In the Capital Children’s Museum’s animation lab, on a recent overcast Sunday afternoon, Joshua Muntain, 29, struggles to explain the finer points of “marzipanimation”—the “art” of animating almond-paste candy—to a boy named Sam.
“Ever hear of marzipan?” Muntain asks.
“No,” Sam replies.
“It’s made of nuts!” Muntain says. “We’re gonna make it look like it’s moving by itself.”
Muntain instructs Sam to gradually move two marzipan peaches over a picture of a gingerbread house nestled in a grove of swirly lollipop trees. The picture rests on a table with a camera pointing down at it. After each tiny move, Muntain reaches over to hit the space bar on a computer hooked up to the camera. Each tap of the keyboard produces the recorded sound of a camera shutter. After 23 takes, Muntain plays the final product: a two-second movie of Sam’s marzipan peaches propelling themselves up and down the gingerbread house and lollipop trees.
In his six years as the museum’s public programs manager for media arts, Muntain has animated beans and dried fruit, but this is the first time he’s worked with marzipan.
“I actually had the idea for marzipanimation years ago,” he says. “But I kept it close to my vest.” When the museum declared December “Candy Month,” Muntain decided it was time to break out the almond paste.
Bringing the waxy candy to life hasn’t been easy. At first, Muntain had trouble finding a supplier. He wanted animal-shaped marzipan, which proved elusive. Then he found a distributor willing to sell him 90 pounds of unmolded marzipan, which he could shape himself. (He didn’t want the kids mashing marzipan: “Too sticky.”) But as December approached, the distributor stopped returning his calls. So at the last minute, Muntain had to settle for a shipment of the traditional fruit-shaped variety.
“I wasn’t sure how much to order,” he says. “I was afraid once the kids figured out it was candy, they’d just be popping it in their mouths.”
Moving pieces of marzipan around is one of the simpler animation projects that children have produced under Muntain’s direction. Kids as young as 6 have created award-winning claymation and hand-drawn cartoons as part of a summer animation camp that the museum offers. In recent years, their best work has made it onto the screens of independent film festivals around the world, including the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, the largest competitive festival of children’s films in North America. Every fall, the museum hosts its own animation festival featuring the summer camp’s productions.
Muntain says the kids do everything, from coming up with a story and creating the characters to designing the sets and picking the music. The child animators spend most of their week in the museum’s computer-animation room, editing suite, and claymation studio. The last is a theater in miniature, with sets, lighting, and a Cecil B. De Mille-style cast—dinosaurs, a winged pig, polar bears in Russian hats, an assortment of aliens—nestled in a corner of the studio that Muntain refers to simply as “the menagerie.”
The animated shorts produced by the summer campers rival any Wallace & Gromit flick. Several pieces have been finalists or winners of the prestigious Telly Awards. Muntain himself took home a Telly, in 1999, for a five-minute animated feature called Chemistry in Everyday Life, which he created for the opening of the museum’s Chemical Science Center. He works on his animation when he can, “during lunch breaks,” and dates his love of the art back to his childhood, when his father gave him books on how movies are made. Muntain went on to study figure drawing and sculpture at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. Shortly after graduating, he signed on with the Children’s Museum. The animation lab was already there when he arrived, having been established in the late ’80s with the help of Looney Tunes co-creator Chuck Jones.
When Muntain is not in the lab, he tries to keep up with the animation influences of his young charges. “I watch a cartoon with breakfast every day,” he says. “It’s not work,” he adds. “It’s a way of life.” —Annys Shin