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Renderrabbits by Tyler Klein Longmire

An Animated Portrait of the One Yellow Rabbit Ensemble
– A Working Studio and Exhibition in the Lightbox Studio

NOTE: THIS FILM IS A WORK IN PROGRESS.

Featuring:

  • Denise Clarke
  • Blake Brooker
  • Andy Curtis
  • Michael Green
  • Richard McDowell

To Premiere at the 2016 High Performance Rodeo

Initial work completed during a working studio exhibition
@ Lightbox Studio, Arts Commons
January 09 – February 28 2015
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Photography by Richard Lam

Inspired by Andy Warhol’s screen tests, Renderrabbits is a series of looping animated portraits of the One Yellow Rabbit performance ensemble. These artists have shaped the culture of Calgary, and their performances are world-renowned. I wish to pay tribute to these trailblazers, to these artists who define the scene in which I now take part. I aim to rotoscope (an elaborate form of tracing, one frame at a time) six-second intervals of screen tests I will shoot of the Rabbits, and juxtapose them over time with rotoscoped footage from their archives. Which one is the “real” Rabbit?

OK this one needs a bit of an explanation.

I was approached by Natasha Jensen at Arts Commons about a working studio exhibition in her new experimental gallery space, the Lightbox Studio. She asked if I wanted two months to use the space to work on a project in a public setting, where the people passing through the Arts Commons building downtown before shows, coming to and from work, etc. could watch me work through the windows of the studio. Of course I hopped right on it, what a great opportunity! But what to do in there?

After making my short animated film Renderfriends in the summer of 2014, I was interested to push the idea of animated portraits further. I wanted to make another version but to animate other friends or strangers instead, people who I didn’t know as well as my closest friends. Would the portrait look different if I didn’t know them as well? Would it be more accurate, or less so? I would be getting to know them through the act of drawing them, as I confront their image 12 times a second. It’s a really intimate process for me, much more so than I first thought when I started doing these kinds of portraits.

So I was working this out with Natasha when Richard McDowell of Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit Performance Ensemble passed away in November 2014. It was a shocking loss to the community – Rico (as he was known) along with the other ‘Rabbits’ are much-loved and well-respected in Calgary, in Canada and abroad for their cutting-edge, disciplined, bold and provocative work. I didn’t know Rico very well, only having partied with him at the High Performance Rodeo or at various openings or closing events, but I was very much hoping to work with him someday and pick up a few tricks.

The Rabbits thus held a memorial for Rico, in the Big Secret Theatre that he helped to build. I attended the memorial: it was a ‘sold-out’ house, and the tributes were moving and impressive. It was strange to be on the periphery of such immense grief. Something I noticed was a communal reaffirmation that the Rabbits as a whole were Important – that the death of Rico was a death of part of the Rabbits as well, and should be honoured as such. Quite literally, they were just getting started rehearsals on a new show, ‘What The Thunder Said’, for the upcoming Rodeo – how would they manage without Rico’s music, his contribution, his presence? His loss not only created personal problems for the ensemble, but practical problems as well.

All of this got me wanting to make animated portraits of the Rabbits, instead of my half-baked strangers idea – to capture and draw all of the current ensemble, and to make a portrait of Rico posthumously from whatever video material I could get my hands on. They are beautiful people, which such expressive faces and sometimes larger-than-life personalities that make great subject matter for this kind of project. The thought of drawing Denise dancing was irresistible. So I asked them if I could make this project with them, and they said yes! They would subject themselves to my camera and pencil, bless them, and show it at the Rodeo when/if it was finished. A total wet dream for a theatre nerd like me. Look, I love the Rabbits. They’re my fucking role models. I wish I thought of it sooner, to not have been prompted by Rico’s passing.

So: I’d shoot screen tests of them a la Andy Warhol, animate them, dig thru their archives, and animate that too, and juxtapose it all together for a short film. Perfect. Everyone’s on board. Contract signed. Let’s go!

I set up a camera and green screen at the Arts Commons one afternoon in December and shot some screen tests of the Rabbits, a couple takes each. 15 minutes, 20 tops. I could only book Denise, Andy and Blake for that session – Michael Green wasn’t available that day, could we reschedule? Of course, of course, not a problem.

I got two takes from each of them: a ‘regular’ take, 5 minutes or so, where I was in the room with them, behind the camera; and a ‘secret’ take, another 5 minutes, where I let the camera run and left the room. Just to see what happens. Schrodinger’s camera box. I didn’t look at the secret footage until I got home.

The takes where I was in the room were interesting. Usable footage for sure. Denise danced and moved around; Andy made jokes and funny faces; Blake talked.

The takes where I left the room were heartbreaking.

I think I caught them at a very particular moment. Fresh from the passing of their friend and collaborator, working on a new show about death and mortality (working with T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland,’ jeez), hell, confronting it in a very real way themselves – once I left the room they broke, and I felt like I honestly saw their pain, their tender souls, in a moment of confession or sanctuary, even if they tried to keep the moment hidden from the camera. Or, on the flip side, that they performed for me in a much different, more raw, intimate, confidential way. I am not sure what the difference is anymore. The camera nullifies those sorts of distinctions.

So my studio time rolls around. January 2015. I begin the project by finding 10 second clips of each happy shot to test the rotoscope process. I am working on paper, not digitally, so I had to rig up an animation table, a projector and camera station first. The process is an experiment too, so I wanted to start with some nice, cheerful, smiling Rabbits to get me going. I still had to get footage of Michael Green, but the High Performance Rodeo was on so I figured I would wait until February to bug him.

But then, another tragedy: on February 11 2015, Michael Green, alongside Blackfoot elder Narcisse Blood and artists Michele Sereda and Lacy Morin-Desjarlais, were killed in a car accident in northern Saskatchewan. It was a big deal.

I had a session booked with him for the following Tuesday.

Michael Green - last email to tkGod fucking damn it.

We mourned; the city went all yellow, the obits came in from the Mayor, the Premier, the national and international press; there was a beautiful, gigantic memorial at the Jack Singer Concert Hall with attendance rumoured to outstrip the memorial of the late Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. His wake at the Legion after the service was a who’s-who of the Canadian arts scene. The outpouring of grief for Michael, who was truly a widely-loved, respected, and accomplished human, was incredible to see.

But his passing put me in a tricky position: I had my show up in the building his name was synonymous with, a show ABOUT the company he co-founded and the shows he himself performed in. The context I was working under changed dramatically. I had to, have to be, very careful.

I had just finished the test of Andy when Michael passed. I drew a quick Michael or two to include in the installation, but I couldn’t turn my whole studio into a memorial (farther than it already was – oddly enough, I only have footage of the remaining Rabbits. It is more of a tribute to the living). I do not want to exploit their grief. So I put down my pencil and watched. I went to the memorial; paid my respects to the rest of the ensemble; went to the wake; and re-watched my footage.

I found a beautiful strength in Blake Brooker through all of this. Initially I wasn’t as excited to animate his portrait – I was more intrigued by Denise and Andy, plus Blake talked all thru most of his tests so his footage is going to be a pain in the ass to use. But watching him handle the death of two of his closest friends and collaborators, to be the public face and organizing effort behind the necessary shows and public spectacles that accompany the passing of any such artists, to say the prayers for all of us, was illuminating. When I drew him I found him serious, with a casually intense stare – there was a weight there that I was unaware of before, I suppose I just didn’t see it. Or maybe I wasn’t looking for it before Michael passed.

That’s the weird thing about this project – even though I have very little to do with the Rabbits on a day-to-day basis, through drawing them like this I feel like I get to know them exceptionally well. Only by drawing #50 do I feel introduced. I break down the tiniest movements of their faces – how do they blink, and how fast? Where are their cheekbones? What gesture do they repeatedly use? What 10 second chunk is really them – and in what aspect? Can I draw the pain behind their eyes? Should I?

***

So anyway. I got about 30 seconds done during this part of the project. It’s all pretty rough, all pencils for now that still need to be cleaned up. Originally I was going to make them loops, but now I want to make a bunch of smaller clips and smear them into each other. Or flip from one thing to another, the Rabbits at different moments of time.

I still need to hunt down footage of Michael and Rico. I have leads, but that’s the next step, and it’ll take a while.

But I think this film is going to be about life, and joy, and loss, and sadness. We’ll see how it turns out.

Many thanks to Natasha Jensen for kickstarting this project and letting me use the Lightbox Studio, and all the support; and thanks to all the Rabbits – Denise Clarke, Andy Curtis, Blake Brooker, and Michael Green for being so supportive and willing to let me play with their faces. Big thanks to Josh Dalledonne at OYR too for the access to the Rabbits and their archives.

RIP Michael. RIP Rico. I’ll draw you boys up good.

Arts Commons - Renderrabbits in the Lightbox Studio