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Siblings Discover The Family That Clays Together, Stays Together


Ralpete runs from a hand monster.

Ralpete runs from a hand monster.

Photo by Chop Motion Films

Some families watch sports. Some hike. Some barbecue. The Farrisses paint their hands to look like snakes and put on rat masks. And they film all of it.

Brothers Michael and Sean Farris are the directors in charge of the family production company, Chop Motion Films. Marion County natives, they now make movies in a little house Sean and his wife, Katy Allen-Farris, own in Silverton. 

Katy helps produce. (The two also just produced a baby boy, Tiger.) When life allows, sister Juliana West does art direction, and the youngest, Evan, films. 

They’ve been coming up with surreal stories together since they were kids growing up in Aumsville. At some point, somebody got a camera. In 2007, they started making music video projects for Salem-area bands. They also started exploring stop motion, pixilation, clay animation and other effects. 

Their latest, “Num Nums,” introduces us to Ralpete (played by Michael) who is chased by hand monsters, devours mysterious candies and slips in and out of troubled flashbacks. It’s dark, but suffused with a kind of colorful positivity.

What was the first stop motion you guys ever did?

Sean: The first stop motion we did was a short film called “Ear People.” That was for our younger brother, Evan.

Michael: It was primarily his film. And Evan’s brilliant.

Sean: It was about, I guess you’d say, these ear people who come out of the ear. I guess you’d have to see it. It played at the Northwest Film Forum Children’s Film Festival, because Evan was a child at the time, and it was picked up and shown at the Rome International Film Festival (in Italy) as part of their children’s program. It started in my mom’s living room. We were just messing around with clay. 

Michael: My poor mother. On one of our various projects, we dumped more than a gallon of goo that we had made, flax gel, onto the floor. And this other project, a music video, was set on a desert island, so we got buckets and buckets of sand from the Aumsville ponds and we brought it into the living room and created this desert set. Our mom wasn’t there. And we were like, “Oh, we need a little more atmosphere,” so Juliana was kicking up the finest sand in this perfect way that filled the room with this plume of sand.

Sean: A dust bowl.

Michael: A dust bowl, yes. And my mom said, never again. Although we did again. 

You were pretty old at that point. It wasn’t like you were teenagers.

Sean: Yeah, I think the charm was gone for her at that point.

What different techniques did you use for “Num Nums?”

Michael: “Num Nums” involved stop motion, pixilation, which is similar to stop motion, and live action, and a lot of compositing.

Sean: Pretty much the whole movie was shot just in front of a green screen. There’s some painted hand puppetry involved. Those were my hands.

I want to add that when you say hand puppetry, you don’t mean hand puppets, you mean hands that act like puppets.

Sean: Exactly. Hands painted different colors, and then you can move them around and make them look like various things. Those were also composited in.

Michael: I often get the pleasure of acting in our films. It’s just one way to leverage your resources. But it’s worked out. I’m not an actor, but I’m rather good at pixilation. In pixilation you have an actor moving either frame by frame or very, very slowly as we take exposures. And that is not something everyone can do well. I’m apparently fairly good at moving very, very slowly through a given movement or action. 

Sean: There’s a really strange quality that can come out in a performance. Not to mention, when you are shooting the stills, you’re getting a lot more resolution, and sometimes you can do a lot more with them and there’s more clarity. 

Katie, what roles did you fill on this production?

Katie: “Num Nums” was probably one of the productions I was most heavily involved in. It was a lot of very late nights painting Sean’s hands to look like snakes or whatever. I got to do some camerawork on that one, just because there was no one else to do it, and I got to work a lot with makeup and prosthetics. Michael, in the video, that’s quite a transformation. We got to shave his head.

Michael: Wax my body.

Katie: It was great! We got to dye his hair red and then shave and shave, again and again, trying to get it to look as smooth as possible.

Is there anything in the storyline of “Num Nums” or in the character of Ralpete that is inspired by anything personal?

Michael: I can’t say that whatever seems to be hinted at in Ralpete’s past is in my past, but every person has their own difficulties and things that happen to them in life. That’s one function of art, is we express ourselves. A certain amount of that angst is going to drip into whatever you do. 

Sean: I think in Ralpete’s case it’s kind of a gauntlet, a bit of a nightmare of real present dangers and dangers from the past sort of swirled together. 

Michael: Dreams are some of the most inspiring, fun things, I think. It’s good to be a person who can sleep and dream. And then stick it right in a movie.

Where did the idea for the candies come from in the movie?

Sean: I did have a dream once that I was feeding candy to a scorpion, which would sting the candy with its tail and bring it to its mouth and eat it. And it was a very visceral, really vivid dream, this really bright, gummy candy. And that went right into the short film. It just kind of seemed right. Candy fits with the character of Ralpete since he’s a little bit childlike. And it’s just interesting-looking – candy is neat-looking, I think. 

How does growing up in a small town inspire some of these creative, dark visions?

Sean: When there’s not as much to do, or maybe sometimes when you’re bored, you sometimes are forced to use your imagination, I guess. And in our case, we never had a lot of fancy toys or anything. We had each other as siblings – there are seven siblings in our family. And so it was just a lot of imagination, a lot of playing, and that kind of stuff.  

Michael: For almost 5 years we cared for our grandmother, who passed away in 2012. And we would always go on walks around Stayton. And it’s just fascinating. You look at any given corner and there’s inspiration, just visually. Everything you look at, you see a story in it. There’s something there. Your brain will transport you somewhere everyplace you look.

Sean: Sometimes in a small town, you can get a little bit of a Twin Peaks vibe or something, and it can inspire these types of things, I suppose. 

What are your day jobs?

Sean: I am the lone parking enforcement officer and code enforcement officer for the city of Silverton. I write five dollar tickets downtown at the penny meters.

That’s a powerful job.

Sean: They definitely know who I am, and luckily, since the tickets are cheap and the meters are cheap, they don’t hate me as much as they hate parking enforcement in, say, Portland.

Michael: I am the warehouse person for a carpet company in Hillsboro. When I’m not doing films, I prefer to be physically vigorous in my work, so it works out well for me.

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