By Jeffrey Rindskopf
When he was a young child growing up in suburban San Diego, Clyde Petersen spent long, lonely afternoons at the beach, crisscrossing old railroad tracks and counting the pelicans gliding effortlessly above the waves.
Those memories of Southern California in the 1990s seem distant today, but Petersen has spent the last three years painstakingly recreating them for his first animated feature, Torrey Pines. Made using construction paper and a cheap multiplane camera rig built from spare Ikea parts, Petersen achieved a handmade stop-motion animation style fitting for such a personal story of childhood.
“I wanted to recapture the feeling of when I first got my glasses—when suddenly the world wasn’t blurry anymore and I could see all the colors around me,” he says.
Torrey Pines is an autobiographical tale of growing up queer and grappling with mental illness told without dialogue, focusing on one particular incident when Petersen’s schizophrenic mother kidnapped and took him on a road trip across America prompted by her own beliefs of political conspiracy. Despite that, the film is mostly episodic, fixated on the confused fantasies and mundane but oh-so-specific recollections that make up any childhood.
“I was trying to slow things down, and just put people in the place of a child seeing everything for the first time,” he says.
Today, Petersen lives and works from a basement in North Seattle, strewn with vibrant paper flowers and other leftovers from past art projects. He’s been enmeshed in Seattle’s tight-knit animation scene since he first helped fellow animator Britta Johnson create a stop-motion ad for the Oregon state lottery featuring a procession of dancing deviled eggs.
Since then, he’s animated dozens of animated music videos using various stop-motion techniques for Northwest artists like The Thermals, Deerhoof and Horse Feathers.
“I like the rough parts and the parts where you can see mistakes,” Petersen says of stop-motion techniques. “And with construction paper, you can get colors and textures you can’t get with computers.”
The inspiration his first feature-length project came from a song he wrote for his own band Your Heart Breaks, based on those same childhood experiences and also called “Torrey Pines.” Playing it on tour, he saw the positive reactions the song inspired in fans who related to the song’s portrayal of mental illness and family dysfunction.
“When it came time to think about making a feature film, this was the story I knew the best,” Petersen says. “You should know the story very intimately if you’re going to make a feature film. And I’m not very good at fiction.”
Despite the modest crew and a workspace of only 99 square feet, the budget for Torrey Pines came to roughly $120,000, much of it dedicated towards things like rent or feeding the interns.
Some of the funding came from arts grants awarded to Petersen, while the remaining cash came from an ambitious Kickstarter campaign, wherein he pledged to put every person who donated $25 or more in the film as a jointed paper puppet. All told, more than 700 people donated that amount, and every one of them is in the film, cheering in the crowd of a Whitney Houston concert.
On top of those hundreds of construction paper caricatures, Petersen and his crew cut out the sets themselves, building extensive landscape recreations for the road trip scenes and experimenting with forced perspective to accommodate the overhead perspective of the multiplane camera. Petersen shows me pieces of his miniature world stacked in one corner of his basement studio, like a distorted birdcage and an ocean scene made from tiered blue papers on rollers that gives the impression of waves rolling towards the shore.
“It was a real learning curve, but it was pretty fun,” he says.
Petersen credits his co-animator Chris Looney for occasionally “pushing the line just enough to make people uncomfortable,” as in one memorable scene when the young female Petersen imagines the grotesque changes her body will soon undergo.
The sound effects that score much of Torrey Pines are just as homemade as the animation. Sound artist Susie Kozawa recorded all the Foley effects in the span of three days at the Jack Straw Cultural Center. She used her own voice and self-built contraptions like a modified bicycle wheel that’s played with a bow to achieve the desired sound for each scene.
Petersen and Your Heart Breaks recorded the soundtrack for the film with producer and former Death Cab for Cutie member Chris Walla at the Hall of Justice recording studio, but the recorded version won’t be played during the film’s premier at the Seattle Queer Film Festival on Oct. 13.
Instead, they’ll be playing the score live, beginning a two-month North American tour with the film that Petersen hopes will only be the beginning for Torrey Pines.
“We intentionally had no dialogue so the film could go around the world without having language barriers,” he says. “I want to take it all over Europe and Australia and hopefully a bunch of other crazy places.”
Watch a trailer for Torrey Pines here.