Student Reflection-Billy’s Birthday Cake (11.2)

By Jay Paine, Utah State University

‘Billy’s Birthday Cake’ had a serendipitous beginning: The night before moving to a new state, my friends Angelica and Colt invited me over to say goodbye, and since they couldn’t take any of their frozen food with them, they told me that anything in their freezer was free game. Among the popsicles, burritos, and veggies, there was a Ziplock baggie of frozen pinky mice, which had been for their snake. (They had to sell their snake before moving, and they had forgotten to send along its food.) Colt tossed the bag to me as a joke. “We saved these just for you,” he said. We all laughed. When I arrived home, I figured I’d throw the mice away, but then I decided that if the mice weren’t going to be snake food, they might as well be art. 

Luckily, I had received the mice just as Professor Ben Gunsberg’s multimedia class began. Because the course allowed students to experiment with visual and aural media, I was immersed in the perfect environment to put the mice to artistic use. At the beginning of the class, we also discussed a lot of avant-garde and dada-esque pieces, some of which had disturbing qualities. I figured that the mice would be helpful for visual projects and that they also had disturbing qualities similar to some of the pieces we viewed in class. Then an idea came to me: I could create a video where a man bakes mice into a cake and smashes the cake into his face. I figured that would be pretty avant-garde and dada-esque. I began working on the piece. 

I used my camera and laptop to photograph and film the process of making and eating the cake. (Don’t worry: I did not actually bake the mice into the cake that Billy eats.) I then uploaded the images and clips into Adobe Premiere Rush, a video editing technology. I experimented with the program, and after a few hours, I discovered that I could create a flashing effect by using the black transition and applying a short duration to each photo. I used my flashing effect to give the video a disturbing quality. The program also allowed me to include stock music, so I added horror music to intensify the video’s alarming features. When I had the video and music all put together, I remembered that this project was for a creative writing class, and thus it should include a written component. I quickly drafted a creepy poem and narrated it over the horror music. I turned this version in for credit in Professor Gunsberg’s class. 

I created the first version of ‘Billy’s Birthday Cake’ to be disturbing and weird. However, two reviewers at TheJUMP+ encouraged me to take my project a step further. They felt that my project had the potential to be literary and disturbing and not just disturbing, so I brainstormed and workshopped ideas with Professor Gunsberg and USU graduate student Millie Tullis to give my video that extra layer. Under their guidance, I transformed ‘Billy’s Birthday Cake’ from a piece that was disturbing to a piece that is disturbing and also a meditation on the grotesqueness of consumerism. To communicate the grotesqueness of consumerism, I added more clips and images of a snake painting, party supplies, trash, and Billy attempting to consume the camera. I also wanted to develop Billy as a character, so I drafted a new poem to explain how Billy once wanted to be a writer and visual artist but ultimately failed and succumbed to consumerism. 

Although the revision process was lengthy and challenging, I got to experiment with different media and improve my video editing skills. For example, I experimented with acrylic paint when I painted the snake. Also, although my laptop camera worked for Billy’s consumption of the cake, the painting needed to be filmed in higher quality. My friend Adam Tatro helped me film the snake painting scene with a real camera. After we finished filming, I uploaded the snake scene into Adobe Premiere Rush, and I began playing with my flashing effect. I learned that I could also apply the same flashing effect from the original photos to video clips using the Snip tool. Thus, I was able to improve my video editing skills. Overall, I am pleased with how ‘Billy’s Birthday Cake’ turned out. The mice not only get to be art but art with a literary flair.