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Fresh from the Festivals: February 2005’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Guard Dog by Bill Plympton, Fallen Art by Tomek Baginski, The Revolution of the Crabs by Arthur De Pins, 9 by Shane Acker and Its the Cat by Mark Kausler. 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:

Guard Dog (2004), 5:00 minutes, directed by Bill Plympton, U.S.A. Contact: Bill Plympton [E] plymptoons@aol.com [W] www.plymptoons.com

Fallen Art (2004), 5:50 minutes, directed by Tomek Baginski. Poland. Contact: Corey Petersen, Apollo Cinema [T] 323.939.1122 [F] 323.939.1133 [E] corey@apollocinema.com [W] www.fallen-art.com, www.apollocinema.com

The Revolution of the Crabs (La Révolution des Crabes) (2004), 5:02 minutes, directed by Arthur De Pins, France. Contact: Jérémy Rochigneux, Metronomic, 24 rue du Pré Saint Gervais 93500 Pantin. [T] 33(0)1 41 71 37 58 [F]: 33(0)1 41 71 31 02 [E] contact@metronomic-productions.com [W] www.metronomic.fr, www.arthurdepins.com

9 (2004), 10:50 minutes, directed by Shane Acker, U.S.A. Contact: Shane Acker, Think Art Films [E] shanecker@hotmail.com [W] www.shaneacker.com

Its the Cat (2004), 3:20 minutes, directed byMark Kausler, U.S.A. Contact: Mark Kausler [E] mkausler@earthlink.net; Greg Ford [T] 818.409.9368 [E] fordcoink@hotmail.com

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With his Oscar-nominated short film Guard Dog, Bill Plymptons timing has never been better while the design is refreshingly cartoony and the music is a scream. © 2004 Bill Plympton.

Guard Dog

Doggie will not shut up. The dog on walkies, the dog in the apartment next door, the invisible dog a block away why doggie not zip it? What can it see that I cant? The future, apparently, in every threatening little detail the vast playground of treachery hidden in, say, a caterpillar, or that razor-sharp crabgrass. Doggie has YOUR best interests in mind, according to Bill Plymptons short, Guard Dog.

With his Oscar-nominated short film, Plympton has returned to the color textures and whip-smart comic timing of the funniest short in his C.V., and maybe the funniest item ever to play a festival screening, 25 Ways to Quit Smoking. In Guard Dog, a pug-like beast with a penchant for tummy rubs takes its owner for a walk. In the park this overanxious pet tries to walk off its excess energy in a leisurely bounce down the sidewalk, but it keeps getting sidetracked by nightmare visions of the parks inhabitants attacking its owner in nefarious ways.

As the dog barks its head off, scaring off one predator after another, we take a peek in the dogs mind as it envisions a series of paranoid scenarios. Little wonder the poor thing is so excitable that gopher popping up on the lawn, for instance, might dig a 20-foot pit, hide a bull and a Ronald McDonald costume in it, camouflage the hole, and lure the dogs owner onto it, whereupon he would fall into the costume, land in front of the bull, and face the wrath of a mad cow avenging his ground-up family members. Gophers do that.

I shouldnt reveal more, but Plymptons timing has never been better, the design is refreshingly cartoony and the music is a scream. Plympton drew his frames with colored pencils, as usual, and everything was scanned to digital video, which is a first for the animator. In addition to its Oscar nod, Guard Dog will be touring with the omnibus feature, The Animation Show, beginning in late February 2005.

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Some choose philately as a hobby. Others, like in Tomek Baginskis Fallen Art, choose something slightly more exotic and sick. © 2004 Platige Image.

Fallen Art

Everyone needs a Fun Project. You have your stamps; I have my Firesign Theatre airchecks; Dick Cheney has Iraq. When choosing a Fun Project, personal interests obviously are a factor, but resources are just as important. I dont collect Fabergé eggs for the same reason you dont: not enough shelf space and not enough disposable income. Many disturbing Fun Projects came out of Birkenau and Auschwitz, where the personal interests of those in charge ran from sick to sickest and the resources were human bodies. Under such conditions the various Fun Projects yielded soap and lampshades. For the character at the center of Tomek Baginskis latest short Fallen Art, the end result of a Fun Project limited to similar human resources is something else entirely Art.

Baginski is the creator of Katedra, an Oscar nominee for best short from two years ago; an otherworldly journey inside a cathedral on a distant planet whose visitors become literal pillars of the church. Fallen Art is also CGI, set somewhat closer to home on a forgotten South Pacific isle. The war whatever war is long over, but some of our boys have dug in and built up, establishing a camp behind barbed wire and camouflage netting whose main landmark is a rickety 100-foot-tall wooden tower. On it is a three-up-three-down sergeant with a body stretched generously on the X-axis and cactus stubble. On a signal from below, the sergeant is repeatedly going through an odd protocol: He orders a G.I. one of a group waiting on the platform to come forward. He mutters some inanities, pins a smiley medal on his chest, pats him on the back and kicks him off the platform to his death.

Theyre making him proud, those boys. Hes getting real job satisfaction, and down below another man is practicing his hobby: a ghoul with a doctors apron and a stoic face is photographing the results of the Sergeants work on the pavement. Another G.I. takes the bloody snapshots into the main building, where General A puts the icing on the cake. A tortoise-shaped beast with elephantiasis of everything but the head, General A takes the photo with eager hands and feeds it into a giant metal press. The machine transfers it to glass, enlarges it and feeds it into a slot below a stack of hundreds of other frames just like it. Theres a projector attached to the machine. Guess what you can do with a projector and a series of still images put in the right order?

Its animation, its animation about animation, its a political statement, its sick sick shit, its hilarious, and when you see it in this years Animation Show youre going to want to shout, Run that again! because it is also a thing of beauty. Its surreal like every good toon should be, but its also cinematic to the point of vérité. The wide, shaky sweeps and trembling telephoto closeups that were daubed into Katedra are ladled on now; the shallow depth of field, the blowing wind, the shimmering particulate matter and onrushing clouds put you on the grass, in the room, behind the furniture, taking quick glances, too close for comfort. As Richard Lesters Four Musketeers looked to all appearances like 17th century France with a documentary camera plopped into it, so does Fallen Art present an immersive reality with a time of day and a longitude.

Every facet of this short is wicked cool. The acting is precise and restrained, and when the General dances (yes he does) his moves are natural and his weight follows. Plus the music will have you scanning the credits for the next item on your want list. (To save you squinting, the cut is Asfalt Tango from the album Baro Biao on German import, by the terrific Fanfare Ciocarlia, who could power all of Romania with their staccato.) Fallen Art is agitprop with a beat, and youre going to have endless fun turning your friends on to it afterwards, and picking their jaws up off the carpet.

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I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. The droll short The Revolution of the Crabs chronicles the depressing lives of crabs and how they become liberated, sort of. © Arthur de Pins/Metronomic.

The Revolution of the Crabs (La Révolution des Crabes)

Shortlisted for Oscar consideration this year was a droll black-and-white short from French illustrator Arthur De Pins, The Revolution of the Crabs. Its all about the most common crab on southern European shores, Pachygrapsus Marmoratus, their depressing lives and how they finally shrugged off the yoke of blah living and became liberated, sort of.

On beaches and below tides all over Europe, theres a modest crab commonly referred to as the Marbled Rock Crab. Its gray, unassuming, and small, the kind of thing toddlers will maim without a second thought. No one ever asked one to dinner, made one the hero of a medieval quest, put one on their countrys flag. Yes, its a sad little species, and now a spokesman has finally come forward to tell his story. It turns out that in the undersea community theyre referred to as, Depressed Crabs, the main reason being that they cant turn around. Up the sand and down, these poor schmucks can only move in a line from side to side, making them fatalistic and preventing long-term relationships of any kind. (How can you cultivate a friendship when you and your buddy never cross paths twice?)

Actually, they can turn; they just never do. Yep, theyre real dumb, these crabs, and when theyre not pacing off endless straight lines to the horizon or hiding in the rocks, the other crustaceans are appropriating them for public transportation. Once in a while their luck improves, as it does for one crab who finds himself standing on a flatfish that suddenly turns ninety degrees but it can worsen just as quickly, as the same crab scuttles away in pursuit of thrills and adventure singing Brazil only to be stepped on a second later.

Nothing really changes, actually, until the day one crab whose legs on one side have been pried off by a human and who is making endless circles in the sand becomes philosophical. He then rallies his fellow crabs to be proud that even though there are only two directions they can go, at least theyre going somewhere.

Arthur De Pins is a 2000 graduate of École Nationale Supérieure Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and makes his living as a professional illustrator and cartoonist with a fondness for blocks of bright colors and a super-clean line. His work has appeared regularly in the French mens magazine Max, for whom he does cheeky sex cartoons in a Playboy-esqe vein. (I love the economy of his simple three-panel strip about a pizza boy delivering to a woman who answers the door in ball-gag domination gear, and all the things he thinks up on the way downstairs as an excuse for a return trip, Um, you forgot the tip Me again! Do you have a map of Panama?)

Most of his portfolio is available on his website (spell out his name), including his two previous shorts: Geraldine, his graduate thesis, about the day Gerald woke up as a girl and his ultimately very successful means of coping; and LEau de Rose, a hilarious and technically accomplished crowd-pleaser about a boy dumping his girl on a Ferris wheel.

The Revolution of the Crabs was animated in Flash, and done in the extreme high-contrast chiaroscuro of monochrome comicbook design. The character animation is limited but goofy, with most of the laughs coming from the dialogue and pacing. The sound design is simple and effective, with a musical soundtrack lifted from the 1972 French comedy LOeuf reminiscent of beachside misadventures with Jacques Tati. The whole piece is very funny in the moment, and has at least one haunting comic trope to take home and pin to your minds bulletin board. When one crab finally does turn, saving his life in the process, the priceless reaction from the outraged crowd includes the cry, Has he no dignity?

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In this animated riff of Beowulf reset in the post-apocalypse, 9 depicts a people-less, post-war future to the last chilling detail. © Shane Acker.

9

9 is the latest short from Shane Acker, the gentleman responsible for the viscerally memorable Spike & Mike Sick & Twisted festival fave, The Hangnail. 9 is CGI, in contrast to the traditionally-animated Hangnail, and, in addition to his digital talents, it showcases something else you may not have seen before from this multitalented artist a painstaking, lyrical attention to set design appropriate to the animators other MFA degree, earned in the field of architecture.

In this animated riff on Beowulf, reset in a frame both post-apocalyptic and miniaturized (literally and figuratively), a mouse-sized humanoid figure made of burlap is introduced setting a trap for an unknown predator. In a reverie set in a beautifully realized urban landscape blighted by war and strewn with loose bricks and the detritus of industrialized society, the miniature man, who has the number 9 written in black ink on his back, remembers an afternoon spent foraging with his mentor, 5. 5 walks with a cane that was once a churchkey from a sardine tin, and together they remove an unbroken light bulb from an abandoned desk lamp. 5 roots around inside his burlap exterior for a wire and a watch battery, and in no time at all theyve got an improvised torch.

Suddenly 5 starts to radiate light the color of glow-in-the-dark watch hands. Its an early warning system of sorts, which means the beast is coming. 9 hides as 5 prepares to defend himself with a staff sporting X-Acto blades on either end, but the beast gets the drop on him. Its a demon cat, all armatures and springs with a feline skull in front. The cat steals 5s soul, storing it in a glowing marble-sized metal shell thats the twin to 5s early warning system, with which 9 escapes in terror.

Now, in the present, 9 looks up in alarm as the warning lights up yet again, and its time to lure the beast into his trap. He runs into an abandoned library with a gaping hole of broken bricks, concrete and torn rebar. His Grendel follows in hot pursuit. In a taut and suspenseful action sequence, 9 manages to bring the monster into the dark recesses of the rubble-filled room and, step by step, puts his desperate plan to kill the beast into action.

Ackers depiction of a people-less, post-war future has been realized to the last chilling detail. Drawing inspiration from documentary photos of Europe circa 1945, hes captured the bed-in-the-street, car-in-the-living-room chaos of a carpet-bombed metropolis to a T. His characters are equally compelling; built from cloth and held together with zippers, buttons, and safety pins, these are human souls in tiny bodies improvised sui generis from the leftover junk of a burned-out world. Their personalities, driven by fear and fraternal love in equal amounts, are communicated completely in pantomime thanks to Ackers strong acting. The short originated with UCLAs Animation Workshop, and deserves to make it to home video soon, as it more than justifies an afternoon of still-framing enjoyment.

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After almost 11 years as a work-in-progress, Its the Cat finally sees the light of day. © Mark Kausler.

Its the Cat

Ub Iwerks lives on in Its the Cat, a short by Mark Kausler that is finally making its festival debut after a decade and a half in a work-in-progress limbo of private screenings for lucky industry professionals. Kausler has been animating his short on the sly during production lulls on nearly a dozen traditional-animation day jobs, mainly for Disney. During downtime while on the payroll of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Oliver and Company and Beauty and the Beast, Kausler drew his way through Its the Cat one scene at a time. He was still pushing his pencil off-hours while at the drawing table for Osmosis Jones a decade later and then producer Greg Ford flew his production savvy and completion funds, into the mix so Kausler could finally deliver a finished product last year.

Its the Cat was traditionally animated in glorious 2D. To try to nail down the plot of this wisp of whimsy would be like bronzing a kite, so suffice it to say theres this cat, see, and its walking on a fence, and annoying a dog, and flying off into the stratosphere like a helicopter, and pouncing, and annoying three blind mice. There are sunny backyards and scary shadows thrown onto high buildings. There are bricks and there is a garden hose. Also a rubber duck, a wading pool and small chunks of moon rock. The short is in color, but the elementary design catalog of circles and ellipses and the tone of gentle anarchy are straight out of the early black-and-white sound era. The music is vintage, too a catchy hot-jazz toe-tapper from banjo baron Harry Reser and his Syncopators.

(Not to digress, but I should mention a trend I see forming. Youre aware, of course, that cute little bunnies are a virtual guarantor of success in animated filmmaking witness the examples set by Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me, Make Mine Shoebox, and, of course, The Shining in 30 Seconds. What you may not have known, but should now realize, is that a hot jazz soundtrack will bring the same results. You cant lose if its Trad, Dad, as proved in recent years by such offerings as the Nastuk/Persi animated version of the Squirrel Nut Zippers The Ghost of Stephen Foster, Mark Caballero and Seamus Walshs short, Graveyard Jamboree with Mysterious Mose, and David Stones nukes-on-the-family-farm adaptation of the Bonzo Dog Bands Jollity Farm from 1991.)

Between majoring in fine arts at Kansas City Art Institute and earning a degree from Chouinard Art Institute in 1970, Kausler managed to earn a credit as assistant animator on Yellow Submarine. In the decades since, his many credits as animator include the Maybelline segment in Ralph Bakshis Heavy Traffic, Brad Birds Family Dog episode of Amazing Stories, the 1990 Mickey Mouse short, The Prince and the Pauper, the Happy Happy Joy Joy song from Ren & Stimpy and Pomp and Circumstance from Fantasia/2000.

Kauslers savior Greg Ford has been cheerleading for animation for 20 years in non-fiction venues, as well as directing new animated product. His credits as director include Daffy Ducks Quackbusters, The Duxorcist and Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers. As producer he was responsible for two must-have music CDs in every animation fans collection, volumes one and two of The Carl Stalling Project: as well as the feature-length documentaries Freleng Frame-by-Frame and Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. You have (1) new messages in mailbox (1).

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