Senior's Stop Motion Clay Animation Film Premiers

Kevin Ulrich brings clay to life, with help of $5,000 grant

May. 14, 2010 By Jenna Bartlo

Biola University senior Kevin Ulrich wasn’t an average 11-year-old, already writing stories and interested in producing them, he saved his lawn mowing money to buy Lego’s stop motion program to bring his stories to life. Graduating on May 29, 2010 from Biola’s Cinema and Media Arts program, Ulrich’s young creativity and ambition have carried him through high school and college. On Thursday, May 13, 2010, Ulrich’s stop motion animation film, “Chaisson,” funded by a $5,000 grant from the state of New Mexico, premiered in Anaheim, Calif. at Cinema Fusion theatre. Biola University’s student newspaper, The Chimes, reports Ulrich’s story.

Kevin Ulrich has wanted to be a storyteller as long as he can remember. This May, his dream will be realized on screen, in what he hopes will be two sold out showings at Cinema Fusion in Anaheim with his new film, “Chaisson: Rise of the Zerad.”

“I was homeschooled and I remember my mom teaching me how to write,” Ulrich said. “As soon as I learned how to write I wanted to write stories. My brothers would be in the other room playing video games and I would be writing stories.”

Ulrich’s writing turned to media when he and his brother began to make his stories into radio dramas. Together, they pooled their imaginative resources to use noises from their action figures, along with Star Wars music tracks, to create their own worlds and stories to play back later.

What began with a love for storytelling became a fascination with filmmaking when Ulrich was 11 and Lego began to advertise their stop motion program. After spending the summer saving his lawn mowing money to buy Lego’s program, Ulrich’s father offered him his old video camera so that he could begin bringing his stories to life. After that, he began to make short films of his Legos.

At 13, Ulrich decided to make his first feature length fantasy animation film with stop motion clay animation. When he arrived at Biola, he expected to begin doing something different, he said. Instead, he realized it was the medium he enjoyed most. While he thought that school would start him on a path towards “real action” films, he found that they bored him to death.

“I want to make movies of other worlds,” Ulrich said.

With that in mind, Ulrich began to work on a project he thought would become a 15-minute film. He said he was both surprised and excited when it turned into a half-hour long screen play.

The project became “Chaisson,” a stop motion animation fantasy, Ulrich describes as a mash up between “Wallace and Gromit” and “Lord of the Rings.”

The film centers on the fantasy world of Chaisson and the vendetta between the Elves of Enderen and the monstrous Zerad lizards. All-out war breaks out between the two sides and the elves must find a way to survive as they are doggedly pursued by the Zerad.

Soon after he began working his project, the state of New Mexico awarded Ulrich with a $5,000 grant toward his work, a result of the state’s decision to encourage independent filmmakers. Ulrich taught several filmmaking workshops under the grant’s stipulations and has been able to devote his summers entirely to his film rather than splitting his time between work and his project.

Still, Ulrich said that the grant money doesn’t even come close to covering the amount of hours he has spent on his project.

“If I didn’t enjoy it, I’d be an idiot to spend so much time on it,” Ulrich said.

Ulrich said that he focused on doing the next thing that was in front of him to keep focus through such a long project.

“I always knew it would get done, just not how or when,” Ulrich said. “I’m a one stage at a time kind of person. When I’m shooting the opening sequence, I don’t think about the final scene.”

When working with stop motion, Ulrich said it was especially critical for him to focus on one scene at a time. Every second of his film included about fifteen individual, tiny movements to the clay figurines he made by hand for his film. He spent days taking thousands of photos of tiny movements he made in his figurines, sometimes moving an entire battlefield of figures, one at a time, for each shot.

In order to get the right dimensions between his figurines, Ulrich made them in different sizes, so they appear to be closer or further away on film. In reality, they are three different sizes: one inch, three inches and six inches. His largest figure, a “Chutuckien,” is a foot tall.

For his film’s sound effects, Ulrich and his co-producers took sounds from sites like findsounds.com and Biola’s sound effects library. Growls from bears and lions, even some elephants and whales, were mixed and changed to take on the unique form of his characters. All together, more than 125 sound tracks were used to complete the score and sound effects for the film — more than any previous film from a Biola student.

Ulrich said quite a few Biola professors, as well as Biola president Barry H. Corey, are featured as the voices of his characters. Ulrich said he sent Corey a facebook message about helping with his film and Corey quickly responded that he thought it would be fun.

According to Ulrich, his film addresses several deep questions about truth, the meaning of evil, how it interacts with good and the elements that drive it.

“Stories are most effective as an embodiment of abstract truth,” Ulrich said, citing the way that Jesus explained truth through stories rather than providing definitions. “One of the biggest things about [this film] is authority and how and where it applies.”

The title of Ulrich’s film, similar to many of its other elements, has a childhood story to go with it.

“The entire fantasy universe was actually created by my younger brother when he was 8 years old,” Ulrich said, laughing. “He would go to church and would be drawing pictures of dragons and strange monsters instead of paying attention.”

Ulrich’s brother was the one who came up with the name “Chaisson,” the continent on which the film takes place. “Zerad,” on the other hand, is the name of an evil creature in the film.

“Chaisson: Rise of the Zerad,” premiered on May 13 at Cinema Fusion in Anaheim at 8:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. Visit the film’s website at www.worldofchaisson.com.

Written by Shanley Knox, Chimes Reporter for Biola University’s student newspaper, “The Chimes.”

For more information, contact Jenna Bartlo, Media Relations Coordinator. Jenna can be reached at (562) 777-4061 or through email at    

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