When Portland native Jerold Howard realized cartoons were not just something you watched but something you could actually make, it changed his world.
“I saved my allowance and was cutting lawns and things like that and I bought a used regular 8 film camera at Sandy’s Camera store in Lloyd Center,” he remembered. “I made sure I got one that could shoot single frames.”
Armed with the camera and a few precious reels of film, Howard spent the rainy seasons painstakingly posing GI Joes — frame-by-frame — in battle forts that he and his friends fashioned from refrigerator boxes.
But by the time Howard was finishing his film studies at Portland State University, he was ready for a change of scenery.
“I was embarrassed by Portland’s provincial ways,” he said. “Like how you feel about your parents when you’re a teenager; you’re grateful for the food and shelter but you really don’t want to be seen with them.”
Howard did break out. He worked as an animator in Toronto, Los Angeles, and Bristol, England. He also lived in San Francisco for more than a decade. When he finally returned to Portland in 2005, his hometown was almost unrecognizable.
“About 10 percent of old Portland was left,” he said. But that wasn’t entirely bad news. “I’d always felt Portland needed to be more cosmopolitan and now it was because people who moved here brought that with them.”
Still, Howard also found himself trying to come to grips with those not-so-good aspects of new Portland.
An Oregon Art Beat Special
That inner struggle is the theme of Jerold’s latest animated film “Battlefield Portland.”
Here, the “battle” between new and old Portland is playfully enacted by the two main characters - Paul Bunyan, who has stepped away from his post in North Portland, with his big ax bent on razing the old, and “The Spirit of Portland” (the woman from the city’s symbol), who wants to defend and preserve the past.
“People feel so passionately about living here and what it means to live here,” he said. “Everyone has really strong opinions about the city and where it’s headed.”
How does Howard plan to take all that passion and translate it into “playful”? The key, he said, is understanding Portland’s essence. Sure, there are the shared values like plaid and strong coffee. But what Howard sees at the core of the city’s enduring character can also be described by what he’s been doing all along — creating fun things with your friends and not taking the results too seriously.
“There’s still room to try stuff. That’s what is attracting people here,” he said.
As Paul Bunyan and the Spirit of Portland make their not-too-serious way through “Battlefield Portland’s” rapidly changing neighborhoods, Howard knows his hometown will never be the same. But he has faith that the city’s particular style of “weirdness” will win out. That faith is also based on observations he made while living in San Francisco when the dot-com money started to pour in.
“That money was like a white napkin thrown over a red wine stain: eventually the real stuff started to seep back through,” Howard said.
Howard hopes to have his new film ready for viewing by this fall. But will the film “Battlefield Portland” translate to a wider audience with such specific local references?
Howard’s response is characteristically Portland: “I hope so … but it’s OK if it doesn’t.”