In the first "Animators Unearthed" column by Chris Robinson, he profiles At The Quinte Hotel director Bruce Alcock.
At The Quinte Hotel by Vancouver animator, Bruce Alcock, is one of my fave short films from the 2005 festival crop. Based on a reading by Canadian poet Al Purdy, At The Quinte Hotel is a dizzying mixed-media gem that uses a sundry of techniques to explore the repressive and contradictory shortcomings of masculinity, along with the clash between so-called high (beer, flowers, beauty) and low (bars, beer, fistfights) culture.
Bruce Alcock was born in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, a small paper mill town of about 24,000 people. Alcocks animation roots date back to grade five when his friend Nicks mother came to his class to teach art. One of her lessons, remembers Alcock, involved bleaching film, then drawing on it with permanent markers and projecting the result. Inspired by the film and their mutual love of drawing, the two friends started a small film club with a few other friends. [We] made tons of animated stuff, says Alcock, pixilation, clay, cutout (including a grade 11 physics film), mostly about fighting and destruction by fire.
Alcock also spend considerable time at the local National Film Board of Canada office watching many of the studios acclaimed animation films. We were starved for material, and watched pretty much the whole library of animation, notes Alcock. McLaren was the big favorite, but other highlights included Sand Castle (by Co Hoedeman), Spinnolio (by John Weldon), The Sweater (by Sheldon Cohen), and Kaj Pindal's stuff. It blows me away that we could watch all that material on film, for free.
After high school Alcock studied tuba at the University of Toronto. He then moved to Paris to learn French, did a comparative literature degree at the University of Toronto, then moved to Barcelona and taught English. In Barcelona, Alcock met an animator named Dirk van de Vondel. We both went to a life drawing club. He needed help on a spot, then a short, and then a couple more spots. I ended up apprenticing with him: started out artworking, then in-betweening, then animating. The work was very physical charcoal, pastel, paint and the drawings were extremely loose and textural. Really inspiring, fine art looking work. Perhaps the best learning aid was the fact that he had no shooting or previewing equipment at all. For months, I watched all movement a few frames at a time by flipping paper, trying to imagine how it would all work on film. He'd send the stuff away to be shot as we finished each job, but I saw nothing until about nine months after we'd started working together. At that point, all my previsualisations coalesced at once. Very exciting moment.
Alcock returned to Toronto in 1990 and, briefly, attended Sheridan College. I hated it. Animation history seemed to be limited to American commercial studio work. After his short stay at Sheridan, Alcock, along with partner Adam Shaheen, formed the now acclaimed animation studio called Cuppa Coffee animation in 1991.
In 1995, Alcock moved to Chicago to take charge of Tricky Pictures, a studio that emerged out of an old deal between Cuppa Coffee and U.S. studio, Backyard Productions. "[Backyard] offered for us [Cuppa Coffee] to go into business with them. Alcock told Canadas Playback magazine in 2000, And I decided to take them up on it and go down [to Chicago]. Adam [Shaheen] continued with Cuppa Coffee."
Five years later, Alcock and his wife, Anne-Marie Fleming, decided to leave the windy chill of Chicago and return to Canada. This time they settled in Vancouver and started the studio, Global Mechanic, which Alcock continues to run today.
Alcocks first contact with Al Purdy came while the poet was a writer in residence at University of Toronto in 1983. I went with my roommate Alex Pugsley to hear Purdy do a reading. [It was] such a pleasure to hear irreverent, casual rants and meanderings in that bizarre voice. Alex and I imitated Purdy's voice a lot afterwards. Nine years later, when I returned from Barcelona, I applied for a Canada Council grant to make the film. At the time I was thinking of Yeats or Hopkins, but Alex suggested Purdy and The Quinte Hotel.
Alcock chose At The Quinte Hotel, because it's a poem about poetry in an unusual context, because it's visceral and casual, because it's patently Canadian. And I love mixing animation and poetry in general because both media are to a large extent solitary at the time of production, they're both obsessively worked out, detailed, exacting, yet, at the same time, expressive, loose, gestural and rhythmic. This poem was particularly well suited to the way I wanted to animate because its about the collision of beauty and ugliness, art and everyday life. I worked throughout at balancing beauty in the image with rawness, not over-aestheticizing the poem, and keeping the technique and look gestural, off-the-cuff like the language of the poem.
Initially, Alcock planned on getting Purdy (who died in 2000 at age 81) to do a reading of the poem. We went to visit him and his wife Eurithe in Ameliasburg Ontario, but he was far too ornery, and left us in a huff, saying, "My wife'll make you chili an' toast." We had brought a bottle of whiskey for him. After chili, toast, and a few illuminating (if a bit depressing) stories about her life with Al, Eurithe said good-bye and, "Thanks for the liquor, boys."
Instead, Alcock settled on a reading of the poem that Purdy gave at the first Congress of Canadian poets in Toronto in 1968. Michael Ondaatje was there, Earl Birney, Irving Layton all the big guys, says Alcock. So it's a reading among peers. It's a poor reading from a pure performance perspective his rhythm and diction are all over the place, his timing is weird. But you can hear Al Purdy saying his poem out loud to his friends and enemies: it's a poet reading his own stuff, not a performer recording a reading for a film.
Given the circumstances of Alcocks initial visit to Purdys home, getting the rights for the poem was surprisingly easy. [Purdy] was pretty clearly dubious about the likelihood of the idea going anywhere, grudgingly flattered that I wanted to do it at all and happy to agree to it for 10% of any revenue to come from the film. Very sadly, he died before I made the film. I had lost his approval letter in the meantime, so I called his widow Eurithe to ask again. She put me on to his executor and publisher, who was a little prickly about the whole affair. It took a while, but we got permission for a fee. The reading is the property of the CBC archives, so we negotiated a price for 10 years of rights.
Funding for At The Quinte Hotel was derived primarily from the coffers of Global Mechanic. I got a $6,000 grant from the Canada Council in 1992, which I spent on rent for the first two months of Cuppa Coffee when Adam and I started out, on supplies, mag transfer of the DAT recording and prep work. Then I was too busy to do the film: it stayed on the shelf, flames of guilt licking over the moldering stack of animation paper. Then I made Wrong Number Phone Message to jump-start myself, using commercial revenue. We basically paid the animators for five weeks on the job, but had them work one of those weeks on the film. It worked about the same on Quinte a certain percentage of job revenue went to the film instead of into profit.
Purdys widow was sent a copy of At The Quinte Hotel, but Alcock isnt sure if shes seen it yet. I'd love to know, says Alcock, but she preferred not to be contacted. It must be pretty tough to survive a relatively famous spouse, then have to deal with them calling and asking for things.
With Quinte Hotel in the can, Alcock has already moved on a theater-dance-poetry-animation project with a Toronto theater director and choreographer. Following the success of Quinte (which has already won acclaim at many international festivals), Alcock hope to continue the pattern of setting aside Global Mechanics commercial revenue for independent projects. I originally went into commercial animation to fund my own film projects. Even though it took a while to get it to happen, it's working now and definitely will continue to.
Meantime, while I try to figure out why on earth this film wasnt on the short list for the Oscars, if you get the chance, get off your bar stool, head to your nearest film festival and check out this ravishing and delicate donnybrook of beer, blood and flowers and poetry. Itll knock you off your ass.
Chris Robinson has been with the Ottawa International Animation Festival since 1991. A noted animation critic, curator and historian, Chris has become a leading expert on Canadian and international independent animation. His acclaimed OIAF programming has been regarded as both thoughtful and provocative. In May 2004, Robinson was the recipient of the President's Award given by the New York chapter of animators for contributions to the promotion of independent animation.
His books include Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation, Ottawa Senators: Great Stories from the NHL's First Dynasty, Unsung Heroes of Animation, Great Left Wingers and Stole This From a Hockey Card: A Philosophy of Hockey, Doug Harvey, Identity and Booze.
An anthology of Robinson's Animation Pimp columns will be published in 2006. He is currently working on Fathers of Night, a novel about angels, devils and everything in-between. Robinson lives in Ottawa with his wife, Kelly and son Jarvis.