A magical forest blooms in Ashfield: Artist Dave Russo teams up with young narrator to make animated fi

  • A still from the animated short film “The Magical Forest and the Things,” which can be seen Nov. 22 as part of the Boston International Kid Film Festival; this year the film fest has a virtual format. Image courtesy Dave Russo

  • The giant who comes on the scene in “The Magical Forest and the Things” upsets the balance of nature — but so do the people in the forest who use the giant’s labor for their own ends.  Image courtesy Dave Russo

  • Dave Russo and six-year-old Callie May check out some of the sound effects as they put together their animated film, “The Magical Forest and the Things.” Image courtesy Dave Russo

  • Some of the inhabitants of the magical forest contemplate a very slow-growing new tree, after much of the original forest has been taken down for building houses. Above, Dave Russo and 6-year-old Callie May check out some of the sound effects as they put together their animated film, “The Magical Forest and the Things.” Images courtesy Dave Russo

  • Maddy Leue, left, her daughter, Callie May, and Dave Russo pose earlier this year In Ashfield for a virtual “Red Carpet” for the Brooklyn Film Festival, where “The Magical Forest and the Things” appeared. Image courtesy Dave Russo

  • Another still from “The Magical Forest and the Things,” in which the high fives the characters give one another reinforce their own bad decision-making— in this case the plundering of the magical forest. Image courtesy Dave Russo

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2020

When the pandemic arrived earlier this year, artist Dave Russo, like so many others, found himself hunkering at home in Ashfield. The rest of the household was upended as well: Russo’s partner, Maddy Leue, a graduate student in public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, had to start taking classes online, and her six-year-old daughter, Calliope Mary, could no longer go to school at Sanderson Academy.

So Russo and Calliope, who’s otherwise known as Callie, used those first few weeks of lockdown to collaborate on a shared art project — one that’s now found its way to several regional film festivals. The latest is the Boston International Kids Film Festival, which takes place (virtually) this Friday through Sunday, Nov. 20-22.

“The Magical Forest and the Things” is an animated short film based on Russo’s pen and marker drawings on watercolor paper. Russo then scanned and arranged the drawings in video software, adding a narration done mostly by Callie, along with sound effects such as breaking sticks, the recordings of which were slowed down to sound like crashing trees.

The roughly four-minute film is a parable about using natural resources wisely — and about people taking responsibility in their own lives for doing that, and not reinforcing bad decisions through peer acceptance. In the film, the characters sometimes share high fives for the wrong reasons.

“It’s a fun way of looking at this issue in a way that kids can understand,” Russo said during a recent phone call. “But what really makes the film is Callie’s narration — she’s just hilarious.”

In fact, Russo says his idea of making a short film with Callie had been percolating before the pandemic arrived, if for so other reason than to try and capture the girl’s energy, curiosity and unusual phrases. “I would listen to her and think ‘I wish we were recording this stuff,’” he said with a laugh.

The Quarantine Attic

The opportunity arrived in March with the pandemic, at which point he and Callie secluded themselves in what he calls the “Quarantine Attic,” a makeshift studio he arranged at the Ashfield home he shares with Leue (he had previously been living and working in Northampton but moved up to Ashfield in March to help Callie and her mom deal with the pandemic-induced chaos).

Art — off-beat art especially — is central to Russo’s life. He was the banjo player and frontman for the Valley band The Primate Fiasco, which during its roughly 11-year run broke various musical boundaries by mixing banjo, tuba, drums and accordion to play a mix of New Orleans-style street jazz with upbeat pop rhythms.

A few years ago, for instance, they offered a “Dylan Disco” show at Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall: high-energy dance versions of songs by the venerable songwriter. The band also once won a Grammy nomination for a kids’ album.

After the group called it quits about three years ago, Russo says he fell back on drawing, something he’d first started as a teen, when he’d sometimes sketch crowds at concerts; he developed his work further in art school. Dusting off his pens and markers a few years ago, he discovered many Primate Fiasco fans recognized his style and wanted to buy the work, he says.

His illustrations and posters — of people, pets, landscapes and cityscapes, interpretations of song lyrics — have a kind of loose-limbed, kinetic style that, as he writes on his website, relies as much on memories and emotional inspiration as direct observation. An initial sketch typically “has an explosion of spirals and scribbles on it … Then I might switch colors and try to wrestle it into form.”

He’s used that approach in “The Magical Forest and the Things,” a story he developed with Callie’s narration — she also contributed some drawings — and some ideas she first mentioned a few years ago, such as a forest where trees produced chocolate bars and bowls of dog food, and where turkeys wandered freely. “We used a number she first coined a few years back: 50 hundred hundred,” he said.

The story Callie relates is one of initial harmony, where “people” — curlicue figures with prominent eyes and teeth — harvest food from the forest and turn an occasional tree into a small, wooden cabin-type house. Then one day a giant appears, and people begin asking it to harvest more trees to build bigger and bigger houses. The forest becomes a wasteland of stumps, food disappears, an urban landscape rears up in the background, and the mood turns ugly.

“No one wanted little houses anymore,” Callie intones.

One scene shows the tendril-like people arguing with each other over the dwindling food supply, with some holding protest signs. “99% of chocolate is eaten by 1%” one reads. Counters another: “But its MY food.”

Russo says Callie, who’s now seven, “did a great bit of acting” for the film, imitating her speech from when she was younger. “She’s a really smart kid, and she’d outgrown that kind of sometimes clumsy phrasing you have as a toddler, but she was able to do a convincing job of sounding like she’s about three.” She was also fun to work with, he added, and “learned a lot about the process” of making the film.

That said, much of this was new territory for Russo. “I’d never worked with a kid on a project like this,” he said. It required some patience, like recording some takes of Callie’s narration “while trying to get her not to spin and jump at the same time.”

The two also had fun wandering outside their house to record sound effects; one trick was to record domestic geese on their property and then speed up their cries to make them sound like turkeys.

Friends with whom Russo and Leue (she has a voice cameo in the movie) shared their film suggested they submit it to film festivals, and after investigating the process online, Russo did just that. “The Magical Forest and the Things” was accepted at seven festivals in the Northeast this year, including one in Brooklyn, New York and another in Providence, Rhode Island.

Unfortunately, all of the festivals went to a virtual format because of the pandemic, Russo notes, so Callie, whom he and Leue are homeschooling this fall, still hasn’t had the experience of attending a live film fest.

“She really has no idea of what a film festival is,” he said. “She’ll say ‘How is it not the same as YouTube?’ You try to tell her it’s this big event where lots of people come to theaters to watch movies, but it really doesn’t register with her.”

At least not yet: post-pandemic, Russo’s hoping he and Leue will be able someday to take Callie to a real, live film fest “and do all the other things we used to take for granted.”

“The Magical Forest and the Things” will play at the Boston International Kids Film Festival on Sunday, Nov. 22, during a 2-3:30 p.m. block (#9). Tickets for individual blocks are $20, $55 for the entire festival. To order, visit bikff.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.