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Fresh from the Festivals: April 2003's Film Reviews

Jon Hofferman reviews five short films fresh from the festival circuit: Autofoto by Avi Offer, The ErlKing by Ben Zelkowicz, Stefan Gruber's Leashlessness, Shh. by Adam Robb and Skin by Bobby de Groot. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

Within the world of animation, most experimentation occurs within short format productions, whether they be high budgeted commercials, low budgeted independent shorts, or something in between. The growing number of short film festivals around the world attest to the vitality of these works, but there are few other venues for exhibition of them or even written reviews. As a result, distribution tends to be difficult and irregular. On a regular basis, Animation World Magazine will highlight some of the most interesting with short descriptive overviews.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.

This Month:

Autofoto (2001), 2.75 min., directed by Avi Ofer, Israel. Info: Avi Ofer, 168/b Ben-Gurion Rd., Givataim 53260, Israel. Email: info@aviofer.com.

The ErlKing (2002), 5.5 min., directed by Ben Zelkowicz, USA. Info: Ben Zelkowicz. Email: theerlking@hotmail.com.

Leashlessness (1998), 3.25 min., directed by Stefan Gruber, USA. Info: Stefan Gruber, 3812 S. Hudson St., #A, Seattle, WA, 98118, USA. Email: yell@stefangruber.com.

Shh. (2001), 5.25 min., directed by Adam Robb, Australia. Info: Adam Robb. Email: robb_adam@hotmail.com.

Skin (2000), 4 min., directed by Bobby de Groot, The Netherlands. Info: Bobby de Groot, Van Collenstraat, 1232 VR, Loosdrecht, The Netherlands. Tel: 31(0)622332041. Email: bobby@zombimation.nl.

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A magical photo booth spits out unexpected photos in Autofoto. © Avi Offer.

Autofoto

Using simple line drawings with occasional touches of color, Avi Ofer displays an appealing, loose style that works exceedingly well in this whimsical vignette about a photo booth that delivers unexpected results. It's a great idea and Ofer clearly has the skill to make it work: the setup and the first narrative surprise are well-timed and engaging, and there are a number of cute touches that enhance the humor and poignancy of the events. Even the somewhat odd choice of using a solo acoustic guitar accompaniment is reasonably effective (and certainly provides a notable contrast to the electronic soundtrack usually found in animated shorts these days). The problem, though -- which is also endemic to so many of these films -- is that Autofoto doesn't really have an ending, or much development beyond the initial idea, which makes the film more an illustrated concept than a satisfying narrative experience.

Avi Ofer studied photography and visual communications at a number of schools in Israel and has worked for the last several years in design and animation in Tel-Aviv. Autofoto is a personal project, which he created without a storyboard, drawing on a WACOM tablet directly into the computer. After winning an Internet short-film contest, Autofoto was shown on opening night of the 2001 Jerusalem Film Festival. It has also screened at Annecy, Anima Mundi, I Castelli Animati, and several other festivals.

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Schubert, Goethe and sand on glass come together in The ErlKing. © Ben Zelkowicz.

The ErlKing

In this quite beautiful and accomplished film, director Ben Zelkowicz uses the medium of sand on glass to illustrate Franz Schubert's famous song based on a poem by Goethe. Except for a few segments in which he incorporates colored sand for dramatic effect, Zelkowicz has chosen to work with only one hue, but this limited palette which produces a kind of sepia effect is very effective in capturing the nocturnal, spooky milieu of the poem and song. His decision not to include subtitles is somewhat more problematic, since for a viewer who doesn't speak German or isn't already familiar with the poem, this can be something of a detriment to fully appreciating the story's nuances and its tragic conclusion. Also, as with any work that seeks to give visual form to a pre-existing song or poem, the director runs the risk of redundancy, and of diluting the power of both the source material and his images. Yet, as Zelkowicz confirms in his written notes, he was aware of these potential pitfalls and, while he doesn't completely transcend them, they're at worst minor flaws in what is otherwise a very successful effort.

Ben Zelkowicz studied English and biopsychology before deciding he didn't want to be a scientist and would rather devote himself to animation. A graduate of Cal Arts, for which The ErlKing was his thesis film, he has worked for Will Vinton studios and is currently employed by the Chiodo Brothers studio, where he animates "Clay" for the Disney channel. The ErlKing has been shown at Sundance, the New York Film Festival, Mill Valley, and the Leipzig Documentary/Animation Festival, among other venues.

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Doggie liberation is the point in Leashlessness. © Stefan Gruber.

Leashlessness

Stefan Gruber's paean to doggie liberation is stronger in its design than in its narrative structure, which is particularly problematic since Leashlessness is a film that's telling a specific story and is dependent on a chronology of events for its impact. Gruber has a nice, whimsical drawing style, and his use of color, "camera angles," and the space within the frame is both imaginative and thoughtful; however, there's a slackness in the pacing and the sequencing of segments that tends to undercut the film's dramatic effectiveness. More specifically, while it's clear in general what's happening, the film doesn't present information in a way that clearly conveys the director's intentions, and his implied critique of obsessive dog owners tends to fall a bit flat. Also, Jared Selter's hypnotic score, though fine in itself, feels somewhat ill-suited to the kinetic events on the screen, which might have benefited from a more lively accompaniment.

Leashlessness is Stefan Gruber's first film, which he made as a student at Cal Arts. It won first place at the Big Muddy festival, received the Princess Grace Award, and was a finalist for a Student Academy Award.

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Shh. doesn't placate a crying baby. © Adam Robb.

Shh.

A somewhat uneasy cross between Chuck Jones and Jean-Luc Godard, Adam Robb's Shh. uses classical animation to depict the increasingly frantic efforts of a harried animator (i.e., Robb) to placate a crying baby. Robb's a terrific draftsman and it's a pretty funny idea; in particular, he uses the old and perennially appealing technique of showing the animator's hand drawing in fast motion, as he devises one potential pacifier after another for his unruly creation. Once he gets inside (both literally and figuratively) the baby's head, though, the results are rather less successful. Robb clearly has more on his mind than simple slapstick, but his attempt to present a kind of social critique through a series of word transformations with accompanying illustrations, while suggestive and admirably ambitious, is more confusing than illuminating. The problem is due at least in part to his mixing of categories and conceptual frames, which tends to obscure his analysis, and his rather odd decision to purposely misspell many of the words, which further obscures his intentions.

Adam Robb attended the VCA School of Film and TV in Australia, where he made Shh. as part of his postgraduate work. The film has screened at Annecy, the Melbourne International and International Animated Film Festivals, the KROK Festival, and many others. Robb's self-described goal in creating animation that combines "the political, the personal and the bizarre" is "to make audiences think."

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The filmmaker takes on Skin shedding in this short. © Bobby de Groot.

Skin

More an exercise than a fully realized film, this stop-motion work by Bobby de Groot is highly atmospheric and well executed, but it suffers from the absence of a storyline or any sense of implied meaning beyond the depicted events. As the filmmaker summarizes the plot: "Locked in a prison, [a] prisoner is forced to shed his skin." This is pretty much what happens, with the protagonist reduced at the end to a skeletal armature. However the motivation for and consequences of this self-flaying (which, given the stylized nature of the character, isn't especially unpleasant), are not in any way apparent. De Groot cites Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, among others, as influences, and the filmmaker does a good job of emulating the surreal and rather insular tone of their work. However, lacking any kind of narrative development, the film is at best an indication of de Groot's potential and of perhaps better things to come.

A graduate of the School of the Arts in Utrecht, for which Skin was a second-year project, Bobby de Groot has worked in various capacities in the Dutch animation world for the past four years. Skin was shown at Annecy in 2002 as part of the student competition and was also selected for the Golden Flame Video Festival, the Cartoon Network Golden Cow Festival, and the Holland Animation Film Festival.

Jon Hofferman is an independent filmmaker, writer and graphic designer. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster (a unique work of art that makes a wonderful gift for anyone interested in or learning about classical music, available at www.carissimi.com) and a shameless promoter.

Attached Files 
AttachmentSize
1769-autofoto.mov1.84 MB
1769-leashlessness.mov1.82 MB
1769-shh.mov1.43 MB
1769-skin.mov1.93 MB