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Fresh from the Festivals: April 2009's Reviews

This month, Andrew Farago reviews Keith Reynolds Can't Make It Tonight, Shaman, Sweet Dreams and Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death.

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: Keith Reynolds Can't Make It Tonight (2007), 6 min., 2 sec., directed by Felix Massie (U.K.). Contact: Arthur Cox Ltd. [T] +44 (0) 117 953 9788 [W] www.worldofarthurcox.com; Felix Massie [W] http://www.BalancedThere.com [E] felixMassie@gmail.com

Shaman (2008), 11 min. 11 sec, directed by Luc Perez (Denmark/France). Contact: Dansk Tegnefilm 2 ApS & 24 Images, Suomisvej 2, 2, DK-1927 Frederiksberg C; Marie Bro [T] +45 33 93 09 88 [F] +45 33 93 09 89 [E] marie@tegnefilm.com

Sweet Dreams (2008), 9 min., 56 sec., directed by Kirsten Lepore (U.S.). Contact: Kirsten Lepore [E] kirsten@kirstenlepore.com [W] http://www.kirstenlepore.com

Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008), 29 min., directed by Nick Park (U.K.).

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The design is flat and simple in Keith Reynolds Can't Make It Tonight, with modified stick figures moving between floors of a spartan, geometric office building. © Arthur Cox Ltd.

Keith Reynolds Can't Make It Tonight

"This is Keith Reynolds and today is promotion day. Having worked at the company eight years he's the most senior junior business analyst in the building. He's been waiting for this day for a very long time. When he gets his promotion, he'll finally be a successful businessman. This is important because it means Sarah will like him."

That's the opening of Keith Reynolds Can't Make It Tonight, a dark, funny piece of animation by British director Felix Massie that explores just how quickly a bad day can spiral out of control and become the worst day of your entire life. Needless to say, Reynolds doesn't receive his expected promotion, which ruins his chances with Sarah, which leads to a fateful confrontation with the man who did get his promotion, and then...

To go into any more detail would spoil the fun of watching this short, but it's a great way to spend six minutes. The design is flat and simple, with modified stick figures moving between floors of a spartan, geometric office building. Given the bizarre series of events that unfolds over the course of the film, however, it's probably for the best that the characters aren't depicted in any great detail.

Massie animated the film in Flash, and composed the soundtrack using a program called Fruity Loops. He decided that an American was necessary for the narration, and he tapped voice actor Scott Johnson for the job after Massie discovered him on YouTube. Johnson recorded his part in the U.S., and Massie directed him from the U.K. via e-mail, and managed to get a great performance out of him despite this obstacle.

As for the story, Massie claims it was inspired mostly by American Dream and Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe detective stories. The inspiration for the artwork comes from Massie's animations that he created in his younger days—and you can see those works at his website, http://www.icantcolourin.co.uk. Keith Reynolds Can't Make It isn't quite as visceral and spontaneous as those earlier works, but Massie has taken very well to the longer format, and his characters show a surprising amount of depth for two-dimensional stick figures.

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One of the goals with Shaman, which relied on paintings on paper manipulated by After Effects and Photoshop, is to provide an accurate look back at an endangered aspect of Inuit culture. © Lupe Films.

Shaman Memory is a powerful thing. One minute, you're sitting at a bus stop in Denmark, the next a bird catches your eye and you're experiencing a vivid flashback from a life and death struggle from your younger days. Luc Perez's film Shaman, explores this relationship between past and present as Utaaq, an old Inuit man, reflects on his turbulent youth and the experiences that shaped him.

Utaaq's flashback blends fantasy and reality as his younger self suffers a near-death experience at the hands of a mountain wanderer and the sinister Tupilak that obeys his every command. This horrific beast drives Utaaq away, and the experience leads him to become a powerful shaman, with abilities to match the wanderer and his creature.

Perez spent a great deal of time studying Greenland's Inuit culture, paying special attention to the contrast of the old ways and the new, and the battle between the past and the future. The shaman's culture is fading, and is in danger of extinction, and one of Perez's goals with this film is to provide an accurate look back at this endangered aspect of Inuit culture.

The film itself was created with a minimal amount of technology, relying on paintings on paper manipulated by After Effects and Photoshop. The medium suits the story well, as Perez's paintings perfectly capture the surreal transitions between time periods. There's a real sense of cold and fear in the flashback sequences, and a sense of magic and mysticism as well. Perez may not be able to stop the old ways from fading into oblivion, but he makes an admirable attempt to preserve their memory.

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Sweet Dreams spins an epic tale of adventure, romance and pastry with stop-motion, in which cast, props and settings are constructed almost entirely with real food. © Kirsten Lepore.

Sweet Dreams Sometimes inspiration is no farther away than your own kitchen. Director Kirsten Lepore's film Sweet Dreams spins an epic tale of adventure, romance and pastry.

The story opens on a "dessert" island as a cupcake and his colleagues, including donuts and other frosting-covered treats, toil away constructing towers from sugar cubes and other edible building materials. Cupcake dreams of a better life, however, so he builds a boat from sugar cubes and sets sail for adventure. When his boat springs a leak, he finds himself on a world unlike any he's ever seen before -- a land of vegetables. He learns all about vegetable culture while on the island, and even falls in love with one of the natives. He eventually returns home, but his experiences on the island have changed him forever, much to the shock and dismay of his fellow islanders.

Sweet Dreams is a stop-motion film filmed with a Nikon D80 and edited using iStopmotion software. The cast, props and settings are constructed almost entirely with real food. This choice results in some great visuals, such as ice cream cone trees lining a brown sugar landscape, or a small tribe of fruits and vegetables working in unison to construct a produce village, but this resulted in some unique challenges for Lepore. Filming real vegetables under hot lights in a windowless studio presented some unanticipated dangers for Lepore: "One time I made the mistake of building one of those carrot towers in the evening and subsequently shooting half the scene. When I came back the next morning to finish the shoot, not only was the tower completely wilted and shriveled, but the smell was near intolerable. I had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch and re-shoot, and that room still probably hasn't aired out yet."

The film was recently named Channel Frederator's Cartoon of the Month, which has helped Sweet Dreams to find a larger audience than it might have otherwise. Lepore has worked for several large clients recently, and after seeing what she was able to accomplish by herself with a budget in the hundreds of dollars, the sky's the limit once she gets herself a crew, an expense account and a discount card at her local supermarket.

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In Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death, our popular duo is self-employed at "Top Bun" with a serial killer on the loose who hates bakers. © Aardman Animations.

Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death There were no surprises in the latest installment of Nick Park's multiple Academy Award-winning Wallace and Gromit series, A Matter of Loaf and Death. And that's a wonderful thing.

The "big" change in Park's latest short is that for the sake of this cartoon, slow-witted but well-intentioned Wallace and his long-suffering canine companion, Gromit, are self-employed at a small bakery called "Top Bun." And, of course, just to make things interesting, there's a serial killer on the loose who has an unhealthy fixation with -- you guessed it -- bakers.

Park and his appropriately named co-writer, Bob Baker (who also co-wrote the hit W&G shorts The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave), know what their audience wants, and that's exactly what they provide with Loaf. Wallace falls in love with an odd-looking girl who owns a nervous pet? Check. Wallace wakes up in the morning and gets dressed and receives his breakfast through a series of elaborate machines that will ultimately cause trouble later on? Check. Gromit tries to warn Wallace of imminent danger only to be ignored until that danger almost literally smacks Wallace in the face? Check. All the chaos leads to a happy ending that has led to Wallace learning almost nothing and having grown not one bit as a character? Check.

And that's just part of what makes the Wallace and Gromit films so enjoyable. They're a classic comedy duo, and they play their parts to perfection each time out in amazing scenarios that engage audiences of all ages. Park's animation, as always, is a joy to behold, and, as always, he makes it look easy. Aardman Studios has such a strong track record that it's easy to take their work for granted. Sets, character design, staging, plotting, scripting, lighting, voice direction, soundtrack -- the attention to detail in Park's films is always so thorough and complete that you forget that you aren't watching a summer blockbuster that happens to star puppets instead of live actors.

Blockbuster isn't a bad way to describe the impact of a new Wallace and Gromit short, either. More than14 million people watched the Christmas 2008 premiere of A Matter of Loaf and Death, which is roughly one-third of England's population. As the film gains wider release worldwide, expect critics and fans across the globe to heap praise and admiration on Aardman, Park, Baker and Wallace and Gromit. Again.

I told you there were no surprises with this one.

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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