Animation | Film Analysis | Film Reviews

Into the Groove

1 Nov , 2007  

Written by Lynn Tryba | Posted by:

Jason Harrington gathers elements of sketch artistry, literary nonfiction, the violin, and whale song in The Tree With The Lights In It, an animated short screening this month at SNOB.
It took Jason Harrington about a year to make the five-minute world seen in his animation, The Tree With The Lights In It.  The following sentence from Annie Dillard’s nonfiction book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, served as his inspiration:  “When the doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw the tree with the lights in it.” 

The full-time Framingham State College film and video professor became obsessed with the nature of perception, stealing hours for his project whenever he could.  He made so many sketches for his film that he literally rubbed the skin off his hands. 

He eventually began soliciting feedback about his work, unsure as to whether people would connect to it.  “My parents look at my work.  But I feel like they’re just humoring me,” he said with a laugh. 

But Harrington’s work is moving much more than an audience of two these days.  The piece recently struck a chord at the 10 or Less Film Festival in Portland, OR, winning the best experimental film award.  It will play to New England audiences during the Somewhat North of Boston (SNOB) Film Festival, November 9-11, in Concord, NH.  

The Tree With The Lights In It explores a young girl discovering the world — and her family tree — visually, for the first time.  The piece is a rich artistic mix of old school filmmaking techniques combined with cutting-edge computer animation technology and effects.  It includes “some really tedious rotoscoping techniques, where I’m sketching every frame,” Harrington said.  “At 24 frames per second, that’s a lot of sketching.” 

He also used the Bauhaus Mirage 2D animation and effects software, noting the program has great brush tools and layering capacity for a handmade feel.  One section of the film — a group of his students completing an “art tree” made of paint and old portraits — was also shot in 16mm stop motion. 

Harrington kept a notebook of thoughts during the process and was open to both experimenting with new ideas and discarding them.  Early on, he had narration over the entire film; by the end, the only human voice we hear is the one Dillard sentence.  “In the end, I let the images and music speak,” Harrington said. 

Lisa Walker’s Grooved Whale.
[Click to listen to Hawaii Gruv.]

The right music was key to the melding of the piece.  Harrington had met independent recording artist Lisa Walker at the Subtle Technologies conference held at the University of Toronto.  The event brings together scientists and artists to discuss and demonstrate their work, a unique setting that encourages new insights and collaborations.  Walker studied the language of whales off the coast of Hawaii and combined their calls with her violin music, which she played and recorded in underwater chambers.  The liner notes of her album, Grooved Whale, say that the whales would occasionally call back to her while she played.  Caught up in a momentum of trying out different sound tracks, Harrington slipped Walker’s Hawaii Gruv into his film. 

The composition was perfect. 

“I threw that piece in and was like, oh my Lord,” Harrington recalled.  Until that moment, the images hadn’t yet come to life.  Adding the emotions of the music with the visuals allowed the film to unveil its voice.  “The whole thing lifts up, and it’s like, wow, there it is,” he said. 

When Walker gave him permission to use her recording, Harrington and his wife danced around their apartment. 

“The music is enchanting; it draws you into the world of the film,” he said.  He added the scratchiness of an old record album to the beginning of the piece so that it aligns even more closely with the mood and feel of his film, which uses layers of scratch patterns throughout. 

Early viewers of Harrington’s piece found it a bit abstract and some of its images confusing.  He kept paring away at it through the revision process.  “There were some images that were taking away from where the film wanted to go,” he said.  “I whittled away the images that didn’t belong.” 

The film got to the point where Harrington really wanted it to be done.  He showed it once more to people not involved with the film but didn’t get the response he was hoping for.  “People weren’t telling me what I wanted to hear,” he said. 

Ironically, Harrington had started the project in the midst of working on a longer film because he wanted the satisfaction of finishing something.  He took a break from the film. 

When he returned to the piece with fresh eyes, he saw that the feedback was on target.  It turned out to be his final edit.  The images and music combined to produce their own language. Words and explanations were no longer necessary.  The piece spoke for itself. 

The Tree With The Lights In It screens at the Somewhat North of Boston (SNOB) Film Festival, taking place November 9-11 in Concord, NH. Learn more about Harrington’s work at his website,

The Tree With The Lights In It screens at the Somewhat North of Boston (SNOB) Film Festival, taking place November 9-11 in Concord, NH. Learn more about Harrington’s work at his website,

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