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Apr
18
2024
Film

In the short film “OTIS,” a comic strip artist must reckon with his artistic creation being released to the world. Above, Mikey (Isabel Brown) is unknowingly stalked by Otis (Otto Cipollini). “OTIS,” written by Kian Barker and co-directed by Barker and Kirby Kingsley, was recently released on the MLQ Productions YouTube channel and is now available to screen for free. (Film still)

Young artists bring ‘OTIS’ to life

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When a work of art is released into the world, it can take on a life of its own — sometimes a life not anticipated by the artist who created it.

A newly released short film produced by a group of current and former YS Schools students, “OTIS,” is a meta meditation on the unpredictable nature of art, among other themes. The film was released Saturday, Jan. 13, on the “MLQ Productions” YouTube channel, which was originally created by Kian Barker and Miles Gilchrist, and now features a host of other young local artists as well.

The new short film — equal parts drama and horror — follows comic artist Ross (Otto Cipollini), creator of the comic strip “OTIS,” about a friendly giant, which Ross describes as “Like ‘Garfield,’ but cooler.” When Ross is offered a syndication deal for “OTIS” by executive Jeff (Barker), Ross and his family (Jane Chambers and Isabel Brown) are, at first, celebratory.

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However, as Jeff insists Ross change his comic strip to suit audience tastes, “OTIS” comes to life in an all-too-literal sense, and Ross learns — in horrific fashion — that “you can never kill an idea.”

In a recent email interview with the News, Barker — who wrote “OTIS” and co-directed it with Kirby Kingsley —  said the newly released film was, in part, inspired by “Frankenstein.” During a rehearsal for a YS school district play — the film’s cast and crew have all been involved in school theater productions over the years — Cipollini approached Barker with the idea for a film in which Cipollini would play Frankenstein’s monster.

“I stewed on the idea for a while, trying to find an original take on it,” Barker said. Eventually, he settled on combining thematic elements of the “Frankenstein” tale — in particular the 1931 film version starring Boris Karloff — with his own artistic journey.

For starters, Barker has experience as a comic strip artist, having produced “The Yellow Springer” for the YS News when he was younger.

Beyond that, however, was Barker’s experience with a film series he and friends created — a series that was received differently than the young artists hoped it would be. According to Barker, he experienced “backlash” after some felt the work was hurtful — for which he said he felt overwhelming guilt.

“Seeing a project that began as something to create joy and laughter end up creating a whirlwind of destruction was devastating for me,” Barker said. “Eventually, I decided that the best way to deal with these feelings was to make a movie out of them — because the best art usually comes out of personal struggle.”

Beyond examining how a work of art can be perceived by an audience, and its capacity to do harm, Barker said “OTIS” also engages with other themes, including the corruption of art by capitalism and “the classic Frankenstein themes of ambition, responsibility and loss of innocence.”

Barker credited his time in YS schools’ theater program, under the tutelage of Performing Arts Teacher Lorrie Sparrow-Knapp, for informing the work he and his collaborators make outside of school. He’s not only learned about the craft of acting, but how to direct other actors, he said, and how to “find character motivation and draw that out of the actors.”

“Additionally, I used black-and-white film techniques in this movie that I learned in [Sparrow-Knapp’s] film class,” Barker said.

But “OTIS,” like several other works created by MLQ Productions, is inherently not a school project — both in terms of how it was created, and why. The film was made by its cast and crew on their own time and with their own equipment — something Barker and Gilchrist have been doing since they created their first work together, “My Life in Quarantine,” in 2021.

“We made two, nine-episode ‘seasons’ of [‘My Life in Quarantine’],” Barker said. “It was a great way for me to do something and see my friends during the pandemic, and it ignited my love for making films.”

Since that first series, MLQ Productions has gone on to create several other projects, including the short films “Charlie” and “Orange You Glad?” and the series “The American Theatre.” The projects run the gamut genre-wise: “The American Theatre” is a classic mockumentary-style comedy that follows a theater production from audition to performance. “Charlie,” on the other hand, is more of a dramedy, meditating on the idea of confronting mortality by dramatizing the titular character’s first (and last) conversation with the personification of death. “Orange You Glad?” is ambitiously experimental — and while this reporter has her own reading of the two-and-a-half-minute film, she will leave readers to their own post-viewing decryptions.

Barker, as writer and director for all projects MLQ Productions has produced up to this point, works with an ever-expanding and shifting cast and crew of current and former YS schools compatriots — but he and Gilchrist have, thus far, been common denominators on all the projects.

“[Gilchrist is] not only my best friend, but in many ways my creative muse — always there for me to bounce ideas off of and create characters for him to play,” Barker said.

“I think for me, it’s just that it’s fun to work on, and it’s something to be proud of when you’re finished with a project,” Gilchrist added.

As the short film’s co-director Kirby Kingsley said, the young artists who collaborated to film “OTIS” have a “constant drive to create art and to express” themselves. Sometimes, Kingsley said, that drive means pushing beyond the boundaries that are often set in place for young, up-and-coming creators.

“A lot of the time as young people in general, some things we want can be too ambitious or not agreeable enough for the spaces we’re usually in, and that unconventional creativity that we can’t express otherwise goes into the art we make together,” Kingsley said.

Barker said he also feels the push to create — writing, filming and editing, he said, are not only fun, but exciting — particularly knowing that a finished work belongs, in a fashion, to himself and his collaborators.

“I feel a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing that my friends and I made something, on our own, with our own skills, money and knowledge, with minimal help from outside sources,” he said.

Barker added that he feels grateful to everyone who worked on “OTIS” — he particularly noted Cipollini’s work performing as both the film’s protagonist and antagonist as a joy to watch.  He also thanked his family, who “had to stay quiet in their rooms” during filming, for “putting up with [his] crap.”

At its core, “OTIS” is a film with fairly broad appeal to lovers of the horror genre — but as “OTIS” actor Jane Chambers told the News, it may be particularly relatable to “anyone who has struggled with their artistic abilities.”

“It’s for anyone who has felt forced to give in to conformity to feel successful in their field,” Chambers said. “It paints a picture of creativity, passion and the effects it has on the lives of others.”

“OTIS” is available to view for free on the MLQ Productions YouTube page at http://www.youtube.com/@mlqproductions; it will also air on local Channel 5 — available to Spectrum cable subscribers or online via livestream at http://www.yellowsprings.tv — in the future.

Cast and crew: Otto Cippolini as Ross and Otis; Isabel Brown as Mikey; Jane Chambers as Greta; Kian Barker as Jeff; Miles Gilchrist as Security Guard/Otis’ body double. Written by Kian Barker; co-directed by Barker and Kirby Kingsley.

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One Response to “Young artists bring ‘OTIS’ to life”

  1. Jean says:

    “…you can’t kill an idea” This film was a terrific accompaniment to my morning coffee! Well done! “Thank you” very much for allowing us to watch for free! Best wishes 🙂

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