Animator Stansberry has made a career the old-fashioned way

Commentary

July 07, 2006|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Mark Stansberry's career as an animator is testimony to the power of persistence.

"I got my start interning at a couple of now-defunct animation studios in New York City," says Stansberry, who parlayed those internships into work on a pair of MTV animated series. He has been delighting local cable audiences with his own cartoons for the past eight years. "I just went in and begged and groveled - that's basically it. Fifteen, 20 years ago, you could just simply go in and talk your way into it."

Stansberry, a 41-year-old West Baltimore native now living in Highlandtown, had no formal training as an artist, animator or filmmaker. What he had, what he has always had, is a deep love of animation, of the process that breathes life into pen-and-paper sketches.

"I've been wanting to do animation since I saw Disney's Sleeping Beauty as a kid," he says. "That's been my goal my entire life. ... Animation is more like [being] a god, creating things. That's what it actually comes down to: creating things."

Some of Stansberry's favorite creations will be on display tonight at the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave., in the old Patterson Theatre. Beginning at 8 p.m., Films by Mark Stansberry will shine the spotlight on a young girl named Puddin, the feisty heroine of a series of cartoons he's been showing around Baltimore since the late 1990s. (In addition to some older shorts, the program includes one new offering.) Also scheduled are a pair of documentaries he made on two of the city's best-known rap artists, Ogun and Skaar Akabar.

The documentaries should appeal to fans of the two rappers, who are interviewed extensively. But it's the animated shorts featuring Puddin and her best friend, Ling, that should prove the real crowd-pleasers. It's not for nothing that the hourlong reception preceding tonight's films is being billed as a Puddin Party.

Tonight's program has a melancholy side to it as well. Fourteen years ago, Stansberry founded his own studio, Screen Arts Animation. At the end of this month, he'll move his operations to New York's Chinatown. He'll continue to live in Highlandtown, and his show will remain on public access cable channel 75 in Baltimore (it will spread to cable channels in Harford, Howard and Anne Arundel counties in September), but the work will be coming out of New York.

"It's hard to get really good people to help with the animation," Stansberry says. "In New York, I can get animators and interns a dime a dozen."

In an era when almost all animation is computer-assisted, it's refreshing to find someone like Stansberry, whose stuff is all drawn by hand. And at a time when animators always seem to be overstepping boundaries when it comes to content, it's important to keep a place in our hearts for characters like Puddin, who inhabit worlds that seem strikingly (not to mention reassuringly) familiar.

"Mark's stuff is really fresh, in the way that it's retro," says Kristen Anchor, director of Creative Alliance Moviemakers (CAMM). "Lots of people are doing retro stuff, but for some reason, his really works. And his stuff seems so wholesome now, compared to what's out there, including what's out there for kids."

Puddin, whose voice is provided by Stansberry's daughter, Moyna, is not a superhero, she's not a sass-talker, she's not an adult trapped in a little girl's body. She's a little girl who comes to the defense of kids being beaten up, who tries to sneak into the movies, who plays too much Atari, who longs to meet her idols, the Jackson 5.

"Basically, if I was a little girl - that's who the character is," Stansberry says. "She does things I did or would have done, but more from a little girl's perspective."

Not that Stansberry has to look hard for source material. Puddin was his wife Michele's nickname as a child, and he has four young daughters running around at home to serve as inspiration. (He also has four sons, the oldest of whom, 16-year-old Mark, provides the voices of the young male characters.)

"My characters come from a lot of the little girls I've seen in church, as well as having four daughters," Stansberry says. "I'm used to seeing how they see and do things."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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