Beautifully Ironic: Hoosier Filmmaker Tim Hittle Gets an Oscar Nod
"Beautifully ironic." That's what Indiana-born Tim Hittle thinks of his Oscar nomination.For more than twenty years, Hittle has been making stop-motion animation movies -- commercial films like " Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach" as well as his own short animation films. Finally, this past January, he had to face a decision. To continue to be employed as an animator, Hittle had to get a job with Pixar, the people who made "Toy Story". For Hittle, it was a big transition, from the hands on manipulation of dolls in stop-motion, to the keyboard and mouse of computer animation. Then, six weeks later, mid-February, Hittle discovered that his new film, the seven minute long stop-motion animated "Canhead" had been nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Animation Short. "The joke is not lost on me," he remarks. "It's a great gag from Coyote." In some mythologies, the Coyote is a mischievous beast, playing havoc with people's lives. Hittle feels that the nomination "means everything and it means nothing. That's how I'm trying to be with it -- otherwise I'd be going nuts."It means everything, he points out, because it's the culmination of 20 years of hard work. In addition, it's an honor for the people who have helped him over the years -- especially on " Canhead." "I feel like it's a big payoff to everybody who worked on it. Everyone worked real cheap -- they worked for love."On the other hand, the nomination means "nothing," in a sense, because life goes on -- he's in pre-production work on Pixar's next feature,"Bugs," directed by Jon Lasseter, who made "Toy Story." Learning computer animation, he says, is "frustrating."The beginning of Jay ClayHittle lives in San Francisco, but he's a native of Columbus, Indiana. It was in 1976, when Hittle was 18 years old, that he learned of a "Saturday Night Live" request for short animated films."I was working at a gas station," Hittle says. "I came up with him there." "Him" is Jay Clay, star of Hittle's films; he says he "whittled Jay's armature out of dowel rods while I was waiting for cars to come in." "I kept using him because I got to know him," he goes on. "We could work together."Jay Clay is a kind of Everyman caught in everyday, yet magical circumstances. "Everything he does he learns from me," Hittle remarks. "I learn it and then I show him... Though sometimes Jay is stubborn and I learn a thing or two from him." Hittle eventually completed a Jay Clay film for the "SNL" contest and won a spot on the show. Hittle moved to Bloomington in 1981 to "live among the artists." He found "painters, poets, playwrights, and musicians," people who worked to "find their voice, their artistic way." At the time he didn't "have the heart to go to one of the coasts." It was in the artistic-friendly climate of Bloomington that Hittle began to pursue stop-motion animation, producing over a half-dozen Jay Clay films.When I met Hittle in the early 80s, he was working the night shift at a Bloomington donut shop. In the daytime, he would work on his Jay Clay films. Thick blankets and curtains would cover his windows, blocking out the light. When I stopped by his apartment on his nights off, I would find him working on a Jay Clay film. I marveled at his persistence, his dogged ability to stick with a project for months at a time. Remarkably, these months of work would culminate in a Jay Clay film that would run for no more than a few minutes.Eventually, Hittle left Bloomington for San Francisco. An old friend had seen an newspaper ad seeking clay animators. It was the right time for Hittle to leave: "I was getting tired of kitchen work." He sent a tape of his animation work, and within a month, he was on his way to San Francisco.The job was "The New Adventures of Gumby," a show still being aired in syndication. He made important contacts during that period, including the one that led him to his next job, the interior of Pee Wee Herman's refrigerator in "Pee Wee's Playhouse." "There's just a small group of stop-motion animators," Hittle says. The stint with Pee Wee led to "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas." Hittle calls "Nightmare" "a landmark in stop-motion. Everything was top drawer -- it's the pinnacle of the art form." The film, directed by Henry Selick, was an artistic, critical and box office success -- and continues to do well in rentals. Hittle worked primarily on the animation of Jack Skellington, the lead character, and Jack's girlfriend, Sally. The next feature-length project soon appeared. Hittle spent a full year, January '95 to January '96, making "James and the Giant Peach." Hittle's "Peach" work week consisted of five eleven-hour days; toward the end they were working six days a week.When doing a feature, he says, "all the life force goes into the work." Unlike "Nightmare," where Hittle focussed his animation on just two puppets, he took part in animating almost all of the principal characters in " Peach." "Peach," he says, "was much more grueling than "Nightmare." With the completion of "Peach," Hittle says he "needed a couple of weeks just to calm down... I had to learn how to enjoy doing not very much at all," he laughs. He loves "getting outside into the sun. It's a trick in itself to feel okay about not doing anything." His own filmsThe phrase "not doing anything" can't be taken literally, of course, because over the years Hittle has continued to create Jay Clay films between industry jobs. And while the "life force" is usurped while he's working on feature films, he has plenty of pluck to pursue his own films. Besides, it's his toil on commercial films that provides the financing for his own films. Hittle's independent work is occasionally supplemented by arts funding, but the predominant source comes from his feature film employment.In between "Pee Wee's Playhouse" and "Nightmare Before Christmas," Hittle made " Potato Hunter," which took Hittle a full year to complete. For the soundtrack, he returned to Bloomington and employed the talents of local musicians. The film was well-received, playing in a number of cities, including festivals in Ann Arbor, Dallas and Seattle. More importantly, the film landed a position in the " 23rd Tournee of Animation." The "23rd Tournee" is "a traveling festival. It went to Canada and all over America."Between filming " Nightmare" and " Peach," Hittle had an entire year to work on " Canhead." Including post-production, Hittle estimates that "Canhead" took a full two years two complete. Two years -- and seven minutes of screen time. The plot of " Canhead" involves Jay Clay and Blue, of course, and Blue gets "a little weird and takes off." Blue, Hittle says, "is from the other world," and his impulsive departure upsets Jay Clay enormously. Out of Jay's anxiety springs forth a fearsome giant called Canhead. "The manifestation of Jay's fear," Hittle says, "is Canhead, which then tries to destroy him." Blue represents magic, but "Jay Clay is people. He's forced down inside himself and finds the fire to take on Canhead."Hittle benefited by having the " Nightmare" equipment available. Skellington, the company responsible for "Nightmare" and "Peach" "allowed me to use the equipment to shoot at their studio until the next project happened." He had, he says, everything he's ever needed. He shot Canhead" in 35 mm -- as opposed to the Super 8 format he was accustomed to. "I couldn't pass it up." Still, the process of making "Canhead" took an emotional toll. "About halfway through shooting " Canhead" I started to wonder: what am I doing? I have a year off, and I spend it alone, in the dark." He says that his life "began to appear a little bit absurd... It used to be more appealing to be isolated in the dark." He stresses that he still loves his work and "what comes out of it, but it just seemed rather absurd this time around." Adding to the absurdity is the increasing dominance of computer-generated animation. Hittle laments that computer animation has taken more and more work from stop-motion animators. The turning point, he says, was "Jurassic Park." a film that would have been made with dinosaur dolls in the past but was instead created by computers. Now, even the Pillsbury Doughboy is computer-generated. Hittle himself has filmed a few Doughboy commercials in the past, and so he personally feels the computer crunch. He thinks that last year's mega-hit "Toy Story" is a great film,"but the beloved Peach" he worked so hard on did not fare so well at the box office. Skellington soon dissolved. For Hittle, it was confrontation of sorts -- a playing-out of the computer-vs-stop motion struggle. He was in Belgium at the time Skellington expired, helping a friend film a movie, but when he returned to San Francisco, he had a decision to make."The only thing happening out here in features was in computers," he says. Almost all of his colleagues were pursuing the cyberworld of animation. Then he learned that Pixar was beginning a new project, "Bugs;" and so Hittle, needing a job, took the plunge.Meanwhile, in the world of stop-motion, "Canhead" was discovered by some Los Angeles film people. They offered Hittle a deal he couldn't refuse: Let them show "Canhead" in Los Angeles -- and he would be eligible for the Oscars.And so "Canhead" opened for a Los Angeles retrospective presentation of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange." "Canhead" ran for seven days -- four more days than is necessary for the Academy to consider an entry viable for nomination. Hittle was one of over 100 such entries. Four films were chosen for Oscar contention.The category of Animation Short has three others contenders: one from Germany, one from England, and one from Canada. Hittle laughs: "we're the Americans on this Olympic squad, representing the US in this world competition." Hittle adds that only one, the Canadian entry, is computer animation; the other three are stop-motion.Whether Hittle wins or not, he hopes that the honor of the nomination will help him get proper funding, "so everyone gets paid. So we can all work, all day long. Do it right."For now, Hittle has to keep his eye on his day job -- Pixar."I have to give it a chance," he says, referring to computer animation. The process of learning this new craft is "frustrating... but it's the way of the future." After 20 years of stop-motion animation, Hittle is looking ahead into that future."I feel like I'm starting over," he says. SIDEBAR:The task of the animated film-maker is a painstaking proposition. Stop-motion animation involves taking a three-dimensional puppet or an object and moving it incrementally. You set your scene, snap a picture, then move your subject ever so slightly, then take another picture, slowly building a sequence one frame at a time. Each second of film time is comprised of 24 frames, and so one second of animation is made up of 24 separate clicks of the camera. For example, if it takes a character three seconds to scratch his head, the animator will shoot over seventy single frames to produce this simple gesture. Animating Jay Clay ambling across the screen requires hundreds of frames. Add a four-legged companion like Blue, trotting along beside his master, and the work has quadrupled."There's no safety net in stop-motion animation," Hittle says, "You start with the first frame, move the puppet an increment, and make sure you don't mess up until the last frame." If something unforeseen does happen, the subsequent storyboard is unusable. Weeks of work can be destroyed.