A senior thesis film brought one Wesleyan graduate more than academic credit last week when it won a top prize at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Benh Zeitlin ’04 took home a bronze statue of a dog and the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Animated Short for his film “Egg.”
Judges at the prestigious Slamdance competition called “Egg” “a fully realized animation, filled with conflict and tension that makes perfect narrative sense while defying all common sense.”
Making it to Slamdance is an accomplishment for any film, as the festival is considered one of the best in alternative filmmaking. Slamdance was started eleven years ago when a group of first-time directors screened their movies concurrent with the Sundance Film Festival held annually in Cannes.
Slandance is a response to the commercialization of Sundance, according to Dan Janvey ’06, who accompanied Zeitlin to the festival. Slamdance, instead, focuses on celebrating the filmmakers. Over 20,000 people attended this year's festival, which ran from January 21st to 28th, intentionally coinciding with Sundance.
“What's really special about Slamdance is the community of filmmakers. Everyone goes to everyone else's movie. It's a real place for filmmakers to interact without pretension and bullshit,” said Janvey.
Also with the filmmaker were Chris Kaminstein ’05, Viktor Jakovleski, a German filmmaker who is collaborating with Zeitlin on his next film, and Andrew Platt, who composed the music for “Egg.”
According to Janvey, Zeitlin's film was enthusiastically received by both the judges and the public at Slamdance.
“People loved Benh's film,” Janvey said. “There was a huge audience at each screening.”
Zeitlin's nine-minute film is billed as a surrealistic interpretation of Herman Melville's “Moby Dick.” A pirate captain and his deck boy go on a quest for their nemesis, a golden egg yolk, only to find that they themselves are merely inhabitants of an egg that is about to be fed to three hungry bird-children. The captain and his crewmember are then sent plummeting through the bird's digestive system to their end.
The idea was born during an annual family trip to South Carolina. Zeitlin spent much of the fourteen-hour car ride reading “Moby Dick,” and was inspired by the quest for glory and adventure in the novel. His family in South Carolina included many small children.
“Sitting around with all those kids for a week sort of contradicted everything I'd thought about ”Moby Dick,“ Zeitlin said. ”Maybe human beings are just feeding machines who stick anything they can find in their mouths. Maybe that's the real experience of humanity.“
”Egg“ is about the meeting and conflict of the two ideas: heroism and adventure on one hand and primal human instincts on the other.
The film is partly stop-motion animation and partly live action, an endeavor that required the participation of many people from the Wesleyan and Middletown communities. For instance, Meadow Meats, a wholesale butcher shop downtown, contributed the veal tongue and sliced beef tenderloin used for the set. A MoCon staff member, known to most simply as Dave, had his arm appear in one scene.
”[Dave] left at one point to go to church while we were shooting. When he came back he said he'd been praying for us because he thought we needed it,“ said Ray Tintori ’06, who served as Artistic Director for ”Egg.“ ”It was certainly a community effort.“
Despite the collaboration, no one seems to have worked harder than Zeitlin himself. Most of the animation segment of the film was shot in the old Squash Courts by North College, where the writer-director set up a bed, refrigerator and hot plate for himself.
”Much of the movie was made at five in the morning after being up for three days straight trying to get one shot done,“ Tintori said.
Filming was not without mishaps. To simulate the inside of the body for part of the film, raw meat was super-glued onto a background. For the ocean, Zeitlin used a kiddy pool filled with milk. Under the hot lights used for filming, the meat started to decompose, and the milk spoiled over time.
According to Tintori, for the most part, filming ”Egg“ was a lonely, isolating project. Despite the stench of rotting meat, the incredibly time consuming process of stop-motion animation, and the need to actually go to class, Zeitlin managed to create a work that has been well received both on and off campus.
”When we were making “Egg” we would sometimes look at what we were filming and wonder if anyone was going to like a film in which a pirate falls through a rectum,“ Tintori said. ”The nice thing about this award is it seems like the answer is yes.“
His friends and colleagues speak highly of Zeitlin.
”Benh is the real deal,“ said Jeanine Basinger, his former advisor and Chair of the Film Department. ”He's got amazing talent, works terribly hard, and he has an original, quirky sensibility. The combination was irresistible.“
Zeitlin is already planning a new project, a feature film to be titled, ”The Birth Canal.“ The film is a bizarre epic about an unborn monster that may or may not be the son of God. Zeitlin and his crew hope to begin filming this winter.