By: Hunter Funk
Sitting opposite me outside of an East Austin coffee shop, Owen Parker exudes warm human energy. They* have an expressive countenance and a welcoming grin that occasionally breaks into rich laughter. Just as we’re about to begin our interview, they produce a crumpled sheet of paper from their shirt pocket. “I brought stats!” they gleefully exclaim. “Two WHOLE stats.”
It’s no surprise that such an animated individual would be an animator themselves, having spent the better part of the previous year drawing for the groundbreaking documentary TOWER. The film details the events before, during and after Charles Whitman’s fatal UT Tower shooting spree on August 1, 1966. Parker was offered a freelance gig as part of TOWER’s animation team shortly after graduating from Savannah College of Art & Design – at the time, they were nearly the same age as many of the shooting’s victims, as well as its perpetrator. “I said absolutely yes because it seemed exactly like the kind of project I want to work on,” Parker says.
Indeed, TOWER is quite a singular film. It features the dramatic body of a documentary coursing, along with the vivid lifeblood of hand-drawn characters. Archival footage from the day of the shooting blends seamlessly with rotoscope scenes focusing on the specific individuals involved. For the narrative, director Keith Maitland drew largely from “96 Minutes,” a Texas Monthly article about the shooting that features dozens of locals present the day of the crime.
I was overcome by this feeling of helplessness – I just wanted desperately to help her, even though it happened 50 years ago.
Meanwhile, Parker and their fellow animators looked to Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly for inspiration – in fact, several members of the TOWER team had previously worked on the latter. Using a software called TVPaint, they digitally animated over live action reference film; through this method, says Parker, “you end up with a very realistic and natural motion while still maintaining an artistic, dreamlike rendering.” This also allowed the crew to shoot much of the live action material, including the climactic showdown atop the tower, off-site, “either because the location wasn’t available for filming or it was just more efficient to shoot in somebody’s backyard with an iPhone.”
Parker was among the main animators, whose job was to draw each shot’s key frames, followed by “breakdowns,” or the miniature poses in between. Scenes then passed to animation assistants to clean up the shots’ movements for post-production. At the peak of TOWER’s production activity, the animation crew numbered just shy of 20 members.
According to Parker, their intense focus on animating such a horrific tragedy caused the film to resonate with them personally. They mentioned a particular segment involving the injured Claire Wilson lying on the hot concrete of the UT mall. “I was assigned to animate this portion where she’s talking to the audience, describing how she had been out there bleeding out for over an hour and losing her sense of consciousness, and she was able to see a group of people huddled under some shelter in the distance and she could hear them, and they were all staring out at her and saying ‘We need to go help that pregnant woman.’ But she heard other people responding, ‘No, we can’t go save her, we need to save the ones there’s still hope for.’ And that’s when she realized she wasn’t going to get help,” Parker says. “At this point in the animation process I had been working on this movie for a while, and as silly as it is, I was overcome by this feeling of helplessness – I just wanted desperately to help her, even though it happened 50 years ago. That part kind of got to me.”
The entire movie revolves around this sort of personal connection between subject and audience, extensively following the story arcs from a diverse array of characters to show how the shooting still impacts Austinites today. “It’s strange to work on a film like this for me just because I grew up in Austin,” Parker says. “I remember seeing all these places and I have very personal memories of all these locations, and so the entire film was very poignant in that sense.”
But even such a moving historical recounting has accrued some bitter irony. TOWER’s timing is uncanny. The film was released just after the 50th anniversary of the tragic gun crime, the very same day UT’s controversial Campus Carry law took effect, a coincidence Parker calls “harmfully negligent.” However, the film itself, they clarify, takes no stance on gun control – it’s simply meant to start a conversation, to draw attention to the issue. “How often do you see a headline [about] another mass shooting, and you say ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ and then you change the channel? We don’t really talk about it so much anymore, and I hope that the movie puts these sort of tragedies back into context and helps us relate to the authentic experiences, not only of the people who are there, but to help understand how these sort of things affect entire communities for generations.”
Although the specific narrative of TOWER is inextricable from the local landscape, it has managed to fare extremely well in nationwide showings so far, thanks in part to winning the Grand Jury Award at this year’s SXSW Film festival. “A lot of people didn’t actually think that TOWER would do well on a national level,” says Parker. “They thought that this was an Austin story, it’ll do well with an Austin audience, but why would anyone in Seattle or Philadelphia care about such an Austin story? But I definitely do think that the success it had at SXSW helped bring it to the attention of people around the country.” Here in town, the film’s popularity led to its initial Alamo Drafthouse run to be extended by a week. This coming winter will see a physical media release of TOWER as well. “I’m continually baffled by it. Austin has been such a wonderful support for this film.”
After this movie’s resounding success, it’s exciting to speculate where the filmmaking team will go from here. Coordinating director Hillary Pierce has stated the next documentary project will include “many media and storytelling techniques that add up to a film that is more intimate, in a way similar to TOWER’s use of a variety of storytelling techniques to bring you closer to the characters’ experiences.” Whatever the case, we asked if Parker would have a hand in the creative process. “I hope so,” they smile. “I hope so.”
*Parker uses they/them pronouns.