Jun 21, 2019
That possibility weighed heavily on one little girl during a recent Saturday afternoon at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Sitting among other children and parents, she had just finished watching Hank the Cave Peanut, an animated short in which a pith-helmeted legume leads a successful hunt for an untamed fork.
For director Ron McAdow, AB’71, the MoMA screening and Q&A marked the latest stop on a filmmaking journey that began at the University of Chicago, where he’d turned his apartment dining room into a makeshift studio.
McAdow didn’t enroll at UChicago with plans for a career in animation, regarding the campus as a place where his “serious academic interests could be nurtured.” What unfolded was a process of elimination. He liked to write but didn’t want to major in English. He was drawn to anthropology and the social sciences, but a student job in the sociology department convinced him not to pursue academia.
Still, the 69-year-old reflects fondly on the intellectual community he found at UChicago. As a student in the College, McAdow found joy in learning not only from preeminent scholars, but from discussions with his fellow students. For the self-described “generalist,” the interdisciplinary curriculum helped spark the ideas in his filmmaking.
Back home in Champaign, Illinois, McAdow spent a summer filling potholes with Kevin Brown, a high school friend who had begun exploring object animation with a Super 8 camera. When the two were laid off, they got serious about messing around with Brown’s new toy. That fall, McAdow returned to UChicago with a used camera of his own.
Soon, he decided to try making animated films for children. He experimented with coins and other household objects in his tabletop animations, but peanuts became the anthropomorph of choice “because they were so charismatic.” McAdow would open the shells carefully, filling in a bit of sand before gluing them back together as characters.
“You didn’t have to paint any eyes because people just project a face onto them,” he said.
The Super 8 movies he made in his apartment on Hyde Park Boulevard became a hit on the student party circuit. After McAdow graduated, he and Brown moved to Holliston, Massachusetts, creating short segments for the television show Jabberwocky.
McAdow followed up on Jabberwocky with two longer independent shorts: Hank the Cave Peanut (1974), which led to a gig on the math-oriented program Infinity Factory, and Captain Silas (1977). He distributed the films himself to libraries and nonprofits, one of which later sold copies to MoMA. Last summer, the museum purchased a digital version from McAdow to use in their screenings.