Two short animated films by MTSU Electronic Media Communication assistant professor Kevin McNulty were debuted yesterday in the John Bragg Mass Communication Building.
Tethered, the first film shown, was created entirely by McNulty over five years, while Coffee was produced in a matter of months with the help of a team of seven hand-selected EMC students over the summer.
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have other people working with you,” McNulty said. “I’m probably not going to be doing a solo film ever again, ’cause it takes forever.”
Although it was a true debut for Tethered, Coffee had already been shown at Nashville’s ARTLightenment Art and Film Festival earlier this month, where it won “Most Innovative Film.”
McNulty, who teaches Intermediate Digital Animation, Advanced Digital Animation, and Animation Seminar, said he assembled his team with only a tentative promise that they would get paid, having just applied for an Undergraduate Research Experience and Creative Activity (URECA) grant.
“You might get paid,” he told them. “But you have to accept that you might not get paid … So I got six really committed students.”
He said the team worked full nine-to-five days every weekday from June through August.
“Somewhere in August or July we started coming in on weekends and stayed later,” McNulty said. “We lived there. We would work in the lab, go to lunch in the Union, then come back, work till five or longer. That was their whole summer.”
McNulty’s team included animation students Andie Ayotte, Derek Barnes, Chris Dyer, Simon Idaire Jr., Kelsie Richards, Erin Thompson and Raphael Williams.
A commentary on consumerism, Coffee tells the story of a family of four coffee cherries. Personified with expressive human faces, they live a peaceful life hanging from the branch of a coffee plant in Columbia.
Then a hectic death metal score by local band Hell Forged kicks in, and the mood shifts. The cherries are picked and thrown onto a factory conveyor belt, where they and several other cherries are crushed by a massive roller, roasted by jets of fire, then dropped into a massive grinder.
Bookended by calm shots of a man happily sipping his morning cup of joe as he picks up his morning paper, the only two shots McNulty said that he animated himself, the film explores the contemporary mentality of taking the concept of mass-produced food for granted.
While McNulty’s name is tied to both films as the writer, director and producer, he wanted to be sure that the entire team felt ownership of the film they worked on and maintained a democratic process throughout.
“We just kind of threw storyboarding on the white-board, and I had all of them draw what they envisioned the shot would look like, and then I went through and picked which one I liked. We put together an animatic with rough sound and showed it to some people, and they really liked it,” he said. “Overall, everybody got to do just about everything on the whole, which I thought was really important.”
It sounds horrifying on paper—a man, his wife and two children being dragged towards an inevitable and torturous death, but the film is ultimately funny thanks to the team’s work with facial expression rigging.
Coffee involved technical challenges, including those complex facial expressions and rendering flames, that not even McNulty had attempted.
“Everything we did in this film, I usually tell my students not to do while making their first film,” he said. “Let’s just throw that out the window and do stuff we’ve never done before.”
He said he first envisioned Tethered‘s concept, a story about living balloons, in 2009. More somber and atmospheric than Coffee, the film was a stylistic departure for McNulty.
“The meaning behind the film just kind of evolved over the course of its first inception, and it kind of turned into this very oppressive, almost anti-bullying kind of film for me,” McNulty said. “It started out as, really the only thing holding you back is yourself.”
The film follows a red balloon floating through a desaturated world above the clouds. Despite not having a face, its dejection is apparent as it carries around an “Id,” an ugly, fat gray ogre.
The balloons are created by the ogres to be enslaved and used as transport, or to be inhaled by the Ids for a quick high. The red balloon gets fed up with the abuse he sees, comes to the spontaneous realization that he can simply drop his Id and becomes a gas-filled Spartacus for his balloon brethren.
“That was five years of my life in five minutes,” McNulty said with a laugh after the film finished.
He said the most difficult part of making Tethered was “never being satisfied.”
“I should have desaturated the balloon color after it got sucked in,” he said, criticizing the film. “I wish it had literally taken the full essence out of the balloon.”
McNulty added that Tethered was just accepted to the Big as Texas Short Film Festival in Austin, which is scheduled for Dec. 13.
Follow Max Smith on Twitter at @MaxRSmith217