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(if it has a paywall, here is the text, (c) 2023 by the Big Rapids Pioneer, with many thanks to Dylan Schwartz and several fun conversations over the past few days! Go, journalism!)
BIG RAPIDS — Local animator, Big Rapids native and Ferris State University alumnus Jim Middleton recently provided his talents to a documentary about comedian Buster Keaton.
“Home,” a film by Clear Vision Films that examines the early years of renowned comedian Buster Keaton in Muskegon’s Bluffton neighborhood, wrapped up filming in July and is currently screening at national film festivals before going on general release this coming year.
The production started in 2017 but was delayed by the pandemic until it could resume last year. The 90-minute film that is currently in limited release required hours of interviews to be condensed.
As soon as the pandemic started, Middleton, an internationally renowned animator, was asked to contribute further visuals to the project.
Middleton started his animation journey as a child watching Disney cartoons on Sunday nights.
After his parents pushed him to learn a trade, Middleton became a pharmacist while continuing to work on his animation.
“I kept working on my drawing. I discovered some of the best art lessons you can learn are just to make an animated cartoon because you have to do 500 to 2,000 of them to make anything more than a flipbook,” he said.
Middleton was excited to work on the Buster Keaton project.
“My first reaction was ‘hot diggity.’ I’ve been a big fan of Buster Keaton since I was a kid. I really admire his sense of cinema, his sense of humor, and what he was able to do physically that we have to have computers to do now, he was doing it all in a silent venue,” he said.
He created more material than was ultimately necessary for the project, giving the producers space to edit to fit the narration.
“I created about six to seven minutes of animation for the project because they were in the process of continually editing, and I was in the process of always adding more footage. Everything I drew was shot long, they would probably pull parts out of it,” he said.
Middleton was required to create animated segments to fit the sometimes surreal moments of the film as the “narrative arc” took shape.
“It was a slight challenge to develop a storyboard without any real script for guidance,” he said. “However, my lifelong affection for Keaton’s work made finding reference material a relatively quick task. And having copies of all his surviving films in my archive helped quite a bit.”
He approached it similarly to creating a silent movie.
“I created sequences that were all visually driven. There were no opportunities for dialogue, it was pretty much thinking along the ways you would approach a silent movie,” he said.
Middleton kept in mind the period and made efforts to make it look old, not like modern cartoons.
“I would develop a layout, I would bring it into a digital format, where I would draw it in a digital tablet but I wanted to keep it looking real, not like a typical present-day Spongebob, CGI cartoon, more along the lines of something that may have been animated in the late ‘40s, that was my kind of goal for it,” he said.
He enjoyed the freedom this project afforded him.
“To me, it was an opportunity to experiment and explore. I was given pretty much free rein,” he said.
Middleton implores those who are unfamiliar with Buster Keaton to check out his work.
“This was a hoot from start to finish. If you haven’t seen Buster Keaton, go to YouTube or download it. All of his films are public domain and they have 4k resolutions out there. Each one of them is just a visual treat,” he said.
Middleton currently holds the position of secretary for ASIFA Central, a regional branch of the International Animation Association established in 1960.
For many years, he organized screenings and lesson plans throughout the state. He recently resigned from teaching “and other distractions” to move to Edmore, where he continues to make movies, blog nonstop, and plan an annual animation festival there every October.
2023 International Animation Day Celebration will take place from 1 to 3
p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 29, at the Curtis Community Building, 209 Sheldon
St., Edmore. (note - there will be other venues around the State and immediate area, including Grand Rapids, Mt. Pleasant, and Midland - check your local papers - the locations and times will be added to this blog as information trickles in!)