The Frog, the Dog, and the Devil
The Frog, the Dog, and the Devil

Director: Bob Stenhouse (New Zealand)
1986 Grand Prize Winner

The Ballad of Bad Whiskey
Essay by Chris Robinson

You don’t hear it so often these days, but there was a time when ‘getting lit’ meant drunk. Not sure what the etymology is, but I imagine it’s connected with fired up, and alcohol being a temporary cure for inhibitions. Lit might even connect to enlightenment though I don’t recall any such occurrences during or after the many benders I’ve forgotten. Regardless, lit up is an apt description of The Frog, The Dog and The Devil from New Zealand animator, Bob Stenhouse. Getting lit isn’t just what the boozy protagonist does during a wild bender, the term also reflects the film’s glow-like look.

The story was inspired by The Devil’s Daughter (sometimes known as The Godley Ghost) an old ballad by New Zealander, Ernie Slow. Stenhouse was first introduced to the ballad by a colleague at the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC).

When Stenhouse later moved to the National Film Unit (the New Zealand version of Canada’s National Film Board), he proposed making an animation short based on The Devil’s Daughter. Stenhouse believed it was an ideal story for animation because “the ballad was a rollicking good yarn, plenty of action, allowed considerable impact in experimental visual effects and sound design and was New Zealand material.”

The story itself is quite straightforward and actually fairly removed from Snow’s original ballad. One night, (a Friday the 13th, to be precise), a shifty drunk tricks a tavern barkeeper out of a bottle of whiskey. As he sneaks his way out into the night, the man drinks down the whiskey and stumbles, slinks and skitters through a hellish hallucinogenic bender shared with she-devils, demon dogs and other unexpected encounters. It’s the bender of all benders. By night’s end, all he’s guzzling is a jug of water and momentarily breathing in the gospels of teetotalism.

So, yeah, the story itself is fairly familiar. Sort of a Sleepy Hollow meets Kerouac. What really makes the film stand out is Stenhouse’s extraordinary visual effects. There is almost a neon-like glow throughout the film. The lanterns, lightning, puddles, water reflections – seemingly minor aspects of the film – become supporting characters owing to Stenhouse’s breathtaking paint with light approach.

“The glowing halo 'neon' effect,” says Stenhouse, “–  multiple film exposures on opal glass, sandwiched between layers of underlit artwork – was being used by local television graphic designers at the time for programme titles and promos, and I wondered if the same effect, ‘painting with light’, could enhance a whole short. As well as adding a 'photographic' appearance to the artwork – hard to achieve by hand – it also made quite simple shapes look much more complex. “

Now, back in those days before digital technology ran the world, it would take a hell of a lot of painstaking work to achieve this lit look. Because Stenhouse was shooting what he calls an “artwork sandwich” using top-lit and under-lit art, he had to do multiple passes (“roughly the equivalent of a feature”, he says) under the camera. This meant that once he’d shot the top-lit work, the camera gate would be closed, the film rewound and then exposed again with the under-lit art. Stenhouse guesses that he sometimes needed up to twenty additional passes of the same film through the camera for the most complex shots. 

The complexity of this process led to an assortment of problems for the camera operator. To the point where Stenhouse took over the camera because “it was easier to shoot it myself rather than write instructions for someone else to follow. I could also make demands on myself that I wouldn't ask of someone else.”

The slightest fuck up would mean re-doing days and days of work.

Outside of the audio, Stenhouse did the whole project (storyboarding, artwork, painting, backgrounds, shooting, editing) himself. He estimates that it took him about two and a half to three years to complete.

The Frog, The Dog and The Devil was an instant hit on the festival circuit taking Grand Prize at Canada’s Hamilton International Animation Festival (where the OIAF temporarily relocated to in 1986) along with an Oscar nomination for best animated short.  “To win Grand Prize was an immense honour, and validation of the work that had been done,” says Stenhouse, “but really, it was not until I was invited to Hiroshima 90 as one of the judging panel, along with John Lasseter and others, and saw Alexander Petrov win Grand Prize with The Cow, that I did appreciate, with some envy of course, the acclaim I had missed by not being able to attend the Festival in Canada.”

In 2000, The Frog, The Dog and The Devil was selected as one of the 84 (no, I’m not sure why they chose 84, maybe it’s an Orwell thing?) best animated films of the 20th century.

Interestingly, Stenhouse had no knowledge of the work of animator, Don Bluth, whose animated feature film, The Secret of NIMH had some visual similarities to The Frog, The Dog and The Devil. I wondered if it frustrated Stenhouse to discover this after devoting so much time and energy to his passion project: “No. It felt good to have produced a short that compared in some ways with the "latest" major feature release, especially when half the population of California seemed to be in credits of The Secret of NIMH.”

Chris Robinson is a farmer from Dayton, Ohio.