Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Dream Come True: Uncle Ralph Lives

I haven't been blogging everyday for November, but I have been working on a creative project (see above). It all started when we went to my sister-in-law's house for Halloween. Alicia and her husband Rick are unstoppably creative. For example, they have built a spook house in their basement that they keep up all year around and change every couple of months. It is outstanding and imaginative.

While we were at their house, the kids were watching a Rankin & Bass Halloween movie, Mad Monster Party. I watched a bit of it and was entranced, as usual, with the puppetry and animation. I wandered out on the enclosed porch with my brother-in-law, Rick. He was puffing on a pipe and I started telling him about how I've always wanted to make a stop-motion animation film.

"Why don't you?" he asked.

"Well, I'd need a script," I said.

He didn't say anything. We looked out over the foggy valley beyond the Rocky Fork Creek that runs in front  of their house. Then a thought occurred to me. I have a ton of material...all of the Uncle Ralph stuff I've written here! All of a sudden, the penny dropped and I suddenly knew how I could make it all happen. I also felt super-grateful for Rick's capacity for silence that gave me room to make this discovery. I moved away from all the obstacles and into the realm of the possible.

Doc and I started talking about it on the way home from their house. Then, we decided to make it happen. We are fortunate that we live in Speedy's old house. Speedy and his wife bought this house in the 50's when it was new and lived a very long and happy life together, if the love notes that are still taped to the inside of cupboard doors have anything to say about it. Speedy was a handy man and a shelf-builder extraordinaire. So, we had TONs of materials to start this project.

We began by building the set with a large piece of particle board...about 4x4. I had purchased a $30 circular saw and we angled the sides in slightly. Once that was built and suspended over two steel saw horses, Doc set the latter on top of it and climbed up into the rafters in our garage to pull down several pieces of paneling, press board and MDF that Speedy had stashed away for a rainy day. We also pulled down an ancient pair of wooden saw horses, who gave their life (and 2x4's) to support our walls.

After a few trips to Pat Catan's, or Pakistan's as my Grandma Jean used to call it, with Scotland (the Capn) and Elizabeth. We were ready to design and dress the set. And finish making Uncle Ralph, who is a drawing dummy under all that felt. I recorded Scotland doing the voice for Uncle Ralph.

The wallpaper and floor are contact paper. Doc made the wainscoting. Elizabeth covered the straw chair in felt and stuffing and doilies, and the kids decorated the tree.

We were nearly finished and ready to film, or so I thought. But Doc insisted that we build him a fireplace. I'm glad we did. It is a block of 2x4's glued together (another gift from Speedy). Doc cut out the fireplace part and painted it a shiny silver, selected from Speedy's vast collection of spray paint. 

Then we broke up a piece of Speedy's slate and hot glued the pieces to the front of the fireplace. Now we were ready.

It was Doc and me in the garage on a very cold night. We set the tripod and the camera. We watched  listened to short pieces of the video of Scotland and started filming. At first we tried to animate every single syllable. We were sure it would take us DAYS. We spent about three painstaking hours doing this. Doc would move the felt lips and the wooden arms and I would hold the camera in place and take the pictures. We thought we maybe had 10 seconds of material.

Then I loaded all the pictures into Movie Maker and the voice track. We set the pictures to .1 second duration and let her rip. We were confused to see that the images didn't exactly line up to the speech we thought we were animating. But we were pleasantly surprised by the fact that it didn't really matter. The movements matched the words, for the most part. And the unsteadiness of the camera gave it a Super 8 effect...totally the look I was going for. So after some careful cutting and pasting, we had a complete short film.

Now all we needed was the music. Doc and I went back and forth about what we should do. He suggested I play the piano. I wanted something better than that. So I convinced him to check out the royalty free music on iStock Photo. We found the perfect music: The First Flakes of Christmas. It was so earnest and heartfelt and very sweet, a nice counterpoint to Uncle Ralph's gruffness.

So last night, we finished up the editing and announced the birth of Uncle Ralph to Scotland and Elizabeth. They came over and we toasted our efforts and watched it together. It was a wonderful moment of the realization of a dream. Ever since Davy and Goliath and Rankin and Bass, I've always wanted to make a stop motion animation film. And since then, I've been blown away by Nick Park and Aardman Animations, who are responsible for Wallace and Grommet. I'm fascinated by the miniatures and the attention to detail on the sets.

I am so thankful to have the friends and family I have. Their creativity and willingness to pitch in humble me. And now I don't have to mail Christmas cards. Uncle Ralph will handle our message this year. So, watch the video and take the message to heart. Also, share the hell out of it, please.


  1. So that's how Uncle Ralph happened, how cool! ANd a lot of work! :)
    Also, next time I come down to visit, I'd loce to go to Alicia and Rick's spook house, that sounds like so much fun.
    And it's clear just how uncreative I am, but I'm grateful that I can appreciate the creativity of others. :)

  2. It was brilliant and made with love. Ain't that what the holidays are all about? That and me opening present after present? Thank you again for this gift.

  3. Uncle Ralph was such a wonderful holiday project! Kudos to all of you for this creation. I hope you and Uncle Ralph had a wonderful Christmas!

  4. God Bless ye, Uncle Ralph!!