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Fresh from the Festivals: August 2000's Film Reviews

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...

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.

Oil and Vinegar (1999), 3 min., directed by Mike Blum, USA. Info: Mike Blum, Pipsqueak Films, 5711 Vesper Ave., Van Nuys, CA 91411, USA. Tel: 1-818-526-3670. Fax: 1-425-944-6225. E-mail: mike@pipsqueakfilms.com. Web: http://www.pipsqueakfilms.com .

Brahm's Lullaby, 2 min., directed by Maciek Albrecht, USA. Info: The Ink Tank, 2 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10036, USA. Tel: 1-212-869-1630. Fax: 1-212-764-4169.

Sheep in the Big City "Chapter 2: Sheep on the Lam," 7 min., directed by Mo Willems, USA. Info: Curious Pictures, 440 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10003, USA. Tel: 1-212-674-1400. Fax: 1-212-674-0081. Web: http://www.curiouspictures.com.

Hello, Dolly!, 3 min., directed by Mariko Hoshi, USA. Info: marikoholics@yahoo.com.

Atlas Gets a Drink (1999), 3.5 min., directed by Michael Overbeck, USA. Info: Michael Overbeck, 39 Evergreen St., Providence, RI 02906, USA. Tel: 1-401-421-6529. E-mail: mikeoverbeck@hotmail.com.

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

Oil and Vinegar. © Mike Blum.160x120 | 320x240

Oil and Vinegar. © Mike Blum.160x120 | 320x240

Oil and VinegarOil & Vinegar tells a tragic tale of love between two condiments: oil and vinegar. The story itself is filled with hyperbole, as director Mike Blum parodies Hollywood clichés of romance on screen. A libretto, composed by Seve Kutay and sung in Italian, adds to the dramatic flourish of the 3-minute computer-animated film.

The project was created as an 'after hours' animated short at Walt Disney Feature Animation, where Blum currently works as Senior Development Software Engineer. Though not officially sanctioned by Disney, the project functioned as an opportunity for not only software research and development, but also employee training. Blum explains that a number of relatively inexperienced artists at the company volunteered to assist so they could learn the software, providing some of them with opportunities for advancement. Among the applications used were Maya for layout, modeling and animation and Renderman for shading, in addition to proprietary products.

Using an all-volunteer crew, the production was completed in nine months -- and only because Blum found ways of streamlining the work. For example, he reused backgrounds from his previous directorial effort, Salad Bowl . . . A Carrot's Tale (1998), which also took place in a kitchen. Because the volunteers tended to shift in and out of the crew, Blum was compelled to create a very tightly storyboarded project that changed little while it was in production. In order to train traditional effects animators on a computer in a short amount of time, he architected a special system, which he presented at SIGGRAPH this year in a session entitled "Timing Chart: Timing Animation via Traditional Methods."

Brahm's Lullaby.© The Ink Tank.160x120 | 320x240

Brahm's Lullaby.© The Ink Tank.160x120 | 320x240

Brahm's Lullaby

This lovely, soothing work of animation is not only ideal for young audiences, but also beautiful to behold for older viewers -- it is no surprise that its director, Polish animator Maciek Albrecht, won an Emmy for its animation design. Working with mixed media, including cut-outs, clay and traditional animation, Albrecht created this film and others for the Home Box Office (HBO) cable network. He also has produced animated productions and commercials for Children's Television Workshop, PBS, and others, and his illustrations have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, GQ and Rolling Stone. Since 1983, Albrecht has worked at The Ink Tank in New York, which is directed by renowned illustrator and director R.O. Blechman.

In a way it is hard to describe what makes Albrecht's film work so well. Certainly, the singing of Aaron Neville, which is in English, adds significantly to its success. But the placid expressions of a lady bug, a little snail, a family of raccoons, and other small creatures and the continual metamorphosis from one to another also add to the total effect. I couldn't help but smile as I watched this film over and over again. It's a wonderful example of the visualization of music and altogether delightful. I hope this is the universe my children inhabit each night as they drift off to sleep.

Sheep in the Big City.© Cartoon Network.160x120 | 320x240

Sheep in the Big City.© Cartoon Network.160x120 | 320x240

Sheep in the Big City "Chapter 2: Sheep on the Lam"

The Cartoon Network has created a number of popular original animated series over the last several years. In November 2000, Mo Willems' Sheep in the Big City will join them; currently, there are 13 episodes in production at Curious Pictures, where he is a director. Willems already has an extensive list of productions to his credit, including more than 60 animated and live-action shorts, which have appeared on MTV, HBO, Sesame Street (the latter winning him two Emmy Awards for writing) and elsewhere.

Sheep in the Big City tells the story of a runaway farm animal that is being tracked by the Top Secret Military Organization. Each half-hour episode includes a series of chapters with cliffhanger endings, held together by English-language narration, satirical skits and mock advertisements in the tradition of Rocky & Bullwinkle. I was also reminded of the work of Ernie Pintoff as I watched this 7-minute chapter, "Sheep on the Lam." The animation style and humor is typical of a number of the original series being aired on The Cartoon Network, which often have a 'retro' look drawn from popular animation of the 1950s and 1960s, such as UPA (Columbia) animation and Jay Ward Productions. While the animation style of Sheep in the Big City is limited, it is stylized -- more complex than most of those early examples. Its content is also updated, as Sheep takes refuge in the big city, finding work as a telemarketer and obtaining his green food from a ready teller machine (US dollars). I really liked a segment where Sheep, somehow mistaken for a lovely woman (she's wearing a dress because the cleaner didn't have her wool ready on time), is taken out to dinner and applies lipstick at the table. It seems this series holds a lot of promise and undoubtedly will make a great addition to the list of 'winners' already produced by The Cartoon Network.

Hello, Dolly! © Mariko Hoshi.160x120 | 320x240

Hello, Dolly! © Mariko Hoshi.160x120 | 320x240

Hello, Dolly!

Another tale of sheep with a past comes from student animator Mariko Hoshi. Ever wonder what animals think about being the subjects of scientific experimentation? This film provides a glimpse, with an ending that probably PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) would approve of.

Hoshi has created many nice effects in this film, which opens with a silhouette of a man preparing for sleep. The character becomes three-dimensional after we enter the room and see him tossing and turning in bed. Cinematic effects are used throughout the telling of the story, with a variety of angles and framing sizes used to reveal the man's work and his state of mind. Included is a great black and white dream sequence, which establishes the man as a Frankenstein-like creator who is cloning sheep. The ending shot, too, where we see the sheep's revenge, is also nicely done. Overall, it is apparent that Hoshi has a strong sense of how visuals can tell a story; no dialogue is used in this very well-structured 3-minute film.

Hello, Dolly!, which screened at SIGGRAPH this year, among other festivals, was created entirely on SGI machines. Softimage was the main software used for animation and modeling, while Composer and Pandemonium were used for editing, compositing, and some of the visual effects. Sound was processed using ProTool on a Macintosh computer.

Atlas Gets a Drink.© Michael Overbeck.160x120 | 320x240

Atlas Gets a Drink.© Michael Overbeck.160x120 | 320x240

Atlas Gets a Drink

From the Rhode Island School of Design comes another student work, Atlas Gets a Drink, directed by Michael Overbeck as a junior-level film. This young director is attracting attention with his work, which already has screened in several festivals and won first prize in the student category of the ASIFA-East competition this year.

Basically, the film is about the complete dissolution of rational order on earth. It all starts when two fish decide to get out of the sea and walk on earth. Chaos ensues as other animals follow suit. A shark rings a doorbell and gobbles up the inhabitant and a killer whale rings a doorbell ("Who's there?" "Killer Whale") and is true to his name. One of the most inventive portions of the film is when a cow, grazing peacefully, eyes the two fish and then eats the little bunny sitting next to him, along with a person. Ever seen the inside of a cow's stomach or wondered how regurgitation feels? Here's your chance. But this is not a sick and twisted adventure -- it all makes sense in this wonderfully absurd environment. A minimal English-language soundtrack adds to the asynchronous feel of Overbeck's new world. The 3.5-minute film was created with drawn animation, along with Flash Three and Premiere, which was used for editing.

Maureen Furniss, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Film Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California. She is the founding editor of Animation Journal .

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