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Fresh From the Festivals: December 2000's Film Reviews

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...

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.

This Month:

Dottini Suru? (Your Choice!, 1999), 10 min., directed by Koji Yamamura, Japan. Info: Yamamura Animation, Inc., 4-8-10 Kasuya Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 157-0063 Japan. Tel: (81) 3 3309 0649. Fax: (81) 3 3309 6476. E-mail: yam@jade.dti.ne.jp. URL: www.jade.dti.ne.jp/~yam/E-index.html

The Man with the Beautiful Eyes (1999), 5.5 min., directed by Jonathan Hodgson, UK. Info: Sherbert, 112-114 Great Portland Street, London W1N 5PE UK. Tel: (44) 02 (0) 7636 6435. E-mail: mail@sherbert.co.uk. URL: www.sherbet.co.uk/

A Supseita (The Suspect, 1999), 25 min., directed by Jose Miguel Ribeiro, Portugal. Info: Zeppelin Filmes, Ida., Produtora e Estdio de Anima*ao em Volumes Plo Technolgico de Lisboa, CID - Lt 1 1600-546 Lisboa, Portugal. Tel: (351) 21 710 1100. Fax: (351) 21 716 1903.

The Periwig-Maker (1999), 15 min., directed by Steffen SchSeffler, Germany. Info: Steffen Schaeffer, Cranach Str. 41, D-12157 Berlin, Germany. Tel/Fax: (49) 30 8560 21 51. E-mail: idealstandardfilm@t-online.de.

Father and Daughter (2000), 8.5 min., directed by Michael Dudok de Wit, Netherlands. Info: Michael Dudok de Wit, Unit 153, 31 Clerkenwell Close, London EC1R 0AT UK. Tel/Fax: (44) 20 7608 1188. E-mail: m@dudokdewit.com. URL: www.dudokdewit.com.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.

Your Choice!© Koji Yamamura/DENTSU, INC.320x240| 160x120

Your Choice!© Koji Yamamura/DENTSU, INC.320x240| 160x120

Your Choice!

It is not without hesitancy that I embark on a review of this film; although it is certainly charming to watch and listen to, I don't really understand it. A plot summary provided to me suggests that Raoul, an alligator, has a bad tooth and also needs a haircut. Another character, an armadillo named Madillo, is trying to decide if he should bring an umbrella with him. Sounds simple enough, I know, but the 'story' itself unwinds in a rather disconnected way, with surreal elements -- including three men behind a counter reciting "What's your choice?" periodically -- so that I'm never quite sure exactly what is going on. What really intrigues me about the film, though, is the fact that my eight year-old daughter, after seeing it last summer at the Annecy International Film Festival, kept chanting that same refrain. And when I asked her which film she liked most on that day, Your Choice was her winner.

Having also won the first prize at the Chicago International Children's Film Festival and a host of other awards, it is clear that the film has a strong connection to children and their imaginations. This is not altogether surprising, since director Koji Yamamura made the film with the help of several 'junior directors' -- elementary-school children who participated in workshops where story development was discussed. Yamamura then used their ideas to create the animated imagery, using pencil and ink on paper, as well as 2D computer generated images with RETAS!PRO and Photoshop. The film was produced by Shigeki Sawa, at Dentsu Inc., Japan.

Yamamura is a self-taught animator who graduated from the faculty of Painting in Tokyo Zokei University and has worked as a freelance animator and illustrator, producing short animated films, as well as television commercials and multi-media works. Among his influences, he counts animators Ishu Patel, Paul Driessen, Co Hoedeman, Yuri Norstein, Priit Parn and Karel Keman.

The Man With The Beautiful Eyes. Sherbert Films Ltd. 320x240 | 160x120

The Man With The Beautiful Eyes. Sherbert Films Ltd. 320x240 | 160x120

The Man with the Beautiful Eyes

Another take on childhood can be found in The Man with the Beautiful Eyes, a 5.5 minute paint on paper and cel animation directed by Jonathan Hodgson. It, too, has a message that is somewhat enigmatic, though in a manner completely different from Your Choice! This film, which is based on a poem by Charles Bukowski, tells the story of a group of boys who are fascinated with a mysterious house. Their parents have warned them to stay away from it, which, of course, makes it all the more tempting. One day they encounter the man who lives there; he curses while leaving the house, then addresses the boys cordially before returning inside, never to be seen again. He has long, unkept hair, a bottle of whiskey in his hand and a cigar in his mouth, and the boys see him as a strong, natural man who provides an attractive alternative to the conventional lives of their mothers and fathers. When the man's home burns down, the children suspect it was their parents who did it, because (in the children's logic) their parents hate what this man represents and want to shield their children from it at all costs.

Of course, all this is seen from the youths' perspectives, as they try to figure out who this man is and what he represents. For the viewer, a dual interpretation emerges. We understand that this man is likely of dubious nature (a missing child poster seen on a wall reinforces this idea), yet something tells us that, indeed, society would likely want to crush this kind of free spirit, a crack in the system of 'normalcy.' In that respect, we are left questioning who the man is, why his home burned down, and what to make of the film's theme, in effect placing ourselves within the boys' own points of view.

The film's story is told through English voice-over narration, but the action is illustrated through a combination of text and images that capture the essence of the story. The director describes his work as an attempt to create 'visual poetry' that does not always illustrate the story in a literal way. He and the film's designer, Jonny Hanah, decided to collaborate on the film due to their shared admiration for Bukowski's writing. I think the result is an interesting example of the use of text in a film, as well as creative 'camera movement' as a way to energize the visuals. Hodgson studied at the Royal College of Art and worked as a commercial animation director for several years before setting up his studio, Sherbert, in London with Jonathan Bairstow in 1996. They produce commercials and television graphics as well as short films.

The Suspect. © Zeppelin Filmes.320x240 | 160x120

The Suspect. © Zeppelin Filmes.320x240 | 160x120

The Suspect

It is relatively rare that a 25-minute animation keeps my eyes glued to the screen these days, but The Suspect did exactly that. In my opinion, it provides a great example of 3D animation; I think it comes close to the quality of an Aardman work, though The Suspect employs puppets rather than plasticine figures. It is obvious that every aspect of the film was crafted with care, from the stylized background and character designs, to the cinematic editing and use of sound and effects, such as a wisp of smoke and light falling across the set. Ruffling newspapers and a fancy penknife that flies through space are among the effects that create a very entertaining puppet film.

The story involves four quite different characters who find themselves together in a train compartment. An older man, reading the newspaper, comes across information about a mysterious railway killer. After a chubby middle-aged lady and a svelte young woman enter the compartment, a rough-looking man takes a seat. As the foursome travel across a stretch of tracks, the man becomes ever more suspicious that the younger fellow is in fact the wanted killer. Deliberately slow pacing, with a lot of attention given to the movements of each model, allow us to sense the personalities of each character. Largely silent, they often regard each other with telling eye movements. It is perhaps the way the eyes move, plus some other aspects of the film (such as the character design of the older female character), that prompt the comparison with Aardman's work.

Director Jose Miguel Ribeiro, together with Luis Da Matta Almeida, developed the idea for the film and began to write its screenplay in 1995. Over a two-year period, they finished the script and began development of their independent puppet animation studio, Zepplin Films, which opened in September 1997. Voices were recorded in June of the following year, and shooting and post-production ran September 1998 through November 1999. Although the film seems perfect to me at its present length, a fifteen-minute version is being edited for use in theaters. The film's dialogue is Portuguese, but the version I saw has English subtitles (unfortunately, white ones, so not all could be read -- still, the visuals tell the story clearly, so that was not a major problem for me).

The Periwig-Maker. © Ideal Standard Film Productions320x240 | 160x120

The Periwig-Maker. © Ideal Standard Film Productions320x240 | 160x120

The Periwig-Maker

Another outstanding example of puppet animation comes from German director Steffen Schäeffler. The Periwig-Maker tells the story of a man who lives in London during the time of the Plague. Though he seals himself off from the rest of the city to avoid infection, he eventually becomes involved with a young girl who has become ill. As the film's creators explain, the story contains some philosophical perspectives related to two different ways of living: "You can risk your life and live before you die -- or you can prevent yourself from risking anything and live the life of a dead person." The story is related through English-language voice-over narration provided by the accomplished British actor Kenneth Branagh.

Impressive sets and props lend a great deal to the visuals in the film. A long tracking shot opens the film, taking the viewer from an exterior that includes the water of the Thames and the London Bridge through the streets of London in which the action occurs. The entire set, which is given depth with the use of false perspective, measured 4.5 meters wide by 10 meters long. It contains eleven houses based on historical drawings, which contain hand made and fitted tiles, walls made of individual miniature bricks and other examples of detailed miniature work.

Citing the influence of legendary puppet animator Jiri Trnka, the filmmakers used a minimalist approach to puppet making, relying on body movements rather than facial changes to create expressiveness. Only the eyes and eyelids of the puppets' faces could be moved. Body movements were enabled through the use of metal armatures under polyurethane foam, silicone rubber and foam latex exteriors; wigs were hand-made of mohair. The puppets were built by Mackinnon & Saunders, in England, using a scale of 1:5, with the largest puppet measuring 36 cm. Along with animated objects, real flames are used to provide light from candles, a fireplace and other sources.

The 15-minute film was created over a six-year period at Schäeffler's Berlin studio, Ideal Standard Film, which the director founded in 1994, with sister and producer Annette Schäeffler; together, they adapted the story from Daniel Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year." Though this is the team's first animated film, they previously created several live-action shorts and a documentary. The Periwig-Maker has been well-received, with screenings at over sixty festivals and numerous awards since its release in late 1999.

Father and Daughter. © Michael Dudok deWit.320x240 | 160x120

Father and Daughter. © Michael Dudok deWit.320x240 | 160x120

Father and Daughter

From Michael Dudok de Wit, best known for his Academy Award nominated film, The Monk and the Fish (1994), comes a poignant tale about a young girl whose father disappears after he departs in a small boat. In the director's words, the film shows her 'longing' for her missing parent -- her unending devotion as she returns over and over to the spot on the banks of the water where they last stood together. For anyone who has experienced a last moment like this, and many of us have, the film strikes a chord. How often does one travel back to that spot, even if it is only in one's mind?

Aesthetically, the film has similarities to The Monk and the Fish, both in terms of its simple color scheme (in this case, black, white and sepia) and even the look of its images. This time, de Wit has composed his visuals using pencil and charcoal, along with ANIMO software. The director's memories of Holland and its countryside, where he was born and raised, influenced his background design in the film, which runs 8.5 minutes in its theatrical version (slightly shorter for television).

A partly lively, partly mournful accordion score accompanies the images in Father and Daughter, which are without dialogue. Normand Roger, in collaboration with Denis Chartrand, takes music credit for the film, while Jean-Baptiste Roger was responsible for sound. Altogether, the film took two years to create, though its production was spread over four years. The film is a British and Dutch co-production, including producers Claire Jennings of Cloudrunner in London and Willem Thijssen of CinéTé Filmproductie bv in Amsterdam. Michael Dudok de Wit now works out of his London-based studio, where he has created numerous commercials. He also illustrates books and teaches animation at art colleges in England and abroad.

Maureen Furniss, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Film Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California. She is the founding editor of Animation Journal and the author of Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (John Libbey, 1998).

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