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Fresh from the Festivals: December 2001's Film Reviews

Jon Hofferman reviews five short films fresh from the festival circuit: f8 by Jason Wen, Os Irms Willians (The Willians Brothers) by Ricardo Dantas, Aaron James Erimez's Ornaments, The Shark and the Piano by Gabriele Pennacchioli and Alessandro Carloni, and Still I Rise by Umesh Shukla. 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.

This Month:

f8 (2001), 13 min., directed by Jason Wen, USA. Info: Jason Wen. Fax: 972-240-0087. Email: jason_wen@hotmail.com

Os Irmãos Willians (The Willians Brothers) (2000), 12 min., directed by Ricardo Dantas, Brazil. Info: Zoo Filmes Ltda, Rua Armando Pinto, 142, São Paulo, SP, Brazil. Tel/Fax: 55-11-91127286. Email: zoo@originet.com.br.

Ornaments (2001), 5.5 min., directed by Aaron James Erimez, USA. Info: Aaron James Erimez. Email: ajerimez@aol.com.

The Shark and the Piano, 6 min., directed by Gabriele Pennacchioli, co-directed by Alessandro Carloni, Germany. Info: Alessandro Carloni. Email: alecarloni@aol.com. Or Gabriele Pennacchioli. Email: gpennacchioli@iol.it. URL: www.munich-animation.com and www.nightflight.it

Still I Rise (2001), 6 min., directed by Umesh Shukla, USA. Info: Umesh Shukla, 5809 Abernathy Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90045. Tel: 310-216-5724. Email: info@umeshshukla.com.

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

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See a clip!   f8.© Jason Wen.

f8

Jason Wen's science-fiction short is both compulsively watchable and inherently frustrating. A tour-de-force of computer-animation technique, f8 is also largely indecipherable at a narrative level, and -- with its episodic structure composed of short segments punctuated by dissolves, fades and blackouts -- often feels more like a trailer or a non-interactive video game than a cohesive work. While it's clear that the film has something to do with the individual versus the omnipotent techno-state, the story doesn't resolve any further. The imaginative visuals and attention to detail are awesome and Wen demonstrates substantial mastery of the computer-animation idiom. However, as digital tools become more available and sophisticated, and computer-created milieux more widespread and familiar, the need for a meaningful and engaging narrative becomes even more important if one is to move beyond the generic.

Jason Wen is a graduate of the Ringling School of Art & Design. f8, which he began while a student, is his second film. (His senior thesis, Whirligig, screened at SIGGRAPH in 1999.) f8 was completed over the course of 3 1/2 years, using Lightwave 3D with the Project: Messiah plug-in. The film was composited in After Effects and edited in Adobe Premiere.

f8 screened at the 2001 SIGGRAPH, where it won a Jury Award, as well as the Hollywood Film Festival, Prix Arts Electronica (Austria) and many other festivals. It received a Gold Award at the 2001 Japanese Digital Animation Festival.

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See a clip!   Os Irmãos Willians (The Willians Brothers). © Zoo Filmes Ltda.

The Willians Brothers

A mock documentary that immediately brings to mind the work of Nick Park (who is cited by the director as an influence), this Brazilian claymation piece relates the meteoric rise and fall of a group of musical siblings, filtered through the sensationalist sensibility of the popular media. The Willians Brothers is the second film and the first claymation effort of director Ricardo Dantas, whose cynical and wry perspective gives a nice edge to the samba-infused proceedings. (The songs -- including the immortal "Neighbor's Doorbell" by Rodolpho Grani, Jr. -- are great.) The animation, in which the mouths do most of the work, is primitive at best, but the minimalist style generally suits the subject. At times the film's humor seems labored and the purposely clichéd characters overdrawn; yet I also had the feeling that some of the perceived flatness may have been due to less-than-inspired English translations of the Portuguese, and a cultural and/or historical specificity that made it hard for an outsider to appreciate all of the references.

Ricardo Dantas is a graduate of the School of Arts of the University of Mackenzie in Brazil. He has worked as an Art Director for Storm Advertising in Portugal and as an animator on the Brazilian TV show, Ra Tim Bum. The Willians Brothers, which was produced with grants from the Culture Ministry of Brazil, has been shown at Anima Mundi, CINANIMA, the Brazilian Film Festival of Miami and many other festivals in South America.

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See a clip!   Ornaments. © Aaron James Erimez.

Ornaments

Taking a page out of Pixar's book, Aaron James Erimez has created a whimsical and often quite funny film about the death-defying efforts of a Santa Claus tree ornament in his pursuit of an elusive plate of cookies. Though very similar in appearance and tone to the early works of John Lasseter & Co. (Knickknack in particular comes to mind), the familiarity does little to diminish the pleasure of sharing the misadventures of an ill-fated, but determined protagonist in his uphill battle against adversity (a paradigm epitomized not only by the immortal Wile E. Coyote -- Erimez cites Chuck Jones, as well as Pixar, as an influence -- but also by the work of many of the early silent movie comedians). Featuring a soundtrack comprising a few of classical music's greatest hits, Ornaments is a remarkably accomplished first film in which the narrative payoff transcends the film's derivative origins.

Aaron James Erimez studied computer science in college, but a growing interest in film and animation led him to teach himself the fundamentals of movie-making. Ornaments was created on a homemade PC using 3D Studio MAX, Photoshop, and Premiere. The film has won awards at numerous festivals, including the Marco Island Film Festival, Anima Mundi, and The Festival of Festivals.

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See a clip!   The Shark and the Piano. © Munich Animation.

The Shark and the Piano

An omnivorous shark who has trouble making friends is the main character in this likable but not particularly engaging short by Gabriele Pennacchioli and Alessandro Carloni. Created with an unusual combination of 2D and 3D techniques, the film features many beautiful underwater effects, including an impressive realization of light streaming down from the unseen world above. However, the story is sketchy at best, and the sudden introduction of the titular piano ex machina that transforms the life of the woebegone fish doesn't make a lot of sense dramatically or semantically. There's a sweetness to the film that one can't help but like, but it doesn't compensate for the slack and rather desultory narrative. (It was something of a shock to discover that The Shark and the Piano was inspired by the Jane Campion feature, The Piano(!), which ends with a piano being thrown into the sea. Had this idea of inter-cinematic continuity been developed, The Shark and the Piano would have been a very different -- and potentially much more interesting -- film.)

Gabriele Pennacchioli, a former comic book artist, and Alessandro Carloni, a one-time illustrator and animator for commercials, plus other members of this production's team, met in Munich in 1996. They've since worked together on numerous feature films. More than 70 artists from around the world contributed to The Shark and the Piano, which was produced using traditional cel animation, Softimage Toonz, Eddyfree, Maya, and Photoshop, and edited on an Avid. The film has won prizes at festivals in Canada, Berlin, Italy and Russia.

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See a clip!   Still I Rise. © Umesh Shukla.

Still I Rise

Umesh Shukla uses a lovely technique and an iffy organizing principle to visualize what he imagines might have been the final dream of Joseph Merrick, better known as "the Elephant Man," whose grossly deformed body made him a 19th century medical curiosity. Drawing inspiration from the fact that Merrick and Vincent Van Gogh died within three months of each other, Shukla presents his dreamscape as an Impressionist tableau, emulating the thick brush strokes associated with Van Gogh's later period and using multiple layers and dissolves to heighten the abstract quality of the film. The effect is sometimes striking and the use of Gabriel Faure's familiar Pavane for the soundtrack imbues the whole with a sense of poignancy. The main problem with the film is that, unless one already knows something about Merrick and his tortured life, Still I Rise reads as a series of disconnected images that fails to communicate anything about its subject.

Umesh Shukla has been involved with the computer graphics medium for over a decade, and his work as a CG supervisor can be seen in numerous music videos, commercials and feature films, including the Academy Award-winning Titanic. He has worked with Walt Disney Feature Animation on several projects and is currently CG supervisor for DreamWorks' next computer-animated feature.

Jon Hofferman is an independent filmmaker, writer and graphic designer, as well as the creator of the Classical Composers Poster (www.carissimi.com). He has a B.A. in Philosophy & Religion and an M.F.A. from UCLA's School of Film & Television. Appropriately enough, he is currently working on a documentary about the nature of religious experience.

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