‘Tower’ documentary revisits an ugly American history’s first shots fired

Wednesday 14th, September 2016 / 10:56
By Jonathan Lawrence

CALGARY — There’s a headline often seen on the news today with alarming frequency: “Worst mass shooting in history.” However, prior to August 1, 1966, America hadn’t really seen such devastation on that level in a public area. On that day, however, a 25-year-old architectural engineering major and former Marine (another recurring theme) climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower with a plethora of guns. Ninety-six minutes later, 46 people had been shot. Sixteen died (including his wife and mother before the rampage). Keith Maitland sharply addresses his reason for making Tower, the documentary on this historical tragedy: “We wanted to tell a story set 50 years ago that would feel as immediate as something unfolding in front of our eyes today.”

Although the sniper is never seen by the citizens of Austin, the great tower, with its bold, symmetrical design and imposing stature, stands in his place, keeping his veiled position. It looms ominously over the campus and surrounding neighbourhoods, providing the sniper with an unbeatable vantage point. He is safely guarded, and as the thunderous gunshots ring out at a near rhythmic pace one after another, and students and teachers alike find cover wherever they can, the once sunny campus becomes a battleground. This is 1966, and there were no technically-advanced bomb-disposal robots available to take this guy out.

“I saw Tower as sort of a modern Western,” Maitland writes. “You know, with reluctant heroes, and civilians peeking out of windows to watch what’s happening in the town square… Structurally I was thinking about the great ensembles in Robert Altman films and of course, Rashomon …But first and foremost I wanted to balance all of the action, with emotion and heart. We never lost sight of the fact that these are real people, describing the most traumatic event of their lives. So, tempering the action with the emotion was paramount.”



Tower succeeds in telling a visceral story on numerous levels, one of which is its striking art design, which expertly blends hand-drawn animation with old, scratchy film stock. “I knew that we had some great archival footage to work with,” Maitland writes. “News reporters with 16mm cameras had recorded these incredible action moments on the ground during the shooting, and all that was really missing were medium shots and close-ups of our characters to fill in the detail. So through the animation we could transcend time and space to really capture the feeling and the action on campus that day.”

Although the characters are hand drawn, the animation used in the film is startlingly lifelike, which Maitland informs is called “rotoscopic animation.” He expands on this, stating “all of the performances are real actors recorded in costumes with props, on video. We edit the video just like we want it to unfold, and then the artists come in and digitally paint 12 frames per second. It allowed us to re-create scenes without having to be on the campus itself.”

He continues: “Most of the scenes were performed in an open space, like my backyard, and then the artists would composite the foreground character paintings with backgrounds that they created based on photos and archival footage and little pieces of iPhone video that I created walking around the campus separately… It was an aesthetic decision with a real pragmatic value to the production.”

“I definitely found inspiration in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, and in Waltz With Bashir,” he adds.

Tower is a chilling, yet fascinating documentary about the events of that fateful day, and although they occurred over 50 years ago, it is immediately relevant today.

Catch Tower Sept. 24 at the Globe Cinema and again Oct. 1 at Cineplex Eau Claire as part of the Calgary International Film Festival documentary lineup.

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