MILLBURN, NJ — Jacob Updyke, a junior at Millburn High School has known for a long time that he wants to be in animation as a career.
But in the past year, that dream has come much closer to realization, as Updyke has found himself winning accolade after accolade for "You Reap What You Sow," his film about the environmental impacts that may befall the next generations, with a warning to avoid such a dire fate.
Originally submitted to the 2019 Millburn Film Festival, his project has gained a much larger audience, with wins all over the country and the globe. His most recent win cam in the One Earth Young Filmmakers Contest, where he won a share of the top prize in animation, splitting the win with one other entrant.
Ahead of the film's screening at the One Earth contest, Updyke sat down with TAPinto Millburn/Short Hills to talk about his journey, the process and motivation behind his projects, and more.
For Updyke, the success of his film was entirely unexpected. After placing at the 2019 Millburn Film Fest, he expected he would place or win another film fest or two, but the resulting awards have surpassed his modest expectations.
"I honestly had no idea it was going to explode the way it did," Updyke said. "I mean, I liked the story of it, and I was happy with the work I put in, but I really had no idea that it was going to be received so well. I had some idea that maybe I would win another film fest or at least place, but nowhere near the volume which we ended up seeing."
"It was the beginning of a long series of wins, which really caught me off guard, [which] I’m so grateful for," Updyke added.
The animated film follows a mother and her child fleeing a city, as the mother explains to her child all the ways in which the environmental catastrophe unfolding before them could have been prevented. Updyke did not shy away towards subtext, and noted that the message of his film was clear.
"There was definitely a message to try and get people to respond and take action against climate change," Updyke said. "But more so than our generation, I wanted it to be a call to all generations and everyone sort of coming together, and realizing this is a crisis we are all facing, and that we all need to contribute to in order to fix."
"That’s not just a belief I have," he added. "It’s a real threat that we’re going to face as a society, and I feel like people don’t really understand that."
The first true indication for Updyke that his film had a reach far beyond his home town came when he was awarded a selection in animation for the Children's Rights Festival in Lebanon.
"And that was kind of when it hit me, this is really taking off," he said. "Because I of course, had never been to Lebanon. I had never seen Lebanon, and to know that I had won a film fest there, I hadn’t placed but I had won at a film fest there, was kind of like the moment where I was like Oh my god, wait, this is like a thing. This is taking off."
All told, Updyke placed in 21 total film festivals over the last year, winning awards in 11 of them. As he noted, while the pacing of awards has slowed down as the film reaches a year on the circuit, the honors surrounding his work came fast and furious all over the map.
"It’s been crazy," Updyke added. "It’s not been as prominent now as much now because it’s been a year since the film’s been out. But in the months following the film’s release, it was like every other week we were getting a new film fest win somewhere across the country … it was crazy."
One of the best things for Updyke during this process was to be able represent Millburn on a major stage.
"It was really special for me, because this is a community I love and I spent my whole life in, and just to sort of see something come from it, and really begin to take off and spread, It was nice," Updyke said. "It was nice to sort of give that reputation and that name to our town."
Not content to rest on his laurels, Updyke has already submitted his next work to the 2020 film fest here in Millburn. While not a direct sequel to his first film, Updyke noted that it is a continuation of the same ideas and themes he explored in his prior work.
"I recently completed a film I called AYE0," Updyke said. "It’s a weird name, but the film essentially was about another little boy, but this time, he has no mom. And instead of foretelling a future where there’s this crisis going on and it’s [everyone] panicking, in this video, it’s about the aftermath of the panic, and it’s about the future coming to fruition.
"[He's] living in a world where society is basically gone, everything’s a desert, and he dreams of seeing a real bird. And essentially his journey to eventually find a seagull and chase it ends up in him seeing the grim reality of what has become of our last beaches."
While Updyke admits it will be hard to top the award season accolades from "You Reap What You Sow," he feels that "AYE0" is the next step forward for him in terms of his animation skills.
"I’m not sure I’ll be able to top You Reap What You Sow in terms of story," Updyke said. "However, I feel like I’ve really come all out full force with the art style and the creative direction on this film, and I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish."
In particular, Updyke noted that he revamped his animation style and the ways he creates his animation. While he was happy with the subject matter in his first film, he said that the animation style was choppy, and looked as if it had been put together in MS Paint. This time around, Updyke spent roughly the same amount of time on the piece, but felt much happier with the end result.
In the future, Updyke hopes to work on and create his own cartoons and films, wether it be showrunning or storyboarding behind the scenes. He said that he can not wait to explore all the avenues for animation that have opened up in the past few years.
"A lot of the stories and cartoons I envision myself working on or developing really revolve around a much more mature sort of plot and themes," Updyke said. "There’s been this sort of cultural revolution with cartoons in recent years, in which they’ve taken on more complex and darker themes, such as queer expression, genocide [and] the environment.
"And a lot of the stories I’ve written up and I’ve planned to one day execute really follow the same sort of trending more adult style theme. With my films taking on conceptual things, like what it really means to be a human being and a person, and sort of dealing with grief and loss and change, and how to grow and become a better person overall."
And while Updyke is not quite there yet, he is still grateful for all the support he has received from his hometown for projects both new and old.
"I just want to say thank you to absolutely everyone who supported me and who’s helped me out with this," he said. "It has been such an absolute honor to see my film take off in this way. I could have never imagined it, [and] I could not be more grateful. It really means the world to me, and I’m so excited to see what happens with my future, and I thank you all so much."