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The Order of Oddfish


Back From Summer Hiatus! And 90-Second Newberys from Chicago Filmmakers Camp

September 3, 2015

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CHICAGOANS! As every year, this Friday (9/4) at 7pm I’m emceeing the annual Adult Spelling Bee at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. With returning co-emcees, the erudite Robbie Q. Telfer and the hilarious Kelsie Huff. TRUST ME EVERY YEAR THIS IS SO MUCH FUN. Space for competitors is limited, so call (773.293.2665) or email ( to reserve your spot!

Ahhh! Back from a relaxing, creative, and productive summer, and ready to face this autumn head on. Hard to believe that in a few short weeks this sweltering summer Chicago will soon be an icebound winter hellscape. Must start preparing myself psychologically now!

And also start preparing for the FIFTH ANNUAL 90-Second Newbery Film Festival! Don’t know what it is? It’s a video contest I founded in which kid filmmakers create movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery-winning books in about 90 seconds, often with some crazy or humorous twist. We screen the best movies at big annual showings in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, Portland, and Tacoma . . . and this year we’re adding San Antonio and Rochester, NY! (Go here to check out some previous standout entries.)

This summer, filmmaker Joseph Lewis (of Elephant and Worm Educational Theater Company fame; he’s helped kids make many a good 90-Second Newbery) led a bunch of 10-13 year olds in a summer movie-making camp at Chicago Filmmakers. The kids made 90-Second Newberys, and they are quite impressive!

For instance, look, JUST LOOK at their take on William Steig’s 1983 Honor Book Dr. Desoto, which in its original form is a cute picture book about a mouse dentist and his loyal, resourceful wife who must fix the teeth of a fox who wants to eat them. This group had the genius idea to do it as a horror movie . . . and make the wife into a much more sinister character!

First off, great work by the set designers, props department, costumers, and sound effects people. I loved how the movie so convincingly portrayed a dentist’s office even though the group had no access to a real dentist’s office, with relevant sound effects (that drill!), an artful rearrangement of chairs and desks, some strategically placed signs, a few insert shots of dental equipment—that’s some resourceful filmmaking right there!

I love how the movie established the “hugeness” of the fox, with the earthquake effect and roar and the reaction shot and the green screen of the fox in front of the buildings. And effective mood-setting with the use of ominous music plus foreground/background focus switching. I kept wondering “How are they going to show Dr. DeSoto inside the fox’s mouth?” and when the movie pulled it off with green screen I was like “yes!” The twist of DeSoto’s wife tricking Dr. DeSoto into getting eaten so she can keep the gold tooth, and then blaming it all on the fox, was an inspired alternate ending twist for the story. And the script, ludicrous and witty. “The tooth hurts.” “De-Soto . . . de-licious.” And the added subplot of “Officer Harrison” chasing the hooked-hand guy was cleverly woven throughout. Fantastic!

The next movie is based on Arnold Lobel’s 1973 Honor Book Frog and Toad Together . . . but with a KILLER CYBORG twist:

The introductory slow scary prowl down the hallway with the sudden Cyborg Frog bursting out of the curtains totally worked. The line “depressed eggs” were quite funny. I also liked the line “for how long have you had that mustache?” And how, on their walk, how Toad skips and Frog just trudges. “It’s so windy that my coat blew away”—nice continuity error cover-up! And good special effect for when they’re running. But of course the special effects REALLY get good when they’re fighting—the flying arm! the background animations! SO awesome. And walking into the watermarked YouTube sunrise at the end is Tim-and-Eric-worthy. Outstanding!

But we’re not done with Frog and Toad Together yet. Here’s another take on the same book, with a more musical angle:

I liked how “Growing Down 4 Real” starts with a gentle guitar-ish vibe and then jumps into the hip-hop style. Nice touches: kicking the camera, rapping in front of the graffiti-tagged wall, and especially the line “I’ll put it in my hair—don’t touch me!” And the melancholy rap at the end over the credits worked. The audio was crisp and understandable—this group obviously put a lot of love and effort into the lyrics and the recording! Great work!

And last but not least of a strong group of movies, here’s Lois Lowry’s 1995 Medal Winner The Giver—but done in a post-apocalyptic style:

Sometimes it’s fun and refreshing, like this, when the 90-Second Newbery adaptation just ditches the original story entirely at a certain point, and just goes off on its own weird tangent. The keyhole on the back of her neck was inventive and cool! Good choices on the robot-shutdown sound-effect, and motor starting up sound-effect when the robot is turned up. And the bump-bump-BOOOOOM at the end was amusing. Love the synchronized dancing at the end over the credits too. Veers pretty far from the book? Yes. Entertaining? Double yes!

Thanks, attendees of the Chicago Filmmakers 2015 summer camp, for these great entries, and thanks Joseph Lewis for leading the camp! For the rest of you, the deadline for this year’s movies—December 14, 2015—is coming faster than you might expect. Make those movies now, while the weather still holds!