August 24, 2016

Centenary student’s film is finalist in statewide competition

Christopher Mendez, fourth from left, creator of ‘Office Guy,’ an animated film project for Centenary University, is shown with, from left, Ryan Lausch, Lydia Seed, faculty adviser Boris Gavrilovic and Chris Bello. The group is in front of The Black Maria, Thomas Edison’s early 20th century film studio in West Orange. Chris Mendez

In just the second year of its existence, the Centenary University film studies program has landed one of its students among the top 10 college-level finalists in a statewide competition.

Christopher Mendez’s film “Office Guy” was shown, along with nine other college entries and 10 films made by New Jersey high school students, at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank on April 17.

The animated film, which uses claymation technique similar to that seen in Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” and Wes Anderson’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” depicts a sad-sack worker starting out in a clean, orderly cubicle. Then his boss, symbolized by a giant human hand, descends several times from above, each time depositing giant stacks of work.

No matter how hard the clay figure labors, he can’t keep up with the deluge of paper. His desk becomes cluttered, his floor littered.

At the end of the film, he has it all almost under control, having arranged numerous neat piles of the papers — each one taller than he is. But then they begin to march, closing in around him.

“When I was a junior in college, I was fearful of not being able to keep up with the workload. I think most people fear this,” said Mendez, who graduated from Hackettstown-based Centenary last spring. He said the fact that he was able to tie into this universal feeling makes his film “relatable and likable.”

Although the film is not even two minutes long, just 93 seconds, it took the New Providence young man two months to complete it. “This was my first time working with stop-motion technique,” he said.

Mendez used a Sony HDR-CX455 HandyCam, relying heavily on the camcorder’s still photo option. “There are 30 frames per second in normal operation, and I needed to map out in my head how to fit 30 images into each second. There was a lot of trial and error, and the process definitely required lots of patience.”

The former student, now working as a freelance video editor for CNBC, said he had to be mindful of every action he took. “If you do an entire scene and in the middle of it, you kick the tripod by accident or move a piece that’s not supposed to move, you have to start over again,” he said. Also, if the clay character moved too quickly, the shot would be ruined, and again a restart would be needed.

“Sometimes, I thought my film was done, but my professor, Boris Gavrilovic, wanted me to redo it — to make it better. He would say, ‘You have a great idea, why wouldn’t you perfect it?’ He really helped motivate me and provided insights on how to improve the claymation effects.”

Mendez also acknowledged assistance from classmate Nethaniel Attias, whose help was most needed when the human hand appeared in the frame.

The set for “Office Guy” was a simple cardboard box, with furniture borrowed from his mother’s dollhouse, Mendez said. “Professor G provided most of the equipment, including a tripod, professional lighting and the clay. As a result, I didn’t drop a dime on the film. My greatest expenses were submission fees to film festivals.”

A still photo from ‘Office Guy,’ a claymation film about an overburdened white-collar worker. Created by Christopher Mendez when he was a student at Centenary University, the film was selected as a finalist in the PROJECT FX Statewide Student Film Festival and Competition presented by Bank of America.

This was the second year for PROJECT FX, the Red Bank competition in which Mendez’s film reached the finals. Presented by Bank of America, it is open to New Jersey students between the ages of 16 and 25. This year, in addition to Centenary’s “Office Guy,” the top 10 college-level entries included four from Montclair State University, two from Princeton University, and one each from Rutgers University, Seton Hall University and Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Mendez also earned recognition at two other events — an Honorable Mention at the New Jersey Young Filmmakers Film Festival and a showing at the Nassau Film Festival.

Gavrilovic offered high praise for Mendez’s achievements. “I worked very closely with Chris, and he is very motivated and hard-working. When he first came into the program, he was a bit hesitant — not surprising when you’re starting something new. But once he discovered that he was good at this, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly.”

The professor, 48, taught film production for 14 years at Columbia High School in Maplewood. He also has professional credits, including a documentary, “My Life as an Underdog,” which tells the story of a performance artist who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. The film, which was nominated for the Best Feature Documentary at the Atlanta Film Festival and won Best Feature Film as well as the Audience Award at Microcinefest in Baltimore, has received exposure on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” G4 network’s “Attack of the Show,” SiriusXM satellite radio and NPR, as well as in Screem Magazine, “Weird New Jersey” and many other media outlets.

The film studies program at Centenary University is part of the school’s Communication and Fine Arts Department, which offers three major tracks — journalism, television and film. Radio and print media also play a role. About 60 students, out of a total enrollment of about 2,700, are communication majors, working with four full-time faculty members and an equal number of support staff.

“Class sizes tend to be small, and that gives us plenty of opportunity for teaching one-to-one,” Gavrilovic said.

Carl Wallnau, department chair, said the film division offers instruction in both documentary and narrative approaches, as well as in animated and live action formats. “We work not only in digital formats, but also plan to work in 16 mm as well. We are continually working to upgrade and keep current with technology, and fully one-third of our budget this year is for camera and editing equipment.”

Founded in 1867 by the Newark Conference of the United Methodist Church, Centenary University’s academic program integrates a solid liberal arts foundation with a strong career orientation. This mix is designed to provide an educational experience that prepares students to succeed in the increasingly global and interdependent world.

The main campus is located in Hackettstown, with its equestrian facility in Washington Township, Morris County. The Centenary University School of Professional Studies offers degree programs in two locations: Parsippany and Edison, and at corporate sites throughout New Jersey. The School of International Programs recruits international students for study at Centenary and Centenary students for study abroad opportunities.

To share stories and facts about Centenary University, go to #centfact on Twitter. To learn more about Centenary University of New Jersey, visit

Alan Richman