A collaborative project led by St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Art Peter Nelson has culminated in a stop-motion animated film, Intruder Man, that has won several awards as it plays at film festivals across the country.
Nelson worked with a team of St. Olaf students — Daniel Bynum ’15, Eileen McNulty ’16, Jon Tiburzi ’16, Matthew Johnson ’16, and Andrew Cannestra ’20 — on the film over the last several years as part of the Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program. CURI provides opportunities for St. Olaf students from all academic disciplines to gain an in-depth understanding of a particular subject through working closely with a St. Olaf faculty member in a research framework.
The project was supported by a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, an Individual Artist Grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council, and the CURI Program at St. Olaf College funded by the Olson Endowment for Marriage and Family.
Intruder Man is inspired by the life of Nelson’s grandmother Jessie. As a young home economics teacher, Jessie faces the wrath of an authoritarian superintendent who blacklists her from teaching. As an elderly woman, Alzheimer’s disease makes Jessie paranoid of an “intruder man” who haunts her apartment. Slipping back and forth between these parallel periods, Jessie maintains strength and persistence in the face of sexism, loss, and dementia.
“Even the most flexible curriculum cannot replicate the constant problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity necessary to produce an animated film,” Nelson says. “I think it’s great professional experience for students and incredibly helpful for me, both in completing the piece and as a learning experience.”
Bynum, McNulty, and Tiburzi collaborated with Nelson on creating the story and characters, building puppets and sets, and shooting test animation sequences, while Johnson assisted in the animation aspect of the project and Cannestra wrote and recorded the musical score that accompanies the film.
“Working with Professor Nelson on Intruder Man was an awesome experience, and it was definitely one of my highlights of being at St. Olaf,” says Johnson. “I thought we worked well together. Professor Nelson did a great job of conveying what he was imagining and provided good guidance if I had any questions or wasn’t sure how to go about animating something, and he welcomed any suggestions I had, trusted my judgement on adding details and embellishments while animating, and provided encouragement in tackling some tricky scenes.”
Cannestra says working with Nelson was, from the start, very much a two-way street of communication.
“We started out with a rough draft of his animation for Intruder Man, both getting to know the overall arc and the excerpt that I specifically composed the film score for,” he says. “After months of work, we made a professional recording of the music. Finally, after that, he was able to apply the recordings to the animation itself, leading to a final product months in the making we could both be very proud of.”
The film received First Prize at Square Lake Film & Music Festival and won the Audience Award at the Altered Esthetics Film Festival. It is currently screening at film festivals across the country, most recently at the Austin Film Festival, the New Hampshire Film Festival, and the D.C. Shorts Festival. The film’s West Coast premiere will be at the San Luis Obispo Film Festival in March.
“Working collaboratively with students on a project like this is both intense and rewarding,” Nelson says. “The relationship between professor and student is elevated: constructive feedback goes both ways, a common goal is defined and shaped collaboratively, and you have to put in an extraordinary amount of time together to make sure the project is successful.”
Watch the trailer for the film below.