Are zombies funny? Animator Chris Walsh thinks so

Animator or re-animator? Meet Chris Walsh, a Toronto-area filmmaker whose zombie cartoons feature in this week's Fear episode of Exhibitionists.

Exhibitionists In Residence filmmaker uses stop-motion techniques to make horror-comedy

Springtime Zombie, one of the shorts featured on this Sunday's episode of Exhibitionists. (Chris Walsh)

Curious about the cartoons on this week's Exhibitionists? Chris Walsh is the brains behind them all. The bra-a-a-a-a-ins, really. The Toronto-area filmmaker has been finding the lighter side of the living dead for years.

"You can do a lot of fun things with zombies," Walsh tells CBC Arts. "One of those things is slapstick comedy," and a series of his stop-motion animation shorts appear in Sunday's show, gentle gags that won't give you nightmares — though we can't promise the same for the rest of the episode. This week's theme is Fear, after all.

Walsh knows the topic well. Cartoons like "Springtime Zombie" or "Fitness Class Zombie" are more "Frightenstein" than frightening, but he gets horror. He teaches film classes on the genre at Sheridan College — where he's also a stop-motion animation instructor (he's writing a book on the subject, due in 2018). He makes horror films, too. An animated short, The Shutterbug Man — narrated by Barbara Steele, the original scream queen — has been making the rounds at film festivals for the last year, and it's available for purchase through his website. It's an entirely different sort of monster movie than Walsh's zombie funnies, a grisly bogeyman tale that owes more to the Brothers Quay than Rankin Bass' Mad Monster Party. But then, that range isn't entirely surprising. Working in stop-motion animation, you can create any world you can think of.

"It's one of the most magical things you can imagine doing," Walsh says.

The (stop-motion) re-animator

"I love the fact that I can tap into something that is magic, even in an age of digital everything," Walsh says, talking about stop-motion animation — and he discovered the form after already establishing a career in the Toronto film and television industry. He was working as a set dresser, but developing screenplays on the side, hoping to bring his own stories to life, when he began teaching himself the craft.

"I was trying to move away from live-action production. You're a cog in a very big machine," he says. His housemate at the time, Alexander Gorelick, is an animator, and the more they talked about his work, Walsh was inspired. "I started to think, 'Yeah, this could be exactly the thing,'" he recalls. "The idea of working at such a small scale was actually quite liberating," Walsh says. He didn't need a cast and crew and loads of funding, just a small home studio — a table top, lights and camera. And with his friend's guidance, he "stepped out of the world and became a little monk for a couple of months — a stop-motion monk," until he was confident enough to produce a demo reel.

"It's a great medium for people who sort of want to put a stamp on things, who are auteurs in their own minds," he says. "It really does allow them to play god in a really comprehensive way."

The horror!

Play god? Just like Dr. Frankenstein, stop-motion animators can bring their own monsters to life — with far less homicidal results. Maybe that's why it's such a great fit for the horror genre, whether you're thinking of classic special effects or Walsh's own The Shutterbug Man. He has his own theories.

A still from Chris Walsh's short horror film, The Shutterbug Man. (Chris Walsh)

"You know, you often see horror stories that are told through stop motion. I think depending on the style of animation it can be uncanny and bizarre in a way the objects, the puppets move. … It can have an unsettling quality to it," he says. "That idea of a doll or puppet that's come to life? Typically it's a horrifying thing. There's something really creepy about the idea that something sitting on your shelf can turn on you like that."

Have no fear!

So you want to tell a scary story, too — or maybe a sad one, or a funny one, or a cutesy one. There's nothing holding you back — except fear itself. His No. 1 tip for newbie animators? Don't be intimidated.

"To use myself as an example, it's all about diving in," he says. "It's all really basic stuff," he continues. If you can get access to a table top, a camera, a computer and some basic software ("to grab the frames"), you can do stop-motion animation yourself. "Don't be held back by your fears," he says, "make stuff."

Watch Exhibitionists Sunday at 4:30pm (5pm NT) on CBC Television.


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