Fresh from the Festivals: August 2006’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films Bar Fight by Christy Karacas and Stephen Warbrick, Come On Strange by Gabriela Gruber, Le Couloir (The Corridor) by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, A Fish with a Smile by C. Jay Shih, and Jam Session by Isabela Plucinska. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

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 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.

Bar Fight (2001), 4:00, directed by Christy Karacas and Stephen Warbrick (U.S.). Contact: Christy Karacas [T] 347.256.9560, Stephen Warbrick [T] 917.379.7266 [W] www.barfightfilms.com

Come On Strange (2005), 3:30, directed by Gabriela Gruber (Germany). Contact: Gabriela Gruber [T] +49.30.805.75276 [E] gabrielagruber@web.de

Jam Session (2005), 9:30, directed by Izabela Plucinska (Poland). Contact: [W] www.izaplucinska.com

A Fish with a Smile (Wei Xiao Der Yu) (2005), 9:40, directed by C. Jay Shih (Taiwan). Contact: Patrick Mao Huang, Flash Forward Entertainment [T] +886.2.2926.2839, ext 11 [E] patrick@ffe.com.tw

Le Couloir (The Corridor) (2005), 17:18, directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol (France). Contact: Folimage [T] +33.4.75.78.48.68 [E] folimage@wanadoo.fr [W] ww.folimage.fr

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Beers, balls, bashed heads, Bar Fight! © Stephen Warbrick and Christy Karacas.

Bar Fight

If Bar Fight were a drink, the recipe would go this way: To one pint Pabst Blue Ribbon, add six Vivarin, two drops Uranium 238 and a corkscrew. Gargle all to the tune of Muleskinner Blues. Meanwhile the animated short of the same name is a thing of beautiful simplicity, promising and delivering in four excruciatingly funny minutes exactly what the title promises: this recipe calls for a watering hole, some guys, miscellaneous furniture and 80 quarts testosterone.

Theres a bar, theres country music on the jukebox, and the usual crowd is hanging out after hours shooting pool, playing videogames, working on a pitcher around a dirty table. Theyre lean, mean, hard-drinkin, chopper-ridin American dudes after dark. Then someone comes in, sits down at the bar and leans just a little too hard on his neighbors beer bottle. It tips. There is spillage. There is growling. There is a thrown punch.

What follows is what will, in years to come, be seen in the video dictionary under Hyperbole: 240 seconds of goofball stream-of-consciousness ultra-violence involving severed limbs, guys impaled on pool cues, a dwarf with a broken bottle, a giant that bursts out of the floor and bites peoples heads off, broken teeth and minor bruises. There is also a wonderfully incongruous bathroom interlude wherein a mullet-headed blonde dude takes a peaceful piss, dimly registers a scrawled slogan on the wall, listens to the Carpenters, washes up with a smattering of pink granulated soap, slicks back his hair, salutes his smiling reflection and finally returns to the battle outside and is instantly killed.

Its quick, its loud, its brilliantly timed and its got screamin guitar rawk for a soundtrack. The animation is traditional, and both the style and goofy tone reminded me of Magnus Carlssons Robin & Ben shorts for MTV theres the same slightly awkward line style and surreal approach to cartoon gore. Plus there are aliens. Bar Fight is a product of the similarly MTV-weaned minds of Christy Karacas and Stephen Warbrick, right-coasters and veterans of Beavis and Butt-head and other less-adolescent-than-you-might-think animated fare. They finished the short in 2001, but claim its been rejected by every festival in which its ever been entered (until, finally, this years Tribeca festival in New York), so if you havent seen it yet, youve got a good excuse.

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Unconscious appeal in red: Come On Strange. © Gabriela Gruber.

Come On Strange

Come On Strange could be a pep cheer for oddness, or possibly instructions for intentionally making the wrong first impression; either interpretation of the title would fit this fabulously inscrutable short. The piece is simple to write about in that its impossible to verbalize, which makes my job easy. Best thing for it is just to make a list: rough drawings, a bald human figure with spreading arms, gesturing things into existence or maybe trying to teach inanimate objects to fly, lots of red, a bucking bull, a cat landing on its feet, a human rotating in midair with a single line of a mummys shroud attached, a bird, boiling and roiling, three screens at the drive-in and a panther attack.

Like Ian Andrews Dolphins, this is an abstract non-narrative bliss-out over a compelling soundtrack. In the case of Dolphins, it was the ambient Still Return by Brian Eno and Harold Budd complementing Andrews visions of dolphins swimming away through caustic light into underwater infinity. In Come On Strange its the significantly more kinetic Internal Combustion from the album of the same name by jazz percussionist Glen Velez, a churning syncopated solo piece on the frame drum. The result is a bold a richly textured study in movement thats chaotic, insistent, virulent and driven. Like every good abstract animated short with music as the primary audio component, Come On Strange is a strong enough marriage of pictures and sound that the animation may own this piece of music forever.

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A band rocks the boards under an old couples feet one night at the Jam Session. © HHF Konrad Wolf.

Jam Session

The messy, messy fun of clay animation will always be waiting in the back of the drawer of every animators deskful of artistic techniques. Come the day engineers have pushed rendering technology far enough to simulate in photorealistic detail a full orchestra of gorillas in terrycloth habits playing Shostakovich in a wildflower field, on fire, underwater even then animators and audiences will still be susceptible to the gooey pleasure of blobs of color pushed around by fingers. Jam Session is a 10-minute burst of loamy joy by Polish artist Izabela Plucinska, about an older couple and a good band they almost missed by going to bed at a reasonable hour.

The middle-aged husband and wife live above a bar. Tonight theyre in bed, whiling away the evening, working through their own insomnia and the promise of the usual late-night noise from the patrons talking and drinking below. Hes puffing on the last cigarette of the day; shes counting his exhales sarcastically. The tap is dripping in the bathroom, so he gets up to shut it off. She gets up to check on him. He exits the bathroom while she squeezes in, and the doorways so tight their very being is assaulted the yellow clay of her dress gets mixed in with the white clay of his T-shirt, which both of them wipe away in aggravation.

Into this domestic stalemate comes a musical noise from below; the bands finally arrived, and they make their way through the crowd to the stage. Its a five-piece called Raz Dwa Trzy (look em up, theyre real) and they deliver a domestic blend of rock/jazz/folk, with a rhythm section backing two guitars and a mean accordion. The music rocks the house, literally and upstairs the wardrobe door knocks itself ajar. Theres a red dress inside. The woman sees it and gets ideas.

The husband gets up and checks the paper to see whos playing tonight and what kind of sonic ordeal he has to look forward to. The wife loses the yellow nightie in favor of a red dress. More seismic movement from downstairs, and a box of photos slips off the top of the wardrobe. The husband starts looking through the snapshots and is mesmerized by an image of he and his wife dancing. They lend an ear to the band, and toes start to tap. The band gets to the good part. The man and woman start to spin. The tune ends, and with a hoosh! they fall back. No great victory to mark down; just another evening survived, this one a bit more pleasant than usual.

Jam Session is a sea of earthy goodness in bright color, with clay moving around and up and down in the usual sort of two-and-a-half dimensions that the medium encourages. Everything, but everything, but everything is clay, from the headlights of a car moving down the road in an overhead shot to the bulging and shrinking accordion, and far from giving in to the way it necessarily limits the details of character animation, Plucinska picks the most important parts of the face and the most important gestures and telegraphs them as the center of a much more abstract environment. The humor is sly and the timing is dead-on; the voice performances are understated and honest, going from grumpy to bemused to exhilarated, faster than a guitarist resolving from A minor to C.

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He was just a lonely urbanite until he met A Fish with a Smile. © Flash Forward Ent.

A Fish with a Smile

A Fish with a Smile is a Taiwanese short based on a childrens book about a smiling fish and a lonely man. A marvelous and incongruous opening shot of fish swimming through a busy urban thoroughfare in the middle of the day pulls wide to reveal a giant aquarium, seen from inside a pet shop window, offering a multitude of colorful fish to interested passersby. Over several afternoons and evenings we see a certain man pass by and linger over a tiny shark-like fish behind the glass, a fish that first catches his eye and then warms his heart. Taking a swig from a bottle and raising it to toast the fish before passing out on the street, the guys clearly in emotional trouble, and he eventually decides hes met his true soulmate and takes the fish home one afternoon.

He eats dinner with the fish, takes his bowl to the sofa to watch TV with it, props it up beside the tub as he takes a shower and puts it on a stool next to his bed before he retires, even bending down to kiss it goodnight all the time the fish sporting the continuous peppy smile its maintained the whole day through. In the wee small hours, though, events take a turn for the far-out and the fish starts to glow fluorescent green as the contents of the room levitate and circle the frightened mans bed. When the man recovers his wits and sees the levitating fish bowl at his front door, he decides a nighttime field trip is in order. He follows his magical houseguest, bowl and all, down from his apartment to the street, out of the city and into a forest glade, where he is suddenly imbued with childhood memories of playing hide-and-seek and dancing with friends.

Finally they reach the ocean, and as the fish keeps going, returning to the sea, the man strips to nothing and joins him. He swims his heart out and seems full of joy until he happens to bounce up against a huge glass wall curving away in all directions the edges of a giant bowl in which hes trapped as the fish from the aquarium peers in from outside. The man wakes in bed. Unable to shake off the nightmare, he makes a decision and takes the bowl in hand, leaving the apartment. Following the same path out of town, but this time embarking from the shore in a rowboat, he goes out into the ocean and sets the fish free and, falling asleep in the rowboat, is enveloped in a green glow and lifted gently off the ocean waves and into the air.

A Fish with a Smile is technically accomplished and impressively designed; the production values are rich with resources. The character animation is all traditional, while the complexly detailed 3D cityscape and compositing were done digitally. The three co-directors, C. Jay Shih, Alan I. Tuan and Poliang Lin, have a broad range of experience between them. Shih lectures at the National Taiwan University of the Arts, Tuan is a veteran of Dynamix and Olive Jar Studios and Lin has worked on ad campaigns for instant noodles and Coca-Cola. What the short acts like more than anything, though, is a DreamWorks feature in miniature its overflowing with heartwarming music in emotional attack mode, and it even has a pop vocal ballad running over the credits. Its an éclair for the eyes, but to the stomach it feels more like a cup of NutraSweet.

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Intrigue is thick as thieves in The Corridor. © Folimage.

The Corridor

In the few days Ive had my preview copy of The Corridor, Ive watched it about six times, not including the time I dropped into Chunk Mode and found myself stopping to still-frame every 10 seconds. Unlike some pure eye candy Ive had the pleasure of seeing in the past few years, Ive been still-framing this movie to look for something more than good design: clues. The Corridor is a superb and superbly rare achievement an animated short where story and design are so strong they could live independent lives in unrelated films, and youre just as likely to hit pause to luxuriate in the visuals as you are to pick up a previously missed plot point.

Taking a welcome detour into the obsessive, claustrophobically subjective sci-fi plots that Jorge Luis Borges favored late in life, The Corridor is a story of a man forced to concentrate on empty space for a living who discovers to his shock that the less he sees, the curiouser it gets. He and his wife are introduced in their modest apartment, he sitting at the kitchen table waiting as she comes home. She didnt get the raise, and he doesnt have a job. Flirting with real hunger, he tries to get out in the fresh air for a change, but as his blood sugar drops he passes an art gallery with carved plaster Moai in the windows and stares as the sculpture chews on an imaginary, impossible meal.

An old man wakes him; hed passed out in front of the boutique and the owner of the shop had taken him inside. The young man thanks him and is about to go on his way when the old man makes him an offer; he might have a job the young man would be perfect for. The boutique owner seems harmless enough a one-note sculptor/painter with a thing for primitive figures, a storefront gallery to sell them in, and an old 78 of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five doing Basin Street Blues making endless circles on the gramophone. The next day the young man starts working for him.

Work is down the stairs and through a curtained doorway, in a small corridor. He has to sit there all day not reading, not dozing and make sure NOBODY gets into the room at the other end of the corridor, 20 feet away. The young man looks at the door, looks at the three street-level windows with bars in them at the top of the wall, and has a very impatient two days of doing what he thinks is either the stupidest job in history or a scam on the old mans part whose purpose he can only guess.

But despite the condescension of his wife, despite the fact that he never sees a thing coming or going in the hallway, he soon becomes obsessed with his job. A newfound concentration starts buzzing in him like the evenings first glass of wine. His senses become acute. When the boss asks him to work overnight one night, he gladly agrees, and stays right through his shift the next day. One afternoon hes looking hard and leaning forward to hear what he thinks are approaching footsteps, and to his shock the old man appears in the middle of the corridor coming toward him. The old man tells him hes been walking this corridor every day and its the first time the young man has noticed. Congratulations, the proprietor says. Its a great step forward.

The young man becomes so alienated from his wife, she leaves him; the old man becomes so confident in his progress he leaves the boutique in his assistants care while he goes away for what he promises wont be more than a week or two make sure you keep alert. By the time the promise of thieves turns into a real burglary, the weird quotient has already gone a few bumps past tilt, but the weirdness that follows is enough to knock this cinematic pinball machine fully onto its side.

When this Folimage/Film Bilder production comes to video in the U.S. (and it will, dammit think positively people!), prospective fans, as Ive mentioned, will be stopping and starting this film in search of both aesthetic pleasure and clues to what the hell happened. The visuals are traditionally animated drawings in chalk and inks, and human anatomy takes on a beautiful eccentricity, with long graceful noses, pointy diamond eyes and gracefully arching limbs reminiscent of the paintings of Amedeo Modigliani or Mark Gertler. The drama is tight as a drum, with the action moving forward briskly and relentlessly like a post-war noir. With all these elements working simultaneously at such a high level its big fun indeed.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank, where Reality is the #2 operating system. You can read his article on the making of Twice Upon a Time in the current issue of Animation Blast magazine, available now.

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