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Animation Odyssey: Charlotte Rinderknecht wants to build a state-of-the-art film studio in Virginia. Can her debut short help take this dream beyond fantasy?

Charlotte Rinderknecht's quest to make her dreams of building a state-of-the-art film studio in Northern Virginia reality.

Rinderknecht was working out of a small downstairs office in her split-level home, a cozy, cluttered space where one could hear the clicking toenails of her three large dogs as they traipsed across the kitchen floor. On the shelves beside her computer and high-definition, wide-screen monitor, books about movie editing and becoming a successful "free agent" crowded beside the Harry Potter and Narnia series. Photos of her three grandchildren also sat on the shelves. She takes her 9-year-old grandson, who lives in the area, to see the latest animated movies. "It's fun to watch it from a boy's perspective," she said.

Last year, Rinderknecht had a custom log homebuilder draft plans for her dream animation studio. She wants geothermal solar panels and a greenhouse where she can grow herbs and vegetables for animators' meals. All this will cost several million dollars, but to Rinderknecht, it's not a matter of if it will be built, but when. On Studio Kinate's blog, her vision for her future is in present tense. "Situated on a sprawling campus in the rolling hills of Northern Virginia, Studio Kinate is an entertainment production studio quite unlike any other. ..."

Rinderknecht thought that attending Little Airplane Academy would make her a better producer, "but I didn't expect it to change me as much as it did," she marveled several months later. "There was a level of confidence I needed, and it gave me that," she said. It was time to put her new knowledge to work.

After the academy, Lauria finished the storyboards for "Pete" to correspond with the details he and Rinderknecht had fleshed out. Crucial help came from an "incubator studio" Lauria had arranged at Bloomfield College, a small liberal arts school in New Jersey. Students there and from nearby public high schools auditioned to participate, and 20 were selected to help produce the 7,000 drawings needed to complete "Pete." Lauria carried the brunt of the work -- as layout artist for the backgrounds, director, producer, key animator, animation supervisor, instructor and provider of many pizzas and doughnuts to sustain students through long days in the studio.

Still, "it was the smoothest production I've ever worked on," Lauria said, "and I've been in this business for 35 years." Rinderknecht, he said, "rolled up her sleeves and got involved. She scanned artwork, encouraged the students, helped with the editing. ... I think Little Airplane Academy helped her see a 'bigger picture.' "

"She just has this gravitational pull," said Kimberly Merritt, who works as a TV production assistant at GMU and occasionally volunteers as Rinderknecht's assistant. "She makes people want to be part of what she's doing."

Although Lauria worked for a small fraction of his normal fee and even withdrew money from his savings to cover some expenses, by the time "Pete's" production was completed in the fall, it had ultimately cost $60,000, requiring Rinderknecht to dip into her own 401(k). She felt that it was worth every penny. "The kids who worked on this were busting down the door at 8 a.m., even when Larry wouldn't get there until 10!" she said. "They were so passionate about it."

In the end, Rinderknecht and Lauria used the gentle style of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" as inspiration. Pete became a pale pink bird with expressive, long-lashed eyes and a tuft of feathers crowning her head. There was no dialogue; the lyrics of Armstrong's song "Unafraid to Find" told the story. At the beginning, Pete is dissatisfied with her hollow but fearful to make changes. At its conclusion, she has literally and emotionally put her life in order -- in some ways mimicking Rinderknecht's own self-discovery.

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Once Rinderknecht and Lauria finished editing the short, they submitted the final cut to film festivals across the country. As of this month, "Pete" was named Best Animated Short Film at the Ava Gardner Indie Film Festival, won an Award of Merit from the online international Indie Fest, was a finalist at the Beaufort film festival and had been selected by at least two other festivals. They also submitted "Pete" to the Sundance Film Festival, which declined to select it.

But it was back in October that the months of frenzied work, the encouragement from Little Airplane Academy and the excitement that had fed the entire pursuit came together when "Pete's Odyssey" premiered at Bloomfield College's small Van Fossen Theatre.

A ruby-colored wrap around her shoulders, her hair brushed to a shine and her makeup polished, Rinderknecht looked as nervous and thrilled as if she were attending the Oscars. With an image of Pete, holding a bouquet of daisies in her yellow beak, displayed on the large screen behind her, Rinderknecht stepped onto the stage and spoke about the project.

The crowd of nearly 100, mostly students and their families, cheered and clapped as the lights dimmed, and, to more applause, the name Studio Kinate flashed onto the screen.

Stephanie Booth is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.


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