For nearly two years, ten hours a day (even some weekends) Jason Carpenter (BAD/BID 1997) applied himself to creating a ten-minute animation that had been brewing in the back of his mind for a while and would serve as the final project for his master’s degree in animation.
It was a huge risk. For several years running, he and his brother, Michael (BID 1999), had been landing interesting and well paying freelance work. To take two years off could set him back professionally—and certainly financially.
It would also mean a limited social life. And no vacations. In early 2009, Jason’s wife, Rachel Chow (BAD 1998), a fashion designer for Speedo who supported him the whole time he worked on his film, agreed to let him to turn the dining nook of their one bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, CA, into a makeshift studio.
“We made a decision for him not to work until his film was done,” says Chow. “And just for personal closure, he needed to have it done.”
Carpenter put it this way: “Not finishing was not an option,”
The hard work and sacrifice paid off: In February, 2011, Carpenter joined four other finalists for the Annie Award, the most prestigious honor bestowed on animators. Sharing space with him in the Short Film category were names such as Warner Brothers and Pixar.
Though he didn’t ultimately win (Pixar did) the honor of being a finalist catapulted the name of Jason Carpenter to a short list of highly sought-after animators.
“It’s been pretty crazy since I’ve gotten nominated. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people I haven’t met. Things have definitely kicked up a notch.”
How he did it is a story in perseverance.
Carpenter’s animation, The Renter, shows a day in the life of a little boy who is being cared for (in a manner of speaking) by an elderly woman. The woman, who lives in a fairly bleak setting, also rents out a room to a local factory worker. The story’s bleakness is punctuated by several traumatic moments seen through the eyes of the boy.
Part of the draw of Carpenter’s work is its juxtaposed mixture of digital crispness and rough-edge drawing. For all intents and purposes, though he used hi-tech tools the entire work was done by hand.
“I don’t know a lot of people who have drawn an entire ten-minute piece digitally. It definitely happens, but typically they are done more economically with puppets or characters with hinged parts that are re-usable.”
Digital drawing (Carpenter used a 13” by 19” Wacom drawing tablet connected to Adobe Flash) presents its own types of efficiencies. Not having to scan paper drawings sped up the process of rendering, letting him see a draft in action sooner rather than later.
Utilizing something called “keyframes,” his computer was able to move around backgrounds (which he painted in Photoshop). And, too, Carpenter at times duplicated heads and feet, copied and pasted textures, “anything to make it go faster.” (He composited and color corrected his production in Adobe AfterEffects.)
Though he sometimes cannibalized parts of drawings from previous frames, the process was extremely laborious: Carpenter worked in 24 frames per second, a speed that approximates the pace of feature films. Do the math for a ten-minute production; that’s over 14,000 still frames, with something new to be drawn out at least every other frame.
And that doesn’t even count the draft sequences left on the proverbial cutting room floor. “The pear shot I probably did 40 times,” he says. “The entire story changed five or six times.” Much of what he created turned out to be “discovery” work that helped him nail down the outline of the story. Though helpful in the process, those sequences represented hours and days.
“When I look at the old stuff, some of the old storyboards look really different. There’s almost another film I could cut together from things I didn’t use.”
One can understand, then, why animation houses will usually employ dozens of animators for their productions. “Graphic design might have a scale of a day, or a week, or a month. Architecture might take a couple of years to realize a design. Animation is more like architecture in terms of the scale of time you’re dealing with. It takes so long.”
Though The Renter does have a soundtrack, it’s without spoken words. “I wanted to see how far I could go without the dialogue. I wanted to use body language. There is an awkwardness and ambiguity that I like about that.”
Allowing for multiple interpretations of The Renter was a critical choice that Carpenter made for his story. Some will deduce that the renter abuses the boy. Others will see alternate reasons for the boy’s fearful behavior.
Carpenter sees a happy ending to the story, but others may not see that.
Carpenter is okay with multiple — even contradictory —conclusions.
“Some people want clarity and want to know exactly what they are seeing. The problem with that is it’s easy to feel heavy-handed. It doesn’t allow the audience the ability to participate.”
Ultimately, that’s what separates Carpenter’s story from popular cartoons: Commercial cartoons may be highly refined in their artistic rendering, but in terms of plot and character development, the arcs are mostly transparent.
Carpenter felt that he needed to create a story that challenges the audience. “Art should pose questions. The more facets you have, the more interesting something is. I love that people might see things in the film that I didn’t intend.”
This is a principle that Carpenter says he learned from Associate Professor of Art + Design Pat Fitzgerald called “the association of images.”
“What comes before and after an image greatly influences ‘the story’ of sequence you’re creating. Hopefully, this allows people to make their own decisions about what they’re seeing.”
Another challenge in putting together the piece was simultaneously one of its best assets. It turns out that inspiration for The Renter comes from Carpenter’s own story.
For his first five years of life, Carpenter spent weekdays at the home of a woman who cared for several children in Greensboro, N.C. “Mommy Eldridge” had a deaf brother and a blind brother. There was also a man who rented a room in the house. The man worked the third shift at a nearby factory, and was often woken up by the kids playing.
“In real life, to an adult, he probably wasn’t all that scary,” Carpenter said.
Deciding what to keep in the story and what to change or leave out was a difficult task. “There was so much memory material to work with. I had to cut a lot of it down.” For example, Carpenter decided to show very little of the home’s interior, keeping most of the action in a room with a table and chairs where the boy alternately eats, doodles, or sulks. The only human characters we see in the story are the boy, the old woman, and the renter.
But being able to draw (literally) on that crucial time in his personal development kept Carpenter interested in the project. “You have to find subject matter you feel drawn to, or you are going to get bored. If I had done something more lighthearted or happy, I wouldn’t have been able to put as much of myself into it.”
As the story is told mainly from a five-year-old’s point of view, Carpenter was forced to decide how far to take the magical realism aspect of the work. An early draft held much more fantasy, and he ended up cutting most of it. “In some ways, it just didn’t fit,” he explains. What’s did remain is an Oedipal daydream sequence that seems to fit a young boy’s view of reality under stress.
Carpenter credits his undergraduate design education as key to his film’s creation and its success. In graduate school at Cal Arts, a place that regularly cranks out Disney and Pixar artists, he refined his animation skills. But he adds: “My education at the College of Design was more valuable.”
“The most important thing is the thought process. You can always learn skills. At the College of Design they teach you how to think, to conceptualize, to imagine.”
The Next Frame
After finishing The Renter, Jason and Rachel moved into a two bedroom home with a separate office for him to work in.
When asked if had begun to doubt all the sacrifices they made for those two years, Chow doesn’t blink.
“I never lost confidence in him,” says Chow. “It was just about being really patient. I’d see a lot of progress each day.”
But she does add: “Now that the film is done, he’s going to have to pitch in more on the housework.”
For his next project, Carpenter would prefer to have a budget and a team of animators he can direct.
He knows there are no guarantees there, either.
“You have no idea what is going to have success,” he says. “It’s a crapshoot. My greatest fear was that I’d make this thing and nothing would happen. For every project that gets noticed there are thousands that don’t. But as an artist you must have the courage and faith to do it.”
Due to its circulation at film festivals, Carpenter is not allowed to distribute the full-length version at this time. The Renter will be shown at several festivals worldwide. Learn more here.
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