Up in the Air
Facing foreclosure from a greedy banker, a man will do anything to keep his house. In league with his wife, he carries out a daring plan…
This pitch would no doubt generate much interest in present-day Hollywood, but in fact describes a 90-year-old film from cartoonist and animation pioneer Winsor McCay, creator of the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, and the influential animated short, “Gertie the Dinosaur”.
Bill Plympton (aka “the king of indie animation”) has updated McCay’s neglected ten-minute film, The Flying House, for contemporary audiences, replacing word balloons with spoken dialogue, adding a score and sound effects, and colorizing each frame with the palette favored by McCay in his print work.
The result is timely, poignant, hilarious, and mesmerizing, a hybrid that combines the freshness and originality of McCay’s animation from the dawn of a new art form with the cinematic effects and visual clarity demanded in the digital era.
The last film in the series “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend”—based on McCay’s comic strip of the same name—The Flying House follows the format of all the other entries: a woman eats rarebit for dinner and has a strange dream. This time around, she imagines her husband has rigged the home with a motor and propeller so the two can fly away in the house and settle somewhere else. Their adventures take them through the city, over the ocean, and eventually into outer space, where they are menaced by a giant, T-shirted Man-in-the-Moon, before being shot out of the sky by an experimental cannon (a seeming nod to Georges Méliès 1902 A Trip to the Moon). Their adventure ends with the woman waking from her dream.
Plympton’s vision took much work and arduous attention to detail to execute. Working from a digital master, his team began by painstakingly cleaning the film frame by frame, removing dirt and dust, and erasing word balloons. That step alone took two years.
Then they digitally recreated McCay’s animation process (he was working with cels by then), by splitting frames into background art and the images that the illustrator animated on top of that. They next colorized each frame, basing their color choices on McCay’s printed artwork and on the plot contours of the story itself. Matthew Modine and Patricia Clarkson provided dialogue, using the word balloons from the original as a script. Finally, sound effects and a score were added.
A great artistic success, The Flying House would fit in well at any animation festival, and viewers unaware of its history would never guess the film revamps a much older title. It’s that very erasure of history that troubles film historians and archivists who decry Plympton’s method, and who would have preferred that he simply restore the film.
Plympton and his team are aware of these charges, and address them in the making-of featurette included among the DVD extras. To the director’s credit, the hour of interviews with film and comics experts that he conducted and packaged with the film also present arguments for and against The Flying House Project. The digital master is included, so viewers can compare the two films.
Ideally, Plympton would have both restored the original film, and carried out his treatment—which he calls a “resurrection”, an attempt to “revitalize” the work of his idol. But given the costs involved, you can understand why he didn’t. If not for an 11th-hour Kickstarter campaign to raise needed funds, the project would never have been completed.
Still, despite his “hope… that people will rediscover the genius of Winsor McCay and go see his other films”, the DVD does little to guide interested viewers to more of McCay’s work. Several of the experts mention DVD collections and note the availability of McCay films online, but a formal list of recommendations is missing.
In the Kickstarter promo included among the extras, Plympton lists the word balloons along with dirt and scratches as problematic features of the film that his team was charged with overcoming, instead of integral parts of an artistic tradition with recognizable conventions. This smacks of the logic Ted Turner used when bankrolling the colorization of film classics to entice more viewers, a move that likewise angered purists.
Neither Plympton nor music editor Biljana Labovic discuss the live music that undoubtedly accompanied screenings of The Flying House in 1921. Historians of film music like organist Dennis James work to recover and recreate original scores or hints provided for players in cases where set scores didn’t exist. That dimension, or any other facet of contemporary exhibition for that matter, is mostly absent from discussions included on the DVD.
The treatment of the original film on the DVD further distances the silent era from our own. The digital master remains an inaccessible artifact, the word balloon text often cut off on the left-hand side of the screen, the image dirty and shaky. While Plympton has done film fans a great service by drawing attention to The Flying House and to a forgotten filmmaker, it feels as if McCay’s film, like the flying house itself, has been ripped from its foundation in the film culture of the early ‘20s to float off into space. It’s a shame Plympton hasn’t brought it back down to earth.