Sunday, March 28, 2010

A David Lynch Family Christmas

Second to last one.  One that is close to my heart.

This was written for the Reelfast 48 Hour Film Contest.  In short, teams are given a bunch of elements to use as inspiration and then are expected to make a 10 minute film in 48 hours.

In the third (of seven) year of the contest I asked my friend Rob Frederickson (you may know him as the artist, Robert Ives) who was teaching animation if he thought we could make an animated film in 48 hours.  He figured we could.

We spent some time working out with the organizers what would be allowable for us to plan in advance.  Basically, we had a stable of pre-designed characters and sets.  To this day there are purists who think that this was "un-fair."  They seem to forget that our characters are no different than the actors they already had on their teams... except that their actors can change more of their costumes than just the colour; and their actors are capable of programming their own movements.  Not to mention that the live action teams had an entire city (and more, if they were resourceful enough - and the occasional team was) to use as sets.  If anything - anything at all - was "unfair" it would be that each subsequent year the animation team had all the previous characters and settings at their disposal, as well as any new ones that had been created since the previous year.  Anyhow... it's all academic.  We had the organizers' support and consent.  Besides - it was years ago, in a contest that no longer exists.

The first year there was a HUGE learning curve.  None of us had ever made a film in 48 hours, let alone an animated film.

The animation studio was in Victoria.  The contest started and ended in Vancouver.  I got the inspiration package and headed for the ferry, chatting on cellphone with Rob and his animators on my way.  By the time I got to the ferry we knew what direction we were heading.  We had previously discussed some loose ideas based on the character resources we had.  Among the characters was a family and a non-specific horned ungulate.  We knew that the creature could pass for a reindeer and we could do a "Christmas Special" with the family.  We had also discussed the possibility that some sort of surreal randomness to a plot line allowed us to squeeze in all kinds of elements from the inspiration package.

One of the elements in the package was a collection of small shaped plastic baubles.  Rob figured that he could model and rig a christmas tree by the time I got to Victoria and we could scan the baubles and add them as ornaments... we were pretty much committed to a Christmas Special.  It was simply a matter of me writing something that pulled all our random bits together.  (I actually don't even recall what most of those elements were... Some backwards music, I think?  A can of something - soup?  Something worm-like I think too... a photo of worms or snakes maybe?  I'm fairly certain there was something that made us think of the clock... but not a clock.  And I did go to Jericho Beach first and took some reference photos... 'cause it was our 'location' - though I'll be damned if I can recall how we used/justified it.

Anyway, while I wrote my ass off on the ferry, Rob and his guys did as much advance work as they could.  (Making presents and other anticipated animated props.)  When I arrived at the studio I read them what I had scrawled and they got down to more specific work while I typed up a copy (oh those pre-laptop days) for distribution... 'cause no one could be expected to read my handwriting.

More thoughts after the (for some reason not properly formatted) script... 


Fade in.

A quaint family bungalow.

Woman at stove.  Cauldron of soup boiling.

Clock on wall ticks once.  Second hand moves forwards 2 seconds.

Woman stirs cauldron.

Soup boils.

Living room.  Two children.  Ten year old boy, decorating tree.  Three year old of indeterminate sex, humming gutterally to (him)self.  His hair looks like a bad wig.

A present at the bottom of the tree is shaking back and forth.

Clock on wall ticks once.  Second hand moves three seconds backward.

Woman at stove stirs cauldron.  She shakes in some seasoning.

Several creatures swim to surface and feed on seasoning floating on top.  The soup is too murky to see them clearly.

Woman stirs cauldron.

There is a quiet, shy, polite knock at the door.

Woman looks up from soup but does not acknowledge the door.

WOMAN: Your father.

She listens tentatively for a moment.

The clock ticks once and moves forward two seconds.

The two children are at the Christmas tree.


The three year old has found a jar of marbles.

The present gives a quick shake and quietly whimpers.

PRESENT:  oooh.


The three year old stops humming long enough to stuff a fistful of marbles in its mouth.

The clock ticks backwards three seconds.

The woman stirs the soup.

There is a quiet polite knock at the door.

Something slivers just beneath the surface of the soup.

The ten year old enters the kitchen.

TEN YEAR OLD: Mom, when is Dad coming home?

The woman laughs.

WOMAN: Your father.

The three year old is chewing ambitiously on the marbles.

The present lurches slightly.

TEN YEAR OLD: Can I have something to eat?

The woman sighs and looks wistfully at the soup.

There is a polite knock on the door.

WOMAN: Your father.

The ten year old sighs, disappointed.

The clock ticks forward two seconds.

The three year old has found a rubber ball the size of a fist.  (S)he is humming gutterally again.

The present shakes back and forth, making helpless noises.

A door opens behind the three year old.  A man dressed as a penguin comes out.

The penguin sets an iron chest at the foot of the tree and shuffles into the kitchen.
Elsewhere, an axe is being dragged through the snow.

The penguin enters the kitchen.

The ten year old boy watches the penguin.

The woman ignores.

The penguin opens the door to the fridge, climbs in and closes the door.

The woman shakes her head in disapproval.

WOMAN: Your father.

Something in the soup makes a sudden dive to the bottom.

The three year old gnaws viciously on the rubber ball.

The clock ticks backwards three seconds.

The woman goes to the fridge and opens it.  A penguin wing hands her a can.  She closes the fridge.

There is a knock at the door.

Elsewhere an axe is dragged through the snow.

Under the tree, the present shakes violently and tips over.  It murmurs.


The woman pours a chalky, lumpy red liquid from the carton into the soup.

The soup seems to stir itself.  A small fin briefly rises above the surface.

The ten year old boy curiously opens the fridge.

There is no penguin inside, simply a wall of cans like the woman just took out.


There is an irritated knock at the door.

TEN YEAR OLD:  How does Santa know what to bring?

The woman is visibly agitated.

WOMAN: Your father.

The clock ticks forward two seconds.

The three year old is humming again.  (S)he has found a ragged softball.

The present shakes slightly and cries.

The ten year old enters the living room.

There is a loud irritated knock at the door.

The woman follows the ten year old into the living room.

The clock ticks backwards three seconds.

Elsewhere an axe is dragged through the snow.

The ten year old opens the iron box.

The three year old dogs ravenously into the softball, tearing the cover off with his teeth.

The clock ticks forward two seconds.

The soup churns violently.

The ten year old pulls several small penises from the box.

WOMAN: Your father.

The present shakes desperately.

There is a loud, insistent, irritated, pounding knock at the door.

The woman acknowledges the door expectantly.

WOMAN: Your father.

Elsewhere an axe is dragged through the snow.

The clock ticks backwards three seconds.

The ten year old begins hanging decorative penises on the tree.

The door bursts open.  Four evergreen trees rush in.

Something in the soup preys on something else.

The trees enter the living room.

The woman watches.

The ten year old hands penises.

The three year old furiously destroys the cork centre of the softball with his mouth.

The present shrieks and shakes violently.

The trees seize the ten year old.

Red clad arms lay a frightened reindeer's red-nosed head against a large chopping block.

The clock ticks forward tewo seconds.

The trees rush out the door with the ten year old.

The woman watches.

Something slithers contentedly in the soup.

The three year old picks up the present.  The present makes weak frightened whimpers.  The three year old is humming gutterally again.

WOMAN: Your father.

Red clad arms swing an axe over a red-capped white-bearded head.

The ten year old stands amongst presents.  Baubles hang on his outstretched arms.  An ornate star rests on his head.  Lights are strung around him.  A family of trees surrounds him, exchanging gifts.

A frightened reindeer with it's head against a chopping block looks up in resigned terror...


A wet chopping noise.

A dull thud of something heavy landing in the snow.

WOMAN: How was your day dear?  I've cooked your favourite.

 - END -

Don't try to make sense of it.  There is no meaning to the story.  More than anything it was intended to be sort of an excercise in disturbing tension.

As an excericse, it ultimately failed.  It was simply too much to chew in too little time for a team that was doing something no-one (let alone us) had ever attempted.  The learning curve was damn near vertical.  The number of unfinished shots was long.  We had zero-time to do any real editing.  All we could do was assemble the completed shots in order.  It didn't make much less sense than the original script, but we had no chance to tweak the timing and otherwise finesse it.  Add to that that one team member fell through a glass table and had to be taken away in an ambulance, and a major last minute system crash that nearly resulted in me not being able to catch the last ferry back to Vancouver to submit the film under the wire...  It was a wonder we finished at all.  In the end, that was the victory.
But it had it's moments.  Scott's vocal performance as the three year old (The three year old would end up being the 'star' of every film the team made.) was hysterically funny - it remains a running in-joke to this day.

The following year we tweaked the team - added more animators, and more people who could handle multiple jobs.  One animator did the trip from Vancouver with me to help massage "impossible" ideas.  The same team member was charged specifically with editing - though we still didn't have as much time for finessing the cut as we'd like.  and we arranged to fly the finished product back to Vancouver, rather than losing the time on the ferry back.  In that second year we actually completed a film that made some odd sense and won a special achievement award for our efforts.

The third year I decided I wanted to try something new.  I had never done a live-action film for ReelFast.  It was time.

The animation team entered again without me.  This time a well oiled machine full of mostly veterans.  With literally dozens of characters to pick from and a very complete western-ghost-town set at their disposal, they delivered a tour de force.  It was still rather bizarre and at moments inscruitable (but honestly, plenty of live action ReelFast films suffer that fate), but it was the most beautiful looking and smoothly animated film yet.  They placed in the top ten films of what was a highly contentious contest.  My team did not - but that is a tale in itself.  I could not have been happier for them.

The next year I returned to animation with a new team - this time doing stop-motion.  The old team did not compete.  One other team did stop-motion that year - together we were the first two teams to do stop motion.  They kicked our ass.  But that shouldn't be too surprising... that team was headed up by Zach Lipovsky who would go on to the final five of On the Lot... and frankly, he should have won - but that too is another story.

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