Chel White

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Chel White
Chel-White Paris 2013.jpg
Chel White, Paris, 2013
Born (1959-05-30) May 30, 1959 (age 61)
Alma materAntioch University
OccupationFilm director, producer, screenwriter, composer
Years active1985-present

Chel White (born May 30, 1959) is an American film director, composer, screenwriter, and visual effects supervisor.[1] In his independent films, White is known for his stylized, often experimental use of images, animation and first-person narratives told from the perspective of the estranged individual. He frequently uses allegory and dark humor to depict the human experience, exploring topics of love, obsession, alienation and dreams.[2] He describes his own work as “images that reside on the brink of dreams, or linger on the periphery of distorted memories.”[3] He has made three films based on the work of Peabody Award-winning radio personality and writer Joe Frank (Dirt, Soulmate, and Magda).[4]

The Austin Chronicle says, "(Chel White's) work seems to dispatch itself in some secret, subversive code, flashing messages amid animation, obscure stock footage, and actors with crazy eyes."[5] Chale Nafus of the Austin Film Society says, "I have been amazed at the stylistic and thematic diversity in (Chel White’s) films. Surreal, ethereal, wistful, and witty are some of the descriptions that come to mind. Mainly I just allow my imagination to be taken into his complex, mysterious worlds.”[6]

Chel White has directed music videos for Radiohead's lead singer Thom Yorke, The Melvins,[7] Tom Brosseau, Chrysta Bell & David Lynch, and collaborated with the Oregon Symphony.[8] He has worked extensively with Academy Award nominated film director Gus Van Sant, creating visual effects on several of Van Sant's projects.[9] White began directing commercials in the early 1990s, and directing television programs in the early 2000s, including two parodies for Saturday Night Live. Along with Ray Di Carlo and David Daniels, Chel White is a co-founder of the international production company Bent Image Lab[10] in Portland, Oregon.

Early life and education[edit]

Chel White was born in Kansas City, Missouri and grew up in Colorado, Michigan, Stockholm, and Evanston, Illinois where his father was a Northwestern University professor and his mother a schoolteacher. White cites his earliest influence as being the Surrealist painting he was exposed to in grade school when visiting the Art Institute of Chicago. He began making films in high school and went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in Visual Arts, with a central focus on experimental film, from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.[11]

Independent filmmaker[edit]

Chel White began making independent short films after college, starting with a drawn-on-film animation titled Metal Dogs of India (1985).[11] In 1991, White completed Choreography for Copy Machine (Photocopy Cha Cha), an animated film created solely by using the unique photographic capabilities of a photocopier to generate sequential pictures of hands, faces, and other body parts.[12] The film is widely considered the first noteworthy animated film using this technique.[13] The Washington Post describes it as “(a) musical frolic which wittily builds on ghostly, distorted images crossing the plate glass of a copier.”[14] The films that followed include Dirt (1998), Soulmate (2000), Passage (2001), Magda (2004), A Painful Glimpse Into My Writing Process in Less Than 60 Seconds (2005), Wind (2007), a Donald Trump horror film parody called Little Donnie (2017), and Dreams of a Fallen Astronaut (2020) part of the Gratzfilm omnibus The One Minute Memoir.[15]

In 2002, as a poetic response to the tragedies of September 11, Chel White created New York to be part of the omibus collection Underground Zero. The Chicago Tribune called White's film "an eerie paean to the city itself,"[16] and Bill Stamets of the Chicago Reader said, “Chel White’s New York makes a ruined city enchanted again: jets ascend in twilight, framed by silhouetted rooftops and cranes, and droplets sparkle like tiny diamonds as kids delight in the spray of fire hydrants."[17]

White's 2007 short film, Wind, was commissioned by Radiohead’s creative director Dilly Gent and the climate change awareness group Live Earth.[18] The New York Times Magazine describes it as “(a) beautiful film, very moving, set to a poem by Antonio Machado and narrated by Alec Baldwin.”[19] Using a Robert Bly translation of the poem, Wind creates a metaphor for humanity's lack of planet stewardship. Along with eight other Live Earth commissioned films, the film made its world premiere in the opening night program of the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival with keynote speaker Al Gore.[20]

The films of Chel White have screened in the Sundance Film Festival,[21] Berlinale,[22] IFFR,[23] SXSW, Ottawa International Animation Festival, Annecy Festival, HKIFF, SIFF, Portland International Film Festival[24] and Edinburgh International Film Festival. 2012 saw the film festival release of Bucksville,[25] Chel White‘s directorial feature film debut. Written and produced well before the Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the 2016 Trump presidential election, the film is a story about a young man who tries to sever ties to a disenfranchised, small town radical militia started by his father. Distributed by Phase 4 Films, Bucksville stars Thomas Stroppel, Ted Rooney and Allen Nause, with a cameo role by Academy Award Nominated actor Tom Berenger as The Patron of Justice. Along with Pulitzer Prize winning photographer David Hume Kennerly, Berenger is also an executive producer on the film.[26] The screenplay is by Laura McGie[27] and Chel White, with music is by Tom Brosseau. Jamie S. Rich of The Oregonian calls Bucksville, “An insightful portrayal of an extreme point of view without the expected self-righteous critique.”[28]

White's museum screenings include the Van Gogh Museum,[29] The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and The High Museum in Atlanta. His retrospective presentations include the Ann Arbor Film Festival (2002),[30] Southern Circuit (2002),[31] the Austin Film Society (2003),[32] a 20-year career retrospective at the Northwest Film Center (in the Portland Art Museum)[33] (2012), and a Bent Image Lab retrospective and masterclass at the Ottawa International Animation Festival (2018).[34] Chel White is the recipient of media arts Fellowships from The Rockefeller Foundation[35] The Regional Arts & Culture Council,[36] Portland Oregon, and project grants from Creative Capital, the Pacific Pioneer Fund and the Oregon Arts Commission. Fever Dreams and Heavenly Nightmares, a DVD compilation of Chel White's short independent films, was released in 2006 and distributed by Microcinema International.[37]

Professional career[edit]

Chel White started his professional career in 1986, working as an animator at Jim Blashfield and Associates (Portland, Oregon) on music videos for Paul Simon, Tears for Fears and Michael Jackson. In 1991, he began creating visual effects for film director Gus Van Sant, starting with My Own Private Idaho (1991). White went on to be visual effects supervisor on Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (1993), Paranoid Park (2007),[38] First Kiss (2007), Milk[9] (2008) and Restless (2011), as well as the "death eye sequence" for To Die For, visual effects supervisor and titles designer on Dustin Lance Black's Virginia,[39] and title effects supervisor on director Todd Haynes' film, I'm Not There.[40] In 2020, Chel held the directorial role for the animated sequences in David Oyelowo's feature film, The Water Man.

In the realm of television, White directed two shorts for NBC's Saturday Night Live for Robert Smigel's Saturday TV Funhouse, The Narrator That Ruined Christmas (season 27, episode 9)[41] and Blue Christmas (season 30, episode 8).[42] Both are parodies of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer television special (1964). Airing first on December 15, 2001, The Narrator That Ruined Christmas was written by Robert Smigel, Michael Gordon, Louis CK and Stephen Colbert, with the voices of SNL cast members Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Doug Dale, and Robert Smigel.[42] Airing first on December 18, 2004, shortly after U.S. president George W. Bush's re-election, Blue Christmas was written by Robert Smigel and Michelle Saks Smigel with additional material by Rich Blomquist, Stephen Colbert, Scott Jacobson, and Matt O'Brien, and voices by Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Erik Bergmann, and Robert Smigel. In the early 2000s, Chel White directed two stop motion animated children's television specials for Hallmark Channel. In reviewing the 2011 television holiday programs, Mike Hale of The New York Times called Jingle All the Way (TV special) "By far the best of the bunch. In addition to its charming art and pleasantly low-key storytelling, 'Jingle' stands apart from the other holiday programs by not focusing on the manufacturing or delivery of toys." Hale also mentions, "For some honest emotion, and a combination of retro holiday spirit with adventurous animation, tune in for Jingle All the Way...(it) looks like something you’d see at a European animation festival or late at night on Adult Swim, but it is also gentle..."[43]

In 2006, White directed the music video for Thom Yorke's song Harrowdown Hill[44] (Best Music Video, 2007 SXSW[45]). Along with his team and co-founders at Bent Image Lab, he pioneered the Smallgantics technique that was used for the first time in the Harrowdown Hill video.[46]

In 2012, White directed a video for Chrysta Bell & David Lynch to the song Bird of Flames from the album This Train. It has been described as "a haunting and surreal vision."[47]

The commercials Chel White directed have been honored with Clio Awards,[48] a D&AD Award, (Lugz)[49] a The One Club Award,[50] two Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP) Awards,[51][52] and two are included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His personal favorite ads he directed are for the Washington State Department of Health in a campaign of surreal anti-smoking public service announcements aimed at children and teens.[53]

Chel White's composer and sound designer credits include Joan C. Gratz's Academy Award winning animated short film Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase, Joanna Priestley and Joan C. Gratz's animated short Pro and Con, Choreography for Copy Machine and the feature film Bucksville. His screenwriting credits include Bucksville (feature), Little Donnie (short), story development for Jingle All the Way (TV special), and the story adaptation based on the original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for the SimEx-Iwerks 4D attraction film of the same title.[54]

As an actor, Chel White had a role in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), playing a brain surgeon in a scene with Uma Thurman.[55]

Personal life[edit]

In December 2005, White and his then-girlfriend Laura Ivey were stranded in a mountain snowstorm for four days, in the Cascade Mountains, Oregon. They were found by Marion County, Oregon Search and Rescue officers who traveled to the remote location by snowmobile.[56][57]

Since 1985, Chel White has lived in Portland, Oregon.


Feature-length films and compilations[edit]

Short films[edit]

  • Dreams of a Fallen Astronaut (2020)
  • Little Donnie (2017)
  • Wind (2007)
  • A Painful Glimpse Into My Writing Process (In Less Than 60 Seconds) (2005)
  • Magda (2004)
  • Eclipse (2003)
  • New York (2002)
  • Passage (2001)
  • Soulmate (2000)
  • The Beats, the Bomb and the 1950s (1999)[62]
  • Dirt (1998)
  • Choreography for Copy Machine (Photocopy Cha Cha) (1991)
  • Machine Song (1987)
  • Metal Dogs of India (1985)



Commercials and Public Service Announcements[edit]


Other media[edit]

  • Animation Sketchbooks, book, featured artist, Chronicle Books LLC, by Laura Heit (2013)[78]
  • Animation in Process, book, featured artist, London: Laurence King, by Andrew Selby (2009)[79]

Fellowships, grants and awards[edit]

See also[edit]


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