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Jim MacSwain's new work evokes Hitler and the Hindenburg 

Animaniac: Nova Scotia animator Jim MacSwain is about to embark on a new creative journey into typically dark skies.

click to enlarge Local animator Jim MacSwain is a master of the quirky and the paper cutout. - MAIRIN PRENTISS
  • Local animator Jim MacSwain is a master of the quirky and the paper cutout.
  • Mairin Prentiss
Soft-spoken and prim, Jim MacSwain doesn't make films with kids in mind. "Oh, no," he says. "They're for experimental off-the-wall avant garde crazies." Without skipping a beat: "That's my target audience."

The veteran filmmaker and former director at Centre For Art Tapes is starting the process to make his latest stop-motion short, The Lighthouse Keeper, along with Dorota Forfa.

In the film a man dreams of being abducted by the Hindenburg---the famous zeppelin on its fatal voyage to New Jersey in 1937---finding himself in a smoking parlour, coming face to face with Adolf Hitler. After an exchange of words, Hitler---represented in a Gilliam-esque fashion of just a head with a hinged, flapping jaw---ignites the airship in a fire-breathing rage, bringing it to the ground.

MacSwain loyally uses 16mm stock, which today is only slightly more expensive than filming in slick, de rigueur HD. It will cost around $20,000 to make the 12-minute film.

He gingerly sorts out the paper cutouts of his lead character who is played---in a way---by AFCOOP's production coordinator Chris Spencer- Lowe through a series of photographs taken by MacSwain, each in a slightly different pose. "It's kinda the first time I formally used the dreamscape. But most films I make are surreal."

MacSwain has been making shorts for over 30 years, dabbling occasionally in live-action---Amherst (1983) is a semi-autobiographical account of his hometown, where he confides to the viewer the difficulty of discovering his homosexuality in the patriarchal, militaristic, blue-collared community.

Though, most often MacSwain's films are playfully grim and satiric stop-motion animations. In Nova Scotia Tourist Industries (1998) his lead is a copywriter who concocts a plan to attract tourists to our dreary outpost province, pitching it as a splendid landscape to commit suicide given all the beautiful bridges, rocky, jagged cliffs and tumultuous waters. "Make Nova Scotia Your Final Destination!" the ad-man declares in his eureka moment.

MacSwain blends imagery of British colonization with absurd dancing waterfront-sprung lobster magnets and paper cutouts of Elvis Presley and Arnold Schwarzenegger leaping off the Macdonald Bridge. He's a master of quirky but pointed narratives.

Perhaps macabre, says MacSwain, who counts Poe amongst his influences; but he says that death is an inescapable theme.

"You have to talk about death. The art of the 20th century gives off an aura of death because we've gone through so much war and destruction."

More recently he was selected as the Canadian Spotlight Artist in Toronto's Images Festival and one of his films, Starboy (2006), travelled with the Wide Open Wide Festival, a cross-country queer film festival that played in Halifax at Carbon Arc a couple of weeks ago.

Underneath the scrappy surrealist animation lurks somewhat deviant political messages---generally not exclusively on queerness---taking a witty look at wealth, authority, normality and the war machine.

In The Lighthouse Keeper, MacSwain paints the fall of the Hindenburg, a symbol of Nazi technology, as a cinematic harbinger of the regime's final fate. "I guess the moral is good will triumph; evil will always fail," he says. "Is that even a moral?"

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