Sunday, April 5, 2009

X-Clue at Camp Frank A. Day

For better or worse, the X-Men animated series of the 90's played a large role in steering my younger days as a comic book fan. I remember well actually insisiting on coming home early from trick or treating on Halloween night in 1992 because Fox was debuting the series premiere, "Night of the Sentinels part one," in prime time. While I know the show didn't match the technical excellent of Batman: The Animated Series, which also debuted on Fox in the same season, there is plenty to be said of a show that can produce such inspired lunacy as this and this without anybody actually being allowed to punch anybody else and every gun down to what the beat cops were carrying subbed out for lasers.

Oh, also: best theme song ever.

But I digress.

A decade after that fateful Halloween night, I decided what was missing in my life as a 20-year old was X-Men: The Animated Series. Thus, I went online and scoured eBay until I found somebody unloading all 76 episodes on glorious VHS (the way they were meant to be watched). Over the course of that magical summer, I relived every incredible moment from Cable proclaiming himself "the wild man of Borneo" to that weird episode where Cyclops gets stranded in a desert town ruled by Solarr.

The next summer, I was spending my twelfth and final year at Camp Frank A. Day in East Brookfield, Massachusetts. One of the other counselors, Andy Sydney, and I were sitting around one day and somehow got to talking about our mutual love of the X-Men cartoon. When he heard I had the whole series on video, he started nearly salivating, so on my next day off, I grabbed the tapes, and during our free time, we would watch and relive the magic. Various other counselors who also had a nostalgic spot for the show and campers who had no idea what the fuck we were watching would join us off and on and like that X-Men became a Camp Day phenomenon.

At the same time, Andy and I were also working on converting the board game Clue into an evening activity that could be played, y'know, not on a board. This was something that was done every summer, usually by having a bunch of staff members dress up in goofy costumes stationed at various points around the camp and coming up with little challenges the kids needed to do in order to get them to pony up a false suspect, weapon, etc.; the campers ran around figuring out who didn't kill who where with what by process of elimination and then ran back to whoever was running the game to report their findings with the first team who got it right winning something.

I thought it was kinda lame.

However, Andy and my newly rekindled love for the X-Men cartoon and our desire to not plan the same shitty game of Clue we did every year mashed up into a glorious moment on zen in which we determined that it was our destiny and the answer to our problems to create...X-Men Clue (or X-Clue).

Honestly, the rules and basic structure of the game itself weren't all that much different from how we normally did Clue, but we were determined to crank it up to eleven by making everything surrounding the evening as balls crazy as possible and in the process create the greatest tribute to our own golden age of animation possible.

Step one was finding a kid who had one of those hardcover Ultimate Guide to the X-Men encyclopedia things and stealing/borrowing it. Step two was researching the shit out of every character until we could come up with a plausible way to work over two dozen heroes and villains into a murder mystery that pre-teens would understand (and that hopefully not get us fired, but that was a secondary priority). Step three was hitting up the awesome Salvation Army in the next town and grabbing all the funky outfits and materials we could get to create budget X-Men costumes in the middle of the woods. It helped significantly that pretty much every other counselor was as jazzed about this (or at least about doing something other than what we did every year for Clue) as we were and were willing to put the extra time into creating costumes both from the stuff we bought and from their own clothes (when you're a camp counselor, you own some wacky outfits--it's kind of a pre-requisite). They also were down with learning as much about whatever character we asked them to play as possible, and fortunately I was a big enough nerd to type out probably way-too-comprehensive bios to help with that (today I get paid for it!).

But the coup de grace was our plan to do something never attempted before in the annals of Camp Frank A. Day Clue: shoot a mini-movie prequel to set up an hour-long evening activity.

Fortunately, my friend Nelson DeWitt was something of a savant in the then-burgeoning field of digital video and computer editing, so despite being out in the middle of the fucking woods with a budget of $0, I say in all humility that we put together a pretty killer five-ten minute short setting up X-Clue: Who Killed Jean Grey (oh c'mon, you were really expecting somebody else to be the victim? Plus, that way we could explain to the kids that the girl we had playing her wasn't really dead, she just came back as Phoenix).

The gist was that Magneto was organizing his Brotherhood to do something nefarious, Professor X gets wind, contacts the X-Men telepathically, and they spring into action to stop the baddies as the animated theme song is dubbed into the background. Really, it was just an excuse to show all the various folks in their costumes and work in the mind-blowing special effects we conjured up with the aforementioned budget, leading to the climax where Jean Grey is wandering around looking for Cyclops then turns to the camera and goes, "You? What are you doing here?!" before we cut back to Xavier reading a newspaper and then looking up to go, "Jean! She's...gone" (dramatic acting at its finest courtesy of my buddy Josh Lieberman wearing a skullcap and sitting in a wheelchair we snatched from the infirmary). We played the mini-movie for the kids right before dinner (actually dragging a TV into the flagpole area and using a long-ass extension chord), then blasting the theme over the loudspeaker afterwards as we all ran out from various hiding places in costume and then...realized we had no fight scene or anything choreographed, so we just kinda shoved each other a lot.

Some highlights of the movie and subsequent game:

-The movie started with my friend Adam Melnick as Magneto in a ridiculous looking tinfoil helmet with a purple towel as his "cape." We simulated his powers by having him wave at a sliding door and then kicking it shut from off camera (but you could still see my foot if you watched closely) and then having him gesture at a fork, shake it from off camera, then toss it to him (he almost missed catching it).

-Filming a lame fight with my junior conselour Andrew in a flannel and jeans with his hair gelled up and butter knives taped in between his fingers and somebody whose name escapes me wearing a goofy wig we found as Sabretooth that ended up being a zillion times cooler because it was in the rain and Nelson cut it in slow-mo and dubbed in the sound effect of Wolverine's claws popping from the movie.

-Simulating Nightcrawler teleporting by filming the guy dressed as him standing there, having him run off camera, Nelson running in and throwing up a cloud of GoldBond (TM) where he was standing, and then cutting it to look like he just disappeared.

-Andy doing the least inspired Gambit costume in the history of ever by just wearing a white dress shirt and khakis (also, he's got bleach blond hair). He tried to salvage it with a terrible accent and then fucked up throwing a card at the camera, but we left it all intact because we thought it was hilarious.

-Me dressing as Iceman by wearing a silver spraypainted headband and a grey sweatshirt with a silver X painted across the front. My only use of my "powers" was blowing on a soda and us editing in a "jingle" sound effect to indicate that I had frozen it.

-My friend E.J. Lawrence doing the entire awful Halle Berry "Do you know what happens to a Toad when it gets struck by lightning?" speech as Storm for no reason other than it made us laugh.

-This girl Phoebe who was also a fan of the cartoon producing an amazing (and kinda eerie) Jubilee costume like the day after we asked her to.

-My former camper, Aaron, creating an equally incredible Pyro costume. I forget how we did it, but through the magic of the movies, we made it look like he lit a table on fire.

-Nelson climbing a fucking tree so we could film him for three seconds as Beast and then dubbing himself in saying "Fascinating" ala the cartoon.

-My British chum Angela Ford not complaining too much when I gave out character assignments and she was Lilandra (her costume was a tinfoil nightmare).

-Me not getting fired (man I almost got fired a lot) for convincing two girls who couldn't have been more than 17 to dress up as the White and Black Queens (I was only 21 at the time, so I didn't feel nearly as creepy asking).

-Deciding to pony up and paint my face silver for the actual game and then being immediately outdone by my boy Jason Solomon, also a member of the Newton South wrestling team, painting his entire fucking body silver to be Colossus. He was not very happy the next morning.

And really I can't top that last one.

Strangle enough, that summer and that activity went a long way towards me figuring out that maybe I could make a living doing something comic book-related. So it's not only a fond memory, but actually a fairly momentous event in my life. Whodathunkit.

Thanks, X-Men: The Animated Series.

Oh, and the killer was Mystique. Note to aspiring writers: you can cover up just about any continuity hole by using a shapeshifter.

(Also, if you wanna check out a blog dealing with nothing but summer camp, give my boy Jim Gibbons' Nothing More American a look and tell him I sent you)


caroline said...

ben! this is awesome... but one of my favorite highlights was the 1,000 takes it took to capture sarah pader successfully completing a 1.5 second clip of her getting off her bed

Ben Morse said...

Oh man! Totally forgot that!

Sarah was Polaris and literally just had to stand up and walk out of her tent. It took us about a half hour. There were dozens of outtakes.

"Oh my god, this is too hard. I'm not an actress!"


HardtravelingHero said...

What a fucking tease!

Where is this intro video now?

It needs to be shown to the world.

Ben Morse said...

I have it on DVD but don't possess the techno-how to get it up here. I'll poke around and see if anybody I know does.