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Fresh from the Festivals: December 2005’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films Workin Progress by Gabriel Garcia, Benjamin Fligans, Geordie Vandendaele and Benjamin Flinois, The Mantis Parable by Josh Staub, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Michael Sporn, Juan el Tintero (John the Inkerman) by Edwing Solzano and Ichthys by Marek Skrobecki. 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.

Workin Progress (2004), 4:20, directed by Gabriel Garcia, Benjamin Fligans, Geordie Vandendaele and Benjamin Flinois (France). Contact: Annabel Sebag, Premium Films, 130 Rue De Turenne 75003 Paris, France. [E] animation@premium-films.com.

The Mantis Parable (2005), 8:00, directed by Josh Staub (U.S.). Contact: Josh Staub, Jubilee Studios [E] josh@themantisparable.com [W] www.themantisparable.com.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2005), 10:00, directed by Michael Sporn (U.S.). Contact: Michael Sporn, Michael Sporn Animation Inc., 35 Bedford Street Basement, New York City, NY 10014 [E] MSAnimation@aol.com [W] www.MichaelSpornAnimation.com.

Juan el Tintero (John the Inkerman) (2005), 37:14, directed by Edwing Solórzano (Colombia). Contact: Edwing Solórzano and Sergio Ceballos, ANIMATEAM, Calle 41 b sur, #43 A 83. Villas del Vallejuelo, casa M20, Envigado, Antioquia, Columbia. [T] (574) 332 31 03 [F] (574) 302 43 81 [E] animateam@epm.net.co [W] www.interactuar.com/animateam.

Ichthys (2005), 16:41, directed by Marek Skrobecki (Poland). Contact: Zbigniew Zmudzki producer, SE-MA-FOR Film Production Ltd., 93-513 Lodz, Pabianicka 35, Poland. [T/F] +48 42 681 54 74 [E] semafor@pro.onet.pl [W] www.se-ma-for.com.

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The working man is dancing about architecture in Workin Progress. © Supinfocom Valenciennes.

Workin Progress

Tessellation is the art of taking something that looks like a Meerschaum pipe or scarab beetle and laying it out flat so it perfectly interlocks with a million copies of itself. Dutchman M.C. Escher was fond of them, and he dabbled in tessellations of up to three dimensions, but as far as I know never jumped to four, never having completed an animated movie. Theres an upbeat tessellation in a cap and striped T-shirt at the heart of the bouncy animated short Workin Progress, a sort of 128 Faces of Eve to a swing beat high above the streets of New York City.

A sad-sack construction worker is out of a job and wandering the streets when an advertising bill blows into his face theres a building going up, and they need labor. Kicking his heels, he rushes to the construction site and clocks in, where a people-meter is tallying up crewmembers in powers of two all the way up to 128. He doesnt seem to get the routine, though; he pumps the water, then sticks the bucket under the spigot; up in the girders he whisks the bucket up on a pulley, lets go of the rope, then rushes to where the bucket was and grabs empty air; he carefully totes a sheet of plate glass, but passes it off to no one, and it shatters.

Clearly things arent going his way, so conveniently the opening credits roll once again; he mopes down the street again, the bill blows in his face again, he clicks his heels again. This time, though, he dances more copies of himself into existence, and teams of four, eight, 16 converge on the construction site. He follows the exact same routine and this time he and his clones mesh in perfect synchrony. By the time number one puts the bucket under the spigot, number twos arrived to do the pumping; number one rushes about the high girders to grab the bucket that number two has conveniently raised; and number one is there to catch number twos sheet of plate glass.

It wants to dance, this human assembly line, and eventually it does, spurred on by a high-stepping swing arrangement of Over There by the Glen Miller Orchestra. The crowd of Joes swells to 32, 64, 128, swirling in circles of jump-jive choreography and throwing down floor after floor of the skyscraper like a frame-a-day time lapse movie. But above 128 on the people-meter it simply says Full, and as even the music begins to double up and start to echo, a lone clone on the topmost girder drops a hammer a hundred floors onto the head of Mr. One Too Many, who immediately goes all Zeppo on the crew and wreaks havoc, pulling funny faces and blowing things up.

So who do you fire when youre self-employed? Best to just hang the sense of it and dance right out that front door. Its metaphysics, its labor economics, and its 4-D geometry, all set to a beat that stomps and shouts. This is more about choreography than acting chops, so although that single character design does have a pliant range of emotions in his face, its more fun just surrendering to the breathtaking grace of two men doing a do-si-do as they step effortlessly between spinning girders.

Directors Gabriel Garcia, Benjamin Fligans, Geordie Vandendaele and Benjamin Flinois have locked the music to their scenario with zipper-like efficiency. Like Budovskys video for Bathtime in Clerkenwell, this film owns its appropriated musical soundtrack so completely the tune will always take you back to these scenes. Its yet another piece of bliss-out genius from the Supinfocom aggregate of industry professionals and students, which also spawned Overtime. Take heed, young animation companies three or four cooks in the kitchen seems to be just about perfect.

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Hope is a thing with compound eyes in The Mantis Parable.

The Mantis Parable

The Mantis Parable is a luminous short from Josh Staub, art director at Cyan, the makers of Myst and its sequels Riven and URU: Ages Beyond Myst. This deceptively simple short takes place entirely on the tabletop of an unseen insect collector, and it details the misadventures of a caterpillar and a mantis who both took a wrong turn.

A caterpillar with multicolored stripes and a sad face wakes one morning to the sight of a leafy branch set against blue sky. When he blinks, though, he notices that he and the branch are inside a mason jar, and the sky is outside the window of the room beyond. He tries to climb out, but cant quite make it over the rim of the jar.

From the window two unexpected guests visit, a buzzing insect and a mantis. Only the mantis shows any interest in the caterpillar, first wondering whats wrong, then gesturing to the caterpillar to simply fly out the open jar the same way that he could. When the caterpillar mimes the fact that its beyond his abilities, instead of a gesture of sympathy the mantis makes only a hcccht! motion with one arm against his neck, before turning away to see what else the room has to offer.

What it holds in store is the insect collector, who immediately pounces on the mantis. The mantis wakes in the same jar as the now-missing caterpillar, with air holes punched in a tightly-screwed lid. Doomed, he tries to push or twist his way out, but cant. He collapses in despair, but from the window suddenly appears a butterfly with bioluminescent wings followed by a retinue of fireflies. Dazzling the mantis with their spinning maneuvers, they circle the jar, and magically unscrew the lid before the butterfly lifts the mantis bodily from the jar and carries it out the window, which shuts behind it.

Ostensibly its a simple Good-Samaritan, touched-by-angels kind of story but isnt that a bottle of formaldehyde on the table? And in a roomful of frames of pinned beetles and butterflies, would the killing jar really have air holes? What looks from the mantis point of view like Deus Ex Machina is more likely a last, sweet illusion akin to Malachi Constants dream in Vonneguts Sirens of Titan, a someone up there likes me moment of joy right before the final exit for a bug who needed compassion but had none of his own to offer.

As youd expect from a member of the artistic team that created the photorealistic and compellingly surreal universe of Myst, The Mantis Parable is a visual stunner, a you-are-there tour of the inside of a household world were all too big to ever visit. The surfaces are tactile, and the character movements are smooth without seeming motion-controlled. The short comes from Jubilee Studios, which, it should be noted, is a one-man show, Staub having fulfilled all duties including the piano score.

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In another era, acrobat Philippe Petit was The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Michael Sporn, diehard traditional animator with his own eponymous film company headquartered in New York, has made an animated short about Philippe Petit and his famous 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. Its based on the childrens book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein, and it begins with a breathtaking sentence that at once navigates an ocean of sadness and pushes recent events into the shadow box of myth: Once, there were two towers

Petit was a street performer living in New York in 1974, at a time when the WTC had reached its full height but the topmost ten floors were still under construction. Walking a low tightrope and juggling various objects for delighted children, he couldnt shake the idea of stringing a line between the two newest and highest points in New York City, a fitting complement to a similar bit of derring-do in his native France where he once walked a rope strung between the two steeples of Notre Dame Cathedral.

It took some engineering, this New York City lark, but he and a group of friends finally pulled it off. They dressed as construction workers, lugged a 7/8ths-inch cable to the roof of the WTC, and strung it with some difficulty between adjacent corners of the two towers. By dawn they were set, and Petit took a nine yard-long balancing pole out onto the cable with him and made history. He spent over an hour in midair, despite recriminations from the police who eventually gathered on either side to cajole him to return to safety. He danced, he kneeled, he lay down; and finally he gave up his privileged position and surrendered.

Petit did more than entertain thousands of terrified and exhilarated onlookers on the ground; he turned the negative space between what many considered a soulless and gargantuan double monolith into something with a heartbeat. Mordicai turned the story into a Caldecott award-winning childrens book, and Sporn made it his passion project to turn it into an animated short. The result is simple, bright, and as lyrical and heartfelt as anything in the director/animators C.V., overflowing as it is with unabashedly analogue ink drawings on friendly rough paper.

Sporn, whose other adaptations include Dr. DeSoto, Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, The Hunting of the Snark and Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel, was an artistic collaborator of the Hubleys and has been doing his part to nurture a similar tradition of independent animation for more than three decades.

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The illusion of life takes a holiday in Juan el Tintero.

Juan el Tintero (John the Inkerman)

Juan is a draftsman. His drawings come to life! A simple story, one that, as you see, can be deployed in under three seconds. Artists can tell stories of any length, but as a professor once told me when I asked if I could hand in a twelve-page paper when the assignment specified five, If youre going to make me read it, it better be interesting. Juan el Tintero is a story about a guy named Juan whose drawings come to life, and between meeting the criteria for long and interesting, it only nails long.

We meet Juan one night in his apartment in Colombia, after a long tracking shot through a nocturnal city that ends at his window. Dressed only in purple Y-fronts Juan is tinkering with a little box, and after several minutes of irrelevant dramatic incident (Juan stops what hes doing and goes to the bathroom; a roach crawls onto the tabletop; Juan returns and smashes it by accident), he gets to the point of his evenings activities, which is using the box to remote-pilot a little ship in the form of a miniature galleon, which he sends sailing out into the night. Its camera gathers TV images of the city that it broadcasts back to Juans little greenscreen set. It crashes upon its return to the apartment, though, and Juan sinks into a depressed sleep.

The next morning, Juan is late for work at the newspaper, and he dawdles on his way to catch the bus, sketching a pretty girl and imagining a variety of adventures. On the bus he continues sketching, scribbling thumbnails of guys waiting for the bus, and he falls asleep in his seat, dreaming of an anonymous man being eaten alive by a building and shackled by bureaucracy and indoctrination. He misses his stop and runs to work, where his editor berates him, and he sits down and promptly falls asleep again, this time dreaming of erotic shenanigans with a co-worker.

Later, at home, Juan takes his galleon for another nighttime flight, and it seems to work perfectly this time, so he wraps it in a parcel and sets it aside. The next morning he arrives at the loading dock at work, parcel in hand, ready to ship it to someone who can make him famous. But he sets it down to help his office crush, whos dropped some of her groceries, and a forklift driver drops a pallet of heavy goods on the parcel and smashes it. In agony, Juan goes to the roof and draws his galleon on a huge white flag, and lo and behold the galleon manifests itself out of thin air. Fearing the worst, his officemates rush up to the roof to try to prevent his suicide, but he jumps anyway and, landing on the galleon, flies away.

In terms of narrative economy, Juan el Tintero is operating at about 30% efficiency. Story points that more experienced filmmakers could have made in a single image or gesture are telescoped into scenes that are triple or quadruple as long as they need to be. 2001: A Space Odyssey didnt exactly have a blitzkrieg narrative drive, but it had timing and spectacle, which this doesnt. The animation is hand-drawn characters and backgrounds with a smattering of CG props, and if the many narrative cul-de-sacs in its 37 minutes are meant to give viewers a chance to luxuriate in the art, its not much of an accommodation. Movements are awkward, models are all over the place, and when walk cycles get tough the rotoscoping begins. Juan el Tintero isnt one artists work, and a big crew conspired to create it; if it kept them off the streets or helped them get more work, good for them, but it doesnt bode well for the companys future.

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To gather up the crumbs under thy table would be pretty bitchin, Lord, after the hell of Ichthys.

Ichthys

For fans of Kafka and fine dining, Ichthys is a punishingly good horror/comedy short about the food and faith that change our lives: sort of a Parable of the Gatekeeper meets Samuel Beckett with a dab of Every Sperm Is Sacred. This stop-motion short begins with a man in a rowboat on the open sea. The puppet doppelganger of Estragon is all skin and bone, with calloused hands and flesh that looks and acts like the thin latex it probably is. Coming out of the fog he reaches a small island with a castle, and he enters, where he is met by a prim, round-faced waiter who takes his hat and shows him to his seat.

Its a very big restaurant with a very small clientele. Within the kind of medium-sized vaulted hall that any good Saxon would want for dear old Mom, there is but one table, one table setting, and a menu. The waiter hovers as the diner points at one menu dish after another. The waiter shakes his head, makes noncommittal waves of his hand and then the patrons finger lands on the specialty of the house. The waiters fingers go to his mouth; he mimes a burst of flavor; he smacks his lips. Thats the winner. Off he goes to the kitchen where he dons fishing gear, goes out the back door, takes a seat at the waters edge, casts a line, and waits.

Timepasses. Maybe days, maybe seasons. In the interim, the man sits at the table and waits. He toys with the silverware. His eyes droop. A pool of sunlight moves across the floor. Theres a big show tank at the other end of the room with a mean-looking fish on display, and in desperation the man stalks it and lays it before him on the table. He tucks in to the uncooked grotesquerie, only to have it spurt blood in his face and change into something with a fishy body but the mans own face.

That, it turns out, was only a dream, from which the man awakes with a start, the mid-afternoon sun unchanged in the window. His situation, though, does not improve. Wandering the hall, he takes in a triptych of Renaissance-era paintings of a group of revelers eating fish a before/during/after sequence ending with a great mother fish sliced open and her young ones protruding from eleven hungry human mouths.

Snow falls outside. The waiter eats his sack lunch. The diner stirs inside. His flesh starts to peel away. In the corner with the show tank, the fish has died from neglect and is decomposing. The diner plays imaginary hopscotch. He sits down again. In a frenzy he finds himself clamping his jaw into the table itself. When he tries to pull away, the front of his face stays behind, with sticky glue and bits of clockwork exposed. He pries it away and slaps it back on his head, only to hear the scream it was delivering silently when it was detached from his body. The scream goes on and on. His arms fall off. The waiter still waits for a bite.

Much, much later the waiter finally returns with the catch of the day. The scene inside the restaurant is a trifle unsanitary for his taste. He frowns at the cobwebs stretched between the tablecloth and his unconscious guests head. He clears his throat audibly. Finally, having spent his last reserve of politeness, the waiter takes his guest in hand, leans him back in his chair, takes his tiny, freshly-caught fish and drops it unceremoniously down the mans throat. Then the fun begins.

Theres more, but its diabolical and beautiful, so hopefully itll be candy to Don Hertzfeldt and company and all the world can see it in Animation Show Vol. 3 next year. Director Marek Skrobecki has six other shorts on his résumé, starting with The Episode in 1988. Ichthys was produced through Polands Se-Ma-For Film Production in Lodz, for whom Skrobecki has been making shorts since his first major puppet animation D.I.M. in 1992. The character animation in Ichthys is miraculous and compellingly lifelike. Animating with exquisite care on ones, there isnt a single superfluous movement and every shrug and blink reveal deliberation and character. The sets are stunning, and the sound effects and music are spooky and evocative of ages both Dark and uncertain. All this in a marvelously loaded metaphoric package about Christian fortitude, man-eating sea creatures, and fish symbols. Put that on your bumper and drive it.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He is director of the North Hollywood Museum of Derivative Art. Dont bother going, youve seen it.

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