October '09

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I'm an Elk

In the fall of 1986, after an exhausting six months in Taiwan working on "The Brave Little Toaster", I enlisted some of my Toaster colleagues to make a short film just for laughs called "I'm an Elk".

The song "I'm an Elk" was the B-side or a 45rpm record I had been given as a kid by my drum teacher, Larry Bohm.   This was around 1973.  Larry was in a group that called itself "The Group", a lounge act in South Jersey.  They had cut a demo record and all of Larry's students got one.

The record sat forgotten in my closet until, as a Character Animation student at Cal Arts, I played it for my classmates - Tim Hauser, Kirk Wise, Kevin Lima, Dan Jeup - they agreed it was hysterically bad, bordering on genius.  We tossed around film ideas, and  I even thumbnailed storyboards for a film. But as we got busy with our student films, the enthusiasm faded.  

Four years later, I borrowed a 16mm Bolex film camera from friend Steve Berg (never gave it back), and somehow got Kevin Lima to make an Elk puppet.  Kevin had interned at Henson's Creature Shop, and made some killer Halloween costumes at Cal Arts. His Elk was the best thing in the movie. 

I enlisted Toaster colleagues Brian McEntee, Chuck Richardson, Joe Ranft, and Jerry and Rebecca Rees to be my hunters.  Brian suggested the Angeles National Forest as a location, near his home in Altadena.  

On a cool fall day, we trekked into the park.  While the park ranger was curious about our toy rifles, he let us go with no hassles; being Los Angeles, he'd obviously seen stranger.  I found a suitable spot away from the hiking paths where we wouldn't be interrupted.  Ready to roll.

My greatest weakness in filmmaking is the actual filming process.  F-stops confound me.  I always shot and hoped for the best, and this shoot would be no different.  I had only available light, and no light meter.  The Bolex had no auto focus, no auto anything.  I had one roll of film - enough for one take. Being autumn, the days were short, so it was a bit of a mad rush to get through everything.   We would practice a few times, shoot and move on.

Brian McEntee: "My recollections are pretty hazy - it seems to me you didn't really tell us what the story was, and I don't even recall if you had the song playing for us...? And I think Joe asked you, "What's my motivation?" Since everyone involved had worked together so closely on Toaster, it felt to me like we were making a home movie with family members. My favorite thing was watching Kevin work the puppet."

As fun as it was to shoot, seeing the footage was very disappointing. The exposures were all over the map, and then there was the issue of sync.  The performances were done to a cassette tape dub of the 45 record played on a battery operated boom box.  I edited to a 24fps 16mm mag track. The film slowly and progressively slid out of sync when played with the mag. 

All I could do was embrace the flaws.  I deliberately scratched the film and added chop cuts, as if it were an old film that had been broken in projection.  Brenda Chapman was still at Cal Arts at the time, and allowed me access to the character animation department's Steembeck for editing. 

I showed "I'm an Elk" to the crew and friends and then put it away.  My friends from that time can still sing the song - it's that infectious.  In 2005, Ralph Eggleston was seeking footage of Joe for a memorial service Pixar was planning.  I sent him a copy of "I'm an Elk" - a treat to see after nineteen years.  To see Joe walk onscreen and mug for the camera.....its still hard to believe he's gone.

Kevin called about a year later, saying he'd found the Elk puppet in a box in his garage.  He mailed it to me, and it sits proudly in my studio today. 






Wild Honey Pie

In January of 1993, I made "Wild Honey Pie", a video of the song from The Beatles' White Album

"Wild Honey Pie" was another idea I had while at Cal Arts: a coop full of chickens sings "Honey Pie!" as a fox slowly sneaks up on them.  The fox sings the final line "I love ya!" and they all run away.  Silly.  During sophomore year, I went through a phase of chicken video ideas, depending on what was in my Walkman at the time. 

I had purchased a hi8 video camera and a very expensive video editing system. I really wanted to make another short, and "Wild Honey Pie" was the one most doable.

I made four bizarre looking chicken puppets using Dixie cups, paper mache, and cloth.  I named them Clucky, Plucky, Llucky (two ells), and Otis.  I built a chicken coop set in the dining room of my Burbank townhouse.  And this time, I rented a light kit.

Jerry and Rebecca Rees returned to puppeteer.  Jerry also showed me how to light the set.  I enlisted industry friends Steve Wahl, Joey Mildenberger, and Miriam McDonnell as puppeteers as well as Jill Waterson, Tonya Buell and Michelle Hartmann. 

Add two extra large pizzas and a case of beer and we were ready to go.  We divvied up the puppets.  The ladies would work the chickens, the guys would work the various fox puppets.  Jill would handle the plastic eggs.

It all seemed simple enough.  Play the music, and the chickens rock left, right, left, right. On every fourth beat, an egg drops. Unlike "Elk", I could now afford to do multiple takes.  This was great for me, not so great for the puppeteers. 

"Cut! Llucky, you're out of sync.  Take two!"

"Cut!  Llucky, it's left right left!   Take Three!"

"Cut!  Llucky!!!!"   Michelle just couldn't get it right.  After a dozen or so takes, the ladies were getting sore knees and needed a break.  I embraced Llucky's out of sync as a personality trait.   Move on!

Rebecca Rees: " I remember that we had to do it over and over and over and over again. Lots of coordination needed, which, none of us seemed to be able to do. BUT, eventually, it worked. I guess...I remember your kitchen was transformed into a chicken coup. As always, taking part in your films was fun, creative and I never knew what to expect."

Team Honey Pie. Front row: Steve Wahl, Steve Moore, Jill Waterson. 2nd row: Miriam McDonnell, Tonya Buell, Michelle Hartmann, Rebecca Rees. Rear (in window): Jerry Rees, Joey Mildenberger.

Miriam McDonnell: "I had just come from Ireland and I knew no one except Joey. I was having huge culture shock and was very homesick. When you asked us to help you with your video I was just so happy for the chance to go out and meet new people and have some beers.

I though you all were off your rockers but I liked that as I had a vague inkling that I may have been slightly off kilter myself.
However when I was being asked by the director to kneel behind this back drop and sqwak like a chicken on command , and throw out an egg towards the camera. I knew that I was out of my league when it came to crazy nutty people.

But here I was on my knees with these , in their mind , sane people throwing eggs around and squaking like a hen laying the biggest egg of her life, wondering ....if these fuckers are the sane ones I am in for a hell of a time with the crazy ones at the Mouse House. But if you have helped out on one of Steve Moore's projects and survived the silliness with a smile and a few belly laughs you have been given enough experience with "talented crazy" to make it with those other nutters!"

The short format is great, because you don't have to ask friends to commit to more one day of participation. Neither of these films is festival worthy, but YouTube has created a great resource for lowered bar productions. The films themselves were secondary to the social aspect of making them - having friends over and doing something silly. Great memories.

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