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Academy Award Nominee Dave Mullins Reflects on the Value of Hard Work and Family

Academy Award Nominee Dave Mullins Reflects on the Value of Hard Work and Family

Written by Diane Helentjaris | Images courtesy of ElectroLeague 

Family. Hard work. These concepts are central to Dave Mullins’ discussion of his creative journey. Mullins wrote and directed “WAR IS OVER! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko,” a film nominated for this year’s Academy Award for the Best Animated Short Film. Though, it’s not his first rodeo. He also wrote and directed the 2017 film “Lou,” a heartfelt treatise on bullying, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 90th Academy Awards. “This is my second one and it’s as exhilarating as the first,” Mullins shares.

It’s been more than 50 years since John Lennon and Yoko Ono released their anti-war song “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” and war is still in the headlines. The haunting song from the Vietnam conflict era ties together Christmas sentiment with the declaration that war is over “if you want it” to be. Their son Sean Ono Lennon explained in a panel discussion of the film that he’s been given some custodial responsibility for his parents’ music and work. “And so, my hope overall was to make good decisions and try new things … while also giving honor and being careful with their art.” He wanted to make a companion film for the song. Mutual friends introduced Mullins to Lennon. The result, after nearly two years of work, is the 11-minute film “WAR IS OVER! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko.” It was released in 2023 by the animation studio ElectroLeague, which Mullins co-founded with partner Brad Booker. Yoko Ono and Sean Ono Lennon are executive producers. 

Dave Mullins and Brad Booker. Photo by Bret Green Photography.

The film is set in a war reminiscent of World War I. As Mullins says, “Our goal was [inspired by] the message of peace of ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over).’ With so much divisiveness, so many so sure about their views on opposite sides, we wanted to figure out a way to have two sides connect. Maybe they could have been friends [under other circumstances].” The film tells the story of two soldiers on opposite sides of the battle line who play a game of chess. They share their moves on tiny bits of paper ferried back and forth by a carrier pigeon. Violence escalates and tension builds toward the film’s climax.

Mullins says, “I do like to make films that speak about somewhat serious subjects but leave you with a positive feeling… In all things, there’s always a feeling of hope, a recognition of struggles. Everybody struggles. I like to show a real struggle, not something saccharine, not condescending — conflict as real as possible with a resolution as real as possible. There are dramatic or tragic endings, comedic ones, and upbeat. I tend to feel stories with an ironic ending are the most realistic to life, its bittersweetness. There’s always a mix. I like writing those stories.”

“WAR IS OVER! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko” movie poster. Copyright ElectroLeague.

He explains, “The big questions of all artists, the two aspects, are the creative, inspirational aspect to all artists’ work, and then the technical aspect as well. When I studied painting, I focused in college more on the technical. I wanted to understand structure, anatomy, the tools to use. When younger, I was not as creative as I am now, after having years on the road behind me. I’m a lot more experienced, have a lot more to say.”

Though Mullins now lives in California and his family moved around when he was a child, he spent much of his youth in Virginia. He considers Virginia his home state, and is no stranger to Hunt Country. His parents Joyce and the late David H. Mullins I retired to build their dream home, Mullwyck Manor, outside Upperville in the 1990s. Several of his three siblings live in the region. Mullwyck Manor is their “holiday hangout.”

Looking for childhood hints of what he would become, Mullins confessed to having a deep love for “Dungeons & Dragons.” “As a kid, I often played by myself, as we moved a lot, though I did play with cousins at times.” He still enjoys playing in his garage, but now he has a full panoply of game-mates, including his 20-year-old son and colleagues from his animation career. “As a dungeon master, I can create a movie on the fly. Role-playing is an incredible way to have a really special moment, to get together and play. [It’s] just great.” 

Mullins harkens back to his parents and family as the keys to his success. He is effusive in praising his wife Lisa, also an animator, for her support as he worked on “WAR IS OVER! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko.

Mullins combines creative excellence with technical ability. His father, also multitalented, was an engineer who went on to earn an MBA, a technical person who crossed over into management. His mother loves the arts and backed up Dave’s interest in fine arts. Mullins chuckles recalling his father’s initial response to hearing that he wanted to study art, not medicine or pre-law or engineering, explaining that “Mom talked to him.” As a young man, he studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and earned a BFA while also taking courses in computer engineering at Brown University. 

The animated landscape. Copyright ElectroLeague.

“My parents influenced me. I grew up loving movies. One thing my dad and I connected on were movies… We would watch movies and talk about them. He was such a good storyteller. He could walk in a room and have everyone rapt in his presence. I get my storytelling, at least some of it, from him. My mom was always supportive of the arts. She loved art, drawing.” His short film “Lou” is dedicated to his father, who passed away during the making of the film.

Mullins believes in hard work. “Everyone has some talent. Talent is only part of what it takes to aspire. It’s really about the dedication to craft, to make the best art I can.” He emphasizes, “I’ve seen groups of artists who may not have been particularly talented, but work so hard at it, they appear that they are. They are most successful if they have the drive to be, [and] follow through with beliefs and dreams. This separates someone who’s doing something important from those who are not. I can’t remember who said it, but it’s the idea that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.”

Mullins then circles back to his family. “I take that [concept] back to my parents. Dad instilled in all of his kids a strong work ethic. I’m thankful every day for this. I get the creative side from my mom, the technical from Dad. This work ethic got me where I am today.” ML

Published in the March 2024 issue of Middleburg Life.

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