Space FLiK

 Posted by on December 5, 2014  AutoBio, Childhood art, Drawings, Thoughts
Dec 052014
 

Recently, I found a small cardboard box that contains all the artwork, and the super-8 film spool of a movie I made when I was 15-17, for my final high school HSC art exam. This celluloid masterpiece was called SPACE FLiK, and was a parody of Star Wars in the style of Mad magazine (two things I was obsessed with at that age). The same box even contained a journal of my process making this opus, that I submitted to examiners along with the film. It took well over a year of spare-time drawing and very fiddly filming to complete this 7 minute silent epic, and was definitely a case where the end result does not show the amount of time and effort that went into making it.

SpaceFlik_box

As a small child, I’d often dreamed of doing animation for a living, but didn’t think it was even an option. The cartoons on television all had American accents, so I assumed that animation wasn’t produced in Australia. In 1979, I had the choice of leaving high school at the end of that year, as I’d completed the compulsory education requirement, but my parents were both firm believers in the power of education, having been shaped strongly by it themselves, and were insistent on my continuing the final 2 years of high school to keep my options open for further study. I briefly considered studying at film school, but the Australian Film and Television School prospectus convinced me that I was not worthy. The pamphlet I recieved in the mail contained the bios of the previous year’s enrolment of 20 students, the cream of 2,000 applicants, each one of them a prodigy; making award winning super-8 movies at the age of 9, that sort of thing. I needed a new plan.

SpaceFlik_lineup

These days you can easily search for specific things on the internet, and even if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for you can make headway by tinkering with a search-engine for a few hours. As a teen, I only had the local library and the phone book, which were only useful if I knew exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t. Then, during school holidays between 1979 and 1980, Dad read out a newspaper advertisement; “Sydney animator will hold an animation workshop over the summer break.Wha!? I enrolled and met a future co-worker. While we farted around with pencils and paper, he explained that although the voices on TV cartoons were American, many episodes were actually animated in Sydney, at the Hanna-Barbera studio. Better yet, I didn’t have to attend a special school to work there, and could be trained on the job. My jaw hit the floor. Suddenly, a dream job now seemed a possibility, and I had a mission: find out more about this studio and get a job there. I wrote a letter to Hanna-Barbera including my drawing samples, and put it in the mailbox. Even after a few repeat queries, I didn’t get a response, so I got on with life.

In 1980, the year I turned 16, I begun planning the practical art requirement for my final year high school art exam, which was to be at the end of 1981. Because I’d taken 2-unit Art (a ‘double major’ in American terms) I had to do two of these art pieces, and decided to make a short animated film and a series of book illustrations. The illustrations were for the RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge that we studied in English class, and I did 7 moody pencil illustrations on pastel paper. Thus feeling that I had the highbrow art angle sufficiently staked out, I went lowbrow for my next effort; SPACE FLiK, a super-8 animated movie that used a combo-technique of animation on cells, animation on punched paper and cutout animation, that took NAFF to a whole new level..

SpaceFlik_storyboard

Although I’d often animated flip books, I’d never even attempted to animate on film before. I loved animation, but actually doing some myself seemed about as likely as a ride in a Lamborghini. 1980 was a different time. These days we all carry a tiny movie camera in our pockets, but back then I didn’t know anybody who had a proper movie camera, and even still cameras were relatively uncommon. Our school did own a massive 1970s video camera, and a few of us students tried to do some stop-motion, but the clunky thing had no single-frame shooting capability. If you could squeeze the trigger gently enough, you’d shoot half-second bursts, and make a silly video of your mates seeming to fly around the running track in jerky pixelation, but nothing with finesse. This changed when a good mate of my Dad’s who taught at the nearby Teacher’s College, John Harris, finagled me the extended loan of a proper film camera via his department. Meaning that frame-by-frame animation was something I could finally try.

SpaceFlik_LOGOMy spare time in 1980 was spent planning storyboarding and animating, drawing on bond paper scrounged from school or Dad’s work, and punched with a standard two-hole punch. By the end of that year, I was ready to start filming, and for a boost of inspiration, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came to my hometown cinema at around the same time. I knew that ‘proper’ animation was done on clear plastic cels, but had a hard time finding raw material to make cels with, and used whatever was available. I butchered several shirt boxes for their clear plastic but never had many, and didn’t have the means to xerox my drawings onto the cels anyway, so the animation done on paper was then cut out with scissors, and painstakingly glued onto these naff cels.

After each shot was in the can, the drawings were peeled off the cels and I’d do another scene. Sometimes, I’d just eyeball it and move the sequential cut outs under camera, using one cel with positioning guides drawn on it. I was utterly clueless about photography at this stage in my life, but thankfully David Rose, a photographer from the Teacher’s College, impressed upon me the need to take great care with the technical aspects. He painted a vivid mental picture of me filming for months, only to develop the roll of film and discover that I’d either under or over exposed it. Needless to say that scenario was my nightmare, and was only averted by David showing me tricks to ensure that the exposure in the camera was set correctly (involving holding a grey neutral card under the camera when taking a light reading).

SpaceFlik_inviteSPACE FLiK was shot in a study room at school where I could leave the camera setup undisturbed. Because this was the only camera that I had access to, and was in use by others during term times, I did most of the shooting during weekends and holidays. While my family went on holiday that summer, the end of 1980 into early 1981, I stayed home to shoot my movie, and ‘shooting’ was the theme of the shoot; the radio played the news of John Lennon’s killing while I was filming, then the Pope was shot a few months later and Ronald Reagan a few months after that, around the time I started editing (it was a brutal shoot in more ways than one). Although I’d worked on the film for ever so long, it took so much time to simply animate, shoot, and edit it that there wasn’t time for many reshoots, and the final film is pretty much my first pass.

In that same box of recently-found SPACE FLiK materials, was an invitation I drew for the FILM PREMIERE party, where family, friends, various supporters, and Ross Cochrane, my art teacher, all assembled in August 1981 to finally watch SPACE FLiK. It debuted at a screening in the poshest room of our house, where I’d set up a movie projector and screen (likewise provided by John Harris and David Rose). As we nibbled Mum’s snacks and watched my movie, my supporters were a very appreciative and encouraging audience, but I could see all my mistakes; the timing was off, sometimes too rushed and sometimes too slow. Nearly 2 years after I’d cooked up the idea, it seemed perhaps a little too silly, even to me; I was 15 in early 1980 when I hatched the plan, and 17 when it was finally done in late 1981. The ratio of work done to screen-time was heartbreaking, but it was great to have it finally done at last. Not long after, it was sent off to be judged by the HSC examiners, along with my artsy book illustrations. In the end, I made quite a cock-up of the written part of the HSC art exam (answering BOTH questions in an either/or essay option and neglecting to answer another compulsory question completely) and my final art mark was a disappointment to everyone, not the least being me.

SpaceFlik_baddie

After submitting it to my high school art exam, I entered SPACE FLiK in a young filmmaker’s contest, perhaps with visions of being thought of in the same glowing terms as the filmmakers in the Australian Film and Television School prospectus that I’d read earlier. The gala screening was a fancy shindig at the Sydney Opera House, and though I knew in advance I’d not won any prizes, it was a thrill to attend and hear the keynote speaker Peter Weir, who addressed we young hopefuls. I eagerly looked forward to reading the judges’ thoughts about my film, which all contest applicants received. The thrill diminished substantially upon reading the multi-page assessment of SPACE FLiK, where each of the judges utterly savaged it in one withering page after another. Though it gutted me to read this tome of scorn at age 17, I’d gleefully share some quotes with you now if I could, but I must have tossed the document away in a fit of teen peevishness. But the judges were right; as a personal film, SPACE FLiK was derivative and hopelessly crudely made.

This project from my long-ago adolescence is my closest equivalent to the films my colleagues all made at CalArts or Sheridan, and the only personal animation project I’ve ever done. Finding these mementos of my NAFFimation™ has brought back a flood of memories and quite a few chuckles, and I’m now looking into a way of transferring it from super-8 to digital media so I can watch it again. Perhaps due to its critical savaging, and my own growing awareness of its limitations, I never showed  it to anyone to get a job in animation, although that had been on my mind when I made it. I eventually got my first job at Hanna-Barbera on the strength of my drawn portfolio alone. But making this silly little high school film was invaluable experience nonetheless.

SpaceFlik_TIE

Learning the punishing ratio between workload and screen-time in a cartoon was a useful early lesson for someone who’d soon go on to work in professional animation, because the same principal exists there too. Over the next 30 years in the industry, I’d learn another startling truth; crews work every bit as hard on the films that you hate as they do on those films you love. Family and friends will always be impressed by the filmmakers’ efforts, but everyone else only cares about what’s on screen. It’s a heartbreaking fact that sometimes the hard work simply isn’t captured in the film, for utterly mysterious reasons, unrelated to the talent, brains, passion and work ethic of the filmmakers.

UPDATE: I’ve finally finished the SPACE FLiK restoration. The “Corrector’s Cut” can be seen HERE.

  41 Responses to “Space FLiK”

  1. Love this! I would love to see this film! So much obvious love and care went into it!

    There is at least one good place in the LA area that does digital transfers from Super-8 and Regular 8. I used them last year to get digital versions of some old 8mm footage of my mother with my brother and I. I recently found a VHS tape of some of my old Super-8 films, and had actually planned on posting my 30 second animated opus “2001: A Late Nite Snack” (made when I was 19) on Facebook this week, but when I accidentally erased another part of that tape instead of digitizing it to disc, I decided I should learn how to use my VHS to DVD dubbing machine a little better before I start attempting to put any of my precious memories on disc (I still have the Super 8 source, though)!

    • Jeez! It HURTS just to hear about your accidental VHS erasing fiasco! Sorry about that, and glad to know you have the source film at least.

      I found a place here in SF that will do the super-8/digital transfer. Seeing as how it is a STAR WARS parody, perhaps it would be ok for me to do my own Lucas-style SPECIAL EDITION? I’d like to look into editing software, and fix a few issues.. At the very least, I’d love to digitally stretch the frame count of a few shots and compress others, to fix timing problems. Secondly, I’d digitally tweak a scene or two that did not read. Lastly, it would be fun to add a simple music soundtrack.

      It would be a nice little project to allow me to learn some editing software (any program suggestions?) If I could do each of these things, perhaps I’ll post it on VIMEO or some such.

    • James–Cool about plans for a SPECIAL EDITION! (As long as you remember: Han shoots first!)

    • I have Adobe CS4, so I already have Premiere on my machine. Pretty easy to use for the most part. It also comes with AfterEffects, for doing special effects, but I haven’t played with that much yet.

    • Anson> I will have to look into that! We have adobe creative cloud so maybe that is a downloadable option. It really will be a good excuse to get up to speed on all that sort of stuff.

  2. How wise and/or lucky you are to still have all these arty-facts from your youth! I too would love to see this–the storyboard you posted is a crack-up, alone! (New useful word-of-the-day: Naff.)

    • Yes, it is a nice funny nostalgic surprise to find all this old stuff, and remember the person I was back then and what he aspired to.

      As to wisdom, it wasn’t that. It was simply that my Dad was a good enough sport to look after boxes and folios full of my stuff for over 25 years! When he moved house a few years back, he had me look through my stash of childhood stuff in his garage. I tossed some of it, and mailed the rest to myself in here SF, where it stayed in the mailing boxes in storage till recently.

  3. It’s so pure, the passion and enthusiasm you had for making an animated film. Making your own cells! Geesh…that stuff is gold. I’m just so thankful that you ended up in animation as a career and that your endeavors at such places have elevated this art for all of us. What a talent.

  4. Oh damn! I didn’t ever know the end result of your HSC major work and your results … you must have been gutted. I’m so sorry to hear that.
    I remember you showing us the film (or it might have been a not quite finished version) and we all loved it … I guess at 17 none of us knew the harsh realities of the real world!!! ( my own major work – the carved leather belts – weren’t received much better … although the fact that all the glued pieces came apart between when I sent them and when they were returned certainly wouldn’t have helped! **sigh** )
    Anyhow, take it from me, we would all love to see a revamped version of your Space Flik!!! (hint … hint…) 😉

    • Oh Peter! I remember your beautiful leather belts, but had not heard the part about them coming apart. I guess we both had some HSC bad luck, although in my case I unglued myself; my failure was 100% stupidity on my part. I knew I’d stuffed up the written exam, but hoped the major works would make up for that. I wish they’d separated the HSC art marks out; major works and written, because as it stands, I have no idea what the examiners thought of my major works.

  5. I still like to see how close my memory is of the bird in the artsy drawings. In tassie now. Do you remember your old address I’ll take a photo if it is there.

    • I may post the RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER drawings later, so you can check them against your memory. (our address in Hobart was: 75 Regent St, Sandy Bay)

  6. I love this. I want to see SPACE FLIK. Reminds me I need to find my old tapes and transfer them. The unfinished movie I was filming as a teenager called JOHNNY GUNN is gone, but somewhere in a box, my stunt reel still exists.

  7. I so look forward to seeing this endeavor of love!

  8. Yes, Jamie- the world needs to see “SPACE FLiK”! Thanks for writing your fascinating memories of your teenage filmmaking years, it certainly brings back memories, and reminds one that animators around the world often have similar beginnings.

    I’ve got my own super-8 epic, titled “Martians!” that needs transferring to see the light of day as well. The film won a Kodak Teenage Movie Award, and I actually sent a copy off to Frank Thomas for a screening at the Disney Studio. But this is a story best told over some beers.

    By the way, others may scoff, but for video editing I recommend Corel VideoStudio Pro: http://www.amazon.com/Corel-VSPRX7ENMB-VideoStudio-Pro-X7/dp/B00IIL0SCS

    It’s inexpensive, easier to learn than most, and will do everything you need and more.
    Hope this helps!

    • Larry! So good to hear from you! I’d love to see MARTIANS someday. How old were you when you made that?

      Thanks for the tip on VIDEOSTUDIO Pro. I’ve always wanted to learn some editing software and tidying up SPACE FLiKand adding a sound track is as good an excuse as any.

    • Hey Jamie – I was 13 when I made “Martians”, and at that time is was my third or fourth animated short.
      At the moment I’m creating a short for Cambridge University, and other than not having to paint cels, or wait for the film to get back from the lab, the whole process feels pretty much the same as lo those many years ago!

    • 13? Wow. And you’d done 4 by then. So YOU were one of the prodigies that I talked about!

  9. Man I would love to see Space Flik again.

    I can recall the camera set up and the millions of endless, endless hours spent doing that epic. You are probably too close to your ‘results’ and the scathing city art school markers to realise just how much stuff you learned and had to do – and from scratch – without the Internet, nor anyone whom had even scene a cartoon being made.

    From memory all you kinda knew was they used pegs to keep things still and a light box under the drawing.

    I’m with Julia on this one.

    Metropolis it may not be, BUT it was the 100% GENUINE output of a country kid to take on the might of every other Arty bastard in the state. Bearing in mind most of these kids had a small team of mums, dads and teachers facilitating the ‘artistic’ pathway without having to deal with complex technicalities.

    Count me in for a capital raising to bring SPACE FLIK to Youtube and the greater global audience it so fully DESERVES !!

    Pete

    • Ha Ha! Bless you, Peter! It was definitely fun and I’m very glad to have given it a go, though as you say, I was wandering around in the dark much of the time! The twin failures of a botched HSC and a critical savaging in a LA-DI-DA film contest afterward embarrassed me as a 17 year old, but I look back on the entire escapade with great fondness now, all these many years later.

      By the way, I felt well supported at the time. It’s just that none of my supporters, including my art teacher, had any idea of how to go about making an animated film. But for moral support, encouragement, and some equipment finagling, my ‘artistic pathway’ was just as well served by my community of family and friends as those city kids you mention.

      Thanks for the offer of funds for a RESTORATION, but no fund raising required. I found a transfer place right here in town that will do it for a surprisingly reasonable fee. I just need to drop it off sometime over Christmas. Then, the next stage is me learning some software to do a little bit of tweaking (Timing, Sound, etc). That may take me a while to learn, but when finally done, perhaps I’ll put it on Vimeo.

      But of course, this means that YOU need to share some recordings of your highschool FM Radio DJ shenanigans on ‘SUNDAY SOFT ROCK’!

  10. Star Wars episode 7 eat your heart out!

  11. I dropped off SPACE FLiK to be digitally transferred yesterday, due to be ready the end of January. I imagine I’ll take a while after that to learn Premiere/iMovie and tweak sound and timing. Till then, I hope to scour the web for public domain music, specifically, I’d like to find that high-speed piano they used for silent movies. (If any of you have any such resource tips please let me know). Hope to have a film to show from my spotty teen years early next spring >SNORT<

  12. Oh man! I so want to see it!

    • At the transfer place they let me watch it on a little super-8 viewer. I had not seen it since 1981/82. Pretty hilarious and it brought back some memories.

  13. It’s not only your enviably loyal schoolmates, your equally loyal – and lovely! – Julia, and your present mates and colleagues, who’d be knocking their hips down to see SpaceFlik flourishing again. So would your old Dad, who also has a good deal of emotional memory staked on the whole enterprise. Get cracking. Thanks, as usual, for these latest musings; and Happy Christmas to you both from me and Wendy. Love, Dad

    • Hey Dad! Thanks for checking in. I am on the case, and scouring the web for PUBLIC DOMAIN music to use in a simple soundtrack. (Maybe a bit of HOLT’s “the Planets” and some fast tempo music-hall piano).

      I wont get the dub until late January and I have some new programss to learn, but hope that I may have something to share by March?

  14. James, I was your art teacher all those years ago and have often thought about that brilliant animation you created and would love to see it again. Tonight, I was thinking about the paper mache mask of Darth Vader you made and looked you up. I was not a gifted teacher but I could see clearly that you had unique talents. Thanks for reminding me of a young man who put a tremendous amount of work into this project. You deserved so much more. So pleased you followed your dream.

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