Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Snout by Tilmann Vogt, Birthday Boy by Sejong Park, Cretaceous Christmas by David Derrick Jr., O by Simon Goulet and Karl and Marilyn by Priit Pn. 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.
Birthday Boy (2004), directed by Sejong Park, Korea/Australia, produced by Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Contact: Ruth Saunders, distribution manager, Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), Balaclava & Epping Rds, North Ryde NSW 2113, Australia; [T] (+61) 2 9805 6455; [F] (+61) 2 9805 1275; [E] email@example.com.
Cretaceous Christmas (2003), directed by David Derrick, Jr., U.S.A., produced by CalArts. Contact: David Derrick, Jr., 25825 Tournament Rd. I-3, Valencia, California 91355; [T] (661) 284-2715; [E] firstname.lastname@example.org.
OÏO (2003), directed by Simon Goulet, Canada, produced by Amoniak Films. Contact: Simon Goulet, Amoniak Films Distributions, 5425 rue Bordeaux, bur. 315, Montreal, Quebec H2H 2P9 Canada; [T] (514) 529-1029; [F] (514) 529-1206; [E] email@example.com; [W] www.oiofilm.com.
Karl and Marilyn (2003), directed by Priit Pärn, Estonia, produced by Eesti Joonisfilm (Estonia) and Kinoproduction Oy (Finland). Contact: Kalev Tamm, producer, Eesti Joonisfilm, Roo 9, 10611 Tallinn, Estonia; [T] (372) 677-4228; [F] (372) 677-4122; [E] firstname.lastname@example.org; [W] www.joonisfilm.ee/.
What if a curious stripteaser would retire with a razorblade in the pharmacy? What if a baggy teenager would run 100 meters with a sleeve in the zoo? What if a polar bear would harvest grapes with a birthday cake in the closet? These and other million-dollar premises are ripe for the picking at animator Tilmann Vogt's Wheel of Forging (http://tilfive.de/Wheel05.html). You only think he's kidding - this random premise generator with more than nine billion possible answers is in fact a highly subversive tool that Hollywood producers have obviously been using for years. I only had to press "refresh" seven times before I was rewarded with the downright uncanny pitch "What if an American shark would imitate politicians with a dinosaur puzzle in a wine glass?" Take that to Cartoon Network and odds on you'd be told "Lose the wine glass, and I think we can make room for it in fall 2006."
All right, stop writing down premises and take a look at Vogt's demo reel. Tilmann's latest short is Snout, a kid-friendly exploration of the concept of "got your nose" dramatized by Snout the Pig and Snatch the Rat. (What if a doubtful flyer would climb a tree with a mantrap in the backyard? Sorry.) Snout is a snorer, and a bother to his suitemate Snatch, who's having trouble sleeping. One morning Snout wakes to the discovery that his oinkerly facial protuberance has gone AWOL. Is it in the sheets with him? Nope. Is it under the bed? Negative. Is it wait a minute. Snatch has a suspicious pink nose-shaped item at his side. It's only a pair of binoculars, though, as Snatch demonstrates by putting them up to his eyes and scanning the distant horizon. So Snout keeps looking.
Trying on several items from the toy box, Snout attempts to substitute for his missing nose by planting other objects on his mug, but stuffed animals and a Rubik's Cube just don't cut it. Meanwhile Snatch, eyed with increasing suspicion by Snout, is demonstrating the multi-purpose nature of his new binoculars, which, coincidentally, can also be used as a pink flowerpot with holes for two flowers and a very tight pair of shorts. Alas, Snout starts to sneeze, and his disembodied nose joins in, sneezing the rat out of his "shorts" and into a very guilty expression. But Snatch explains that Snout's snoring has been keeping him up nights, and steps are taken to relieve the problem through the convenient removal of yet more body parts.
Snouts characters are 3D, performing in a charming refrigerator-art-quality 2D set. As in Vogt's previous shorts Tobi and Ben Nevis' Nap (2002 and 2001, respectively), the comic timing is a bull's-eye and the acting is strong. Snout was produced as Vogt's senior thesis at the University of Applied Sciences, Mainz, in a traditionally budget-free academic environment (he paid his composer by designing his business cards). Other items from his reel can be viewed at his Til5 Website, including a cheerfully Stan Freberg-esque switcheroo where a commercial for pest spray is done in the form of a perfume ad. It makes you wonder: What if a curious phrenologist would win a marathon with a coconut in a paper plant?
Birthday Boy looks at a day in the life of a small Korean boy in 1951 on the last day before his world changes. This quiet CGI short unfolds in a mountain village nearly devoid of life, human or otherwise, where the greenery lays muted by winter cold and the men have long since been swept away by conscription. There's a downed plane lying in ruins inside a building near the village square, and in its fuselage we meet a boy pulling rivets and singing a nursery rhyme. As soon as he's found a good rivet he makes his way up a slope to the railroad tracks, where he carefully lays it on the rail, and in short order a train arrives and runs it down. The boy watches the train with its cargo of tanks pass by, and then retrieves his bolt, which is now flattened and whizzo! magnetized.
Homeward he runs, stopping behind a rocky embankment to throw stones at an old man on a bike on the path below. "There's too many of them!" he mutters, and pulling an imaginary pin from his rock he lobs his play grenade down at his prey, who crashes his bicycle and cusses him out. At home he kicks off his shoes before mounting the porch, where a package awaits him. Big red text covers it he can't read it and neither can we promising important things within. The contents turn out to be quite mundane not the greatest present, perhaps, but a present nonetheless. He plays parading soldier for a while before going inside to play with his new magnet, which he incorporates into a tableaux of war toys on a desk below old family photos. He naps. His mother returns. "Manuk Mum is home" and the piece is over.
Like a good Raymond Carver short story, this 10-minute film depicts events that appear on the surface as ordinary as a sheet of drywall, but as a wealth of details emerge we find ourselves standing on the margins of some terrible event we've just missed, off-screen on the other side of a hill or buried in a memory even the characters can't name. Then the rug is pulled, and we are invited to bang our heads gently on the results.
Birthday Boy was written, directed and animated by Sejong Park as a student project at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, for which he earned his MA in Digital Media. He could have done this in live-action at a cost of several millions but even still he probably never would have achieved the acting on display in his very young main character's cherubic face. A filmmaker could follow a child for days or weeks and never capture Manuk's classic expression as the wonder of the bolt-flattening train recedes into the distance, and his features melt from goggle-eyed joy not to the disappointment an adult would feel, but to simple dull-eyed boredom. A less mature animator would map in that disappointment not because the character felt it but because he did; it's a measure of Park's achievement that these and other small character moments are not just restrained or subtle but practically perfect.
Care to strike-break a union of reindeer? Get dinosaur scabs. This is the universal message of David Derrick Jr.'s short Cretaceous Christmas, his second-year project at CalArts. Santa's reindeer have gone on strike, calling a press conference to demand higher pay and more vacation time even as the layabouts lean up against their sports cars and sip wine with their reindeer sweeties in an ostentatious display of easy living. Santa laments their disavowal of the true meaning of Christmas, namely getting the damned presents delivered, so he flips the phonebook until he finds a promising means for breaking up this gang of hooved troublemakers. A bevy of extinct reptiles led by a T-Rex soon appear and gobble up all the reindeer. In their stead, Santa ropes the dinosaurs to his sleigh, and into the night they ride.
Derrick Jr. is a major Jurassic Park-phile and the key image of the piece, Santa with his sled led by eight giant dinosaurs silhouetted against the moon, was the Christmas card from which he worked backwards to generate this film. The traditionally-animated frames are pencil tests, digitized and colored, and the whole gag unfolds in less than four minutes. There's a wonderful image of a triceratops with a belt of sleigh bells strapped around its midsection; the rest of the piece is less compelling.
OÏO is the end product of one filmmaker's decade-long obsession with oil paint in motion as a liquid in zero gravity, as an exercise in chaos, as surface tension reacting in three dimensions, as pure color unchained from a canvas. It is also immune to treatment by words. Like Zbig Rybczynski's early experimental animation, it exists not to be described, only to be seen.
The film takes as its source imagery slow-motion footage of oil paint being thrown through the air. It's liberating to watch color after color soars through the frame in digitally separated layers, arcing, forming droplets, bubbling out in great sacs and bursting into empty space. For nine of its 10 minutes that's all the concrete information the viewer's mind can process, and all thoughts fall away into abstraction. I found myself thinking about food, and the purples struck me as a potentially tasty meal.
The artistic force behind this process starts to assert itself through direction of movement, speed, size and juxtaposition of colors. A boiling soup of blue gets its own multi-second showcase all to itself. Different colors are kept discretely separated, and then suddenly yellow and red merge in a static, filmy pool. What begins as a simple multi-layer experience has turned fractal by the piece's end, as hundreds of photographic elements are carefully composited into a raging, viscous, kaleidoscopic swarm. All this ends in a conceptual surprise that charms in its simplicity, even as it bends the mind.
Director Simon Goulet took 11 years and 540 liters of paint to create OÏO. Elements were captured on film at up to 360 frames-per-second and then digitally composited. There's something else I need to share with you a credit from the closing crawl. I invite you to meditate on these two words, my fellow industry denizens, and then ask yourself if you still really want to direct: Catapult Operator.
Karl and Marilyn
Priit Pärn is an Estonian animator about whom books should be, and are, written. (AWN's own Animation Pimp wrote one, and your local library doesn't have a copy yet. Take the hint.) Totally in control of his art, dedicated to enforcing strict narrative drive, and utterly deranged between the ears, Pärn has produced a body of work build of mini-epics the bulk of which stretch over a half hour apiece. Often compared to the Monty Python oeuvre, both in terms of timing and topics, Pärn's subject matter is also very much in the camp of Billy Wilder (and not just apropos of his obvious lifts from the Wilder film canon) in the way he combines bitter and sweet. Good writers create memorable characters, and then they nudge them into harm's way; you can't tell which part of this process Pärn enjoys more.
Karl and Marilyn is the artist's latest creation, and it's a riot. This is some demented shit, so stay with me, just stay with me here 'cuz I'm gonna explain the plot: The title characters are a man and woman who look somewhat superficially like Karl Marx and Marilyn Monroe, hence the names. Karl is a champion athlete who, as the story opens, is delighting the crowds that forever dog his place of residence by performing a wildly complex precision dive off a bridge into the local river. Marilyn is a poor girl stuck in an apartment endlessly unthreading string for her near-comatose matron behind a drawn curtain in a scene of domestic imprisonment whose parameters we can only guess.
Karl is sick of the adulation, the flashed breasts from adoring fans, in short the damned trappings of all that damned fame. He sneaks out and makes a special trip to his barber. Normally Karl is instantly recognizable in public because of his flowing mane of red hair with matching beard; to his barber's horror, he insists the whole schmeer be shaved off. Crying wretchedly, his barber complies, and Karl emerges as a man no punter would give a second glance. The intrigue begins when Karl kills the barber, as Captain Kidd would his mapmaker, and takes his secret away with him out of the shop or so he thinks, as he has been secretly photographed by a man across the street. (I'm not going to tell you the circumstance under which the man took the photo; it's truly priceless in its absurdity.)
Meanwhile Marilyn is plotting to escape the apartment. While her captor is not looking, she reaches behind four legs of the woman's chair and saws them through one by one (truly a sign of coordination or, more likely, a comatose captor). As the matron falls back unconscious to the floor, Marilyn puts on that iconic white dress we know as Miss Monroe's subway-grate-blown costume from The Seven Year Itch. Buoyant, free and bursting with song, and only slightly stained with blood from the Matron's head injury, Marilyn and dress leap out the window and start prowling the streets looking for a wind-blown grate to stand on.
What happens next is not just bizarre, goofy, deviant and whimsical, it's also tightly plotted. Pärn's line style of traditional animation appears at first glance to be highly caricatured and freewheeling, but Pärn has very definite ideas about where the scene is headed, where your eye should be headed, and what happens to shapes when people go around corners. Karl's face may turn into a wildly unnatural crest-shape when the hair disappears, but once he establishes this convention Pärn never goes off-model; like a Man Ray portrait, this is surrealism whose execution leaves nothing to chance.
The subject matter is one of Pärn's favorites, the cult of celebrity, and he dissects it with a fertile inventiveness that plays with matches even as it douses your most basic expectations with lighter fluid. Whether genius or utterly otherwise, Pärn's scenarios deliver unexpected goods, like the UPS driver bringing to your door not a box of books but Steve Martin. Pärn is, in short, a lateral thinker who may yet have the chutzpah to answer some of art's toughest questions, questions like What if a sober wrestler would study physics with an axe in Venice?
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. The cow goes "moo." Centripetal force equals mass times velocity squared over radius.