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BY MATTHEW ROSS

Maya Churi’s Forest Grove.

Forest Grove, the latest project by filmmaker-artist Maya Churi, isn’t easy to classify. Is it a Web piece, an animated film or a sculpture? The answer: all of the above.

Churi first conceived of the idea in 2001 during an airplane ride over Texas. “As we were landing in San Antonio, I looked down from the airplane window and saw all of these suburban developments being built, and I just became fascinated with how they looked,” recalls Churi. “Then I went to a wedding inside a gated community, and that’s when I began to think about a story that could take place.”

Inspired by John Cheever’s classic short story “The Swimmer,” Churi began work on a feature-length screenplay about a boy named Charlie and his adventures in a gated community named Forest Grove Estates. “After I finished writing, I began to think that there might be more ways of exploring the idea [than through a feature],” says Churi. “I had already done an interactive Web project, Letters From Homeroom, so I decided to turn this into an episodic film and put it online.”

Working on a tiny budget, shooting with actors in a real gated community wasn’t an option, so Churi decided to build her environment — and her characters — from scratch. After securing grants from the Jerome Foundation and the New York State Council for the Arts, she enlisted the help of architect Riley Triggs to design an eight-by-eight-foot model of a gated community, using props from miniature train sets. After ace d.p. Jim Denault (Boys Don’t Cry, City of Ghosts) shot stills of each sequence with a digital SLR camera, Churi brought in animator and composer Jason Snell and graphic designer Michelle Perrault to bring the project to life, and online.

A slide show introduces us to Charlie and the other characters (Churi performed the voiceover narration and character voices). Visitors to the Web site can choose which house in the community Charlie swims to next, and then watch the sequence unfold. More houses — and the stories contained therein — then become available. From start to finish, the online project has a running time of around 45 minutes.

Forest Grove, which Churi still hopes to turn into a narrative feature, premiered at the Sundance Online Film Festival, with a non-interactive shorter version screening at the festival’s Park City Digital Center. Churi plans on finding more venues for the project — possibly incorporating the miniature model — in the next few months. Check it out at www.forestgroveestates.com.

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