Our profile of animator and filmmaker Tom Schroeder first aired on MN Original in November of 2011, and was filmed even earlier, during May of that year. We caught up Mr. Schroeder to learn more about his latest film and some of his other recent creative projects.
UPDATE: We just learned from Tom that Marcel, King of Tervuren was accepted into competition at the Sundance Film Festival!
An excerpt from Marcel, King of Tervuren, © Tom Schroeder.
MN Original: Your profile on MN Original first aired in November of 2011, and in it, you discuss starting a new film called Marcel, King of Tervuren, which you say is modeled after a Greek tragedy. Tell us more about the film.
Tom Schroeder: I finished Marcel this past August in a French and an English language version. The film evolved as a friend, Ann Berckmoes, who lives in Tervuren, Belgium on the outskirts of Brussels, began to tell us installments of the story of her rooster Marcel. My wife, Hilde, is Belgian and we tend to visit Belgium almost every year. As the story developed I began to think there might be a documentary-style animated film to be made from it and by the point that Marcel’s son, Max, blinds him in one eye it began to sound like Greek tragedy as enacted by roosters. (There’s nothing specific that the film is mimicking and the relationship to Greek tragedy is somewhat ironic.) When Ann visited St. Paul one spring I recorded her telling the story once in English and once in French, because she said she actually lived the story in French. I edited the story to a piece of music that I licensed for the film composed by Phil Kline and performed by the string quartet Ethel. And then I animated the film to the audio tracks. The music is meant to draw out the gravity of the situation and the animation was intended to contradict that gravity, but in the end the film turned out grimmer than I expected. So the comic element I thought would develop is subdued.
MNO: How did the act of drawing on an electronic tablet, as opposed to drawing on paper, alter your creative process in creating and writing Marcel? How has it helped your artistic development?
TS: The painterly look of Marcel is a result of working with the tablet. The look of the brush strokes and different rendering techniques are easier to audition digitally. You can test out movement with the rendering possibilities more quickly. Animating itself, which I’m still not entirely comfortable with, is initially less controlled. Once you start to adapt to not having pages to flip and having no graphite on your fingers, you realize that you are essentially drawing and testing simultaneously. You can play and watch your animation even as you’re drawing it, as opposed to having to scan a stack of paper, assemble it in another software and then watch it. The immediate feedback tends to make me work looser and take greater risks with the movement. Also, the transformations in the lines and character in Marcel are a direct result of working digitally. It’s a little soon to judge how it’s effecting my development, but I’ll know more after the next film.
MNO: In your profile, you mention that it typically takes you two years to finish a film. Marcel recently screened at The Walker Art Center, so did you find that using digital tools like a tablet allowed you to create a film more quickly? What are the pro’s and con’s to potentially having a faster timeline for your art?
TS: Yes, working with the tablet definitely speeds up the process of drawing a film like Marcel. It probably helped even more that I had some funding from the McKnight Foundation for the film which allowed me to hire two former MCAD students to work with me on the film. Having help with something as labor intensive as animation allows me to free up more energy for “directing” and storytelling. I really can’t imagine any cons right now to anything that helps me make films more quickly. Animation is so grueling to produce, especially for an independent with little resources, that the biggest danger in any film is losing focus or interest in the content.
MNO: What was your perception of the screening of Marcel at The Walker? How did it compare to previous screenings you’ve held?
TS: So far Marcel has screened locally at Paul Creager’s Square Lake Festival and at The Walker. The screening at The Walker came about opportunistically in that I was just testing a new projection format, DCP. Heidi Schuster at Splice Here kindly arranged with The Walker to project Marcel so that I could see how the new format looked. Sheryl Mousley saw the film the afternoon that I saw it and included it in a program. Because the program was only two nights later I didn’t have much time to publicize the event. The film did look beautiful on DCP and the new sound system in The Walker auditorium is great. A friend who showed up to the event gave me a useful tagline for the film too: “It has a happy ending in the middle and then it gets sad again, like life.” A local composer was also present and has contacted me about doing a collaborative project with a musical group called “Improvistra.”
MNO: What’s next for Marcel? Will you shop it around to festivals?
TS: I’ve just started sending Marcel to film festivals. I made the deadline for Sundance, which is one of the bigger venues for independent films in the U.S. My last two films Bike Race and The Yellow Bird played in competition at Sundance, so I hope I’m still in favor with the programmers there. The festivals that are most important for a film like Marcel are the large dedicated animation festivals: Annecy, Ottawa, Hiroshima, Anima Mundi, Melbourne and others. This is where most of the distribution business for a film like mine is done. I have a distributor in London, Shorts International, who handles many of my animated films. I’ve had my films in the past broadcast internationally on Canal Plus, SBS in Australia, CBC in Canada and Independent Lens on Public Television in the U.S. I imagine Marcel will have some interest in Europe. Oh, Marcel is also scheduled to play on MNTV locally on TPT.
MNO: What other projects are you currently working on?
TS: I always need a break after finishing an animated film, so that usually means a music project. The music project I’m working on now is also a live action experimental film called “Turboencabulator.” The turboencabulator is a fictitious machine concocted and described in fantastic techno-jargon by GE engineers in the late 1940’s (I think). I play with an improvisational group called Waschering Maschine which I imagine as a lost German rock/jazz/space band from 1972 [Editor’s note: Waschering Maschine makes a cameo appearance in Tom Schroeder’s profile on MN Original!]. We record jams once every other week, which I edit into more manageable lengths. When they’re really good we mine them for raw material and make a CD. Turboencabulator is a 42 minute prog-rock chamber music piece that I’ve composed after the fact through editing and over-dubbing. We’ve got some really good musicians who contributed including Pat O’Keefe on clarinet from Zeitgeist and Jacqueline Ultan on cello from many bands such as Jello Slave and Saltee. The music is just about done. Then over the next few months I’ll edit an impressionistic machine-themed video in synch to the music from footage that I’ve been shooting all summer. This whole process takes about 6 months, which by animation standards is a kind of immediate gratification. It takes 6 months to make a 42 minute piece as opposed to 18 months for a 6 minute piece. When Turboencabulator is done I’m going to start the next animated film “Isola del Giglio.” This will be an impressionistic film about an Italian island that I’ve visited twice. I’m making this film in collaboration with an animator who lives in Paris, Lisa Paclet, who spent her childhood Junes on the island with her family. We plan to make an animated “Les Vacances de M. Hulot” (Jacques Tati).
MNO: What other animators locally or nationally do you follow?
TS: Animation is a small subculture, so it tends to be very “international.” Some of my favorite animators are: Igor Kovalyov, a russian living in Los Angeles, Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, who live and work together in Calgary and whose latest film is “Wild Life,” Rosto and Suzie Templton, who live together now in Amsterdam but don’t work together yet – her last film was a stop motion adaptation of “Peter and the Wolf,” and Jeremy Clapin, who lives in France and whose film “Skhizein” was one of my favorites of the last few years.
MNO: What’s the best local arts event you’ve attended in the past year?
TS: Michelle Kinney and Chris Cunningham host music salons at their house occasionally and one that I attended including Mississippi Peace, The Orange Mighty Trio, and some Tango music from Astor Piazzolla was one of the most memorable and (very) local events that comes to mind. Being a film fanatic as well I have to mention The Trylon in general and thank Barry Kryshka for picking up where the Oak Street Cinema left off.