Justice in America

Austin filmmakers tackle the death penalty in animated short The Last 40 Miles

Filmmakers tackle death penalty in animated short The Last 40 Miles

Filmmakers in Austin may not have access to the big budgets of the West Coast, but that doesn't mean they are short on groundbreaking ideas.

The filmmakers behind The Last 40 Miles are crafting a unique vision: tackling the death penalty in an animated short. And to see the vision through, they are seeking funding via an Indiegogo campaign.

The Last 40 Miles tells the story of Ray, a condemned man serving out his sentence on Texas’s death row, as he travels his last 40 miles to the execution chamber. Along the way, a kindly guard accompanies him as he looks back and reminisces on his life.

It’s a powerful story with deep roots in reality. British journalist Alex Hannaford is the writer and director of the film, and on the film’s Indiegogo page he recounts the inspiration for the film, which comes from his interviewing Texas death row inmates. He specifically recalls one inmate who had been locked up in his solitary 6-foot-by-10-foot cell for all of Hannaford’s life.

"I don’t think any case I had covered before or since impacted me more than that one did," says Hannaford.

While he knew he wanted to tell the story, an animated short was not his first idea. In a talk with CultureMap, Hannaford says, “I had an idea buzzing around in my head for either a piece of long form journalism, or even a book. By the time I eventually decided to put pen to paper, I'd thought it could make a good film, but then I decided most of the 'action' would take place on a single journey: from death row to the death chamber.”

A play or short film became his primary focus — that is until he had coffee with friend Jeff Roth, an animation professor at the Art Institute of Austin. Roth sold Hannaford on the idea of an animated short.

Roth explained it to Hannaford by saying, "Animation can sometimes bring drama to life in a way that live action can't. If you remove actors from the picture, you can connect more strongly with their personalities, emotions, the drama of the scene; allow yourself to be truly enveloped by the story."

Gathering a team of filmmakers to form Onalaska Films, Hannaford and Roth set to work on creating and telling the story of Ray and his last 40 miles. The team has taken things a step further by choosing to rotoscope the film (the process when live action is traced) so that the resulting figures look almost exactly like the original actors.

Hannaford says that the rotoscoping effect was chosen because they loved how “the characters looked ‘real’ but at the same time were animated.” The crew signed a deal with Flat Black Films to create the rotoscoping, an impressive win considering that Flat Black is the team behind other major rotoscoped film projects such as A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life (both Richard Linklater films).

Once completed, Hannaford hopes to start submitting the film to various film festivals, and he hopes it starts a dialogue as well.

“I really hope it’ll become a springboard for discussion… And so it'd be great if The Last 40 Miles got people talking about the death penalty [and] about justice in America and how it's carried out.”

The Indiegogo campaign for The Last 40 Miles ends Sunday night. Funds will go toward production and promotion costs from the film.

Poster for animated film The Last 40 Miles
Courtesy of The Last 40 Miles
Screen shot of inmate and guard from animated film The Last 40 Miles
Courtesy of The Last 40 Miles
Team photo of Onalaska non-profit producers of film The Last 40 Miles
Members of Onalaska Films, from left to right, Jeff Roth (animation director), Meg Mulloy (producer/camera), Alex Hannaford (writer/director), and Lucas Dimick (produciton designer) Courtesy of Alex Hannaford