A Christmas Present
This was my MFA Thesis project. Materials: Tracing paper, manilla envelope, construction paper, paper bag, glue, thread. Music by Jonathan Merrifield and Liz Marcoux. It was originally presented in an installation with handmade tree stumps serving as chairs. In 2012 it screened at the Catskill Film and Video Festival, where it won Critic's Pick for stop motion and animated shorts. This is what jurors Will Lytle and David Smilow had to say:
“A Christmas Present” is a remarkably fragile piece. But all good things of winter are fragile. The narrative is tender and welcoming. The imagery is childlike. Nostalgic for those whose Christmas days were populated with construction paper and wood glue, making messes on Grandmothers kitchen tables. –Will Lytle
“A Christmas Present” turns animation standards on their heads. The pace is leisurely and at least initially, the story doesn’t seem to have a direct connection to the images. In fact, there doesn’t even seem to be a story in the true sense of the word. Yet the film works directly – and wonderfully – on what is perhaps most human about humans: the sweet ache in us that is our shared awareness of time – its passage, its gifts, its irretrievability. “A Christmas Present” uses words and graphics in a low-key yet perfectly balanced way to touch on the very core of what it means to know we’re alive.
The story – in the form of a young woman’s first person narration of a Christmas visit she and her boyfriend (of a year-and-a-half) make to the boyfriend’s family – gently and repeatedly keeps us aware of time’s movement. The drive up starts early in the morning, a game of Yahtzee takes place in the afternoon, the family goes to attend six o’clock mass before the four o’clock mass lets out. There’s a walk in the woods afterwards. There’s even a step backwards in time with the viewing of old family photos. By nine o’clock the young couple are about to go out to meet friends. A day’s events are chronicled.
Meanwhile the stop-action images mirror this same passage of time, yet mark it with nature’s indicators – a rosy dawn in that snowy wood yields to full winter brightness, then afternoon greys and evening purple. Shadows of the bare trees flicker on the snow as clouds scud past the sun. The shadows also swing around the trunks of the trees that throw them as the sun crosses the sky. Birds flutter and cast shadows of their own. A deer cautiously explores, leaving dainty hoof prints behind – a type of trail in time.
What is lovely about this film – and gives it its resonance – is the pitch-perfect tone of both the narration and the graphics. The story is simple yet brims with emotional texture because it’s about specific people doing the specific things they do on a particular day. And, much like folk art, the depiction of the natural world – trees, snow, a tree trunk, deer, birds, family members on walk – is focused on evoking the essence of the thing, not the surface. The result of the blend of what we hear and what we see is magical – and genuinely moving.
Sweet without being cloying, smart without being self-conscious, effortlessly beautiful in word and image, “A Christmas Present” truly is a gift. –David Smilow