EDITOR’S NOTE: As a feature guy for decades in West Virginia media, I kept an eye peeled for talented folks. One was Sam Holdren, a multitalented location scout now based in New Mexico. So, it was with delight I viewed the 8:24 minutes of the cartoon below. On one level, it’s a stylish, bravura piece of animation and storytelling. On another, it’s a timely, much-needed example of how original work can speak truth to out-of-control-power—a power intent on sowing deadly confusion for the sake of maintaining itself. We of a left-of-center persuasion are good at preaching to each other (“Can I get an a-MEN?!”) Sam’s piece, despite what you may expect from its titling, is actually a piece of compassionate outreach—to people who may end up killing themselves or the people they love. Or you. Or me. I recommend sending this page link or the video address (https://vimeo.com/439446257) to anyone in your orbit whose ear you have, but who vacillate on wearing masks. Or who finally have doubts about the folks telling them not to. Please do NOT miss the ending. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno, editor-and-chef
CLICK CARTOON TO VIEW, THEN HANG AROUND for the Q-and-A BELOW
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: What’s your background in film and animation? How old were you when you concluded: moving images and storytelling is it for me?
SAM HOLDREN: I was marked by film and television at age two. I started experimenting with animation in middle and high school, sometimes incorporating it into projects. Admittedly, sometimes my animation efforts boosted my grades and blatantly glossed over the fact I had very little interest at the time in the actual subject matter of the reports or projects. It was in the days before most of us had—or could afford—home computers, which (especially at a consumer level) didn’t have nearly enough power to handle what we take for granted today on our phones.
‘Originals’ is a WestVirginiaVille occasional series, showcasing original multimedia work by folks with a West Virginia connection. Got a suggestion?
However, then I discovered around the dawn of the 1990s, that our shiny new JVC-brand VHS camcorder could record what seemed like the equivalent of one frame on the tape—if you pressed the record button to start, then quickly pressed it again to stop it before the camera registered that it was recording. In other words, in the viewfinder you would see just a quick red flash of “REC,” before the camera resumed standby mode. If that hadn’t happened, it may have been several years before I even attempted animation again, if at all.
My animations back then ranged between cutout-animation, limited animation, and stop-motion; sometimes with characters and sometimes as animated title sequences for home movies. A few years after that, in Spring semester 2001, I took Steve Gilliland’s ‘Animation Production’ course as an undergrad at WV State University. I had the opportunity to work on an animation stand for the first time and have more control over the final results. Digital editing technology had started becoming more normalized.
The piece was made partly through improvisation, but mostly by having a lucid mind without caring about what others think.
During that semester, I produced a very rudimentary, minimalist cutout-animation. It ultimately became a 2-minute piece called “Blah,” which is available on Vimeo and YouTube. To my absolute shock, that little piece generated the kind of laughter any audience-addict would crave. When it started winning awards locally … well, it would be several years before I had the capacity to really break down not only people’s response to it, but also why that one felt different while making it.
What I learned later was this: 1) It doesn’t have to be Disney-quality animation at all to provoke a response, so long as people are invested in the content and the timing; and 2) The piece was made partly through improvisation, but mostly by having a lucid mind without caring about what others think, and a willingness to enjoy the process as much as (if not more than) the outcome.
And dear Steve Gilliland, whose colleague I eventually became during my teaching days at State, kept “Blah” alive in the Communications program for several years by screening it for his succeeding sections of the animation course. After that, my work was almost entirely on live-action pieces, more often than not as an operational force rather than a creative one. Any animation knowledge I possessed was occasionally snuck into other projects via text graphics or the occasional visual effect.
But I never made another animated piece … until now.
WVVILLE: Whose work initially inspired you?
SH: It was a combination of films and filmmakers that initially inspired me. Considering it was the early to mid 1980s, Spielberg opened my eyes and heart. But “Star Trek” opened my mind. And mainstream films like “Nine to Five,” “Arthur,” and “Being There” each became richer experiences over time, as I gained the ability and words to describe what drew me to those films aside from the comedy. Most of my heroes and heroines have passed on. Some, ages ago.
WVVILLE: Whose work or career example in 2020 do you esteem? Name some works that are the apex of the kind of thing that moves you.
SH: The kind of work that moves me comes in many different forms, because I’ve seen so much yet never enough. So, it’s complicated to address without feeling reductionist. I’m moved by features like “The Remains of the Day,” “Summertime,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “Call Me By Your Name.” But I’m just as moved by the black comedy works of Paddy Chayeksky or the absurdism of Jacques Tati to Lindsey Anderson. Or the meaningful satire offered by everyone from Norman Lear to Robert Altman, from Armando Iannucci to Jordan Peele.
And that doesn’t even include so many makers of amazing short films, both live-action or animated. I can name drop the late animator Břetislav Pojar and his master works “E” and “Balablok” as easily as Chuck Jones'”Duck Amuck” and Robert Cannon’s “Gerald McBoing-Boing.”
But if it helps, I recommend checking out my Letterboxd account (letterboxd.com/SamHoldren), where you can find my lifetime stats and ratings, along with a list of my 20 favorite features.
WVVILLE: Who is some creative force with whom you’d like to dine?
SH: In 2020, I would happily have a round-table restaurant dinner with Paul Thomas Anderson, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, Yorgos Lanthimos, Greta Gerwig, Bong Joon-Ho, Marielle Heller, and Armando Iannucci—even just to listen to their nervous banter before opening up and letting everything rip.
But bear in mind, I’ve literally seen 5,000+ works. So, there are definitely scores of creatives, above and below-the-line other than directors with whom I’d happily dine. But then again, in 2020 I’d happily have a restaurant dinner with nearly anyone, if it were safe.
WVVILLE: What does a location scout do and what role do they serve in how a movie is conceived and developed?
SH: Locations Department is still a mysterious part of a film and media production. A Location Scout finds the places where a production will shoot (if they exist or can be doubled). And/or they find where a production will set up its operations while working on location.
However, a Location Manager is responsible for locking down contracts and payments with each location owner. They oversee an entire department that accomplishes everything from designing maps; working with government offices to acquire permits; alerting neighborhoods ahead of a production and keeping them happy during filming; working with vendors to make sure locations are prepped and safe; that there are always restrooms, pop-up tents, coolers, or heaters, on-site for cast and crew; that the locations themselves are restored better than their original condition.
There is so much more that we do other than just finding the places. But I’ll just say it’s challenging, but invisible work that I’ve really enjoyed for many reasons.
WVVILLE: What was the impetus—the original ‘I just have to do this!—behind “The Ballad of Kyle T. Magatt”?
SH: When I saw armed, but unmasked counter-protesters storming state capitols and screaming in the faces of masked medical professionals, blabbering on about their rights and their so-called patriotism, while putting so many others at risk, and making it impossible for so many of us to return to work—I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Compounded that with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others, and the complete mismanagement of the pandemic response by a dangerously incompetent and corrupt administration … I mean, good grief!
So, by the end of April, I knew I wouldn’t be returning to work full-time except for remote contractor stuff. I started character-designing a little in Photoshop; tested my skill on a few backgrounds, and then started researching the capabilities of available animation programs. Once I saw that maybe the technology had advanced to the point it would work with how my brain and attention span work, I started development in May. All of the work happened inside my apartment.
WVVILLE: Who exactly is the audience for it? Progressives do a lot of preaching to the choir on social media, but while there is some ‘red hat’ send-up and mockery in your “Ballad,” your aim seems bigger than dissing ‘MAGA’ folk.
SH: It’s natural to ask about who the audience is. And usually, on the rare occasions I get to make a piece anymore, I keep the target audiences in mind while I’m producing the piece (even if I’m deliberately creating something that isn’t intended to be audience-pleasing, or entirely digestible upon first viewing).
But let me tell you plain and simple—if I had cared about who the audience is for “The Ballad of Kyle T. MaGatt,” I never would have finished the piece. I never would have produced one single frame. Some creatives work really well through an audience or market-catering mindset, and for some pieces that’s a really effective way to work.
For me—especially with a piece like “Kyle MaGatt”— market-based thinking is the perfect way to strangle the grapes on the vine. If you’re extremely cognitive like me, it just makes you second-guess every single choice, and puts you in a mindset to keep seeking approval from increasing numbers of people. All because one person may have looked at a trend or a graph and then made you more concerned about the people you wouldn’t reach versus the ones you would. I have no interest in dying this year, physically or creatively.
My emotional core for the entire cartoon is that no matter how frustrated, angry, and exhausted I am by the Kyle MaGatts (and Karens) of this country, I don’t want them to die.
But yes, my aim is definitely higher than simply eviscerating a group of people with whom I strongly disagree. (SPOILER WARNING: Stop reading if you haven’t seen the “Ballad” through to its conclusion!).
The piece—even the process of making it—is completely disposable if I don’t have some kind of compassion for Kyle MaGatt. My emotional core for the entire cartoon is that no matter how frustrated, angry, and exhausted I am by the Kyle MaGatts (and Karens) of this country, I don’t want them to die.
Especially not because of a preventable virus. Not alone. For nothing. Even with its satire, the story is a tragedy. When Kyle dies at the end, in his actual adult form, it’s really a tragedy. Because the character I show you for the rest of the piece in the form of a cute cartoony child is really just a fragile little person suffering the conniving effects of toxic masculinity and pride.
All the topical political and social satire and the Seussian rhymes and styling is really just a smoke-screen for a portrait of someone unable or unwilling to grow beyond a thick cartoon outline presented to the world, suffering a lot of pain and confusion that he isn’t capable of expressing in a healthier way.
I have no expectations or pretensions whatsoever that anyone who watches the work will come away actively voicing recognition of these things. That’s deeper than most people are willing or able to give back to you, and I really am distracting you with the art, style, essential story, and the surprise by the very form it’s all taking.
But it’s all there.
Ultimately, I’m a human first; and I want everyone to be safe and healthy. But my compassion for the more tragic Kyles of the world doesn’t mean I excuse their behaviors or the dangers of their philosophies—to quote your tiresome current governor: “In every way, shape, form, or fashion.”
WVVILLE: What role do creatives and makers have to play in a time of political and social turbulence? Is escapist fare not called for and everyone should be, like, ‘All hands on deck! Iceberg approaches!’
SH: Not every creative is hardwired to generate works for times like these. And that’s okay. There is nothing wrong with escapist fare, because the best of it is still relatable on a social or emotional level—and many of us still need it on our hardest days.
I take times like these very seriously, because we are right now walking a razor’s edge where every existential nightmare I’ve ever had is coming true
But if you are hard-wired this way, there is absolutely a responsibility to express yourself in the ways you know how. Social media post … tweet… documentary … animated work … by joining a demonstration… Or simply by amplifying someone else’s voice.
I take times like these very seriously, because we are right now walking a razor’s edge where every existential nightmare I’ve ever had is coming true. I was partly raised by my grandmother, who came of age during the Great Depression in Oklahoma, during the Dust Bowl era, living her own Steinbeck novel. She instilled in me over the 29 1/2 years I had her a cautionary awareness.
Elsewhere, though I’m not Jewish, but the Holocaust and its imagery along with any genocide really has also marked my mindset. And as I learned more about actual American history, and gained more insight into the relationship the history of my own industry has had during the major events of the 20th century, I remain fully aware that a revitalized form of McCarthyism (i.e. fear-based nationalism that takes the form of committee witch-hunts set up to Blacklist individuals for what they believe) is within reach again.
We’ve certainly—and all-too-easily—repeated the horrors of Japanese internment camps through the cruel family separations and unforgivable long-term imprisoning of their children at the southern borders.
And to be dealing with this during a global pandemic that a portion of our population still doesn’t believe is even real? Even now?
WVVILLE: What do you feel are the stakes, as someone who works in a creative field, in the 2020 election and the times we’re living through?
SH: The stakes this year—not just for the United States, but for the planet itself—are infinitely high. So high, that far too many cannot see the forest for the trees to comprehend the basic math of the situation. And just how simple it really is to commit to doing the right thing that would help us begin the process of reversing all of this.
If you still choose to plummet over that edge, please understand that you are pulling the rest of us over that edge with you.
Even if you don’t like the answer, even if you don’t feel the answer is ideal … it’s right there in front of you. It’s the only thing standing between you and the edge. And if you still choose to plummet over that edge, please understand that you are pulling the rest of us over that edge with you. As artists, we have a responsibility to put you back in touch with your empathy, so that you do not do these things to the rest of us.
WVVILLE: Can you sketch the technical/creative details of “The Ballad of Kyle T. Magatt”—how many hours/days/weeks to create? How many folks? How’d you do the animation? Would you do it again?
SH: I’ll answer the last part first. Yes, I would do it again. And again and again. I don’t know if I could do it better, but maybe more efficiently.
“The Ballad of Kyle T. MaGatt” took around 900 hours over four months to create. I’m the writer, director, animator, voice artist, music composer, and sound editor. There are many other hats I wore, but those are the titles I’ll claim. My best friend and roommate Stephen Hanson—who is also from West Virginia and works in the film industry—helped monitor levels during the main voice recording session, and he designed the vintage poster. The rest was on me.
The main stylistic inspiration for Kyle MaGatt was Robert Cannon’s 1950 short “Gerald McBoing-Boing” (created by Dr. Seuss!), who is essentially a kind of inversion of the lovable, but misunderstood Gerald.
The entire piece was made on my laptop, sitting on my couch for hours at a time, nearly every day as one might methodically occupy the time crocheting. The animation process occurred over the final six weeks of the four month production, which I accomplished using Adobe Animate (an updated version of what used to be known as Flash).
Since I was trying to replicate the look, sound quality, and feel of an aged, but vintage 1950s theatrical cartoon from the late, great animation studio UPA (United Productions of America), I couldn’t allow myself to use all the bells and whistles available in the software that might have increased my workflow, but would have compromised the precision of such an era-specific style and vibe. The original UPA animators made very specific choices about design, movement, and uses of color, particularly in Robert Cannon’s 1950 short “Gerald McBoing-Boing” (created by Dr. Seuss!), which was the main stylistic inspiration for Kyle MaGatt, who is essentially a kind of inversion of the lovable, but misunderstood Gerald.
But really, if you’re talking about the animation, then hopefully, it means I got the sound and music right. Every crack and pop in the mono-mixed soundtrack was made to sound like a recording that has experienced better days … the virtual orchestration and mixing of the music cues … the liberal use of many of the same sound effects used by the works I’m evoking …
I mean, none of what you see onscreen matters if the sound and music design doesn’t accurately evoke some aspect of your childhood. As if you just unearthed an artifact at an ungodly early hour one Saturday morning. When you discover within the burgeoning glow of your floor-model Zenith television that airing by chance before the “real” cartoons come on later is something called … “The Bullwinkle Show.”
WVVILLE: Ask yourself a question that you wish someone would ask you about you or your work. Then answer it.
SH: “Sam… ol’ buddy, ol’ pal… what can I do to help you out?”
Take me seriously. Support my work, even if you don’t agree with it. Show it to people who have the power or influence to do something. And then (Sam types with a smirk and a wink) maybe it won’t take another 18 years and a global pandemic before I can produce another piece that truly reflects my voice.
In the meantime… please #WearAMask.
Born in Charleston, WV, Sam Holdren has lived several lives and worn many hats working in and around the film and media production industry, as a film worker and occasional award-winning creative. A current member of the Location Managers Guild International (LMGI) and I.A.T.S.E. Local 480, Holdren used to work part-time for the late WV Film Office, as their locations librarian. He was formerly full-time faculty for two years at WV State University, teaching filmmaking, screenwriting, and production. A current resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Holdren graduated from Temple University with an M.F.A. (terminal degree) in Film & Media Arts and earned his B.S. in Communications and B.A. in English from West Virginia State College (now University). For more about his diverse credits on productions of every kind, check out his IMDb page: www.imdb.me/samholdren.
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