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Fresh from the Festivals: December 2007's Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews four short films -- Cold Calling by Nick Mackie, Elephant Girl by David Lobser, Metamorph by Rastko Ciric and How to Hook Up Your Home Theater by Kevin Deters and Stevie Wermers-Skelton.

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 attests to the vitality of these works, but there are few other venues for exhibition of them, nor are they often reviewed. As a result, distribution tends to be difficult and irregular. On a regular basis, Animation World Magazine will highlight some of the most interesting of these films.

Cold Calling (2006), 4:30, by Nick Mackie (U.K.). Contact: Nick Mackie, Shufti Films [E] nick@shufti.co.uk [W] www.shufti.co.uk

Elephant Girl (2007), 4:30, by David Lobser (U.S.). Contact: David Lobser [T] 646.645.1782 [E] info@dlobser.com [W] www.dlobser

Metamorph (Metamorf) (2005), 10:30 by Ratski Ciric (Serbia). Contact: Bogdan Stojiljkovic, BS Group, Decanska 12, 11000 Beograd, Serbia [T/F] +381.11.3344.290 [E] advsn@eunet.yu

How to Hook Up Your Home Theater (2007), 6;19, by Kevin Deters and Stevie Wermers-Skelton (U.S.). Contact: Emily Hoppe, Walt Disney Animation Studios, [T] 818.460.8936 [F] 818.460.9202 [E] emily.hoppe@disneyanimation.com [W] www.disneyanimation.com

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The orcs with the auto-dialers don't stand a chance in Cold Calling. Nick Mackie/Shufti Films. 

Cold Calling

In America, "Do Not Call" legislation has had an enormous impact, possibly financial, but more importantly temperamental. We used to play regime change by lopping off the monarch's head and kicking it down the street, whereas now we just drop a leather ball and call it soccer -- similarly, the fight against telemarketers has devolved from a war to something more like recreation. Phone salespeople are now officially our tennis balls. Radio Renaissance man Peter Bergman tells me that when he's getting phone-spammed, one of his favorite ploys is to say, "You have reached a federally restricted number. Connect me to your supervisor and do not leave the room." He's a newsreader with an authoritative voice, so they always do. (They'd probably stand at attention, too, if he asked.)

Nick Mackie, founder of Shufti Films, a Bristol-based animation shingle, has had to endure a furious fusillade of nuisance calls since he started working from home. His short Cold Calling is his way of turning these turds into art. Mackie and his creative partner Pete Avery are the primary creative forces at Shufti Ltd., makers of short live-action and animated films, and they've had great success with a nutso series of one-minute miniatures for the BBC called "Hobbies," all about record collectors, stick insect breeders, and bus fanciers in Croyden. The shorts are fictional, but grounded in improvisation, so it's a natural that Mackie would find equal interest in recorded phone conversations as the subject of an animated short.

Like all good phone prank madness, Cold Calling is equal parts comedy and performance art, because two people are locked in artistic collaboration where only one of them is making art. Mackie's collaborator is a telemarketer who, like everyone at work, is simply living his or her life. Mackie, meanwhile, is a player making sport from that life in real time, and his opening gambits include:

  • The "He's with Nellie" variant: Player says to wait, then activates recording of howling and trumpeting noises, while screaming for monkey to get off elephant's back.

  • The "Oh Brian, Stop" variant: Player pretends to get Mr. Mackie, then comes back to phone and says "It's all right, he's out of the room, but I told you not to call me here!... I think he suspects."

  • The "68% Solution" variant: Player affects nonspecific foreign accent, high-pitched whine, and fixation on dog food coupons, indicating to caller that he may be missing: a) important cultural context, or b) portions of left hemisphere.

Mackie does great work in this very old genre by thinking up great business for his animated actors. Like all Aardman alumni, he's developed a superb sense of where and when his characters' eyes should dart, and what other physical behaviors will ring true to this unrehearsed thing called Life. Here he's working in both flat and three-dimensional CGI in friendly Day-Glo colors, much like the peppy color scheme Shufti used for their opening credit sequence to Aardman's Creature Comforts series for ITV.

Like the rest of Shufti's product, Cold Calling is bright and wonderful and expertly timed, and it also has a friendly little gate weave to make it taste more like 2D (the whole thing was actually done in Maya). Nick has been in animation for a decade and a half, and Cold Calling has been feted both at Platform and at Annecy. You can see all of Shufti's work at the Shufti Films homepage, which also contains full contact information, including their, um, phone number.

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A thorn grows in Mothtown: Elephant Girl. © David Lobser. 

Elephant Girl

"Elephant Girl," I cry, with the back of my hand held to my forehead and the other hand at arm's length and palm out, "is an animated short that simply defies explanation!" I'm moved to histrionics not out of emotional duress, but by a need to match this short's modus operandi. It's bouncy, melodramatic, grotesque, fluffy, gothic, cute, horrifying, and a bit goofy -- and you'll never figure out the story, no never! Partly because this is Part Two and there is no Part One, but mainly because story is not a priority for the filmmaker. Which can be a relief sometimes.

In overview, the short does tell a story of sorts, that of Elephant Girl and her enchantment and spiriting away from a room into some other place. However, it remains dialogue-free, and you'd be better off trying to find twenty sugar crystals in a cup of flour than looking for plot points. Out in suburbia, or the sticks, or maybe farm country -- that is, an area of farm country with a massive miller moth infestation -- there's a house. Inside the house, which is decorated with many interesting taxidermied animals' heads, including an elephant and several huge insects, there are two girls and a small child. Or cat. The girls are obviously lost souls, willfully crushing eggs underfoot and locking tongues with each other while reclining on a leopard-print chaise lounge. The moppet in cat's pajamas -- or possibly their pet cat -- is playing on the floor, rolling eggs back and forth. The eggs don't wobble so much as wander and then return to the child on invisible springs. Occasionally they crack and release long-stemmed roses and other unlikely objects.

As the afternoon wears on, one of the eggs suddenly rises in the air and hatches three sharp screw-shaped bits, which shoot at the wall and drill through the plaster. Behind the wall is a disconcerting ocean of a dreadful red-brown jelly-like substance, and a lot more moths. The holes in the wall aren't good news for the house; they allow the muck to pour into the room, down the wall and onto the floor, where it immediately dissolves everything in sight. Poof goes the end table, the chest of drawers, light fixtures; one of the girls touches the gunk and loses a hand, then is sucked bodily into the mess. The little cat scampers away, as moths try to rescue the furniture.

The remaining girl runs to the opposite wall, trapped by the encroaching goo. But just as it seems all hope is lost, the elephant's trunk unfurls from the wall and lifts her to safety. Thorny roses grow out of the red liquid and engulf the room. Then the elephant's eye turns to the sun and we're in a different place, a forest of thorns, on the floor of which lies the body of the missing girl. End of Part Two.

The most obvious touchstones for the short are the Gothic sights and sounds of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, but there'll be no attempt to kidnap the Santy Claws here; Elephant Girl is actually more akin to a Mark Ryden illustration brought to life. Animator David Lobser (a name guaranteed to Google right the first time every time) specifically avoided anything that might smack of story logic and instead constructed an emotional arc around some memorable images from his sketchbook.

Such are also the priorities of artists like Matthew Barney and Kenneth Anger, whom he name-checks as influences, but more telling is his nod to Olive Jar studios, since this is a short that uses CGI -- that all-purpose art tool of our marvelously Now age -- to make something specifically resembling classical stop-motion. The models are all highly stylized representations of reality, and David's creative texturing, careful posing, and a subtle flicker all evoke the feeling of stop-motion even though every frame was born in Maya, After Effects, and Photoshop.

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Introducing the least stable lifeform in the biosphere: Metamorph. © Rastko Ciric /BS Group. 

Metamorph

Metamorph is an 11-minute educational video for the discriminating animal breeder -- someone with patience, a taste for the exotic, and preferably a few hundred buttons of mescaline. The Metamorph (see dealer for suggested retail price) is fish, fowl, plant, and probably mineral. It lives in the ground, in the air, on land, inside a bottle; it cheeps, it honks, it screams, it twitters, and it eats itself alive. It requires special care. These are its instructions.

It starts with a seed that you must plant in early spring. In two weeks, it grows two leaves and two stalks, which become wings and eyes. Then it gets up and walks away. Balloons inside its body inflate and its body heat causes it to rise from the ground (you should definitely tie it down at this point). Then it falls and splits into a million pieces, all of which will crawl away and die, except one, which is gold-colored. You'll want to grab that and stick it in a bottle of salt water.

When immersed, its legs turn to fins, its eye retracts, and it becomes a fish. But it will quickly absorb all the water and shape-shift into a two-foot-long, red-and-white eel with a star-shaped face. Time to turn the bottle on its side so it can escape. It's okay to make funny squeaking noises with it by squeezing its head. Careful of the sharp teeth, though.

Next it eats its entire body like an ouroboros. Only the head remains. Stick that on an empty patch of ground. When it germinates it will produce a red egg on a stalk, which will grow thorns, fall, crack open, and produce a three-beaked bird that shrieks. Earplugs are recommended. When the bird grows to full size, it will sport peacock-like feathers, each of which contains one seed, which can be planted. But if any seeds don't match the others, don't plant them -- they could grow into something really weird.

Animator Rastko Ciric is a cheerily deranged Serbian illustrator and musician, born in 1955 to artist parents. Ciric is the kind of creative entity you might get if you smashed together Jeff Pidgeon and Robyn Hitchcock. In 1995, for fun, he and his band recorded a series of imaginary cover versions of unreleased Beatles songs, tunes like "Colliding Circles" and "Thinking of Linking," for which he and a generation of fans had nothing to go on but the titles. (You can hear the startlingly catchy results, and see samples of his illustration, at his website.)

The multi-hyphenated Ciric teaches animation and illustration in Belgrade and has published a number of what look to be very tasty picture books, including Ogres and Bogies (a survey of Balkan mythological creatures), Sophisticated Bondaging Manual (with helpful line drawings demonstrating how to use heavy cord to secure, say, an accordion or a wedding cake), and the self-explanatory Invisible and Poorly Visible Animal Species (foggy and blurry images of animals no one's quite seen yet).

This is Ciric's 13th animated film, and it has a bright, enthusiastic color scheme that wants to sample every inch of the rainbow. Both the animation and the black-and-white line drawings that pop up occasionally as sidebars resemble the product of an 18th-century naturalist -- one who never actually saw the beasts out in the field, but who was told a ripping story by a friend of a friend. Metamorph, which Ciric based on one of his own picture books, was created with paint on glass and soft colored pencils on paper.

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You have just voided your warranty: How to Hook Up Your Home Theater. © Disney Enterprises. 

How to Hook Up Your Home Theater

This animation game is an incestuous little business. Here's how incestuous: This column is a freelance gig. I also freelance for the Animation Show. My day job is for Disney. All three parties cut me checks. Now I'm about to review Disney's new Goofy cartoon, and the Mouse isn't going to crimp my payroll or take away my vacation days if I pan it -- but if you're looking for journalistic credibility in the next few paragraphs, you can forget it, because I love How to Hook Up Your Home Theater and if you do not laugh at it, you are simply the stickiest of sticks in the ooziest of all possible mud. I'm alive and there's a new Goofy short coming out. That's how momentous this is.

In their 1940s heyday, Goofy short subjects had two functions: to play in front of the features, and to make people giggle. They delivered. Hard for them not to, what with their visions of Goofy knocking a Goofy-sized hole in his apartment window while swinging on some new exercise equipment, or flicking a baseball to home plate with his thumb after reef-knotting his entire body following a really stunning wind-up on the pitcher's mound. And, oh, how the writers gave their calm, stentorian narrators so many classically insane things to say. "Skiing, pronounced 'shee-ing.'" "We was just leavin' Nebrasky, goin' into Floridy." As Looney Tunes killed off the pretentious melodrama, so did the Goofy "How To" series forever subvert the educational film, the industrial film, and several million of my oxygen-starved seven-year-old brain cells.

Now Disney Animation Studios has made a new Goofy short, and here is how good it is: It is too good for me. I'll never really appreciate this thing. Not that adults won't laugh, mind you. Anyone with a credit rating is guaranteed to tear up when he realizes Goofy is shopping for a room-sized plasma-screen TV at an electronics superstore called simply "Shiny Things." What I mean is, I can handle a slice of this giddiness pie, but only a child's metabolism could process the whole thing. Someday, if I'm lucky, I'll see it with an audience of elementary-schoolers, and absorb some of that surplus glee by osmosis.

This cartoon (it's not really a short -- Lorenzo and Destino were shorts, individually wrapped marzipans and heavenly darks from a box of assorted chocolates; this is a whole cream pie) -- this cartoon, I say, has a story, and it also has a backstory. First the story: Goofy wants to watch the football game on TV. Goofy covets a home theater system. Goofy buys a home theater system, and tries to set it up. Hijinks ensue. And vintage Goofy shorts practically invented hijinks, so it should come as no surprise that, for example, this time around Goofy gains access to all the cable outputs on the back of his component system by chainsawing a hole in his living room wall.

That's the story -- now the backstory: Messrs. Lasseter and Catmull want Disney to start making shorts again. Disney conveniently holds copyrights to certain classic animated characters. Directors Kevin Deters and Stevie Wermers (ignobly removed in darker times from the cancelled feature Fraidy Cat, thank you, David Stainton) think they have just the right pitch for a Goofyshort. (Plus two other shorts, which are coming.) Disney brain trust assembles for pitch. Kevin and Stevie make pitch. Brain trust members wave hands in air like they just don't care. Project is go. Ridiculously talented all-star team of animators including Andreas Deja and Eric Goldberg animate. Michael Giacchino scores. Actual backgrounds from 1940s John Sibley-directed Goofy shorts are repurposed for new short. Ditto that friendly red burlap title card. Cool factor skyrockets. Final product delivered. (See Bill Desowitz' recent article for a much fuller account of this backstory.)

And when and where can you, the viewer, unwrap this sweet piece of freight? How to Hook Up Your Home Theater is playing in front of National Treasure: Book of Secrets starting Dec. 21. This is a relief, because, in theatrical terms, studio shorts are orphans that depend on features for bed and board. Ask any filmmaker if a short can take a ride in front his picture, especially at a mixed animation/live-action store like Disney, and you're likely to get a resounding Maybe, maybe not, as the makers of Lorenzo heard on more than one occasion in 2004. So please treat yourself, and you too can let Goofy and a roomful of children provide Free Home Delivery for your weary soul as it rides the Mack Truck back to a land called Wacky.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. Active ingredients include Bacitracin Zinc (500 units).

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