An hour ago, the tray in front of Nicholas in his hospital bed held his lunch. Now it’s the streets of Tokyo.
Nicholas has lined up some of his kaiju monster action figures: Godzilla, Mechagodzilla, Mothra, Rodan, SpaceGodzilla. He keeps adding more and more, asking Jonathan Stein, a Snow City Arts visual arts teaching artist, to pull favorites from a bag on the floor next to the bed to show off. They’re the manifestation of his love for monster movies and they’re the stars of his own upcoming film, Godzilla vs. The Monster Invaders.
Every Thursday, when thirteen-year-old Nicholas is spending a good chunk of his day at the hospital for treatment, he gets to devote 90 minutes or so to work on a stop-motion animated movie. Nicholas, Stein, and John Lyons, a SCA teaching artist who is also a documentary filmmaker, have painstakingly shot more than 15 minutes of footage and created a trailer that introduces the cast of Good Guys and Bad Guys. Together they work on fight scenes, sound design, narration, special effects—even a movie poster.
“He loves being able to make a movie, and it’s really a treat for him to be able to do it in such a high-level manner with Snow City Arts artists,” says Nicholas’ mother, Mary Jane. “With the project, it’s just amazing: You forget you’re there for an infusion; we’re actually having a really fun time.”
Stein first met Nicholas in 2012, having heard from the hospital staff about the outgoing student with a beyond-encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs. They worked together on a few visual arts projects over the years, but it wasn’t until last summer that they realized that with a new treatment schedule, Nicholas had sufficient regular hospital time each week to devote to his newest obsession, the world of Godzilla.
Nicholas has seen all but two of what he counts as the key 31 kaiju films, and for the last few years he and his family have gone to Rosemont for the annual G-Fest (billed as “the largest regular gathering of Godzilla and Japanese monster fans in the world”). When he was younger, Nicholas and Mary Jane made simple stop-motion animated shorts at home on her iPhone, and he couldn’t stop thinking about making a movie with his growing collection of kaiju figures. With Snow City Arts’ help, he saw his chance.
Since the beginning of the project, Nicholas has been the visionary, writer, director and cameraman, spending time between the weekly sessions watching YouTube kaiju videos and dreaming up the scenes and the shots he wants to include. Stein and Lyons move the figures across the laptop tray, edit together the scenes and help brainstorm how to accomplish Nicholas’ ideas for things like special effects. “The ideas come quick and fast. Part of my job is to help channel it,” Stein says.
How does Nicholas like working with Snow City Arts artists as his film-making minions? He laughs. “I think of them as assistants, not minions,” he says. “And Gumbio, [Nicholas’ stuffed animal companion], is the first mate.”
Like all Snow City Arts projects, there’s arts education going on in the midst of all this creativity, about film history, production, and writing content for the film’s promotion. Before making monster sound effects, for example, the team learned about how Foley artists do it in Hollywood, and the title cards that will be inserted this week between scenes are giving Nicholas some practice at creative writing. Mary Jane proudly notes that Nicholas made honor roll at school in the last quarter, despite missing a day a week at the hospital, and she says that keeping him busy and focused with the project helped.
“I’m so thankful for it. It’s such a wonderful activity for him—being part of a team, seeing that creative work can be a career,” says Mary Jane, herself a talent agent. “With this early experience, doing real hands-on training with professionals that support him—I even wonder if Nicholas would consider pursuing filmmaking after high school.”
First, of course, is the world premiere of Godzilla vs. The Monster Invaders. Stein and Lyons have a few plans in the works with the hospital, including an opening night with a red carpet and a broadcast of the short film over the televisions in every patient’s room. Nicholas is definitely excited—when asked if he’s looking forward to sharing what he’s made, he nods so vigorously that the laptop on his bed shakes and almost falls over.
If possible, though, he might be even more enthusiastic about the work itself. “Anguirus is my favorite character in the movie, because he’s the only one who can dig.” He’s also excited about his concept of last few scenes he and the team are going to shoot. “Stay tuned for a special final battle,” he says. “It’ll be epic.”