Posing political questions through short films

Pieritz's John Roberts turns YouTube filmmaker

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By Rosie Powers

Digital Editor

An old-style western short film may not be what many people imagine as a vehicle for talking about politics. But for John Roberts of Oak Park, this idea has become his way of contributing to the November election.

His series of two-minute YouTube films, called "The Race for Anytown," applies the politically-charged dialogue of today to problems facing an old (miniature) railroad town.

Although the series was motivated by the upcoming election, Roberts said it was also born of his enthusiasm for model trains and the old short films in movie theaters.

"I have time and no money," he said. "I thought, what can I do to make a difference?"

The project grew out of a random visit in March to Roberts' neighbor Mark Dewalt's house, whom Roberts said has filled most of his basement with model train layouts. Roberts brought along cameras and attached them to the train cars, recording from the ground level of the layout.

"It looked so realistic," he said. "I realized, this is really cool."

Roberts then decided it was time to make a story out of it. The series, which Roberts calls "an animated race between the 1 percent and the 99 percent," will consist of nine parts when finished, each posing a challenging question facing the country. The episodes have ongoing audio dialogue between characters who then discuss these issues.

To film the series, he set cameras throughout the train layout and on a flat train car running through the set. He then took this footage into Photoshop and broke it into frames, editing each frame so that when finalized, the footage looked older. The final version of the episodes usually incorporates this video along with still images, text and audio.

"I have not used any 'official' animation program, just sort of made it look like the old-time trailers I used to enjoy at the theater," he said. Roberts estimated that each episode can take anywhere from 18 to 36 hours to produce, though he said he usually doesn't keep track of the hours and works on each episode "until it's done."

"It's like making a symphony, between the music, sound effects and frames," he said. "All of these things have to happen together."

But Roberts said he can't take all the credit — he coordinated volunteer efforts from many members of his family and friends to help out with different aspects of the series.

"They're all parts in the play," he said.

In addition to utilizing Dewalt's train layout, he also recruited friends and family who helped with writing, voices, camera angles, background music and sound effects.

"The voices, in fact, are a local pub owner, myself, and an owner of a creative marketing agency," Roberts said.

He originally named the series "Race for America," but after determining that this was too common a search term for other videos on YouTube, he settled on the title "The Race for Anytown."

"It worked because it could be any town in the country," he said. "You have the 1 percent and the 99 percent."

Roberts said he aimed to make the series "different" in an effort to make the questions raised in each episode stick with the viewer, regardless of their political beliefs.

"I want people to pass it on, regardless of what they believe," he said. "Viewers should leave with an idea of what problems are out there. Even if they weren't solved, we put it out there."

"The Race for Anytown" can be found on Roberts' YouTube channel at: http://www.youtube.com/user/penstuff?feature=watch

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