After a year of Super 8 animation experiments in the barn studio with my friend Dave Herr, I wanted to make a more structured narrative short. I drew and colored thousands of images over the next eighteen months and, by early 1990, I was prepared to shoot the five-minute film Harvest Town. Fellow animator Alison Morse told me that the Minneapolis College of Art and Design had a 16mm Bolex camera mounted on a stand designed to shoot cel animation. I arranged with the equipment manager at MCAD to reserve the camera stand for a strict thirty-six-hour period; immediately before and after that time students would be using the camera for classwork. A day and a half seemed to me like more than enough time to shoot five minutes of animation.
I started early on a Thursday morning, thinking that I’d work until dinner time, take the evening off and finish the job on Friday. In this still largely analog era, I organized my animation project on a physical exposure sheet. This document represented the frame-by-frame map of the shooting process, an outline for the thousands of individual images in the project. The exposure sheet indicated when a series of drawings were to be repeated as a cycle of movement, which drawings were to be layered in what order over specific backgrounds and, importantly, how far one was from completing the shoot.
By noon that Thursday, the progress on the exposure sheet told me that I wasn’t going to have a break for dinner and that I wasn’t likely going to sleep that night. I resolved to focus and work more quickly. My father had taught me by example that life is an act of will and persistence. Although this stubbornness hasn’t always helped in my social life, it has served me well as an animator; what must get done, will get done.
I worked all day while the lights heated the tiny, unventilated room, then through the night, taking breaks only to buy Dr. Pepper from a vending machine. Shooting animation is really assembly line work: lift the glass platen that holds the artwork flat under the camera, remove the previous drawings, mount the next drawings on the peg bars that hold the punched artwork in place, check the page numbers against the exposure sheet to insure that the order is correct, lower the platen, expose two frames of film with the shutter release while listening to the winding of the motor as the film advances, check the numbers on the motor’s frame counter against the exposure sheet and repeat the whole process, thousands of times in succession. The camera operator has to stay alert in order to avoid mistakes, but because the activity is so repetitive, one’s mind has a tendency to wander. Around dawn, I discovered that there was a discrepancy between the frame counter on the camera and my exposure sheet; I’d made an error sometime during the night! I lay on the cement floor in a state of anxiety and reflected, “I can’t really afford to shoot this again and I can’t afford post-production work so I can only hope the mistake isn’t too apparent in the film.” I’d been working on this film for the last year and a half with great devotion and, to justify that effort, it had not only to get finished but it had to be good. After conceding that the only thing I could ultimately control was the ‘getting finished,’ I stood up and scanned the exposure sheet. Twelve hours remained with the camera and I still had a little more than a third of the film to shoot. “No time to feel sorry for myself,” I said and got to work again with even greater machine-like concentration.
When a student knocked on the door at 6:05 p.m. on Friday evening for their scheduled time slot, I had just successfully unloaded the exposed five minutes of film from the camera. My first animated film, Harvest Town, was ‘in the can.’
With a mixture of exhaustion and relief, I drove the metal film canister to a processing lab in a suburb of Minneapolis. As soon as I delivered the film to the lab, the responsibility of the shoot lifted and a wave of adrenaline flowed through me. Though I’d missed an entire night of sleep and had worked under duress for thirty-six straight hours, I didn’t want to rest. I wanted to see a movie! I drove directly to the nearest General Cinema multiplex. When I arrived, Bad Influence was scheduled to start in ten minutes. I bought a ticket and took a seat in the semi-darkness with one other man, waiting for the movie to begin. For some reason, I chose to sit in the same row with the other solitary man, leaving five or six seats between us; he glanced at me with discomfort. I remember little of the movie. Rob Lowe encouraged James Spader to act out his darker fantasies, which ultimately turn criminal. What I do remember clearly is the General Cinema trailer which preceded the film and which I’d seen dozens of times in this late 1980’s form. Against a starry background, a calming, baritone voice said, “Welcome to General Cinema where we bring you the finest in motion picture entertainment.” Then, candy and popcorn floated forward from a starry background accompanied by carnival-like music. This General Cinema ad, by sheer repetition, had created a Pavlovian response of euphoria in me.
In my current state of exhaustion, however, this dopamine surge created catastrophic mental chaos and I began to sob convulsively. I felt as if I were a primitive man, emotionally unprepared for the revelation of cinema, sent forward in time to witness the miraculous opening of a giant window. My child-like wonder felt similar to Vachel Lindsey’s as he experienced the new cinematic medium in 1915:
In the new contraption, the moving picture, the hero or villain in exit strides past the nose of the camera, growing much bigger than a human being, marching toward us as though he would step on our heads, disappearing when largest. There is an explosive power about the mildest motion picture exit, be the actor skillful or the reverse. The people left in the scene are pygmies compared with each disappearing Cyclops.
In this state of naïve cinema-awe, I understood that the movies were sometimes a window rather than light cast upon a screen, and that this experience of the window opening into another life, or deeper into this life, was overwhelmingly beautiful on its own terms. I turned to my companion, the only other person in the theater, sitting six seats to my right. He turned to me nervously because I was now crying quite audibly. I extended a hand toward the stranger in the flickering light of the General Cinema preshow trailer and felt an intimate connectedness with him. We belonged here together. I loved him. Between sobs, I gasped with conviction, “We’re all in this together!” He smiled, nodded thoughtfully, and remained seated with me throughout the film.