May 6, 2016
On April 3, 2016 we screened the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival for the first time in Rochester, New York! From the very beginning of the festival, five years ago, we’ve been getting a disproportionate number of great entries from the Rochester area. It’s high time Rochester folks stopped having to make the hours-long trek to the New York City screenings, and have the festival come to them! We did it at the Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum, and packed the house.
Here are all the Rochester area filmmakers, whom we brought up onstage at the end of the show:
Who’s that sitting in the middle with me? It’s my co-host, Newbery Medal winner and Rochesterian Linda Sue Park (A Single Shard), and she was fantastic! Great comic timing, total commitment, strong singing voice, and she rolled with the punches like a pro when the audio of our opening song cut out (I also appreciated that she memorized all of her lines, and went onstage without a script—brave dedication). Here we are in the opening skit, in which Linda Sue shines as a time-traveling version of herself who has come back to warn us everyone the dystopian future the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival will cause:
Later on in the show, we also got a visit from the energetic and refreshingly silly Mr. Loops, a children’s musician from the Rochester area, who took the stage ostensibly to sing about the benefits of reading books, but kept getting sidetracked:
(Thanks to Joshua Bloodworth for shooting those videos of the show!)
At the screening, we showed not only great 90-Second Newberys from all over the country, but also many from right in Rochester. For instance, here’s one that I’ve already featured on the blog, by Devin Grover of Animutus Studio’s Animation Workshop in Rochester—it’s his stop-motion version of the vignette “The Garden” from Arnold Lobel’s 1973 Honor Book Frog and Toad Together:
As I’ve said before, I love the way this is animated, with Frog and Toad both coming alive with many little motions, blinking and fidgeting and gesturing! Marvelous attention to detail, right down to the lushly-drawn backdrops, background music and sound effects, and the vocal performances too. I can’t wait to see what Devin and the Animation Workshop make for next year!
Here’s another stop-motion movie we got from the Rochester area, this time done with Legos! It’s by the arts and technology educational group ArtsROC, and it’s of Lloyd Alexander’s 1969 Medal Winner The High King:
That’s quite elaborate, high-production value Lego stop motion! And not just a technical achievement: those are some hilarious voice performances too, totally capturing the spirit of the books, with the give-and-take between Taran and Eilonwy in full force (“Who knew a sword would reign supreme?” “I did, that’s why I got it!”) and all the other characters too. It ambitiously sums up not just The High King but the entire Chronicles of Prydain in one movie! And the “Day the Music Died” song was cleverly rewritten for the occasion.
The 90-Second Newbery owes a lot of its success to Deb Ross, who runs the family events website Kids Out And About (covering not just Rochester, but many cities!). I came to meet Deb and her husband when their daughters Madison and Ella made a bunch of fantastic 90-Second Newbery movies in the early years (and even crashed in their upstairs bedroom a few nights back then . . . thanks!). Madison and I even did our own version of “Between Two Ferns” a couple of years back at Rochester Community TV, with the help of my other Rochester partners and RCTV folks Carol White Llewellyn and Joshua Bloodworth. This is all a roundabout way of saying that Madison and Ella and their friends did a great adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1941 Honor Book The Long Winter:
Brisk, entertaining, satisfying! Good use of olde-tymey violin and chilly wintry wind sounds throughout. I love the way the guys are continually scarfing down pancakes while the other guy insists “we’re starving!” Resourceful use of actual snowy weather for the exterior shots, and the guy who gives up the wheat was delightfully acted. But of course the funniest line was the final one, the exultant “We can go back to our normal 19th century routine of drudgery and farm work!”
Every summer Rochester Community Television (RCTV) and Rochester-based Writers and Books, led by Joshua Bloodworth, put on a moviemaking camp in which they make a bunch of great 90-Second Newbery movies that are always a cut above. I especially like how they always make sure to put a weird twist on the material—as they do here, with a clever reversal of the premise of Jean Craighead George’s 1960 Honor Book My Side of the Mountain:
I like how the filmmakers made their premise clear right away in the voiceover part in the beginning, while our hero is writing his letter in the hubbub of the classroom. Maybe my favorite part: “That was a lot of work…. for them” with a pan over to the workers. The tour from of the house (all inside that tree?!) was very amusing too, especially in the bathroom. “What do you do for food?” “What do you think? I hired a butler!” was funny, especially since all his “fancy food” is just chips on a tray. Great performances from everyone. And that peregrine falcon was to die for!
The RCTV/Writers & Books Camp also adapted Ingrid Law’s 2009 Honor Book Savvy:
Using a skeptical talk show interview (or was it a therapist?) as the framing device was a smart twist. I like how the talk show host / therapist resisted Mibs’ story every step of the way (“So now the sun’s talking to you?” followed by Mibs’ eye-rolling shrug), and how Mibs blithely blew past all her skepticism with milliennial memespeak. I also liked how the Dad-in-a-coma actually mouths the words “I’m in a coma.” The performances are assured and committed, especially from Mibs, who carries this whole thing with her enthusiastic, buoyant energy!
The last entry by RCTV/Writers & Books Camp was of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s novel Esperanza Rising. Now, while it might be true that Pam Muñoz Ryan has won a Newbery Honor in 2016 for Echo, she didn’t get any Newbery love for Esperanza Rising! Disqualifying as an entry for the film festival? Whatever, this movie is a goodie, so I’ll let it slide:
It was a stroke of brilliance to do “Esperanza Rising” in the style of a telenovela! The opening credits are marvelous—that wind machine blowing everyone’s hair while the music from “The Young and the Restless” plays and everyone turns around dramatically in black-and-white! The dramatic music throughout was great. I like the melodramatic arc this movie finds for Esperanza, from snotty-girl-who-can’t-even-sweep-properly to scrappy fighter. The histrionic acting from everyone was a hoot. The conclusion, with its slow-motion reunion in the field, and Esperanza flying up into the inspiring blue sky, was satisfying too. Great work!
Hmmm. Now, we’ve already been over the fact that Esperanza Rising didn’t win a Newbery. Neither did Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee, but that didn’t stop Eian-Gabriel Sinclair from making this absolutely charming stop-motion:
OK, OK, even though it didn’t win a Newbery, I’ll allow it! I love the charming and painstaking stop-motion animation with the beautifully-crafted clay figures. And the original music was quite well-done too! (As a matter of fact, after the show I got to meet the maker of this movie, Eian-Gabriel Sinclair, and he gave me his own handmade illustrated history of filmmaking. Thanks again for that, Eian-Gabriel!)
It turns out that Rochester is a hotbed of stop-motion talent. Here’s yet another one, by Ginger Veneziani Flowe. It’s of Patricia Reilly Giff’s 2003 Honor Book Pictures of Hollis Woods:
So much beautiful artistry here. I knew I was in good hands from the very start, when the 3-dimensional wire-and-hair Hollis breaks away from the fading, gradually erased two-dimensional stick figures in the background, subtly demonstrating the character’s alienation. When the “W” of Hollis’ last name turns upside-down to form the mountain of the “mountain of trouble,” I thought that was a brilliant stroke! And then when that mountain starts getting filled in and complicated with other details, I was even more impressed. The voiceovers were sensitive and well-done, the music well-chosen. When Stephen and Hollis embrace near the end, I felt more emotion than I reasonably should feel when two wire figures embrace! Bravo!
Last but not least, I also received two versions of Kate DiCamillo’s 2001 Honor Book Because of Winn-Dixie from Clifton, NY:
I liked the idea of retelling the crisis moment in Because of Winn-Dixie as a special news bulletin! Special extra points for when the anchorman loses his objective cool in the middle of it and bursts into outraged emotion. Original and fun!
And that’s it for this year’s Rochester screening of the 90-Second Newbery! Thanks again to Linda Sue Park for being a superb co-host; to Mr. Loops for his fun song and irrepressible attitude (he serenaded everyone while they were in line to enter the show!); to Deb Ross of KidsOutAndAbout, for a million things; Carol White Llewellyn, for a million more (check out her award-winning series Conversations With Creatives, on which I was once a guest); Joshua Bloodworth of RCTV, who filmed the show excerpts we saw at the top of the post; the folks at Writers and Books, especially Sally Bittner Bonn, Joe Flaherty, and Chris Fanning; the folks at George Eastman Museum and the Dryden Theatre, especially Eliza Kozlowski, Kellie Fraver, and Jurij Meden; sponsor Delta Airlines, especially Katie Carroll; and sponsor Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library, especially Rebecca Fuss and Ned Davis. And of course thank you to all the young filmmakers and their friends, family, and teachers who helped out and encouraged them!
Let’s close it up with a montage of all the great movies we showed at the screening that day. I’m already looking forward to what you’ll make for next year, Rochester!