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Independent animators: 'Don't blink or you'll miss it'

Discovering a film animator in this highly academic town is a little like stumbling across a wizard in fool's cap amid a sea of berobed dons. In the midst of sonorous pontification, one picks out the faint scratch of pencil on paper and the tiny slurp-slurp of a fine horse-hair paint brush. Suddenly paper and paint are speaking and moving and everything is magic and whimsy come to life.

Lisa Crafts is one of those wizards. A serene-looking woman who speaks in soothing, measured tones, she is one of a handful of animators in the Boston area making a living by her craft. Experts estimate that there are only about 200 independent animators in the country - less than 10 percent of all US animators.

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''Most people think we're nuts,'' she says evenly, her dark-brown eyes twinkling like a child's. ''We spend a year working on a film that will be maybe five minutes long.'' Royalties from the film's distribution can run ''into three figures - if we're lucky.''

But money isn't why Lisa and her colleagues do what they do - spending weeks hunched over stacks of paper, sketching out a story; more weeks hunched over clear ''cels,'' painting the same sequence; and even more days painstakingly photographing every frame under the steady gaze of a 16mm camera mounted on an animator's stand. No, being a film animator, says Crafts, has less to do with finances than ''reaching the soul in some deep way. It's the closest thing to breathing life into something. You draw something and then you make it move and talk.''

While she never attended art school, Crafts says she has been drawing all her life. She originally had to work as a gourmet cook and window designer to finance her films, but today she relies solely on grant money, her teaching salary, and rental fees from her highly coveted home-made animation stand (a new one costs from $50,000 to $80,000). Unlike other independent filmmakers who may need tens of thousands of dollars to finance their projects, she essentially needs living expenses. In 10 years she has made four films, and is considered prolific by her peers.

Holed up here in her rambling two-bedroom apartment, she lets her imagination run riot. Or, rather, she communes with the hundreds of old postcards, stuffed animals, and plastic pigs that line her shelves and serve as her housemates and inspiration. Just now she is tugging at a particularly cumbersome stack of painted cels from her movie ''The Ungloved Hand.'' A plastic alligator is poised on her desk.

''Ugh, these weigh so much,'' she says of the two-foot stack that represents months of work. She tries valiantly to explain the complex process of making an animation film - arms, legs, and torso all on different sheets and shot in different combinations. But finally she succumbs. ''Want to see my latest film that I am just crazy about?'' she asks, snapping off the lights. ''Don't blink or you'll miss it.''

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