Cradling his newborn son, Josh Funk found himself entranced by the colors dancing on the wall.

Splatters of refracted light, streaming from a prism—a gift for his baby boy—fluttered and hopped about the room as sunshine glanced across the trinket. The images wriggled their way into Funk’s exhausted consciousness, where they would soon manifest as illuminated floating fairies in his award-winning short film, 3 Keys.

As both an educator and a filmmaker, Funk has made a career out of trying to capture those flashes of light—to harness inspiration when he sees it, and to make the most of it. He hopes to drive his students to do the same.

Deriving purpose from passion has been a form of art in itself for Funk, a lecturer in the art and art history department at Chico State. He teaches three digital media courses within the subject of animation and illustration.

Funk (Art Studio, ’07) has nurtured an affinity for the arts since childhood, but he fell in love with teaching 10 years after he completed his undergraduate work—and the timing couldn’t have been better. Unsure of his life’s direction as he neared completion on his first short film, “The Spaceman,” he was asked to fill in for a former instructor, Nanette Wylde, who was going on sabbatical. He immediately found that teaching called to him, as he saw an opportunity to relate his own young filmmaker’s perspective to students interested in the art and the industry. After Wylde’s retirement last year, Funk stayed on as a lecturer.

“Teaching at Chico State makes me a better artist, a more empathetic person, and closer to my community,” he said. “It forces me to not only keep up technically, but to also reevaluate what was effective or not during my time as a student.”

Now, having captured a cache of film festival awards for 3 Keys—Best Digital Effects at HorrorHaus, second place for Judges’ Choice and Best Animation at Shortz!, Most Original Concept at Videoscream, a Gold Award for Best Horror Film at the Mindfield Film Festival, and the Award of Excellence for Film Short in the Best Shorts International Film Competition—Funk can relay his journey to film success to his students.

“Everything I learned happened after I graduated, so I am able to come from the approach of, ‘I wish I had known this sooner,’” Funk explained. “I would have wanted to know more about real-world problems for artists, how to make money, how to promote yourself, and mostly how to find what you’re passionate about and turn it into something that can sustain you.”

Drawing upon inspiration, he said, is the easy part. It’s identifying where it comes from that can be difficult, and it is that skill he wishes to impart above all else. He takes a grand view of his muses, also considering their own influences to understand what specifically he enjoys about a certain aspect of an art style or technique.

Josh Funk displays one of the models used in his short film, 3 Keys, at his home in Chico.
“I bet there’s younger people who think animatronics and stop motion are cheesy,” Josh Funk says. “But for me, I believed it when I was a kid, so I put it in my work.”

Ever an ’80s kid, Funk cherishes the nostalgia of films like Gremlins, Beetlejuice, and, later, The Nightmare Before Christmas—unsettling yet still charming in their animation styles, mixing puppets and marionettes with live actors or simply bringing the inanimate to life. He remembers being simultaneously “fascinated—and traumatized—by Chucky” after seeing the murderous doll on an Entertainment Tonight clip. His eyes light up when 3 Keys’ style is mentioned in the same conversation as Tim Burton (an obvious Funk favorite, along with Jim Henson) or Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a masterpiece of surreal animation in its own right.

Josh Funk works with Mila Purvis on voice recording.
“It doesn’t sound very nice, but children can often really offer this kind of creepy element to darker scenes,” Funk said. The fairies in “3 Keys” were voiced by Mila Purvis (right). (Photo courtesy of Josh Funk)

Whether it was Muppet-inspired delight or porcelain doll-inflicted terror, it struck Funk as immediately important to hold on to those feelings of fascination—and to keep them alive for as long as he could. Staying true to his passion enabled Funk’s vision to come to life on film, said 3 Keys co-producer and director of photography Joe Batt.

“He really had a clear vision of what he was going to do with it, and the sets really showed it,” said Batt, a longtime friend of Funk’s. “He’s so detail-oriented—there are a ton of tiny little touches in the film that you don’t really notice at first, but they add up in how the whole thing feels. And that’s all based on the vision that he had from the beginning.”

In the 15-minute film, a young woman experiences recurring nightmares, as described to a psychiatrist. Each features a mysterious door and three keys that unlock different scenes, each memorably haunting in its own right.

Funk wants to continue to hone his skills and keep using “old-school” animation styles. He is concurrently attending online graduate school at Lesley University, based in Massachusetts, and expects to earn his master’s in fine arts by 2020. He wants to keep making films, striving to one day produce a feature-length project, and he also sees himself teaching for years to come.

The key, Funk said, will always be catching those moments of inspiration when they appear.

“I want to keep making films, and I want them to be more personal and less influenced by what’s popular than what I believe in,” he said. “And the same goes for my teaching. I want to help people find their authentic voice and direction—once you find that, doors open up for you.”