Once Upon a Napkin...The Blue Shoe

Marcy Gardner reviews the short, animated film The Blue Shoe, by FableVision's Peter Reynolds. This film is guaranteed to soften even the hardest heart.

Download a Quicktime clip from The Blue Shoe by Peter Reynolds. © FableVision. 1.2 MB

A Story is Born

A single blue shoe sets out on a journey to find her soul mate. Along the way she encounters a green boot who shows her great kindness. But the green boot is not blue, or a shoe and could not possibly be her soul mate...or could it?

So begins this metaphorical fable about the quest for true love by the relatively new FableVision, a two-year-old animation studio based in Watertown, Massachusetts. The seven-minute short was a recent winner at the 1998 World Animation Celebration, placing second for "2-D Computer Generated Animation by an Independent," and has just been selected for the official Annecy `98 competition program.

The story was conceived on a stack of napkins by Peter Reynolds, partner and creative director of FableVision, as a diversion for his daughter from (to her taste) a very boring adult conversation one night at dinner. She fell in love with the little blue shoe and asked her father to complete the half-finished story. (Later, Reynolds finished it on another stack of napkins on a plane.)

After parting ways with the green boot after a "very nice farewell," the blue shoe meets a blue sneaker. "Smooth and blue" - not to mention a shoe! But the sneaker, full of egotistical bravado, proceeds to talk her ear off well into the night. Weary and disappointed, the blue shoe seeks refuge in a nearby house on a hill. As fate would have it, she has happened upon the home of the green boot. He makes her a cup of tea and puts her up for the night. Still not satisfied, the blue shoe leaves early the next morning. Hungry to go, fixated on the fact that her soul mate is out there, she feels compelled to continue on her journey despite the boot's great kindness and a terrible storm. Besides her soul mate will certainly be blue, and if not, at least a shoe. Won't he?

The blue shoe meets up with an arrogant sneaker. 'Not soul mate material,' she decides. © FableVision.

Organic in a Digital Age

It is the film's gentle simplicity that makes it most striking. Drawn in deft, black lines with semi-transparent washes of color, the drawings seem to float on the screen as the camera tracks over the landscape. The backgrounds of brown recycled paper show through the washes and give the film it's visual warmth and unexpected look.

Once Reynolds had completed the story on napkins, he re-drew it in a $2.00 recycled paper journal for his daughter's birthday. He wanted to recreate the warmth and intimacy of the journal in the animated version, scanning recycled paper into the computer for the backgrounds. "We wanted to bring organic materials into the digital world where everything is so clean. It's nice to be a little un-careful and get a fiber and paper feel."

The animation was then drawn directly into the computer using the new multi-plane TicTacToon Animation system developed by Montreal-based ToonBoom Technologies. TicTacToon is unique in that it enables animators to create cel-style, paperless animation using multi-plane space in a computer environment. Using vector-based graphics, the system allows one to pan and zoom without pixilation.

The animation in The Blue Shoe is pared down to only the barest of essentials, much of it created only by elegant camera moves. This economic style is reminiscent of Reynolds' SquiggleVision days, a technique he helped to pioneer during his 13 years as creative director at Tom Snyder Productions, and featured in their shows Dr. Katz (on Comedy Central) and Science Court (currently on ABC's "One Saturday Morning").

Most of the animation in The Blue Shoe is used to articulate the body language of the shoe and the boot, reminding me of how much we communicate non-verbally. It also calls into play the idea of what creates character. The small wiggles and shudders make the shoe seem vulnerable. Reynolds manages to create the shoe's character using very little movement. To see the shoe in the green boot's spare bed, breathing with the deep and even breath of sleep...there is a tenderness in this moment that for me is the highlight of the film.

A green boot invites the blue shoe to tea. © FableVision.

The use of story and metaphor is the strongest element in the film. Told completely through voice over, by an omniscient narrator with a warm and knowing voice, the story moves us through the landscape with the shoe. The shoe and the boot never speak. Voice over is a tricky thing to do well without overpowering the visuals, but here it enables the viewer to assume the role of the blue shoe. If the shoe and the boot were to speak, I'm not sure the viewer would be able to have this same connection. And who hasn't felt like the blue shoe at one time or another? Reynolds has the unique ability to tap into the universal fable, and makes no bones about saying that story is his primary concern. In fact FableVision's mission states that they aim to create "stories that move." He jokes that FableVision wouldn't mind doing a film in My Dinner with Andre-mation. "Basically, that movie was a two-hour film with a locked down shot. They had a great conversation and it was what they said that mattered. It wasn't about actors leaping over taxis with big explosions in the background. The obvious direction in animation is to make things move, and move fast. You look at kid's programming and everyone is so busy trying to out-do each other that you can hardly see the characters, they're zinging around the screen so fast. With My Dinner with Andre-mation you will fall asleep or turn it off if the story isn't there. The responsibility to have a good story is much greater if you use a quieter, gentler animation style."

The green boot turns out to be the unlikely match for the blue shoe. © FableVision.

The Blue Shoe brings to light what animation is, and why we bother with it. How do you make a shoe seem vulnerable and a boot seem gentle and kind, especially ones that never speak? It is an eloquent combination of movement, stillness and story-telling that allows us to put our heart into the soul of this little shoe. Reynolds creates adult children's stories that satiate and remind us to go outside of the lines. After seeing the film I remember feeling like somehow a light had been turned on inside of me. I felt a little indignant. "What do you mean it's okay to dream, to be vulnerable, to search?" Sometimes we need to be reminded. The Blue Shoe A story by Peter Reynolds Animated by Peter Reynolds, John Lechner and Gary Goldberger Narrated by Richard Davies Edited by Keri Green and Adem Bush Produced by Gary Goldberger Directed by Peter Reynolds and Gary Goldberger Executive Producer William Churchill Distribution: Link Entertainment, London, U.K. Marcy Gardner, a PBS groupie, is committed to working on quality educational children's programming with heart, humor and great visuals. To date she has worked on Sesame Street, Arthur and is currently working on a new production of the hit 1970's children's show ZOOM at WGBH in Boston.

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