Stop motion 

On the phone from Queens, N.Y., animator and artist Martha Colburn sounds flustered about her upcoming trip to MOCAD. She's preoccupied with shooting another film, this one standing high up on an animation stand she built out of two-by-fours. It's so big she has to get up on a ladder to line up shots, and it allows her to mimic 3-D. "I built this three-level animation stand to shoot my film on in the next few weeks. I finally have depth after making films for, what, like, 10 years?" The animator, who is coming to Detroit next week, is understandably occupied with the conspicuous novelty, and a little sketchy on the details.

But Colburn makes clear that, instead of giving Detroit a staid "screening," she promises a full audiovisual jam. Detroiter Ian Clark will mix the sounds and Colburn will stitch it up visually, using two 16mm projectors showing excerpts from her animations and found footage. She'll even use hand-made colored filters to create what she calls a "light-picture show." Expect images of colonial history, natural disaster films and Colburn's own stop-motion animation.

The fantastic images in her films would be kind of intense without the charm of hand-made animation. It sort of makes sense when a holy saint is driving an automobile with a deer in the passenger seat, or when Noah's ark crashes on the rocks, spilling animals everywhere, which turn into tombs and graves. It's not shocking when saints cut up a man with a chainsaw, leaving the victim's head oozing paper blood. These dreamlike meditations play by their own rules.

In Colburn's films, the images come in a steady stream, cut out of photographs or magazines, sometimes tweaked in such a way you're left unsure whether they've been defaced or decorated. What knits it all together is Colburn's rough-and-ready animation, which jerks and jitters with an endearing warmth. The effect is utterly unique, and she's now made more than 40 films, including "music-art" films for bands and sequences in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnson.

Born in rural Pennsylvania, Colburn attended Baltimore's Maryland Institute College of Art. But it wasn't until after graduation that she started working with film in the mid-'90s, at first, by literally painting and scraping onto found film and re-editing it. Frustrated by trying to cut tiny titles into the film frame by frame, Colburn began shooting title sequences, which started her shooting shoestring films of her own.

The self-taught filmmaker says, "I got my whole film education at the Baltimore City Library." Instead of simply re-editing or deranging old films, stop-motion animation opened up the possibility for Colburn that she could do something truly "original," all while scraping away a bohemian life of odd jobs to make her labor of love possible.

But if stop-motion filmmaking is a labor of love, perhaps the emphasis should be on labor. To do it, you slightly alter the pieces of paper in front of a fixed camera, then stand back and expose a frame or two of film. It sounds easy enough, but you have to repeat this one step several thousand times before you'll have a five-minute-long film. That drudgery is something few artists are willing to endure.

But those who do suffer through it often arrive at an economical style that allows them to keep cranking out new work. And Colburn seems to have hit her stride as a filmmaker, saying she doesn't really want to do anything else, new media be damned. "I'm not seduced at all by computers," she says, adding a deadpan, "I hate them. Sorry."

Though she promises to screen a DVD of her films later in the night, come early to see what the animator says vaguely "should look like art." That's when they'll start mixing music with sound feeds from the projectors, which Colburn will keep running for at least a half hour or "until the machines fall apart, the films tangle or I cut my fingers!"

As part of MOCAD's inaugural fundraiser "Gold," presented by the New Wave, Martha Colburn collaborates live with Detroit's Ian Clark at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 29, at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622). Starting at 9:30 p.m., 10 Detroit bands cover pop music songs from the last 30 years: The Go, T3 (Slum Village), Lee Marvin Computer Arm, Bad Party, the Silent Years, Tyvek, EsQuire, Deastro, Dark Red, the Sisters Lucas and Dee Jay Frankie Banks. Tickets are $75 for the 7:30 p.m. VIP show, with food from local restaurants and an open bar, and $15 at 9:30 p.m.

Also at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 26, Colburn's short film Don't Kill the Weather Man! screens as part of the Ann Arbor Film Festival at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to

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