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Fresh from the Festivals: December 2006's Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films -- Tower Bawher by Theodore Ushev, Beatgirl -- A Piece of Action! by Martin Leeper , Life in Transition by John R. Dilworth, Backyard Shadow by Karl Staven and My Life at 40 by Laurie Hill and. 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.

Tower Bawher (2005), 3:46, directed by Theodore Ushev (Canada). Contact: NFB [T] 800.27.7710 (Canada distribution), 800.542.2164 (U.S. distribution), 514.283.9450 (International distribution) [E] international@nfb.ca[W] www.nfb.ca

Beatgirl -- A Piece of Action! (2006), 2:22 directed by Martin Leeper (U.S). Contact: Martin Leeper [T] 818.985.7340 [E] odetopoe@pacbell.net

Life in Transition (2005), 4:00 directed by John Dilworth (U.S.). Contact: John R. Dilworth, Stretch Films, Inc. 6 West 18th St., 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10011 [T] 212.691.9969 [E] info@stretchfilms.com

Backyard Shadow (2005), 3:52, directed by Karl Staven (U.S.). Contact: Karl Staven [T] 215.717.6552 [E] karlstaven@hotmail.com [W] www.karlstaven.com

My Life at 40 (2005), 7:40, directed by Laurie Hill (U.K.). Contact: Laurie Hill [E] lauriehi2@yahoo.co.uk, Royal College of Art [T] +44207.590.4512 [E] animation@rca.ac.uk [T] +44.207.590.4512

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The edifice is glorious but structurally unsound in Tower Bawher. © 2005 National Film Board of Canada.

Tower Bawher

Tower Bawher is every 1920s-era Soviet Constructivist graphic artists fever dream in motion, and maybe the most driven piece of short animation ever made. This beautiful, defiant and fascinating film cant even slow to a jog for its own opening and closing credits, so urgent is its determination to burst into existence, build itself up, knock itself down, and sweep the evidence quickly out of sight.

Taking all the visual tropes of Constructivist design familiar to fans of poster designers the Stenberg Brothers -- including solid-limbed human icons, telescoping tubes with airbrushed shadows, text revolving in circles, tall buildings converging in space from all sides and a muted color scheme of reds and browns as if all the world was built of Kraft paper -- Tower Bawher beats out a mean visual pace. It races to its own destruction as imaginary structures are grown and thrown across the screen over four minutes (thats as long as it lasts, but your soul will feel a few hours older by the time its done). Everything is movement, motion in a pool of filmic potential energy where stasis would be a kind of death; and the locomotive force of Georgi Sviridovs music could be the engine or the caboose, propelling the animation or just offering a stunned musical reflection of the visuals.

The tower that Tower builds falls down at the end: a statement that depending on your frame of mind could be a dig against Capitalism, Communism, current trends in music video or just too many parking tickets. But its efficient and wonderful and wondrous in its efficiency, and in its ambiguity opens itself up as an all-purpose chunk of dramatic irony that any viewer can apply to his or her own personal dramatis personae. The short comes from NFB and the mind of director Theodore Ushev, a Bulgarian ex-pat now working in the milieu of 2D digital film design.

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Ass-whuppin is Gear in Beatgirl A Piece of the Action! © Martin Leeper.

Beat Girl: A Piece of the Action

Beat Girl: A Piece of the Action feels like (and is) an exercise, but a groovy one. A superheroine, dressed in skintight vinyl and looking 100% woman, bursts on the scene running in a multiscreen action bonanza. The landscape is abstract and looks like nothing less than a forensic closeup of the head of a man with extreme hair loss. A group of giant tubing structures spiral and twist up into the sky, big enough for a character to run on, but slippery in the wrong shoes.

To the tune of, yes, Beat Girl by John Barry (main theme for a forgotten British bad-girl melodrama, thanks for asking), Beat Girl makes the scene; she leaps, she twists, she kicks, she Frugs. Then she sees a bad guy standing nearby, minding his own business. Hes tall and thin, with a Thing-like red brick head and purple bellbottoms. Nix on that action chum! SMACK goes Beat Girl, he goes down and she does the swim. From the sky drops a green baddie with that under-the-skin gas-mask look of the guards from Flash Gordon. Bop! Bop! Bop! goes Beat Girls fists! Bop bop bop go Beat Girls hips! Then a sort of Godzilla-head Swamp-Thing guy with green skin and a pink T-shirt joins the fray. Beat Girl bites down hard on that bicep. Ouch.

Then she runs up one of the giant hair-like curlicues, the baddies in hot pursuit. Up up up she goes, and when shes got a big enough head start, she stops to re-apply the lipstick. But she sees the nasty monsters come up behind her in her compact mirror. Turning around, she opens her mouth wide and exudes a burst of secret yellow Yowza Ray. They freeze; they disappear. Beat Girl blows on her lipstick tube like a smoking gun. Fade out. Thats all there is to this vignette -- just a slice of action-oriented character animation that animator Martin Leeper created to shore up his own technique.

On those terms its a success -- the action is fluid, naturalistic, and full of life, and the choreography is thick and slick. Leeper is an animatic lead/character animator at Technicolor Interactive in Hollywood and he animated Beat Girl in Maya.

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Fluffy animals outside, thorns inside in Life in Transition. © John R. Dilworth.

Life in Transition Salvador Dali lives on, with Cute and Horrific in the guesthouses, in Life in Transition, a surrealist short from Stretch Films founder John Dilworth. As the short opens, the title background of blue becomes an ocean that drains away to reveal an extremely gangly gentleman with Marty Feldman eyes and two triangles of black curly hair, like a clown out of makeup. The man does a joyful dance as four unbearably cute cartoon animals cavort beneath him in a desertified, and deserted, landscape.

Naked, but for a g-string with a daisy up front, he grabs a hat and whip and dances in a spotlight, sporting feather-wing accoutrement on his hips. He produces a wolf in one hand and an adorable baby in the other; the baby eats the wolf and grins. The man takes a bow, hat in hand, but the spotlight suddenly goes away and hes left holding a book instead, as a giant spidery thing comes up from behind and spears him in the head.

Pages from the book go flying as we close in on the mans pierced forehead. Inside is a DNA strand that offers up a brown glob that sports a tongue, then turns into a cartoon beast, whose body falls to pieces, mutating into a demon-like man and woman whose twisting bodies twirl around the screen, shift, collapse and finally are engorged by giant thorny branches that fill the screen. Eventually, though, the thorns produce a million daisies, one of which morphs into the head of the departed man. He blinks, then smiles and its over.

Concept boy, fetch me an open-ended artistic statement! Im seeing some serious commercial-artist-working-in-kids-entertainment-gets-horrible-shock, meditates-on-his-own-nature vibes here. The tone of Life in Transition suggests this was something of a purgatory work for Dilworth, but theres no obvious programmatic content here: just a lot of really interesting drawings put together over several years because an animator with a headful of bees decided to make em make honey. Cable subscribers familiar with his Courage the Cowardly Dog series will no doubt recognize the series creators artistic signature everywhere, from his distinctive physical movements to the aw-shucks grin so wide it deforms his characters jaws.

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Reality is on the blink again in Backyard Shadow. © Karl Staven.  

Backyard Shadow

Backyard Shadow is an abstract short starring some trees, a brick wall and our sun. Starting from some ultra-hi-res digital pictures shot outdoors at intervals of several seconds or minutes, director Karl Staven kept his camera stationary and then imported the frames into After Effects, panning, zooming and spinning to create movement.

Because the spindly trees on which he focuses for most of the short are bare of leaves, and absent any wind, the only thing moving from shot to shot as the afternoon wears on is the shadow of the tree on the wall, making possible some serious digital reality-warping. First Staven plays some simple time-axis tricks, rocking the image forwards and backwards in time while panning steadily on diagonals across the frame. Then the branches themselves start to break up the frame into independent areas of time/space, with their geometry defining little irregular polygons where shadows are moving out of sync with their neighbors. In one shot even individual bricks in the wall start to pixillate, shimmering in a variety of light and dark textures.

As a study in trickfilm technique, its fascinating; the only distraction is the editing, which purports to turn something narrative-free into high drama by Mickey-Mousing the cuts and camera moves to the beats of Shostakovichs Quartet No. 8. In a yard where a tree has been cut down, there is drama of a sort, but not exactly like this.

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Rich, famous and socially responsible: My Life at 40. © Laurie Hill.  

My Life at 40 Personal writing left over from grammar school can be a rich source of embarrassment, but its also a brutally efficient means of personal archaeology: a fossilized layer of personality revealing the obsessions that drove a life and, more often than not, still do. Endearing misconceptions about the way the world works stare out from looseleaf paper alongside some wonderfully immature ideas on success, all suffused with an overarching need to get rich (a recurring theme particularly common with those of us who were passing notes during the Reagan/Thatcher years). Animator Laurie Hill, age 34, has recently recycled and reinterpreted a piece of future prognostication written by his 12-year-old former self about his future self, age 40: My Life at 40.

Laurie recruited his father Denys to read the text, which he delivers without guile like any parent might recite his childs schoolwork before hanging it on the fridge. Name: Laurie Hill. Age: 40 years. Occupation: Conservationist and world authority on the Anglerfish. In black and white, old doodles and text fragments from Lauries grammar-school memo book come to life, replicate themselves and eventually burst out into the real world as paper cutouts. Hopefully, I will be as rich as possible, the narration portends, as a paper Italian sportscar zooms down a real street, driving a Lamborghini Countach LP400S, and running my own wildlife reserve

As After Effects-manipulated cutouts dart and sway on-screen like flats in a shadowbox play, the boy with his fathers voice explains just how he intends to get rich and famous by saving the world. While managing his own specially-built aquarium and wildlife park, hell nevertheless find time to globetrot to faraway jungles to snatch up exotic species, to sell to other conservation projects, and also to stock my own captive breeding program. The music, a lugubrious rendition of Mahlers 5th Symphony, enforces the seriousness of mind of the 12-year-old even as it complements the seriously fucked-up implications of the childs make-believe.

His imaginary captive breeding facility appears here as a row of street-level cages like an urban detention center, where long poles push animals together rhythmically in forced copulation -- first in breeder pairs of matched species, and then in mismatched panther-monkey combinations, and finally in a giant orgy of stacked endangered critters -- all forcibly reproducing as their nattily-dressed human benefactor looks on.

When it comes to Hills childhood ideas of conspicuous consumption, I know all too well where hes coming from. (I too slobbered over that Lamborghini -- mine had a spoiler though.) My Life at 40 is dreamlike and disconcerting, not just in how Hill takes his prepubescent fantasies to their logical conclusion, but in how the older animator interjects some fantasy elements that the 12-year-old either couldnt name or wouldnt admit to coveting in the original text -- particularly a group of full-chested dreamgirls in bikinis, rising in colonies out of the swamp like some imaginary Crocodilis Sexybeastius.

Hill, who made My Life at 40 as his first-year project for an Animation M.A. at Londons Royal College of Art, actually recently made good on his youthful dreams of conservation right after finishing this short, he produced a cutout-style promo for World Wildlife Fund. My Life at 40 describes my desire to become a conservation hero by the age of 40, he notes, and so this felt like it was a step in the right direction!

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He is also an actor, although work is scarce, mainly due to his insistence on ending every line of dialogue with the phrase, And I havent been paid to say that.

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