After Hilde and I got romantically involved in 2002, we began to visit her family and friends in Belgium every year. Ann Berckmoes, when I first met her on one of these trips, lived in Tervuren on the outskirts of Brussels with her boyfriend Davy. Ann is a true Burgundian character with a healthy enthusiasm for good drink, food and company at the table. She reminds me of a bon vivant that Jeanne Moreau might have played in the 1960’s, chain-smoking and punctuating each sentence with a deep, natural laugh.
During our first visit to Tervuren, Hilde and I were drinking Grande Reserve Chimay in Ann and Davy’s backyard when a large, colorful rooster emerged from the bushes. I asked, “Who is that regal looking fellow?” Ann turned, exhaling smoke, and then sighed, “Amai, that’s Marcel. He’s trouble.” She explained that the European Community had recently experienced a bird flu epidemic and the provincial government had issued a requirement that domestically kept fowl be killed. Ann and Davy had initially tried to comply by pouring alcohol in Marcel’s corn to sedate him, with the idea that they would then catch and kill him humanely. They watched him eat the corn and stumble, but when they tried to capture him, he fled and the next morning at five he was in his usual tree, calling out “Cuculurucoo!” (a Flemish equivalent to the English “Cockadoodle Doo”). They subsequently added larger and larger doses of sedatives to his food, but every morning he was back in his tree, announcing the dawn. Ann punctuated her storytelling with regular and, increasingly comic, performances of Marcel’s “Cuculurucoo,” his rallying cry of survival.
The following year Hilde and I were back in Tervuren with Ann and Davy, again sitting in the backyard drinking the blue-labeled, trappist Chimay. Marcel appeared and Ann eagerly gave us an update to his story. After multiple, though admittedly half-hearted, attempts to kill Marcel, the city order was lifted and they celebrated by buying three chickens for Marcel: Marie, Mariette and Maria. A year later on our third visit, a son had arrived, Max, who grew large and territorial and fought his father. Marcel was blinded in one eye and fled his backyard. This turn of the narrative instantly reminded me of the Sophocles I’d read at Lawrence University and I said to myself, “Marcel’s story has become Greek Tragedy enacted by Belgian Roosters.” The fourth year Marcel had returned and killed his son Max to reclaim his kingdom and I asked Ann if I could record audio of her telling the story as the basis for an animated movie.
Like many of the animated films that I’ve produced to date, I consider “Marcel, King of Tervuren” to be a straightforward documentary. Before filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Errol Morris redefined how audiences perceived non-fiction films, the idea of an animated documentary was somewhat controversial; how could a process as thoroughly premeditated and manipulated as animation, fabricated one frame at a time, represent reality?
John and Faith Hubley, pioneering independent animators of the 1960’s and 70’s, had made two films that skirted this seeming contradiction and influenced my manner of working with sound. In both “Windy Day” (1968) and “Cockaboody” (1974), the Hubley’s recorded audio footage of their daughters at play and animated a visual response to this soundtrack. In essence, they created subjective documentaries of their daughters’ imaginations in action. Aardman Animation, before making the enormously popular “Wallace and Gromit” movies, had also produced a series of animated clay films for BBC Channel Four that were based on audio interviews. I saw “Going Equipped” in the mid 1990’s and it served as a direct influence on my first non-fiction film “Bike Ride.”
During May of 2011 Ann Berckmoes visited Hilde and me in St. Paul, Minnesota and I took the opportunity to record her telling the full saga of Marcel. She performed the story in English, Dutch and French, though I ultimately used only the French and English versions. I licensed a piece of music composed by Phil Kline and recorded by the string quartet Ethel. Hilde and I then edited the audio of Ann’s storytelling to this music (Hilde was responsible for the French version). After transcribing both the music and the voice at twenty-four frames per second on an exposure sheet, I began drawing the film in response to this structure.
The period during which I’ve been making animated movies, 1990 to the present, has been defined by rapid technological change that transformed the working habits of most filmmakers. During the 1990’s, I began making films with a material process that hadn’t changed substantially from that first developed in the animation studios of the 1930’s: drawing on paper with graphite, inking and painting those drawings onto clear acetate cels and shooting that artwork with a film camera. I produced my first three films with this method and, just as I felt that I was gaining facility with these tools, the personal computer entered my life.
I had drawn and inked the animation for my fourth film, “Bike Ride,” on paper in 1999. During post-production, I planned to invert the look of the black ink on white paper in the film laboratory and I asked a knowledgeable friend about the technique of making an inter-negative to achieve this effect. He replied that it would be much easier to simply scan my drawings into a computer, invert them in Adobe Photoshop and assemble them as a digital movie in Adobe After Effects. (For me at this moment, adobe was still a material with which houses in the southwest were built.) After some research, I found a lab in Austin, Texas that would print somewhat inexpensively to 16mm film from a digital movie file for festival exhibition. I bought my first computer and began to learn the Adobe software.
As I gained experience with the software over the years, each subsequent project functioned as a laboratory in which to experiment with the new digital tools. To my surprise, the possibilities of storytelling began to expand as a result. I found myself staging the stories less in terms of historically established film language and more often improvising transitions and visual associations by means of software-based motion graphics thinking. The process of making the films became more spontaneous, depended less upon preproduction storyboarding and increasingly mimicked the metamorphic flow of thought; I often thought of the final product as a time-lapse record of a long period of improvisation.
“Marcel, King of Tervuren” was the first film that I drew with a computer tablet and software, rather than pencil and paper. In 2011 I bought a Cintiq, a computer screen upon which one can draw with a stylus, and I started animating tests of the star rooster. Though initially uncomfortable as I grappled with this new way of working, the loose, painterly style of the film evolved as I experimented naively with brushes in Photoshop. I was a beginner again and the discomfort of abandoning paper and pencil forced me out of my established habits.
One day when I was already animating in earnest on “Marcel,” a visual metaphor for my rooster’s dilemma presented itself. I accidentally changed a set of controls in Adobe After Effects and my animated lines burst into a kinetic Jackson Pollack painting. Excited by these wild, abstract movements, I immediately recognized a thematic application for this mistake in the film; as my protagonist fights to stay alive, his drawn representation in the film struggles against breaking into an abstraction of line and color. While rendering Marcel one image at a time, twelve images per second, I began to conceive of every action in the story in terms of fundamental dichotomies: representation and abstraction, life and death, matter and energy. The narrative tension in Marcel’s drama was thus expressed in visual terms that derived directly from the technique with which the animation was created. In my earlier essay about “Street of Crocodiles,” I identified a moment in the movie in which the filmmakers self-consciously reveal the metal armatures beneath their puppets’ clothing. The Quays expose the technique that lies behind the illusion of movement, the means by which animation is created, and that ‘pulling aside of the curtain’ creates a new layer of meaning in the film.
Animation’s unique capacity to explore the relationship between form and content is one of my main themes in class at The Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I encourage the students to first stage their storytelling clearly for their imagined audience in preproduction and then to examine the animation technique itself during production to reinforce the thematic intent of the film. This active conversation between the practical aspects of the production and the narrative content is often motivated by fortuitous accidents in process.
“Marcel, King of Tervuren” enjoyed a successful festival and broadcast life, playing for a variety of audiences in many countries, and the reactions of the public to the film illustrate another particular power of the animated short: an audience is inclined to read these movies allegorically, projecting their own experience onto the situation depicted. In fact, the more banal or elemental the story is, the more likely the audience is to create this projection. After all, why would someone commit two years of their life to animating a film about a rooster in someone’s backyard in Belgium? Most commonly, viewers found an allusion to literature and Greek drama, as I initially had done to Ann’s story. An interviewer at the Annecy International Animation Festival asked me if “Marcel” was inspired by Camus’ interpretation of the Sisyphus myth, paraphrasing the theme from Camus’ essay, “There is no fate that cannot be overcome by scorn.” I liked this notion because, though it was grander than my own thinking about “Marcel,” it aligned with my basic feeling about the film: after trouble there is more trouble and one must maintain a stoic resolve to overcome it.
The loftiest reading of the film that I’ve seen appeared in a review written in Dutch on a Belgian website. The writer suggested that the conflict between Max and Marcel, who was designed (without intent on my part) using the colors of the Belgian flag, represented the ongoing political discord between the French-speaking Walloon and the Dutch-speaking Flemish. Brussels, which had once been a predominantly Dutch-speaking city, had grown increasingly francophone, and more quickly so when the city became the center of the European Community. Tervuren thus stands as a provincial Flemish enclave in contemporary, cosmopolitan Brussels and provides a symbolic battleground for this cultural struggle. I had absolutely no didactic or political purpose in mind with the film. For me, the movie was simply about Ann Berckmoes’ rooster Marcel in his backyard.
But when I read this article and reflected back upon my early experiences in Tervuren, I realized that I had witnessed the conflict described in the article. When I ate in restaurants in Brussels with the multilingual Belgians, Hilde would order in Dutch. The waiter, who spoke Dutch fluently and understood her, responded in French. Hilde, who also speaks French, would smile and answer him in Dutch. They both maintained their linguistic preferences stubbornly throughout the dinner. I thought of this at the time as merely play of the polyglot, without registering the slight subtext of testiness to the exchange. They were each staking claim to their cultural territory.
Short films have definite limitations in comparison with feature length films as regards character and narrative development and animation, particularly so, because the performances are laboriously created one frame at a time. But the example of “Marcel, King of Tervuren,” as it stimulates the individual experience of a viewer, illustrates the open-ended power of short animation. The director/animator creates a tableau with which the viewer can actively engage; the film is potentially a vessel flexible enough to contain multiple psychological, emotional and ideological approaches depending on the disposition of the audience. With “Marcel,” I thought that I had made a simple documentary about the trials and tribulations of a friend’s rooster and indirectly about the new people I was meeting in my life at the time. Because the film reached a wide audience, certain observers decided that I had also made a film with distinct literary allusions. And as an intuitively observant, cultural outsider, I apparently had also made an ethnographic allegory about long running political disputes in Belgium. The film, when released into the world, generated meaning beyond my control or intention.