eKC feature
February 1, 2008


KC animation company
connects at Sundance
by Russ Simmons

Park City, Utah was once a bustling mining town. When the ore was spent, the locals found a new way to make a living by mining tourist dollars from skiing enthusiasts.

One of those slope addicts was actor Robert Redford, who created his own resort called Sundance (named after his character in the hit film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) twenty-some miles away.

In the late 1970s when the struggling US Film Festival in Park City needed an angel, Redford swooped in to create a venue for independently made movies (those created outside of the Hollywood system) to find an audience. Renamed the Sundance Film Festival, the annual movie orgy has become America’s premier cinematic celebration.

This year’s event took place Jan. 17-27 and attracted an avalanche of moviegoers to the small ski resort town, not counting the throng of press, industry insiders and stargazers. Audiences viewed 207 feature films and shorts, and participated in workshops, panel discussions and (infamously) celebrity-laden parties.

The Kansas City-based animation and design firm MK12 submitted a film for screening consideration. Out of 5,107 submissions, their imaginative 31-minute opus, The History of America, wound up on a featured slate of nine animated shorts.

MK12 is a design and filmmaking collective that was founded eight years ago by “art school refugees” Jed Carter, Tim Fisher, Matt Fraction, Shaun Hamontree, Chad Perry and Ben Radatz. These computer savvy virtuosos have been experimenting with various design technologies and their work is in demand by advertisers and artists.

The History of America is anything but a dry, academic documentary. This visually arresting satire is a sweeping look at the good old U.S.A. as it might exist in a parallel universe. In the imagination of the folks at MK12, the biggest battle of our time took place between two iconic American factions: Cowboys and Astronauts.

In production for several years, The History of America is a wry and funny epic that culminates in a battle between Cowboy forces and an Astronaut army on the streets of Las Vegas! Most of the action involves live actors who were filmed against a green screen. Then the alchemists at MK12 provided computer-generated backgrounds and added a watercolor-like effect to give the film an altogether unique visual quality.

The film opens with an introduction by a self-important academic called “The Professor,” played by veteran KC actor Jim Korinke. He sips cough syrup while setting up the tale of how Cowboys and Astronauts became mortal enemies. We’re then introduced to a phantasmagorical narrative of conflict and tactical revenge.

Prior to its theatrical debut, The History of America has been widely viewed online. In fact, New York magazine named it as one of the 16 best online features of 2007. (The film can be viewed at www.ventilate.ca)

The gang at MK12 consider themselves a collective so they share directing credit. Many of the film’s creators were on hand at Sundance for audience screenings, including Hamontree and Radatz.

“They laughed in all the right places,” claimed Hamontree, admitting that it did not happen when the film was shown at a festival in Brazil. “But they still laughed…just in different spots.”

The filmmakers also admitted that the movie’s final line (“God bless America….and no one else”) always gets a big laugh in foreign countries.

While screening their movie at Sundance helps to raise the profile of MK12, Radatz was firm in his contention that gauging viewer response was the primary goal.

“Obviously, online is a big thing for us,” confessed Radatz. “But being able to show our film in front of an audience…there’s just no way to match that. When you show something online, there’s no way to read (the reaction). It’s important to get that feedback so that when you make another film you have that perspective.”

Conceding that having a “calling card” movie at a prestigious festival was a positive thing for his company, Radatz claimed that it wasn’t the most important reason for being there.

“For us, it’s secondary,” Radatz said. “Film is a social medium, something that’s meant to be seen in a theatre.”

Whether or not the trip to Utah proves to be helpful for the company, they appear to have plenty on their plate for the time being. Recently, the company moved into their zippy new headquarters at 1718 Holmes, which is fitted with a large green screen studio.

When they weren’t working on The History of America, MK12 was creating the innovative title credit sequence for the 2006 Will Farrell film Stranger Than Fiction as well for as the current art house hit, The Kite Runner. They also created an animated segment for the documentary Holy Wars. Currently, they’re doing some secretive work for the upcoming James Bond film, Quantum of Solace.

They’ve also provided eye candy for Budweiser, MasterCard, Adidas and Best Buy advertisements, to name just a few. Musicians Common and Hot Hot Heat have featured MK12 animation in their music videos.

The grand jury award winners this year at Sundance were the documentary Trouble With Water, about survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the dramatic entry, Frozen River, dealing with illegal immigration. Audience awards went to the documentary, Fields of Fuel about America’s addiction to oil, and the drama The Wackness, about a teen drug dealer. Look for them later this year at one of our local art house theatres.

Although few of the films screened in Park City will achieve huge box-office success, Sundance provides independent filmmakers like MK12 with a unique opportunity. It gives them the audience they crave and something more intangible but equally important: hope.

Russ Simmons can be contacted at simmons.russ@gmail.com.


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