Tiny Circus Comes to Town | Frame by Frame, Grinnell Troupe Brings Stories to Life in Stop-animation Shorts

The History of Gloves

Summer nights in downtown Iowa City are typically a pretty lively affair. Strolling through the pedestrian mall on a Friday evening in July, you pass harried vendors cooking up steaming carbohydrates, street musicians in earnest homage to Bob Dylan and Cat Power, blue-haired preteens out past their bedtimes, and, as ever, college students in varying states of sobriety.

If you were lucky enough to partake of such a stroll on July 9, you might have stumbled across a group of people—students, preteens, children, grown-ups—crowded around a vintage Airstream trailer rigged up with a projector screen. Elbowing your way past messenger bags and baby carriers, you would make your way towards the center of the crowd, where you could catch a full view of the spectacle: on a large screen, paper bats flutter across a picture of a cemetery, while little cottonballs of fog drift between paper headstones. The scene shifts to a room beneath the cemetery, where a skeleton in a hat appears to be in the process of arm-wrestling the Grim Reaper, both of their figures intricately drawn, cut and folded from construction paper. The skeleton proves victorious and climbs a ladder to the graveyard above, where he emerges covered in a sheet: having defeated death, he’s become a ghost. The audience cheers.

You’ve happened upon “The History of Ghosts,” part of a series of animated shorts created by an organization called Tiny Circus. The group used stop-animation, a process of shooting still objects so that they appear animate (think Nightmare Before Christmas or Wallace & Gromit) to create whimsical, two- or three-minute clips detailing various “histories” (“The History of Hiccups,” “The History of Rain,” “The History of Staring Contests”) of the world.

Tiny Beginnings
Tiny Circus was started by a group of friends based in Grinnell, Iowa, around August of last year. Carlos Ferguson, one of the principal organizers, says the idea came from a desire to take art out of the museums and put it “out there in the real world,”making it a part of our everyday lives. And certainly, Tiny Circus does just that: each animation is the product of a collaboration between Tiny Circus and a group of volunteers who are involved in every step of the process, from the initial brainstorming session to the final shoot.

Traveling Troupe
Although Tiny Circus has existed in Grinnell for around a year now, this summer they took their skills on the road for the first time, conducting workshops with volunteers and organizations all over Iowa. These workshops typically last one or two days: first, Tiny Circus explains the nature of their project (volunteers usually watch a couple animations to get ideas), then the group sits down and plots out the storyline and the materials that will be used to present it. Next, the materials themselves must be created: most of the animations use meticulously designed paper cut-outs and backdrops, with cellophane, foil, cotton, and other basic materials thrown in to create the appropriate effect. Though the materials themselves are simple and accessible (and provided by Tiny Circus; the group typically travels with 8 to 10 plastic bins of art supplies), the end product is artfully effective. Each animation also has a soundtrack, which is written and played by Tiny Circus and their workshops’ participants.

“We have a studio here anyway, so we were able to use a lot of our own equipment for the audio,” explains Stu Mullins, the Youth Center Coordinator at Iowa City’s United Action for Youth (UAY), which recently collaborated with Tiny Circus to create “The History of Soap.”

Art for the People
Once the animation is finished, Tiny Circus has a free public screening where people can come and appreciate the fruits of their labors, while the participants get to see the final product and enjoy the audience’s reactions. Grace Friedman, who participated in the workshop at UAY and helped create the soundtrack along with her brother, Max, says one of the best parts of the experience is the final show, where the volunteers get to “see how people like it, and hear them laugh at the funny parts.”

Iowa City’s UAY is among the organizations that teamed up with Tiny Circus through ArtShare, a university program that commissions artists to work with local organizations. This means that Tiny Circus’s Iowa City workshop was one of the few that provided monetary compensation for the group: “We’re operating at a pretty huge loss right now,” says Carlos, but through the assistance of programs like ArtShare, and the growing support of the public at large, Tiny Circus hopes to work its way towards financial sustainability.

Tiny Circus (www.tinycircus.org) is currently based in Carlos’s parents’ backyard in Grinnell, where the project’s home consists of three Airstream trailers that have been converted into a studio, a projection trailer, and a living space. Tiny Circus also has a garden and chickens, and produces as much of its own food as possible.

Although Tiny Circus’s statewide tour has come to an end for the season, they will be appearing at Des Moines’s Art Stop on September 11, 2009, in conjunction with the Olson-Larsen Gallery and will continue to offer workshops and screenings sporadically throughout the rest of the year.

The History of Smiles
The History of Ghosts

The History of Rain

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