Chester native traces story of Romaine Tenney Travis Van Alstyne animates the farmer's last year, last days

A 40-second clip of Travis Van Alstyne’s animation.
By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

It’s been more than 57 years since Weathersfield farmer Romaine Tenney responded to the taking of his farm by the state of Vermont to build Interstate-91 by setting his barns and house on fire and nailing himself inside.

A frame from ‘Love of the Land’ with Tenney looking over the still valley below his farm. Images provided unless otherwise noted

Since then, some have celebrated Tenney as a flinty Yankee while others saw his action as a one-man protest against the progress that was changing Vermont and would accelerate with the opening of the interstate. Still others see a statement against big government power in Tenney’s suicide.

Travis Van Alstyne, a Chester native who now lives in Burlington, has been fascinated with Tenney’s story for years and, since 2019, has been working on a short animation called Love of the Land about the last year in the life of the farmer.

As an artist who studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design and works as a web designer for Ben and Jerry’s, Van Alstyne’s goal in the project is to examine the life of Romaine Tenney, a man born at the turn of the 20th century who worked his land without gasoline powered engines, milked his herd by hand, and cut and split his firewood with an axe and a saw long after most farmers had turned to tractors and other machinery.

Romaine Tenney, left, speaks with James Wu, a right of way agent for the I-91 project on April 15, 1964. Photo by Donald Wiedenmayer, Courtesy Vermont State Archives and Records Administration

“It’s such a moving story and a sad story, it really captivated me. He was happy with his life but things change,” says Van Alstyne. “He would not accept money for his home and I don’t think he would have been happy anywhere else on earth. He loved the land, his animals and his lifestyle.”

The story also makes Van Alstyne think of mental health issues. “Everyone struggles, but it takes it takes certain stressors to make the struggle tragic.” But mostly he concentrates on what he’s learned about Tenney.

“I didn’t want to make it a ‘stick it to the man’ or ‘damn the government’ statement,” says Van Alstyne. “I tried to focus on his kindness, gentleness and love of the land.  He was one of nine children and the only one who stayed on the farm. He wasn’t political. He never even attended a town meeting.”

Van Alstyne is trying to focus on what Tenney’s life – what his day would look like with milking, seeing to each season’s chores and walking his land. The film checks in with Tenney at one year, six months and then the last few days on the farm and finally his last night there.

Three years of painstaking work

A 1999 Green Mountain Union High graduate, Van Alstyne started working on the self-funded project in 2019 using the “rotoscope” process that turns live-action film or video into animation by a painstaking tracing transfer. More on that later.

Travis Van Alstyne at work on ‘Love of the Land’

But now, deep into the project, Van Alstyne knows that more expenses are coming. There will be artists to pay including a voice-over by George Woodard, a farmer and filmmaker from Waterbury Center, Andover natives Ida Mae and Lila Specker for a their recording of Ernie Carpenter’s Elk River Blues, background art, sound design and film festival entrance fees. To fund it, he has  launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $3,000.  At the time of publication, $2,925 has already been raised.

“I feel like I’ve already won because most of the people who have donated are from when I was young in Chester.”

Van Alstyne says he came to the rotoscope process after seeing Ralph Bakshi‘s 1978 animated “Lord of the Rings” but the process is much older than that, having been invented by Max Fleischer in 1915 and used in a famous series of animated shorts called “Out of the Inkwell.” Since then it has been used in many motion pictures including the light sabers in the first three Star Wars films.

Basically, a live-action movie is projected onto a glass plate one frame at a time. The animator traces the parts of the action desired on to paper and uses those frames for the animation. The animation can be used by itself or combined with live action. But today, the live action can be traced on a computer screen.

Van Alstyne tracing an image from a live action video to create an image for the animation.

Van Alstyne is using live video he shot of himself during the Covid-19 lockdown to create the animation over backgrounds designed by Julianna Brazill. Using a drawing tablet and Adobe Animate, he is able to trace on the video screen to create and then fill in an animated version of the live video. Here’s an example of the process.

Having shot all the video, Van Alstyne is in the process of tracing and animating one second of animation takes about one hour of work. There are 72 shots and it’s currently about 24 percent done. The film is about 8 minutes so that’s about 480 hours. Van Alstyne notes that the sound on the clip is not finished.

While Van Alstyne works during the day for Ben and Jerry’s, he’s tracing and animating at night and on weekends at home. He estimates that by the time the film is done, he would have put about three years in it.

“I expect to be done with it in late 2022 or early 2023,” says Van Alstyne.

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  1. More than a few of us in southern Vermont know of people like Tenney who just want to be left alone to live the way they want.

  2. Linda Diak says:

    Wonderful! I wish much success. Lovely article. Thank you.