The flowing figure of an enigmatic young woman floats down through sapphire blue water pierced by rays of faint sunlight. The young woman’s black hair streams behind her as she leans forward to touch the looming form of a giant, peaceful turtle. A quietly haunting tune compliments the scene as it accentuates the flood of emotional imagery. The space between the young woman and the turtle glows hauntingly as the eerie melody builds in strength.
This visually stunning scene is just one of many wonderful sequences that constitute Caldera, an animated short film co-written by local professor Christopher Bishop.
Bishop began his career as an undergraduate student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Alternating between the film studies and studio arts departments, it took a while for the young filmmaker to find his niche. When Bishop finally ended up in animation, he found that it was a “nice hybrid” of his passions for both fine art and cinema.
Following graduation, Bishop worked with Chris Perry, another professor at Hampshire whose breadth of experience included working as an employee at Pixar Studios. Together, Bishop and Perry helped head up an animation project called The Incident at Tower 37.
They also developed the upper level animation program at Hampshire into a collaborative effort between faculty and students. According to Bishop, this program gives undergraduates a chance to work on a professional project for both experience and credit, while providing “the number of people [Perry] needed to complete the vision” for The Incident at Tower 37. Bishop was given the role of storyboard artist and lead animator on the short based on his undergraduate thesis, and the film was finally released in April 2009 to much acclaim.
After The Incident on Tower 37, Bishop decided to go to China with his old classmate Evan Viera. Viera had been teaching at a digital animation school that was interested in bringing the Western teaching style to Beijing. Bishop says his year in Beijing was “amazing on all kind of levels.” Working together in close quarters, it wasn’t long before Viera asked Bishop to help him tackle his new project, Caldera.
Making Caldera was a four-year process. Following the model of Incident at Tower 37, the project included the participation of Hampshire students, faculty, and collaborators at other institutions.
The idea for Caldera was born out of Viera’s experience with his father’s struggle with schizoaffective disorder. Bishop was keen to work with Viera on this subject to help elucidate and successfully depict the “structural and systemic issues in general surrounding mental illness.”
The film mixes beauty and dread in equal measure to help illustrate this message. Quieter, calmer sequences in Caldera like those with the young woman and the turtle overlay a dark and mysterious background, while more foreboding vistas still exhibit some modicum of beauty.
“There aren’t clear or easy answers when dealing with the complexities of mental illness and the perceptions surrounding it in our culture,” Bishop said. A major goal of Caldera was to present the issue as multidimensional and not black or white. “Even if the film’s imagery was dark and menacing, it was something that had other qualities to it to recognize as well.”
Bishop and Viera also wanted to shake up the established taboos surrounding diseases such as schizoaffective disorder.
“We didn’t want to glorify (the issue) through beauty,” Bishop said. “Rather, we wanted to complicate things that are often stigmatized as not worthy of appreciation.”
His goal was to bring attention to things that are “seen across the board as damning and negative.”
Caldera has already won numerous festival selections, accolades, and awards from around the world. “It’s been a tremendous honor and privilege to see people reacting to it and see the attention that it’s gotten and some of the support we’ve received,” Bishop said.
But he and his colleagues in the BitFilms program at Hampshire College aren’t stopping there.
“Now there’s another film being made under the working title Tube,” Bishop said. “It’s the next film being produced in that environment.” Bishop was tight-lipped on what Tube will be about, but it’s a fair bet that it will follow the same bold creative approach used in the production of Caldera.
“The one thing Evan and I always had consensus on was not trying to make statements overtly, and conclusions about things,” Bishop said.
Instead, he wants to “present questions in a way that isn’t straight forward and more open-ended.” When he and his colleagues make films, they want to “let people interpret and debate and fall in love and get angry.” And with Caldera, it seems they’ve done exactly that.
This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on April 30, 2013.