Andy Smetanka figures he’s about halfway done with the stop-motion animation on “And We Were Young,” his feature-length oral history of World War I.
Since he began work a year and a half ago, the Missoula silhouette artist has completed about 100 minutes of animation comprising about 120,000 shots.
For each of those shots, he positions a cutout silhouette over a colorful background, clicks the shutter on his 30-year-old Russian Super 8 camera, and repeats the process again. And again, and again.
It’s been a “long, dark night of animation” since November, he said.
But now he needs voices to narrate it. Mostly older voices that are scratchy, gravelly and reflective. He needs male voices, mostly, but women as well.
They’ll help Smetanka, who’s made a music video for Portland, Ore., indie-folk band the Decemberists and had his work featured in a documentary by Guy Maddin, tell the real stories of American doughboys as they are recruited for the war, engage in bloody battles and long marches in France, and return to a country that had not yet acknowledged post-traumatic stress disorder.
He and producer John Cook are seeking local residents, no acting experience required. Just folks who can contribute a certain kind of reading.
“Reading in a way that people find themselves somewhat surprised to be telling the story,” Smetanka said. “Not emoting, not really chewing the scenery and going for it, but maybe finding some kind of natural resonances.”
Like “someone basically reading a letter home,” Cook said.
There’s no guarantee that everyone who reads will be used in the final film, but “it is a cool opportunity for people to lend their voices to what may turn into an important historical document,” Cook said.
Anyone who’s interested can call (406) 396-4628, or email email@example.com. They can also stop by the Stensrud Building at 314 N. First St. W. on Saturday, June 29, where Smetanka is holding a “halfway party” for the project. There will Smetanka’s light boxes on display, food, beverages, a sneak preview of brand-new footage from the film, and music by country group Death Moth. There is a suggested donation of $5.
A “halfway party” is an understandable event for the project, which consists mostly of Smetanka and Cook. It’s consumed up to 40 to 50 hours of Smetanka’s weeks since it began in earnest.
He cut out the first silhouettes in November 2011, when his wife and children were out of town. He was snowed in at the Moon-Randolph Homestead, where he was then caretaker.
“I was so drawn to World War I visually that I think I started cutting things out wondering what I could do with them,” he said.
He’d been tinkering with the idea of making unsolicited music videos for songs by his favorite bands – “a cowardly postponement of the inevitable,” he calls it.
After reading James Hallas’ account of American troops in WWI, “Doughboy War,” the lightning bolt struck and he decided to make an oral history in silhouettes.
In May 2012, Cook, fresh from his successful fundraising for the Montana-made adaptation of James Welch’s “Winter in the Blood,” helped launch a Kickstarter campaign for Smetanka, and exceeded their target by raising $32,128.
Smetanka has since filled his studio at the Zootown Arts Community Center with a small army of soldiers, miniature guns and stock scenery. It’s the most labor-intensive part of the project, but he’s finished the battle scenes, including historic ones such as Sarbonne and Belleau Wood. Most of the remaining cutout work will involve picket fences and girlfriends back home.
One hurdle came early, when Smetanka heard that Kodak was discontinuing the Ektachrome color reversal film he is shooting on.
“We were caught totally unawares, although it turns out that Kodak had announced the discontinuation months earlier and the lab that processed my footage hadn’t said a thing about it in my conversations with them,” Smetanka wrote in an email. “I guess that’s what I get for not keeping up with Super 8 news, but when you know your dinosaur of a medium is barreling headlong toward extinction anyway ... ”
Nevertheless, he and Cook ordered as much as they could afford to complete the project.
Despite its time-consuming nature and the scarcity of film stock, the Super 8 enthusiast favors this particular medium for its analog qualities and flaws.
“It’s light mixed with chemicals, it’s never exactly the same,” he said.
He said it’s more tangible and physical than video.
“And I love that. It also makes for distressed images, unstable images, hairy images, all by itself. It just comes out of the camera looking like that. I don’t even have to worry about how to simulate that look, which if nothing else is one less thing I have to worry about,” he said.
In addition to the artistic quality of the visuals in “And We Were Young,” Smetanka said he wants to capture the human experience of the war, not placenames and dates.
Cook and Smetanka are both equally awed by director Terrence Malick’s World War II film “The Thin Red Line,” and in particular “these moments of beauty amidst all that brutality where the soldiers just suddenly pause and are noticing the wave of grass,” Cook said.
“And We Were Young” doesn’t skimp on the horrors of war, and Smetanka said he’s taking a cue from Malick’s artistic pauses for a reason.
“I’m trying to have plenty of that in there to give you a chance to breathe and so on,” he said.
They also admire the “philosophical inquiry” of Malick’s work, and hope to capture a bit of that in “And We Were Young.”
Another factor in relating the “human experience” is ignoring many of the tropes of traditional documentary.
“It’s not going to have any kind of framing narrative, it’s not going to have talking heads, it’s not going to have stock footage, it’s not going have still photographs, he said. “It’s basically stripped of most of the elements of traditional documentary. But it still is,” Smetanka said.
He hopes to be finished with the animation by December and move on to whatever reshoots are necessary, and then record voices and edit the film. Composer Jason Staczek is writing a score.
Smetanka has shot far more footage than he can use in a feature-length film, and hopes to create a mini-series of sorts.
“There will be a feature version, then hopefully there will be an expanded version,” he said. The modular storytelling style can easily be expanded or broken down – one piece transitions organically into the next.
He and Cook want the film done in some fashion next year to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the war’s start in Europe.
“Next year, the cavalcade of 100-year observances and headlines and tours and probably I’m hoping ... that it will sort of be reflected in popular entertainment, too,” Smetanka said.