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Notes from the Past...

The Moon... According to Higgins
(1981; 16 minutes, 16mm)

By the summer of 1979 Kathy and I were living in Naches, Washington where she had a job teaching Spanish; I worked in nearby Yakima in the display department of the Bon Marche. Jay Rairigh came to stay with us for the summer, for no particular reason; we both had parts in the Yakima theatre group's production of Man of La Mancha. One crazy night we got out the old space ship models and started to play around with them; by the next morning we had a script for a comedy based on the props left over from all those sci-fi productions we had slaved over in college. And it seemed to be funny, though of course we were the wrong ones to ask.

The story, such as it is, revolves around an old man telling a reporter these amazing stories of when he was a teen ager living on the moon and battling space aliens who were made out of clay and needed the Moon's sand to stablize themselves. The story gets wilder and wilder, with references to over 20 other films (but mostly Star Wars). And of course the reporter is believing none of it; though we never say what time the old man is living in, the evidence around us leads us to believe it is today, not some far flung future. Jay played both the young and old Grant Higgins (reprising the role he played in "A Lunatic Quest"), and I played the "face" in the control panel that would always backtalk him. We also did the voices for the clay aliens. Roger Stansbury, who played Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha" agreed to be the reporter, and Ellen Settlemeyer was Grant's flying buddy Jo, as well as helping out with the new costumes. The Director of "La Mancha", Randall Marquis, played our obscured version of Obi Wan Kanobi.

In many ways this was the most ambitious film so far, requiring over 100 visual effects, including 18 that were complicated matting effects (more on that later). So as we went about our jobs during the day, and rehearsals for the play at night, all the while stealing any moment we could to build the big alien ship model (which was over 6 feet long), or whipping the 2 main spacecraft sets together, or building the lunar backdrop for the "On The Surface" scenes, or creating Jay's "Old Man" make-up.

We wrapped up "La Mancha" on a Saturday night in mid July of 1979; the very next morning we were out in the park of the Yakima History Museum at 7am, Jay in full old man make-up, to shoot the opening and closing parts of the film. Then we used the rest on the summer to film first Jay's shots in the one-man ship that he is supposed to fly, then my close-ups as the "face" in the control panel of his ship. Next we filmed the surface of the moon scenes, then Jo inside her ship. Jay and I also rigged up certain special effects shots like the "trench" at the top of the ship and the three alien fighters exiting from the mother ship. On the last night before Jay had to leave to go back to college we recorded the voices for the aliens.

I then spent the next year and a half finishing the effects and teaching myself clay animation so I could bring the aliens to life. Keep in mind that I had never done dimensional animation before, nor was I particularly interested in animation; it was just a way of completing the film, and another part of working in film..and I loved it all. And I leaned a lot. Most of the time a clay character will have some kind of armature in it, like lead wire, so it will hold it's shape and not collapse on you during the course of animation. But my characters were supposed to be in a constant state of sag and droop; they NEEDED to be changing shape quite often. So they had no armature. And they would fall over. But considering that I didn't know what I was doing, it worked quite well.....

Since blue-screen film compositing was WAY beyond my budget, I fell back on older techniques, some of which date back to the turn of the century. I would do multiple exposures, like fly a ship past the camera, then wind the film back in the camera and aim the camera at a piece of black velvet with powdered milk sprinkled on it for stars. I even built a device that would clamp a piece of plexiglass filmly in front of the camera; after making the first exposure, say of a human in front of a lunar boulder, I would look through the camera and, using tempera paints, paint black what had just been filmed. I then wound the film back in the camera and set up on the next layer, usually some sort of miniature set. Using the same technique I would continue to add the Earth, the stars, and any passing ship. It was also a good method for having the ships pass behind things, like mountains and buildings. Sometimes I would use this method but actually shoot the ships on seperate pieces of film; then I could have them superimposed into the final shot later. Though more expensive, it allowed for better action coordination, say if a human needed to react to a ship flying overhead. I also used this whenever we needed to see out the ship's window.

Of course, all the the above-mentioned methods required locked-down cameras; any moving element had to be confined to it's layer or to a black background, otherwise it would appear to go through whatever was behind it. So for a handful of shots I tried another old movie method; I would shoot the model ship against a black background, but I was very careful to make sure the model was well lit from every angle; there could be no spot on the model that went completely black. I even used lights that were gelled blue to indicate a dark side. When this was processed, I had the lab make a high contrast black and white duplicate, so all the light areas would go white and the dark areas go black. This would become the matte for the ship; the "hole" that would be printed against the background footage to create a ship-like black hole; the original ship shot (the one in color) would then be inserted into this hole. The process isn't perfect; it's tough to get a shot like this to come out without a black "fringe" around it. But for the handful of quick shots that I needed, it filled the bill.

I had a print of the film made by the fall of 1980, but there was still much I didn't like so I tore the film apart again and tweeked many of the effects and animated shots. By February of 1981, it was ready, more or less. I had four prints made, and began shipping them out to film festivals (this was before the wide-spread use of low-cost VHS tapes; to be considered, you had to send an actual print of the film). I don't have a list of the festivals the film was accepted into; it wasn't many. It did win an award at the Rochester, New York "Movies on a Shoestring" festival in 1981, and showed at the Oregon State Fair and another festival who's name I have long since forgotten in Texas. More importantly were the skills I had unsuspectedly gathered that eventually helped me gain employment at Will Vinton Studios in 1983.

Higgins Sequels
(filmed 1982; never completed)

That's right. Never completed. To this day the processed film of what we shot of the live action is sitting in a box in my closet. When I got the job at Will Vinton's it required moving to another city plus the work kept me very busy. But looking back at the scripts and storyboards, they still make me laugh. I actually scripted 2 more films, both of them potentially funnier than the first. The second film took us to a cave under the moon where a crazy man with multiple personalities grew every imaginable tree; at one point he captures some of the clay aliens, thinking that they are "Moon-winks", the moon's equivalant to leprechauns. Grant rescues them just as a lunar volcano, activated accidentally by some of the crazy man's weird equipment, begins to erupt, and the alien ship begins to attack the lunar city of Atlantis. The second film is a rescue mission to the asteroid belt, where the clay queen has her secret base, and is holding as a hostage an important scientist from Mars.

This time I decided to film both films at the same time, but my living room would no longer hold all the sets. By great luck Kathy got permission for us to film in an unused apple warehouse just a few blocks from our house; we filled that thing with sets and kept blowing at least one of the two fuses that jokingly served as a power supply. Jay and his wife Kay (he had gotten married in the intervening three years) scheduled a week during the summer to come visit so we could shoot; a very tight schedule, especially considering that Jay was still recovering from an operation, but we got through it.

I had actually started some of the effects, and a lot of the clay animation for the second film was completed. Of course, I look at the animation now thinking how awful it is, but in many ways it suits the films. And I'm still tempted, sometime in the future, to go ahead and finish these two films, and revise the original as well, and make them into a one hour-long film. Redo animation, add computer animation for the space ships....maybe. It would be fun, but expensive. But if it's good enough for George Lucas....

After this, It was 12 years before I completed another personal film.