How do you encompass the life of a brilliant artist, an inquisitive spirit, and a friend?
On Friday, Aug 17, I went on Facebook and saw former colleagues, classmates, and friends from the Boston film community and Emerson College frantically posting a missing poster of prolific experimental filmmaker and Emerson College professor Robert Todd.
A man who could always be recognized by his tall stature and a puff of gray hair above his head, Rob was the kind of person who gave so much of himself to so many, without ever asking for anything in return. That was just his way.
Which is why it was unsurprising that when a social media call came out to search Franklin Park where he was last seen, many answered. Not long after the search party set out, Rob was found, and news of his death spread like a roaring wildfire. Hearts collectively broke at the news, and some catharsis came from the sharing of stories about how Rob positively shifted the course of so many lives.
What follows is a compilation of moments from friends, colleagues, and fellow artists that can serve as a record for how important this quirky and thoughtful man was to so many.
It was the early 1990s, and Joey Kolbe, a cinematographer and adjunct professor at Emerson College, was shooting an Edgar Allan Poe-connected film. He had cast two important roles—the first was a nurse, the second an old man in a wheelchair who lived in a mansion. “The day of the shoot, the old man showed up, but the nurse that I had cast was a no-show,” Kolbe recalls.
At the time, Rob was the editor and sound guy for several Edgar Allan Poe projects as a part of a collaborative film workshop at the Museum School of Fine Arts. Kolbe remembers that his friend had a lot on his plate, but unable to let a colleague flounder, Rob jumped at the chance to come to the rescue and acted as the nurse, dressing up in her uniform.
“It actually came out way better than it would have had the actress been there,” Kolbe says. “It gave the film a completely different edge.” For Kolbe, who was friends with Rob since their late teens, this is the epitome of who Rob was. “He would just jump into positions that he was not comfortable with out of pure kindness.”
In 1996, Rob was teaching part time at the Museum School when Brittany Gravely met him. Like many of Rob’s students, they kept in touch.
“Over the years, Rob was one of my primary film ‘resources’—his knowledge of film was thorough and deep. … Though he worked digitally too, he was passionate about the photochemical. And his films are examples of the luminous range of possibilities within the medium. Obsessively shooting and making films, Rob lost the need to use a light meter, and eventually, a splicer. I was surprised he still required a camera.”
Gravely, like many who were closest to Rob, is a member of the filmmaking collaborative AgX, which was formed in 2015 by Stefan Grabowski and roughly thirty other local filmmakers. To say that Rob was a valued member is an understatement; its first meeting was moved multiple times to make sure he could make it. The spirit of the collective was about sharing resources and creating camaraderie with a focus on the creation and appreciation of moving image arts. In many ways, Rob embodied the spirit of the collective.
“His passion was contagious. He tirelessly made films that were both playful and deeply serious, marked by moments of transcendent beauty and exhibiting a profound curiosity with the world around him,” remembers Grabowski. “In spite of this, he really treated everyone as a peer, regardless of their background or level of experience. He was enormously generous with his time and knowledge. … He led workshops at AgX unpaid even though he taught film for a living.”
“He wanted others to make art because he knew it enriches the world—I owe Rob so much as a filmmaker,” Grabowski adds.
“His prolificness was often the source of jokes among AgX,” says Gravely. “We would be taking a coffee break, and if Rob weren’t with us, someone would say, ‘He’s probably making a film right now.’ And it was made only half in jest; there was usually a pretty good chance that he was. His productivity set the bar so high, we all accepted that it was futile to attempt to even make half the films he did.“
Not only was Rob consistently making his own films, but that giving spirit that so many gravitated towards brought him to collaborate with many other filmmakers in the realm of editing and sound.
Eric Gulliver, who worked with Rob editing John Gianvito’s Far From Afghanistan, remembers how working with Rob was like watching a master at work.
“He had the most acute perception when watching an edit,” Gulliver saiyd. “It’s as if he remembered every shot in the exact order that they appeared. He knew what you were trying to achieve, and also what you had achieved.”
Rob’s ability to edit so quickly on Avid made it near impossible to follow. Then there would be moments where he watched clips over and over. “What was he looking at? What was he waiting for?” Eric remembers thinking. “Finally, I asked what it was. He was perceiving the most minute detail of a woman’s head scarf while walking, and used that as his cut point.”
“‘I don’t know why, so don’t ask,’” Gulliver remembers Rob saying.
“Much of his cut points were invisible, which made him a good editor, but this note always stuck with me. You have to feel your editing sometimes and not have the answer. He looked so deeply into images and clearly saw beyond what many of us see. And his editing and ultimately his films were so seamless for that reason.” Rob helped Gulliver see editing in a new light: less technical and more intuitive.
In some ways, this is what made Rob such a phenomenal educator. Whether running workshops at AgX or teaching full time at Emerson, Rob opened up pathways for students that allowed them to emotionally analyze their own work in a way that gave them license to follow their instincts.
Geoff Tarulli, affiliated faculty at Emerson and a former student of Rob’s, felt inspired by Rob’s devotion to teaching the craft of filmmaking.
“He became a blueprint for the kind of teacher I will always strive to be someday: endlessly enthusiastic, tirelessly kind, infinitely helpful, mind-blowingly knowledgeable—a true academic and scholar who had no use for pretension, who was, without fail, approachable, who was fun to be around but always educational, too. The kind of guy who knew so much about so many different kinds of films (and paintings and music and, well, everything) that it would make your jaw drop,” Tarulli says.
Ethan Berry, who teaches at Montserrat College of Art, connected with Rob over teaching and their shared energy and devotion to AgX. At two recent open studio events, Rob “showed up and spontaneously built an immersive multi projector installation … using his own film and found footage, mirrors, screens, plastic and a variety of 16mm projectors and props.” The installation filled the entire room, and visitors walked through and interacted with it.
Berry recalls that Rob worked the same way in public, thoroughly throwing himself into the project of the moment, always creating a final piece in short amounts of time.
“He was a poet of a rare sort who put together films which were generous and reassuring,” Berry says. “Reassuring to me because I felt that there was an emotional core to the images and sounds that I was experiencing as I watched and listened. There was a person there. … They weren’t so much abstract as direct and reduced in their language. Like good poems, they respected the reader and gave us credit for making meaning.”
“His agreement with the world seemed to be, Let me see and hear and I will teach what I learn. I always learned from Rob, always,” says Berry.
The sentiment that Rob was at the heart of it all an excellent listener has echoed through the stories friends and colleagues have shared since his passing.
“His ability to see, his capacity to go to the places of pure feeling and not turn away, not dissemble, were exquisite,” says Sarah Bliss, another AgX artist and friend. “Brave beyond brave, he was driven by his unwavering love for everyone and everything that crossed his path.” In fall 2017, Bliss curated a program comprised of AgX works at the Northampton Film Festival. Over the weeks of working on the programming, Bliss was simultaneously caring for her dying father. A week before he died, he asked to see some of the films she was considering.
“His strength was sapped and his energy exceedingly weak,” Bliss says. “I needed to choose carefully.” She chose Rob’s two films, Restless and Matters of Life and Death. “Watching together, we let the films say what was too painful for us to put into words,” remembers Bliss, “speaking the truth in this way, through the creative act of love, was the greatest gift I could give my father.”
Moved, she wrote Rob that evening, poetically expressing her thankfulness for his work, and saying how his films became personal in the moments she shared them with her father.
Rob wrote back, “I am breathless from reading this. Thank you for these expressions. It is kind of overwhelming to feel that these motions of mine have led to these emotions in you.”
For Bliss, that’s how the artistic friendship should work: “Each of us mirror for the other.”
Bliss reflects, “Now, a mirror has been shattered. That mirror unfailingly reflected the best of me back to myself. When I looked in Rob’s mirror, I saw again and again that what I do matters, that someone else understands, that this way of seeing and translating is exquisite and graced and life-changing.”
“We must each polish our own glass. That is the special work we are called to as filmmakers and artists. We must believe in ourselves and cultivate and grow our own deep listening, presence, and attention, generosity, courage, deep-seeing, empathy, and critical thinking.”
Let us all carry on Rob’s work.
On Oct 27, friends and family will embark on an Out of the Darkness walk through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. To join that walk and help support suicide prevention or just donate, follow the link above.