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Fresh from the Festivals: December 2008's Reviews

Andrew Farago reviews four short films about struggling with work and career paths: Hot Seat by Janet Perlman, Mutt by Glen Hunwick, The Necktie (Le noeud cravate) by Jean-François Lévesque, Oktapodi by Julien Bocabeille, François-Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier and Emud Mokhberi.

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 their exhibition, 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.

This month:

Hot Seat (2008), 5:55, directed by Janet Perlman (Canada/United States). Contact: Ron Diamond, Acme Filmworks. [T] 323. 464.7805 [F] 323. 464.6614 [W] www.acmefilmworks.com [E] acmeinfo@acmefilmworks.com

Mutt (2008), 7:00, directed by Glen Hunwick (Australia). Contact: Beth Frey, producer, Circe Film, Level 1, 21 William Street, Balaclava VIC 3183, Australia. [T] +61 3 9525 8486 [F] +61 3 95258416 [W] www.circefilms.com [E] blackout@bigpond.net.au

The Necktie (Le noeud cravate) (2008), 12:17, directed by Jean-François Lévesque (Canada). Contact: Johanne St-Arnauld, Director General, Distribution, National Film Board of Canada. [T] 514.283.2703 [F] 514.496.1895 [W] www.nfb.ca [E] customerservice@nfb.ca

Oktapodi (2007), 2:27. directed by Julien Bocabeille, François-Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier (France) and Emud Mokhberi (United States). Contact: Julien Bocabeille [W] boksplace.blogspot.com [E] bokbok01@gmail.com; François-Xavier Chanioux [W] fxchanioux.blogspot.com [E] fixchan@hotmail.fr; Olivier Delabarre [W] olibaredelavier.blogspot.com [E] olibaredelavier@yahoo.com; Thierry Marchand [W] thmarchand.blogspot.com [E] th.marchand@gmx.net; Quentin Marmier [W] quentin-marmier.blogspot.com [E] Quentin.marmier@wanadoo.fr; Emud Mokhberi [W] www.emud.org [E] emud@ucla.edu: Kenny Wood (composer) [W] www.kennywood.com [E] kenwood64@hotmail.fr; Gobelins, l'ecole de l'image [producer] [W] www.gobelins.fr; Marie-France Zumofen [E] mfzumofen@gobelins.fr

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Hot Seat, produced for Liberty Mutual's Responsibility Project for the Hill Holiday Agency, takes the office musical chair game to its logical extreme. © Liberty Mutual. 

Hot Seat

The difference between prosperity and anarchy can be something as simple as a single carrot.

The latest short from Acme Filmworks, Hot Seat, shows us a typical day in a typical American office... that happens to be staffed entirely by rabbits. They're rewarded with carrot-shaped achievement trophies and motivated by literal and figurative carrots dangling just out of reach, which, really, isn't all that different than any other office set-up. The day-to-day perplexities of office culture reduce adults to grade school behavior, from petty feuds to lunchroom politics to one of the most basic issues of human interaction: "Move your feet, lose your seat."

Every office that I've ever worked in, and that anyone has ever worked in, has one bad office chair. If you go on vacation or take a sick day, odds are very good that the not-so-great chair in your cubicle has been replaced with the absolute-worst chair in your absence. Hot Seat takes this practice to its logical extreme, which is that even turning your back for a second will result in losing status and a decent place to sit. The game of "musical chairs" escalates until one rabbit -- and one carrot -- decide to make a stand and set things right.

Hot Seat was produced for Liberty Mutual's Responsibility Project for the Hill Holiday Agency. The insurance company has commissioned films that illustrate the concept of "responsibility" as it impacts individuals and the world around them. The complete Hot Seat and other films can be viewed at www.responsibilityproject.com.

The artwork in Hot Seat was drawn directly in the computer using a Cintiq, with the Toon Boom Studio drawing program used for animation. The backgrounds were created in Photoshop, and Final Cut was used for timing and reworking scenes as director Janet Perlman progressed. The designs and animation are very simple, but they serve the story, which is as universal as... well, that one bad chair that's in every single office space, everywhere.

Disclaimer: Ron Diamond, executive producer of Acme Filmworks, is also co-founder and publisher of AWN.

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A staggering amount of work went into Mutt. The character designs are expressive, the action is fluid, and the story is engaging. © 2008 The Australian Film Commission, Circe Films and Glen Art Prods. 

Mutt

Every dog has his day. Every cow and every farmer... that's another story.

Mutt, not surprisingly, is the story of a dog, its owner and a cow, isolated on a remote Australian farm. The character's motivations are very straightforward -- the dog just wants someone to play with him, the farmer wants to make enough money from his cow to continue to survive, and the cow just wants to be. The cow stands still, stares blankly, chews her cud and delivers a small amount of milk that the farmer sells to a delivery man, which appears to be his only human contact.

The farmer's lack of attention to his dog leads to disaster, as the dog turns to the nearly mindless cow for companionship, which sets off a chain of events that may doom the entire farm. As in Hot Seat, a few small steps taken before things get completely out of hand can make a big difference.

The film's writer/director, Glen Hunwick, has extensive experience in stop-motion animation over the past decade, and it shows. The character designs are simple yet expressive, the action is fluid, and the story is straightforward and engaging. The stop motion animation was achieved over the course several months, with some sequences re-staged as much as 18 months after initial filming. Some setups in the film took up to two days to dress, light and create support rigging for characters, particularly when extreme motions such as walking or running were required. The rigging was then removed digitally in post-production, and additional background elements and effects were also added following the principal photography.

Stop Motion Pro was the basis of the software used during the shoot and was designed specifically for previewing and grabbing digital frames. The HD files were compiled using Nikon Capture as RAW digital files, and Adobe Photoshop was used to resize all frames to 16:9 format and batch digitize the initial base color grade. Autodesk Combustion was used to create masks or mattes to rotoscope out the support rigging attached to the characters. Avid was used to create an offline edit, and Adobe After Effects was used for initial compositing of all components, with Flame used for more complicated effects, as well as final color grading and effect filtering.

It's a staggering amount of work that goes into a seven-minute film, and Hunwick's entire crew put in many, many long hours over the course of the production to create this tale of a small, hardworking dog that just couldn't get enough attention from his master -- but received no shortage of attention from his creators.

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The Necktie (Le noeud cravate) continues the NFB's long history of high quality animation. © 2008 National Film Board of Canada. 

The Necktie (Le noeud cravate)

The National Film Board of Canada has a long history of funding high quality animation, and The Necktie (La noeud cravate) is among their very best recent efforts. Director Jean-François Lévesque tells the tale of Valentin, a world-weary employee in a non-descript office job, as he watches his life slip away year by year.

On Valentin's 25th birthday, he receives two gifts from his mother: a necktie and an accordion. Donning the necktie, he is hired by a local monolithic corporation and is promptly assigned a menial, depressing job, which drains his life away, bit by bit, as he makes minor progress toward his eventual retirement. As each year passes, he is permitted to ascend one floor, and before he's realized it, Valentin is 40 and has nothing much to show for it. Overcome by curiosity, he rides the elevator to the 65th floor to find out what he's been working toward, only to discover the terrible truth about his career path. Faced with this horror, he embraces the artistic path once again, dusting off his accordion and seeking happiness off the beaten path.

The film uses a variety of techniques. Valentin himself is a puppet shot in stop-motion inside miniature sets. His co-workers were created with traditional 2D animation drawings on paper, which are integrated into the shots with After Effects and manipulated to appear as 2D cardboard cutouts interacting with Valentin. The stop-motion was shot using a digital Nikon still camera with a video assist system using Frame Thief software. Compositing and additional effects were achieved through the use of a greenscreen and after effects.

As with Mutt, Lévesque's film was very labor intensive and required long, long hours on behalf of a small, dedicated crew. Stop-motion animation is not a venture that should be entered lightly. Lévesque spent three years, full-time, on the film, which took five years overall. In the middle of the production, a character was dropped from the film, and it took an additional four months of work to alter the rest of the short and compensate for the change in direction. Fortunately, the work shows, and La noeud cravate is a timeless and masterful piece of animation that will be treasured by animation fans for years to come.

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Six directors combined forces to make the fun and fast-moving Oktapodi. © Gobelins, l'ecole de l'image. 

Oktapodi

Rounding out this month's "FFF" is a short that isn't (directly) about how terrible work is, although you can interpret it as supporting the worldview that life is all about suffering and eternal struggle. Something about spending months or years at a time working very long hours on a project that a viewer can dismiss entirely with the turn of the channel or the click of a mouse lends itself to the creation of stories that question why people bother to even get out of bed in the morning.

Oktapodi is, however, a really fun story, despite the "eternal suffering" motif. Two octopuses are wooing each other in the confines of a small aquarium when the female is forcibly removed by a deliveryman who plans to take her to the nearest sushi restaurant for dinner. Blinded by rage and motivated by true love, the remaining octopus escapes the tank and pursues the delivery truck, determined to rescue his sweetheart. A calamitous chase ensues, and after much chaos, the lovers are reunited... briefly, and the film ends as the second chase begins.

It's a very fast-paced, very fun film. Directors Julien Bocabeille, François-Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier and Emud Mokhberi produced the film for French studio Gobelins, l'école de l'image, which amounts to nearly one director per tentacle on each octopus. They faced many challenges in the production of the film, including how to make an octopus into an expressive character, since it has no visible mouth, and must emote using only its eyes and body language.

The animators used Maya 7.5 for the 3D aspects of the film. In addition, they used Realflow for the water simulations, and mental ray for the subsurface scattering of the characters, and also for the final-gather global illumination of the exterior background scenes. Photoshop was used for creating textures; After Effects for compositing; Premiere for editing of the animatic; Flash for the animatic sequences, the 2D effects and animation; and Pro Tools was used for the sound effects.

Oktapodi took a lot of work and a lot of animators, but it provided some of the best flying octopus jokes ever committed to film, so I'll forgive it for not spending enough time focusing on the deliveryman and how miserable his job is. With six directors, there's a pretty good chance one of them will tackle that in a sequel.

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and the creator of the weekly online comic serial The Chronicles of William Bazillion.

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