The Daily Heller: Art + Film + Music = Jeff Scher’s Artful Animation

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Tired of the plethora of CGI animated films? Are all those slick, perfectly articulated characters with famous voices a bit boring by now? Shouldn’t animatoons be more inventive than the technology allows? Isn’t artfulness better than techfulness?

Jeff Scher does not take his films to the digital limit—he intuitively knows where to draw the line in the sand. His films can be joyful, unforgettable and heartbreaking.

His most recent release, Tom Petty’s “Call Me the Breeze” from the musician’s residency a the Fillmore in 1997 (a legendary series of 20 concerts captured in a new compilation, Live at the Fillmore), gives me bittersweet joy. I’ve long been a Petty fan and was heartbroken when he died in 2017 (being the third of the five Traveling Willburys to go). But gratefully, the performance was recorded, and all Scher needs to make his movie magic is some live-action film, a chromatic supply of watercolor and pastels and a rotoscope* to get his cinematic juices boiling.

*In 1915, animator Max Fleischer patented the first rotoscope. Projecting live-action film of a clown (his brother Dave in costume) onto a glass panel, Fleischer then traced the figure frame by frame on paper to create a more lifelike animation.

“‘Call Me the Breeze’ is an anthem to freedom,” says Scher. “The most direct metaphor for me was driving and the joy of unrestricted motion, which made me think of the way things blur when they fly past. I was excited to try and recreate that motion blur with paint and pastel.

“The piano solo in the mid section of the song was exciting because it is kinda the abstract part of the song, with no lyrics, which inspired me to try something different for it. I live near a great tunnel (in New Haven, CT) and it occurred to me that it could be a good segue from the road to a dark space where abstract animation could grow out of the overhead tunnel lights. This sequence was drawn under the camera in pastel onto a 50-foot-long roll of black paper. I built a device to register and advance the paper as it was drawn and filmed. I wanted the colors to explode with as much chromatic joy as possible, inspired by the pink elephant scene from Dumbo. The audience shot at the end of the video was drawn in negative (with the ‘opposite’ colors on white paper) and then inverted (flipped to negative) in post. It gave me those psychedelic colors and a black background at the same time.

“Making this video was an animation adventure and lots of fun. I didn’t start from a storyboard, but from the idea of motion blur and driving. I started with the first shot and just kept adding shots and cutting it together as I went. You might say it just evolved as it grew. Making the video in this way felt like I’d incorporated the spirit of the song into the process of making the video.”