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The Animated Politics of 'Chicago 10'

Joe Strike talks with Chicago 10 director Brett Morgan about his mash-up documentary on a watershed event of the 1960s.


Struck by the similarities and differences between the Vietnam and Iraq wars, Brett Morgen was inspired to create the mixed-media Chicago 10, a look at a watershed event of the 60s. All images © C7 Films Inc.

1968 was a hell of a year -- literally.

Anti-Vietnam war protests raged across the U.S., even as more American troops poured into the country... Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., both critics of the conflict, were assassinated... President Lyndon B. Johnson, rocked by the protests (Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?) and opposition in his own party, decided not to run for re-election.

And then there were the Chicago riots. Thousands of mostly young protestors descended on the city, determined to march on the Democratic National Convention, where the party would nominate its hoped-for successor to LBJ.

The Chicago police had other ideas and treated the protestors to a head-busting display of force -- a violent debacle that probably cost the Democrats the election. The next year the U.S. government (now under the command of a Republican named Nixon) decided to put the leaders of the protest on trial for a supposed conspiracy to incite the riots. It turned into the show trial of the century, but not the way the government intended...

Brett Morgen was in his mothers womb back then, and she was apolitical, says the filmmaker. It was the similarities -- and differences -- between the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts that drove him to create Chicago 10, his mixed-media look back at the cultural collision that took place on that citys streets and in one of its courtrooms.

We were about to invade Afghanistan and no one was taking to the streets, Morgen recalls. I thought it was time to look back at the 60s and what it meant to take a stand against the government. Rather than splicing together news footage and interviews with the surviving participants, Morgen wanted to create a you are there experience for young audiences whose presidential memories begin with Ronald Reagan.

Part of his solution was to skip a 1960s soundtrack in favor of a more contemporary sound, using, for example, Rage Against the Machines Wake Up instead of Graham Nashs Chicago. The other part was to recreate the trial itself, a closed-to-cameras courtroom circus that pitted the uptight establishment against a collection of earnest, intellectual protest leaders, Yippie political tricksters Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and for good measure, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale.

A live-action re-enactment, using actors who might or might not resemble their real-life counterparts, held little appeal to Morgen. Then one day I read a quote from Jerry Rubin where he described the trial as a cartoon show.

Morgen studied the work of, and made a pilgrimage to visit, an animator whose films are redolent of the 1960s -- Ralph Bakshi. Ralph was living atop a mountain in New Mexico -- visiting him was like a scene out of The Tempest. I asked Ralph for his advice and he said [here he imitates Bakshis gravelly Brooklyn accent to perfection]make them animals.

Morgen decided to forego the funny animal route. The documentarians previous animation experience was as executive producer of Kid Notorious, a 2003 Comedy Central series inspired by his profile of Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture. I first thought of using 2D Flash animation, like we had in Kid Notorious. In that we gradually built up a library of movements that we re-used in later episodes -- but we couldnt do that in this movie.

Morgen next contacted Bermuda Shorts, a London-based animation and design firm, after seeing work done by one of their then-staff directors. There was an amazing animator there named Martyn Pick. His work is abstract, not narrative-based -- I loved his energy, he gave me great style frames.

They spent six months working on character designs. When I went to England to see the first tests, everything had been done on fives and sixes. It all looked staccato, robotic. Within two seconds I told myself, this is not going to work. It was a very sad day. Id already spent 15% of my animation budget on development; now I had less money, less time and I was starting from scratch.

Morgen made a pilgrimage to visit Ralph Bakshi to ask for advice. Bakshi told him to make the characters animals.

Most producer/directors might describe a failed relationship with a production company in more politic terms, but then again, if Morgens film is about anything, its about the anti-political correctness of 60s radicals. Given the opportunity, Pick (whos since left Bermuda Shorts for the animation/production company Th1ng and is creating animation for a global warming documentary) offers a more reserved answer that takes into account misperceptions between Morgen and Bermuda Shorts about the nature of the work, and the difference between being a for-hire animation studio and a creative partner in an organic and evolving documentary project. He pauses, then adds: I liked Brett and his eclectic approach -- thats what attracted me to the project. The immediate test I did, which you can see on my site, was all about giving it a contemporary edge, with graffiti, art effects, a hip-hop soundtrack -- make it retro but contemporary, frame the character in an R. Crumb world, then through the use of technology push the character into the future.

Returning to New York, Morgen gave some of the companies he had originally contacted a second call. Ironically one of them was Curious Pictures introduced the idea of using motion capture for the film. Luckily, there were spare Blue Man Group members available, who moved brilliantly to the pre-recorded voice tracks.

The Blue Men, together with other talent that included Morgen himself, were recorded on Curious mocap stage. We went into it prepared to key-frame everything, says Kofsky. We developed amazing tools that let us translate performances into animation and then let the animators do things that human actors never could. We were hoping to get 90 percent of the performance onstage and then enhance and nuance it, adjusting the performances to change the camera placement and make certain moments larger than life.

We developed custom targeting animation software that was able to handle all the facial mocap. We put 50 markers on each body, plus additional, very small markers on their faces. We were capturing those movements at the same time in an immersive volume. We were able to treat the two point clouds or data sets separately and get the facial motion capture synced up and moving with body.

We had two dedicated software developers with us through the entire process, from pre-pro through final delivery, who gave us many, many amazing abilities. From a low-level pipeline standpoint, the animator could make changes which were automatically carried through the rest of the process -- rendering, compositing, conversion -- and show up in the edit a few hours later.

Morgen took on several roles, including Julius Hoffman, the arrogant and elderly trial judge who could not have made a better villain if he had been cast by the Yippies themselves. It wasnt easy. When we did a mocap test of myself as Hoffman, it looked like an 84-year-old moving like he was 36. I started putting weights on to slow me down and ended up with 20 pounds of buckshot on my head and another 20 on each of my arms, back, chest and legs. Not surprisingly, Morgens weighty experiment worked really well -- it slowed down all my movements.

Working in mocap was wonderful. When I was doing cel animation, I would act out the scene for the artist, but theres a lot of room for interpretation in whats finally drawn on paper. Mocap gave me absolute control and authority over how characters were going to move and where camera was going to be.

Morgen took on several roles, including Julius Hoffman, the arrogant and elderly trial judge who could not have made a better villain if he had been cast by the Yippies themselves.

Even so, Morgen still had some reservations about the final results. One thing I wasnt happy with at the end of the day was the final render style -- the last thing thats applied is the actual look of it. A lot of what I wanted couldnt be achieved because of the lighting scheme in the courtroom. At one point in the film, Abbie Hoffman is performing in what looks like a comedy club, lit up by a harsh spotlight. I really like that footage of Abbie onstage -- I was able to use a hard keylight on that for a really dramatic rendering effect. I wanted that effect with him on the witness stand, but I couldnt recreate it in the courtroom wide shot -- it had to be evenly lit for practical, not esthetic, reasons.

I told the tech guys from the start that I was worried the mocap would look synthetic, and I wanted to maintain a grungy, hands-on esthetic. We tried to minimize 3D elements in the design. There was actually a button we were pressing that allowed us to control the amount of 3D in the picture, from 80 to 60 percent and so on. We kept it 10 percent 3D, something very nominal -- I wanted that rough-around-the-edges look. Even though its obviously not hand-drawn, its definitely got that organic feel that most mocap lacks. The mocap animations coloring has a posterized look with faces and textures broken into distinct bands of color, but Morgen says it wouldve been more posterized. When we first started, the shadows were really distracting [as they shifted in relation to the light sources] so we baked them onto the characters, locking them permanently in place.

Making sure the voice actors matched their characters original voices -- and the mocap performers likewise captured the originals physical presence -- was one of Morgens key goals. There was no shortage of interview footage of the flamboyant Hoffman and Rubin for Hank Azaria and Mark Ruffalo to study; the pair nailed their characters so closely its all but impossible to tell where archival recordings leave off and the vocal recreations begin. Audio of some of the other players was harder to come by. In the film, U.S. Attorney Thomas Forans hatred of, and Judge Hoffmans oily contempt for, the defendants approaches melodramatic proportions, but according to Morgen the two are accurately portrayed (respectively by Nick Nolte and the just-deceased Roy Scheider) thanks to a bootleg recording made by one of the defendants during the trial. They may seem a bit one-dimensional, but its a fairly accurate reflection of what was happening inside that courtroom. Nolte sounds identical to Foran. You think Judge Hoffman cant be real, but thats exactly what he sounded like -- a cartoon voice somewhere between Elmer Fudd, Mr. Magoo and Jabba the Hutt.

Morgen used a hard keylight to create a dramatic rendering effect in a scene where Abbie Hoffman is performing in a club, but was unable to duplicate the look in the courtroom scenes.

When it came time for the mocap actors to study their real-life counterparts, Morgen restricted them to the live-action footage that would be appearing in the film, to help them mimic the originals attitudes and body language as closely as possible. (The movie does include the occasional flight of fancy, as when Allen Ginsberg floats cross-legged in the air during a meeting with Chicago city officials, a reference to a 1967 antiwar protest whose supposed goal was to levitate the Pentagon.)

Several minutes of 2D animation, created in a style reminiscent of 1960s underground comics by New Yorks Asterisk Animation, round out the film. Once again it was an unhappy experience for Morgen, and again, one he is not reluctant to detail. I dont want to badmouth anyone, but I will in this case -- it was a nightmare. I commissioned them to do 12 minutes of animation, but I had to cut six minutes out of the film before we premiered -- they didnt deliver the footage to me [in time] even though they had nine months to do it. There was supposed to be a lot more 2D in the film, but there are only one or two scenes that survived.

When asked for his side of the story, Asterisks Richard OConnor was more circumspect and declined to comment, except to say anyone curious can call me. Other sources were willing to match Morgens bluntness, calling the director one of the worst people to work with, and one who keeps changing his mind.

After opening last years Sundance festival, Chicago 10 is about to be commercially released into a world that is at once more conservative, more polarized, and more open to ideas about politics and lifestyles once considered unimaginable. Morgen may not be as flamboyant as the radicals he returns to the spotlight, but like them, and right or wrong, he is unafraid to step on more than a few toes in pursuit of his vision.

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.