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History, Mystery, Odyssey: An animated tale

Martin Cooper's new film at Cinema 21 tells the stories of innovative Portland animators Jim Blashfield, Joanna Priestley, Rose Bond, Zak Margolis, Joan C. Gratz and Chel White.

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Innovative animators. Portland style.

Upon accepting the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (his third overall), Gullermo del Toro declared in no uncertain terms, “Animation is cinema. Animation is not a genre. And animation is ready to be taken to the next step. We are all ready for it.”

The 2023 box office has certainly born this out. Features like The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse have proved to be runaway hits, while releases like Nimona and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem hold steady as critical darlings. Yet even with the variety of tentpole blockbusters built on computers and in recording booths, there’s still a safeness to mainstream animation – not sterile or dated, but operating from the same mold as the all-encompassing House of Mouse and its contemporaries.

Into this scene arrives History, Mystery, and Odyssey, a new documentary produced and directed by Martin Cooper and playing for one night only – Sunday, Aug. 20 — at Portland’s Cinema 21. The project’s goal isn’t to change the conversation around animation, but to expand it; to say that this mode of filmmaking can be liberating, terrifying, uplifting, disgusting, confusing, and just plain damn weird. And that’s what makes it wonderful.

HM&O is structured as a series of interviews with six artists living in the Rose City: Jim Blashfield, Joanna Priestley, Rose Bond, Zak Margolis, Joan C. Gratz, and Chel White. You may not know their names, but their work has crossed over into the mainstream – Blashfield was a mainstay of early MTV, having directed music videos for the likes of Talking Heads, Tears for Fears, and Michael Jackson, while Gratz’s short film Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase earned her an Oscar in 1993, and Margolis’s animation can be seen in the musical documentary A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff.

Although coming from different backgrounds, skill sets, experiences, and outlooks, the six are united by a love of art and a drive to tell stories and communicate ideas in worlds they create whole cloth. It’s an eye-opening experience to the diversity in the world of animation, showing how many different perspectives and styles can fall under this one umbrella.

In major studio blockbusters, animation is a painstaking, meticulous project that uses the latest technological innovations to push realism or stylization to the extreme. By contrast, the artists of HM&O are just as dedicated to their craft but, lacking the resources of a Fortune 500, opt for a D.I.Y. approach that can yield potent results. For instance, White discusses working at Blashfield’s studios and using his time there to experiment with xerography.

The end result was 1991’s Choreography for Copy Machine, a short that showed human movement entirely in photocopier pictures. The project expanded the definition of “moving pictures” and for White, part of the joy in its creation was figuring out how to circumvent the complications of using such an atypical camera to get the results he wanted.

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Of course, animation can also be a medium for reflection and social change, as Bond showed off with Illumination no. 1. The 2002 art installation was projected onto the Seamen’s Bethel building in southeast Portland and showed the diverse history of the Old Town neighborhood residents just as it was undergoing gentrification. The project gives an impression, however fleeting, of the people who lived there, and shows that just because their lives may have been ordinary and forgotten, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth celebrating or remembering as the march of progress wipes out so much of the city’s history and culture.

That very experimentation is also at the core of HM&O’s ethos: that some projects you make just to see what the finished product will look like. Gratz shows this off with Lost and Found, a Claymation short from 2012. She describes the project as improvisational, playing with texture and shading and deciding on the day of what exactly she would mold and put on film. Gratz added that while her friends had their own ideas of what message Lost and Found meant to impart, Gratz herself saw the experience more as a playground to bring different ideas to life and put down when she ran out. Sometimes the goal isn’t to say something, and getting to create at all is a reward in and of itself.

Sometimes the message isn’t explicitly political, but instead deeply personal, as is the case with Priestley’s Streetcar Named Perspire. The short depicts her journey through menopause as a literal roller coaster that can change temperatures, direction, and perspective on a dime. It’s not the most subtle of metaphors, but in a landscape where this very natural, normal process is barely discussed in the media and unheard of in animation, Streetcar makes the climacteric into something relatable, demystifying it and sharing an intimate truth in a safe, healthy way. Animation can make the unknown familiar just as easily as vice-versa, showing its capacity to bridge gaps and bring unspoken ideas to life.

HM&O closes by pondering the direction animation will take in the future, with White specifically naming artificial intelligence as a tool to be explored. It’s an eyebrow-raising statement, considering the entertainment industry is grappling with the encroachment of A.I. on artists’ livelihoods as we speak, but the documentary makes its position clear: A.I. is a tool for n artists to use, not a replacement for their efforts. No matter how advanced something like ChatGPT gets, it can’t replicate the drive to create, to experiment and discover, to get a message across the same way a real animator can. History, Mystery, & Odyssey highlights these extremely human passions and celebrates them, and hopes you will, too.

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Morgan Shaunette is a writer and critic from Seattle. He graduated from Portland State University in 2015 and still resides in the City of Roses. His work has been featured in Willamette Week and on CBR.com. He lives with his chihuahua Minnie, who is adorable.

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