The Father of Invention

Back when video rental epoch was at its peak – moments before the DVD revolution would burn briefly as a gold standard of home cinema until becoming a punchline of technological obsolescence – each VHS hire came laden with a litany of previews that would play before (and occasionally after) the feature presentation.

Impatient fools with no lust or capacity for the breadth of experiences that life has to offer would fast-forward through these trailers, but those of us who understood the natural rhythms of visual entertainment were as committed to them as we were the film that was about to play. These were mini-features, entire works delivered with the speed of a Matrix upload; a glimpse into what could have been if we’d just lingered a little longer in the THRILLER or FOREIGN sections.

Some of these trailers seemed to be ubiquitous. No matter which film you’d just borrowed, be it a PG romantic comedy or an R rated gore-fest, they all seemed to open with the same run of previews; only the running order changed. In the late 1990s, no matter which genre you had opted for, the movie gods were certain that you would want to know all about 1996’s Fly Away Home.

I’ve never seen Fly Away Home, the apparently-true story of a Canadian father and daughter who construct a homemade glider in order to teach a flock of orphaned geese how to migrate south. And yet I feel as if I know it intimately, having seen the trailer more often than many of my favourite films. I’m actually shocked to have discovered the film was released in 1996, as I’m convinced I spent much of the early ’90s watching it. Maybe the trailer was so ubiquitous, I was able to see it before they’d shot a frame.

As the trailer attempts to tell the film’s entire story in three minutes (this was typical at the time, as the concept of spoilers wouldn’t become widespread until the following millennium), one moment always stood out to me: the patriarch, played by Jeff Daniels, trying to figure out how to get the geese to fly south, is struck by a moment of inspiration. Wordlessly, the idea for the glider arrives, piercing his furrowed brow.

Jeff twirls a feather around in his hand. He swishes it through the air, fascinated by his own flourish, as if seeing the way in which a single feather resists the air somehow translates directly into “I will build a wireframe two-seater aircraft and fly it through the streets of Baltimore with my estranged daughter”.

It’s a moment that fascinates and irritates me in equal measure. Cinema demands urgency, and the best and worst thing about the medium is the way in which complexity is distilled into a single, simple moment.

 

But this scene must have lodged itself deep. For years, I’ve been unable to imagine anyone, anywhere coming up with an idea – any idea – without picturing in Jeff Daniels waving a feather about in his workshop. A precocious schoolkid discovers a way of extracting water from rocks? Daniels and the feather. Apple announces an innovative new four-dimensional USB port? Daniels and the feather. Paul McCartney writes Wonderful Christmastime? Daniels and the feather. This is exactly what coming up with an idea looks like, in its purest form, and you’ll never convince me otherwise.

A few months back, I decided to make this moment into a gif, and since then it’s been sitting patiently on my desktop until I could find a use for it. Weirdly, I can’t remember how I went about it. I know there was a lengthy process that involved locating a copy of the trailer, clipping out this moment, then converting it using some online gif maker that didn’t embed a watermark. I’ve never made a gif before, and I’ve now forgotten precisely how I managed all the steps. But if I ever need to figure it out again, all it will take is a moment of divine inspiration and the single wave of a goose feather.

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