Top Seed: Local filmmaker releases playful—and beautiful—kids' movie

Sylvie Hoffman learns valuable lessons about farming in Watermelon Magic. photo by Chase BowmanFrom a slippery seed you can spit to a ripe fruit best carried like a newborn, the growth of a watermelon is nothing short of spectacular. That’s just one reason why Philadelphia-based filmmaker Rich Hoffman chose the epic melon as the focus of his children’s film Watermelon Magic, released by his nonprofit film company, Spring Garden Pictures. And there are others: watermelon is the ultimate community fruit because nobody eats a watermelon alone; they can be grown just about anywhere in the world; and, according to Hoffman, they might visually remind us of our world.

“To me, watermelons are a metaphor for the planet and hopefully people will want to take better care of the earth like Sylvie takes care of the watermelons,” he says.

Sylvie is the puckish protagonist in the film, owner of a magic wand she uses to play harmless practical jokes, like conjuring a breeze that keeps her dad’s hat just out of reach. When an impulsive act by Sylvie leads to the destruction of the wand, her mom gives her watermelon seeds as a means of consolation. So begins Sylvie’s foray into farming.

If you think this sounds like a family film, you’re right. Hoffman was trying to create something that would be appropriate and inspiring for his own children. But it’s a family film in another way, too. Sylvie is played by Hoffman’s daughter, and the character’s mom is played by her real-life mom, Holly Hoffman. Cast as the husband is Chris McNichol, a farmer the Hoffmans met at Red Hill Farm, where they bought their community supported agriculture (CSA). (Their connection to that farm was documented by Hoffman in the superb short film Fridays at the Farm, available on vimeo.com.)

Enlisting your family and friends is a tried and true method used by artists and entrepreneurs to launch their dreams, but part of what made Hoffman’s vision possible—and the movie so stunning—is an ingenious filming technique. The film uses stop motion animation, a series of high-resolution photos. The result is a staccato pace for the “human” action, adding a breathtaking fluidity to watching the watermelons grow. The film work was done in England (one of the few places in the world where watermelons don’t grow easily) by Tim Shepherd, a photographer who has worked on scores of British nature documentaries, including the critically acclaimed Planet Earth. 

The film’s quality means that it has the potential to be shown on an IMAX screen—an impressive accomplishment considering that while most IMAX films cost between $3 and $10 million to make, Watermelon Magic was shot for “a few hundred thousand dollars,” Hoffman says. But because the movie was made digitally, and many IMAX theaters require film exclusively, Hoffman is in fundraising mode so more institutions can show it. So far he’s secured $75,000 of the necessary $225,000. In the meantime, Philadelphians can see the movie (in 3D!) at the Franklin Institute. 

The film took over three years to make, so, Hoffman points out, if you look closely, you can see in some scenes Sylvie “has her big girl teeth, but for most of the movie she has her baby teeth.” After laboring so long, it’s a joy for Hoffman that Watermelon Magic can now be seen in his hometown. 

“Over time, you have dips in your enthusiasm, but it’s always great to see people, especially the reaction from kids. Kids just love it, and it’s always fun to see that,” he says.

Watermelon Magic in 3D will be shown at the Franklin Theater in the Franklin Institute through October. Tickets can be purchased with General Museum Admission; $4 per ticket or $3.50 per ticket with FI membership. For more information, visit springgardenpictures.org/watermelonmagic.

story by Alex Mulcahy