By Emily Morris
Filmmaker and School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor Chris Sullivan spent nearly 15 years creating his 133-minute animated opus, and he still can’t quite let it go.
Though Consuming Spirits premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and earned some winning reviews, Sullivan says he only recently stopped tweaking it.
“For instance, the Chicago version might have an audio change,” Sullivan says.
But despite the painstaking work and time he put into the film, Sullivan says he’s not sick of it yet.
“It’s something I’m still engaged in,” Sullivan says, “But I’m glad to be finished with it.”
Consuming Spirits follows the lives of three small-town characters on what at first appear to be independent story lines. They’re all linked by their jobs at the town’s sensationalist newspaper, The Daily Suggester, where Sullivan injects plenty of sardonic commentary about journalism. But the real kicker comes toward the end of the film, when we discover with a jolt how the threads are truly connected.
Sullivan blends animation techniques not unlike a modern artist mixes mediums on a canvas. Stop motion clay, hand-drawn cut outs, manipulated old photographs and pencil drawings all appear together exquisitely. Even for viewers unfamiliar with the animation process, it’s plain to see why these scenes took meticulous effort and time.
While he had help with animation and voicing, Sullivan was the lead animator, director, writer and even added his own music to the haunting soundtrack.
Though the time period might seem excessive, Sullivan says it’s not so unusual for an independent animator to spend months creating a 10-minute sequence. There were several month periods when Sullivan might finish two minutes, while other sequences took even longer.
“I didn’t do the Madame Curie thing,” Sullivan jokes, “I still had my life and had people over for dinner.”
During the past decade and a half, Sullivan also raised two children and continued his current job teaching animation, film, video and new media at the SAIC while he worked on the film.
“There was never a point where I felt like I was kind of trading off my life to make it,” Sullivan says.
While the visual methods Sullivan uses are extraordinary, equally impressive is the way he depicts his grotesque characters with complexity and macabre humor. These are ugly folks who deal with even uglier tragedies using a tremendous amount of alcohol and apathy. One accidentally mows down a nun with her car and eventually ditches the body. Another poisons herself.
Some aspects of the film are autobiographical, Sullivan says, as he grew up in a family well acquainted with alcoholism and social services.
“I think repression is an amazing part of how people deal with their lives, so these characters have extremely powerful sources of repression,” Sullivan says.
For all its unflinching portrayals of human nature, Consuming Spirits gives way to tremendous beauty within the characters and the techniques Sullivan so carefully employs to bring them to life.