The first clay buffalo was the easiest. Hilary Goldberg, director of Chapter 5 of “Valencia: The Movie,” molded little clay bodies over wire armatures. She looked at photos of the cast and tried to embody their buffalo selves.
She’d wanted to learn claymation for a while now, and now here was Chapter 5, an assignment that featured both an acid trip and the buffalo paddock in Golden Gate Park. Nothing about the chapter said, “Turn your actors into clay buffalo.” But nothing about it said not to, either.
Chapter 5 of “Valencia,” Michelle Tea’s memoir of her 25th year in the wilder, boozier and cheaper Mission of the late ’90s, is part of an unconventional movie project. Each of the book’s 21 chapters are being shot, in HD, as a five-minute short film. Each film will feature a different director and different actors. The films will tour together as a feature for a year, after which point the rights to each film will revert back to its director.
The set, a miniature buffalo paddock, was built in the back room of Goldberg’s apartment, according to specs obtained from the website animateclay.com. Much time was spent in the forums, where entire discussion threads would be devoted to the issue of how to produce the most visually stunning fake grass (it is, says Goldberg, the place where claymation freaks come to argue with model train enthusiasts). After much thought, Goldberg settled on dipping fake fur in green acrylic paint, then hand-combing it out to prevent clumping.
Machete, the real-life counterpart to one of the buffalo, helped with the camera dolly, which needed to move precisely so the camera could look as though it was smoothly panning across the clay characters as they moved and talked, when it was really stopping and starting over and over again.
Like most of the actors in Chapter 5, Machete has never technically been an actor before. Most of the casting took place via Facebook. Specifically, most of the casting was done by scanning through photos people had pasted on the Facebook page for the Lexington Club, because the young people of Goldberg’s more immediate acquaintance looked too clean-cut. “Not a lot of facial piercings or ink on these kids today,” says Goldberg, musingly.
The costume designer, Margaret Halsey, dressed the live-action actors for Chapter 5 mostly by going through her friends’ closets. The clothing of the ’90s is slowly but surely creeping back into style, but certain items — like the clunky, black-soled platforms that were a then-ubiquitous symbol of girlish bohemianism — are still hard to come by. There were no closets small enough for the clay buffalo, so Halsey made tiny clothes for them instead.
It was only after the set was finished that the full complexity of teaching oneself claymation over the Internet began to reveal itself. The grass moved if anyone so much as breathed on it. The tiny clothes took up fingerprints. Sometimes the aluminum armatures inside the clay figures bent easily, and sometimes they didn’t. Figures with ball and socket joints would have been easier, but there’s no swapping out skeletons in mid-stream. And then there was the matter of the Cecil B. DeMille-style dance number. Performed by ants.
Goldberg has been making films since she was 12, first by borrowing a VHS camera from an uncle, then with a camera stolen from her mother’s boyfriend. The films of the teenage Goldberg did not necessarily go over well in her hometown near Miami, Florida. “In high school I did a documentary about my high school. ‘Is it a prison? Or a playground? Why detention? Why? Why would you punish students by forcing them to not work?’ They loved that.”
Film school did not go well. “It was pretty misogynistic,” says Goldberg. “I hadn’t read feminism and understood the books, so I didn’t realize yet that it wasn’t personal.”
Then one night Goldberg bought a ticket to an Ani DiFranco concert, only to run into the singer before the show. The conversation turned into a gig filming the concert, which turned into a few more gigs filming concerts, which turned into a documentary project.
The whole process went about as well as a documentary project shot by a film student about a rapidly rising celebrity could go. “She was my ticket to feminism,” says Goldberg. Over the five years it took Goldberg and DiFranco to finish the documentary, Goldberg dropped out of film school, moved to Los Angeles, and began to work as a production assistant. She’s been in film ever since.
Meanwhile, in the rough cut of the claymation sequence, the buffalo drink beer and gaze wide-eyed at the moon. Each time their eyes need to move, the camera is stopped and Goldberg steps in, sticking a pointy metal implement into the pupil of their marble eyeballs and shifting them over ever so slightly.
And then the chapter is over. Another five minutes of the movie in the can.