Mickey Duzyj Animates His Way to Two Emmy Nods With “Losers”

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When it comes to sports, everyone loves a good come-from-behind or underdog story.

… But what happens when the team never comes from behind, or the underdog loses?

That’s precisely what Mickey Duzyj’s Netflix series Losers explores in brilliant fashion—and in a twist that is both well-deserved and perhaps at odds with the subject matter at hand, The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has nominated the show for two Sports Emmys. (Fear not, though: Losers will still be an underdog when it competes against big dogs like NFL on Fox and HBO’s 24/7 in the categories of Outstanding Edited Sports Series and Outstanding Post-Produced Graphic Design.)

On the eve of the ceremony, PRINT caught up with Duzyj about the transformative power of animation in documentary film.

Tell us about Losers.

Losers is a partly animated Netflix documentary series telling the stories behind some of sports’ most epic failures. Many of our subjects have been out of the public eye since their infamous experiences, but catching up with them revealed how their losses led to surprising, admirable transformations in their lives. The series came out last year.

It sounds like you had a pretty amazing and unconventional journey into TV. How did the series come to be?

As an illustrator who never studied animation or filmmaking, I didn't expect to end up in TV. About 10 years ago, I was feeling really dissatisfied with my illustration career, feeling like I wanted to tell more stories. Nobody was asking me to do that, so I started writing and illustrating blog posts in my spare time, sending them around on social media. At the same time, I cobbled together a limited animation style I could do in Photoshop, resulting in my being asked by Michael Bonfiglio to do animated sequences for his ESPN 30for30 documentary on Bo Jackson, You Don’t Know Bo. That film went on to be one of ESPN’s highest-rated documentaries, and its success changed how my work was seen. A month after, when I pitched another one of my blog post stories to Grantland, their video editor asked if I’d consider making it into an animated short. I said yes and the resulting film, The Perfect 18, started my directing career. I made one more short for ESPN before selling Losers to Netflix in 2017.

Did you ever think it would be nominated for an Emmy?

There’s a bit of a disconnect in fantasizing about awards when making a show about the good that comes from not winning, but Netflix trusted me to make a series that was powerful and different, and the nominations feel very validating in that regard.

What about these stories resonates with you?

There’s been a lot of conversation about “failing" in our culture recently, but always within the context of it being a temporary setback towards ultimate success. For our subjects, their experiences of loss really transformed them, dramatically shifting their perspective and redefining success in healthy, admirable ways. In a winning-obsessed culture that loves labeling people as “losers,” I started with the huge difference between our subjects' infamous reputations and who they seemed to be as human beings.

As for the Emmy … I have to say, if you end up losing against these massive “traditional” sports enterprises, it’s kind of on brand with the show. How are you regarding a win or loss?

It definitely would be on brand if we lost (!), but the fact that the Emmys are an artistic venue makes a difference. To win, there would be redemption to our subjects and team, all of whom believe that these stories are important to tell in our winning-obsessed world. We always say we learn more from our failures than we do our successes, but then never get around to telling stories that don’t have Hollywood endings.

Tell us about the role that animation plays on the show, and why you turned to it.

Animation plays a critical role in all my work, and Losers was no different. In the film I made directly before the series, The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere, I learned that animation not only helps with recreations, but it can also be used to describe rules, maps, and to draw attention to tiny details that add humor or drama. These were applications I initially played around with because I thought they were fun, but now that I’ve gotten to work with crews who’ve been in this business for longer than I have, I’ve come to appreciate how many classic documentary problems animation solves as well. It’s very facile and useful.

What is your process?

The first step is going out into the field, conducting interviews and collecting a ton of materials to tell our stories. After doing that, I’ll usually have some sense of what I’ll want to animate, but things come into view in the edit, when our team sifts through all the material and discusses what story sections could best be elevated through animation. As we do that, I’ll quickly sketch storyboards for the editors to drop in and experiment with. It takes weeks.

When we get our cuts working with the storyboards, we take our entire production office down for a period of a few months as the final animation gets completed by a completely separate team. When the animation is completed, we reopen the office, plug the animation back in, finesse the edits, and work our way towards locking the cuts. I’ve never heard of any other productions doing things this way, but it works for us.

It’s been said that Losers kicked off the recent trend of animation in such docs.I’m not surprised that animation is being used more in documentaries. I certainly didn’t invent this—Disney was using animation in do
cs way back in the ’50s, like with
Man in Space—but our series showed an indie, makeable version that made lightbulbs go off in the heads of producers. With how popular documentaries have become, it’s obvious that other directors would want to try a tool that can unlock so many projects with missing pieces. But there is an art to it, and like a musical score, it needs to be seamlessly integrated to work. I still hate 75% of what I see.

In any sense do you attribute Losers’ success to the animation?

I do, for sure. Animation allowed us to tell our stories with an intimacy we couldn’t have gotten otherwise, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how sophisticated the response has been from viewers and reviewers. The greatest compliments I've gotten are from people who told me they normally “hate” animation, but love how we used it in our series. We did what we set out to do.

Illustration for The Washington Post about the return of sports during a pandemic