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JUST DUPE IT WHEN DIRECTOR/ANIMATOR CHEL WHITE MAKES COPIES, HE AIN'T JUST XEROXIN'. HIS STUFF IS SHARP

By Published on .

THAT ANNOYING CHARACTER ON "Saturday Night Live" who sits by the copy machine would be nuts about Chel White, because the Chelmeister is frequently makin' copies-most notably as the director/animator of a new Fila athletic shoe commercial, from New York's FCB/Leber Katz Partners, that features Dallas Mavericks star rookie Jamal Mashburn and his signature shoe, the Mash.

But Chel-it's short for Michel, he's a Chicago native of French Canadian ancestry-doesn't just make copies, he choreographs them, as a look at his award-winning animated short, "Photocopy Cha-cha," will attest. The whimsically abstract "Cha-cha," which indeed has a cha-cha soundtrack, adapts those primitive "direct" photocopy techniques that inquisitive employees sometimes use to get their Xerox off and converts them into a somewhat more rarefied art: Hands, faces and assorted other body parts make a syncopated procession across the screen in what the Berlin International Film Festival called "a swinging essay about physiognomy in the age of photo-mechanical reproduction."

"It's really a dance," says White of the distinctly low-tech technique. "In fact, some of the people I worked with were dancers. You learn to move with the light to get those kinds of distortions," he says of the faces that are strangely reminiscent of Francis Bacon portraits. "It takes time, you have to work with the copier for awhile. People find that they get into a rhythm, and their personalities come out in the way they interact with the machine."

White, 34, who has been a Portland, Ore., resident for the past decade, used to work on cutout-animated videos and commercials for the likes of Michael Jackson, Pepsi and a British snack called Crunchy Wotsits at Portland animation company Jim Blashfield & Associates. Blashfield and White himself are among the "actors" in "Cha-cha," which was made in 1991 and, much to White's surprise, went on to gather awards at eight film events, including a First at the USA Film Festival and a Gold at the Chicago International Film Festival.

His ad career took an auspicious leap forward that same year with Portland's tiny AKA Advertising (see Creativity, March '93), when a friend who was working on the shoot nominated him to be the talent in a spot for TV Host, a local television guide. White portrayed a guy going nuts as he watched the box, because he never knew what was on. "It was really a tough job," he says in a typical Pacific Northwest deadpan. "Sitting in a chair, changing channels. I'd never done anything like it before."

This led to AKA spots for regional Honda dealers that employed the "Cha-cha" photocopy style, as well as a spot that simply pictured a fuzzy rendition of a human brain; though the latter may have looked a bit like cel animation, it was actually a photocopy variant in which a textbook picture was blown up and repeatedly degraded. Chel, you see, is just not into cel; he simply says there are plenty of other people who do it better, so why bother. Never one for traditional character animation anyway, he favored non-narrative, experimental styles back in his high school days and at college at Antioch in Ohio, where he studied fine art and graphic design. White was also dabbling with photocopies back then, "degenerating stuff, copying it a hundred times or more and animating that," he says.

A 1985 short film called "Metal Dogs of India," composed mostly of abstract, brightly colored shapes on a black background, which makes it the star of his oeuvre in the eyes of his baby daughter, says White, and which won awards at a couple of festivals, was a piece of direct animation of another sort-drawn and painted on 16mm film, no camera involved, as the credits boast. This direction has its corporeal counterpart in the "Cha-cha" technique: "We set up two tables that were exactly level with the copy machine and we'd just roll people over the copier," recalls White, whose machine of choice, by the way, is a Sharp. "To some, it may not have the best image quality but it has a lot of medium grays, and that's what gives you the detail and the depth." During the copying process White often experiments with colored inks, and he further experiments with colored gels when he's shooting the paper afterward.

But why photocopy animation in the first place? Well, it's different. White doesn't know of anyone else working with this particular animation technique, and that's "one of the reasons I initially got excited about it," he says. "I'm sure there are other people who do it-so many people have sat on a copy machine or whatever-but I've never seen any."

Sam Gulisano, a creative director at FCB/LKP who AD'd the Fila spot, hadn't either. White's reel, particularly "Cha-cha," had him doing a, you'll pardon the expression, double take. "I said, 'Wow, this I haven't seen before,'" says Gulisano. "I really gravitated to the style." Yet given the dunkadelic b-ball extravaganzas that are almost de rigueur in today's shoe biz, the Mashburn spot had to soar well beyond the paper chase of "Cha-cha" to an extrafilmic dimension; as White notes, "the direct approach is really very limiting; you have an 11x17 window in which to capture the world."

For the Fila :30, first an all live-action rough cut of the spot was shot in b&w, then, in a laborious process that required a 10-week animation production schedule, photographic prints were made of selected film frames; the prints were copied and sometimes distorted, then cut out by hand, integrated into 3-D tabletop sets, reshot and finally colorized in post. "The original board they sent me was wonderfully abstract," he says, "with a lot of room for creative development." The resulting surreal scenes of Mashburn's scoring heroics are intercut with bizarre crowd reactions in which excitable fans' heads and necks undergo strange split-second transformations. Freaky, yes, but, as Gulisano notes, the spots are aimed at teens and tweens, for whom nothing is too weird.

White landed the plum assignment via the Los Angeles-based production company The Underground, which he joined a year ago. His first major commercial "is definitely a feather in my cap," he deadpans; The Underground has been "exceptional at promoting my work and it's definitely a watershed for all of us," he adds in a relaxed monotone.

White joined The Underground at about the time he landed a gig directing a video for the debut album of a Seattle band called Candlebox. "Change" features some trademark twisted photocopy portraits of lead singer Kevin Martin, and led the way to another video, the Melvins' "Hooch," an unusual all-live-action departure for White, who doesn't want to be pigeonholed in an 11x17 box, after all. "The band said I could do anything I want," he explains. "'Well, OK,' I said, 'Let's X-ray you and put you underwater.' Two things I've always wanted to do." So bony footage of band members, shot in real time with the aid of a fluoroscope, is intercut with bubbly underwater rockin'. It's heavy, and it even passed muster with Beavis and Butt-head, though they complained that they couldn't understand the lyrics.

White is on the lookout for more videos and commercials, of course, and he hopes to eventually work his way up to a full-fledged live action/animation film. He certainly knows his way around a movie set, having been visual effects assistant on fellow Portlander Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" and visual effects supervisor on Van Sant's latest, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues."

In the meantime, if you want to get ahold of White, no problem. He's over by the

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