“Attack of the Giant Vulture,” “Foil Man”, and the rest- where did they come from? Why did the films just STOP, and why is their so little info on them? Here’s what we do know about those half-remembered bits of surrealism from commercial breaks, and the questions we have yet to answer.
Once upon a time, in the 1990s…
Nickelodeon already had the admiration of just about every kid in America, thanks to its combination of heart-pounding game shows, quirky cartoons, and eccentric sitcoms. And one day, like Willy Wonka opening his gates, Nick decided they were going to turn the controls over to kids and allow them to tell stories of their own for TV. A division called “Nick Creative Labs” was formed, and one of its major projects was a series lost in myth, missing information, bizarre images and some half-recalled nightmares. Its name was “Short Films by Short People”.
Short Films by Short People was one of the most ambitious and unusual projects Nickelodeon ever attempted. And yet, not much information on it is out there for the public: the details of how the project got started, where and how the Network found their participants, why the series ended, and the current status of the films. Only two of the films are even listed on IMDB (“Sam Digital” and “Hervic in Cloudland”). What we do know isn’t based on much: the brief “making of” segments at the end of each film, 1997 articles from the NY Daily News and the Chicago Tribune on the Short Films by Short People Film Festival, and a TV listing for the Festival from the LA Times. According to these, the films were first produced in 1994, as part of Nick’s Creative Labs division. The Creative Lab’s Creative Director and Executive Producer, Amy Friedman, looks to have been the driving force behind the project. Nickelodeon had representatives visiting schools across the US (and at least one in the UK and one in Canada) to talk to children about themes in storytelling like heroes and the future. The NY Daily News says that the project was aimed at 5th and 6th graders.(It’s unknown if the network met with a single grade or a single class at each school or how schools were selected.) The students’ assignment was to create a story that reflected their ideas about that theme: what they defined as a hero, what they thought the future would be like. Heady territory for kids. The reps then picked what they felt was the most filmworthy story and helped the author write and direct the final products. Each film began and closed with an animated bumper by Mo Willems (children’s author and creator of cartoons “The Off-Beats” and “Sheep in the Big City”), and included a brief “Making Of” segment after the film and before the end bumper, where the film’s creator would explain their idea and something about the filmmaking process. (Many of the kids seemed to find the actual shooting of the film dull.) After being aired between shows, the series culminated in 1997’s “Short Films By Short People Festival”, which the network aired at least twice. Finally, a few of the shorts found their way to Noggin and the early-morning Noggin block on Nick before they faded into obscurity- only to be resurrected in the age of Youtube. Since airing, they seemed to have lurked at the edges of 90’s kid consciousness, lingering in their brains like vanity plates with sudden loud noises, or the foggy memory of being in preschool and getting frightened by the fireman demonstrating his gas mask to the class.
I’ve often wondered if I’m the only one who is curious about the origins of the series and the lack of information on it, as the shorts had no proper credits. Here’s what I did find. I know I am re-stating a lot of things from the “Behind the Scenes” segments, but I wanted to get all this info in one place.
Here’s the promo for the film festival, for a sampling of this surrealist smorgasbord (and of Pure Moods!):
The Tribune cites some directors for the shorts: Michael Goldberg, a writer for the film “Cool Runnings,” and Kit Laybourne, creator of “Eureeka’s Castle” and co-creator of “Gullah Gullah Island,” but does not say which films they directed in the series. (Kit Laybourne worked on Liquid Television and “Season’s Greetings”, the film that became “Trick’r Treat”, while Michael Goldberg wrote “Snow Dogs” and “Little Giants”) It also notes a second series was planned for 1998, but it looks like that didn’t last long. Why did so few papers write about the series? When a film was shot in New York’s Chinatown, or kids from NYC’s PS 6 were consulted where was the Times, and why did the NY Daily News only report on the project by the time the festival rolled around? Did other local papers carry any stories about the schools being visited by Nick, or the kids who were selected to participate? If I had time, I’d like to track down everything I could in that area. But without a concrete list of directors, cast and crew, I have no idea where to begin.
THE DOCUMENTED FILMS: These are the films that can currently be watched on Youtube, and the ones that have won awards.
Foilman: I think this may have been the first-ever short in the series. It’s certainly the first one I recall seeing on television. Foilman won a Cable ACE award in 1995, according to the Tribune– but before seeing it on TV, I saw it that year at Nickelodeon’s Mega-Mess-a-Mania, a live show that toured the US (I saw it at the Meadowlands in New Jersey). Most people, if they’ve seen or remember one film in the series, know this one or “Giant Vulture”. (More on that later.) The film is credited to 13-year-old Brennan Weir from Monticello, New York, co-directed by Chris Gilligan (who worked on “James and the Giant Peach”, “Celebrity Deathmatch”, “Frankenweenie” and several Blue Sky films) and Agi Fodor, creator of Stick Stickly. The NY Daily News cites Brennan as hailing from “Mrs. Sinclair’s fifth-grade class at New York City’s PS 6”. The film features a superhero made of tinfoil who defeats a malformed school lunch known as the “Friday Special”.
Attack of the Giant Vulture: Several years before this film was found and uploaded to the internet, I read a Youtube comment where a user called “Krakendude2” proclaimed “I would kill a kitten, punch Chuck Norris in the face and sell my soul to Bob Barker to see Attack of the Giant Vulture again”.
I think that sums up the impact of this film nicely.
Yes, folks, this was the big one, the scream heard ‘round the big orange couch. Shot on location in NYC’s Chinatown, this was meant to be a simple and funny tale, according to the three girls who wrote it. Apparently, quite a few kids didn’t see it that way. When I talk about “nightmares” in association with this series, this is the one I mean. Think about the plot: Two girls attempt to rescue their friend from the titular vulture, who plans to eat her. He chases them, but they soon turn the tables by plucking out his feathers. They chase the vulture, now small, weak and wimpy, as he cries out for his “mommy.” In an allegedly ‘happy’ ending, the three (pre-teen!) girls commit an off-screen murder: the final shot is the three of them proclaiming “Here’s to dinner!” with a smile as they prepare to tuck into the vulture’s dead corpse. Three children killed a sentient being with a family, and ate his flesh. To be fair, he was planning to do the same to them, but when you read the Tribune article and its statement that Nick “barred violence” in the films…did they miss this one?
This film seems to have taken a real hold on the kids of the 90’s. If you look online, you will see many message board posts and online queries relating to this film (Retro Junk, Yahoo Answers, and many more). It even has its own page on the Lost Media Wiki. Quite a few comments online have people talking about how they loved the film, but more often, people are talking about how it scared the living crap out of them when they were kids. I’m one of the scared ones. I’m able to watch the film regularly now, and it doesn’t really frighten me, but my fascination with it has grown. I’m obsessed with discovering WHY the film scared me, and many others, so much. I believe it has something to do with film’s tone, pacing, camera angles, and the uncanny valley look of the title character. He’s played by a full-body puppet, familiar to young viewers from “Sesame Street.” But to kids, even the full-body characters at Disney Parks are enormous and scary, and this chap isn’t a cuddly figure like Big Bird- he’s a child-eater. His huge head is grotesque, with weird hair on top and wide eyes- and then there’s his raspy voice.
About the technique of the film: this starts off with a freaking JUMP SCARE, revealing the vulture’s hideous face, and doesn’t slow down much afterwards. The chases are right out of Scooby-Doo, but seeing that in live action with the threat of murder looming in the distance doesn’t go down smooth for fearful kids. Some jerky stop-motion right out of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night only makes the film weirder for nervous viewers, who are kids and haven’t really been exposed to this technique in live action. All the camera work makes the screen claustrophobic and the monster look huge and relentless, particularly when the victim sees the vulture’s shadow looming behind her at the start, and when he’s got her cornered at the wall a few moments later. The big factor in the film’s weirdness, however, is the tone. It veers back and forth between peril and comedy at a rapid pace. The main example is the ending, and then there’s another odd moment midway through the film. Here Vulture is in the main chase, going in for the kill, when he gets a reminder of his own mortality. He sees a dead bird for sale in a butcher’s window. “Uncle Harry?” he says in disbelief. Now that I’m older, it’s a nice moment of dark comedy and foreshadowing, but as a kid, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at what I was seeing. All I knew was a vulture wanted to eat some kids, and it was probably because people were eating his relatives. Did this film scare or fascinate you? Please tell me and explain why.
The Adventures of Sam Digital in the 21st Century: This may be the third -most notable of the films (behind the infamous Giant Vulture and Foil Man) because it was nominated for a Cable ACE award in 1997. This film combines live action and stop-motion animation and marks the start of the ‘future’ theme in the series. The Tribune credits the film to Toronto’s Nick Claridge and Steve Angel, “a Canadian commercial director”, in cooperation with the Whitney School. Here we see a future controlled by computers (an idea that will recur in at least one later film) where (nice prediction, Nick!) a large-scale computer virus threatens to undo the very fabric of society. Top virus detective Sam (presumably short for Samantha?) Digital must go into cyberspace to defeat the virus face-to-face. It turns out the virus was destroying ‘Internet World” in order to force people to go outdoors. In the end, Sam learns “there’s more to surf than just the ‘net.” The whole thing is like Tron meets E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops; I don’t think this kid was familiar those, though- or with anything by William Gibson, for that matter.
Watching the Making Of, I wonder if Nick’s story was originally about a boy named Sam, or he had always written the story with a female protagonist. Was the moral always that we mustn’t lose touch with nature in favor of technology, or did one of the people assisting Nick add that in? I got a smile out of this quote from our young screenwriter:”Sam Digital is smart, but she’s not a nerd.”
Double Trouble: In this 1996 film, two British schoolgirls, who are twins, join their class in driving their strict schoolteacher nuts. What they don’t know is that their teacher, Miss Match, is also a twin, and she’s asked her fun-loving sister to fill in for her at work. The film stars and was created by Lexi and Loretta Rose. The location is given as Finton House School in London, and the music is credited on the Youtube upload to Henry Marsh.
What is interesting to note about Double Trouble is that Loretta Rose, who helped create, direct, and act in the film, has Downs’ Syndrome. In a nice touch, this is never mentioned in the film; she misbehaves just like her sister and the other kids; and no one treats her any differently than the other students. It was rare for Nickelodeon to do this type of representation in the 90’s (as far as I know, it still is today) and rarer still for any kids’ show then(or now) to feature any character or actor like this in a way that was not condescending or part of a ‘very special episode.’ In the “Making Of”, Lexi says her father helped them make the film and their mother served as producer. Their gym teacher, Dorothy, played Miss Match and her twin. Paul Boross, who played Mr. Point, is referred to as a family friend. The film also includes some nice shots of London landmarks like the Tower of London and Big Ben.
THE COMP REEL FILMS: “Foilman”, “Giant Vulture”, and “Sam Digital” are on the Creative Labs Comp Reel. But one film from the reel is still missing from Youtube.
The Piranha and the Mailman: This musical fairytale is a personal favorite. This is without a doubt, the film in the series with the most star power: they somehow managed to net FRANCES FREAKIN’ MCDORMAND to play the Queen, and a recognizable character actor(whose full name is not mentioned but his first name is given as Tony, and after some research I think it’s Tony Rosato) played the Prime Minister. The story is almost through-sung, with the aid of a Greek chorus of kids dressed as statues.
In a pseudo-medieval period, two kingdoms, Harold and Tuten, are in crisis. Tuten’s evil Prime Minister decides to start a war for the hell of it and sends our hero, Bob the mailman, to meet Harold’s Queen with an official declaration of war. On his journey, Bob falls out of his boat and is nearly eaten by a piranha (who looks sort of like Jesse L. Martin if memory serves, but I don’t think it’s him). Bob pleads for his life, but the toothy fish reveals he just wants a friend, and Bob accepts the offer. Together, they reach the castle- but the Queen’s been “listening to the statues’ and knows they’ve come to deliver a declaration of war. It looks like curtains for our heroes, but the piranha, thinking quickly, says the message was changed at the last minute- to a singing telegram, which the Queen orders them to perform. The two improvise a song of greetings (“Happy April/Happy June/Happy Tuesday/Get well soon!”) and friendship, bringing joy to the Queen and ensuring peace will reign once more. Bob and his new friend celebrate, the villain is deposed, and the chorus eats ‘a mushroom casserole in the shape of a human brain.” Gilbert and Sullivan would be proud. As a kid, I always liked the inventive way the characters decided to use music to solve their problem (rather than a fight scene, a deus ex machina, or magic) and the bizarre inclusion of the brain casserole. Nowadays, I love this hilariously petty line from the Prime Minister: “I’m THROUGH with peace….it’s such a bore! I THINK I’LL START A WAR!” Wikipedia lists the music composer for this film as Robert Reale, composer of the musical “A Year with Frog and Toad” and the film “Wigstock: The Movie.”
THE OTHER FILMS: This covers the films NOT currently online or on the Comp Reel. Some of the information comes from my memory of seeing them on Noggin, the Festival, or between shows. I remember seeing these on tv between shows and in the Film Festival in the mid-to-late 90’s . If anything is not correct, or you have more info, please let me know!
Rainbow: An anti-racism parable, created by an African-American girl. The film is shot in black and white. A girl (who had a short name like Joy), is at an urban dance contest or concert. When she tries to get up and dance, a group of older kids (mostly boys, I don’t think the whole group was white) tell her she can’t. I think they did explicitly say it was because she was black. A graffiti figure on the wall comes to life: she is animated, with bright yellow skin and red hair, but I think she was meant to be African-American too. She calls herself Rainbow, and reprimands the older kids for their discrimination. Then, she uses her color powers to turn their skin wild colors, like blue and green. At first they are horrified, but soon they see her point, and begin dancing and celebrating their differences with everyone at the event. The film ends as the girl hi-fives Rainbow, who makes the girl’s skin shine with many different colors.
Happy Birthday to UUU: This seems to be one of the later films in the series- the quality and effects looked better, and I don’t remember seeing any new films after this one. The theme is once again “The future” and this tale, submitted by a young girl, is a strangely bittersweet vision of things to come.
The film takes place in (again) a distant future where all homes and appliances are controlled by computers. Two people in different homes are having a birthday: an elderly woman and a preteen girl. The girl, who seems a bit spoiled, insists she wants a birthday cake- a tradition that’s been almost completely forgotten in their era. Her mother isn’t sure what a birthday cake is and asks the house computer (which is represented as a frog on a video screen) to make one. Once the cake is ready, the girl and her mother have no idea what to do with it. “Granny once said something about a song. Does it sing?” They wait, and the cake stays silent. “Maybe you sing to it?” the mother asks. Far away, the elderly woman thinks about the past as she celebrates her birthday alone. As I recall, a female alien with three eyes somehow gets access to the birthday cake, and hears the old woman remembering her past birthdays. The alien somehow takes the birthday cake from the young girl and gives it to the old woman. I believe the finale featured the old woman happily blowing out the candles as a birthday song played.
I remember that in the ‘Making Of’, the creator noted that the film featured an original birthday song due to the steep rights required to use “Happy Birthday to You.” This may be one of the rare cases where having a different song really makes sense- in an age where birthday cakes had been forgotten, no one would remember “Happy Birthday to You”. What bothers me is that I can’t remember if the old woman in the story is the girl’s grandmother. The girl and mother talk about “Granny” like she might still be alive and we know that she remembers old birthday traditions- if that woman is Granny and they left her all alone, then this might be the saddest film in the entire series, despite a happy ending.
Hervic In Cloudland: An opera-inspired fantasy, rife with Viking helmets. A ‘trailer’ from the film is available on Youtube, but I can’t find the whole film. A page on the San Francisco Film Festival lists the plot as: “Hervic takes a thrilling sentimental journey in a valiant attempt to preserve the memory of his mother. Written by a local student.”
They also have credits for the film: Made in 1997, 7 minutes long. Shown at the Festival in 1999. Directed by Velvy Appleton, Mackenzie Oppenheim and recepient of GGA award(Certificate of Merit, Television: Children’s Programs) Velvy Appleton is listed on IMDB as the film’s director and a visual effects artist on “Sin City” (among others.)
Nothing Weird: The December 21, 1997 edition of the LA Times mentions the broadcast of the Short Films By Short People Film Festival- they count eight films in all and specifically mention “Foilman” and a film I cannot remember at all: ‘”Nothing Weird,” about two brothers with their own TV network.’ Could this be an image from the film? It’s on the promo and I can’t identify it.
A thread on Retro Junk regarding the films mentions another film called “The Whooton Observer” (this may not be spelled right) which concerns ” a girl who always rode her bike for her paper route but there was this one house with this one old lady who she was afraid of or something”.
If this user is correct and “Whooton Observer” was part of the festival and not just part of Creative Labs, this and “Nothing Weird” may bring us up to the original 8 films on the festival, with “Hervic in Cloudland” and “Happy Birthday” being made afterward, possibly not airing until 1998. If you have ANY information on “Whooton Observer” or “Nothing Weird”, even fuzzy memories, please let me know.
WHY DID IT END?
The Tribune article does mention each film took around FIVE MONTHS to complete. This was before a lot of the technology we have now, and I know even the shortest films take a while to perfect, especially if animation and stop-motion are involved. But five months does seem like a long time, per film, to make the series a regular installment. It was also probably difficult to get the resources, people, and time needed to find schools, visit them, and do a writing workshop. Finally, I’m not sure what the budget on the films was-some look like they cost more than others- but I can see how costumes, sets, and animation for a project like this would be expensive. There is one last question mark: the promo mentions a contest for kids to get the chance to make their own film. Who won? Which of the later films was the result? Did NO ONE win, with the series getting cancelled after the festival aired? Perhaps this was a last resort to save the series.
I know this was a long article, and maybe my summaries are very detail-heavy. But there’s just no record of this stuff, and I want to change that. I don’t think these films should be forgotten. Creating them was probably a dream come true for those “Short People”, and they definitely captured the imagination of those watching at home. If I’ve missed any films or reported any incorrect information, please tell me and I will update as soon as possible. If you or anyone you know was involved in these films, I want to hear from you. Please share your memories and keep the spirit of Short Films by Short People alive. My next installment will talk about the network’s other short films like “Inside Eddie Johnson” and “Inside Out Boy,” also from Nick Creative Labs.