Vancouver animator Robert Valley’s unexpected journey from Kickstarter to Oscars

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Vancouver animator Robert Valley has hardly been hurting for work.

As a hired gun for a wide swath of projects, Valley has contributed to high-profile works including “Tron: Uprising,” “Wonder Woman” shorts and music videos for virtual band Gorillaz.

Still, something was missing for Valley and he looked to devote time to a personal project: a biographical film documenting his turbulent relationship with a childhood friend who went by the name Techno Stypes.

He turned to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter for support and the resulting project, “Pear Cider and Cigarettes,” is now in the running for an Oscar in the best animated short category. He’s one of three Canadians in contention for the award on Sunday, alongside Montreal’s Theodore Ushev for “Blind Vaysha” and Alan Barillaro of Chippawa, Ont., for “Piper.”

“Things were going good with my career, but I was doing a lot of work for other people,” said Valley, a graduate of Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

“I kind of pulled out and worked on this project for the better part of five years, and I was pretty much off the radar during that time.”

Valley said his goal was to translate “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” from its initial graphic-novel form to film, adding that he thought it would be interesting to have a project that could “run through both mediums.”

The 32-minute film is entirely hand-drawn by Valley, who animated the panels from his comic using Adobe Photoshop. He also narrates the short. The title is a nod to the vices seen enjoyed by Valley’s booze-loving, thrill-seeking pal in the film.

“He was a year older than us growing up, so he was a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of getting to everything first — puberty, girlfriends, smoking weed, driving cars,” recalled Valley.

“He was our ringleader in a way. But he was also sort of one of those daredevil-type guys. He was always leading us towards trouble, which was terribly exciting back then, but it seemed that he was always the guy to pull out of it right at the very end.”

The film charts the pair’s relationship from childhood and Techno’s self-destructive downward spiral, which eventually lands him in a Chinese hospital awaiting a liver transplant.

“The story gets a little bit more intense towards the end,” said Valley. “There are certain things about my involvement with Techno and trying to get him back to Vancouver that might or might not have led to his demise at the end of the day.

“That was kind of hard for me to come to grips with — accepting my responsibility. It took a year or a year-and-a-half for me to finally admit that and kind of put it out there. That was, I guess, cathartic as well.”

He had high-powered support in making the film from Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, who saw an early version and contributed some original music. Valley recently lent his artistic talents to the metal band’s “Murder One” video, a tribute to late Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister.

Valley had about US$40,000 to finance the film’s production and supplemented his income with freelance work. He teamed with London-based Passion Pictures and producer Cara Speller, with whom he shares the Oscar nod. Through Kickstarter and other financial sources, they amassed the US$90,000 needed for music licensing and post-production costs to complete the film.

Following its June release, Valley said the film “really did underperform right across the board,” being rejected by various festivals.

He had thought the film had run its course and would languish in the unknown. Then, the short made the long list of 70 Oscar nominees, and now is among the final five.

“Just to get to this point … it’s good. I can’t ask for more than that.”

BY LAUREN LAROSE