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Justin Norman Q&A: It’s a long, hard road to glory

Justin Norman is all about variety when it comes to his creative endeavors. From his work for Shrieking Tree—a web design and development company he founded and runs alongside Wesley Norman, Scott Yoshimura, and Eric Allan—to his shorts with Evil Grin Gift Box, Norman has directed and shot 28 shorts in the last few years alone.

We caught up with him recently to talk about his work with Shrieking Tree, how he got started, and what website faux pas makes him want to “spoon [his] eyes out and hurl them into a cloud of wasps.”

This interview has been edited for conciseness.

Clay & Milk: Tell us about what you’re building with Shrieking Tree.

Justin Norman: I’m building a bungalow. A lovely little bungalow with curtains, and ovens, and even doors! Since the bungalow is nestled in a tree, the branches are always weaving their way around mischievously, punching their way through windows and locking arms with the limbs of other house-trees in surrounding areas. They lace their twig fingers together and are forever bonded in the light of the sun.

This is, of course, both frightening and fantastic, which is what I like my projects to feel like when I’m working on them. I always like to be trying out new mediums, and new techniques in those mediums. The work I’ve done has morphed from web design to graphic design to animation to photography to mini-documentaries, commercials, and short film work. Where it’s heading next is a fleck of stardust wafting up a cloud’s loose-legged pantaloons. God only knows what lies within.

C&M: How did you get started?

JN: When I was 13 I used to write lots of short stories. I wanted a way to put them online, so I taught myself how to make websites. I started volunteering to remake websites for bands I liked, and eventually enough word of mouth caught on that I was able to do it as a full-time job. After doing it for about 15 years, I decided I needed a little variety in work life (beyond staring at screens full of code all day) so I started making short films in my free time. Right now my life is a combination of a bunch of different types of work—web design and coding, writing/directing mini-documentaries and commercials, and writing a bit of music for those film projects. 

In August of 2015 Justin Norman shot a short film titled, “The Breadwinner.”

C&M: I noticed you have a section for archived “retro” websites from the ’90s in Shrieking Tree’s current web portfolio. What’s the one web design faux pas you wish you never had to see again?

JN: Oh, I think it would probably be that thing where within five seconds of visiting a page, the article is obscured by a box demanding you insert your address for an email list or that you like the page on Facebook. That’s probably the worst common practice I’m seeing these days. It makes me want to spoon my eyes out and hurl them into a cloud of wasps.

C&M: What’s been the most rewarding project you’ve worked on?

JN: That’s a tough one. I think there a few ways a project can be rewarding and the ways coming to mind right now are a) when a project feels like it’s had a strong audience response, or b) when you feel like you really accomplished what you wanted with a project and you feel very personally satisfied with it, audience reaction aside. So I think in terms of the former, I made a video called “Thanksgiving at Guantánamo” a couple years ago that documented a hunger strike in solidarity with cleared-for-release detainees at the prison, which was made for an organization called Witness Against Torture. I think it was the furthest reach that organization had ever accomplished with that message, and it felt good to know that the issue had finally gotten out to so many people.

In terms of a project that’s personally rewarding, I’m really happy with this short film we made called Jeff & Jeff. We’ve made about 40 shorts now, and despite almost no one in our audience sharing our opinion, this is my favorite (as well as Wes and Eric’s favorite). The idea was to write something where two characters went through a wide range of emotions that played off common movie tropes without ever connecting those emotions to a coherent plot. It was a really challenging script to write, and an even more difficult thing to put on screen, but it was also incredibly fun.

C&M: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JN: I wanted to be a lot of things—a writer, a comedian, and a visual artist. I did not envision that somewhere in between being a kid and an adult who does a smattering of those things, I would literally dig graves in a cemetery with unsavory beard-folk mocking my shovel’s every movement. Long and hard is the road to moderate glory.

C&M: Do you have a Spotify playlist you listen to when you create?

JN: I don’t use Spotify—I prefer Bandcamp (the artists get more money that way). But how about a top ten list of albums you should check out?

  1. Bearcubbin’ — “Girls with Fun Haircuts”
  2. The Books — “Lost and Safe”
  3. Gallops — “Bronze Mystic”
  4. Emma Ruth Rundle — “Marked for Death”
  5. Mutiny on the Bounty — “Digital Tropics”
  6. TTNG — “Disappointment Island”
  7. Cliff Martinez — “The Knick”
  8. The Envy Corps — “It Culls You”
  9. Stars of the Lid — “and Their Refinement of the Decline”
  10. Alpha Male Tea Party — “Droids”

About Justin Norman

Age: 33

Location: Des Moines, IA

Twitter: @JustinNorman

Justin Norman Q&A: It's a long, hard road to glory | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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