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Fresh from the Festivals: April 2008's Reviews

Andrew Farago reviews five short films: Irresistible Smile by Ami Lindholm, Karaoke Show by Karl Tebbe, Sleep with the Fishes by Belle Mellor, Yellow Sticky Notes by Jeff Chiba Stearns and Yours Truly by Osbert Parker.

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 attests to the vitality of these works, but there are few other venues for their exhibition, nor are they often reviewed. As a result, distribution tends to be difficult and irregular. On a regular basis, Animation World Magazine will highlight some of the most interesting of these films.

This month:

Irresistible Smile (2006), 6 min., 21 sec., directed by Ami Lindholm (Finland). Contact: Ami Lindholm, Turku Arts Academy/Tuhru, [T] +358.44.377.7744 [W] www.tuhru.net; [E] ami@tuhru.net

Karaoke Show (2007), 4 min., 25 sec., directed by Karl Tebbe (Germany). Contact: Karl Tebbe [T] +49.30.6120.9001 [W] www.karltebbe.de [E] karltebbe@gmx.de

Sleep with the Fishes (2005), 4 min., 27 sec., directed by Belle Mellor (England). Contact: Belle Mellor [T] 0044(0)7973.463942 [W] www.bellemellor.com [E] belle.mellor@virgin.net

Yellow Sticky Notes (2007), 6 min., directed by Jeff Chiba Stearns (Canada). Contact: Jeff Chiba Stearns, Meditating Bunny Studio; [T] 250.215.4733 [W] www.meditatingbunny.com, www.hapanimation.com; [E] meditatingbunny@hotmail.com

Yours Truly (2007), 8 min., directed by Osbert Parker (U.K. Contact: Osbert Parker [T] +44(0) 778.601.5728 [F] +44(0)208.347.6711 [W] www.osbertparker.com [E] very.fizzy@virgin.net

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Ami Lindholm's Irresistible Smile presents a simple idea executed in a simple style, and the result is a fun, engaging short. © Turku Arts Academy.

Irresistible Smile

Screaming babies, nervous alcoholics, rude passengers, objectionable items crammed into the overhead bins... any one of these things can change a cross-country flight from a pleasant journey into a no-holds-barred battle for survival. And as bad as it is for us humble travelers, please take a moment to ponder the life of the flight attendant, who needs to deal with every last one of these problems every day -- and always with a smile on her face.

That's the concept behind Ami Lindholm's enjoyable short film Irresistible Smile. It's a simple idea executed in a simple style, and the result is a fun, engaging short. No matter how much abuse is heaped upon the flight attendant, whether it's the lush who's constantly demanding that her wine glass be refilled, the first-class passenger with a sense of entitlement proportional to that of his ample frame, or (something completely unthinkable to modern airline passengers) the nervous chain-smoker who lights a cigarette every time the hostess turns away, our graceful heroine handles each task happily, with an unflinching smile permanently affixed to her face.

Of course, there's a good reason that people come equipped with a full complement of emotions, and the attendant's inability to properly express herself ultimately leads to complete and utter disaster, but hey -- it's a living.

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If the phrase "German full-frontal karaoke" doesn't frighten you, by all means give Karaoke Show a look. © Karl Tebbe.

Karaoke Show

The most controversial of this month's entries, by a considerable margin, is Karaoke Show, directed by -- and starring -- German director Karl Tebbe.

The plot summary is fairly straightforward -- a man sings (grunts, actually) Michael Jackson's hit Billie Jean to a slightly bored, overweight man who's sprawled out on a couch in a tiny, strangely lit apartment. Sure, that's a little bit out of the ordinary, but hardly "controversial," right? I probably should have mentioned that the karaoke singer is stark naked, and that the animation is comprised mostly of pixelation and various lighting techniques.

There's not a whole lot to add to that, is there? You're either into German full-frontal karaoke or you're not. If that phrase -- "German full-frontal karaoke" -- doesn't frighten you, by all means, please give this film a look. If it does (justifiably) cause you to skip over this one, then please think kindly of me while you're enjoying the five minutes of your life that I've saved you.

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Sleep with the Fishes offers a strangely hypnotic journey via refreshingly traditional animation. © Belle Mellor.

Sleep with the Fishes

In a normal month, a film that opens with a blue man-fish urinating a stream of blue water upon which tiny people and animals decide to become sailors would qualify as the strangest thing I'm reviewing, but Karaoke Show manages to put everything else into a completely different perspective.

All of that being said, Sleep with the Fishes is a strangely hypnotic journey along that aforementioned stream, as a menagerie of hybrid manimals sets sail toward a small pool. Despite the unorthodox introduction to the film, Belle Mellor's animation is refreshingly traditional, with character designs and movements reminiscent of classic black-and-white animation from the early 20th century.

The combination of fluid (no pun intended) character motions, the steady motion of the water, and the bizarre, ethereal soundtrack results in a strangely hypnotic experience. Once you get past the opening, and as long as you don't get too hung up on what is propelling these mariners along, you're in for some beautiful old-school animation.

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Old-school animation lives in Yellow Sticky Notes, a breath of fresh air for fans mourning the demise of simple, non-computer-assisted drawing. © Jeff Chiba Stearns/Meditating Bunny Studio.

Yellow Sticky Notes

Of course, if you really want to talk about old-school animation, Jeff Chiba Stearns's Yellow Sticky Notes is about as low-tech and intimate an experience as you can get. Utilizing his black Staedtler Permanent fine-tipped marker, 2,300 yellow sticky notes and a budget of $100, Stearns spent nine months hand-drawing and photographing the material comprising this short.

The six-minute film is a fascinating look at Stearns's animation career, from his college years through various professional assignments and his work as an animation instructor, one sticky note at a time. Major world-changing events come and go, and viewers get inside Stearns' head as he explores his emotions and reactions to the world around him. The lively soundtrack, performed by Genevieve Vincent, is very engaging, and eases the transition from one scenario to the next. With subject matter ranging from 9/11 to celebrity tabloid news, a compelling soundtrack is essential.

Yellow Sticky Notes is a breath of fresh air for animation fans fretting about the increasing rarity of simple, non-computer-assisted drawing, and the personal nature of the story makes for a compelling short. For those of you who need to think of animation in computer terminology, just think of this as the world's most labor-intensive blog entry, and you'll be fine.

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The noir-inspired Yours Truly is a brilliant piece of work, plain and simple. © Osbert Parker.

Yours Truly

The rain pours down. Sirens wail. Just another Saturday night in the big city.

Frankie was a three-time loser, well on his way to number four. He'd just pulled off the biggest heist of his career, and all he really needed was the love of a good woman. Too bad for him he had the same luck with the dames as he did with the cops -- all of it rotten.

Yours Truly is a brilliant piece of work, plain and simple. Director Osbert Parker combines archival film footage, time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation and special effects to produce a mini-noir masterpiece in the span of eight minutes.

In the tradition of Steve Martin's all-but-forgotten noir comedy Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Parker appropriates footage from the '40s and '50s and recontextualizes it into something in the spirit of the source material, yet altogether original at the same time. From the opening car chase through the thwarted schemes, treacherous romance and unexpected betrayals, all of the classic story elements are present, with a nice twist ending thrown in for good measure.

Parker's staging and cinematography adhere to classic noir traditions, although the sheer variety of the appropriated source material required him to take certain liberties. The combination of color footage, grainy archival film, colorized images and newly filmed transitional shots should stand out like a sore thumb, but, to Parker's credit, these disparate elements unite into a seamless whole (ably abetted by an excellent soundtrack courtesy of Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann and Bruce Woolley).

Yours Truly is a tour-de-force, and animation aficionados and classic film buffs alike will want to seek this one out. And if you don't, you'll regret it. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and... well, you know the rest.

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and the creator of the weekly online comic serial The Chronicles of William Bazillion.

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