Short Films in Focus: My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes

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This is my 50th Short Films In Focus piece for this site and I’m guessing I have lots of new readers and clicks this month. Welcome! What brings you here? Do you suddenly have a newfound interest in the short film form? Curious to see some daring, experimental work that doesn’t conform to traditional narrative devices? Want to get in on the ground floor of amazing new talent so you can say “I knew them when…”? Whatever the reason, I’m glad you’re all here.

This month, we look at Charlie Tyrell’s “My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes,” a filmmaker’s journey through his deceased father’s belongings as he tries to piece together a narrative that would explain his father’s behavior toward his family. Tyrell uses several objects (including porno tapes) to cleverly animate a profile of a man whose struggle to be a decent parent often collided with his own upbringing and what he knew from growing up with his own parents, who perpetuated a cycle of abuse that may have spanned generations. Tyrell’s attempt to find links within this random pile of stuff gets thwarted by realizations that it may be the wrong approach.

And yet, a truly memorable film came out of that effort as well as a newfound understanding, so all is not lost on his efforts. Tyrell has shaped this film beautifully as a scrapbook of home movies, personal photographs, failed film school projects and his dad’s personal belongings against a blank, white backdrop while his own mother and siblings fill in the blanks via phone interviews of their own recollections. Having a third party narrator (the wonderful David Wain) keeps the project from becoming overly precious and Tyrell’s quest for answers that much more of a compelling narrative arch.

His film might have you thinking about the stuff you leave behind. Your film collection, your tools, furniture, unpaid bills, hard drives with unfinished manuscripts or screenplays, notebook ramblings from high school, confessional home movies or audio recordings. Do they tell a story? Would someone want to put the pieces together to get a better idea of your own psyche? Or is it all just meaningless “stuff”? Tyrell’s film explores that notion and comes up with a sometimes humorous, often sad and always moving 13-minute film that is anything but meaningless.

Director Charlie Tyrell

How did the idea come about to do this project utilizing animation with your father’s belongings? And how long did it take to complete it?

The idea for the film in general kind of started with the porno tapes, and other of my dad’s miscellaneous personal belongings. I had been holding onto these objects for years with no real use or purpose for keeping them (least of all, the tapes). The thought that I was literally the owner of my dead dad’s porno tapes seemed pretty rich or ironic to me, and I had the idea to use them in a film project somehow. I’ve worked with stop motion before, and it was kind of a cool creative limitation to only be able to utilize things that he once owned. I think that on a deeper level I probably wanted to just make something about my dad and his life and our relationship, but on a simpler level, I just thought it would be neat to use these objects and only these objects in an animation project.

The entire stop-motion animation portion was completed in 10 days with the help of two amazing animators, Phil Eddolls and Martha Grant. Seven of those days were in a small studio working on a table-top, and we spent three days doing the big overhead shot of his face, which was 10′ x 20′ wide. The 2D animation was done by Marty MacPherson, and happened after we edited the film. The majority of Marty’s work was the 2D animated subtitles – each done in the handwriting of the person speaking (the credits, too!). That was an especially painstaking process for my dad and grandma’s subtitles. For them he had to use my dad’s police report notebooks and old birthday cards from my grandma to build an alphabet in their writing.

How much home movie footage did you have to sift through? Was it hard to pair it down?

Tons! But almost none of it was from my immediate family’s home movies. Growing up, we didn’t have a video camera in our house, so the majority of the footage was from my aunt Mary’s archive of her family. It was days of scanning through footage of my cousins’ dance recitals to try to find a clip of my dad at a family holiday party or BBQ. Apart from that, the video of him giving a tour of the renovations he did in our house was a complete surprise. It’s my understanding that my dad had a camcorder from work for a day and decided to play around with it a bit at home. I didn’t know it existed before this project and it’s funny how crucial it became to the edit.

Lastly, and maybe most essentially, was the footage of him flying at the airstrip. That was all filmed by my uncle Colin (his brother). They were taking my dad’s plane for a final flight before he sold it. You can even hear my uncle say, “hey, I want to get a shot of you flying the plane off into the sunset”, which ended up being our well-fitted final shot.

What was your family’s reaction to the project and being asked to be involved with it?

Everyone was surprisingly willing to participate without hesitation. Sure, there was a bit of curiosity but I think for my brother and sister especially, we have so few opportunities to talk about our dad these days so it was nice to get each other on the phone and just talk about him for a few hours because old memories kept popping up.

How did David Wain get involved?

Our lovely Executive Producer, Becca Kinskey, had worked with David before and suggested we reach out to him. We wanted someone known for their comedic chops to help lighten the mood of the film, but David added this extra layer of sincerity to the read that gave so much more to the narration script. He’s been so supportive of the project since then.

The audio recordings of your father and grandmother are so telling and deeply personal. Do you know why those conversations were recorded? When/how did you first come across them?

It was my mom’s idea. He was recording them to kind of keep the conversions between him and his mother in check. At the time my dad was managing his parents’ household – my grandpa had to be moved into a nursing home and my grandma was reluctantly moved into a smaller, more manageable house. The tape recorder was a device to keep them a bit more polite with each other during their conversations, but evidently ineffective.

I first came across them in film school when I needed to borrow the recorder to tape an interview for a class project. I played back the tapes beforehand to make sure I wasn’t recording over anything important and that’s when I first heard them. I believe it was right after my dad passed away, so it was a little disturbing at the time because it was my first time hearing his voice since he died.

What’s next for you?

I’m just putting the finishing touches on a short narrative, about to begin production on another documentary short, and writing my first feature film!

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