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Hearts in clay

HOMEMADE FEEL: Reckart makes adjustments during filming (National Film and Television School)


Hearts in clay

Filmmaker Timothy Reckart uses claymation to paint a poignant, Oscar-nominated portrait of marriage

NEW YORK—How many movies depict both the hardness and beauty of marriage? How many of them can pull that off in 10 minutes? 

Head Over Heels is a 10-minute claymation film about a broken marriage and how it comes unbroken. The short has no dialogue, and the lack of a language barrier has given it appeal in festivals around the world—and an Oscar nomination.

In the film a middle-aged husband and wife live in the same house, but they have two different gravities—one lives on the floor and one lives on the ceiling, depending on your perspective. They share the same refrigerator, sliding it back and forth down the wall as needed, but that’s the only thing they share. The resentment is tangible, and the husband’s initial attempt to seek forgiveness is misunderstood, creating more resentment.

It’s a simple and mature story, packing the evocative punch of some of Pixar’s best animated shorts, but it comes from a 26-year-old, unmarried filmmaker. Timothy Reckart wrote and directed the film (starting at age 24), and did much of the painstaking stop-motion animation along with his crew of film school graduate students. Reckart is based in New York, where we talked over coffee after he returned from showing the film at the Sundance Film Festival. At the end of February, he and his crew will attend the Academy Awards, where their film was nominated for Best Animated Short. 

Stop-motion films are enjoying a resurgence. One other Oscar-nominated animated short, Fresh Guacamole, is stop-motion, and three stop-motion feature films—Frankenweenie, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and ParaNorman—received nominations for Best Animated Feature Film.

In the 1990s, Reckart recalls, hardly anyone was making stop-motion films. “When [computer-generated animation] came out, a lot of people said, ‘Well, there goes stop-motion,’” he said. “I think people are longing for that handmade feel after seeing, for so many years, stuff that looks digital.” Still, he’s been a student of Pixar’s films for their storytelling power.

The image of two people living in two different gravities came to Reckart after he saw a painting by Rembrandt, “The Philosopher in Meditation,” that depicts a stairway going from floor to ceiling, with stairs both upside-down and right-side up. But the germ of the story came from watching the 56-year marriage of his grandparents—two very different people who remained committed to one another even after the romance had faded.

His grandfather, who died a few years ago, was gruff, sarcastic, and practical. His grandmother is a piano teacher—artistic and not practical. His grandmother is in a wheelchair, so he watched how his grandfather sacrificed to care for her. “It was never mushy. It was always heroic to see how they loved each other,” Reckart said. “The relationship does not need to be symmetrical. … I think it’s great to communicate this theme, which certainly has a resonance in Christianity, but also everyone can resonate with it.”

The theme of a marriage, to Reckart, is bigger than just marriage. He thinks the principles that undergird a good marriage also undergird a healthy society. “We live in the same country, we’re basically married to each other,” he said. “A lot of times people expect [a relationship] just to work, and it doesn’t. … If the film has a message, it’s that relationships require effort.”

Reckart is a Catholic, but he isn’t trying to be preachy with his films. He said his faith informs the ideals in his films, but he mainly tries to live his faith by being an excellent filmmaker. He started making films when he was 12, but he eschewed film school initially to do his undergraduate studies at Harvard University, where he studied history and literature. He wanted to understand “story” before he attempted storytelling through film. “Liberal arts—I recommend it to every film student that asks me,” he said. “If you only know films, you’re only going to make films about films.”

At Harvard he first started fiddling with stop-motion animation. “I only got into stop-motion there because everyone was too busy to act in films,” he said. “So I made films by myself in a closet.” He spent a month interning at Aardman Studios, the claymation studio famous for the series Wallace and Gromit and feature films like Chicken Run. Reckart worked with Aardman on its latest feature film that came out last year, The Pirates! Band of Misfits. He guesses he made about 300 pirate eyebrows for the film, along with working on the set. Reckart went on to graduate school at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in London, where he produced his Oscar-nominated short over 15 months with the school’s financial backing and a team of other graduate students. NFTS is known for its stop-motion program—Wallace & Gromit animator Nick Park, who won multiple Oscars, attended there.

Stop-motion animation is a more physically involved art form than computer-generated animation. Reckart recalls standing on his feet for 12 hours at a time doing animation, reaching his arms into the 2½-foot tall set to do the minute adjustments that become motion on film. The film may be only 10 minutes long, but Reckart feels like he lived on “puppet time” with the characters. When the husband and wife finally reunite in the short, he was on the verge of tears while animating the scene over the course of two hours. “It’s like living that in slow motion,” he said.

The short will show in select theaters around the country in the lead-up to the Feb. 24 Oscars, but will also be available on iTunes starting the week before the awards.