Animation Show 2005, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/04/05 22:42:22
The Animation Show first appeared two years ago, packed with Academy Award-nominated shorts and featuring an all-star lineup, from excerpts of Ward Kimball's "Mars and Beyond" through Tim Burton's "Vincent" to Bill Plympton's "Parking". This second iteration doesn't have quite so many familiar names, but does feature some truly fantastic short subjects, most famously Plympton's Oscar-nominated "Guard Dog" and Don Hertzfeldt's "The Meaning of Life" (though neither is quite the package's best segment).In many ways, this is a much more streamlined show than the first. Gone are the open/intermission/close segments, along with the "classic" pieces - the oldest short included is from 1999, making The Animation Show 2005 more of a survey of animation now than its predecessor. Producers Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge are also able to present a full slate without using their own work to fill it out (the 2003 edition had Hertzfeldt contributing two shorts and the linking segments, plus an "early works" reel from Judge). When you see this edition, you're seeing a dozen of the most impressive recent animated shorts.
Note that the near-perfect rating at the top of the review indicates that this is a damn fine show, and also reflects that the best shorts are very, very good. I think that's most the important consideration - even if the entire program only averages three/four stars, the four-star entries are worth the price of admission. So without further ado, on to the individual shorts, in order:
"Bunnies" - ***½ - A quick thirty second clip that serves as the opening titles, it packs several jokes into its short runtime and displays a lot of motion and complexity for a traditionally animated piece.
"Guard Dog" - ***** - For the past twenty years, Bill Plympton has been perhaps the most consistent figure in American animation, producing a new short or featurette almost every year, with a hand-drawn, colored pencil style that links his films visually even as the craft improves. In this five-minute short, a rambunctious dog is taken for a walk by his owner, and barks at everything to scare it away. This being a cartoon, we can see why - the dog's overactive imagination sees everything as a threat to his master's very life.
There are some entries that I'd shy away from calling cartoons, but "Guard Dog" is not among them. The dog is the most cartoonish character in the film, so it kind of fits that he imagines cats, birds, children, and even flowers committing acts of exaggerated mayhem. Also, since he's a dog, it's no stretch for the audience to believe his mind suddenly switching between imagining murderous cartoon violence and being the most happy-go-lucky animal imaginable when the threat is past. The contrast between these two attitudes gives the short much of its humor, even if imagined death and dismemberment aren't really supposed to be so funny.
"FEDS" - *** - This "animated documentary" by Jennifer Drummond is perhaps the weakest segment; it uses the same animation techniques/software as Richard Linklater's Waking Life and forthcoming A Scanner Darkly to cover a six-minute documentary short on the women who stand in supermarkets, serving free samples to shoppers.
It's an interesting demonstration on how the techniques of animation can be applied to other forms. The topic isn't inherently fascinating, and the original footage probably doesn't look so hot, but Drummond is able to play with it, fiddling with color schemes, replacing backgrounds, editing distractions out of the frame, making the overhead fluorescents seem to warp and deform, as if the audience is seeing them through water. I still didn't find it particularly enlightening, but it is certainly interesting visually.
Some may ask why one would use animation here at all, but I don't think that's a fair question. It's simply Ms. Drummond's chosen medium. It does potentially raise questions about how "real" what you're seeing is, but what popular recent documentaries haven't raised that question? I'd certainly be interested in seeing this technique refined.
"Pan With Us" - *** - Animation is defined as a series of still images that, presented in rapid sequence, create the illusion of motion. Thus, all motion pictures are animation, and "Pan With Us" is an intriguing demonstration of how "animation" can be created with "live-action" tools. Inspired by a Robert Frost poem, it shows a bird flying through a city.
What's unique is that the bird is a series of images drawn on paper and held in position by animator David Russo or an assistant, captured with a conventional motion picture camera. By editing single frames together, the illusion of an animated, two-dimensional bird flying through a real city is created. Our minds edit the arms holding the paper aloft out, as they are neither as constant as the background nor as precisely manipulated as the animated character. It's an interesting demonstration, but even four minutes is a little long for its gimmick without a strong narrative to build on the visual.
"Ward 13" - ***** - Ho-lee crap. Australian Peter Cornwall has created a fifteen-minute stop-motion masterpiece here, arguably one of the most exciting action-adventures of any length made in the past few years. If the people who created hundred million dollar special-effect spectaculars brought a third of the passion Cornwall brought to this production, initially a hobby shot in the corner of his bedroom, Saturdays at the multiplex would be much more enjoyable.
Ben gets hit by a car, and wakes up in the hospital. Covered in bandages, he finds the place not feeling quite right, and starts to explore. He will find macabre storage rooms, menacing doctors, grotesque experiments, and dark comedy. And when he tries to escape, well, it's time for a chase whose speed and showmanship belies the slow, painstaking process of creating motion one frame at a time, in miniature. Perhaps even more astounding is how Cornwall isn't just technically proficient - this is a stunningly well-written and directed genre piece, combining humor and action like some amazing fusion of Ray Harryhausen and Sam Raimi. Every single one of this movie's 890 seconds is perfect.
Plympton and Hertzfeldt are the show's big names, but that's just because we don't know Cornwall yet. I can't wait to see "Ward 13" again, and am equally excited to find out what he'll do next.
"Hello" - ****½ - Staying in Australia but switching gears, Jonathan Nix's "Hello" presents a creatively designed, sweet little story about people with audio gear for heads. A boy with a tape deck on his shoulders is smitten by a CD-player girl, but he can't get the words out, in part because he can't make a good mix tape. Fortunately, an old man (so old he's a gramophone) is willing to help.
Design is an oft overlooked element in animation, at least among the general public. It's this short's defining factor, though, since it seems to specify that these people can't speak in any way other than playback, so the boy must choose his words carefully, ahead of time, and thus obsesses over it (she, on the other hand, is digital, and can jump to exactly what she wants to say). It's also a great tweak on the concept of the mix tape. Certainly, without Nix's strong direction and characterization, it wouldn't be a great little short, but without the clever initial design, it wouldn't exist at all.
"Rockfish" - *** - The first fully CGI-originated short in the program is rock-solid technically. It's in development as a feature, and I look forward to that - the visuals are big-studio feature quality, I presume the sound mix is as well, and, man, I'd like to see a really nifty animated sci-fi movie come out of Hollywood. There's no reason "Rockfish" couldn't serve as the basis for one.
The main impediment, right now, is a shortage of personality. This little vignette about a man "fishing", using heavy equipment, for an underground predator has some great environments and creatures. It brings the action in spades. But we don't really get a handle on the fisherman or his purpose - is this a recreational fishing trip, something done to protect this extraterrestrial settlement from the nastier native life? It's not clear, so we're watching a big action scene without much context or attachment. I think fleshing out the short's world, and incorporating an actor's performance, will do this bit wonders.
"L'homme Sans Ombre" ("The Man With No Shadow") - ***½ - This one's nice looking, but kind of forgettable. A man strikes a deal to exchange his shadow for riches, but soon finds that this has marked him, and he becomes an outcast. Director Georges Schwizgebel does some rather impressive storytelling here, using few (if any) words and relatively abstract figures, but still managing to communicate what is happening.
The style is striking as well, hand-painted acrylics - even "traditional" animation has used computer coloring for the past decade. The nature of the of the story requires good work with shadows, which are not always the animator's friends. It's biggest problem is length; nine and a half minutes seemed like a lot in this case.
"Fallen Art" - ***½ - The other CGI short in the program, and this entry from Poland has much more personality than "Rockfish". It's a dark personality, though, taking place in some sort of military prison camp, and starting right off with a prisoner being forced to jump to his death from a great height, with a picture being taken of the corpse.
As depraved as the subject matter is, writer/director Tomek Baginski is a clever one. What the wardens are doing is depraved, but is intriguing on a meta level - computer-animated characters who wind up creating animation of their own, using photographs of their victims. And the animation they create, if the result of awful actions, is kind of compelling. It's a nifty conceit, and, hey, it's only pixels in a computer, but still not for the squeamish.
"When the Day Breaks" - **** - A lot of cartoons use anthropomorphic animals, but few create them in quite the same way as "When the Day Breaks". In this nine-and-a-half-minute mood piece, the day starts, and people go about their routines - except they're furries (or featheries, in the case of the rooster). There's a sense of both community and loneliness here, and the melancholy title song serves to enhance it.
The film was made by shooting live action, drawing the animal forms over the actors' heads and hands, while also recoloring other objects in the frame to make for a cohesive image. Great care is taken, and the end result looks much more natural than most rotoscoping, perhaps because directors Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby don't cover everything up. My first impression wasn't quite so favorable, as I tend to have a knee-jerk "rotoscoping == cheating" reaction, but it does become more impressive upon further reflection.
"Fireworks" - *** - Cute, short little interstitial, with fireworks made out of candy. Mmm, candy...
"The Meaning of Life" - ***** - Don Hertzfeldt saves his latest stick-figure opus for last on the program, and it's more than a little amazing. Several people at the screening I attended expressed amazement at some of the special effects, especially considering that the credits pointedly state that there were no computers used to animate the movie. We shouldn't be, of course - lighting effects like the glowing stars and galaxies in this short have been done before, though not necessarily on such a lean budget, for a twelve-minute short more or less produced by a single person.
"The Meaning of Life" spans the entire life of the Earth, and then goes beyond, showing life evolve from single-celled organisms to humanity to the mutants that arise following our extinction. People familiar with Hetrzfeldt's style from shorts like "Rejected", "Billy's Balloon", and the bumpers for the first Animation Show will likely be surprised at how flexible that style can be. There are individual personalities to the characters, human and otherwise, and aliens that seem fully formed despite being only the crudest of drawings.
This short's artier than Hertzfeldt's previous works, although there are some familiar moments of absurdity contained within ("I like fish sticks, yes I do, I could eat them all day long"). It's interesting to see him stretch like this, as each of his movies has been more ambitious than the last, this one taking four years to animate. I'm curious to see what he comes up with next.
One thing that's noteworthy about this iteration of The Animation Show is how little it relies on the spoken word. "FEDS" is the only really talky segment. "Hello" uses that one word, "When the Day Breaks" has a song in the background, and "Ward 13" has some jokes based on written words. The dialog in "The Meaning of Life" is half-gibberish. The stories are told almost entirely through visual means. It showcases what the medium is uniquely capable of.The Animation Show 2005 is uneven, like any anthology must inevitably be. But it's got enough outright brilliant bits - "Guard Dog", "Ward 13", "The Meaning of Life", and maybe "Hello" - to be worth a look, and the rest isn't too shabby either.
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