Animated nonfiction films that leave your head buzzing.
Whales, swingers, originality, Thanksgiving, and the man who killed John Wilkes Booth.
Right before the Genius Awards from his dad, saying, "You're not going to get that award."
In Song of the Spindle, a short film by animator Drew Christie that screened at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, a bearded, Drew Christie–like man engages in conversation with a whale. The man blurts brief status updates from his 21st-century life while the whale eloquently holds forth on an array of topics: its own evolution from land creature to sea creature, the hows and whys of neurons, and the humanity-enhancing benefits of musical communication. Throughout the discussion, the screen quivers with life, with images continually reconfiguring their outlines and exploding into also-quivering supplementary imagery. By the end, both your head and your eyes are lightly buzzing.
After Song of the Spindle caught the attention of the New York Times, Christie became a regular contributor to the Times' "Op-Docs" series, a perfect venue for his signature collision of arresting imagery and rich ideas. A Thanksgiving Eel, for example, finds Christie laying out the facts that suggest the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving involved not turkey but eel, then tracks the idea to the present, enlisting an ad agency to help sell the concept of Thanksgiving eel to America.
Before long, Christie was animating short films for Vanity Fair and contributing to the New York Times Magazine, for which he profiled the musician J.J. Cale for the year-end "The Lives They Lived" issue. Meanwhile, he continued making his own films, which reliably take him to Sundance and remain the purest expression of the Drew Christie Experience.
Key cases in point (any of which you can watch online by simply googling their titles): The Man Who Shot the Man Who Shot Lincoln, Christie's nearly silent animated mini-biography of the man who shot John Wilkes Booth, told in gorgeously rough charcoal drawings made on the pages of a book, the text of which quivers behind the illustrated action like visual white noise; and Allergy to Originality, the Christie short that screened at Sundance 2013, illustrating a discussion between a disgruntled movie patron and a cinema box office worker, which winds from gripes about remakes and sequels, to citations of historical precedent for artistic homage, to the role of actual knowledge in the Wikipedia age.
These are films that dance across the eye and the brain, but their creation is laborious, requiring vast repetition of images. To counter the tedium, Christie keeps his hungry brain sated with a tornado of audio stimulation in his studio on Whidbey Island, with NPR on one radio, music on another radio, and a documentary on the TV. "It's like a war zone in my head. A story war zone," Christie explained in an onstage conversation at the Frye Art Museum earlier this year.
When Christie was first nominated for this award back in 2012, my colleague Charles Mudede wrote that his work "is always strange and surreal in a very smart and compelling way" and that it has "three basic components: visual art, cinema, and historical research. The visual art is the surface of his work, the cinema is what animates the surface, and the historical research is what gives the animated surface its depth."
Two years later, I cannot improve on this summation. Except to add that humor is usually an element, too. As Christie accepted his award at the Moore Theatre last Saturday night, he recalled a conversation he'd just had with his father on the phone. "My dad told me, 'You're not going to get that award, but have fun,'" said Christie, clearly having fun.
Christie is a Washington artist through and through. He was educated at Skyline High School in Sammamish, where he found teachers happy to cultivate his interest in visual art. While still in high school, Christie got himself to classes at the Seattle Film Institute, where he studied under Megan Griffiths, the acclaimed filmmaker, who says, "This is going to sound like a lie, or at the very least 20/20 hindsight, but I knew even then that Drew was going to do great things. He had the same intelligence, humor, and slightly skewed lens back then that informs his amazing work today."
Christie's early plunge into art school brought a sharpened focus. He turned his back on live-action cinema while still in high school. "It was a really annoying thing to wait for people to show up," as Christie puts it. His overlapping loves of visual art and cinema led him to animation, and his sideline career as a book-devouring autodidact gave his animations an inexhaustible reason to be.
As for what's next, he's continuing his gigs with Vanity Fair and the NYT while diving into a project he describes as "a fictional 1970s Soviet children's show about a robot boy built by Joseph Stalin and his chain-smoking wolf sidekick." And while he's perfectly happy to receive the Genius Award's $5,000 cash prize, it won't have much bearing on how he proceeds. "I'd do this whether I got paid or not," Christie says. "It's what my brain is compelled to do."