It’s a scene that I’ve watched a dozen or so times, even relived at Disneyland: Indiana Jones and his partner snake through a jungle temple to find a lost golden idol, then are chased out again by booby traps and a giant boulder.
The iconic opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” solidified Indy in movie history and simultaneously granted the wishes of geeks like me who wanted to see what would come of a union between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg at the peak of their careers.
This weekend I watched the scene again on my small laptop screen and I couldn’t help but notice the performance this time was a bit wooden. No, not wooden, plastic.
Though the audio is the same, the “actors” have changed — they’re action figures, brought painstakingly to life by the single biggest Indy fan I’ve ever met. The stop-motion animation — six minutes of pure, unadulterated fanboy joy — was created to mark the 30th anniversary of “Raiders” in a Burbank apartment overlooking a 7-Eleven and a Carl’s Jr.
The work — with 270,000 views in less than a month — is bringing filmmaker Jeff Gurwood that much closer to realizing the film career he has worked for since eighth grade.
“I never thought it would be a million-hit sort of thing, but it had a strong chance of doing well because it has a built-in fan base,” Gurwood said.
Last week, a Japanese morning talk show called him for an interview. A friend helped him translate it. They kept referring to Gurwood as the Creator, “Like a god,” he laughs.
The Hollywood Reporter’s coverage resulted in about 20,000 hits in a day. Entertainment Weekly notes “it’s impossible to ever get tired of the traitorous, doomed Alfred Molina doll.”
The video, “Indyanimation,” was posted in December, at the end of six months of work, 45 hours a week. Each night Gurwood returned to his breakfast nook-cum-studio surrounded by three 6-foot-tall Indy movie posters — Harrison Ford staring directly over his shoulder.
“It made me do a better job because I knew I had him to look up to,” he said.
Gurwood created the sets mostly from materials he bought at Michaels in the Empire Center — foam core, papier-mâché to make the stones and rocks, acrylic paint and modeling clay. Add in a couple camera attachments to achieve the right look and feel of the 1981 original, and the whole venture cost him about $500 to $600.
He built seven chambers in all, with the most effort put into the idol chamber.
“That was the one I was looking most forward to making because that’s the one people remember,” he said.
A New Jersey native, Gurwood was given his first video camera in eighth grade. It had a stop-motion feature built in, helping him experiment and learn the art of stop motion.
The summer before his freshman year of film school at Ithaca College, Gurwood planned to make a movie with some friends. But he couldn’t get commitments from them, and the logistics for his grand action-movie vision would have been nearly impossible to achieve on a shoestring anyway.
Then, “I thought, ‘I have all the actors I need here in my toy bin,’” he said.
The result: the first Covert Operatives short film, which would be remade several times in the ensuing years. In the mid-1990s, before YouTube, students passed along his epic tale of action-hero combat soldiers battling the forces of evil on VHS.
Two Hollywood heavyweights got their start in a similar way — it was Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “Spirit of Christmas” that caught the eye of Comedy Central, which eventually went on to produce “South Park.”
The similarity isn’t lost on Gurwood. He and his creative partner, Anthony Carbone, worked with Lionsgate for a year to produce a show based on Covert Operatives. Another production company was interested in a feature film. The Syfy channel came close to green-lighting a series. And Adult Swim, the late-night arm of Cartoon Network, talked to the pair about a year before producing Robot Chicken, which also features action figure stop-motion.
Each time he approached that dream of getting paid to do the work you love most in life, Hollywood politics or boardroom decisions would pull it away. Now, a 30-year-old movie and the craft aisles at Michaels have helped Gurwood land the one thing he has missed: recognition.
“I don’t like to ask people for things. That may be one of the reasons I haven’t succeeded as well as I wanted to,” he said. “I’m not much of a schmoozer. I try to do it based on the merit of the project.”
The fates have responded. A major toy manufacturer saw the Raiders video and is looking to hire Gurwood to make videos for its toy lines.
With all those actors at his disposal, the world may yet see Gurwood’s band of misfit fighters take their place on the silver screen.
“My ultimate goal is to get a Covert Operatives movie made. I still feel like I could make a really cool feature film under $1 million,” he said.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he’s not wearing his fedora and bullwhip, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.