My ex-boyfriend's obsession with his short animated film about a teacher in 1970s Montreal who beat up a biker gang to defend a school dance led to us breaking up—but anyway, the movie is great!
The Chaperone 3D is a short animated film that tells the incredible true story of Ralph, one of the first black teachers in the Montreal school system, who once single-handedly knocked out a biker gang that had invaded a school dance. If that sounds completely insane to you, wait until you see the film: It's an 11-minute eye-gasm that mixes every sort of retro animation—rotoscoping, puppets, stop-motion, and a few confetti-filled exploding piñatas—in the service of creating a documentary that is at once energetic, hilarious, and touching. It was an incredibly time-consuming, painstaking film to make (I should know, I dated Neil Rathbone—one of the filmmakers—for two years, and the production basically poisoned our relationship… anywaaaaaay) and it was recently selected as a short for Canada's Top Ten Film Festival.
I met with Neil and his partner, Fraser Munden, to talk about the film, blaxploitation, their experience at TIFF, and David Arquette’s obsession with their puppets.
VICE: How did you and Fraser meet?
Neil Rathbone: Fraser and I met in video class. We were watching a slow artistic video about old people doing water aerobics in a pool. There were slow moving shots that came close to these wrinkled bodies moving in the water. And I just went “uggh” and Fraser started dying with laughter. He was just crying with laughter and I was like, Who is this fucking kid? I guess he thought this was funny, so we started sitting together in video class.
Between your previous film, Vaseline and Pepper, and The Chaperone, you guys have managed to develop and maintain a consistent and very distinct hand-drawn style. How did you develop that style?
Neil: It’s a hybrid of my drawing style and Fraser’s drawing style. In video class we’d pass drawings back and forth and make each other laugh. It’s something that we can both do and be consistent, and you wouldn’t necessarily be able to look at it and say, “This person drew this, this person drew that.”
There are a bunch of different animation styles for the film, but it’s mostly hand-drawn and hand-colored drawings. Can you tell me more about that process?
Neil: You saw when we were living together the amount of time that goes into that shit. I was spending entire days drawing and doing 20 frames, and with ten frames a second, it’s only two seconds. We did over 12,000 hand drawings. We had absolutely no animation experience. It was crazy. We were like cavemen in a cave inventing a wheel when there are people driving around in Porsches. We were just making it up for no reason. We could get a book, get some classes. We could do that, but for some reason we were just doing it on our own.
The story takes place in the 70s, and judging from the number of 70s posters you bought for our old apartment, I can tell you are a big fan of that era. What exactly do you find appealing?
Neil: Fraser and I are big fans of exploitation films and 70s B movies. We love that aesthetic. The story is about Ralph, who was one of the first black teachers in the Montreal English School Board. We thought it would be cool to do a blaxploitation 70s vibe because it’s this badass story about him beating up these bikers.
Fraser Munden: Quentin Tarantino had a publication house for a while and he has a book called What It Is...What It Was! It’s composed of blaxploitation posters from the 70s. We probably went through that a thousand times. All the visual information from the movie was inspired by that.
Neil: I would say the movie was equally—if not more inspired—by blaxploitation poster art than it was inspired by blaxploitation films itself. It’s animated too, so it made more sense.
Fraser: The other big appeal of the 70s is that blaxploitation movies had the best scores of any movie genre of any era. I was working at an event for Concordia doing video and I started talking to the guy who was working the soundboard. We wanted an authentic band to do an original score. This guy said he had an exploitation band. It felt so perfect. The music was one of the most exciting things about the movie, at least related to the 70s.
Neil: It’s a big part of the film, of the vibe. It really sets the 70s tone of the whole film.
No surprise that a dude with a blond unibrow is a villain. Photo via Neil Rathbone and Fraser Munden.
It definitely adds a whole other dimension. At one point, you guys are blowing up head-shaped piñatas. Did you have someone helping you with that?
Neil: We found a guy who did pyro and we had a warehouse for five hours. The guy who was doing the explosions had to leave at 5 PM, and we weren’t done so he said, “Here’s the propane, here’s the oxygen. You set a charge and you blow them up.” We couldn’t get them to explode. We were up all night trying to blow up these fucking piñatas. Finally, when the first explosion went off, we could tell everyone was excited but also fucking terrified because of how big these explosions were. You could feel it in your body. I remember the guy left and said you have to spray static guard on the balloons because balloons create static and it could spark and blow up in your face. Around 6 AM, I found the static guard and realized I hadn’t been using it on a single balloon all night. We could’ve died.
Well, I’m glad you guys didn’t die. Let’s talk about the puppets you made.
Neil: You were there for the puppetry. It took over the apartment.
I definitely lost my mind over the puppets at one point, cleaning up all the foam and fur.
Neil: I think there’s going to be fur in that apartment forever. Anyway, there’s a short puppet scene in the film that has a Jim Henson–style Muppet. It’s like Sesame Street if Sesame Street was in a really shitty neighborhood.
It reminded me of that Dave Chappelle skit.
Neil: Yeah, the STD thing. It’s sort of like that.
I received a text from you while you were at the Toronto International Film Festival that read, “All I can say is David Arquette loves my puppets.” Would you guys care to expand on that?
Fraser: We knew there was a Hooters near TIFF. While we were there, our friend spotted David Arquette alone at the bar. We decided to buy him a round. We had no expectations of hanging out with him. As we were leaving he actually cut us off and asked us what we were doing in Toronto. We told him the story of the movie. Then we were introducing our roles and I introduced our friend Joey as the most phenomenal puppeteer. David went like “Wait, what? Puppets? I love puppets!” So he brought us to his group and explained the whole story of the movie and then he said, “Guess who’s got puppets for the party tomorrow?”
Neil: We showed up at the party with the puppets. We were trying to go through the guest entrance but all the people at the party and the paparazzi told us to walk the red carpet. Everyone was taking photos and interviewing us and David showed up and we went into the party. We showed up with the puppets and everyone was in love with them. People wanted to take photos with them and they instantly became the life of the party. David Arquette just went down as the greatest guy in history.
The Chaperone 3D is playing January 7 in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival.