Henry McComas is close to his older brother, Daniel. Daniel is deaf, and so when they were growing up in Anchorage, Henry would plug his ears with the red wax from cheeses to try to understand his brother's experience of the world. Now, Henry wants to make a film that shows his brother what his world is like. "I started thinking about how I could express my love for hiphop to Danny—the challenge of getting the aesthetics of the music across to a deaf person," explained Henry, who is now living in Seattle and running a small company called Crooked Lake Productions.
When the 20-minute short premieres at Cinerama this summer, it'll be closed-captioned so Daniel can follow the action. But McComas is also exploring unorthodox methods of supplementing and heightening the visual experience. The film focuses on a Louisiana native named Elijah (Darrick Mosley) as he sits on his front stoop in Seattle and remembers episodes from his life: a fishing scene set in "the boot" of Louisiana, a drive-by shooting, a heart attack in front of a hiphop club. The present is being filmed in black-and-white digital video, but the memories will look hyperreal. Shot in color HD and animated with rotoscope technology (the computer-aided conversion of live action to animated glossy surfaces and thick outlines, made famous by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly), these sequences will attempt to translate visually the intensity that music adds to everyday experience. The film will also star local hiphop artists like DJ D'Doxx, Logics, and Damian Black, playing characters based on themselves.
McComas started out making army movies with his friends and an anti-death-penalty film for his activist father, later attending summer courses run by New York Film Academy on the Universal lot in L.A. (along with Steven Spielberg's son, whom McComas pronounced "a total schmuck"). While he was still in Alaska, he began making promotional videos and a commercial for an Irish dance academy. After high school, he spent a year learning commercial filmmaking at the Art Institute of Seattle. "The Art Institute of Seattle is a place with... great equipment," he said carefully, smiling. He's nonetheless grateful for having had the chance to learn from instructors like Lynn Shelton (We Go Way Back) and Kenny Smith.
Quick to anticipate skepticism, McComas allowed, "I totally understand that I'm a white guy from Alaska making a movie about hiphop." But he still thought it could be done. Along with scrappy-by-design filmmakers like Roger Corman and Kevin Smith, he cited as an influence Craig Brewer, the white director of 2005's Hustle & Flow and the forthcoming Black Snake Moan. "I wrote [my] script," McComas said, "but it's based on conversations with the characters. I really don't want people to look at Emerald City as a whitewashed film."