Taylor Jessen reviews five short films Dragon by Troy Morgan, The Love Train by Eva Bennett, A Plan by Tom Schroeder, Stasis by Jason Hite and Vaudeville by Chansoo Kim. Includes QuickTime movie clips!
Within the world of animation, most experimentation occurs within short format productions, whether they are 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.
The Love Train (2005), 7:53, directed by Eva Bennett (U.K.) Contact: Eva Bennett [E] firstname.lastname@example.org
A Plan (2004), 8:00, directed by Tom Schroeder (U.S.) Contact: Tom Schroeder [E] email@example.com
The Love Train
The Love Train is a lyrical short in two scenes about a recently widowed lady dragon looking for love in a world where she has frankly too much to offer. The traditionally animated short begins poignantly in a drowsy tilt down a wall of photographs of a dragon and her mate, a Guy Fawkes dummy. The dummy looks less and less pleased, and a bit more singed, as the years go by. A pan to the right reveals the dragon is by herself now, sitting on the edge of her empty bed, and she takes her husbands last lonely shirt out of the closet and inhales a long whiff of scent before she folds it neatly, puts her wedding ring in the pocket and shuts it in a drawer.
There are no messages on her machine tonight. Shes saved a business card for a singles service, as well as a train ticket, and she sets it next to the lamp as she cuddles up with the cat and goes to sleep. The next morning she boards her train and reads the paper, her eye lingering over a classified ad shes placed (FIRE BREATHING DRAGON seeks kind man with asbestos suit). She watches forlornly as the train pulls in to a station and stops, a group of snowmen waiting on the platform. In short order a snowman does join her in her coach, and immediately tries to put the moves on the attractive lady dragon. She laughs demurely and looks aside as the snowman tries to nudge her affectionately, but when she looks back hes gone, a heap of steam and two bits of coal on the floor. Self-consciously she cleans up the mess and goes back to staring out the window.
In the front of the train is a lonely coalman, a gecko whose tic-tac-toe board on the cabin wall hints that hes been keeping score in a singularly lonely game for some time. He sighs and shivers as he blows on the fire and takes the train out into the countryside, through deep valleys piled with fresh snow. Its avalanche country, and drifts are starting to settle on the tracks. Suddenly a big one piles right on to the engine car, covering the coalman, and the train drifts to a stop.
The curious dragon exits her coach and climbs to the front of the train, where she sees the coalman, blue and stiff. She of course breathes fire to get the engine going again, but she administers more gentle care and attention to the coalman, taking his hand in hers and slowly turning his blue hue brown again. Their eyes meet
The Love Train is a sweet and simple concoction with some real grief at its core, which nevertheless plays out in a whimsical world of fantasy just next door to our busy commuter universe. Animator Eva Bennett completed it at Southampton Solent University last year as her third-year degree project in animation, and the rough drawings have been composited into a digital environment of muted browns, grays and blues. The music is quiet and Satie-influenced.
Thar be dragons - and here they be too: Dragon is a stop-motion short with multiple excursions into traditional animation, about a young girl with real fire in her art and a man intent on stealing it. The piece opens in a residential neighborhood at night, with light streaming out of an apartment window. A girl is in her room drawing with crayons. Her hairstyle and the furniture suggest a pre-WWII milieu, though later developments put the short in a netherworld of now and then where disparate parts of the twentieth century have been folded on top of each other.
Shes drawing pastoral scenes in which shes lounging in a forest glade, drawing her hand across the surface of the water in a quiet pool; and in her animated fantasy she looks up to see her parents standing in a gazebo in a large open space surrounded by decorative trees. Her parents, meanwhile, have fallen asleep in the next room with the TV on. The TV, as well as a VCR, are plugged into a dodgy outlet in the wall, and while they snore sparks start to fly. In short order the apartment is on fire, and the next thing she knows, the girl is being whisked in a black sedan up a country road towards the J. Kernberg Institute for Orphans. She stares at the sad-eyed youths lining the road as she is driven towards the tall tower at the center of the edifice.
In the tower is the office of the chubby-faced, skinny-bodied head honcho, a pastier version of Mr. Potter in Its a Wonderful Life, and as the girl keeps making drawings he makes sure to grab them for himself. The girl has introduced a dragon into her scribbles now, and it burns down the gazebo and the surrounding field and gives chase to the girl, running for her life through her own drawings.
Some time later a newspaper headline shouts of an amazing new exhibition of art by none other than the head of the orphanage, and a procession of cars makes its way from the city to the country orphanage to get a glimpse of his work. He stands before the pictures - the girls pictures, of course - and the crowd stares in wonder. He spends the evening counting the pile of cash on his desk, and before retiring, he gives the girl more blank sheets to work on. But in the new sheets, the girl befriends the dragon, and, pointing to the top of the tower where Mr. Kernberg works, the dragon is persuaded to burst through the window and heave brimstone about. The short ends with a shot of the girl alone in the burnt-out remains of Kernbergs study drawing, drawing, drawing.
Dragon is very compact and doesnt waste any time; maximum information is conveyed in just a few shots. The technique is minimal, with well-designed models that dont move very much combined with traditional animation based on rough drawings. The premise isnt entirely compelling - the notion that an exhibition of primitive art could be a goldmine for anyone is, ahem, precious - but the point is well made; if youre going to steal someones fire, make sure youve got control over it first. Dragon won the category of Best Animated Short at the 2006 Slamdance festival.
A Plan is a lazy afternoon excursion with a daydream folded into it, dreamt by a boy on a motorboat outing with his parents whod rather save the day than avoid trouble. It begins at lakeside, with the boy play-swordfighting with a giant beast that turns out to be a placid willow tree. The boy follows Mom out onto the dock where Dad is getting ready to launch a hired motorboat. The boy hops in the drivers seat, Dad pulls him out and gets in the drivers seat himself, and the three of them take off for an afternoon picnic.
On the way the boy drags his hand in the water, making a miniature wake, and then he daydreams hes underwater battling giant fish. He comes out of his reverie lying in the back of the boat next to the gas tank, and he notices that the needle on the tank is more than halfway to E and dropping. He imagines the boat at a dead stop in the middle of nothing, and a faint glimmering of a heroic plan forms in his head.
They reach the far shore without incident, though, and Mom and Dad start to prepare the picnic lunch while the boy draws in the sand. He scratches a stick-picture of the boat being pulled by fish, and then he sees Mom setting out the picnic blanket and has a brainwave. Immediately he draws a sketch of himself in the boat throwing the picnic blanket on a mast as an improvised sail, taking a heroic posture near the front of the boat while Mom and Dad look on admiringly from the aft.
They eat their sandwiches and return to the boat, and on the way back the boy cant help but daydream some more about valiantly saving his parents with his ingenuity. Sure enough he wakes to the sound of the engine cutting out. He looks to port, to starboard, and astern - nothing but open water. Its time for action, and quickly he grabs the picnic blanket and unfurls it. He immediately gets lost in its folds. Fighting his way out, he looks straight ahead for the first time to see Dad looking at him, confused. Theyre at the dock. After theyve left the boat the boy mopes a bit onshore, until Dad sees him off by himself and offers to give him a horsey ride. The boy jumps on, imagines Dad turning into a stallion and they gallop away.
A Plan was traditionally animated, and the characters are highly abstract icons, with solid fingerless hands and faces communicated with small, expressive hash marks for eyes and mouth. Theres no music and no dialogue, and with only sound effects as a soundtrack the mood is strongly ambient. Director/animator Tom Schroeder teaches animation at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and his other shorts include Riding with Harv (2002) and Bike Ride (2000).
The stop-motion short Stasis by former makeup artist Jason Hite opens on a dead body in a pod. The pod is under rows and rows of other pods, all built into a wall, presumably stacked up into infinity. (Think The X-Files Movie.) As the action starts, one of the pods starts to empty itself of embalming fluid, revealing a naked female body: strong, busty, yet vulnerable. (Think The Fifth Element.)
A plastic tube extricates itself from the wall and sucks the body out of the pod, up the tube and out of sight. The body lands in a semi-organic, semi-metallic cradle of experimental probes and lab gear, and a giant claw attaches itself to her. (Think The Matrix.) Eventually the probe extricates - or maybe implants - a fetus, in a way that surely wasnt the subjects intention. (Think Alien 3.)
After sticking her violently with multiple piercing devices all over her body, the machine wraps her in futuristic bondage gear, turns her irises red and glassy, and gives her a shiny grey dome for the top of her cranium. (Think Star Trek: First Contact.) At last, revived by all these invigorating, inhuman violations, she wakes, her nipples erect.
She looks around, looks at herself, and tries to escape, but the giant claw grips her and pulls her back into the womb-like center of all this laboratory gear, and amid a paroxysm of on-screen digital readouts (think Terminator 2), a barcode and a label of EVE are bestowed on her, and the short ends with the slogan To Be Continued (Think The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.)
Vaudeville is the latest short from Chansoo Kim, with which hes successfully earned his MFA in animation from the University of Southern California. The creator of the surreal and poignant stop-motion short Woman in the Attic (2003) has returned to traditional animation to create another appeal to the subconscious, this time with the visible influence of Igor Kovalyov. Vaudeville is a dream-play, so youre not getting any explanation here, only a description of some of the key events so youll recognize it when you run across it:
The milieu is 1930s-era Korea. The action takes place in a nondescript bit of open countryside with a few trees, some power lines running in several skew directions, and a flock of birds. Its an overcast and murky day and every corner of the countryside seems to be overcast in its own way. Theres a little girl with a yellow scarf on a swing; she stops to watch the action, then swings, then stops again as the mood takes her. Theres also a middle-aged man whos sneezing repeatedly into a white handkerchief, who acknowledges the girl with a friendly wave.
Intercut with this is a trio of men coming over a hill toward the man and girl. One is older and bald; one is snappily dressed in a coat and wide-brimmed hat; and the third is nondescript and a bit nervous. The three men approach a tall, rectangular slab of wood standing by itself in a patch of ground. The bald man makes a gesture to his fellows, then walks directly into the slab, disappearing. The nervous man gasps. The well-dressed man tips his hat and follows, following his friend into the slab and oblivion.
Meanwhile a short distance away a photographer with a bellows camera is trying to take a portrait of an elderly man and his wife. The photographer pops his head out from under the shawl and straightens his hair self-consciously. He checks out the framing of the couple; they look perfect, and he makes an Okay! sign with his hand. The couple looks fine, it turns out; theyre hovering in chairs about 10 feet off the ground and look fit and rested. The photographer counts to three with his fingers, but the anticipation is too much for the old man and he and his chair fall gracelessly to the ground in a burst of self-conscious anti-magic.
The man in front of the slab, meanwhile, is psyching himself up to follow his friends inside. He crouches, puts both hands tentatively in front of him, and finally tries to nonchalantly walk into the solid wood; but with a bonk he rebounds off the hard surface, crying out in pain and recoiling with a black eye. The girl on the swing, meanwhile, has disappeared, leaving only the man with the handkerchief, who blows his nose twice in succession as the piece ends.
And dont forget the hatcheck girl on your way out! You only THINK you missed the striptease act, the baggy-pants dialect comic, and the dancing penguins. That variety show is all up there on the screen. Surrealism like this is one way of giving a name to the unnameable, and in Kims case he says his inspiration was the free-floating anxiety his grandparents generation felt over their loss of collective cultural identity. But since weve all experienced the bonk, the pose, the swing and the sneeze, this free-associative exercise is one-size-fits-all.
Kims designs are idiosyncratic and his acting is superb. Hes picked up a predilection for intense, wordless gestures impregnated with emotional significance from Igor Kovalyov (, among a gaggle of other extraordinary shorts), and in fact Kovalyov isnt just a stylistic influence but an active advisor to Kim on Vaudeville.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. The Taqueria van in his neighborhood now has an active sonar array.