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Filmmaker Documents a Year at Cartoon College

State of the Arts


Published February 13, 2008 at 11:25 a.m.

Some people come to Vermont for the skiing or the landscape. Filmmaker Tara Wray came for the cartoons.

"I've always just loved comics and been a big reader of them," says the 29-year-old, who now lives outside Woodstock. One day, while still living in New York City, she Googled acclaimed Fantagraphics artist Chris Ware and saw he was guest lecturing at White River Junction's Center for Cartoon Studies. "I thought I would love to do that, attend the school and learn to become a cartoonist," Wray says. She even considered filming her CCS education, being no stranger to the first-person method: Wray's first movie, Manhattan, Kansas, used documentary techniques to delve into her own childhood.

Eventually Wray decided she "couldn't draw, and didn't want to make another movie about myself." But she still "just wanted to be around [the school]. I was incredibly jealous," she says. She contacted Director James Sturm and Managing Director Michelle Ollie and pitched a movie about one year in the life of CCS - from August 2007 to August 2008.

So was born Cartoon College, whose trailer - featuring soundbites from such luminaries as Art Spiegelman - is already popping up on websites for comics fans. The movie's MySpace page calls CCS "the 'Harvard of cartooning schools,' located in ramshackle White River Junction, Vermont," and says the film "seeks to answer the question: Can comics and the people who make them breathe new life into a forgotten corner of the world?"

Originally, Wray says, she "thought the movie would be more about the impact of the school on White River." But while the town's nascent creative economy is "still a big part of the story . . . what I'm more interested in is the creative process a lot of these artists go through." In her first semester at the school, she found herself following the progress of students who, like her, had just arrived: "For a lot of people, it seems like culture shock. I know it was for me, just to move to Vermont."

For the doc, whose budget is "well under a million," Wray has obtained funding from private arts foundations and enlisted some producers with impressive creative credentials, such as Alan Oxman, who edited The Control Room. Vermont Film Commission Director Joe Bookchin serves as an advisor to the production.

Wray says Manhattan, Kansas was her first foray into film: "I'm sort of self-taught, made it up as I went along." Despite her inexperience, the film captured the 2006 Audience Award at Austin's hip South by Southwest Film Festival.

Wray "tried conventional distribution" for Manhattan, but found it difficult. (CCS student Joe Lambert is designing the forthcoming DVD.) For Cartoon College, she wants to go about things differently, bringing it not just to festivals but to comics conventions, with some CCS students who, she hopes, will pen a comic about making the movie. "This is the kind of film that will benefit from cutting out the middle man," she says, "getting it directly into the hands of comic-book fans."

"Basement cartoonists" are a big potential audience, Wray says. But she thinks even non-fans can relate to the single-minded dedication of CCS students: "These people are doing exactly what they want to be doing. Everybody respects somebody who goes out on a limb."