It started, as films often do, with a story: Lovesick high school boy from Blaine rides his bike 50 miles north to Milaca--on no sleep, yet--to visit his girlfriend, who promptly dumps him. As a parting gesture, girlfriend agrees to drive her ex not-quite-halfway home, and he pedals the rest of the way. End of story--and not the most dramatic material for a movie, you might say. But when local filmmaker Tom Schroeder first heard this love-hurts testimonial, as told to him by a student in the animation class he teaches at the Arts High School, he reckoned it would provide the perfect grist for his latest exercise in short animated cinema.
"I'm interested in very foolhardy enterprises," says Schroeder, a boyish-looking 37-year-old whose near-constant smile and ardent manner of speaking in paragraphs rather than sentences pegs him as something of an animated character himself. "Animation, because it's so painstaking and laborious, is foolhardy by nature, so I'm attracted to those kinds of stories where there's an arduous journey toward self-knowledge, a kind of desire that's thwarted."
And yet the film itself is consummately professional. "Bike Ride," a six-and-a-half-minute animated comedy that Schroeder created over the course of 18 months (with the help of an $8,000 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board), represents a playful yet precise integration of spoken word, music, and line drawing for the motion picture. Working in the tradition of Norman McLaren and George Griffin, who improvised animation to the jazz recordings of Oscar Peterson and Charlie Parker, respectively, Schroeder brought an audio tape of his student James Peterson's sardonically delivered tale to Happy Apple drummer Dave King, who pounded out a beat befitting both the rhythms and the content of the story. Then, after weaving Peterson's words into the music, Schroeder analyzed the finished soundtrack "frame by frame," drawing the 4,138 pictures that would simultaneously advance the narrative and illustrate its dynamic range in metaphor.
Complicated as it sounds, "Bike Ride" is strikingly simple as it appears onscreen. Drawn in thin white lines against a black background (the bike itself is assembled out of two O's and a C), Schroeder's synchronized pictures are elemental in the extreme. And yet there's drama here, too, and humor, stemming from the incessantly inventive manner in which the lines change shape to convey the poor protagonist's initial feelings of hope (his bed frame morphs into a map and then a heart) and eventual despair (the breakup is rendered as a pair of hammer blows to the head, with King's kick drum adding insult to injury).
Experimental it is--but who couldn't relate? Indeed, Schroeder's fourth and most accessible 16mm short won an honorable mention at the Ann Arbor Film Festival last month, and has been invited to screen in June at the Festival International du Film d'Animation in Annecy, France, where the Amery, Wisconsin, native hopes to secure foreign sales of the film.
Although Schroeder doesn't depend on the financial success of his films (in addition to his work at Arts High School, he also teaches animation at MCAD), he feels cautiously optimistic about how digital video has extended the means of production to fledgling animators. (His own students use DV and computers almost exclusively.) And yet, perhaps in deference to his love of the "arduous journey," Schroeder prefers to animate the old-fashioned way. "There's something about working physically on a light table, scrawling with a pencil and having a cup of tea, that's a categorically different experience than pushing buttons on a keyboard and moving a mouse," he says. "In some organic or essential human way, the process dictates the feel of a film."
"Bike Ride" screens along with Guy Maddin's short "The Heart of the World" Saturday, May 5 through Thursday, May 10 at Oak Street Cinema, preceding shows of Blade Runner; (612) 331-3134.