film industry in Mississippi?

I would want to see people starting younger, now that film technology is so accessible. And to see people making more things that aren’t just traditionally film or TV, maybe see more animation come out of the state. I’d like to see more experimentation. I would like to see more people that don’t feel like they belong in this space. To get in and experiment and try, because everybody, no matter what their background is, they have a voice, they have stories. Film is such a collaborative experience. You can get in and pitch in, and your voice may be distinct and unique. You might be able to bring a really fresh take on something. Who knows, then you might end up making it into a career.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the industry?

Don’t worry about what experience you have. Just get out there and embrace every mistake that you’re going to make. The beginning of my journey of getting into animation was inspired by what you would call mistakes or imperfections. And I think those things leave a fingerprint, a handmade quality, especially now more than ever. You know, with things like artificial intelligence and things that generate and create content entering the conversation, I think we will continue to gravitate towards that imperfect connection to each other.

What do you like to do when you’re not working on projects?

I like to run. My brother’s an ultra runner, so I try to be in shape to be able keep pace with him. I’m really into experimenting with health, fitness and neurology. I’m always fascinated with how to improve my mind, my body. And I like to rearrange my spaces. It helps unstick me when I’m trying to resolve something creatively. I’ll rearrange a space like a living room or our bedroom or a kitchen or even my workspace. By being able to rearrange an actual space, somehow, I feel like it frees up my mind. It rearranges pieces in my head, so I’m able to have a fresh take on and usually solve a problem.

How can people reach you?

My Instagram is @azxd.