KEY FRAME by Graham Techler

KEY FRAME by Graham Techler

Five years I’ve been in animation. The doctor at the walk-in clinic says I have the wrists of an eighty-year-old. I’m not an eighty-year-old. He says by the time I’m actually an eighty-year-old, you wouldn’t be able to sell my wrists on the black market. According to the doctor, a black market buyer would say “you call that a wrist? This is not what I come to the black market for.” The doctor doesn’t have a very good bedside manner but that’s what you get at the walk-in clinic. 

Suffice it to say that when you meet me at the beginning of this story, I’m looking at my career the way a professional baseball player would: something one should try and enjoy while it lasts, while it’s a job the body can still do it, before it makes the body crumple in on itself to cries of “belly itcher,” “broken ladder,” etc. Only I don’t earn four million dollars a year. I earn seven hundred and sixty-nine dollars a week. I never work less than fifty hours a week. I do not have sick days. I do not take vacations. And for the last six months, it’s something I’ve failed even to enjoy whilst bringing to life the following section of Dustin Down the Drain

INT. THE DRAIN – CONTINUOUS

Dustin, now fully shrunken down to the size of his action figure, wails as he slides down the drain, through a series of forks in the pipe, before being deposited in a pool of scummy water. 

DUSTIN

UM, this is not what I signed up for, dude!

 

Dustin Down the Drain is due in theaters next Summer. Dustin Down the Drain is budgeted at one hundred and fifty million dollars. In order to break even, after marketing costs, Dustin Down the Drain will need to gross three hundred million dollars. After the breakout success of Dustin Gets Big a couple years ago, the studio thinks Dustin Down the Drain has the potential to earn more than nine hundred million dollars. If you’re not in the industry, just trust me: nine hundred million dollars is a lot. 

Oh, for context: 

“Dustin is an ordinary kid who is tired of his ordinary life and wishes he could get big again like he did last Summer. But when his wish gets misinterpreted by the wish machine on the boardwalk and he shrinks down to the size of an action figure, Dustin gets more adventure than he bargained for. Next Summer, Dustin is going: Down the Drain.”

Every animator says they’ve wanted to be one since they were a little kid. I can back it up. When I was six, the projector showing me and my fellow children a cartoon broke five minutes in. The projectionist let me keep a section of the damaged reel. I could see exactly how the cartoon fist went from being cocked one moment to hitting another cartoon’s face the next. I could see the exact frame in which movement started, and the exact frame in which it reached its conclusion. Nice, right? I’ve used this story in every job interview I’ve ever had. It’s a little cute, but you have to tell them something like that. You can’t just tell them that you need a job or else you’ll die, and that (oftentimes) you don’t want to die—no, you have say when you were a kid your house burned down, and your dog ran into the flames to rescue your sketchbook, and you swore that his dog death wouldn’t be in vain, or something. If I told a story like that, I’d have gotten every job I’ve ever applied for. 

I don’t talk to many children. When I do, and they tell me that they want to do what I do? I try my best to scare them off of it. I ask them if they like having wrists. I let them know that the job I have is twenty-years-worse than the job I dreamed of getting when I was their age, and if they get it, their job will be twenty-years-worse than mine. Then I smack the ice cream cone out of their hand so they know what the world’s really like.  

I didn’t always feel that way, exactly. At the time, I was just a normal animator: overworked, underpaid, battling a head cold. My immediate superior was in my work space, showing me my own work, and leveling the very serious accusation that I was not making movie magic.  

“You’ve got Dustin bouncing off this pipe here and then tumbling twice before he hits that pipe there. The line of continuous action is shattered”—he said, using some animator argot so I’d know he knew what he was talking about—“and it’s just busy, busy, busy!”

I told him I could clean that up, no problem. 

“This is not the kinda work a crunch is supposed to produce,” he said. “I can’t pass this up the chain of command, because this is just not the kinda work a crunch is supposed to produce.”

They had set up bunk beds for us in our work spaces. They had ping pong tables too. You know, to make it fun. Like a fun little work sleepover where you don’t get any Vitamin D for days on end. I promised him that I was gonna get that line of continuous action looking way more continuous. He paused as he ducked under the bunk bed in my work space. 

“Oh,” he added. “I heard that you put in a request to take Christmas off to drive to Nevada for one day and spend it with your family? Now, I don’t know exactly what the fuck you meant by that, but that’s not the kind of attitude a crunch can really accommodate. You wanna give your family Christmas presents? You are going to give all four quadrants of the human population the best Christmas present they could ever hope to receive when Dustin Down the Drain arrives in three thousand theaters on July 7th. Alright? I know twenty kids at USC who would kill for the job you have right now. They would kill you if they even thought it might get them your job. They’d kill you just for having a job at all, when so many others don’t. Now, I wouldn’t let them, because we’re a family here. But I need you to start acting like the hills are full of hungry wolves. Because they are.” 

It was the most hardcore thing I’d ever heard someone say half-crouched under a bunk bed.

 

I’d frequently take my midnight lunches at a diner down the block from the studio called Louie’s Lunch Car Luncherarium. The futuristic hobo train theme was confusing, but the milkshakes were good. I liked to just get a big milkshake for lunch because it’s something you don’t need wrists to consume. That day, I was too angry about my immediate supervisor’s criticisms of Dustin’s line of continuous action to care about my wrists, so I was doodling on my placemat, something I never did anymore unless I was in a terrible mood. 

I didn’t look up when the hobo boxcar front door slid open and another customer walked in. I didn’t look up until she was sitting in my booth across from me. She was wearing a long red leather coat and sunglasses so skinny I didn’t know what the point of them was. I felt confident she was the most striking customer in the history of Louie’s Lunch Car Luncherarium. The kind of woman who makes you really self-conscious about all the empty milkshakes in front of you. 

“That looks good,” she said. 

“Milkshake,” was all I could think to say, so that’s what I said. 

“No,” she said. “Your drawing. That’s really good.” 

I looked down at my doodle. It was a character I’d created in my youth, back when I had real convictions about the effect my work could have on the world if it was done with craft, truth, and rigor. His name was Spiggletwit Montpelier. He was a duck who ran a boarding school. I thanked her. 

“You’re a real talent,” said the stranger. “I’d say you should become an animator or something, but I hear that job is actually really terrible. In fact I hear it sucks shit.”

I agreed that it sucked shit. She asked if I was indeed an animator. I told her. She

asked what kind of work I did. Did I ever do movies? I told her I did do movies. 

“Well that’s better!” she winked. “More money for them, more money for you.” 

  I disabused her of this. 

She shook her head in dismay. “This fuckin’ industry,” she said. “This motherfuckin’ goddamn industry.” 

“Tell me about it,” I said. I liked how often she swore.  

“You know,” said the stranger. “I’m also in the industry, in a way. 

“Oh yeah?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “I represent the interests of a major competitor.” 

This very weird thing to say hung in the air. 

“Yeah,” she continued, as if she hated to bore me with all this, “I represent the interests of a major studio competitor who’d really love to hobble the upcoming release of a film called Dustin Down the Drain. They (the major studio competitor whose interests I represent) just won’t shut up about how much they’d love to give someone $50,000 to wipe the hard-drives at the studio producing Dustin Down the Drain, which, if it doesn’t erase the film from existence, will at least damage the workflow so bad that Dustin won’t be able to go down the drain for years and years, probably causing the studio to suffer permanent reputational damage that could be parlayed by someone like my client to the benefit of themselves, and the proprietary, economically competitive artistic content they’re currently developing.” 

She was being coy as hell, but I had a feeling I knew what she was talking about. It sounded like she was working for the studio behind Mikey and the Shrink Ray: Requiem—an upcoming film with a very similar premise to Dustin Down the Drain (“regular-sized boy becomes tiny”) but not the red hot buzz a sequel to Dustin Gets Big could hope to generate. They had also made a recent major marketing fumble thanks to that subtitle: Requiem. The rumor was that the studio was too embarrassed to admit they’d made a mistake after a press release announcing the year’s slate had mixed up Mikey’s subtitle with the subtitle of a vampire film that had instead been announced as Oathhunter Elegy III: Always Bet on Small! 

The stranger went on to explain that it was actually so funny but she actually had the $50,000 in a briefcase right that very moment, alongside a stylish two-piece suit lined with extraordinarily powerful magnets. Magnets that could easily annihilate a computer server if someone was to give that computer server a little hug and rub up and down on it a bit.  

“So,” she said, “my project right now is to tail Dustin’s animators around the city until I find one who wants to take it, hopefully a disgruntled one who wishes their life and wrists had turned out differently.” 

I felt a briefcase-sized object slide under the table and rest between my legs. I explored this object with my feet. It sure felt like a briefcase full of money and magnets. Still, I hesitated. I had never engaged in corporate espionage before. And nothing in my worldly experience suggested it wasn’t the kind of thing I would probably mess up. I stood. 

“You haven’t paid for your three milkshakes,” she said. 

I still didn’t know what to say. So I just said “milkshakes” again.  

“Actually, allow me.”

She put the leather briefcase on the table, popped it open a crack, and placed a hundred dollar bill on the table. All the forks and knives slid over and affixed themselves to the leather. 

 

St. Bartholomew’s Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles has, for many years now, partnered with a nonprofit organization called ‘Miracles for Hope,’ which gives the most messed-up children on their saddest wards the opportunity to make their dreams come true before it’s too late. ‘Miracles for Hope’ has shown a kid what it’s like to perform a stadium rock and roll show. They’ve helped a kid experience zero gravity. They’re a really special organization, and we’re glad to help them out whenever we can. At least that’s what my immediate superior told me back at the studio the next morning when he introduced me to Dylan, a smiling, super cute little child decked out in Dustin apparel. 

“Sorry, who is Dylan?” I asked, distracted. My suit was extremely uncomfortable. There was a good reason most professionals wore suits without magnets in them.

“He’s Dylan,” said my immediate superior, pointing at Dylan. “Dylan is here from St. Bartholomew’s Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.” 

“You’re making my miracle come true,” said Dylan. “For my hope.”

My immediate superior explained that Dylan was afflicted with Zweimann’s Syndrome, an extraordinarily rare disease that gave him a small bubble in his brain which, at any moment, could explode, killing Dylan on the spot. 

“But,” he added, “we’ll be damned if that’s going to happen before Dylan can get a special sneak preview of Dustin Down the Drain.” 

I turned to the boy: “Are you sure that’s what you want your wish to be, Dustin?”

“I’m Dylan,” said Dylan. 

“This is Dylan,” said my superior. “Dustin is Dustin. Dylan loves Dustin, though.”

“I think that Dustin and the drain mouse are going to get married!” said Dylan. 

“Well, you’ll know for sure in seventy-four minutes” said my immediate superior. “Right this way, Dylan.”

I stepped in front of him, impeding his path. 

“You’re impeding my path,” he said. 

“You can’t show Dylan Dustin,” I said.

“Every moment you impede my path could be the moment Dylan’s brain bubble explodes. You do know that, right?”

“This is a security breach,” I pointed out, wiping sweat from my brow. “Next thing you know, that kid is going to be talking to every blogger in town, and then everyone will know what happens to Dustin. Everyone will know whether Dustin marries the drain mouse, or not.”

My immediate superior shoved a finger into my chest. “‘Miracles for Hope’ has shown a kid what it’s like to perform in a stadium rock and roll show, buddy. They’ve helped a kid experience zero gravity. And Dylan is going to find out what happens to Dustin when Dustin goes down the drain.”

Before Dylan followed my immediate superior down the hall, he turned and smiled some more at me with his big toothy kid mouth. 

“Hey mister,” he said. “If my brain bubble doesn’t explode too soon, I wanna be just like you when I grow up. I’m gonna draw all the pictures for the movies they make for kids just like me, and I’m gonna win every award in town, and I’m gonna dress like a million bucks, just like you.” 

“Sure you will, Dylan,” I said. “Sure you will.”

This would have been a sweeter exchange if I hadn’t already done it. 

While the servers that once housed Dustin were quietly inspected, I waited for someone to put the pieces together and find me at my desk. But no one came. No one said anything to me at first. And then no one said anything to me at all. 

The $50,000 went towards a $70,000 loan I’d taken out to attend the University of Southern California. I’d already paid off $90,000 of it at the time. After the lump sum, I’m still paying off the remaining $120,000. 

Dylan didn’t get to watch Dustin Down the Drain that day, but thankfully, he’s still waiting to die—much like the rest of us, but different. He no longer harbors pie in the sky fantasies of overcoming Zweimann’s Syndrome and becoming the next great me. If he lives much longer, maybe he’ll thank me for it. 

The studio quietly moved Dustin Down the Drain’s release to the Fall. When they were sure that the damage was irrevocable, they moved it to the Spring. There was no kind of profit that could justify the cost of making Dustin Down the Drain twice, but nobody in this town will ever admit something’s over when it’s over. They move it to the next Summer. They slowly take people off the project one by one. They move it to the next Fall. Now it’s just a few of us going over the same salvaged frames again and again. Paid a small allowance to keep the work going in the basement forever, just to spare them the embarrassment. It’s going great. It’s almost done. It’s going to do boffo box office numbers. It’ll be out in time for Christmas. I make a sketch of Dustin bounce from pipe to pipe. His line of action is perfectly continuous. It’ll be out next, next Summer. It’ll be out for the twentieth anniversary of Dustin Gets Big. It’ll be out on my eightieth birthday. The muscles in my wrist will keep shrinking somehow, even when it seems like there isn’t any more wrist left. We’re going to celebrate one hundred years of Dustin by finally sending him down the drain. I read it in the trades, so it’s definitely happening. The motion picture event Dustin fans have been waiting two hundred years for. Three hundred years. I bounce him back and forth down the drain for a thousand years. Two thousand years. Ten thousand years I sit at my desk, drawing Dustin bouncing back and forth down the drain for the millionth, two millionth, three millionth time. I have to agree with him. Not what I signed up for, dude. 


Graham Techler's writing appears or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Faultline. His plays have been produced off-Broadway at 59E59 and published in anthologies by Smith & Kraus and Applause Books. He is a member of EST/Youngblood and received his BFA from the University of Michigan. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read Next: INEVITABLE HOLMES by Oli Johns