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Fresh from the Festivals: August 2005’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films Beak (Bek) by Lucette Braune, Frank and Wendy (Frank ja Wendy) by David Snowman, Frog by Christopher Conforti, Portrait of D (Retrato de D) by Mar Lorenzo, The Zit by Mike Blum. 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:

Beak (Bek) (2004), 12:00, directed by Lucette Braune (the Netherlands). Contact: il Luster Productions, Herenweg 45, 3513 CB, Utrecht, the Netherlands. [T/F] +31 (0) 30 24 007 68 [E] distribution@illuster.nl [W] www.illuster.nl

Frank and Wendy (Frank ja Wendy) (

2004), Serial: seven episodes x 9:10; TV special 75:21, directed by David Snowman (aka Pritt Pärn, Priit Tender, Kaspar Jancis and Ylo Pikkov) (Estonia). Contact Eesti Joonisfilm [E] info@joonisfilm.ee [W] www.joonisfilm.ee

Frog (2004), 3:54, directed by Christopher Conforti (U.S.). Contact Christopher Conforti [T] (561) 596-0914 [E] cecon40@aol.com

Portrait of D (Retrato de D) (2004), 8:21, directed by María Lorenzo (Spain). Contact: María Lorenzo Hernández, Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Department dibujo, Camino de Vera s/n, 46022 Valencia, Spain. [T] +34 96 387 74 63 [F] +34 96 387 74 69 [E] mlorenzo@dib.upv.es

The Zit (2005), 4:45, directed by Mike Blum (U.S.). Contact: Mike Blum, Pipsqueak Films [T] (818) 997-0787 [E] info@thezitmovie.com [W] www.thezitmovie.com, www.pipsqueakfilms.com

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A painter trades his daytime life for youth and fame as he paints the Portrait of D. © María Lorenzo.

Portrait of D (Retrato de D)

Portrait of D is a vampire story less obsessed with sharpened canines and sudden lunges for the throat than with the more Borgesian conceits of mirrors, portraits and portraits as mirrors. Its a short story with a three-act arc that nevertheless has been crunched nicely into a fast-moving 10 minutes using the kind of animation-only associative transitions of which Georges Schwizgebel is so fond, which D director Maria Lorenzo acknowledges as a primary influence.

In London at the end of the 19th century a society painter at a grand ball meets a tall, dark stranger from overseas. D, for this is the strangers name, convinces the painter to do his portrait. D is a fan of cabaret and other after-dark entertainment and never ventures out during the day, so every evening after 7:00 pm the two men meet in the painters studio for the preliminary sketches. Oddly, the painter wakes every morning to see his sketches of the night before reduced to wriggles of abstract blue strokes.

The painter decides to go ahead with his final oil portrait from memory, but when he steps back the figure on the canvas blurs. Nightmares follow, full of breaking mirrors and blood oozing from his canvas. Implicitly and later explicitly it comes about that the painter and D are having more than a professional relationship, and the painter starts to be seen about town in red-tinted glasses. (What he sees behind the shades is one of the aesthetic highlights of the short, with street-wandering glitterati shape-shifting into fanged predators and a zoom-in on a courtesans full breasts becoming a pair of staring eyes, as dogs bark and a cabaret band plays backwards.)

Eventually the painter abandons D, whose olive-green skin and pointed fingernails protrude from under the bathrobe but whose face remains an undifferentiated oval under his hair. Time goes by and at last the painter unveils his masterwork, the portrait of D that all of society considered unpaintable. As the curtain comes up, a gasp goes around the room as smoke pours from a hole in the canvas where the face should have been. The silence turns to polite applause, which builds to a rapture. Hes invented modernism, they cry confronted with the unpaintable visage of another, hes put himself on the canvas instead. The painter cant believe it, but he rushes to a mirror and his fears are confirmed; theres nothing to see but the back of his own head.

Portrait of D was animated traditionally, using acrylics in thick strokes that again are reminiscent of the works of Schwizgebel, although Lorenzo gets more life in her characters faces than the abstraction-minded creator of LHomme Sans Ombre. The color palette is fairly straightforward, full of earth tones, favoring reds and generally eschewing saturated hues. The teleportive scenic transitions from one location to another by means of a shared character or prop are particularly elegant. Portrait of D was a featured short at this years Annecy Festival.

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Youve braved the rent increase and the unpleasant taxi driver, but youve NEVER faced the horror of Frog! © Christopher Conforti.

Frog

Frog need water. Frog get wet! Frog happy. Really uptight humans at poolside unhappy. In Christopher Confortis screamingly funny animated short Frog, some men and women who havent learned to deal with the whole animal kingdom thing are confronted with a frog who just wants to get out of the baking sun and into something moist.

A spiteful and vindictive sun shines down on a plain green frog somewhere on the east coast, and the frog looks for relief. To his delight he spots a body of water thats clear and inviting, and he rushes to dive into it. Zoom out to reveal this is a backyard pool, with two boys and two girls cavorting in the water. These characters are clearly refugees from some dense urban landscape and need to get out more often, because the mere sight of their new green amphibious friend causes them to scream uncontrollably, smack the poor frog with a chrome grill spatula and run indoors.

Frog is bursting with comic energy from practically the first frame, but froggys trip to the pool initiates a Book of Job of slapstick events so rapid-fire they could burn down all of upstate New York. The chain of events packed into the shorts four minutes moves from run-for-your-lives panic to frog-versus-technology violence to a breezily scatological finale thats truly a showstopper.

Conforti animates traditionally in rough pencil sketches that he then scanned and colored digitally. His visual acting serves the comedy to the fullest, with exaggerated takes and subtle body language in equal amounts, but the voice work here is truly something else. You could experience this short blind or mute and get equal enjoyment out of it, so strong are both elements. The bullseye timing and rich dynamics of the voice teams wordless vocalizations will put you on the floor. Besides the voice of the director, I feel obligated to name-check his three additional voice talents, Melissa Jordan, Marc Tatti and Garrett Koeppicus. I dont know whos doing which voice, but were sure to find out, because with this as their demo tape, theyll have no end of credited industry work soon enough.

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Do I have The Zit, or does the zit have me? © Mike Blum.

The Zit

If only acne functioned in real life as it does in The Zit. In this CG short, a young man is getting ready to go to the school dance, practicing propositions to a favored girl whose picture is stuck to the bedroom mirror. His pet cat plays the target of his affection, and when hes got his courage sufficiently ratcheted up, kitty goes back to pawing at the birds in the branches just outside the window, and the boy gets ready for his night out. The boy takes a last sip on his soft drink no more of which he needs, clearly, as hes into plus sizes, pudgy, portly, a stout fellow, of goodly girth, definitely overweight.

One last peek in the mirror, and everything seems to check out, but as he tightens his belt one last time, the increased pressure inside his body cavity results in the protrusion of one pimple. The single red dot pops into view just beside his nose. This pin-sized point is barely visible, but he applies cream anyway. It goes away. A pencil-point-sized pimple appears nearby. He pushes it down without piercing it. An eraser-sized one pops up in its place.

In les than 30 seconds this blemish goes from zit to boil to a new body part. The poor boys skin becomes the game with the packing tape with the bubble in it that you push around and around but cant eradicate, only this bubbles blowing up like mushrooms in time-lapse photography. When it reaches the mass of a healthy cantaloupe the panicked boy finally decides violence is the answer, and grabs a fork to pierce the balloonish mass, which has by now already manifested itself as a variety of zoo animals protruding from various parts of his face. In goes the fork and away it comes, the points splayed in various directions.

He cant get relief, but he sees his cat still at the window pining after the birds outside. Quickly the boy dresses his zit like the biggest bird his cats ever seen, and tries to draw the kittys attention. The cat extends its claws and pounces. The result is a moist visual fireworks that leaves our hero transformed in a way that everyone addicted to acne-inspiring, fattening foods must wish they could do alone at home (if they could lay down plastic first).

Mike Blum is technical supervisor on Toy Story 3 (not a Disney/Pixar venture, this one, but strictly Disney/Disney a great name for a casino, by the way). He and various members of his team created The Zit during production downtime with the same primo gear youll see bringing Chicken Little and A Day With Wilbur Robinson to the big screen in years to come. The character acting here is somewhat limited, and the computer animation does commit the cardinal sin of looking computery; but the incident is frenetic and the ideas inspiring, driving the viewers interest right through to the finale.

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As weird has his beard, so this freak has her Beak. © il Luster Prods.

Beak (Bek)

Nobodys perfect; were all freaks at the freakers ball; we have met the bozos on this bus and us is them. Its a trope poignantly demonstrated by Dutch animator Lucette Braun in her haunting short film Bek, a biography in miniature about a girl who is a bird, who is neither.

The girl enters the world on top of a building in a cityscape where all lines are straight but skewed. A man surrounded by caged birds is shooting at a passing V formation when his pregnant wife appears behind him. She gives birth on the spot, and a freakish baby girl with all human parts save a beak and wings falls to the ground, landing amidst the wounded birds the man has shot from the sky. Its a violent entrance to the product of a violent relationship, and the husband ties the baby to a wounded bird with her umbilical cord and throws it airborne like skeet but his blasts miss, and bird and girl escape.

Outside of town is pitched a circus tent, and the bird and her passenger collapse into the middle of it to the delight of the strongman and, eventually, the paternal involvement of a kind but drunken clown. Years pass and though the girl still cant fly and never does she and her benefactor do come up with a small act to please the crowds. This gentle freak, it turns out, is as even-tempered and kind as the plain-faced spectators are ugly in thought and deed, and, in this dialogue-free mood piece, the crowds are given only animal grunts to express their basest expressions of scorn and derision.

The girl longs to wander across the desert plain and into the mountainous lands beyond, a desire that finds a lovely expression in worldly elements of sun and wind that form kind faces, beckoning from atop the mountain peaks. But when she finally does break with the circus and strike out on her own, she finds herself inexorably drawn to the city instead. Above her head she hears gunshots coming from the top of a building, and instinctively she flinches, but she never gets to confront her father due to an unfriendly mob that corners her in an alley and shouts abuse. Having never found her parents, she returns to the open plain of the circus tent, turns the other way, and disappears into a mirage, heading toward the source of the wind and sun.

Bek (Beak to English-speaking audiences) is animated traditionally in a gorgeous line style thats not been seen on the festival circuit in years, India ink drawn with a dip pen. The husk of that nib stretches like great black strips of musculature or flowing hair with every stroke. The animation is assured and aglow with life. Braun is capable of delivering friendly smiles in the eyes of a girl with an unarticulated beak, as well as grotesquely morphing features in the faces of the rogues gallery of paroles who torment her.

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No nazi dwarfs getting the better of Frank and Wendy. © Eesti Joonisfilm.

Frank and Wendy (Frank ja Wendy)

Evil is like a rabbit, only with shorter ears. This is about all the cogent philosophical information youre going to be able to take away from Frank and Wendy, a nutty new series of shorts from Eesti Joonisfilm. The director is David Snowman actually a collective including Priit Tender, Kaspar Jancis, Ylo Pikkov and Karl and Marilyn director Priit Pärn and they probably get great mileage out of blaming David for everything thats absurd about the series. Like Karl and Marilyn, however, you probably wont realize until your third viewing of any of these plot-saturated shorts that everythings actually been carefully worked out. It may make no sense, but its totally consistent in the way it doesnt make sense.

But getting back to the rabbit thing. If that single deranged axiom doesnt satisfy you, neither will the seven 10-minute episodes of Frank and Wendy. If, on the other hand, the phrase sounds eerily familiar to something you thought only yesterday, youre going to go bonkers for this series, which makes Law and Order look like C-SPAN.

Frank and Wendy are secret agents. Super-agents, actually. That is, in espionage terms, they are the Goodies to Boris and Natashas Baddies, and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show is not coincidentally a major touchstone. Like Bullwinkle, the shots proceed at a breakneck pace, the breathless narration never stops, and plot never gets in the way of a gag because it IS the gag. Unlike Bullwinkle, theres radioactive self-replicating cubes, man-eating suitcases, nudity, profanity and nazi dwarves. But the plots will be familiar to any long-time fan of Rocky and friends, updated only slightly for our post-X-Files cultural milieu.

Frank is a normal kinda guy, with blue slacks, red tie and an FBI-issued weapon, who only occasionally is turned into sausages and reconstituted. Wendy is also in the employ of the FBI, has breasts like cucumbers and will kick shit out of you if she thinks youre putting the moves on her. Their every move is being watched on closed-circuit TV by two hugely obese commanding officers far, far away in the land of the free and the home of the Super Size. In the three adventures I saw, theres also a recurring ghost rabbit character causing mischief, as well as multiple appearances by George Woo, a formerly jailed terrorist who has the ability through shamanistic drumming to reconstitute that which cannot be reconstituted. Which is handy when Frank gets turned into sausages.

You get the idea, and if you dont, you should go clean the pool or something, and not think for a moment of the logistics involved in getting a copy of this mad treat. You cant have mine its an NTSC dub of a scrambled PAL copy of something that probably originated in SECAM or god knows what. But through the dusty haze of multiple video generations, I see a work animated with great care, voiced by nutty talent, drawn in the usual muted eastern European palette and full of characters based on insane models, but rendered immaculately.

Though its full of Latvian jokes (i.e. Canada jokes/Scotland jokes relocated to Eastern Europe), and though the constant subtitles youre going to have to watch are going to keep your eyes away from some very busy action that you should be reading instead, you should definitely get a Eurasian friend to scam you a dub. As perfect as they are in tone and length, these seven episodes are probably too blue for us ever to see on Adult Swim.

(Eesti Joonisfilm does provide a clip from the episode Sausage Factory at their website, but without English subtitles. For the curious, here they are:

Frank enters the sausage factory. NARRATOR: Nazis! realized Frank. He did not yet know that he had discovered the infamous nazi dwarf sausage factory. But he sensed it. NAZI DWARF: You finally found us, Frank! NARRATOR: Frank knew that in the case of nazi dwarves only massive carpet-bombing would do. Contact must be made with headquarters Frank tries his cell phone. FRANK: Hellothe battery is deadDo you have a pay phone around here? NAZI DWARF: We only have a Deutsches Telekom card phone. FRANK: Doesnt it take coins? NAZI DWARF: Only cards. Are you ready? Frank is dragged down the conveyor belt, and into the meat grinder.)

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He recommends that all his readers, particularly depressives, buy a tambourine as soon as possible.

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