UMBC grad is drawn to Sundance

Animator's short film focuses on 1931 killing

January 23, 2003|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARK CITY, Utah - Jen Sachs plans to attend parties with fellow animators at the Sundance Film Festival. "I think you run into a lot of nice, hard-working, maybe obsessive-compulsive people," she said in a conversation this week at Park City Hotel.

But her first priority is business. By Sunday, when the festival ends, Sachs, who grew up in and around Baltimore, will have screened her 11-minute movie, The Velvet Tigress, four times in the shorts competition. The Velvet Tigress, a headline-splattered glimpse of an infamous 1931 murder case, premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2001. Its acceptance to Sundance was just the latest milestone for Sachs, 27, who also toured Russia with the project.

"I'm totally excited that this film is being viewed widely and that people are interested in seeing a different kind of storytelling," she said.

Sachs' journey to her first Sundance began on another trek. She was riding a train through the Northeast and picked up a true-crime novel at one of the stations. Her baggage was stolen at the next station, leaving Sachs with just the book - about the lurid case of Winnie Ruth Judd. Judd became a tabloid queen when she was sentenced to death for shooting two friends during a drug- and booze-fueled party in Phoenix. Supposedly at the suggestion of her married lover, Jack Halloran, she then chopped up one of the corpses and transported the body parts in a suitcase on a train to Los Angeles. Halloran was a rich playboy, and Judd was glamorous and bisexual, not to mention ill with tuberculosis. The scenario made ideal grist for the mill.

Sachs, who attended Franklin High while she lived in Reisterstown, and later earned a degree at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, put the story aside for a few years before she began digging through newspaper archives. Intrigued by the media's manipulation of the facts and the juxtaposition of the advertising images to the articles, she went to work.

"I was just inspired," she said. "I thought that animation would be a great way to re-create this moment in time and re-create this one specific story by bringing together my own naive interpretation of the drawing style of the ads."

Imagine a sleek South Park with more shadows, less color and a persistent stream of blood. Sachs said she focused on a two-dimensional look because the principals in the case were represented as stereotypes in a noir drama, with Judd as the femme fatale.

The Velvet Tigress, narrated by Heather Donahue of The Blair Witch Project, earned Sachs a Student Academy Award from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences while she was studying for her MFA at Cal Arts in Valencia, Calif. She now lives in Los Angeles and is working on a short about a telecommunications plant and a full-length film combining live-action and painted backgrounds to tell the story of one of the first female pilots.

Sachs once drew for Warner Bros.' online operation and now earns her keep as a freelance animator for documentaries. Asked if she would use the festival to raise needed funds, she replied, "I'm not much of a schmoozer. That's why I'm an animator."

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