There is no such thing as a moving picture. Film or video, it is always an illusion, a trick of the mind, imagining motion in a succession of rapidly glimpsed sequential still images. In that sense, all film and video can be correctly labeled “stop motion.” That which we call animation is stop motion in its purest form – that in which every frame, every still image, is touched and manipulated by the artist’s hand. It also perhaps offers the artist the most control.
That is what I am discovering as animation seems to be the direction of my creative pursuits at this late stage in the game. I am no graphic artist, and yet, I feel it is the way for me, at least for now.
More on that after a lengthy digression.
It has been nearly a year since my last blog post. For that, I apologize to anyone who may have cared. There is a very good chance that I am the only member of that particular club, but I found I missed this very personal forum a great deal, and I hope its readership grows. But that will never happen if I don’t write them.
The reason for the break had to do with my living situation and some turmoil therein, and feeling overwhelmed and kind of direction-less for a time. And some bouts of depression. Things I don’t think are appropriate to go into here too deeply, but an explanation was in order.
However, things really changed with the new year. 2016 is turning out to be the best one in quite a few for me. In January I landed a role in a very odd, very cool film called MOPZ which was made for Adult Swim TV, and was the brainchild of mad genius Todd Rohal. The conceit of the film is that a 1950s horror film is being set up for air on late night TV, and is being fast-forward scanned for quality assurance. We shot nearly a feature film worth of material, and it all races by at 3 or 4 times the normal speed so that the whole thing plays out in under 15 minutes. The story is set in a high school in which a lazy janitor makes a robot to do all his work for him. But the robot goes berserk, as robots are wont to do, and mayhem ensues. I played the always-yelling evil principal who get his just desserts. It was a pleasure and an honor to be part of such a unique and cool project.
Next I was cast as the lead in the two man show “Nixon’s Nixon” playing, you guessed it, Richard Nixon. I don’t believe I ever worked harder on any role and I am told I knocked it out of the park, though we played to small houses most nights, it was very satisfying run.
Then in July came another big break. I landed a decent speaking role on “Z Nation,” the zombie-themed television show that is shot in Spokane where I live. I can’t really say much about story, (it airs in late October), but it was a terrific and very funny script by Tye Lombardi, who has been with the show from the start in various capacities. I worked all five days of the shoot, and should have lots of screen time next month when it airs.
After that I did another two man show, one I have been pursuing for about 3 years now – Cormac McCarthy’s “The Sunset Limited.” It depicts a kitchen debate between an ex-con “preacher” and a suicidal professor on the existence of God and the validity of suicide. I was finally able to get the project off the ground due to actor Edward Casto, who stepped up to play the extremely tough role after two others had baled before him. We are now working on other projects together.
So, what were we talking about? Oh yes, Microbudget Cinema in general and, this time, animation in the specific. The Z Nation gig also gave me a little spare change to play with, allowing me to buy a DSLR camera and to start doing some animation in my kitchen – something I had been fantasizing about for some time.
There are two reasons for this obsession. With animation I have complete freedom artistically and the results are all mine, sink or swim. The other reason is that I have everything I need now to do them in my kitchen. There are no limits on what kind of story, no limit on costumes, sets, special effects, any story I want – no limits! And none of it costs me anything but my time.
The first one I did was a story that has been a worm in my brain since childhood – a vivid nightmare I had when eight or nine about confronting mortality and my fear of death. The film pretty much just flew off my fingers effortlessly and the final result – think what you may of it – vividly captured the picutescape in my mind. It is the first film I ever made that is pretty much intact from the images in my head. I immediately fell in love with the medium. You can see that film, “Ron Ford’s Nightmare, c. 1966” below.
My next project was created to help pad out the length of a horror western anthology called Boot Hill Tales coming soon, which will also feature my 2011 western “Man Without a Saddle,” one of my best live-action films, in my opinion. I found a folkloric creature coming from American slaves before the civil war. The tale of the Plat-Eye wrote itself very quickly. A “Plat-Eye” in legend is a murdered and resurrected slave that is tasked with guarding the master’s buried treasure to keep it safe from Yankee invaders. If you want to see that, ask me for the link and the password and I’ll be happy to let you view it. But I am not posting it outright since it is in several festivals.
Other animation projects will follow. I have a feature length project I am mounting that will take some time to do. But it will be worth it, I think.
My animation has a very rudimentary look that I adore. It reminds me of the work of Windsor McCay, whose work has always been iconic to me. This is not high-tech computer animation. In fact, the computer only comes into play for editing. I have my camera on a solid tripod facing a white board in my kitchen where the light is good. I draw on the white board with dry erase markers and change the drawings incrementally frame by frame to create the illusion of motion. Instead of the video function, I have the camera set on still images to create JPG files which I transfer from SD card into my computer and lay the images as single frames into the timeline of my editing software. I am using K-Den Live, which is quite user friendly. I save often and render my projects every 30 seconds or so to avoid crashes. Then the MP4 file generated from that render is laid onto a clean timeline and I continue adding frames until the project is done. Any spoken dialogue I record first to match the animated lip movement with the audio.
And there it is. Animation suite in a box. It should keep me out of trouble for a long time to come.
So the moral to this tale is challenge yourself and keep expressing yourself . If you have a story, let it out. There is always a way to tell it.
Jeff Leroy was an invaluable player in nearly all of my early Southern California movies. He shot most of them, always with style and aplomb, and always with an eagerness to take artistic risks. He also edited most of those movies, and provided digital and miniature effects as needed. He is one of the few DPs I have ever worked with who was as conversant with the history of film as myself. When I said I wanted Mario Bava-style colors in THE CRAWLING BRAIN, he knew just what I meant and delivered the goods without further explanation necessary.
Jeff is the epitome of the independent, grassroot, microbudget filmmaker guy. He is a one man band who creates over the top, effects laden marvels like nobody else is making. RAT SCRATCH FEVER is part Gerry Anderson, part Bert I. Gordon, part Sam Peckinpah, and all mind-boggling entertainment. Jeff writes, directs, creates effects, shoots and edits his own stuff. It’s a shame he isn’t more known, but kudos, he’s still slugging it out and making a living after 36 years of this.
Jeff cites THE WAGES OF FEAR and THE WILD BUNCH as his two favorite movies. I can’t argue with those choices. But he also lists a diverse assortment of influences, and when you see his movies, they make total sense as the source of his muse.
“The Poseidon Adventure in late ’72 made a huge impression on me,” Leroy said. “I saw all those disaster movies and became interested in the combination of characters you actually care about combined with special effects. Particularly miniature destruction. Late 60’s early 70’s seem to be a really favorite time for me: PATTON, 2001, DEATH WISH, DELIVERANCE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. STRAW DOGS, TAXI DRIVER. Sci fit v shows like STAR TREK, UFO, SPACE: 1999 (Season 1), BUCK ROGERS (season one). SUPERMAN 1978. – Where is all the fun in today’s comic book movies? Only GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY got it right.”
Jeff took those influence and, independent from the start, he raised funds and made his own movie.
“I’ve been making home movies since 1979. My first released film, CRACK UP, was completed in 1996,” Leroy said. “It was my loving homage to Sam Peckinpah. The 16mm film was kind of a mess, but coherent enough to get released. And the check didn’t bounce!”
Jeff did get burned in other ways, however, and that cemented his conviction to do it all himself.
“On my second film, THE SCREAMING (1999), the co-producer promised this prop guy that worked on BABYLON 5 would build this great prop for my movie,” Leroy said. “He kept promising this prop right up to the minute we were shooting. Then. he finally admitted he didn’t even start building the prop while we were shooting. Since then, I’ve had a strong distrust of everyone. If you don’t handle it yourself, it will be screwed up. Since those days I’ve met some DP’s and producers I really like to work with and grown to trust them. And actors, too. Phoebe Dollar. Victoria De Mare. Tasha Tacosa. Rachel Riley to name a few.”
Jeff has a philosophy about filmmaking, and it’s grounded in realistic commerce. That’s probably why he is still doing this, 36 years later.
“Unless you are independently wealthy, you are taking thousands of dollars from someone to make a movie that will hopefully make the money back and turn a profit,” Leroy said. “If you make some artistic masterpiece only you have the brilliance to understand, you won’t be in business long. Not everyone can be David Lynch. I attempt to make fast moving, fun, exploitation films that people will enjoy with some artsy touches. Movies that I enjoy watching and keep the producer in black ink. That’s about it.”
Jeff is staying busy with titles that would make any exploitation hound drool.
“[My 2006 film] WEREWOLF IN A WOMEN’S PRISON has two sequels coming! DRACULA IN A WOMEN’S PRISON and FRANKENSTEIN IN A WOMEN’S PRISON,” Leroy gushed. “I also have a very funny movie or web series called GIANTESS ATTACK that I’m working on. As you know, the market for straight to video movies is in the toilet. I am very grateful I can still do this and scrape out a living.”
Amen Jeff. You’ve done a valiant job of it. Keep it up. You are an inspiration to the rest of us.