Tower is a testament to subverting conventions”

by Steve Pulaski

While Keith Maitland’s Tower is technically a documentary, I became so wrapped up in its character-centered narrative and its animation techniques that it isn’t until the end that it dawned on me this was a heartbreakingly real event. The film concerns the events of the 1966 sniper attack on the University of Texas at Austin’s campus where a heavily armed gunman killed 14 people and wounded 32 others from the campus’s main building, an enormous tower, on a brutally hot August day.

Rather than making a documentary of talking heads, Maitland uses the animation technique of rotoscoping, the same process used in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, which involves animating over live-action footage, creating a very lucid effect. It looks much more natural and artistically attractive than that of motion-capture, which involves actors getting fitted for special suits and acting out the motions of their respective characters in animated movies (meaning you must cast for physical attributes rather than solely vocal), and provides a beautiful and realized layer for an already original film.

The sniper attacks at the University of Texas at Austin campus are widely regarded as the first school shooting ever and Maitland recounts it by having real-life students, those wounded, and police officers who combated the situation provide their own perspectives. The animation allows for the actual instances of shooting to take on a stylistic life of their own, as when the first shot is fired, all added detail and scenery are drained from the picture and we’re left with the basics – a wounded woman falling to the scorching hot pavement.

Directed by
Keith Maitland
Violett Beane, Blair Jackson, Josephine McAdam
Release Date
13 March 2016
Steve’s Grade: A-

Meanwhile, Maitland compiles all the perspectives of the numerous connected individuals and establishes a narrative that encompasses all of them like an anthology. We hear perspectives from other characters as they are wounded or narrowly escape from being wounded to hearing the testimonies of police officers who just watched said events unfold. The entire thing creates a captivation that not all documentaries can achieve and produces something memorable as a result.

While the students are the central focus of the first act, the second revolves around the actions of law-enforcement in order to stop the gunman. The challenge of approaching the building without getting shot is already apparent, but once in the building, reaching the ledge where the gunman is located – right below the clock – and having the gunpower to take him out proves to be just as risky of an operation. Through narration and personalization, Maitland addresses the challenge and creates potboiling tension as the long and hard walk to the top for the police officers ensues.

Tower divulges into being a more straight-forward documentary during much of the third act, when students, victims, and administration come together to reflect on and respond to the events of that day whilst moving forward. Still interjecting conventional interviews is the animation, which continues to find ways to add rather than subtract from the narrative even when the focus is more on interviews and emotions above everything else.

Everything about Tower winds up being a stunningly modern showcase and a testament to the more visual-driven world we’re inhabiting. Five or six years ago, Tower might have been an interesting documentary regarding the same subject matter except utilizing footage of the same individuals talking about their experiences with photos and archival footage of the University of Texas at Austin occasionally being shown. All would most likely be fine about it except the inclusions of layered visual originality that intertwines the stories of these people with something that can be so visually arresting that it adds a new dimension to the story.

Tower is a testament to subverting conventions, even those we may not know are there, specifically in the documentary genre.

TOWER Trailer from keith maitland on Vimeo.