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Chris Robinson

Alone, Stinking And Unafraid: Fallen Angels

Cartoon Brew’s Jerry and Amid are pleased to welcome our friend Chris Robinson and his new semi-regular column Alone Stinking and Unafraid. We’re sure that many of you already know who Chris Robinson is, but for those that don’t, Chris is one of the leading experts on Canadian and independent animation, a noted author and critic, and the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival. And he always has something interesting to say.

Illustration by Theo Ushev
illustration by Theodore Ushev

I’ve always had a thing for angels and the belief that there is this unseen thing that surrounds all of us, that guides us along our way. I don’t mean some winged creature or anything cornball like that, but just something, something earthy. For example, I’ve been working on this book Fathers of Night for a couple of years. The coincidences that I’ve encountered while writing this book have sometimes left me stunned, speechless… there were so many that I started to see them as more than coincidence…. that they were markers, signs, guides that told me I was on the road I was supposed to be on.

I have met two real angels in my life. One was Helen Hill, an American animator who lived in Halifax for a few years. The other was her husband, Paul Gailiunas a doctor and part time musician (he headlined the Halifax band Piggy that produced an infectious cd in the late 1990s called Don’t Stop the Calypso). You could not meet two more joyful people. Helen stood out for two reasons. First, she had a pet pig. I always found that to be funny. Kelly (my wife) loves pigs and was always envious of Helen and Paul for taking a pig into their Halifax pad. Helen even made a point of stopping at our office in 2000 or 2001 (I think she was on her way to the States, can’t remember) to bring the pig by. Kelly has a nice shot of the three of us with piggy by her desk. “That was my favourite day in the office ever,” says Kelly.

The other vivid memory is Helen’s film, Mouseholes. I took for competition in 2000. The selection raised a few eyebrows. Sure, it wasn’t the most technically polished film, but Helen has made this raw, real and moving tribute to her grandfather (who had just passed away). It was one of the most down to earth, moving and humane animation films I’ve come across. Like Helen, it was absolutely genuine. She didn’t care about polish, she just had something to say and said it. It remains one of my favourite Canadian animation films (she made it in Halifax) and one of the few animation films that makes me cry (in a good way).

After the New Orleans flood, I was very worried about Helen and Paul and tracked them down to make sure they were okay. Helen eventually replied to say they were fine and had gotten out of town before the flood. She asked if I still had a beta copy of Mouseholes. Apparently, their home had been damaged by the flood and they’d lost a lot of stuff. Fortunately, I still had the tape. In fact, I believe I still have it cause I was waiting for Helen to get settled again before sending it off.

Time passed. Life moved on. I got another email from Helen saying they were going back to New Orleans. They wanted to get their life underway again and, typically, Paul wanted to go back and help the many who needed help. Helen was excited too. She got funding to make a new film. All was well.

One of my most vivid memories of Paul and Helen came at Ottawa 2000 or 2002 (can’t totally recall). I remember talking with them at the Chez Ani at Ottawa 2000 or 2002 and I was stunned at how innocent, how just utterly joyous these two were. It alarmed me. I was cynical about it and thought maybe they were a bit freaky. But in truth, I guess it scared me. Their joy was absolutely genuine. IT wasn’t some faux stance. These two clearly loved life and each other. I guess it scared me because it takes a real commitment to be like that in this world…to just let go of all the doubt and anger and embrace, believe and love life. That takes a lot more courage than cloaking yourself in cynicism and hatred—as so many of us are prone to do.

Helen was murdered on January 4th, 2007. Paul was wounded. Francis, their son, was unharmed. I’m writing this cause I need to find words, I need to uncover the brief memories, I need to understand why these two people were punished for being good. I have no idea what unfolded. I just have this image of a bloodied, stunned Paul on his knees, cradling their young son as police arrived. Did someone break in? Did someone knock at their door? It’s just so incomprehensible to me. Apparently, Helen’s murder is one of a string of murders happening in New Orleans recently. This one is particularly painful because of who these people were…. how egoless, how generous, how good they were. They were giving so much to New Orleans to help those in need, those who could not help themselves.

This tragedy simply reinforces my own cynicism towards the world. It makes it easier too. That way I can just brush off this incomprehensible act as typical of the world we live in. But, at the same time, however brief our contact, Helen touched me through that one film and memories of her will always make me smile. I’ll think of her bursting energy, smile without end, Helen and Paul dancing Chez Ani. I’ll think of the pig.

If anyone can overcome this act of hell, it’s Paul. And he won’t be alone. Yes, there are friends and family…but Helen will be there too. In life or death, I know that Helen Hill remains an angel among us. That much I believe.

Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and a noted author/critic/historian whose books include Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation, Ottawa Senators: Great Stories from the NHL’s First Dynasty, Unsung Heroes of Animation, and Great Left Wingers and Stole This From a Hockey Card: A Philosophy of Hockey, Doug Harvey, Identity & Booze. He lives in Ottawa with his wife, Kelly, and sons Jarvis and Harrison.

  • Chris Robinson

    hi kids,
    well, a little sidebar to this story that I wrote the day Helen died.

    First, Helen was the one who really wanted to return to New Orleans. Paul did not.

    Paul is now living with his mother and Francis Pop in North Vancouver.

    Finally, i’m glad this is up now cause i’m in Halifax this week working on my next book, Looking for A Place to Happen: Tales of Canadian Animators. Helen is a big part of this story and I’m talking with people who knew her in this area. She and Paul were a huge part of this community.

    thanks for reading.

  • Good luck with the book, Chris. I hope to see it here in the States when you’re done.

  • Jenny Lerew

    Chris, I’d read this beautiful piece of yours elsewhere soon after the news of Helen’s death hit the net and the rest of the world (as it truly did become an international story)…I’d seen the initial announcement here on Cartoon Brew, and felt an instant liking for this woman who was doing what most of us animation folk only dream of-her own, unique thing.

    One of the bittersweet (horribly inadequate term) results of her death and my getting to know her through her friends’ memories is that I’ve determined this year to really get reacquainted with non-studio animators and filmmakers working outside the mainstream-I used to have a much better grasp of what was going on and who was who, but that was before I left Calarts myself.

    Not really anything else to say, except that I’d thought about her again just yesterday and hoped her family was in a better place and healing. It’s wonderful to hear news of your book–we’ll all look forward to it. Welcome also to the Brew.

  • This story is touching and I thought so when it was mentioned before. The thing that I have thought of in her case as well as with similar situations…..other than why?….is… if only these people with hurt and anger in their hearts stopped for a moment to just talk and know the people they intend to harm and know they have feelings too. Sadly this isn’t always the case. It was unnecessary that she and her family were harmed. I can only offer my sympathy and prayer for her and her loved ones to be able to get stronger and move on.

  • Bill Field


    Your preface knocked me down- I lost my Dad to Cancer a little over a year ago, he died in my arms with all our immediate family there.
    My Dad was my biggest fan always and my best friend (he had no prob being a Dad first with guidance or reprimand though). The reason I am a cartoonist and animator is that man– he was always there to bail me out of jams.The last jam was a broken carkey at a gas station at 2 AM–He and my Mom live 17 miles from me, he had the only spare key. I thought nothing of a cabbie sitting in the parking lot there, who eats at the same diner I do, sitting at the bar as I normally do–“Boy, your Daddy is sure a life saver for you, huh?”

    After he asked what I was doing there so late. My Dad died 3 months later (we only knew for 2 months)– Then, 2 months AFTER my Dad died, I’m eating at the diner, the cabbie (still don’t know his name) sitting 2 or 3 seats down from me– I turn to talk to a friend, I feel a casual tap on my shoulder, turn around, the cabbie was dark blue, eyes wide pointing to his throat– he was choking to death. I don’t remember ever formally learning or ever practicing the Heimlich Maneuver–but I performed it flawlessly–even though this guy is easily twice my size (I look like my cousin, Lyle Lovett, but w/ blonde-not-as-wild hair–for a visual). If folks I know hadn’t seen it, and talked about it since, I would’ve thought I dreamed the whole thing up. The Cabbie never mentioned it, like it was too scary for him to ever to revisit it–he’d totally freak if he knew the entire story and that I truly believe my Dad, who smiled with his last breath after having nothing but pain on his face the previous 12 hrs, was somehow now the cabbie’s lifesaver too.

    Helen’s story has been appearing to me on radio, television and the internet (always titled as an animator)since soon after this tragedy occured, besides the animation in common, my Dad grew up in an area not too far from there in Louisiana and he died exactly a week before Katrina hit, and levees broke. I was really grateful for that, the lawlessness, devastation,human suffering and lack of preparedness would’ve broken his heart. A few years back, I took my Dad with me to the Animation Celebration/Workshop, where I first met Jerry Beck. The funniest thing that happened on the trip was, we were staying at a 5 star hotel because I got dirtcheap rates on the net. We’re on the elevator, and my Dad is cracking jokes with two blinged out rappers, one of which was Snoop Dog–“Your Dad is a trip man, he keepin you outta trouble-or vice versa?” he told me.

    I feel him steer me in the right direction a lot since he passed away, and I’ve felt strangely connected to your friend’s story through my Dad’s for some reason. I think there is a divine orchestration to things now because of this chapter of my life, and I felt drawn (no animation pun intended) to share it with you.

    Thanks from the bottom of my heart for sharing that with us, Chris —
    it can’t be an easy thing to do. My best to you, Bill Field

  • This is a very moving story. It’s hard to see good people, people with soul die. People got to know though-things are this way for a reason. I don’t think I could ever shake the tree enough to show the face of humanity like others can.

    I told that story (but I forgot that name, and I’m sorry I did) on a podcast, and stated that she is a real human being and needs to be showcased as what real people do-and not how the media creates fame and compare it to the past which they dislike. It’s a sad state of humanity. I will keep certain opinions to myself about where the murderers can stick it-but I’m in the same world view as your are Chris-I only hope that Paul and Francis will find peace.

  • Chris Robinson

    wow..thanks for these thoughtful comments. I feel a bit guilty because this is about as emotional and nice as the column will probably get for a while. but hey, I appreciate it and will savour these before the angry comments start to pile in later on! :)


  • Thank you for this….

  • Claire

    Beautiful piece. I live in a small town in Oregon, far from either Halifax or New Orleans, but still Helen was able to change my life. I never did meet her or Paul, but i remember the day i herd about them. One day, I believe i was 12, i stumbled across an article on the web, and i was devastated. The article, a life story of helen’s moved me greatly. I haven’t ceased thinking of her since, and every time i do it reminds me of how important a single persons part is in society. I will be ever awe-struck and motivated!
    PS: Piggy Rocked!