After Hilde De Roover and I became romantically connected in 2002, we visited 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 finishing each sentence with a deep, natural laugh.
During our first visit to Tervuren, Hilde and I were drinking Chimay Trappist beer in Ann and Davy’s backyard when a 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 suffered a bird flu epidemic and the provincial government had issued a requirement to kill domestically kept fowl. Ann and Davy 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 escaped and the next morning at five he sat in his usual tree, calling out Cuculurucoo! (a Flemish equivalent to the English cockadoodle doo). They 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 Chimay. Marcel appeared and Ann happily 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 story reminded me of the Sophocles I’d read at Lawrence University and I said to myself, “This 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 for an animated short.
During May of 2011, Ann Berckmoes visited us in Minnesota and I recorded her telling the story of Marcel's story in English, Dutch and French. 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 voice to this music (Hilde was responsible for the French version). After transcribing both audio tracks at twenty-four frames per second on an exposure sheet, I began drawing the film in response to this structure.
Like many of the films that I’ve made, 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 controversial; how could a process as thoroughly premeditated as animation, fabricated one frame at a time, represent reality?
John and Faith Hubley, pioneering independent animators of the 1960’s and 70’s, produced two films that skirted this seeming contradiction and established a model for working with documentary sound. In both Windy Day (1968) and Cockaboody (1974), the Hubley’s animated a visual response to recorded audio footage of their daughters at play. In essence, they created subjective documentaries of their daughters’ imaginations in action. Aardman Animation, before making the popular Wallace and Gromit movies, had also produced a series of animated clay films for BBC Channel Four based on audio interviews. I saw Going Equipped in the mid-1990’s and it directly influenced my first non-fiction film Bike Ride.
I’ve been drawing animated movies from the late 1980's to the present, a period of rapid technological change that transformed the working habits of most filmmakers. During the 1990’s, I made 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 using this method and, just as I felt that I had facility with these tools, the personal computer entered my life.
I drew 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 by making an inter-negative at a film laboratory. I asked a knowledgeable friend for advice about the technique. He replied that it would be easier and cheaper to scan my drawings into a computer, invert them in Adobe Photoshop and assemble a digital movie in Adobe After Effects. (For me at this moment, adobe was still a material houses were built with in the Southwest.) I found a lab in Austin, Texas that would print somewhat inexpensively to 16mm film from a digital movie file for festival screenings. I bought my first computer and began to learn the Adobe software.
As I gained experience with the software over the years, each project functioned as a laboratory in which to explore the possibilities of the new digital tools. I began staging the stories less in terms of historically established film language, but more often improvising transitions and visual associations as digital motion graphics. The process of making the films grew more spontaneous, depended less upon preproduction storyboarding and increasingly mimicked the fluidity of thought; I saw 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 stylus, rather than pencil and paper. Though initially uncomfortable working with these new drawing tools, the loose painterly style of the film developed while I experimented naively with brushes in Photoshop. I was a beginner again and my discomfort forced me out of 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 form in the film struggles against breaking into an chaos of line and color. While rendering Marcel one image at a time, twelve images per second, I saw every action in the story within 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 grew organically from the animation technique. In my essay about Street of Crocodiles, I describe a moment in the movie in which the filmmakers self-consciously reveal the metal armatures beneath their puppets’ clothing. The Quays expose the mechanics 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 story 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 wide-ranging festival and broadcast life, playing for varied audiences in many countries, and the reactions to the film illustrate another particular power of the animated short: an audience is inclined to read these movies allegorically, projecting their own experience into the visual content. In fact, the more banal or elemental the story is, the more likely the audience is to participate in this projection. After all, why would someone commit two years of their life to animating a film about a rooster in a backyard in Belgium? Some viewers saw an allusion to literature and Greek drama. 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 the 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 supported my basic feeling about the film: after trouble there is more trouble and only a stoic resolve can overcome it.
The most politically charged reading of the film I saw appeared in a review 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 stood as a provincial Flemish enclave in contemporary cosmopolitan Brussels and as a symbolic battleground for this cultural struggle. I had absolutely no didactic purpose in mind with the film; I simply made a movie 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 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.
Character and narrative development are limited in short films and in animation, particularly so, because the performances are painstakingly created one frame at a time. But Marcel, King of Tervuren illustrates the open-ended power of animated shorts. The director creates a tableau with which the viewer can actively engage, a form potentially flexible enough to contain multiple psychological, emotional and ideological meanings depending on the disposition of the audience. With Marcel, I thought that I had made a straight-forward documentary about the trials and tribulations of a friend’s rooster and indirectly about the new people I met in my life at the time. But as a cultural outsider, I apparently had also made an ethnographic allegory about long running political conflicts in Belgium. The film, when released into the world of others' perspectives, generated meaning beyond my control or intention.