The Chair

The Chair
2019 Chunky Milk Productions
Director: Owen Swerkstrom

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This was Chunky Milk Productions' fifth 48 Hour Film Project. Super-seniors!

Five and Still Alive

This thing is equal parts tradition, annual catharsis, and chronic disease. Everybody involved has a creative itch that must be scratched, and I will fully admit that my own sanity falls (further) into question anytime I go too long without creating and sharing something. Speaking for myself, and I suspect for the rest of Chunky Milk, I need this in my life.

I will not pretend, however, that it is not taxing! We all experienced a high level of stress this year. Mike and Patrick had family obligations peppering their weekends, Dave took it upon himself to compose new, original music in record time, and I ... well I'm sort of the catch-all. There are a thousand individually-small things that if I don't do them, they don't get done, and if they don't get done, neither does the movie.

My wife Kim had the good sense five years ago not to get involved with this madness. Since then, she's wound up transporting people now and then, running errands, preparing a set, and this year wound up more directly involved than ever, to the extent that we had to graduate her from the "special thanks" section of the credits out into full cast and crew! Chunky Milk's gravity has ensnared another being. :^)


We knew we wouldn't have many people available this year. So I dug up my old idea of using puppets to tell a story and went about, well, making some puppets. Since I don't know how to do that, and since I aesthetically prefer things that are a bit off-kilter, we wound up with some literal junk puppets. Very silly, but enough personality to carry a story if they had to.

Patrick, faced with the same small-crew problem, had a better idea: a haunted chair that would keep reappearing, no matter how many times it was sent away or destroyed. This was an elegant and flexible idea, and we all got pretty excited about it.

48 Hours

The genre draw this year gave us either "fantasy" or "family film". The required elements were a flooring specialist named Eric Drafton, a watch, and the line "Today is my lucky day".

So we had a nice simple family film idea, the junk puppets, and we had an even nicer, simpler fantasy idea, the chair. But rather than do the sensible thing and pick one, we went ahead and decided to join up our ideas and include everything in a complex movie instead.

Granted, I had just been talking about how after the simplistic shot style of our silent film last year, I should try and branch out into lots of quick shots, more movement, and generally go for a more dynamic look. I didn't necessarily mean I wanted to do a macro-montage of mini-montages, but there it is. Be careful what you wish for. :^)

Score: Score!!

I sent an early storyboard / shot list / overview to Dave just as quickly as I could scribble it together, and immediately got back a piece he thought would work well for the opening. After that I would send him edits in-progress as I got further along, and didn't hear back for a little while. Right around the time I was beginning to get nervous, he sent me brand new music written specifically for the mid- and final-act sequences.

I've edited to a pre-existing piece of Dave's music before. Editing to music, in general, is a wonderful luxury and feels almost like cheating when the music is this good.

But this was something else altogether. Dave literally handed me a piece, mentioned the minute:second where he thought it might come in, and ... well yeah. That was it! And again for a second original piece! I did only the most minor amounts of leveling and snipping and that was that; suddenly the movie had incredible music the entire way through.

I always think Dave's music is what truly brings our little movies to life, but he absolutely outdid himself this year.

Junk Puppet Therapy

When I first showed the junk puppets to Patrick and Mike, each immediately gravitated towards one.

Mike held the pine cone (which I had not yet realized needed to be one third of the pine tree-o) and immediately began singing, "it's a great day to be a pine tree!" with the same gusto and spontenaeity you can hear in the end credits. He does that, just bursts into odd improvised song now and then, but it was enough to get stuck in my head and eventually be recorded for the sake of the credit roll.

Patrick has, in his own work and in dealing with some sad news from a friend of his, been exploring some psychologically dark places lately. One of the pitches for the chair idea was that the central character would be an alcoholic whose family had all died. I think the milk jug junk puppet with its intense stare and slightly ghostly appearance sort of became his therapy puppet during this project. Between takes (and during some unused ones) some decidedly un-family-film lines got spoken.

Jim Henson is a personal hero of mine, and I think Kermit is probably a personal hero of the junk puppet with whiskey corks for eyes and a pair of my old boxer shorts for a body. It was my initial attempt at making a puppet out of junk, and it seems to open some specific channels in my psyche, touching on all the different fun things I wish there was enough time to do.

Three Days in One

Speaking of time, this was a bit of a brutal Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for me. I had set aside several wee hours Saturday morning for sleep, but it never came to me. Fairly often I will lie in bed wishing I could be asleep, but this was not a great time for that to kick in.

After Saturday's shoot, there was so much editing work to do that I allowed myself a little dinner break but nothing to try to rest. And sure enough, for about the next 20 hours straight I did little but pick shots, sort out timings, manually scrub noise samples from several dozen audio files.

Mike returned after midnight Sunday and we picked up a few night-time shots, and he helped me do some extra trimming and made some other good suggestions as I continued with the edit, but by and large he'd done his bit, and it was my turn to finish mine.

Final Touches, Final Moments

The ending sequence with the puppets reacting to the shoddy stage was not our most carefully-planned work. We didn't have nearly enough reaction time looking around at the handiwork, most of our shots were either too tight or had extra arms in them or both, and we ended up with several fewer takes than we thought we'd done.

But, some more cropping than I'd have liked, a little stitching together of junk shots of junk puppets, and getting Patrick in to record a plausible disappointed "uuummm", and I think we juuust scraped by with getting the scene across. All that was left was more audio scrubbing and leveling.

Eventually, sometime Sunday afternoon, I realized that everyone else had gone, hours ago. I could decide the movie was done at any time. And so at some point, in full sleepless zombie mode, I did. :^)

There are a handful of changes I would make if I could go back in, and the ending sequence is chief among them. But more on that later.

The Screening

I had some nervousness at the start of the night. Our movie is completely crazy; I had no idea whether people would follow along for the ride or just shrug. I enjoy it, but is that just me? Would it even make sense to strangers?

We've been to many enjoyable 48 Hour screenings, and gotten some amazing support and reactions from audiences, but I don't know if we've ever seen so many movies so densely entertaining as we did this year. Fifteen movies, all winners in my book, and we could only vote for three. It felt cruel.

What dodn't feel cruel were the laughs and love our movie got. From our signature milk splat through the end credits, everything got a reaction. By the end, the final rounds of laughter sounded mixed with relief, a theatre full of fellow filmmakers exhausted from laughing. It was everything a person might hope for -- the room had come along on our ride.

After the show, we got to mingle with the other teams. Mike (and my house) got recognized both from The Chair and from last year's The Smell. The waves we make and the community connections we grow are not large, but they feel great!


For the second time in two years, we made the best-of screening! Our nominations this year were for:

I'm proud of our entire team, and of course honored as director and editor, but I'd gladly trade both of those nominations for Dave getting considered for best score. But, we will focus on the exciting things we did get noticed for, rather than who was robbed of what or for how many years. ;^)

Audience Choice is what excites me most. As I said, our screening group's line-up this year was phenominal, and it's a very warm feeling that we landed in the top three when each audience member had to cast only three votes.


I got called up for best editing. An honor, and a very proud moment.

I immediately got called up again for best directing. A wild, shocking moment, but insufficient preparation for what happened next.

And the winner of Best Film is... The Chair.   Those words are burned into our brains, which are all still trying to wrap around just what in the world happened. The simple version is we won best film. With a batshit crazy movie about a guy haunted by a chair which is in turn haunted by junk puppets. I mean ... there are a lot of insane, impossible things which are also true in this universe of ours. And this feels like one of them.

Those little changes and tweaks I'd wished I could sneak in, or maybe do a private remastered version just for us (as I've done in a couple of previous years)... All those thoughts are gone; I can't touch this thing now. Even if I thought they were improvements, this is the movie that won it all for us; I couldn't bring myself to do so much as a minor color correction. It's imperfect, it's weird, and it's a winner. :^)

Edit, months later: Some part of me does still want to tweak some things! But past me is right, and I won't futz with it.

Edit, later still: The Filmapalooza screening provided an opportunity to screen an updated version of the film. I changed one shot; ten minutes were spent making the fire effect more convincing. You can see the updated version on YouTube here.


This was the longest weekend ever. About nine months since those 48 hours, long after the local screening and the best-of award night, Mike and I (along with unsung/honorary milk chunks Kim and Allison!) went to Rotterdam in the Netherlands to see our movie share the screen with city winners from around the world.

I haven't yet found words to describe what that meant to me as a tinkerer and creator, but I did post some pictures and links to a few of our favorite movie from the festival here:

Next Time

I've been thinking about using puppets for a while, and this technically checks that off my mental list, I suppose! Can my long-pondered single-5-minute-shot movie be far behind?

Kim, though, has the best idea for if and when we draw "drama" or "mocumentary", or perhaps "comedy", "buddy film", or conceivably "slapstick". She would even direct. It's her idea to share, so I won't spoil it here. There's every chance we'll make her movie. :^)

Animated GIFs

River Pine Tree-o

Color Bars

What are these? See here for more info.

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