The Road to Black Diamond Bay
The Road to Black Diamond Bay
At 3:30 am on June 2, 2016, I finally finished Forgotten Sidekick, a forty-minute piece of stopmotion animation. My initial notes go back to December 2012, but in actuality this is a project that has haunted me like a faceless specter for almost twenty years. Or perhaps it is more like Forgotten Sidekick was a boulder launched into the center of the lake of my life, and the ripples touched me again as they spread backwards over my years.
Chicagoland suburbia. The late nineties.
See the child. He is nearly a teenager physically, but not mentally. Living in a big house on acres of land far from any friends. His mother gradually finding the strength to divorce the boy’s disintegrating father. Two brothers four years younger than him. Alone in a finished basement, digging through bins of tiny plastic bricks, miniature weapons, little yellow people dressed in a variety of fashions and genres. He moves minifigs a centimeter at a time. In the background play scratchy old time radio dramas on cassette tape, or his Dad’s bootleg movie collection, VHS tapes rented and then dubbed onto Beta. Annie Hall. Return of the Jedi sharing a tape with the Rainbow Brite movie.
So I wanted to make movies. Not 100% sure why, but I have my guesses. Dad stuff. Spending many of my Freshman year lunches in the library, reading collected volumes of Roger Ebert’s movie reviews, movies I’d never seen but couldn't stop thinking about. A class taught me about stopmotion, and that combined with my Dad’s 8mm camcorder and a bunch of Legos, led to short, silent, ultra-violent minifig movies. Often they were my Legos, and sometimes they were the Legos of our family friends, the Moratzes. Chris Moratz and I have been blood brothers since first grade.
Starting as simple tales of pirates, or knights fighting dragons, or zombie attacks, eventually huge over-arcing narratives evolved. Sequels. A series of shorts all starring the main lead actor, the De Niro to my Scorsese. Something enormous was taking shape, an animation Leviathan that all my growing skill was leading up to. My Masterpiece. It took the form of a post-apocalyptic dystopian epic involving an unbeatable skull-faced army and the resistance opposing them. We start at the end of the story, the hero lying either dead or alive in rubble and flames. We jump back to the beginning. Now alive and ready to fight, the hero kisses his wife and then runs out to join the resistance as they battle the Fascist forces attacking the village. The battle ends with the resistance leader blowing his brains out
But then there were friends. Video games, driving, school plays, moving. The stuff you end up doing. Slowly, the opus was abandoned. Or so I thought. In actuality, it sunk into the back of my brain, far from conscious thought.
College, freshman year. I purchased a small Lego ninja set and made two movies, as well as a video demonstrating stopmotion technique for a class presentation. Returning to that solitary frame-by-frame lifestyle, the idea of making something huge, some True Project, resurfaced. This time it took the form of pushpins making various shapes and pictures accompanying Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run.” I got to the part where the horns come in, and my camcorder broke. A year later, I got a new one, but by then real college began, and there was no more time for stopmotion. There were a couple more shorts of minifigs mutilating each other made possible by a friend’s Lego collection, but the True Project was nowhere to be seen. And that was fine. I was too busy for that kind of thing.
After graduation, I accidentally ended up in a tiny town in Western New York State. One night, I was watching some of my high school movies, and I came across the tragic battle between the resistance and the skull-faced troopers. I decided to bring that project back and use my newly honed film school skills to do it right. Wrote a screenplay. Drew up storyboards. Made shot lists. All this was kept in a big brown accordion folder, which bore big crude drawings of my main characters. Finally, My Masterpiece approached.
Instead, I made something else. Then, in 2006, I convinced this gal I’d known for less than a year to move to Oregon with me. All the while, I lugged that accordion file around, refusing to admit how hopeless this overly complicated monstrosity was. While living in Portland, a strange thing started to occur: I dreamt of Lego movies. Quick little snippets, nothing that ever gave any sort of plot, yet I always knew exactly what was happening. The animation was so fluid, so dynamic. Upon waking, each time I’d be crushed by the realization that they were just dreams.
A couple years in, there were a handful of Portland stopmotion projects, but nothing special. Nothing like the dreams. There was no getting around it: I needed to summon the Leviathan.
I came up with this story about three brothers in the yakuza. Again, we’d start with a mortally wounded protagonist, reflecting on all that had happened. There would be a massive shootout in a nightclub, bottles and tables being blasted to pieces. The script was written, the storyboards were drawn up.
This time, I put together a team. I brought people in not because they had specific talents I could count on, but rather because they were my smart, dependable friends who were interested in this kind of thing. Included in this was my old film school friend, Will.
Will loved the project. The story spoke to him, and like me he was anxious to get something made in the medium of movies. His enthusiasm fueled his inherent auteurism, and gradually he took complete control of everything. He added scenes to the screenplay. Instead of Lego minifigs, he decided we were going to use bigger, more versatile Mega Bloks people. He also figured out a whole new way to capture the footage. The studio was set up at his apartment, which was just far enough away to be a pain in the ass to get to. The idea would be that myself and my other friend would be on hand to help him animate, which amounted to us moving the figures the way he directed us. I’d always known this as a one-man task, despite the fact that I tried to bring a team together to make it. Will purchased awesome props for the figures. He came up with great designs for the characters, and he directed other people in the creation of the set-pieces and costumes. First he shot test footage, and then he started shooting for real.
And then, I flaked. I've always felt really bad about that. It just didn’t seem like my True Project anymore, my faceless specter, the Lego movie of my dreams that I’d worked so long to see come to fruition. The other people dropped out, too. No one had the time anymore. On his own, Will was crushed by the immensity of this Project, just as I had been crushed time and time again.
Life unfolded, and with it did all sorts of other projects. Prospective promotional pieces for local businesses, Iranian music videos, a short film starring the nephew of Clint Eastwood’s set designer. It all built up to John Gets Wasted, a feature-length drug comedy made by Will and myself. As that finished, the girl I moved to Portland with became my wife, and she received a great job offer at the University of Chicago. We moved to Hyde Park in the spring of 2011. The big accordion folder with my post-apocalyptic dystopian epic notes did not come with us. Back in the Midwest, I set about trying to make a music video for some Oregon friends. They wanted depraved stopmotion action. One morning, I hopped in our car and made the hour and a half drive to the Moratz house, our family friends from way back when. Chris’s brother Brendan still lived at home, and he led me into that basement I’d spent dozens and dozens of hours within. There, I found those two big bins of Legos, decades old at this point. Bricks of all sizes and colors. Astronauts, aquanaunts, sharks, dragons, monkeys. I was an archeologist unearthing my own childhood.
The animation was crude, and the band didn’t do much to promote it, but I still got a lot out of the experience. Altogether, it took me about a half a year to make. As 2012 went on, I tried to create a new web presence for myself. My hope was to make short videos for my new site, but I found myself unable to recreate the sort of team I had in Oregon, when Will and I were making John Gets Wasted.
One morning, I took a break from editing a dumb faux-noir short for a guy I found through Craig’s List, and I went to run the dishwasher. Foolishly, I put dish soap into the machine instead of the required dish gel. Suds oozed out of the sides of the dishwasher and spread across the kitchen floor. An avalanche of feelings fell upon me. I had left the moviemaking me, my favorite me, back in Oregon, and I would never see him again.
It was time to nut up or shut up. I needed to make something by myself, something so big and ambitious that simply by completing it, it would be a success. I needed my Masterpiece, my True Project, and waiting for me under my desk, like a rattling plastic monster in a kid’s closet, were the Moratz family Legos.
Throughout 2013, I did my prep-work. I wrote drafts and drafts of the screenplay. I recorded myself reading the lines, and I listened to them repeatedly as I drove to and from work. I storyboarded every shot, each of my terrible drawings appearing overwhelmingly phallic. Once those were done, I figured out everything I was going to need, every minifig, every set piece, every prop. Dozens of pages of notes. I’d shoot each character individually in front of a green screen, giving me the ability to have maximum control over shot composition and lighting. Lastly, I acquired the computer program Will had used for his animation, and I set my soundstage up exactly as he had his. Finally, in April of 2014, I was ready to start shooting.
And then we got pregnant (totally on purpose, but way faster than expected). And we realized we didn’t want to start our family in Chicago. Laura got a promotion, and with it the ability to work remotely. We decided we were going to move to Portland, Maine that September.
All of a sudden, I had a ticking clock. I couldn’t take the Moratz Legos with me. More so, I knew that if I didn’t get the thing shot before moving, before becoming a father, then it was never going to happen. That summer, I drove myself to exhaustion. While working full-time and packing and preparing for the move, I spent three hundred hours hunched over those minifigs, moving their arms, legs and heads one millimeter at a time. After I was finished, all I had to show for it were gigs and gigs of footage of little plastic people flailing their limbs in front of a bright green background. I’d excitedly show it to people, and they would be incapable of hiding their bewilderment.
We left Chicago, and I spent my last few months of pre-father time working for a fellow who was making an interactive video trivia app for the iPad. When I wasn’t creating hundreds of tiny videos for him, I was beginning my post-production, the process of turning all that minifig footage into something I could start compositing together. Our baby was born just after Christmas, and I became a stay-at-home Dad.
In February of 2015, I realized that the only way I was going to finish my Masterpiece was if I put every spare second towards the project. Every baby nap, every moment of non-family weekend time I had. Late nights, early mornings. My social life became ultra-non-existent, even with taking into account being a new parent. Book club invites and barbecues were constantly rejected. When I wasn’t in front of my computer, I was writing notes, making plans, mentally sorting through the 453 shots that made up Forgotten Sidekick.
My daughter started as a nine pound-bundle lying on my thighs, sleeping as I keyframed and color-keyed. Then she was an eleven-pound potato, strapped to my chest, the two of us bouncing on a Pilates ball in front of my computer, me manipulating frowns and eyebrows, her passing out to the sounds of Dre’s “2001.” Fifteen pounds, eighteen pounds, twenty pounds. Her muscle-less body being jostled to electronic music. Her sitting up on my thigh while watching our new family photos and videos on my laptop. Her standing on my lap, dancing to Lady Gaga and the Hamilton soundtrack, saying the word “kick” every time she saw one of my characters performing a sweet jump kick. All the while, I removed green screen. I added wounds and astonished eyes. I synched mouth movements to recorded speech. I honed and polished all 57,000 frames.
We moved again, purchasing a house on the outskirts of Portland that June. I was able to set up a wonderful office in our basement. It was all quite familiar: being alone in a basement, making something frame-by-frame-by-frame. This time there was no old time radio, no bootleg Beta tapes, just a laptop and hours of streaming shows. Person of Interest. Shameless. Re-watches of The Sopranos, 24, Breaking Bad. Isolating myself, spending hours creating seconds of footage, often left me enormously depressed. My wife began to look upon this project quite negatively, with very good reason.
In March of 2016, I was finally ready to start putting my minifig footage in front of backgrounds. The virtual sets came together blessedly quickly, and by May I was cutting the shots together and beginning sound design.
Now, the work is complete. Forgotten Sidekick has been thrust into the world. This is literally the movie I’ve been dreaming of, the True Project always in my peripheral vision, the thing that has grasped a sizable percentage of my brain for the last few years. And in the end, my wife loved it. Previous movies have involved her crucial assistance, so she never had the pleasure of being a simple audience member, of watching my stuff and not knowing what was going to happen next. With Forgotten Sidekick, she was able to sit with seven of her friends, old and new, and experience the narrative as it was intended to be experienced.
After so many attempts and forms, the specter is pulled into the light. This ethereal entity has been made flesh.
Sometimes I get a notion when I’m on a difficult run. Exhaustion grips my muscles and lungs, and I can’t imagine continuing. I’ve had this at the end of a marathon, I’ve had this at the beginning of a run following months of inactivity. Different times, different conditions, same context, same sensation. When it gets like that, I actually feel connected to the various versions of myself that have experienced the sensation all throughout time. The me in 2010 Oregon, just starting to get into running, the me in 2013 Lake Geneva, training for the marathon and smashing against the wall after twenty miles, the me in 2015 Maine, realizing I’m dangerously dehydrated as I push a big Bob Stroller up a hill. All of those me's linked together by a specific mental and physical extreme fatigue.
Now, there’s me in this basement, alone and illuminated by the LED light from my monitor, Kiefer Sutherland growling “dammit” and “sonofabitch.” Me in that basement in the nineties, alone on a Saturday afternoon, Woody Allen saying that the only cultural advantage of living in California is being able to make a right turn on a red light. We’re connected, these two me's, and the older one has something he wishes tell his younger self:
You will fall short. So much of what you hope for will never come to fruition.
But life will be excellent. Kind and generous, repeatedly dolling out good fortune. You will get so much that you don’t know you want, that you don’t know you need.
And on June 2nd, 2016, you will kiss your daughter goodnight. You will watch three episodes of Bob’s Burgers with your wife, and then she’ll head upstairs and go to sleep. You’ll shower. You’ll shave off your beard. You will plug your laptop into your TV, you’ll tap the space bar, and then you will sit on your couch and watch your Masterpiece.
And you will watch it twice in a row, because it is so damn good.