Here are some things you should know about Webster Crowell: You can call him Web. He is 31 years old and originally from Illinois. He has been in Seattle for seven years. He's a college graduate, though he refuses to name the institution he attended; he'll only tell you it was an "art school." He became a stop-motion animator because, as he puts it, "I like the ability to control everything." He has created works for the Grand Illusion, The Dina Martina Christmas Special, and Consolidated Works. He detests his first short work, which is called Progress, because "every stop-motion animator goes through a bad rusted-metal-and-light-bulb phase when they first start out, and Progress was my rusted-metal-and-light-bulb film."
More info about Crowell: He has, according to Michael Seiwerath, executive director of Northwest Film Forum, "one of the biggest hearts in the Seattle film community." He has received grants in the past from the King County Cultural Development Authority, Artist Trust, and the mysteriously named "Unkle Ken." He would like to apologize for the haircut he's sporting in the photo accompanying this article. He says he is building a rocketman army that will one day conquer the planet. And one last thing: He has been working on the same film for the past three years.
Actually, it has been three-plus years--nearly a president's term in office--that Web has been working on his opus, which he calls Borrowing Time. But before we get into that, we should talk about his other work, the films he's already made for the Grand Illusion, Dina Martina, and Consolidated Works. The Grand Illusion piece is the theater's first "trailer," and consists of mangled puppets toiling away to put together a projector and start a film. It is a beautiful, eerie black-and-white short--the perfect welcome mat for a small, independent, and important local cinema. The Dina Martina film is a Claymation opening for Martina's Christmas show, filled with cheery music and bright colors--think the old Rankin/Bass specials, only rumpled and twisted. The Consolidated Works promo is all smoke and levitated equipment, silhouetted paper cutouts and moody music.
What each of these works has in common is Crowell's skill as an animator (especially given the tiny budgets each was produced on) and a fine eye for the abstract. The result is, as Seiwerath calls it, "Web's skewed vision of a junk empire." Objects take on personalities in Web's work, be they movie projectors, clocks, or robotic ants, breathing life into everything that falls before his camera lens.
Still, a handful of impressive short works does not quite a genius make, which brings us back to Web's first feature-length effort, Borrowing Time. The story: An advanced pair of aliens visit a vacant and decimated Earth in search of answers as to just how things went so terribly wrong for our species. Along the way, they encounter nefarious humans, a giant, menacing paper head, and many other dangerous characters. It is a B movie through and through--a black-and-white film in the vein of the old Flash Gordon flicks. Or, as Web himself describes it, "an homage to serial adventure movies of the 1930s and 1940s, complete with Victorian aliens, atomic weapons, and an army of ravenous mechanical ants... the distillation of everything I love about preposterous and outdated sci-fi, sentimentally crammed into a cacophony of ungainly props, stop-motion animation, and things dangled on wire."
And there is indeed much to love about those old movies, those cheapie flicks created way back when special effects were still in their infancy, back when the sight of an obviously fake rocket ship blasting off a cardboard planet still had the ability to inspire awe. Now, of course, everything is digital, and filmmakers can create entirely realistic universes on their laptops; the innocence is gone, and with it, arguably, the joy. Web wants to bring that innocence and joy back, and he has attempted to do so by spending hours upon hours hunched over a camera and tiny models, muddling through the tedious work of click... move an inch... click... move an inch that stop-motion animation requires.
The result of all this sweat and patience is an entertaining, inspired, and beautifully constructed piece of work, one that attempts to capture a lost era. There are many wonderful things in Borrowing Time, but three set pieces definitely stand out.
Set piece #1: The film's alien heroes (Susannah Anderson and Jared Vandegrift) are attacked by an army of robotic ants--ants that devour everything in their path, from furniture to buildings to, eventually, entire city blocks.
Set piece #2: After the film's heroes are crushed in an unfortunate accident, they move about and interact in a flattened, paper-thin state--literally, for Web uses large paper cutouts of his actors, animating them as they bounce about and deliver dialogue.
Set piece #3: In the climactic chase, the heroes flee for England in a flying 1964 Saab as World War II-era fighter planes manned by evil skeletons pursue, the car and planes bobbing and weaving through the clouds.
In each of these sequences--and throughout Borrowing Time--live actors interact with stop-motion creatures and characters, which must have required intense focus and vision to complete. Web claims that the actual stop-motion work didn't take much time, that the hardest part was all the prep work, but don't believe him: All stop-motion animators possess superhuman levels of patience. The creators of The Nightmare Before Christmas could only crank out about 70 seconds of footage a week (as opposed to, say, 30 to 60 minutes of footage for a live-action film), and that was with scores of animators and a huge budget. And while Borrowing Time is not all stop motion, the minimal crew involved makes the film--even after more than three years--a major accomplishment.
And soon it will be entirely finished. Web is in the midst of the final tweaks on Borrowing Time, and when those are finished he will send it off to festivals worldwide. After that, after he sends the baby into the world, Web isn't quite sure what he will do. He may do something small, or he may do a sequel. He may just go back to temping, the job(s) he held before production on Borrowing Time consumed his life. He may stay in Seattle, he may not; he finds it frustrating that the film community here is so small. And his dream job would take him far away; the BBC just announced that it's going to produce a new Doctor Who series. Working on a new Doctor Who series--creating its monsters and new worlds--"would be a sordid fantasy life for me," says Web.
But wherever he ends up, no matter what he ends up doing, he'll have an army of rocketmen to back him up.