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Fresh from the Festivals: February 2008’s Reviews

Andrew Farago makes his debut as the new Fresh from the Festivals reviewer with five short films: Isabelle au bois dormant (Sleeping Betty) by Claude Cloutier, Jeu by Georges Schwizgebel, Madame Tutli-Putli directed by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, Me les pigeons vont au paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven) by Samuel Tourneux and The Pearce Sisters by Luis Cook.

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 exhibition of them, 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.

Isabelle au bois dormant (Sleeping Betty) (2007), 9 min., directed by Claude Cloutier (Canada). Contact: Johanne St-Arnauld, NFB [T] 514.283.2703 [F] 514.496.1895 [E] international@nfb.ca, [W] www.nfb.ca/betty

Jeu (2006), 4 min., directed by Georges Schwizgebel (Canada). Contact: Johanne St-Arnauld, NFB [T] 514.283.2703; [F] 514.496.1895 [E] international@nfb.ca [W] www.nfb.ca/betty

Madame Tutli-Putli (2007), 17 min., directed by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski (Canada). Contact: Pat Dillon, NFB [T] 514.283.9411; David Magdeal (U.S.PR) [T] 213.624.7827

Même les pigeons vont au paradis (Even pigeons go to heaven) (2007), 9 min., directed by Samuel Tourneux (France). Contact: Samuel Tourneux [W] www.samueltourneux.com; Pierre Buffin, Buf Compagnie, [T] +33 142681828 [W] www.buf.com

The Pearce Sisters (2007), 9 min.,directed by Luis Cook [U.K.]. Contact: Maggie OConnor, Aardman Animations, Gas Ferry Road, Bristol BS1 6UN, U.K. [T] 44 117 9848485 [F] 44 117 9848486 [E] Maggie.oconnor@aardman.com [W] www.aardman.com/pearcesisters

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Isabelle au bois dormant (Sleeping Betty) uses a familiar plot as its starting point, but then cuts loose with a fast, frenetic comedy reminiscent of classic Tex Avery. © 2007 National Film Board of Canada.

Isabelle au bois dormant (Sleeping Betty)

The most recent Looney Tunes Golden Collection features an entire disc devoted to Warner Bros. Studios adaptations of classic fairy tales. The same handful of stories turned up over and over again in the classic Looney Tunes, and practically every single studio that produced shorts went back to the well time and time again. What is it about these fables that makes them so appealing to animators? Sure, there are complex, thought-provoking, deep-seated psychological reasons that these stories provoke a reaction in every human soul as they have for countless centuries, but the actual reason is much simpler -- everyone in the world already knows these stories, and when youre creating an entire universe in the space of less than ten minutes, the less time the animators have to spend explaining backstory, the better.

Which brings us to Claude Cloutiers recent fairy tale interpretation, Isabelle au bois dormant (or Sleeping Betty, for those of us who ne pas parle francais). Cloutier jumps right into this classic story with all of the key tropes in place from the start. Isabelle lies in bed oblivious to the world around her as her parents, the king and queen of an unnamed medieval-yet-modern land, wail and bemoan her fate. Can anything wake this poor, pitiable princess?

Using such a familiar plot as his starting point, Cloutier and his animators are free to take the story and run with it, and they cut loose with a fast, frenetic comedy reminiscent of classic Tex Avery. The sight gags in this dialogue-free dustup begin with the motley crew that has gathered by Isabelles bedside (including a jester, an extra queen, an oversized Henry the VIII and some sort of multi-eyed alien creature) and they keep coming fast and furious throughout the film. A number of also-ran would-be rescuers try and fail to revive the princess as the steadfast and unshakeable Prince Charming (looking very much like the current Mister Camilla Parker-Bowles) braves obstacles ranging from malfunctioning drawbridges and impassable terrain, to eerily accurate road signs and ferocious moose-dragons, as he prepares to meet his destiny.

The humor in this short would shine through in any style, but Cloutiers beautiful and detailed penwork adds a level of comedy to the proceedings that feels like a mash-up of 1790s William Hogarth, 1950s Chuck Jones and 1980s Kyle Baker. The seriousness and dramatic heft of the artwork, paired with the utter mania of the animation, makes for a powerful and winning combination.

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Jeu's influences include the drawings of M.C. Escher, fractals, Russian nesting dolls and French Impressionist paintings, among other sources. © 2007 National Film Board of Canada. 

Jeu

From start to finish, Jeu certainly lives up to its name. An astonishing exercise in animation, the viewers and animators alike get caught up in a nonstop guessing game as the subject matter of this short film constantly shifts and reinvents itself over the course of four minutes.

Filmmaker Georges Schwizgebel created over 400 acrylic and oil paintings for this film, cycling and recycling them throughout to create a very fluid and very fast-moving series of transformations. A series of blocks moves across a plain background to form the word “Jeu” (“Game”). Those blocks become boxes, boxes become playing fields, fields give way to children playing, children become paintings and so on, until we arrive at the dizzying crescendo of a full-fledged orchestra performing Serge Prokofiev’s second piano concerto, which leads to the only still moments in the entire film… just before the entire film turns back and envelops itself in reverse at more than twice the speed at which the entire series of events had unfolded in the first place.

Drawing influence from the drawings of M.C. Escher, fractals, Russian nesting dolls and French Impressionist paintings, among other sources, Schwizgebel set out to challenge himself as much as possible in producing this film, and seems to have thrived on each of the obstacles that he created for himself. The film itself consists of nine animated cycles of one-and-a-half seconds each, with each cycle consisting of 36 images, with each transformation timed to correspond to the tempo of the film’s soundtrack. The destruction and reconstruction of each segment appears relatively seamless throughout the film largely due to the never-ceasing pattern of transformations throughout.

The creation of believable, plausible scene-to-scene transitions in any animated film is difficult, and animators tend to apply them infrequently due to the challenges involved in using them effectively. To deliberately create a piece of animation that consists of nothing but transitional shots is impressive enough in itself; that Schwizgebel succeeds so well in doing so is astonishing.

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Many questions are raised by Madame Tutli-Putli, but few are answered during the course of this strange and existential journey. © 2007 National Film Board of Canada. 

Madame Tutli-Putli

Perhaps the most unsettling of this month’s "FFF" selections is the Academy Award-nominated Madame Tutli-Putli, produced by the heralded National Film Board of Canada. The film opens as the titular character and all of her earthly possessions await a passenger train as she sets off on a mysterious journey to parts unknown.

The trip starts innocently enough, as the timid Madame Tutli-Putli surveys the bizarre characters who share her journey, but her unease grows steadily throughout the first scene aboard the train. An odd little boy reads a book entitled How to Handle Your Enemies as his ancient grandfather sits passively by his side; two chess aficionados engage in a pitched battle for supremacy as the train’s own instability plays a larger role in their contest than their actual gaming abilities; and a famed tennis player’s unwelcome sexual advances within such close quarters cause Tutli-Putli great discomfort as she braces herself for the uncertain night ahead.

As the train brakes for a brief period of respite and all of the passengers settle in for a good night’s sleep, three strange visitors come aboard, and their intentions are pure evil. They unleash an eerie green mist througout the train, immobilizing all on board as they spirit away, for reasons known only to themselves, all of the valuables -- and all of the passengers -- on board, save for Madame Tutli-Putli herself. Why is she spared the fate of the other passengers? What was the purpose of the intruders’ visit? What is the mysterious vision that causes Tutli-Putli’s transformation from victimhood to self-assurance at film’s end? Many questions are raised by this film, but few are answered through the course of this strange and existential journey.

While the film’s story may not prove satisfactory to all viewers, few will deny the power of the imagery and artistry that are on display in Madame Tutli-Putli. The National Film Board of Canada’s groundbreaking and innovative use of stop-motion animation with digital effects produces one fascinating scene after another. Masterful lighting and the innovative use of camera angles combine for many memorable shots, and the all-too-realistic eyes of each character create an uncanny and unsettling feeling of tension as we witness Tutli-Putli’s struggles to comprehend the wonder and the menace of the world around her.

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Though the plot of Même les pigeons vont au paradis (Even pigeons go to heaven) may sound like something out of a Bergman film, it is actually a very effective and well-staged comedy. © BUF Compagnie.

Même les pigeons vont au paradis (Even pigeons go to heaven)

The second Oscar-nominated short in this month’s "FFF" is Même les pigeons vont au paradis (Even pigeons go to heaven), a French film by director Samuel Tourneux that demonstrates that no good deed goes unpunished. No bad deed goes unpunished in this film, either, for that matter.

The story opens at a small church in the Normandy countryside as a priest makes use of some sort of celestial bandwith scanner to intercept signals from the great beyond. The priest outraces Death itself in his journey to the home of Monsieur Moulin, an aging recluse who’s not long for this world. He enters Moulin’s home and saves him from a potentially fatal fall, then launches an elaborate confidence scam with the intention of procuring Moulin’s life’s savings for the church by offering Moulin the opportunity to buy passage through the Gates of Heaven. The priest’s plan may very well succeed, too, if only he can escape the hand of Divine Intervention.

Though the plot may sound like something out of a Bergman film, Même les pigeons is a very effective and well-staged comedy. The writing is particularly sharp, and the story contains many subtle nuances that reward repeat viewings, given the nature of the plot and the manner in which the true motivations of each character are revealed.

The filmmakers cite “old French movies… Pixar’s works… and French comic authors like Régis Loisel, Lewis Trondheim, Manu Larcenet” among their influences, and the example of each shines through in this finely produced short. It’s easy to imagine Monsieur Moulin’s house exisiting just a brief train ride away from the Parisian kitchens seen in Ratatouille, and it’s not much of a stretch to see this as a graphic novella from the likes of Trondheim or Loisel, either. From the gritty country backroads to the radiant visions of Heaven, each scene is expertly crafted, and it’s easy to see why this film captured itself an Academy Award nomination.

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The designs of The Pearce Sisters come together to create a wonderfully awful world of sickly colors, ugly characters and an absolutely miserable environment, but the cartoon itself is wonderful to behold. © Aardman Animations.

The Pearce Sisters

The Pearce Sisters is at times the most beautiful and most hideous film in this installment of "FFF." Aardman Animations, best known for its loveable stop-motion duo Wallace and Gromit, presents the exploits of a considerably less endearing pair, Lol and Edna Pearce, in this nine-minute short.

The Pearce Sisters inhabit a remote and desolate coast, far from any place that any sensible person would find himself if he had any say in the matter whatsoever. The weathered, well-worn sisters eke out a consistent, miserable existence from the sea, catching fish, gutting them, preparing them in a tiny smokehouse, and feeding the local seagull population a steady diet of discarded fish guts. The bleak and miserable weather consists of various combinations of cold, wind and rain, and the limited palette of the film (consisting of sickly yellowy-green, greeny-yellow, and unpleasant shades of brown) does an excellent job of conveying just how awful and terrible the Pearce Sisters’ home is.

A brief glimmer of hope enters their lives when the sisters discover a shipwrecked sailor and they nurse him back to health. Unfortunately for him, the nursing procedure includes a deranged makeover attempt for reasons unknown and unexplained, which ultimately leads to the sailor’s tragic, final fate. The sisters carry on, however, and console themselves with a tea party attended by all of the friends they’ve made during their time on the island. It’s a grotesque display, to be sure, but whatever the sisters’ lot in life, they seem resigned to it, and are surprisingly content, at that.

The beauty of the film comes from Aardman’s animation, supervised by director Luis Cook. The designs come together to create a wonderfully awful world of unsavory colors, ugly characters and an absolutely miserable environment, but the cartoon itself is wonderful to behold. The Pearce Sisters combines 2D and 3D animation, a first for Aardman, and the technique produces incredible results. The film was initially produced as 3D CGI animation, and each frame was then printed and drawn over by 2D artists, then scanned back into computers and composited over the 3D work, which the animators cite as « proof that 3D computers and 2D drawn animation can co-exist!” One can only wonder what the results would have been had Cook gone with his first choice, casting the Pearce Sisters as ugly men dressed as women in a live-action short, but it’s fortunate that we’ve got beautiful drawings of ugly women as a consolation prize.

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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