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CAUGHT ON FILM

Writer/Director Profile: Joe Schenkenberg

by Margot C. Lester
One of the most popular films at last November’s Carrboro Film Festival was Wiggle Room, a stop-motion animated short that won best animation, best character and an audience award.

The film is the brainchild of local writer/director Joe Schenkenberg.

“One night my girlfriend and I were thinking about making a film and messing around with stop motion,” he recalls. “Somehow, I started talking about how I used to get creeped out by slugs on the steps of my house. My parents poured salt on them and that freaked me out. I felt bad for them. Suddenly, we had a sympathetic character that was a slug.”

Sympathetic? OK. Simple? No.

Production values
“I thought it would be a simple blob of slime moving around and that we’d have it done in around a week,” he laughs. Nine months later, the film was finished. Though incredibly time consuming – frames roll, then stop, elements adjusted, frames roll again, repeat – the painstaking attention to detail and the (ahem) sluggish pace felt familiar.

“I was already spending hours to get one shot right on the other stuff I was shooting, so this made sense to me.”

A prototype of the slug Joe Schenkenberg created for Wiggle Room, his stop-motion animated short film. Photo courtesy of Joe Schenkenberg


The hardest part, by far, was creating the adorable little leading man. There are a couple-dozen shots on Schenkenberg’s website, moviemagicnow.com, that chronicle Little Slugworth’s evolution into the cute-if-not-cuddly character (click on the Photos tab).

“It took a month and a half just to get the slug right,” he explains. “And after one second of animation, it would be deformed and I’d have to redo it. Just the eyes could take 30 minutes to do.”

Compared to that, making a saltshaker appear evil was a cinch, even for a first-time stop-motion filmmaker.

A self-described perfectionist, Schenkenberg wanted to shoot the film in an actual environment, not a diorama, which is the industry standard for this genre. (Santa Claus is Coming to Town and your other Rankin-Bass stop-motion classics were shot on mini-sets.) He painted his kitchen, procured some fun utensils and objets and started shooting. Kendall Music, the aforementioned girlfriend, co-wrote the story, helped with the lighting and donated some of her artwork for the kitchen walls. Graham Jones provided the score.

The result is a beautifully shot film in wide-angle and full of saturated colors. It’s a vibrant world of opportunity and danger for the little slug who has a fun romp around the kitchen before meeting his demise.

Joe Schenkenberg’s Wiggle Room, a stop-motion animated short, was a hit at last November’s Carrboro Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Joe Schenkenberg


Backstory
Schenkenberg got into movies at age 10, when he started buying movie scores and soundtracks.
“I didn’t grow up watching much stop-motion,” Schenkenberg says. He found inspiration for Wiggle Room in modern stop-motion masters like Henry Selick (Coraline, James and the Giant Peach), who uses beautiful animation to tell compelling stories.

“There’s something about stop-motion animation that you can’t mimic with CGI [computer-generated imagery] – that jitteriness, the imperfection. It feels real. It’s enduring.”

At Appalachian State University, he took a few Adobe Photoshop classes, got a little video camera and shot some footage with his buddies. That turned into an Internet business selling stock video footage online. His penchant for finding great items at local thrift shops and reselling them on eBay not only supplements his income but also makes production design for his films a lot easier. Schenkenberg also tends bar from time to time.

“I’m a fan of great storytelling – The NeverEnding Story, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure – and escapist films, like those Pixar shorts,” he explains. “They pull you from happy to sad through the film and then back to fun for the credits. Wiggle Room’s like that. It makes you feel like a kid again.”

Festival circuit
Since its premiere at the Carrboro Film Festival, Wiggle Room has been accepted to other events, including the Indie Grits Festival (Columbia, S.C.), the D.C. Independent Film Festival and the Savannah International Animation Festival. Schenkenberg is most excited about the film’s recent selection to the Atlanta Film Festival, which is an Oscar qualifier. Winners of the “Best Live Action Narrative Short” and “Best Animated Short” categories are eligible for Academy Award consideration.

Despite the acclaim, Schenkenberg’s content to keep plying his trade in the Southern Part of Heaven, where he’s lived since third grade.

“Carrboro is a great community for film work,” he says. “People are always working on something creative.” And that suits him. “My goal is to keep making films and keep improving.”

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