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Fresh from the Festivals: August 2007's Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films -- Carnival of Animals by Michaela Pavlatova, Battle of the Album Covers by Rohitash Rao, guy101 by Ian W. Gouldstone, Look for Me by Laura Heit and My Love by Alexander Petrov.

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 attests to the vitality of these works, but there are few other venues where they are exhibited, nor are they often reviewed. As a result, distribution tends to be difficult and irregular. On a regular basis, Animation World Magazine will highlight some of the most interesting of these films with short, descriptive overviews.

Carnival of Animals (Karneval zvírat) (2006), 10:30, by Michaela Pavlátová (Czech Republic). Contact: Katerina Riley [T] +420.606.634.688 [E] riley@tiscali.cz, Katerina Cerna [E] katerina@negativ.cz [W] www.negativ.cz, www.michaelapavlatova.com

Battle of the Album Covers (2006), 2:41, by Rohitash Rao (U.S.). Contact: Rohitash Rao [E] ro@uglypictures.us [W] uglypictures.us

guy101 (2005), 8:30, by Ian W. Gouldstone (U.K./U.S.). Contact: Ian W. Gouldstone [E] contact@iwgouldstone.com [W] www.iwgoulstone.com

Look for Me (2005), 3:30, by Laura Heit (U.S.). Contact: Maria Manton, Slinky Pictures, The Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL, U.K. [T] +44 (0) 2072476444 [F] +44 (0) 2072470164 [E] info@slinkypics.com ]W] www.slinkypics.com

My Love (Moya lyubov) (2006), 26:35, by Alexander Petrov (Russia). Contact: Lyuba Kuznetsova, Dago Film Studio, 2nd Kozhevnicheskiy, 12, Moscow, Russia 115114 [T] +74957753753, +74957753759 [E] lkuznetsova@dago.ru [W] www.dago.ru

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Carnival of Animals © Michaela Pavlátová, Negativ Prod. 

Carnival of Animals

Camille Saint-Saëns composed Carnival of the Animals in 1886 for a Mardi Gras celebration. Its a goofy 14-movement suite thats tailor-made for a bacchanal, and you can knock it out in under a half hour. Saint-Saëns was making a living as a serious composer at the time and he stipulated that no one perform the full suite while he was alive, reasoning that if listeners werent actually at a Mardis Gras they might not get the joke. Say what you will about modern times, but these days we definitely get the joke; Carnival is up for creative recycling all the time, and was memorably animated in Disneys Fantasia/2000 when animator Joe Grant gave a flamingo a yo-yo.

Last year Czech animator Michaela Pavlátová directed an animated short for a goodly chunk of the Carnival of the Animals suite with a design inspired by the illustrations of artist Vratislav Hlavat (whose wonderful Searle-like movie poster designs you can slobber over at the Terryho Ponozky online store). Pavlátovás Carnival of the Animals is the same carnival we all know, with some different animals attached: in Pavlátovás take, this ones almost entirely about people and entirely about sex.

After the opening title card, the film jumps straight to the second movement, Hens and Roosters, with the chickens represented by young girls and boys going from babyhood to puberty in under thirty seconds -- then flocking together in disparate groups, then eyeing each other suspiciously, then pushing one of their own out of the safety of the group to confront his/her opposing representative. Hands reach out tentatively, a breast and crotch are touched, and bingo. Fade out.

In the third movement, Wild Asses (Quick Animals), a scintillating mass of game-card body parts, including a wide variety of mighty swords and mammaries, coruscate across the screen to the speedy melodies of Saint-Saëns feral donkeys. The next segment skips ahead to the famous seventh movement, Aquarium, portrayed here as a fishbowl nocturne featuring a man and a woman in bed dreaming of other couples -- and singles -- who are whiling the night away in similar rooms. The dream imagery is strongest here, with a woman holding a pair of scissors standing purposefully across the room from a mysterious crocodile, and a woman clenching the back of a man in vaguely Communist uniform bent over a table with a gun in a drawer. Fish and mermaids float by; the camera floats from room to room; and finally man and woman embrace on their mattress as the sun rises and the water drains from their bedroom.

The eighth movement, Characters with Long Ears, is a serenade to a jackass; and, boy, is it the perfect context for an animated look at The First Time. Little boy. Big woman. Scared little virgin. Bored courtesan. Visions of friends jeering just beyond the bedpost. Flashes of women in bondage gear having a much better time. Yep, it all ends in tears. The next movement, Aviary, is much jollier: men and women relax in a public park doing rather unusual things with the birds -- the women offering up breasts to beaks, the men scattering their (literal) seed -- all while a fountain spurts happily away. Then comes The Swan -- here treated so beautifully and simply Ill duck it completely and let you have it fresh in your own first viewing. Finally comes the inevitable Finale where its the big party and simply everybodys coming! This is just too good to describe, but Ill say I was most impressed by eleven rabbits in a circle-jerk having it off with each others ears.

Pavlátová is best known on the festival circuit for her Oscar-nominated 1991 short Words, Words, Words, another instrumental animated short set in a café where all the patrons conversation turns into colorful solid objects taking flight. You can check it out if you can score a copy of International Tournee of Animation Vol. 6 (good luck). Whats great in that short is on display here too: a willingness to take it slow, a scratchy style of caricature that telegraphs huge amounts of personality, and generally a lot of soul and wit. Pavlátová spent 1998-2001 in San Francisco making the Flash series Graveyard for Wildbrain; shes since returned to the Czech Republic and is now in prep on a live-action feature.

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Battle of the Album Covers © Rohitash Rao. 

Battle of the Album Covers

Battle of the Album Covers is a ballistic, copyright-defying free-for-all of sex and violence starring some of the best-known album art of the last four decades. It was animated by Man Vs. Magnet for Ugly Pictures, helmed by New York-based art director Rohitash Rao.

If an album cover is a statement, any two album covers can enter into a conversation if you only stand them next to each other. Stack up fifty or sixty in a row, as the producers of this short have done, Photoshop and After Effects some of the more prominent elements, and get ready to rumble. Madonna, Def Leppard, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Rick James, Metallica, the Beatles and dozens of other artists all make appearances in this battle royal -- and, by proxy, so do their many art directors, including well-known design stars like Hipgnosis and Peter Blake.

So what do a few dozen albums do when theyre squeezed together in a tight, two-and-a-half-minute space? Act out, apparently -- Billy Joel throws rocks, the Beatles run across Abbey Road and out of sight, Ozzy bites limbs off Weezer and the B-52s, a hand goes digging behind the zipper on Sticky Fingers and pulls out the banana from The Velvet Underground & Nico. Its a technical achievement with great timing, Daytona speed, and an eagle eye for detail. Its also more of an ad for the personalities of the makers of the film than they probably needed, especially if youve seen their previous short Coffee (see FFF, June 2006). The old book/movie/record collection-comes-alive trope is so broad you can take it literally anywhere, and for the most part Rao and company are happy to stay in bloodbath mode. Its pretty frat-boy-happy throughout, and the additional dialogue and made-up scenarios -- like the crowd on the cover of High n Dry chanting Jump! Jump! Jump! to the guy about to dive into the empty pool and be dismembered -- take the vibe from glee to creep-out pretty quickly.

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guy101 © I.W. Gouldstone. 

guy 101

guy 101, a tale about two guys and a random pickup that goes terribly wrong, is an entirely ominous film. Or perhaps its just bemused. And its exploitive of its subject matter. Or its sympathetic. And the filmmaker is gay, or straight, or something. The genius of guy 101 is that you cant quite grok the point of view. The voice-over isnt friendly or unfriendly; the facts are unencumbered by emotional trigger words; theres no musical score to point the way. Its tone is totally flat, neutral, and ambiguous, and thats just half of why its so compelling. The other reason is that the execution is exactly the opposite -- laser-focused, specific to the point of invasion of privacy, and suspenseful as all get-out.

The narrator tells the story in a nonregional American monotone: Once he met a guy in an Internet chat room. His e-handle was guy101, but the narrator found out his first name was Keith. In Keiths profile was a picture of him shirtless, just torso and part of the head, enough to see his handlebar moustache. Keith lived in Ohio. Keith had a house. Keith had hobbies and interests. Keith also had a story to tell about a hitchhiker he picked up once on the interstate. The hitchhiker said he was horny, and did Keith know any girls. Keith said no. The hitchhiker asked if Keith was straight. Keith said no. The hitchhiker asked for a blowjob.

Keith took the hitchhiker back to his house. They cracked a brewski. They went upstairs. Keith took off everything. The hitchhiker only took off his belt. The sex was not consensual. The hitchhiker tied up Keith and stole his car -- and came back later with handcuffs and a cigar. When it was over, Keith had seventeen bruises and five third-degree burns -- and a punchline to his own story that could re-freeze a melted popsicle in Tunisia.

On its own, the tale is enough to give crawly skin to freewheeling singles everywhere. Whats brilliant about animator Ian Gouldstones delivery, and what makes it successful as an animated short, is its subjective POV, geared to a computer eye circa 1997: the world is all windows -- windows that contain intimate vital statistics, state mottoes, a Goodyear Blimp, HTML-encoded population data, fish, and icons of men in red-checkered flannel. Life is parsed out in the language and currency of the online experience -- Power User pops up on a mans identifier after he chugs a bottle of beer; overhead signs on the freeway declare < HITCHHIKER has entered the room >, a sampler on the wall of Keiths home spells out K:HOME-SWEET-HOMEUSERS in red yarn.

Gouldstone is a U.S. native who earned an honors degree in math from Harvard in 2001, then relocated to the U.K. to enroll at the Royal College of Art. guy 101 was his thesis project for an M.A. in Animation in 2005. Hes worked in development at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, consulted on advertisements, music videos, and shorts, and recently founded his own design company. guy 101 won a BAFTA award and was a Student Grand Prix winner at this years first Platform Festival.

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Look for Me © Slinky Pictures. 

Look for Me

Look for Me is the latest from animator/puppeteer Laura Heit, an experimental animation instructor at CalArts in Valencia and a sometime animation director for the London collective Slinky Pictures. Lauras personal Website gives a taste of her low-key and bittersweet design style, but before you read about Look for Me, you should treat yourself to a full immersion in her talents by watching her beautiful and melancholy 2003 short, The Amazing, Mysterious & True Story of Mary Anning and Her Monsters. (The full piece is online at the Website for Lumen Eclipse.) Anning was an early British paleontologist who discovered the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton but never won due scientific recognition in her lifetime because of her gender, and Heit tells her story using live-action rod puppets inhabiting painterly and elaborate sets.

Heit has previously animated in stop-motion cutouts (Parachute, 1997) and traditional 2D drawings (Collapse, 2002). Look for Me is a more CGI-intensive work of digital cutouts composited in After Effects, but deriving from the paper snippets and hand-drawn expressions of her puppet work. Its a simple story, based on a riff that sounds like it emerged in one breath from the mouth of her narrator: What if I woke up one day and I was invisible?...Well first Id start -- heh -- Id have this incredible desire to just run around and start smashing things, cuz no one would be able to stop me... The female speaker does eventually admit that she doesnt really want to hurt anyone, but she does think everyone would love to have an invisible friend.

The usual list of invisibility advantages is dissected and illustrated, from secret shopping sprees to free plane rides, but Look for Me is more a meditation on how invisibility would affect the narrators relationships with the people she loves. While shes jumping backyard fences to spy on a naked couple playing Scrabble, or freeing animals from the zoo, her sense of joie de vivre is tempered by the sight of her boyfriend going from tree to tree posting Missing signs. Theres no easy way to tell someone youre invisible, she mulls.

Heit has adapted her art to accommodate some truly schizophrenic extremes, from directing TV spots for Ovaltine and interstitials for MTV, to touring with a tiny solo cabaret act in which whole stories unfold inside a single matchbox. The Minneapolis native, who earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a subsequent degree from the Royal College of Art, likes working in a palette that never strays too far from the greens, blues, and browns of a Victorian garden in between rain showers -- chilly to look at, but with a soulfulness you can really snuggle up to.

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My Love © DAGO-Film Studio. 

My Love

Aleksandr Petrov isnt the only animator doing paint-on-glass, but he may be the most likely to make you think youre watching the work of some unknown, long-lost 19th-century Impressionist animator who filled galleries with thousands of oil canvases that have only now been properly sequenced and photographed. His Oscar-nominated short The Cow is about a family cow in suicidal despair over the loss if its calf that was sold for meat, and if you didnt weep buckets when you saw it in 1989, its because you died in 1988. The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1992), Mermaid (1997), and his Oscar-winner The Old Man and the Sea (1999) were in the same style, and last year his Yaroslavl-based studio finally wrapped his latest directorial effort, My Love, in time for the Hiroshima International Animation Festival. Its Petrovs longest yet at 26 minutes, its a Japanese co-production with Moscows Channel One Russia, and its a romance novelette of sweeping passions and starry-eyed youngsters, with pre-Revolution Russia as its backdrop.

In 1890s-era Moscow, Anton, a boy from a wealthy family, is about to take his exams. Hes 16 and hes just read Turgenevs First Love, so naturally his daydreams turn to the poor orphan girl, Pasha, whos a servant in his house. Shes illiterate and hes ambivalent, but that doesnt stop him from giving her an exquisite miniature duck made of blue glass from his box of keepsakes. One day, as hes reading in a backyard tree, another girl, this one in blue-tinted spectacles, calls to him from the opposite side of the fence to fetch her kitten from the highest branch. Id kiss you if there werent a fence in the way, she says, tantalizingly.

Later Anton sees her having an open-air meal with a group of serenading male companions, and he rushes to his writing desk to pen some purple prose: Your face is like a heavenly flower Meanwhile the servant Pasha keeps flirting with Anton even as he pines for the other -- and hes falling for her so hard that he finally gets up the courage to leave a letter full of verses anonymously on her doorstep.

In the marketplace the next day, to his great shock, the unknown girl appears at his side and asks him where she should leave her letter of reply. He breathlessly tells her to put it by the fence. Later that night, Pasha comes upstairs to tell Anton about her arranged marriage to the local footman. Do you want to? Anton asks, and Pasha kisses him -- an old, familiar kiss. I like being with you, she sighs.

Later, Anton is in the garden when the mystery girl drops off her note. This cant continue, she says. Its in my letter. They kiss through the fence, and she runs. The next day Anton notices Pasha and the footman having a little nookie in the stable. Anton lunges at the footman, but ends up on the floor. In the house, Pasha tells Anton shes seen him kissing the girl through the fence, and she takes Antons precious glass duck and smashes it to bits on the floor.

Anton sleeps fitfully and is awoken by Pasha, whos crying A murder up at the shepherds house! The shepherds killed his wife and his father with an axe. Daughter-in-law and father-in-law had been seeing each other regularly since shed married the nebbish shepherd and, as the police drag the shepherd away from his burning house, he cries, I killed the sinners!

Some time later, a little girl comes up to Anton in the street with a note addressed to My dear crazy poet. His mystery admirer bemoans living with a bunch of serenading jerks who dont understand her. Anton goes home, and on the way he stops to join a crowd ogling an escaped bull. The footman rolls up his sleeves and says hell handle it. But he misjudges, and the bull gores and throws him. Pasha is watching from an upper-story window and she collapses, screaming, Hes dead, for nothing!

All this makes Anton quite feverish, but he still goes to the church, where he and the mystery girl have arranged to meet. Her name is Seraphina. She takes him down the road to a glade and they roll in the grass. Finally the blue specs come off -- revealing a right eye made of glass. Now youve seen the cause of all my pain, she whimpers. And now you wont love me anymore. Anton falls into a fever dream with his own verses echoing ironically in his head: Your face like a flower from heaven!...

Anton is bedridden with a brain fever, and he imagines hes buried in the snow with his face spewing fire. Pasha comes to him -- shes privately promised God that if Anton recovers, shell leave the house -- and tells Anton goodbye, merging into Antons fever-dream as she appears to row away through strings of hanging laundry. When Anton comes out of it, Pasha has left and joined a nunnery, and he cries into his pillow for his one true love.

If it sounds overheated on the page, it likely was in the original Russian as well; My Love is based on a story by Ivan Shmelyov, who wrote it in 1926 as a kaleidoscopic tour of the Moscow of his youth. Born into a Russian merchant family in 1873, Shmelyov thought that the October revolution didnt bode well, and split for France in the early 1920s. When he wrote A Love Story in exile in 1926, he wrote it for a protagonist who would have been his age in the year the story takes place, and its very much a romantic pastoral in the spring meadow of his brain, as he recalls his fondest high school-era Moscow haunts.

It should come as no surprise to Petrovs fans that his latest work is yet another literary adaptation, since The Cow was based on a story by Platonov, Dream of a Ridiculous Man came out of Dostoevsky, Mermaid was originally a Pushkin story, and The Old Man and the Sea was adapted from the famous tale by Hemingway. Petrovs instincts for dramatic flow are spot-on as usual, and he plucks just enough incident from his incident-heavy source to allow a lot of scenery and beautifully expressive faces to go by, along with the action. The acting comes with a heavy assist from rotoscoped source video, but this film still couldnt exist in any other medium but animation. From wild dream sequences to leisurely pans across impossible-to-recreate vistas of 19th-century Moscow, this is an expression drawn equally from real exteriors and from landscapes of the mind.

Ghibli Studios released My Love theatrically last March, as part of their Ghibli Museum Library program of Japanese reissues of non-Japanese animation. (Think of Disney importing all those great Ghibli films in carefully crafted re-dubs, only the products flowing the other way.) Depending on the Oscar campaign it generates, hopefully well be enjoying a DVD of this and all of Petrovs animated shorts by this time next year.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. Dancing alien, dancing robot, people dancing at work, strutting buxom lady, staring kitten, refinance now.

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