Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Magda by Chel White, Kaze: Ghost Warrior by Timothy Albee, Get in the Car by Greg Holfeld, Seventeen by Hisko Hulsing and Bid `Em In by Neal Sopata. 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.
Magda (2004), 5:30, directed by Chel White, U.S. Contact: Chel White films, 2725 SE Division, Portland, Oregon 97209, USA [V] (503) 228-6206 [W] www.chelwhite.com.
Kaze: Ghost Warrior (2004), 23:00, directed by Timothy Albee, U.S. Contact: Timothy Albee Animation [W] www.KazeGhostWarrior.com
Get in the Car (2003), 5:52, directed by Greg Holfeld, Australia. Contact: Judi Oehme, Panic Prods. [W] www.panicproductions.com.au.
Bid `Em In (2003), 2:10, directed by Neal Sopata, U.S. Contact: Neal Sopata, 421 N. Pass Ave. #16, Burbank, California 91505 [V] (818) 427-2040 [W] nealsopata.com.
Chel White is the creator of Photocopy Cha Cha, which I hope everyone remembers from the 23rd International Tournee of Animation, circa 1991. (Faces, arms, legs and various household objects dance to the tune of Caravan in this four-minute short built entirely from photocopies.) Since then hes worked as an effects supervisor on two Gus Van Sant pictures, directed episodes of The PJs for FOX, and created several more shorts. His latest, Magda, takes its text from a brief and dryly hilarious riff by master radio surrealist Joe Frank.
Monologuist Joe Frank has been on public radio, on and off, for almost three decades. L.A. residents got to hear his new work every week on KCRW for many years on his shows, Somewhere Out There and The Other Side. His work resembles Spalding Grays, minus the neurosis, and with a greater tendency to rummage in dreamland. Listeners who stumbled on his gravel-under-gravelly voice often found themselves unable to break for lunch, leave the car or otherwise move away from the radio as Frank delivered tales of the worst freeway day ever (Eye in the Sky), stealing brownies from Howard Johnson restaurants and returning them a year later (Fat Man Down) and unbridled sexual activity in a slaughterhouse (The Road to Calvary).
Magda is a micro-story about a man who falls into a polite obsession over a circus contortionist who is able to fold herself into a Moebius strip, weave herself into a basket and spell out her own name for her delighted audience. Day after day, our narrator returns to see her, until one evening she pretzels herself into a knot she cant untie. He rushes to her aid, the audience thunders its approval and they fall in love and tour together repeating the evenings singular experience for ever-more delighted crowds. Ultimately, though, they end up on the rocks, not for any grand melodramatic reasons, but in disappointment over selling out their magic moment.
The characters are faceless manikins from the art store, posed in intricate and warmly lit sets. 3D props like toy cars share space with animated cutout photos of marching elephants and cheering crowds. Every frame is a non-digital creation originated on film stock, swimming in the rack-focus sea of a telephoto lens with an extremely shallow depth of field. This can feel like the equivalent of driving through a thick fog, but it is also a very efficient means of directing the eye to the relevant action in some very busy sets. The visuals are complemented by rich sound design, mostly ambient and naturalistic but with some off-kilter coloration, like the stretching bedsprings that accompany Magda as she flexes her limber joints.
All this, including the massive motion control rig, was procured by the Oregon-based artist despite the fact that so far he has managed to avoid moving to Los Angeles. Right on. Yet another reminder to all prospective artists that you can do genius work anywhere. Never mind getting a foot in the door when it comes to industry, dont bootlick it, bootstrap it.
Kaze: Ghost Warrior
With movies in particular those driven by the singular vision of the auteur sometimes you learn the most about the moviemaker from the cinematography, sometimes from the sound design, sometimes from the dialogue. Then there are works like Kaze: Ghost Warrior, a 23-minute CG film from Timothy Albee, a software how-to author and animator. Its two scenes feature anthropomorphic dogs, foxes and a stalwart tiger assassin involved in House of Flying Daggers-esque martial arts action and courtly intrigue. It is very pretty. It is also very seeeerious. (I know it is serious because all the dialogue is whispered.)
I learned the most about this filmmaker, though, from the final credit roll. Here is part of it:
Directed by Timothy Albee
Screenplay by Timothy Albee
Story by Timothy Albee
Produced by Timothy Albee
Executive Producers Timothy Albee Wes Beckwith
Director of CG Photography Timothy Albee
Editor Timothy Albee
Music Composed, Orchestrated and Performed by Timothy Albee
Production Design Timothy Albee
Art Direction Timothy Albee
Story Supervisor Timothy Albee
Supervising Technical Director Timothy Albee
Supervising Animator Timothy Albee
Lighting Supervisor Timothy Albee
Layout Supervisor Timothy Albee
Mixing Supervisor Timothy Albee
Modeling Supervisor Timothy Albee
Set Dressing Supervisor Timothy Albee
Simulation and Effects Supervisor Timothy Albee
Sound Design Timothy Albee
Production Supervisor Timothy Albee
Cast Kaze - Timothy Albee Itsua - Timothy Albee Yashin - Timothy Albee
Story STORY MANAGER - Timothy Albee DEVELOPMENT STORY Supervisor - Timothy Albee STORY ARTIST - Timothy Albee
Art ART DEPARTMENT MANAGER - Timothy Albee CHARACTER DESIGN - Timothy Albee VISUAL DEVELOPMENT - Timothy Albee CG PAINTER - Timothy Albee PRODUCTION ARTIST - Timothy Albee
Layout LAYOUT MANAGER - Timothy Albee LEAD LAYOUT ARTIST - Timothy Albee LAYOUT ARTIST - Timothy Albee LAYOUT TECHNICAL SUPPORT - Timothy Albee
Set Dressing SET DRESSING MANAGER - Timothy Albee SET DRESSING ARTIST - Timothy Albee
Choreography FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHY SUPERVISOR - Timothy Albee WEAPON DESIGNER - Timothy Albee MARTIAL ARTIST - Timothy Albee FIRST AID - Timothy Albee
Animation ANIMATION MANAGER - Timothy Albee DIRECTING ANIMATOR - Timothy Albee CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT - Timothy Albee ANIMATOR - Timothy Albee F/X ANIMATOR - Timothy Albee ANIMATION DEPT. COORDINATOR - Timothy Albee ANIMATION F/X COORDINATOR - Timothy Albee
Editorial EDITORIAL MANAGER - Timothy Albee FIRST ASSISTANT EDITOR - Timothy Albee SECOND ASSISTANT EDITOR - Timothy AlbeeTEMP MUSIC EDITOR - Timothy Albee TEMP SOUND EDITOR - Timothy Albee
Modeling MODELING MANAGER - Timothy Albee LEAD MODELING ARTIST - Timothy Albee MODELING ARTIST - Timothy Albee MODELING COORDINATOR - Timothy Albee ADDITIONAL MODELING - Ralph Fitzpatrick
What?! How the hell did that get in there? Its all right, though, were soon back on the horse, and 61 of the next 63 credits in the closing crawl also belong to Timothy Albee.
There is also a Special Thanks section. Timothy Albee is not mentioned.
Yes, all the signs of a comedy masterpiece are here bad accents, pretentious dialogue and a credit roll with more jokes per square inch than Airplane. Yet all evidence suggests that comedy was not the directors intention. The DVD packaging (complete with ISBN, $17.95 price tag and a rapturous quote from someone) is sober and austere. Also the text is notably devoid of the phrase Laff Riot.
Timothy Albee animated Kaze: Ghost Warrior using the software package LightWave. Hes written several books about the software, including LightWave 3D 7.0 Character Animation, Essential LightWave 3D 7.5 and LightWave 3D 8 Animation. The Kaze short is clearly The Big Demo, and you can read about it in yet another Albee book, CGI Filmmaking: The Creation of Ghost Warrior, which lists for $49.95. Its current Amazon sales rank is #116,502, which is below Shrek: From Swamp to the Screen, but above So You Want to be a Cartoonist.
Albee created Kaze in the wilds of Alaska on two computers more than six months, and without the benefit of a test audience. It is pleasant to watch with the sound off (it comes with subtitles), and fans of plushies will love it.
Get in the Car
Saskatchewan-born animator Greg Holfeld is one visual artist whos not afraid of urine, vomit or flatus, though admittedly he hasnt used them all at the same time yet. His latest short, the hilarious Get in the Car, is a loving, nostalgic, puke-encrusted look at The Family Trip event as lived out by his Canadian family circa 1974.
Before setting off, Dad has to pack the car, which he does with aplomb, although theres a single shoebox-sized item left over which means a complete unpacking and re-packing lasting well past sunset. A bit of peeled rubber, a quick return trip to pick up the baby and theyre off! There are three kids in the back seat for this outing. Out come the inevitable imaginary lines-you-shall-not-cross, leading to pokings and fisticuffs until Dad threatens to intervene. After a brief time-out the bedlam resumes and Dad does intervene, leaving all three by the roadside. But he quickly returns, and a chastened threesome re-enter the car and shift their attentions to comicbooks (splendidly titled Thuper, Thnell and Thic. Were those DC?)
Mom and Dad try to drum up their kids enthusiasm as they point out the sights Look, kids, moose! Look, kids, the falls! Look, the Hindenburg disaster! but all they notice is the ice cream stand theyve just passed. Three icicles and a bag of coloring books later, theres some serious carsickness afield in the back seat. The parents look at each other, look at the baby, and regard the ever-increasing pressure building up behind that pacifier. They scramble for a bag, but its too late junior blows his breakfast all over the windshield. The next time we see the car, its sparkling clean, coming out of the car wash with the dripping family following behind in single file.
Holfeld, who lives with his family in South Australia, has directed many shorts, including Love Stinks, a vignette about the importance of favorable attitudes to flatulence in marriage (a point not lost on animator Michel Gondry, incidentally, in the documentary included on Palm Pictures omnibus Works Of DVD from last year). Hes an associate of Acme Filmworks (Full disclosure: Acme head Ron Diamond is publisher of AWN), and you can see his demo reel at the acmefilmworks.com Website. It includes a memorable clip from Toms Toilet Triumph, a head-turning short which, in context, is an award-winning educational film on proper urination made for the Intellectual Disabilities Services Council and, out of context, is very interesting viewing.
Get in the Car is traditionally animated in a breezy line style, colored in blocks of primary colors and pastels. The superb soundtrack is almost entirely the guitar work of Chris Finnen, whose sliding steel riffs dont just comprise the underlying score but also give voice to Dad, Mom all three kids, the moose and the flying vomit. And special kudos to Holfeld for delivering the end credits in the form of a late-night radio broadcast, lulling the kids to sleep in the darkened back seat as Mom and Dad drive home.
If in my grade school days, among such classroom viewings of recycled late-1960s black-and-white films like the guy who honks whenever he changes lanes or the chunk of cesium blowing up the jug of water, I wish now that one day Id sat down to see a man in a white labcoat and a pipe ask the rhetorical question, What is sexual anxiety? followed immediately by Hisko Hulsings short Seventeen. If Id ever wondered, Id wonder no more. Hulsings short is a hallucinogenic look at a drunken night in the life of a sexually confused young construction worker, short on rhetoric and long on practicalities.
The nameless, and wordless, main character is introduced along with the rest of his crew on a rooftop somewhere in the Netherlands, pounding nails (bent nails, an early signifier). Sex is intruding everywhere he looks, from the beer poured in another workers shorts to the nymphomaniac strutting her stuff in the apartment across the street. The teenage boy eats his lunch alone and is taunted by his coworkers, who grab a red dress off a clothesline and force him into it. He offers only a sheepish smile as they laugh, all but one guy with a neutral expression whose stare makes the teenager avert his eyes.
After work the group bomb down to the carnival, and the boy sees the nymphomaniac at a table with a friend. He buys three beers, but chickens out and takes them to his seat alone. Too many lonely beers later, hes very drunk when he spots two of his co-workers taking the ladies in their arms and walking away. He staggers through the dancing couples down the midway in pursuit, but passes out on the cobblestones.
When he wakes (is he?) the carnival is empty and dark but for one light down by the spook house. The boy drags himself through the nighttime silhouetted horrors of hurdy-gurdy horse heads to see the nympho taking it from both his friends at once. Imagining her in distress he jumps the men, but one of them knocks him flat, after which he sees for the first time that theres a line of angry men forming behind her. Hes knocked her in a mud puddle, and the johns take after him like angry zombies, chasing him into the street where he hops in a passing Tatra sedan and speeds away.
Now is he awake? The car is driven by a random psycho, his wife breastfeeding a baby in the back seat, and as they go off into the countryside the teenager starts to hallucinate a rooftop ritual ceremony with a horde of construction workers sacrificing the hog-tied nympho under a spiked sheeps head. He jumps from the car and lands next to four prostitutes standing incongruously by the rural roadside. One of them starts to service him only to morph into a fairy-winged creature with a prostitutes body and the psychos head.
Finally he wakes for real this time alone in the street at sunrise. Walking back to the work site, he sees the nymphomaniac in her apartment, and she looks at him in disdain before closing the curtain on him forever. He ascends the construction elevator, and during a nifty time-lapse montage, he ages 20 years into the career laborer hes destined to be. Its unclear what became of his sexual proclivities, but theres a final clue that suggests either he read Kinseys Sexual Behavior in the Human Male or he just realized who he was and got on with being it. Regardless, he looks content.
Seventeen was animated traditionally using hand-drawn paper images, with the backgrounds painted in acrylics on wood panels. Everything was cel-colored and composited in Crater Softwares CTP. Its an extremely rich and cinematic experience, and, not surprisingly, it played in Dutch cinemas all last summer, bundled with American Splendor. Hulsing has several other shorts in his C.V., including Harry Rents a Room, which also enjoyed a theatrical run in 1999 opening for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and eXistenZ. Not a little of the fun comes from the films score, a tasty Bernard Herrmann-esque concoction for 22-piece ensemble which the director also wrote. Seventeen is the official Dutch entry for this years Academy Awards.
Bid `Em In
For true fuckin-A moments in animated filmmaking, right now its hard to think of anything that can beat Bid `Em In. This two-minute traditional/CGI short comes from Burbank animator Neal Sopata.
The soundtrack is the kicker. Oscar Brown Jr. is a renaissance man born in Chicago in 1926, and good used record stores will stock copies of his many soul LPs. An actor at 15, a radio news host at 21 and a candidate for Congress soon after, this son of an attorney began singing and writing songs in his early thirties. In 1960, Columbia pressed his debut album, Sin & Soul, which contains Bid `Em In s source audio cut as a knives-out spoken-word piece, delivered in the fevered singsong of an antebellum slave auctioneer:
Bid `em in, get `em inThat sun is hot and plenty bright Lets get down to business and get home tonight Bid `em in Auctionin slaves is a real high art Bring that young gal, Roy, shes good for a start Bid `em in, get `em in Now heres a real good buy, only about 15 Her great-grandmammy was a Dahomey queen Just look at her face, she sure aint homely Like Sheeba in the bible shes black but comely Bid `em in Gonna start her at three, can I hear three Step up gents, take a good look-see `Cause I know youll like her once youve seen her Shes young and ripe, make a durn good breeder
Brown is African-American, which only adds to the wow factor: much like Trents speech from Shock Corridor, a racist polemic delivered by black actor Hari Rhodes. (Lets get that black boy before he marries my daughter!)
In Sopatas animated companion piece to Browns poetry, a white auctioneer with all the pleasing features of the Mayor of Halloweentown on a bad day cries the auction of a new shipment of slaves. As the slaves watch from a nearby cage, a woman is paraded, stripped and flaunted before a crowd of ornery Southern gentlemen. The freehand drawings that provide the basis for this digital short are alive and spiky, with pastel shadings and rough outlines blurred in a digital wind. Vintage engravings and old news clippings function both as an auction program booklet and a mute protest to the proceedings.
Much of the shorts power comes from the strong editing, and Sopatas judicious use of blackouts jar the psyche like slamming doors. His cutting style shines in his other shorts as well, particularly the music video Emerge he created for electronica group Fischerspooner. Emerge, as well as his charming PSA Prepared Piglet done for Ready.gov, are available on the Web, at the Fischerspooner Website and Media Liquid respectively.
Sopata lives just up the road from the Disney Channel tower in Burbank, and, since 2001, hes put in hours as an effects animator on industry product the likes of Behind Enemy Lines, Daredevil and Exorcist: The Beginning, and also is credited on traditional animation projects such as Fairly OddParents and Looney Tunes: Back in Action.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He can stop having the dream about being in high school band, touring California, and getting left behind somewhere outside San Diego; yes, that would be just fine.