Fresh from the Festivals: February 2006’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films One Man Band by Andrew Jimenez and Mark Andrews, Badgered by Sharon Colman, Imago by Cedric Babouche, The Dentist by Signe Baumane and The Wraith of Cobble Hill by Adam Parrish King.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.

One Man Band (2005), 4:30, directed by Andrew Jimenez and Mark Andrews (USA). Contact: [W] www.pixar.com

Badgered (2005), 7:04, directed by Sharon Colman (U.K.). Contact: [W] www.nftsfilm-tv.ac.uk

Imago (2005), 12:00, directed by Cedric Babouche (France). Contact: International Sales / Premium Films, 130 Rue de Turenne 75003, Paris / France. [T] +33 1 42 77 06 39 [E] animation@premium-films.com

The Dentist (2005), 10:00, directed by Signe Baumane (USA). Contact: Signe Baumane, 165 William St., 2nd Floor, New York, New York 10038 USA [T] (212) 577-0383 [E] signe69@earthlink.net [W] www.signebaumane.com

The Wraith of Cobble Hill (2006), 15:13, directed by Adam Parrish King (USA). Contact: Adam Parrish King, 2257 Ewing St. #4, Los Angeles, California 90039 [T] (323) 662-6140 [E] monique-adam@earthlink.net

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To keep it fresh for theatrical playdates this June, Pixar is holding back clips from One Man Band but you can watch a short teaser through March 14, 2006 at AWNs Oscar Showcase. © Pixar Animation Studios.

One Man Band

Northern California sound collagists Negativland collect found sound like Disneyana fanatics collect theme park pins, and one of the groups CDs contains a sample of a 1960s-era motivational speaker chirping, You were born a salesman. Your first outcry announced your arrival to the world and that was your very first experience in selling. You were shilling for attention! The studios certainly know a thing or two about shilling, and Pixar is no exception: an idea thats candidly and hilariously deconstructed in Pixars own short du jour, the flawlessly brilliant One Man Band.

Somewhere in a hazy mountain village in Renaissance-era Italy, theres a deserted town square. At one end is a tall, decorative fountain, at the other a red curtain. As the sound of an orchestra tuning fades away, the curtain parts to reveal an orchestra of one. Dressed in earth tones and with stout, square features, this instrumentalist has a virtual wind ensemble of trombone, accordion, bass drum and more strapped to his body. He plays a few bars of a dour little military march in D minor to the empty piazza, all the while his upturned hat set before him just in case.

Shortly a sucker does arrive a young moppet dressed in a purple shawl. She enters the background making a beeline for the fountain with a coin in her hand, but turns her head when the musician blaats his trombone in her direction. As she draws closer, he elaborates on his theme, plays variations and counterpoint, and winks archly at his mark.

Before she can offer up that all-important gold coin, though, from the opposite side of the plaza suddenly comes a gut-string glissando, and another pair of curtains part to reveal a second one-man-band. The competition is dressed in blues and greens, with a stringy body, round face and pointed features. Quietly at first, and then with wilder instrumentation and greater volume, he navigates a tarantella in B-flat on lute, flute and, finally, violin. The child warms to this new novelty and wanders his way. Hes working the flash even more than his counterpart when the child is an arms length away, a model of the troubadours own head pops out of his hat to surprise and delight the child, who is nearly convinced to put her coin in his hat instead.

Brass ah-wooogas echo around the square as the first musician tries to one-up his rival. Brass man simultaneously increases tempo AND balances unicycle-like on his bass drum, but he takes a spill. String man mugs and winks. Brass man tries a smoky jazz lick. String man pulls a lever and ten violins on a T-bar expand like wings from behind each arm. Soon brass man and string man are dueling, trading eights, fours, twos; staring each other down; adding more and more instruments; modulating up step after step. When at last they reach their fortissimo climax theyve so flummoxed the terrified little girl that she drops her single gold coin, and it rolls, rolls, rolls down the line of cobblestones to the drain and with a distant plop is gone forever.

Then she demands her money back. Then things get interesting. Yes, Im leaving out the rest so you can enjoy it fresh when it plays in front of Cars in June, but know that One Man Band is a return to the kind of laughs-for-laughs-sake gag showcase that you may have missed in the years since Knick Knack had you muttering Bobby McFerrins refrain of Blah blah, blah blah on your way out of Mermaids in 1990.

Yes, its a 3D technical wonder, with its completely realized Flemish city atmosphere and mountain backdrop (one which, regardless, the story team know better than to show off in more than a single wide shot). Its extremely efficient, its vibrantly colorful, its a gas. But more than that, its another subtle triumph for the art of character animation. If youve ever been assaulted by a wandering minstrel in some family-friendly FunFunTown, youll know right away whats lurking behind the closed-mouth grins and belabored winking of the musicians of One Man Band: the ruthless efficiency of one who pushes all the right buttons for a living.

Which Pixar, of course, does extremely well. And this may in fact be the first time this very traditional story collective has made something thats a meta-commentary not just on itself but on the output of an entire industry. Postmodern shilling has never been this goofy. Kudos to directors Mark Andrews and Andy Jimenez and their whole many-man-and-woman team in particular composer Michael Giacchino, who emotionally narrates this dialogue-free short with a jumping-ducking-darting score that is making some parallel-universe Carl Stalling very happy right now.

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Tired, irritated, Badgered. © National Film and Television School.

Badgered

A trio of woodland creatures comes face-to-face with the arms race in Badgered, a lovely and hilarious National Film and Television School production from director Sharon Colman. In the traditionally-animated short, a sine-wave peak of a hilltop with a single tree on top sits in some remote woodland area, occupied by two crows and a badger. The crows are doing the same thing theyre doing in your neighborhood right now cawing and cawing and cawing and cawing and cawing and cawing and cawing and cawing and cawing and cawing and cawing like there was money in it. The badger is curled up in a hole in the ground trying to sleep, and groaning in misery.

The bug-eyed, sleep-deprived badger tosses and turns, scratches a flea off its body, watches it bound up the hole and out of sight, and tries to knock off for forty winks. Caw, caw, caw. The badger crawls despondently up out of the hole, putters up to the tree trunk, puts both front paws on the tree and complains, Aa AAArgh aa! before returning to the hole. Caw, caw, caw. The badger stuffs leaves in each ear, but the cacophony continues, and is suddenly replaced by a different noise, a diesel engine.

At the base of the hill suddenly stands a mechanical beast we all know from childrens books, the kind with a huge buzz-saw blade as wide as a car that can cleave a hillside in two in five seconds flat. The operator lifts the top of the hill like a hinged toupee, and with a PLOP drops a three-rocket weapon silo into the cavity inside the hill. Finished with its errand, the machine drops the lid back on the hill and drives away.

In its hole, the badger now has to deal with an unexpected guest, the round nose of the middle unit of the trio of rockets, the tip of which is now poking up into its living space. Forlornly digging a dirt apron to hide the intruder, the badger tries curling up to sleep again, but the thin floor collapses and the badger drops down into the control room of the missile silo, smashing a control panel and activating a klaxon.

As the failsafe lights flash and the siren sounds, the badger tries to reach the light by climbing a convenient ladder on the wall made entirely of safety switches, which it turns off one by one as it ascends. It reaches the top, touches a button by the klaxon and it is silenced, to his great relief. As he shifts his weight, he switches off the last safety, and all three rockets fire. While the first two explode harmlessly in mid-air, the third founders and returns to sender, bringing on some very messy and entirely appropriate results to the residents of the hill.

Badgered was traditionally animated in watercolors, and the landscape and sky have that churning-yet-peaceful look reminiscent of the Bill Melendez studio circa the late 1960s. Its all about timing and deploying minimal gestures for maximum effect, and Colman delivers the goods, often in nothing more than two tiny blinks of her badgers eyes. The tone and subject matter are reminiscent of the work of Richard Condie, and in the best possible way; like The Big Snit, Badgered is a minor comedy classic.

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A boy takes flights of fancy in Imago. © Sacrebleu Prod.

Imago

The road not taken leads through a yellow wood and off the edge of a cliff in Imago, a traditionally-animated short about a pilot, his son and the crash that has made all the difference. Somewhere in seaside France, a little boy is running through a field on a promontory above the ocean, puffy white clouds overhead and a breeze bearing along his little toy plane. He chases it, he loses it in the tall grass, he finds it, and finally he winds up beside the sea at the cliffs edge where a leafy tree has a crashed planes tail sticking out the top.

Pausing at the base of the tree, the boy remembers his father taking him for a piggyback ride on a trail leading up to this very tree. Dad wears a pilots leathers and goggles, and he has his boy wait under the tree as he runs to his biplane in a nearby clearing. He takes off, soars away, arcs back, comes in low over the sea and buzzes the surf, sending seagulls scattering. The boy sits agape in wonder as the plane rises, then disappears in the glare of the sun.

Back in the present, the boy climbs the tree and gets in the cockpit of the crashed plane, where he finds goggles and a jacket waiting. Tripping through fantasyland flying in formation with Dad, he and his father fly side-by-side through an impossibly gigantic landscape there are elms a half a mile high, so big they can do acrobatic maneuvers under the canopy. But a storm blows up, and the boy begins to look panicked as he watches his father wrestle the controls, fighting lightning and gale force winds.

A severe lightning crack strikes the cliffside and the ground and tree come tumbling down. The boy isnt in them, it turns out, but is only standing alone nearby waiting the storm out with a tear running down his cheek. He walks home, and the fantastically huge landscapes he and Dad just flew through are seen in their very meager real proportions once again, as he trudges down a path past small trees and a babbling brook towards home, where real mementos of his fathers flying career line the walls of his parents house.

In an efficient series of flash-forwards, the boy moves from one room to the next and grows years or decades as he passes the various thresholds. Starting in a classroom throwing paper airplanes, he leaves the school and enters a busy street as a young man, then disappears into a Metro station and reappears several years older. Catching a train we see him talking to the woman he wants to marry; continuing to pan right we see the church where the ceremony took place; we pass through the wall into the hospital where their son was born; and, finally, we travel the length of a wall inside his home where a series of photographs compress decades of family life, ending on a shot of the now-old man in his study.

The film ends on a walk the old man takes with his grandson, a stroll that ends at the same cliffside where the crashed plane in the tree once stood. The man tests the air, then throws his toy plane, still saved over many years, into the wind, which carries it away. Man and boy walk away. Its open-ended, maybe a little too much so, but interesting in the way it parses the life of someone left behind, someone who grew up with a childs obsession with flight but who decided never to fly himself.

Imago was directed by animator and sculptor Cedric Babouche, and it looks exquisite, with ink drawings atop backgrounds with the texture of watercolors on rough paper. The tang of the towering red- and gold-lined cumulus clouds and seaside breezes give the early sequences the kind idyllic perfection that it seems only animation can give to a cherished childhood memory.

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Lets not visit The Dentist. © Signe Baumane.

The Dentist

Art Brut isnt for everyone. Signe Baumane works in a traditional animated idiom that would have made a great party tape for your friends in bunk six back in fourth grade summer camp, but, even then, the charm probably would have worn off quickly. Now working in the U.S. under the aegis of Bill Plympton, this Latvian animators latest short is The Dentist, and its subject matter is self-explanatory.

The titular character is first seen with, as per his trade, his hand on a drill, although theres no mouth at the end of his tool. Hes hanging a picture, a disturbing image of some bare-chested dentist from history standing physically atop his patient with a manic grip on whatevers causing trouble. The dentists first patient rings the buzzer. Hes got a massive bulge at his jawline, and though the stranger is put off by the sight of the various invasive tools sitting around the office and the disturbing picture on the wall, he eventually agrees to lie down.

After some shenanigans with the hydraulics that operate the chair, during which the patient is thrown hither and thither like a rag doll, the dentist finally gets down to work, blasting the patients head with x-rays until his hair falls out. The dentist discovers the problem a quintet of complete fish skeletons, one of which is poking directly into the center of a tooth. He knows what to do, but before he can start he has to trick the unwilling patient into opening his mouth, which he does by waving a tasty bit of seafood in front of his face.

The man opens wide in anticipation of a tasty treat, and the dentist shoves a stilt in quick. Then he goes in with the pincers. As he removes each fish skeleton he throws the meatless bones into a crockpot thats simmering on a nearby stove. The last fishbone is sticking fast, and after exacerbating the pain to its farthest extreme, the patients nerve endings simply give up and the tooth relinquishes the final fishbone. The dentist plugs the cavity with a cork and the patient gets ready to leave. On his way out he takes another look at the picture on the wall, and imagines that the scenario it depicts ended with patient and doctor kissing.

Panicked, he turns to see the dentist at the door with a suggestive leer. But hes only awaiting payment, and the patient pats himself down to find he has nothing to offer. The dentist takes the patients possessions, clothes and all, in lieu of payment, and sends him naked on his way. The dentist prepares to tuck in to the stew hes prepared using the bones extracted from the patients mouth, but before he can take a slurp his next patient arrives and, whee, were off again.

Its cant-miss entertainment for some, probably, and most of the rest of Baumanes oeuvre is of a similar Spike & Mike quality, from early works like The Witch and the Cow featuring a parade of witch-covered-in-shit gags to Five Fucking Fables, a self-explanatory sequence of five vignettes about mating, inter-species and otherwise. This would be easier to enjoy if the technique were more impressive, but although she shares something of Plymptons line style and tendency for animating on fours, sixes and more, unfortunately she doesnt share his aptitude for timing or characterization.

The pong of hetero panic and the awkwardness of the animation make a dire combination. Sex in animation can be a beautiful thing, from Barry Purves lyrical Achilles to Michel Ocelots show-stopping dirty joke Les Quatre Voeux, but combine juvenile sexuality and unsophisticated art and youre bound to end up wanting something more substantial. Its too bad, because Baumane has done more soulful work, in particular her creation-myth explorations, The Gold of the Tigers and Woman, done for the Latvian studios Dauka and Rija, respectively.

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An inner-city youth is haunted by neglect in The Wraith of Cobble Hill. © Adam Parrish King.

The Wraith of Cobble Hill

You know its effective dramaturgy if youre watching a character do A and you feel like shouting, No, schmuck, do B! Such is the effect of The Wraith of Cobble Hill, a recent short from USC thats set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of the same name. The short centers around Felix, an African-American youth whose father is AWOL and whose mother cant face the responsibilities of daily life.

The pair live in an apartment directly below Mr. H, the manager of a local convenience store. Waking one morning to the sound of Mr. H playing a vintage Polish ballad on 78rpm, Felix checks the refrigerator for breakfast. Its completely bare. Mom is watching TV next to an open bottle, so Felix splits. He arrives at Mr. Hs store sullen and hungry, and he successfully shoplifts a Nutty Chocolate Log. He tries pocketing a comic book too, and when Mr. H inconveniently looks in his direction he starts a panic conversation to cover himself, at the end of which Mr. H makes the unexpected proposition that Felix take care of the store for two weeks while he takes a holiday. The store has a rat problem, and H has a dog named Mitzi that lives in the store all the time and is supposed to keep them at bay. She needs looking after, and because it means getting a key to the store, Felix agrees.

As soon as H is safely away on vacation, Felix and two of his homies unlock the back door and help themselves to whatever they think wont be noticed. Mitzi is an ancient but contented beast, who, it turns out, is completely uninterested in hunting vermin. On their way out, Felix does notice Mitzi, who wags her tail and whines noncommittally, but he doesnt so much as pat her head, never mind leaving food in her empty bowl.

The boys scale the fire escape outside their building on their way to a rooftop stolen-goods picnic, and on the way Felix thinks he sees something moving in the window of Mr. Hs apartment. H had been crying earlier, sobbing quietly and cradling a broken pair of glasses. But now Felix cant see a sign of life, just a picture on the wall, one that sadly explains the significance of the glasses. They continue to the roof, crack open their brewskis and toast Mr. H in absentia.

On his second trip to the store Felix comes alone, takes more TV dinners and comicbooks, and yet again almost leaves without attending to Mitzi. But after a maddeningly long beat, he does finally open a bag of dog food and replenish the dish. At home watching TV and avoiding conversation with Mom, he thinks he hears some commotion upstairs, but it isnt until later, alone in bed with a comicbook, that he definitely hears the record on the record player, the furniture dragging along the floor and the sudden and ominous crash.

When hes made another trip up the fire escape to confirm the awful truth through the window, Felix makes one last trip to the convenience store. The rats are out in full force now. Felix looks at the empty glow of light through the window behind the register where Mr. H used to stand, he looks at the dog, and he makes the decision that circumstance has been setting him up to make for much longer than two weeks.

The Wraith of Cobble Hill is animated in a style so imitative of reality that the purist in me does wonder why was this animated at all? But never mind drama trumps all in a dramatic medium, so its hard to fault technique when the results are this good. The set design and cinematography suggest a dream memory of Brooklyn rather than the real thing, which is appropriate for a dramatic universe containing only six people (one of whom is already dead when the action begins). And the animation is superb; the characters are stop-motion armatures with minimal mouth and eye articulations, and writer/director/animator Adam Parrish King delivers all the necessary acting beats with smooth assurance. (The fluidity is truly amazing; technology-wise, this short may be one of the best advertisements yet for Frame Thief.)

The power of Wraith comes from the minimal movement, expert timing and, especially, the strong writing and voice characterization. So many moments linger how Felix automatically censors his own profanity mid-word to say shtuff when hes in the presence of an adult; the particular whine of a dog who doesnt mind being alone but who wouldnt say no to some company; the single seam of water damage running down the plaster in Felixs room. The kicker, as always, is the details; and in an animating process stretching over a half a decade, King has deployed six years worth of them.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank, Californias beloved City by the Bay (and the Bruckheimer). His article on the making of Twice Upon a Time will appear in Animation Blast magazine very soon indeed.

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