Peter Gundling doesn't know where the time goes. He's been trying to finish his first film, a stop-motion animation called Toys, for almost eight months now. He tries to work a couple hours every day, more when he can swing it. And every day it's the same thing. Just when he really gets going, and the lighting is just right, and the frames start clicking like clockwork, the doorbell rings downstairs and one of his friends tramps up to his attic studio. Or dinner is waiting on the table. Or, worst of all, his mother shouts from the stairwell, "Peter, time for bed!" and the day is snatched from his hands altogether.
For the most part, Peter looks like any third-grader in suburban Lake Forest. His only immediately unusual feature is his glasses. They have dark plastic rims and thick lenses that enlarge his dark brown eyes, as though someone were holding a magnifying glass up to his face. He isn't stick thin like his best friend Jack, or tan and trim like his other best friend Samuel. With the glasses, he looks like a miniature professor dressed in his weekend clothes. Samuel thinks Peter might be more popular at school without them.
Peter watches a lot of movies (he's big on The Birds, lukewarm on The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie), but not just for fun. He's hunting for tips on character development, shot composition, and narrative arc to use in his own filmmaking. "My characters have to learn something in my films," he says carefully. "That's important when you're making a film, to have a vision, then stick with it. It's OK to make funny, quirky movies that are about nothing. That's called experimental. But I have to make films with real stories."
In May a short version of Toys was chosen from 130 entries as one of 30 films shown at the Future Filmmakers Festival, organized by the Chicago International Film Festival to showcase work by filmmakers under 20. Peter was the youngest entrant by a wide margin, and Toys won an honorable mention. "We almost never get stop-motion submissions, because it's not the kind of thing that a kid is usually going to be interested in. For one thing, it's surprising that they would be patient enough to do it—it's not an immediately satisfying process," says Kris Williams, the festival's coordinator. "I couldn't believe how good it was."
If Peter were to write a textbook for beginning film students, it would say the point of making movies is so people can enjoy themselves, and understand who they are, and also make good use of their television sets. Keep the camera steady, he would advise, or the audience will get queasy. Use sticky tack on your props and they won't fall down. Make sure your hands don't get in the way of the camera. Be nice to the people you work with. Use suspense, like that scene in The Godfather where the horse's head is chopped off and the guy wakes up and blood is dripping down the whole bed. Romance is when these two people are in love and kiss, and the movie will probably be PG-13 because it will have inappropriate scenes. Slasher films are about teenagers going in the wrong places. A producer is the person who makes or breaks the film. The most important directors of all time are Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and Art Clokey, creator of the stop-motion animated character Gumby. When you make a film, people can see your dreams, which can be kind of embarrassing.
Every morning Peter wakes up at seven. "I don't like sleeping in," he explains. When he doesn't have to go to school he heads straight to the attic of the tall yellow house where he lives with his father, Jerry, who is a research scientist, and his mother, Lucy, a freelance makeup artist. Jerry likes to say that their house is on the side of town where the firemen and police officers live.
Peter started showing his parents little sketches and drawings when he was three, like any other three-year-old might, but his stories had words in them that most kids wouldn't know from gibberish. His teenage second cousins, who are from Italy, visited recently. When they went back home they informed their parents that Peter is genio—a genius.
Before he started preschool, he was evaluated by a child psychologist, who recommended that he be placed in a school for gifted students in Evanston. Jerry and Lucy weren't surprised to hear that their son was unusually advanced but decided to enroll him in the public elementary school. "We don't want him to think he's too 'different,'" Jerry says. They're glad his public school offers advanced classes, and he goes to a day camp for gifted students in the summer, but beyond that, they say, Peter is his own boss.
Peter thought up the story of Toys in the winter and asked if Jerry knew how to make stop-motion animations like Art Clokey. His friend Samuel had given him a bendable Gumby figurine for his last birthday, and at first he didn't know what to make of it. "Do you eat him?" he asked Lucy. She brought home a DVD collection of The Gumby Show from the 1950s, and Peter was enchanted. "I don't like Fred Quimby's frustrating Tom and Jerry cartoons, where they run around and hurt each other for no reason," he says. "In Gumby, it's all magic. You learn about him, where he lives, about his mother." Peter wanted to tell some stories of his own, using Clokey's frame-by-frame technique.
Jerry showed Peter how to take a picture of an object with their digital camera, then move the same object a fraction of an inch and shoot it again. For sets and actors they used Peter's prized collection of Legos from the 1960s and '70s, which his father buys for him on eBay. He's into things from the 70s. His favorite bands are Abba and Queen, and he cherishes a small blue typewriter in his bedroom that his mother used in college. Lucy did the voice of one of the characters, and Jerry edited the images in Apple's iMovie program, under Peter's direction.
Jerry was thrilled to watch his son's meticulous movies with him. Still, he hopes Peter will consider sports too. He knows it can be painful and alienating being the smartest kid in class, and a sport could add some balance.
"Just wait till you're a teenager. You're gonna be so dorky!" Jerry teases Peter across the dinner table one night, shaking his head in mock sadness.
Peter giggles, his mouth full of buttered corn. "A geek!" he offers.
"That's right! You're gonna be a geek!"
Peter laughs harder at this, his voice rising to a high falsetto.
"Yes! You're going to be so nerdy!"
The Gundling's attic is a pleasant, homey muddle of books, toys, and half-finished craft projects. Two parakeets twitter from a wire cage in the corner, and a handful of red guppies tumble mindlessly in a small tank. An electric keyboard rests against the far wall. "I don't have time for that anymore," Peter says with a shrug.
Peter's film studio is a small drafting table with a bright yellow sheet of poster board taped to its surface, which serves as the set. Two floor lamps tower over either side, their strong beams heating up the peach carpet below. A digital camera with an attached cable release sits on a tripod in front of the set. No irrelevant toys or books encroach on the surrounding floor space; these have been bulldozed into little piles that line the adjacent walls.
"Quiet on the set," Peter cautions. Lego policemen from 1975 stand around on the poster board, waiting for their cues. He turns on the camera and arranges the police so they appear to be standing in a group and talking. He squeezes the cable release in his plump fist. The image of the gabbing cops is displayed in the window at the back of the camera. He shuffles each figure a centimeter to the left and takes another shot. "You have to care about what you're making, really think about it, make it important, and then you can do it," he says.
The story of Toys came to Peter in a dream. He gets a lot of work done while he's sleeping. "It's about a Lego family from Toy Town that has to leave their home because the dad loses his job, and the kids are getting bullied at school, all because their kind isn't accepted in the town anymore. They get chased by the police with big dogs and escape to a new home in Lego City. They think it will be OK there at first, but then they know that their problems have followed them to this new land. That is what my film is about. Learning to confront your problems, not to run away from them, because that isn't wise. If you run away, you will get haunted," he says sadly.
He begins moving and shooting the policemen as though running on automatic. He shoots ten frames. The group of officers has moved across the set some two inches. "That will be one second of the whole movie. I think the final version will be 20 minutes," he says, sitting back.
Peter wasn't able to shoot the whole story before the Future Filmmakers deadline in the spring, so he mailed in what he considered a woefully incomplete submission. He believes you can't have a good film without a good story, so he was disappointed to learn that his DVD had been accepted. "I didn't want them to think it was good, because I didn't get the lesson of the movie across. I didn't have enough time," he says softly. "Didn't have enough time."
Shooting at a rate of roughly ten frames to one second of film, Peter will need to take 12,000 pictures for a 20-minute film. This seems an impossible undertaking, until he points out that Gumby: The Movie is 90 minutes long. "Do you know how long it took them to make that?" he asks. This is not a rhetorical question. He really needs to know.
Kris Williams guesses the average age of an entrant to the Future Filmmakers Festival is 16. That's why the submission form that came in with Toys caught her eye: the handwriting obviously belonged to someone much younger. Peter had included his signature at the bottom of the form, an unsolicited touch that made her laugh.
"The next-youngest person who sent us a film was 12. I couldn't understand where he had even learned to make a movie. Most people would never give a camera to an eight-year-old," Williams says.
The film opens with a shot of a smiling family of Lego figures, the titles dancing above their heads. Abba's "The Name of the Game" plays in the background. The credits acknowledge the director, sound artist, and animator, who calls himself PTR. G., the director's father for his help on the computer, and the Lego characters for their acting roles.
As the story begins, the family is standing outside their house—mom, dad, grandma and baby, and two young kids. "Children, it's time to go now," says the mother pleasantly as the camera closes in on her ever-smiling face. Rain falls as they pile their belongings into a baby carriage and set off. The next scene is in the dining room of what appears to be the family's new house in Lego City. Mom comes in juggling hot plates of food as the little boy mumbles grace. "Let's watch Gumby!" squeals his sister as they chow down. The camera zooms in on the television set in the corner of the room, then cuts to a short film-within-the-film in which Gumby and Pokey save their town from a band of marauding clay widgets.
This is Williams's favorite scene. "My friend came in while I was watching this part, and she got mad because she thought some kid had just recorded an episode of the real Gumby cartoon and sent that in to us. I tried to explain that a kid had re-created his own Gumby episode, but it was so good that she wouldn't believe me. It was that well done."
The kids are scooted off to bed after the cartoon ends, and their dreams play out onscreen: flying through the clouds like Superman, ice skating to "Dancing Queen." In the morning they relate their nighttime adventures to their parents and grandma at the breakfast table, until it's time to catch the school bus. "Buh-bye! Have a nice day at school!" trills the mother.
"Honestly, kids that young have no concept of a realistic project, no concept of the elements of filmmaking," Williams explains enthusiastically. "And then most kids want to get in front of the camera and perform. They go crazy. He produced something he doesn't even appear in once. You almost never see that."
Jack and Samuel are each perched on the arm of a wooden bench in Lake Forest's central Market Square, a bosky courtyard flanked by a Williams-Sonoma and a Marshall Field's. Jack's blue jersey hangs like a deflated balloon over his thin shoulders. Samuel has the particular blond hair of surfers and lifeguards. They gape quizzically when asked if they thought it was cool that their friend Peter's film played in a festival.
"I don't know about any festival," says Jack, his eyes narrowing under their dark spidery lashes. "Peter didn't say anything about a festival to me," Samuel concurs. He hops off the bench and kicks an invisible ball around on the grass-lined walkway.
"Is this something about where you put the people where you want 'em and take the picture and make 'em take small steps and take another picture?" Jack asks. When he goes over to the Gundlings' house, he often finds Peter up in the attic messing around with the digital camera. Sometimes Jack helps out with a few shots before they put the camera away and play race cars or light sabers. He appreciates that Peter is never bossy or impatient when they use the camera.
"Oh yeah, that he does with his old Legos and Gumby and his lion friend?" offers Samuel.
"His horse friend!"
"Whatever. Peter talks about that sometimes, but not a lot. He didn't show it to me, 'cause he thinks it's not that good."
Samuel's favorite movies are the Wallace & Gromit shorts and the Indiana Jones series. Jack's favorite movie is the one Peter made, a loyal sentiment considering he's not sure if he's ever seen it. Most cinema talk eludes them. When asked to define the words "suspense," "producer," and "story line," they merrily shout, "Don't know!"
"Drama—I know what that is. Like, you can be a drama queen, and that's when you're really crazy," Samuel says. He's made some films himself, with his dad's digital video camera, three-minute recordings of his baby sister doing somersaults. He thinks he can give a definition for "plot," too. "Like, they're making a plot to steal the bank. No? OK, they're making a plot to steal . . . the eggs? I don't know."
As the opening credits of his film played on the big screen at Columbia College's Film Row Cinema, Peter covered his face with his arms so he wouldn't have to watch. He says he was "humiliated" when the festival coordinator announced, after all the films were shown, that they were awarding a special unplanned prize to his film.
"I think you mean you were embarrassed, Peter. Humiliated is a very strong word," says Jerry, a smile in his voice. Peter insists later that humiliated was what he meant.
"I got the honorable mention because I was the youngest one," he tells his parents firmly.
"It was because you made a very good film, and you put a lot of work into it!" they protest.
"It was because I was the youngest," he says, shaking his head.
Williams sums up Toys as "a day in the life of a Lego family." Which, according to Peter's intended vision, is accurate. It's just not the whole story. The way he wants to tell it, that particular day was bookended by grim events—harassment, forced exile, longing for a lost home. The version of Toys that played in the festival is a "mirage," he says. He isn't interested in making tidy, agreeable films. "My characters have to learn something. My audience has to learn something," he says, clenching his hands.
If Peter never finishes Toys, the cosmos will be to blame. He is an Aquarius and believes his personality is in lockstep with the characteristics of one born under that sign. "According to the zodiac, I sometimes manage to start things, but I don't manage to finish them," he says.
Tonight Peter is finishing up production on the big chase scene, in which the family flees Lego City under cover of night, the police hot on their heels. He lifts the plastic arm of a Lego police officer from his 1965 collection. The attic is quiet save for the bubbling of the fish tank in the corner; the parakeets are asleep on their perch. The moon glows in a small window, one night shy of a perfect sphere. The sounds of clanking dishware rise up from the kitchen.
Peter's soft voice climbs rapidly. "I have to fight against what the zodiac says for me. Sometimes I think, I'm getting tired, I'd like to stop now. No! I have to have patience and confidence. I need lots of things. I need to think of everything. I really have to hold on."
Peter invented two new characters today, exchange students named Samuel and Jack who befriend the family and help them on their quest to get home. He's thinking of recruiting the real Samuel and Jack as codirectors for Toys. He predicts he'll be embarrassed at first to show them his work, but he's not as shy about it as he was before the festival. With three sets of hands instead of one, the frames would fall into place faster. "I'll tell them about it on the next playdate," he says. His short fingers move deftly, almost mechanically, around the miniature set. The plastic cop rouses the other officers in the station and they all rush out into the street, one frame at a time.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.