Fresh from the Festivals: February 2004’s Film Reviews — A Special More-Significant-Than-Usual Oscar® Edition

Special Oscar Edition! Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: The Hunger Artist by Tom Gibbons, Eternal Gaze by Sam Chen, Rockfish by Tim Miller, Nibbles by Chris Hinton, Destino by Dominique Monfrey, Gone Nutty by Carlos Saldanha. 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.

This Month:

The Hunger Artist (2002), 15:50 minutes, directed by Tom Gibbons, U.S. Contact: tgibbbons@escfx.com

Eternal Gaze (2003), 15:50 minutes, directed by Sam Chen, U.S. Website: www.EternalGaze.com

Rockfish (2003), 8 minutes, directed by Tim Miller, U.S. Contact: Sherry Wallace, Blur Studios. 310.581.8848; Email: sherry@blur.com; Keith Gayhart, Artisans PR. 310.837.6008; Email: kgayhart@artisanspr.com

Nibbles (2003), 4:34 minutes, directed by Chris Hinton; Canada; produced by Ron Diamond, U.S. Contact: Rebecca Battle, Acme Filmworks. 323.606.4203; Email: pr@acmefilmworks.com

Destino (2003), 6:40 minutes, directed by Dominique Monfrey, France; produced by Baker Bloodworth, U.S., executive produced by Roy E. Disney, U.S., created by Salvador Dali, Spain. Contact: Howard Green, Walt Disney Studios. Email: howard.green@disney.com

Gone Nutty (2002), 4:45 minutes, directed by Carlos Saldanha, Brazil; produced by John Donkin, U.S. Contact: Linda Zazza, Blue Sky Studios. Email: Linda@blueskystudios.com

Its Oscar® time! Thats Oscar® with a ®, pardner! Oscar® Oscar® Oscar®. Yes, the Grouch has never had it so good. Thirty years on Sesame Street, and the green guy in the trashcan is looking fit, tousled, and ready to kvetch. Also, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is making its annual awards presentation. Cheers everybody. Five films have been nominated for Best Short Film (Animated): noble efforts all, surely. But before the survey of nominees, a look at a few short listed shorts that will not be feted on February 29,, 2004.

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Tom Gibbons serves up a Kafkaesque experience in The Hunger Artist. © Tom Gibbons.

The Hunger Artist

Animator Tom Gibbons did the sensible thing when he decided to make a film version of Kafkas short story; he blacked out the windows of his Oakland warehouse residence, built some sets, and lived in the dark for 18 months. Sacrificing legroom, and keeping a close eye on his cats, he was rewarded with an all-expenses-paid studio space. His dedication paid off; The Hunger Artist is a triumph of grand-scale intimacy, of tiny emotional machinations played out in a seemingly vast and gorgeous space.

The subject of the piece is the cadaverous Artist, who, at the beginning of the film, arrives before a cage built into a downtown street like a storefront. Locked inside and provided with only an alarm clock and a day-by-day calendar with 40 peel-away pages, the Artist must simply survive for the duration, to the morbid delight of passersby. Listlessly pacing the ample length of his cell, his torso inhabiting suspendered pants like the shaft of a half-open umbrella, the Artist awaits his crowds of admirers who never arrive. As weeks pass, gazing up at the empty windows of the apartments across the street, hes seized with delirium and imagines himself the star attraction of a stadium-bound carnival, the hands of unseen throngs applauding and showering him with flowers. When his time is finally up, he cant face the humiliation of his ignored performance, and he surprises his gatekeeper by refusing to leave the cage.

The scope of The Hunger Artist feels enormous, with high-ceilinged sets and elaborately detailed character dressing. The loving grotesquerie of the character designs are obviously reminiscent of Henry Selick and Tim Burton, but here whimsy has been replaced with harder dramatic irony: The Artist is a fully three-dimensional object while the men and women in the crowd have faces cut from cardboard, their smiles frozen in time, forever bemused. The stadiums master of ceremonies, with his prickly extremities and pre-verbal gutturals, isnt someone youre likely soon to forget.

The pacing, lighting, and some impressive effects work all add up to a, well, Kafkaesque experience. The Hunger Artist won the Audience Award for Best Short Film at Slamdance in 2002, and has won awards at six additional festivals. It was produced independently.

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Art saves Giacometti in Eternal Gaze. © Sam Chen.

Eternal Gaze

Eternal Gaze is a CGI-animated short, which unfolds almost entirely in black and white. The subject is sculptor Alberto Giacometti, famed Swiss surrealist known for his exaggeratedly tall human and animal figures. The action takes place entirely within the artists workshop near the end of his life, as he applies clay to armatures and builds some of his last works. Giacometti, portrayed in a caricatured version of his real-life visage, smokes and frets through his rainy-day artistic labors, alternately creating new pieces and banging his fists in frustration until he is overcome by sleep. In a nightmare, an intruder breaks in and starts to smash up the place, but it turns out to be someone with a familiar face. Years pass and we watch Giacometti in his final hours, coughing and spluttering as, stricken, he grabs his chest and collapses but one of his sculptures catches him, and as all of his works come to life one by one, smiling beatifically at him, his face fills with ineffable contentment and he falls dead in their embrace.

If this sounds mawkish and sentimental, it is. Chens technique is faultless the animation is accomplished and thorough, the movement natural, the lighting expressive, the effects and textures almost tactile in their realism. It is a visual treat to watch; it is also torture. Moribund to the extreme, Eternal Gaze makes Song of the South look like LAvventura. The camera darts about and strings soar dramatically, but theres no drama. All the artifice screams Important while that importance is never earned. Despite or more likely because of its maudlin excesses, Eternal Gaze has won a slew of animation festival awards, including Best Animation at SIGGRAPH. It was produced independently by the director, Sam Chen.

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Rockfish redefines sports fishing. © Blur Studios.

Rockfish

Rockfish is a brisk and invigorating actioner that takes the concept of sports fishing literally out of this world. A large roving vehicle is tooling around on a distant planet with just a man and his pet on board. It rolls to a stop in a rocky desert terrain, and the driver releases his companion from a side compartment; out bounces what can only be described as the progeny of an unholy alliance between a golden retriever and Jar Jar Binks. Its not fluffy, this quadruped, but its playful.

The man unfurls a complicated gravity-defying fishing chair akin to the diving cage from Jaws and drops a line down a deep, dark hole hes just carved in the planets crust with a massive laser array. Then comes the waiting game, then the bite followed by a rip-roaring joyride across the planets surface when the big one takes the bait and wont let go.

The short film is a product of Southern California commercial animation house Blur Studios, and, like the studios 2002 short, Aunt Luisa, its pure pleasure. The eye wants to linger over every luscious detail: the retreating rings of red magma cooling to black inside the freshly-drilled fishing well, the giant moon on the horizon, the anarchic rock strata poking out of the endless landscape. The character animation is robust, and the naturalism of movement in particular is spot-on. In a film shorn of dialogue, youll swear you can hear this burly guys rhythms of speech just watching him grab some heavy equipment and swing it around.

The action is nicely balanced between laconic anticipation in the first half and nonstop action in the second. Just another photorealistic representation of an completely imagined fantasy world that would have been impossibly expensive, if not just impossible, to film only 15 years ago, and all done on a PC in Venice. Welcome to the digital realm, friends.

Here are this years Academy Award® nominees:

jessen04_Boundin.jpgjessen05_HarvieKrumpet.jpgBoundin (left) could appear at the head of The Incredibles this fall while Harvie Krumpet would fill a half-hour viewing window gracefully. Boundin © 2003 Pixar; Harvie Krumpet © Melodrama Pictures.

Boundin

Harvie Krumpet

Unfortunately no viewing copies were made available of Boundin, though a short clip can be viewed at AWNs Oscar Showcase. Harvie Krumpet was previously reviewed in this column. I should recommend them both. Boundin is the latest short product from animation giant Pixar, who, as of this writing, can still do no wrong. Harvie Krumpet was animated independently by Adam Elliot and has won a slew of awards, including most recently Honorable Mention at the Sundance Film Festival; Audience Awards at both Sitges Animat, Spain and FIKE 2003, Portugal and Best Animation Award at Australias Flickerfest,

Boundin could conceivably appear theatrically, if its tone proves appropriate for placement in front of The Incredibles this November. Harvie Krumpet is too long to follow suit but, remarkably, it is exactly the right length for filling any given half hour of primetime television. Imagine that. Executives take note youll never find a cheaper way of filling 30 minutes.

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Small bites add up in Chris Hintons Nibbles. © Acme Filmworks 2003.

Nibbles

Deranged Canadian director Chris Hinton is responsible for a splendid barrage of comic animated shorts going back 25 years, including 2001s Flux and the 1988 classic A Nice Day in the Country (collected on Animation Celebration Volume 3, if you can find it). If youve never seen one of his manic shorts, imagine the filmic equivalent of Eric Idles 100-mph skit New Radio Quiz Game from Monty Pythons Previous Album. Hinton is capable of subdividing comic beats into fragments so small hummingbirds are in awe of his timing.

Nibbles is all about a fishing trip the animator took with his two sons; they packed the car, you see, and drove straight to Lake Kipawa, stopping only for soft drinks, ice cream, donuts, pizza, French fries, pierogi, more soft drinks, chewing gum, gas, something that looked like dumplings, and more soft drinks along the way. Then the mosquitoes ate them. Then the fish ate their bait, and they drove back, stopped for sushi, stopped for chocolate milk, stopped for spaghetti, stopped for iles flottantes, copiously avoided stopping for liver and onions and went straight home, where they ate the fish.

Nibbles is an American/Canadian co-production from Acme Filmworks. (In the interest of full disclosure, the shorts producer is Ron Diamond, publisher of AWN.) According to the artist it was produced in a very small studio, standing up, with a micro-microprocessor and only one RAM.

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Destino is a classic that took 57 years to make. © Disney 2002.

Destino

Much has been written about this 57-years-in-the-making surrealist wonder, but in case you missed the media blitz, heres a brief recap: In the 1940s, Salvador Dali was in Los Angeles working on the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcocks Spellbound when he and Walt Disney met at a party. These two avant-garde rascals decided they had to work together, so Walt set him up with animator John Hench and Salvador started to clock in and out at the studio as he helped storyboard their short film. Destino formed around a song by Dora Luz, recorded for Disney circa The Three Caballeros but never used; Dali picked it sound unheard because he was a firm believer in Destiny. But the film itself was designed to go in one of Disneys omnibus features like Make Mine Music, and when no room could be made and the package film trend died out, the film was shelved.

The storyboards sat in the Disney archives for years, with many original drawings by Dali and Hench disappearing over time. Diabolically, Hench had learned to ape Dalis style exactly, so many Dali originals from Destino that started popping up in art galleries proved to be Hench drawings instead. Eventually Fantasia/2000 went into production, and the Destino drawings were unearthed and chatted up in one of the films interstitial segments. Roy Disney got on the horn to the company lawyers and was told Dalis contract specifically stated that Dalis paintings didnt belong to the studio unless the film got made. Bingo a budget was allocated, and the Disney Paris studio got to work on Destino under the direction of animator Dominique Monfery (Tarzan, Hercules) and the supervision of John Hench.

Ten points out of 10 to Roy Disney for admitting up front that he approved Destino so the studio could own Dalis paintings and because he wanted to see the film. Full marks, too, to Monfery and associates for their utterly charming result. This is why there is animation: so ants can crawl out of a triangular hole in a giant hand, and then turn into bicycles driven by men in beards wearing baguettes on their heads. If youve not yet seen this, imagine driving through a Salvador Dali painting and youll be close to picturing the visceral impact of this 2D/3D hybrid. All the Dali trademarks are there, from melting watches to crutches, bell towers, and long late-afternoon shadows. And besides the sheer appeal of the thing, Hench apparently loved it; so for respecting the artists original intentions, once again, bravo.

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Scrat stars in his own film, Gone Nutty. Property of TCF 2002.

Gone Nutty

Heres a refreshing change of pace: an Oscar®-nominated short you can go out and rent. Technically Gone Nutty dates from 2002, when it debuted on home video as part of the Ice Age DVD supplement. Director Saldanha was co-director of the Ice Age feature, which contained as one of recent cinemas greatest running gags the character Scrat, a sabre-toothed squirrel so high-strung he could break the sound barrier just darting his eyes. Since then this classy Looney Tunes-esque short has screened theatrically and won several prizes at various international festivals, thus qualifying for a well-deserved Academy Award® nomination.

Scrats got a nut, and hes got a place to stash it; but when he tries stuffing it into the last available hole in the center of a sunflower-arrayed sea of nuts filling the top of a hollow stump, he impatiently stomps and stomps in order to force it into place. Theres a foreboding rumble, and down the nuts go, flowing out a knothole in the stump and rolling down the glacier to oblivion. Flabbergasted, Scrat pursues the avalanche of acorny goodness even as he and it are cast by gravity off the edge of the glacier into nothingness.

In the best tradition of the Warner Bros. Roadrunner cartoons, this glacier is apparently 40,000 feet in altitude, and Scrat begins the long, long drop to the planets surface. But the racing wind has a calming effect on the rodent, and soon enough Scrat is gathering all the errant acorns Busby Berkeley-like in an aerial ballet set to strains of Tchaikovsky. With the nuts collected in a neat sphere, Scrat suddenly realizes his situation hasnt improved, and tries, to no avail, to avoid the inevitable impact. The ultimate gag in this short is priceless, so for the sake of non-initiates Ill leave it out, but lets just say plate tectonics have never been funnier.

Scrats mass of facial tics, the way his fur billows in the wind, and the squash-and-stretch durability of those giant eyeballs when squeezed are just a few of the triumphs of animation technique on display in Gone Nutty, another impeccably-timed crowd-pleaser from Blue Sky Studios.

There you have it six of the years best animated shorts, all of which are guaranteed to earn no more than seven seconds of airtime on Oscar® night. So remember everybody: come February 29, clear the sofa, find the remote, pop the popcorn and Lets Go Bowling! ®

Taylor Jessen is a writer and archivist living in Burbank. He has written over a dozen impossible avant-garde screenplays, as well as the short stories Chateau Tempestuoso and The Footnote Conspiracy. His article on the production history of the animated feature Twice Upon a Time will appear in Animation Blast #9 in April 2004.

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