Click. The video screen goes black. Then we find ourselves in the middle of a classroom where a bunch of all-American kids are learning French. Someone points to a drawing of a poodle on the blackboard, beside which are written the words "Le chien." Poof, the poodle jumps off the blackboard and is transformed into a gray cartoon poodle with a bright pink bow and a big red tongue lolling out of her mouth. The kids follow behind the poodle.
And wham! We're in the middle of the Champs-Elysees and the kids are following the poodle underneath the Arc de Triomphe, past the Eiffel Tower and into the cathedral of Notre-Dame, where a Jimmy Durante-nosed hunchback clad in drab olive is swinging back and forth on a rope. A girl in red grabs the rope and zoom, at the end of the rope is a big helium balloon. And now the kids are flying above Notre-Dame, the poodle clinging to the girl's foot. But Oh no, the ruckus wakes some demonish gargoyles who take out their peashooters and kerpow, they pop the balloons. Slam! The kids fall to the ground on the stage of the Moulin Rouge and start high kicking with cancan girls in foofy skirts. And then, home at last, we're back in the classroom and the poodle is just a chalk drawing on the blackboard. It sticks out its tongue and slurrp, licks the girl at the front of the classroom. Yeccchhhh!
"There it is," says Monica Kendall, as she pops the videocassette out of the machine. "All 30 seconds of it."
At Calabash Productions, this 30-second film, a commercial for Marshall Field's, took about six weeks to make. Storyboard, sketches, acetate cels, coloring, filming, retouching, recoloring, live action, background music . . . so it goes at Calabash, one of the city's top animation houses. A calabash is a kind of gourd that can be molded and shaped as it grows. Ed Newmann and Monica Kendall, the heads of this outfit, liked the symbolism of the name.
"We had worked at places with names like the American Film Group," Kendall recalls. "We decided, 'OK, we need something fun.' We went through a thesaurus and picked out several funny sounding words. We said, 'Calabash! Yeah! Calabash!'"
Newmann came to Calabash by way of Los Angeles. He worked on Pete's Dragon at Disney, on Charlie Brown specials at Bill Melendez Productions, on Lord of the Rings with Ralph Bakshi, and on various things at Hanna-Barbera before chucking it all and leaving LA. Hitchhiking across the country, he made spare change doing caricature drawings at fairs, conventions, and restaurants; he landed at Sally's Stage in Chicago, and he's been here ever since.
Working as a free-lance animator he linked up with future partner and wife Kendall, who had attended the School of the Art Institute and had won the Academy Award for a student animated film called Somnolent Blue. It's a simple tale of a man who tries to incorporate his real life, which is represented by drawings, with his fantasy life, which is shown in claymation.
"It operated on a lot of levels," says Newmann. "I loved the fact that when he dreamed he became clay. That way it was his dream world that was more substantial than his real world."
Newmann and Kendall started Calabash in 1985 and in the short time since have developed a strong reputation in local film circles. "It's generally known that if you want great animation, you go to Ed and Monica," says Mike Culley, manager of computer graphics at the production company Post Effects. "They're the place to go in town." Their work should be familiar to any self-respecting couch potato. They did a Cap'n Crunch commercial in which a big rust-colored dinosaur pops out of a cereal box, and a Coors Light spot featuring a race between a tortoise, a hare, and a gleaming silver can of beer. They coproduced and animated The Canterville Ghost and Christmas Every Day, two specials for CBS. They've also done How the Elephant Got His Trunk and Rapunzel for Encyclopaedia Britannica home video.
They work out of Tree Studios on Ohio Street, and although they're usually working under very tight deadlines, the place always seems mellow and relaxed. The stereo blasts out anything from Moody Blues to Monty Python. The bookcases are filled with the works of Picasso, Chagall, Disney, and Seuss. And the workers are an incredibly youthful bunch--film students, artists just out of college, and others who before arriving here had never animated in their lives. Few of them escape unscathed. "Once you've been animating awhile, it begins to take over your vision," says Wayne Brejcha, one of many free-lance animators who works here. "You look at a movement in real life--like the way Jennifer's elbow is moving right now--and you wonder how many drawings it would take you to make it."
The bosses take a lot of their inspiration from old movies and Saturday morning watching cartoons.
"Old movies are great for watching body language," says Newmann. "In the original version of Topper, you look at Constance Bennett and you watch her body language. Her gestures are so lyrical and almost balletic. They're much more exaggerated and deliberate than what you see today. Watching her helps in creating the image of a character."
"When we were working on Coors Light," says Kendall, "we had rented the night before a Buster Keaton film and he was the inspiration for a couple of characters. We try to get inside our character's brain and figure out how he walks and how he thinks."
Says Newmann: "It's method animation."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.