Inside “The Film Lounge” with Steve Jennings and Kathy Buxton

    Steve Jennings and Kathy Buxton.
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    Hello and welcome back. We’ve been visiting with filmmakers whose works will be seen in “The Film Lounge,” a new series that will premiere Sunday on Iowa Public Television. If this is your first visit here, be sure to peruse our blog to meet our other featured artists.

    Before we move ahead, we’d like to thank everybody who came to our preview party this past Sunday in Iowa City. It was a wonderful event and we hope you can join us Thursday in Des Moines and Saturday in Sioux City for our next parties. They’re presented by the series co-producers -- IPTV, Produce Iowa and the Iowa Arts Council -- and offer a sneak peek at the show and a chance to meet the filmmakers.

    Today let’s meet Steve Jennings and Kathy Buxton, a brother-and-sister team who run Grasshorse Character Animation Studios in Winfield, a small town in southeast Iowa about halfway between Mount Pleasant and Muscatine.

    The company’s name comes from Steve’s wife Marta, whom he met on a flight from Poland when he was returning from a film shoot and she was coming to the United State for the first time, to visit relatives. Years later, Marta saw a grasshopper and couldn’t come up with the correct English word for it. In her excitement she blurted out “grasshorse,” and the malapropism has stuck with them ever since.

    Steve opened Grasshorse in California in 2002 after building an impressive portfolio of clients and projects. He worked for the iconic British director Tony Kaye on “American History X,” straight out of film school, and later did visual and animation work on various Hollywood projects for Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

    With Grasshorse, he pioneered 2D, 3D and other animation techniques for Craig McCracken’s “Powerpuff Girls” television series, “Star Wars: Clone Wars” and the original show opener for the Warner Bros. television show “Johnny Test.”

    He moved the business to Winfield in 2007. Kathy joined him there after living a nomadic life with one of the last known traveling tent shows, presented by a vaudeville group called the Schaffner Players. Her wide-ranging experience as an actor, songwriter, singer, director and backstage manager, coupled with a degree in behavioral business management from Iowa State University, was a perfect fit.

    With Marta’s help, Steve, Kathy and their father, Vivan Jennings, soon turned Grasshorse into a full-service animation and live-action studio, producing work over the years for MTV, the Walt Disney Channel, the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and LEGO. They’ve also done movie trailers for 20th Century Fox’s “Hitman: Agent 47” and “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials,” and they created concepts and artwork for the 2016 video “Roll Up” by the indie pop group Fitz and the Tantrums.

    ​Jennings and Buxton at Grasshorse studio in Winfield. ​
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    Their contribution to “The Film Lounge” is “The Sacrifice,” a hand-illustrated, animated film inspired by the story of Saint George and the dragon.

    What themes does your work explore?
    The underlying theme for “The Sacrifice” is the choices we will make to survive. It’s all about water and what the community will do to get it. It’s a message that empowers women. This traditional folk story is one in which men hold all the power and resolve the conflict. We have retold it with a modern perspective – it’s reversal of power belongs to the women and it recognizes their sovereignty. In doing all of this, we focused on presenting it in a humorous, surprising and entertaining way.

    What are you working on right now?
    We’re working on creating a 3D animation for an exciting film for Fourth Wall Films called “The Good Earth.” A good 50 percent of our work is called “white label,” where we’ll provide work for other vendors without our name attached to it. But I can say that we have exponentially expanded our rendering capacities, which allows us to do much higher quality and higher resolution photo-real imagery.

    When we’re not working for our vendors, we’re developing content for Grasshorse. Our current project is called “Puppet Justice,” which is sort of a “Judge Judy” show mixed with “The Muppets” for a “Saturday Night Live” audience. We want it to address issues from the gray area. We’d like it to present both sides of the argument. The judge is everything a good judge would not be. Ideally, though, when he pronounces judgment, it’s the right one for all the wrong reasons.

    What do you enjoy about making art and film in Iowa?
    We believe you can only be as creative as you can afford to be. Living in Iowa has allowed us expanded freedom to create and conceptualize. There’s low overhead, a high quality of life and affordable housing. All of this allows us to provide exceptional quality animation at an affordable price.

    Besides, there are a lot of advantages to living in Iowa beyond agriculture. It’s a swing state, it’s fairly open-minded, and studies say it has the shortest commute in America.

    Why did you want to join “The Film Lounge” project?
    “The Film Lounge” is a great first step in marketing talent. It creates an opportunity for us as filmmakers to share our work and create a fan base. Artists like us don’t survive without them.

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