Chel White’s Early Animated Films: “Machine Song” & “Metal Dogs of India”

By on April 26, 2015

Chel White — born on May 30, 1959, in Kansas City, Missouri — cites his earliest influence as being the Surrealist paintings he was exposed to in grade school when visiting the Art Institute of Chicago. He began making films in high school and went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in Visual Arts, with a central focus on experimental film, from Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

After college he began making independent short films, starting with Metal Dogs of India (1985). Machine Song (1987), a look at the mechanized nature of modern times, was White’s second film. Both screened on Night Flight in the 1980s.

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We asked Chel White to tell us about these early films.

Chel White:

Twenty years before YouTube, Night Flight was one of the best venues for independent film and video artists to show their work to a mass audience. In fact, I can’t remember any program for such works that had a larger audience. How they found me I don’t recall exactly but in 1985 someone from ATI Video Enterprises Inc. contacted me (VP Cynthia Friedland?) asking to license my short film, “Metal Dogs of India.” I happily agreed to their terms and signed an exclusive agreement for one year in exchange for a $100 check. There’s a funny story about the check but I’ll get to that in a moment.

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Shortly after signing, a date was set for “Metal Dogs of India” and it would be aired to potentially millions of people. The thrill was indescribable. So with enormous anticipation, the airtime finally arrived and my modest film was shown in the coveted late night slot on national television. I can only describe it as surreal. A part of me wishes I had had a decent VHS machine at the time to record the show, but then there’s something nice about it living only in my memory.

At any rate, the most bizarre aspect of the story is the $100 royalty check didn’t get to me right away. Instead it unknowingly ended up in a pile of newspaper recycling in the trunk of the car of a friend I’d been staying with. Unfortunately, my friend was then in a terrible car accident in which his car was sandwiched between two trains coming in opposite directions. Though his car had to be taken away in three pieces, amazingly my friend survived, albeit with a few broken ribs.

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A few days later, I was walking along the train tracks looking through the debris from the accident and low and behold there was the $100 check with my name on it! I couldn’t believe it. It was a little worse for wear but still intact, so I went to the bank and cashed it.

The film itself is a sort of Dadaesque collage of animated images drawn directly onto the celluloid surface of the film in hundreds of tiny pictures, all set to music.

Two years later, in 1987, Night Flight picked up another one of my short films, “Machine Song,” and I think it’s the one people most remember being on the show. It might be the subject matter resonated with people at the time, and possibly still does. I would describe the film as a minimalist vision of the post-industrial human condition, depicted in xerox cutout animation. The imagery and sound relate both a fear and fascination with technology, in a world grown increasingly dependent on it.

By 1987, Night Flight had certainly gained my respect, not just because they showed my films but because I saw some other pretty cool indie films and music videos there.

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Here’s another of Chel’s films you may enjoy:

Chel White has been making films for over 30 years now. He is the recent recipient of a Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowship. From Berlin to Hong Kong to Sundance, his films have been shown in film festivals all over the world and recognized with numerous awards.

His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Portland Art Museum. He is the recipient of a Rockefeller/Ford Foundation Media Arts Fellowship. His films have screened at such festivals as Ann Arbor, Berlin, Tribeca, Rotterdam, Edinburgh, Hiroshima, Annecy, and he’s had three film screened in the Sundance Film Festival. He was awarded Best Short Film from the Stockholm International Film Festival, Best Animated Short from the Florida Film Festival, and Best Narrative Feature from the 2012 Kansas City Film Festival for his debut feature film Bucksville, about a secret society in the Pacific Northwest.

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Harrowdown Hill, White’s groundbreaking music video for Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, won Best Music Video at the 2007 SXSW Festival.

A more recent project, Bird of Flames, is an experimental music video for David Lynch and Chrysta Bell that straddles the line between stop-motion and live-action. It won the Audience Award for Best Experimental Short in the 2012 Northwest Filmmakers Festival.

Chel White lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a co-founding partner of the film studio Bent Image Lab.

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In addition to filmmaking, Chel White is an accomplished musician and sound artist. His music can be found in a number of short films, including Joan Gratz’s Academy Award winning “Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.