CHICAGO — Lavish Christmas window displays along State Street have been a tradition in downtown Chicago since the late 1800s, inviting locals and tourists to peer into magical worlds behind the glass. This holiday season, animators from DePaul University are creating a new Christmas tradition with a window display near the bustling corner of State Street and Jackson Boulevard.
Faculty filmmakers Meghann Artes and Devin Bell collaborated with some 30 students in DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts on a stop-motion animated film and 3D design for the Loop Campus window display. The holiday scene will be unveiled at 5:20 p.m. on Nov. 7 at 247 S. State St., following a screening of the short film at 5 p.m. in the lower level CDM Theatre at the same address. Artes and Bell set out to create a film that captures the spirit of the season and reflects the university’s urban, Catholic mission.
Animation brings magic to everyday life
“We all were children and played with objects and imagined them. Stop-motion animation gives you permission to be a kid again,” said Bell, an associate professor who has made films for entertainment company JibJab Media and created many of his own projects, including “Fatal Vittles.” The new film took more than a year to create and moves viewers through three worlds: First wrapping paper and festive decorations, then baked goods and the memories that come from a kitchen, culminating in the holiness of the Nativity.
“All these things are connected with the star. The star is such a significant symbol of Christmas, signaling that a Son is born. You’re going to see stars everywhere,” said Bell.
Artes has drawn acclaim for using stop-motion animation with live actors in full-scale sets, including the award-winning short film “Sleepy Steve.” Earlier in her career, she worked as an animator for “Sesame Street.”
“Stop-motion is taking something that could happen in your everyday life and adding magic to it,” said Artes, an associate professor.
DePaul animation students contributed to every facet of the production, starting with storyboards and fabricating objects and animating puppets. The crew built miniature sets in classrooms, then worked on a full-scale set at DePaul’s Cinespace studios where they animated a life-sized ornament and a Christmas tree.
According to Bell every moment in the film is stop-motion, shot frame-by-frame. This approach might sound laborious, but to stop-motion animators, it’s worth the painstaking attention to detail, he noted.
“Stop motion is such fun to problem solve,” said Bell. For example, the team wanted to create a cozy fireplace, so students experimented with different material and decided on a reflective foil that was lit in different ways to catch light and glow.
“I think the thing about stop motion is that people know what they’re looking at is real, but it’s doing something impossible,” said Artes.
Giving students real world experiences
There are hundreds of objects within the film, all created by hand. Animation student Gabi Fernandez helped with tests and making objects, once filling an entire drawer with prototype snowflakes. Viewers of the film will notice Fernandez’s creations: a cookie forest and gingerbread man.
“I’m used to working on my own, especially because of tight deadlines for class projects. Working with a team made the whole process so much fun because you knew you weren’t the only one spending all your free hours trying to build clay cookies,” said Fernandez.
Working on a full-scale production was a learning experience for Tikal Rivera, who is studying animation as an undergraduate. Rivera built rigs to animate, did set dressing and also helped with tests before the final shots.
“It was really exciting to be able to work alongside my friends and create something that I was passionate about and was a reflection of all the creativity from the animators and artists on the team,” said Rivera, adding, “It really hit me that I was making animation that would be seen by an audience.”
Connected to mission through the Christmas star
The project started with a spark from the Rev. Edward R. Udovic, C.M., in DePaul’s Division of Mission and Ministry. Udovic reached out to the College of Computing and Digital Media to create a window to complement the beautiful Christmas decorations in the DePaul Center plaza and to create a signature holiday footprint for the DePaul community and thousands of Chicago residents and visitors.
“Father Udovic’s vision for this project comes from the shared belief that to fully support DePaul’s mission, people must know its story,” said Scott Kelley, associate vice president for mission integration. “The Christmas window is another example of how we tell that story in new ways, using new technology to reach new audiences,” said Kelley.
Faculty from The Theatre School at DePaul and the College of Computing and Digital Media are helping to put a bow on the project through set design and a musical score. Associate professor Rob Steele, a composer and sound designer for cinema, created music for the film. Faculty members Noelle Thomas in The Theatre School and John Corba, director of DePaul Cinespace, designed and built the 3D display.
After the Nov. 7 unveiling, the “Merry Christmas from DePaul” window display will run daily from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. through Jan. 15. For more information, visit http://cdm.depaul.edu/christmas