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Fresh from the Festivals: February 2007’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films -- The Little Matchgirl by Roger Allers, A Gentlemans Duel by Francisco Ruiz and Sean McNally, Maestro by Ga Th, Childs Trip by Kei Takahashi and Tartes Aux Pommes by Isabelle Favez. 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.

The Little Matchgirl (2006), 6:37, by Roger Allers (U.S.A.). Contact; Emily Hoppe, Marketing and Communication, Walt Disney Feature Animation [T] 818.460.8936, [F] 818.460.9202 [E] Emily.hoppe@disney.com

A Gentlemans Duel (2006), 7:45, directed by Francisco Ruiz (Mexico) and Sean McNally (U.S.A.). Contact: Jennifer Miller, Blur Studio [T] 310.581.8848 [F] 310.581.8850 [E] Jennifer@blur.com, [W] www.blur.com

Maestro (2005), 4:446, directed by Géza Tóth (Hungary). Contact: Niki Kárász, production manager, KEDD, Ltd., Budapest, Batthyany u. 52/B., H-1015 Hungary [T/F] +35.1.201.9118 [E] kedd@kedd.net

Childs Trip (2005), 5:50, directed by Kei Takahashi (Japan). Contact: Kei Takahaski [E] ikeya6@jmpd.jp

Tartes Aux Pommes (2006), 9:28, directed by Isabelle Favez (Switzerland). Contact: Swiss Effects, Thurgauerstrasse 40, 8050 Zürich, Switzerland [T] +41.44.307.10.10 [E] info@swisseffects.ch

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Disney resists giving a Disney version ending to The Little Matchgirl. © Disney.  

The Little Matchgirl

It may end with a shooting star, but its not quite the Disney ending many home viewers will be expecting at the end of the new Oscar-nominated Disney short, The Little Matchgirl. Near dusk on a very cold day in St. Petersburg, snow is discreetly falling from leaden clouds as a little girl stands on a bridge and watches children skating on the frozen Neva River. The girl is knocked off-balance by a sleigh and she has to reach down and recover her belongings, a box of long stick matches. With some trepidation the girl stands in the busy street and returns to work, her job being a continuous attempt to sell the matches to passers-by. Not surprisingly its a tough sell, as most of the pedestrians are simply darting to their next appointment with hands stuffed firmly in pockets and the one man stopping to light up some tobacco has his own lighter.

Lost in the bustle of traffic, the girl remains crowded and yet utterly alone. Standing on a barrel under a lamppost to better catch her customers eyes, she happens to see a family coming out of a toy shop, a young boy and girl fussing over their recent gifts from mom and dad in a casual dance of carefree bliss before getting in the family sleigh and riding off. Meanwhile a uniformed man has lifted the girl bodily from the barrel and plopped her back on the ground. She tries to save face by offering him match, but he makes a dismissive gesture and exits.

The lamplighters come and the traffic starts to thin, so the girl heads home for the evening -- only she hasnt got one; or, rather, home is disconcertingly a snowdrift in a dark alley. Cold and hungry, all she can do is turn to her matches for heat and hope. She lights one against the stony side of a building and holds it up to her face -- and through her 1,000-yard stare her mind transforms an empty tin canister buried in the snow into the black frame of an iron stove. The girl basks in its glow, holding up her feet -- and then the match goes out.

She lights another. In this fantasy the match becomes candles on a table set with a bountiful Christmas meal, a huge bronzed turkey glowing succulently in the candlelight. She reaches for a drumstick. She pulls back a smoldering match. With grim determination she looks in her box of matches, which is quickly being depleted, and lights another. This time a team of horses bound up from nowhere and shes whisked into a sleigh and over hill and dale into the country. A simple house appears. She leaves the sleigh, goes to the window and peers inside, then knocks on the door. Her grandmother answers.

The girl is overjoyed, but again the match goes out. Angry and desperate in the cold alley, she lights all the remaining matches at once. The dream image returns: she falls into the loving arms of Grandma, who takes her into the room with the Christmas tree aglow, presents underneath, the candles on the tree glowing warmly to match her happiness. The next morning, back in the alley, the girl is slumped in the snow. From the shadows Grandma approaches and wakes her; she glows with relief and happiness; and Grandma carries her away on her shoulder -- leaving her tiny dead body behind in the snow as both of them vanish through the stone alley wall and disappear.

This is one of those Disney missiles that focuses the studios formidable powers solely on the task of breaking your heart; and baby it feels goooood. Its sadder than sad in story terms alone, but the kicker is the music: the third movement of Borodins String Quartet No. 2 in D Major. The melody of this classical warhorse starts lyrical and slightly melancholy, but the tempo bumps up slightly when the key modulates in the middle of the movement and the melody moves to the lower strings -- which in this dramatic context makes for a mood of almost unbearable desperation. Weve all woken from a dream we wished we could get back, and to watch a little girl in a snowdrift blow all her chances for life at once and effectively seal her doom just for a few more minutes of comforting visions is a dramatic gut-punch for which the Borodin seems to have been tailor-made.

The Little Matchgirl is one of four cast-offs from the never-made international Fantasia 2000 sequel; its companion pieces being Destino, Lorenzo and One By One. The short looks beautiful, and the St. Petersburg color palette with its almost completely desaturated, yet seemingly infinite variety of dusky hues will chill you to the bone. Interestingly, director Roger Allers originally boarded Matchgirl to an existing performance by the Emerson Quartet, and though the producers did manage to get Emerson to perform this new version as well, they wouldnt play it at the lugubrious tempo that Allers had heard on record. As sentimental youths, they insisted, theyd performed it much too slow -- and the new version, at their preferred faster tempo, played hell with Allers continuity. But whats on the screen is still perfectly paced, and if anything the need for speed only enhances the desperation of the dream.

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Chivalry may be the object, but giant robots are the tools in A Gentlemans Duel. © Blur Studio Inc.  

A Gentlemans Duel

A Gentlemans Duel, the new Oscar-shortlisted short from the Blur Studios collective that brought us Rockfish, Gopher Broke and In the Rough, combines the sumptuous visual sophistication of nineteenth century landscape painting with the characterization typical of movies on the checklist of a Saturday night kegger at the Delta Chi. Out in a peaceful valley among gently rolling hills, it seems, is the country estate of a lovely woman of means. Trees line the road to a massive palatial mansion, in front of which the butler has set a table for some light mid-morning refreshment. Into this placid scenario enter two suitors, an English twit and a garrulous Frenchman.

The men take turns wooing the woman, competing for her attention and offering tea and coffee for her refreshment, but as theyre more intent on showing each other up they dont notice that their grand gestures of outrage at the perceived slights of the other man arent hitting empty air, theyre knocking her silly -- smashing her fingers under a teapot, and bonking her head with the serving tray. Eventually their mutual verbal abuse reaches a crescendo and the Englishman lightly slaps the Frenchman with his white glove. A duel is in order.

The duel is slightly more involved than your classic pistols-at-20-paces arrangement, and is instead a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred battle royale where the men strap themselves into the heads of giant metal automata three stories high and try to pummel each other into submission. Its a rollicking Sunday-Sunday-Sunday in the country -- be there or be puuuurged! And the woman and her butler remain there as dutiful witnesses to the melee, watching in terror, but seeming unconcern as her landscaping, fountains, sculpture garden and, indeed, most of the façade of the east wing go up in smoke and rubble as one gentleman warrior grabs anothers giant robot and throws him about.

Theres a killer poodle, a cache of electric eels and a mid-fight tea break; all of which leads to a denouement where the woman of their affections may or may not lie dead under a toppled statue. Its glorious to look at, hyper-charged in choreography and well acted by the animators. The design work is superb, from the facial architecture and anatomies of the main characters to the thousands of props and bit of set dressing flying to and fro. But man, what a letdown in the dramaturgy. Four writers are credited, and all there is to complement some of the most delicious eye candy yet seen in CGI is, Your grace is matched only by your boobies -- I mean beauty? Jeeziz. Better to watch this with the sound off and just luxuriate in that wonderful artificial skylight, awash in the gauzy haze of an impossible, perfect summer of long ago.

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A lonely artist prepares for showtime in Maestro. © KEDD, Ltd.  

Maestro

Maestro is one of this years five Oscar-nominated shorts, the only truly independent one of the handful, and had its genesis in Eastern Europe. Most of Maestros four minutes transpire in a single uninterrupted shot as a camera takes three and a half circuits around a very small room. Its a dressing room, wood-paneled, with a makeup mirror on one side and a privacy screen on the other. The only light comes from the bright bulbs around the mirror and some spillover from the door, cracked open and leading to terra incognita.

The room, and the short, is populated by two characters -- the first and by far the busiest being a simple mechanical clamp on an accordion-style grabber attached to the wall. We first see it mixing a drink from two bottles of liqueur on a trolley, and it pours a snifter of each in a mixer and shakes well before delivering it in a tall glass with a straw to the shorts second character. The Maestro is sitting in front of the mirror, a bit jittery but otherwise passive and wooden -- literally, as hes a stout little bird carved from lumber.

As the Maestro sings a few tentative scales, the grabber goes about its work, opening a drawer in the dressing table and pulling out a series of brushes and powder boxes. Needing to get down to the serious work of grooming the bird, the grabber politely but firmly shushes the singing bird by clamping its beak tight. Then it opens one box of toiletries after another, running a brush through the Maestros greasy hair, moving a small green oval grooming brush across his beak, passing another grooming brush over the back of his evening coat and dusting off his top hat.

The Maestro has two ties to choose from, red and cerulean, and he goes with the blue one. Slurping up the last of as his drink as quickly as possible before the grabber takes it away, the bird is spun in his chair prior to the grabber looping the tie around his neck. Then it grabs him firmly by the back of the tie, lifts him off the chair and shoots him out the door for his evenings performance.

This is, natch, all a setup for what the average viewer will either consider a neat metaphysical punchline or a cheap gag, depending on mood -- but if you pay attention to the camera movement and read the context correctly, youll probably see the big A-ha by at least the two-minute mark. Director Géza Tóth is a Hungarian animator whos best known in his native country for the more than 100 channel idents hes animated for a Hungarian music channel, but hes never before done a short in this style. This Oscar-nominated piece is his debut opus in 3D CGI. Considering its his first three-dimensional computer outing, he handles it with aplomb; hes careful about what he reveals and conceals with the mise en scène, and the wooden textures are rough and tactile.

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Babies are made and worlds collide in a Childs Trip. © Kei Takahashi.  

Childs Trip

Childs Trip is a crude abstract piece where the symbolism is undoubtedly fathoms-deep, but the technique is paper-thin. First to appear on-screen is an old man with a cane, green from head to foot, whos wandering around a green-on-green checkerboard. He collapses and turns to dust, which blows away. The board folds up to reveal a background of stars, and the camera immediately shoots away into a chaotically busy solar system. We zoom around a variety of planets -- a Mars, an Earth and a lot more imaginary ringers -- and theres the sound of a phone dialing, at which point the planets start to bounce and crack off each other like marbles.

Out of interstellar space two objects come into view -- a gigantic mythological turtle, with a yellow half-dome underneath and another brick half-done on top, and a tiny fighter jet leaving a long contrail behind it. Ceremonial gong music plays as the jet snakes around the half-asleep turtle. Under the turtles tail is the face of a stone grotesque, its mouth an expanding and contracting hole, and through this asshole of the universe the jet enters into the body of the turtle.

Inside, huge stone walls rise away in a high dome, half-plastered and covered in ivy, and on the floor of this giant interior space is a green mossy plateau populated by giant babies covered in muck, and four-way traffic lights that can light up yellow, red, green and blue. The first thing that happens is that a baby claps both hands on the jet, smashing it like a mosquito in a puddle of blood. The babies climb the walls, try to knock down the traffic lights and chase the other jets flying around the room. One baby sits under a freestanding cupola with a classical fresco painted underneath, and is engrossed by its own green checkerboard, on which three tiny green homunculi play out roles of father, mother and baby as the giant baby plays house.

As the game winds down, the giant baby slams the checkerboard shut over and over until only the baby homunculus is left, a tiny green twin, which the giant baby gazes down at blankly. Suddenly two huge arms enter the room from the mouth of the giant face in the wall. Instead of fleshy hues, the arms are the color of the universe outside, covered in stars and nebulae. They grab the baby from under the cupola and pull it out of the turtle. Its huge now, and trailing an umbilical cord, which stretches, stretches, stretches until it breaks -- and then theres nothing but a yellow sea, which fades through to actuality footage of a busy Japanese intersection of the present day.

Id be more interested in delving into this artists explorations of all this personal and public mythology if only the technique were palatable. Unfortunately animation is all about bringing life to the inanimate, and everything here is dead, dead as a computer-simulated doornail. Animator Kei Takahashi is a game graphic designer, and Babys Trip isnt more than a motion test in terms of picture quality. Beyond issues like the lack of motion blur, things simply dont behave right; motions are jerky, speed is inconsistent, solid bodies move through each other, joints bend in the wrong direction, nothing has weight and everyones eyes are dead. Theres no lack of imagination in the design of the world in Babys Trip; but to vivify these worlds Takahashi will need to invest more in the illusion of life.

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In a small town, a cornucopia of intrigue can be baked into one Tarte Aux Pommes. © Isabelle Favez.  

Tarte Aux Pommes

Tarte Aux Pommes is a fast-moving yarn about love, death, pets and apple pie. The short takes place in a tiny village with a main street, a butchers shop, a bakery and not much else. In this village lives a butcher (a grouchy guy), a baker (a chipper woman), a hunter, his trusting dog, and a wandering cat with a tinkling bell on its collar. One morning the butcher wakes in a terrible mood because of the noisy meowing of the cat. The baker, meanwhile, wakes in a happy mood and goes to the kitchen, which is infested with mice, to start her days baking. She goes out back to shake the apple tree, and a half-dozen ripe ones fall in her apron.

As the hunter and his dog hike out of town to hunt in the woods, the baker crosses the street to the butchers store and lays a freshly-baked apple pie beside the door. Then she returns to her side of the street, pushing a broom around until she sees the butcher come to the window of his shop. She waves. He waves back. Some customers come into the bakery and distract her, as the hunter and his dog return from the woods with a rabbit. The hunter goes inside the shop, leaving the dog outside, and the dog bolts down the tasty apple pie in short order. The hunter comes out of the butchers with a sausage for the dog, who gulps it down and barks at the butcher. They leave.

Soon the woman comes out of her shop and sees the empty plate. Again she waves to the butcher. The butcher, preoccupied with the rabbit hes putting in the grinder, only shrugs. The cat is wandering the street and the woman gets an idea, grabbing the cat and throwing it into her mouse-infested kitchen. But the cat merely tears around the room, not catching a single mouse and getting its collar stuck on the sink tap, and the woman kicks it out into the street again. The sun sets.

The next day the sequence repeats; cat wakes butcher, butcher is grouchy, baker wakes, starts morning apple pie routine. The dog is chasing the cat this morning, and he trees it. Out comes the baker to shake the apple tree, which now has a cat in it. The cats collar is stuck on a branch, and all the shaking breaks the collar as cat and bell come down into the bakers apron. Cat jumps out and goes on its merry way; bell stays with the apples and eventually goes straight into the apple pie that the woman places on the ground next to the butchers door.

When the hunter returns with another days catch to give to the butcher, he and the butcher once again do their business indoors while the dog inhales the apple pie, this time with the cats bell inside. Out comes the hunter with a sausage for the dog, who eats it, yelps, barks -- and chimes. The baker, hunter and butcher all stare at the dog wondering where the little bell sound is coming from. When they figure it out, the butcher is terrified. He mutters about how the dog has obviously eaten the cat, and imagines a scenario where this untamable beast eventually chases down the villagers one by one, forcing the whole town to flee and board up the windows -- the economy ruined and the dog roaring its domination to the heavens.

The butcher grabs the hunters gun and is about to shoot the dog when the hunter intervenes, taking the dog under his arm and going out into the woods to do the deed himself. Meanwhile as it gets dark the butcher is cleaning up his shop when, to his horror, he sees the cat wandering outside, very much alive. The thought of the hunter killing his faithful companion fills him with remorse -- so he finds an empty sack, gets a sausage and tries to lure the poor kitty into the darkened shop.

Thats only about half the story, so Ill leave the rest of this darkly comic item fresh for you to enjoy should you manage to score a copy for yourself. Its a 2D computer-generated piece in modified cutout style done with CelAction software, and the character designs from director Isabelle Favez are stick-figure simple and third-grade friendly with plenty of life in them. The short is the product of Swiss Effects animation studio of Zurich, and is the fourth of Favez festival shorts, which include the NFB short Circuit Marine -- a cutout-animated look at the food chain from the point of view of a group of cute but biologically incompatible pets on board a pirate ship.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank, known worldwide as The City by the Bay, or The City of Lights, or Rust Never Sleeps or Lets Give Uncle Harry Rugburn.

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