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Geeks in Love

by Chris Hill; animated short story; Flash/Download; $0.25

Available via Bitpass. Published by Ubergeek.TV. Click here for preview.

"Geeks in Love", subtitled "Love, Death and Bowling", is a ten-minute Flash animation from artist, animator and technological wizard Chris Hill. It's based on a vocal recording of Hill's mother, Jean, reminiscing about his father: "I sat my mom down with a microphone at about 11 at night", he explains in his introduction to the piece, "About Geeks in Love". "She slowly but surely warmed up to the microphone, and I recorded about an hour of material. She was definitely having a good time, and so I asked her to tell me how she met my father, and how they got married."

There are several changes of tone in the story: it is wittily-told throughout, but it gradually becomes more serious as it progresses. It starts with Jean describing how fat and ugly Hill's father (Walter) was when she first met him: he was a frog, she tells us, whereas she was a princess. But the latter term is clearly meant ironically, as an indication of her own self-absorption at the time: "I was a Princess: I could do anything I wanted. I had a big job; I had a big car; many young men sought my favour..." Later on, Walter lost some weight and she started to go out with him, but she still didn't take him very seriously. Unlike the frog in the fairy-tale, what finally transformed him into a prince was not her kiss, but the fact that she started to appreciate his virtues. She acknowledges in her narration that for quite a while she was simply stringing him along, keeping him at arms' length and avoiding emotional involvement, because she had been hurt in a previous relationship. Eventually, however, she turned to him for help when her stepfather was dying of cancer, and her sister's two foster-children needed looking after. "I went through my circle of acquaintance, and I thought about who would be suitable for a four and a five year old... it was pretty slim... There wasn't much around for four and five year olds." These references to an earlier failed relationship, to her own emotional vulnerability, to mortality and to family values, following each other in quick succession, have the effect - within the space of a few sentences - of redefining both Jean and her narrative. The princess is transformed into an ordinary woman who needs help; and Walter changes from a well-meaning frog into a prince among men.

The end of the story re-emphasises this change of tone. Jean pauses to philosophise briefly about love, and to say how lucky she feels. Then after a brief allusion to the wedding she whisks us forward to 1986, and the day of Walter's open-heart surgery. She was sitting with her son (Chris Hill) in a lunchroom at the hospital, when "...the whole lunchroom stopped, and there was a brush across my chin and my lips and my nose... Walter had died at just about that moment... Since then I've talked to people who have had that experience, and they call it 'the angel's kiss'..." She goes on to widen the context of the story even further: "You will never ever ever get me to believe that there isn't a spiritual world...because he came and kissed me goodbye... And you know, I feel so special, because out of all the people and the misery in this world - people killing each other; people hating each other - I know what love is."

In terms of the animation, Hill's boldest stroke is that rather than attempt to dramatise the whole story he has chosen to show Jean as narrator for most of the time - head-and-shoulders shots of her talking and occasionally gesticulating. Secondly, many of the images which punctuate her narration are not animated at all: they are stills. Her early description of working with a mainframe computer, for example, is illustrated by a picture of a 1970s computer room, complete with steel cabinets, tape-reels, small monitors and reams of printout. The stills are brought to life by panning and zooming, but all the same it's surprizing how well they knit in - you have to look at the animation several times before you begin to notice how many of them it contains.

Hill's comments suggest that these choices of technique were largely governed by practical considerations: "The format was soooo long that we couldn't possibly animate it all ourselves unless we used lots of lip-sync and stills... We worked a lot on lip sync, creating somewhere around 8 different sets of mouths. A good half of the time spent on the animation was put into eyes, emotions, laughs, blinks, hand gestures, etc. for Queen Jean. The other half was spent drawing and coloring the 50 still images that pepper the animation." But as sometimes happens when creative work is hemmed in by strict formal constraints, the result is a concentration rather than an impoverishment of the end product. The effect of Jean's almost-constant presence on screen is to focus our attention on her as the narrator; to make us more aware of her dry humour, and the cleverness with which she guides us through her story; and this effect is representative of the way in which Hill has placed his art at the service of his subject-matter, rather than turning his subject-matter into a vehicle or excuse for his art.

This is not to say, however, that the whole animation consists of nothing but head-and-shoulders shots interspersed with still images. At crucial moments it becomes more expansive. The "Angel's Kiss" scene, for example, is dramatised by a sequence where we see Jean and her son sitting at a table in the lunchroom; then suddenly all the colours in the lunchroom turn blue; we see a closeup of Jean's face, fading into white; then the wide shot of the lunchroom again, with the colours reverting to normal.

"Geeks in Love" is not an interactive or nonlinear narrative, but interestingly Hill describes its open-endedness in very similar terms to those which are often used to justify interactive and nonlinear work: "In storytelling there's a lot of hand-holding done with the reader, in an attempt to guide them to a conclusion, or to make them feel a certain way. But the great thing about 'reality storytelling' is that there is no right way to read it, and wherever the viewer ends up is a personal place that I could never take them." As he implies, part of the strength of the piece - part of its realism - is that it doesn't dictate exactly what we should feel. It conveys and provokes a mixture of emotions instead; humour, happiness, sadness and eeriness; and this mixture somehow strikes us as true to life.

- Edward Picot, Jan/Feb 2004

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