Conspiracy’s a Special Word —
I got a nice letter in the mail today.
Hi, I may be contacting the wrong person, but were you involved in the production of a short called "Conspiracy Rock" about the JFK assassination? I loved that and have been looking for a copy of it for years. Are copies available?
What’s touching about this is that he’s actually been looking for it for either 7 or 15 years. Quite a long time, indeed. And he’s right. I’m the person he’s talking about. Good detective work there, although I do believe I mentioned it in my BBS Documentary biography.
I don’t think I mentioned this in detail on this weblog, so here we go.
Back in college (I attended 1988-1992), my roommates were involved in a comedy troupe. Emerson College had three at the time: Emerson Comedy Workshop, This Is Pathetic, and Swolen Monkey Showcase. (The “Swolen” spelling was on purpose.) My roommates were involved with This is Pathetic.
TIP would do two shows a year, fun multi-hour shows that played off like a fun variety hour. There were skits, videos, musical numbers, the whole gamut. As it were, the people involved had a strong musical bent when I knew of it so there were actually a nice selection of musical pieces. Additionally, my roommate Scott Rosann had an incredible eye for filmmaking (he far outstrips mine) and so some really nice parodies were shot.
Anyway, at some point an idea was hatched to do a parody of Schoolhouse Rock, but to do it about the Kennedy Assassination. I have completely forgotten why this was thought to be a good idea, but I wasn’t in on that part. I know they assembled a lot of people for this, with both writers, musicians, and singers. Scott’s girlfriend was a background singer, one of the TIP members was the lead singer, and so on. It was quite something.
But the idea was to parody the Schoolhouse Rocks, so they asked me to do the animation. So, I got involved in it, and was eventually handed the soundtrack. I constructed a bunch of additional visual parody images related to this event, and to Schoolhouse Rock in central.
Traditionally, this sort of animation was done using cells, where you draw something and it’s on some plastic and you lay some plastic over the drawn backgrounds. (CAPS and the use of computers in animation was some time off for a college student.) I couldn’t do cells, so we did paper cutouts, and I was given a team of people, some of the singers, even, to sit there and methodically cut out different drawings I’d done so that if a character was in front of a frame, the frame was carefully cut out so we got that transparency effect even though there was no transparency to be had.
Emerson had an animation camera lab. In this lab, you had a camera aimed straight down, and then you could take a single shot, a single frame of animation, and then you’d swap out the elements and do the next frame. It was quite tedious. But wait, there’s more! To do things like fades, where you’d go from one thing to another, you would take 15 frames of something, and slowly close the lens after each frame until it was at 0, and then you would rewind 15 frames, replace the image with what it was fading to, and then take the 15 frames slowly opening to normal.
To know what went where, I had to listen to the recorded music and make notes to myself where various phrases came and went. Here’s a typical stanza from the song (to the tune of “Noun”):
A commission was appointed to look around And to see whatever could be found Some depositions were destroyed, a larger scandal to avoid A commission was appointed to look around
So basically I had this audio track, which would I would listen to and make notes on a pad about how many frames each line was, along with any word points that might be relevant. (578) A Commission was (594) appointed to look around (605) And to see whatever (619) could be found (630)…. and so on.
In the case of the main body of the animation, it was a hopelessly complicated endeavor. There would be animation cycles (sets of character animation) for someone standing in front of an screen, with animation cycles within that. Since stealing is the way things are done, you can view the original “Noun” animation here on YouTube.
So I set about to copy as much of this as I could. I limited the animation as they did, had a lot of repetition, but also incorporated additional parody elements of Schoolhouse Rock. I recall my favorite joke was having the motorcade go by and the words “Bang! What was that?” show up, which were duplicated from another Schoolhouse Rock. It was quite the plan.
I have a memory relevant to this production worth noting.
I set off to do this animation in the animation room one night, and since it was a 3 minute animation, that meant shooting 4,320 frames. This is a lot of work. I knew it’d be a lot of work but it was REALLY a lot of work. I started to do it, to put it all together, and as the hours went on, and I was desperately keeping track of (at one point) five simultaneous integer counts, I just fuckin’ snapped. I mean, I totally lost it. We were bucking up against the deadline, it was the Monday before the show’s debut on Friday…. the pressure got to be too much. I came back to Scott at the apartment and just cried and cried. So many people, so much depending on me getting it right, and I had just completely gone off the rails. I was devastated.
Scott, showing his incredible people skills (he’s better at filmmaking AND people than I am), sat down with me, calmed me down, and asked simply, what was it I needed to be successful? What was missing? And I said I needed someone to help me. Maybe with someone else to take some of the number load off while I was tracking exposure levels and pulling the right set of drawings from the right folder (actual folders, mind you), then maybe I could pull it off.
The next night I was in there with Mike. This was a different TIP member than my roommate Mike, but a Mike I thought of as a hard-drinking, hard-druggin’ party-ass son of a bitch. Bearing in mind that I have never had alcohol or drugs, this meant he was probably entirely normal, but still, it was an odd-couple matchup we had going.
Well you know, he was the best fucking assistant you could ask for. He knew not from anything related to animation, and when I explained what was up, he just patiently did what I needed. Kept track of counts, handed me the right frames, and watched me re-use drawings constantly without too many questions. I was the animation guy and he was the numbers assistant, and we sailed through it as a team, over a few hours.
The film was taken to the processors, who got it back to us on Thursday. We took it back to Emerson’s film room and played the soundtrack and the film together to see what editing needed to be done, and in what I consider a miracle never to be duplicated, we didn’t need a single one. You heard right, the whole thing sync’ed up perfectly from start to finish, absolutely. From the first moment through to the last, it was timed perfectly. Thank you, Mike.
Then it was a matter of getting a place to do a film-video transfer on Friday morning, and that Friday night, we played it for the audience for the first time. It was a galactic hit. The initial animation happened, and the audience would think we did some little ten-second ha ha, and then it would go on for three minutes, a full-on cartoon with in-jokes, Schoolhouse Rock references and Kennedy Assassination ‘jokes’. It was edgy, fun, and weird.
Graduation came in 1992, and everyone went their separate ways. Then, in 1993, this thing happened.
I forgot who talked to who, but Comedy Central wanted to buy the rights to this thing for a year. I left it to Scott and the rest to negotiate, and for $1,200, Comedy Central got their rights. I’d moved onto temping but the word came down, that it was now going to be playing on the cable channel. In fact, they played it on the 30th anniversary of the assassination, which I thought was a little out there, but hey.
This cartoon got mentioned in a few small places, and I remember finding a reference in a column about how it was “the only good thing to come out of all the media surrounding the anniversary”. Very cute.
So we had $1,200 in cash but the fact was that the animation had something like 9 creators, and maybe more if you started counting singers and musicians and stuff. So what to do? Well, throw a party.
So we all blew the cash on renting a hotel room in Times Square for the New Year’s celebration, 1993-1994. We had it catered, and there were a few bedrooms in that thing. (I got a couch.) I remember sneaking out into the main times square just to be out there, and it was pretty crazy. I got to be in Times Square for the drop, and so I have that nice memory. Also, we’d all not seen each other since graduation, so it was kind of a reunion.
I didn’t see much of the gang after that, but they’d mostly moved away and I stayed in Boston, and that’s how life goes.
The animation had been sent to Saturday Night Live as a submission, but it’d been rejected. A few years later, they came out with Conspiracy Rock, a parody of Schoolhouse Rock. Yes, I am saying just what you think I’m saying.
The film went into memory, and I moved on to games and computers and all the rest of my sorry little life.
But somewhere in 1999, the word came down: it was going to play at Sundance.
It turned out that Scott and Mike and others had had this film at the end of a demo reel, kind of a fun little ender for people who were tolerant enough to sit through the reel. And when they sent some stuff to Sundance, the request came down, “we want the one at the end of the tape”.
So it played at 2000 Sundance, in the Shorts section. How about that. I considered going but my job at the time was a tad stress-ful and I couldn’t just disappear off to Utah. So I missed all that. But it was pretty weird to have something play at Sundance as part of the official program.
Now, at some point along this, you, the 21st century reading office, respond in kind: “Let us see this work, immediately, for free, with a single mouse click.” And you know, I’d even do that for you, but I don’t have a direct copy of it. I lent the video to someone and he never returned it, and Scott or Mike never digitized it, so it’s kind of in limbo. It’s on my list of “things to digitize” but I haven’t done it. The film/tape is sitting in my office as one of the to-do piles. I have a lot of to-do piles, as you might guess.
Every once in a while, someone reminds me I did this, and I’m happy to be reminded. I should reward them with a copy of it someday. Maybe this’ll be the year, 15 years later.
UPDATE: Well, I’ll be. A pristine version of it is now online: Ladies and Gentlemen, Conspiracy Rock.
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Let us see this work, immediately, for free, with a single mouse click.
I think, looking back on it, that none of us ever adequately thanked and/or complimented you for what was, sincerely, a Herculean effort, and one that showed how innovative and flat out brilliant you were.
Perhaps it’s because, in the words of Steve Johnson, who is sitting behind me as I write this, we were all arrogant dickheads. However, I just wanted you to know that, as clever as that piece was, and as decent a song parody, it would have been absolutely nothing had it not been for your amazing, enduring work.
It is one of the great achievements in my life, and I’m truly glad that we all had a part in it together. It will forever be something that binds us all.
Thank you, Jason.
Most college students are arrogant dickheads. I truly believe this is a stage you have to go through to be able to stand up for yourself as an adult. You can’t temper it if you don’t have it to begin with, and nobody would ever get anywhere without it.
What Jay didn’t mention is that for YEARS, anytime you visited his apartment and opened the refrigerator, there’d be one of those films rusticating behind cans of Jolt. THE INCUBUS? Or was it THE SUCCUBUS, Jay? And don’t forget MR. LASER GUY, in which yours truly had a three-second cameo. That is one you need to transfer, my friend.
Your legacy in itself will be historically on-par with whatever you’re always documenting; it’s pretty clear to see.
I absolutely want to see this now. Don Hertzfeldt’s traditional animations are great.
Holy shit, you were involved with that short?!? I loved that thing.
The song has been an earworm for me for almost fifteen years. It’s not a constant thing, but it makes an appearance on my mental radio every so often. In my experience, the worst (or most effective) earworms are the ones for which I do not know all the words. I saw the short three or four times on Comedy Central back in college–not enough for me to memorize the song, but enough to get snippets to stick in my head. And since I have no way (that I know of) of hearing the song, I can’t know all the words and therefore cannot dislodge it as an earworm.
I don’t want to give you the impression that it’s a constant source of torment. It isn’t. But you can add me to the list of people who would very much love to see it again.
I’ll digitize it for you.
PLEASE make this video soon. The short film is nothing short of genius!
..Meanwhile, over at Youtube, … ‘This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by NBC Universal.’ Conspiracy rock
Here’s the SNL Conspiracy rock @ google video
While a good parody, it is NOT the same one.