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VIFF 2016 Interview: THE SPARROW'S FLIGHT director Tom Schroeder

by Jason Whyte

"THE SPARROW'S FLIGHT is an animated collaboration with my dead friend Dave Herr. He designed and film and plays drums. And he's dead." Director Tom Schroeder on THE SPARROW'S FLIGHT which screens at VIFF 2016.

I am thrilled to welcome you to VIFF this year. Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

I have had films in the festival before (BIKE RACE, MARCEL, KING OF TERVUREN) but I have never attended. I teach at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the festival happens at a busy time of the year for me!

Tell me a bit about yourself and your background? Your bio, if you please!

I have been producing hand-drawn animated films since 1990. My films have been broadcast on Independent Lens, the Sundance Channel, Canal + France, SBS in Australia and CBC in Canada and have screened at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and Anthology Film Archives in New York, as well as playing widely on the international festival circuit. I have directed commercials for Kashi, Samsung and Hertz Car Rental and am currently represented as a director by Global Mechanic who are located in beautiful Vancouver, Canada.

How did this movie come together from your perspective?

My best friend of my adult life Dave Herr died in October, 2009. I knew that I would eventually make a film about my friendship with him but I waited six years to begin. I started in the basement that had functioned as Dave's studio. His activities and projects were frozen in time from the moment of his seizure, a snapshot of his life that day awkwardly and vulnerably preserved in boxes, on shelves and on hard drives. As I started to scroll through the files on Dave's hard drives, I realized that the memory on these drives, this digital storage was actually an extension of his organic memory.

Dave's arcane interests were cataloged alphabetically; 18th century biologist Ernst Haeckel's illustrations, design drawings by Naum Gabo for his sculptures, 1950s' robot toys, Arkansas State Prison head shots from 1915, architectural drawings from early 1970s' utopian community design, folder after folder of Dave's collected inspirations. I also found folder after folder of Dave's own design work. As I began to open the individual Photoshop and Illustrator files, I noted that he had archived all of his work with the original layers intact. I immediately recognized the unintentional opportunity he had given me to animate the different elements of his compositions, to bring his designs to life with motion. As the days passed, I found thousands of his photographs, hundreds of video shots he had captured digitally. All of these files would allow me to collaborate with Dave on one last project by virtue of his preserved hard drive memory.

The primary, foundational materials upon which I decided to construct the film were the Super 8 films we had shot in the Wisconsin barn in the late 1980s, which I kept in a box in my studio.

While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively?

Animation is a particularly grueling process, executing every frame of the film individually, so it's easy to lose perspective or inspiration. I'm generally motivated by a curiosity to see what the film will look like in the end, how the style will come together in expression of the content.

What was your biggest challenge with THE SPARROW’S FLIGHT?

Because THE SPAROW'S FLIGHT is such a personal film the biggest challenge was simply being overcome with sadness. Some days instead of drawing or animating, I simply sat in a chair, paralyzed. Ultimately, the film began to feel like play again, the sort of play that Dave and I had always shared creatively, and then he began to feel alive to me again. I was excited to work.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

One day as I watched Super 8 footage I had shot of Dave walking through tall grass with his Super 8 camera 1988, I suddenly wondered, "Where are the reels of film that Dave shot?" At one point in this roll of film Dave rotated slowly toward me with his camera, filming me filming him. I rushed across town to his basement and started unpacking his boxes, looking for the distinctive blue plastic containers that held the processed Super 8 film. Hours passed as I emptied box after box. I spent a whole afternoon searching and found nothing. I thought, "He probably threw them out at some point when he was moving and wanted to get rid of things."

Just as I was conceding defeat, I decided to open one last small box that I thought I had probably already been through once. I opened it and saw the blue plastic reels! I returned home with the box and watched Dave's film until I located the missing piece of the puzzle. There was the shot of the tops of the grass and there was the rotation of the landscape and me appearing in the frame with my camera pointed at him. I had restored these two points in space and time to their proper relationship, to the long past, brief simultaneity that had accidentally occurred on a summer day thirty years previously. I felt a strange sense of power that transcended the mere satisfaction of research well done. I had isolated a kernel of permanence in the transience of my life. Time was merely an illusion and I was on my adventure again with Dave, regarding him regarding me regarding him.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and how you did the visual design.

The live action footage in the film was shot on Kodak Tri-X Black and White Super 8 film in the late 1980s. This is a documentary, so it was primarily an editing project rather than a shoot.

Where is this movie going to show next?

The film had its premiere in Annecy in June at the big animation festival, essentially the Cannes of the animation world. In Annecy I signed a contract with a German distributor, Magnetfilm, to handle the film. They sell primarily for broadcast, though also for VOD on itunes and Amazon. Some of the festivals coming up for THE SPARROW'S FLIGHT later this fall are Raindance, London Animation, Animatou in Geneva and Interfilm in Berlin.

If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?

I really had the most auspicious premiere possible with the film at Annecy. The Grand Salle in the Centre Bonlieu is huge with great sound and picture and filled with the most enthusiastic audience in the world for animation. In addition, I was sitting next to one of my heroes Igor Kovalov, who also had a new film in the same program. That's about the best I could hope for with the film.

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

My advice to my students is generally to know what's enough. Make a film that has meaning for you. Don't do it for attention, money, opportunities; if those follow great, if not, make another film that has meaning for you. If you make this the central habit of your life your films will ultimate reward you with a reasonable standard of living financially, emotionally and spiritually.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

Annecy is a great festival, not just for the animation/film culture, but also for the location in the French alps. I would say my favorite film is probably Jacques Tati's PLAYTIME because it's actually trained me how to see the world differently. The movie carries on out of the theater in one's interaction with the world.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 29th to October 14th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 10/07/16 19:27:51
last updated: 10/07/16 19:33:45
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