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Fresh from the Festivals: August 2002's Film Reviews

Maureen Furniss reviews five short films fresh from the festival circuit: Premammals by Michal Zabka, Lisa Yu's Vessel Wrestling, Bee Movie by Gil Kenan, Interstices by Marina Estela Gra, and Nina Paley's Fetch! 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:

Prasavci (Premammals; Czech Republic, 2001). 9.5 min. Writ/Dir/Anim: Michal Zabka (Czech). Dir Phot: Tomas Sysel. Music: Ondrej Soukup. Sound: Jachym Dusbaba. Ed: Sarka Sklenarova. Produced at FAMU. Contact: Michal Podhradsky, Animation People, NA Doubkove 8, 1500 Prague 5, Czech Republic. Tel: +420 2 515 63 200. Fax: +420 2 515 65 203.

Vessel Wrestling (USA, 2001). 13 min. Dir: Lisa Yu (Chinese Amer). Voice: Yuki Terazawa (Japan). Produced at University of California, Los Angeles. Contact: Lisa Yu, tel: +1-310-313-4634, e-mail: lisayufreak@go.com.

Bee Movie (USA, 2001). 2.25 min. Dir: Gil Kenan (USA). Voice: J.J. Martinez (Spain). Produced at University of California, Los Angeles. Contact: Gil Kenan, e-mail: gkenan@attbi.com.

Interstícios (Interstices; Portugal, 2001). 6 min. Dir: Marina Estela Graça (Portugal). Prod: Abi Feijó. Produced at Filmógrafo, Estúdio de Cinema de Animação do Porto. Contact: Marina Estela Graça (Professora Adjunta), ESE-Design de Comunicação, Universidade do Algarve, Campus da Pehna, 8000-117 Faro, Portugal. E-mail: mgraca@ualg.pt. Or contact Abi Feijó, tel: +351 226172747, fax: +351 22086861, email: abifeijo@ip.pt.

Fetch! (USA, 2001). 4.5 min. Dir: Nina Paley (USA). Music: Nik Phelps and the Sprocket Ensemble. Sound: The Stikman. Contact: Nina Paley, PO Box 460736, San Francisco CA 94146 USA. URL: http://www.ninapaley.com/fetchhome.html .

festival01.jpgPremammals. © Michal Zabka.

Premammals

The puppet-animated Premammals was created as Michal Zabka's graduation film from FAMU, in Prague. The almost ten-minute work tells the story of a family of rat-like 'premammals' who can barely exist in a world dominated by hungry dinosaurs out to get them. A combination of good writing, interesting character and set design, and nice cinematography work to make this a satisfying film to watch.

After a printed introduction in both Czech and English that sets the scene, the film moves on with English-language dialogue. Mother premammal tries to feed her four tiny babies but finds her milk going dry, so she shames her mate into returning outside to find grains to eat. When he returns with a series of serious wounds, such as a bitten-off tail, she finds a way to put a positive spin on things, all-too-cheerfully concluding, "We can patch this up!" The father's misadventures are told through an interesting first-person point-of-view shot, as well as the series of unhappy grunts he emits throughout the film. Mother premammal is the only character that is really developed (she is the only one who speaks) and it is her job to maintain the comic elements in this darkly humorous story.

Premammals was completed with the assistance of a Kodak Student Fund grant. It has been screened in competition in animation festivals around the world and has won several prizes, including the José Abel prize for best animation from Europe at Cinanima, in Espinho, Portugal. Zabka now works as director of the Animation People Studio in Prague.

festival02.jpgVessel Wrestling. © Lisa Yu.

Vessel Wrestling

And then there's Vessel Wrestling, from the other side of the planet in oh-so-many ways. During much of the time I spent watching this twelve-minute film, my mouth was slightly ajar and my eyes were fixed to the screen. Lisa Yu's thesis film from the University of California, Los Angeles is not your average clay animation.

Beautifully art-directed and shot throughout, the film begins with images of scratching on clay that is combined with sounds of squishy mud and something else that falls somewhere between a roar of a beast and the moo of a very unhappy cow. The overall suggestion is that there is a raging creature lurking somewhere, trying to emerge. These images and sounds are intercut with animation of a nude sensuously-designed woman waiting for an unknown person to come to eat the food she has served, calling out, "Yoo-hoo," and peering around in an ambiguous way. Problems start when a hairball in the corner of the kitchen begins to grow. And grow. And grow. And then there's the sex -- and plenty of it -- with a nude man who eventually shows up in the kitchen.

Lisa Yu describes the film as "a primordial passion play at supper time," which can be synopsized as: "A woman serves dinner. She waits. Stuff happens." And as it does, Yu demonstrates her indebtedness to Jan Svankmajer, whom she describes as a major influence. Indeed, it is hard not to think of Svankmajer's work when one sees her clay bodies metamorphosing into each other and shifting between liquid and solid states, along with individual strands of animated hair gyrating strangely before our eyes and real beans and jello glistening on the screen. However, Yu shows that she is a powerful artist in her own right. She controlled all aspects of the film, including story, production design, animation, cinematography and sound (voice was provided by Yuki Terazawa). Vessel Wrestling has garnered the Best Experimental Short at Slamdance, the Tom Berman Award for Most Promising Filmmaker at Ann Arbor, and numerous other awards and screenings world-wide. The film is dedicated in part to her parents. All I can say about that is, "Wow."

festival03.jpgBee Movie. © Gil Kenan.

Bee Movie

The University of California, Los Angeles has a tradition of holding weekend-long marathons, where students close themselves in a room, essentially, and at the end emerge with an animated film. UCLA student Gil Kenan did the same thing, though working solo on his home computer, to create Bee Movie. In this 2-minute work, Kenan uses original artwork, found newsreel (of demonstrations and other 1950s/1960s style images), and nature documentary to create a metaphor for the plight of immigrants. Creatures composed of bee heads 'pasted' onto human bodies tell of the inequities they face as they have difficulty assimilating into their new culture, being constantly driven to create more honey.

Spanish animator J.J. Martinez provides the heavily accented voice of the bee, reminding me somewhat of the famous Brazilian big cat in Nick Park's film, Creature Comforts. Although Kenan is enrolled in the MFA Animation program, Bee Movie was created for a critical studies course. This film provides an interesting example of what can be accomplished in a short time with such readily-available tools as a home computer, Adobe After Effects, and Strata Studio Pro, which Kenan describes as "beautifully primitive."

festival04.jpgInterstícios. © Marina Estela Graça.

Interstícios

Marina Estela Graça also used a range of new technologies and worked entirely at home to create her film Interstícios, yet she looked to considerably older traditions within her work. In terms of animation history, the film would seem to be connected to Oskar Fischinger, with his visualization of music through abstract imagery and exploration of process, and Larry Jordan, with a distinctly alchemical feel; however, neither of these filmmakers is referenced in her own description of the film. Rather, she theorizes her work as being between 2D and 3D, as well as between "two types of conceptual representation of movement . . ." the more representational method of a 'Disneyan' approach and a more subjective, physiological suggestion of movement found in the work of Norman McLaren, Len Lye and Pierre Hébert, for example.

Using 3D Studio Max, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere, along with scanned images, Graça synchronized her visuals with the third and fourth movements of J.S. Bach's Magnificat. The result is a poetic work she created to demonstrate that "a technically complex filmic production can happen within normal human living experience," noting that production took place alongside her roles as wife and mother. She describes her biggest challenge as fully embracing the technology without letting it gain control over any aspect of her work. The film was created with financial support from the Portuguese state institute ICAM (Instituto do Cinema, Audiovisual e Multimédia) and the Portuguese public television network RTP (Radiotelevisão Portuguesa).

Graça studied Communication Design and enrolled in animation workshops before she received a grant to study at the Gobelins professional animation course in Paris, France, which was under the direction of Pierre Ayma. She continued her studies in animation through Semiotics and Filmology at the Università degli Studi di Bologna in Italy. She also completed an M. ph. in animation theory at Universitidade Nova de Lisboa, in Portugal. She later helped to found the first Portuguese degree with animation courses at Universitidade do Algarve in Faro, Portugal. She is currently working toward her Ph.D. in animation poetics.

festival06.jpgFetch! © Nina Paley.

Fetch!

In Fetch!, Nina Paley demonstrates in her own way the creative potential for one of the most democratic of all animation techniques, Flash. This seemingly simple story of a man, his dog and a ball that it chases employs a lot of cycles and changes in perspective. As a result, it was a perfect project for Flash, which is vector-based and therefore allows for consistent resolution when image sizes are changed. Aside from that, Paley was attracted by the affordability and small file sizes that result from Flash animations. A self-taught animator, the animation for Fetch! was completed in three and a half months.

Many animators are using Flash these days, but the twist in Paley's work is that she chose to finish it on 35mm film, soliciting donations on her Website to help finance lab costs. Paley speculates that this may be the first time a filmmaker has chosen this route, but in any case it is interesting to see this combination of technologies paired together -- Flash, the young 'quick and cheap' upstart Internet-related technology, with 35mm, the granddaddy 'complex and costly' traditional theatrical medium. Paley contends that she always envisioned it being screened that way, on 35mm. A lively score by Nik Phelps and the Sprocket Ensemble, with sound design by The Stikman, accompanies the 4.5 minute exercise in optical illusion. Within the film, the man and his dog shift in size, walk in and out of the frame in unpredictable ways, and otherwise confound 'normal' perspectives of vision. An interesting plot point is that the illusions finally cease after the man begins to meditate, resulting in a mandala-like image in which many dogs appear. When the man has reached inner peace, presumably, the story is resolved.

Paley works in the San Francisco Bay area of California and has created a number of other animated works, including a short I reviewed last month, The Stork (2002), which deals with the topic of population control.

Maureen Furniss, Ph.D. is founding editor of Animation Journal and author of Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (1998). She teaches in the Department of Film and Digital Media at Savannah College of Art and Design, in Georgia, and is currently writing a book related to animation production.

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