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America’s first mass school shooting, animated

An image from Tower, a documentary about the mass shooting at the University of Texas, Austin.

Over the past four years, since 2013, there has been an average of one school shooting every week. There have been at least 129 mass shootings—which killed four or more people—in the United States of America since 1966.

That was the year of the first mass shooting at a school. On August 1, 1966, in Austin, Texas, a student, Charles Whitman, killed 17 people and wounded 31 from atop the clock tower on the University of Texas’ campus.

The story of that shooting—or more correctly, of the victims and first responders—is told in tonight’s Independent Lens documentary Tower (PBS, Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 10, and free to watch online). The film has made an interesting choice: it has recreations, but they’ve been animated—specifically, rotoscoped.

The director, Keith Maitland, started with interviews, and then wrote a screenplay. Actors reenacted scenes, which were filmed, and then animators rotoscoped over the top of the live-action footage.

“I wanted to create an experiential film that was immersive and that made you feel like you were there,” Maitland said at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January. “The experiences that these real folks lived through isn’t something they asked for. It isn’t something they brought upon themselves. It’s something they found themselves thrust into. And that can happen to any one of us at any moment, and so I wanted you to feel like you were there.”

John “Artly” Fox, a student who rescued Claire, Wilson, a pregnant student who’d been shot, said at TCA that the animation makes the film “a lot more accurate. It was you had the feeling of being there, and it was like what it was being there that day. It was in the small details. All of the existing footage were from a very long ways off. The cameraman would be back here, hiding, like shooting somebody from a long distance, and with Keith’s animation technique, it puts you right in our shoes at the immediacy at the moment.”

The shooter himself, Whitman, isn’t the subject of Tower. Ray Martinez, the police officer who shot and killed Whitman, said, “Everybody can remember Charles Whitman’s name because he was a sniper, but how many people can remember Claire, Ray Martinez, or Artly or all of the other victims that day? You don’t know them. They are forgotten, but they are the ones that are still carrying those memories even 50 years later.”