Fresh From The Festivals: January 2001's Film Reviews

Maureen Furniss reviews the following short films: Janno Poldma's On the Possibility of Love, Just in Time by Kirsten Winter, Stephen X. Arthur's Vision Point, Passport by Siri Melchior and The Scarecrow by Cheryl Meier. 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.

This month:

Armastuse Voimalikkusest (On the Possibility of Love, 1999), 15.5 min., directed by Janno Poldma, Estonia. Info: EESTI Joonisfilm Studio, Laulupeo 2, Tallinn, 100121, Estonia. Tel/Fax: 372-601-0275. E-mail: joonis@delfi.ee.

Just in Time (1999), 9 min., directed by Kirsten Winter, Germany. Info: Anigraf, Kirsten Winter, Boedekerstr. 92, Hannover, 30161, Germany. Tel: 49-511-66-0165. Fax: 49-511-66-7327. E-mail: kwinter@dm.fh-hannover.de.

Vision Point (1999), 1.5 min., directed by Stephen X. Arthur, Canada. Info: Stephen X. Arthur, 373 - 1755 Robson St., Vancouver, BC V6G 3B7, Canada. Tel: 604-421-5046. Fax: 604-421-0957. E-mail: s_arthur@istar.ca. URL: mypage.direct.ca/w/writer/Current.html.

Passport (1999), 7 min., directed by Siri Melchior, Denmark. Info: Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London, SW7 ZEV, England. Fax: 44-020-75904500.

The Scarecrow (2000), 1.5 min., directed by Cheryl Meier, USA. Info: Cheryl Meier, 1950 Barret Lakes Blvd. #213, Kennesaw, GA 30144, USA. Tel: 678-290-6616.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.

On the Possibility of Love. © EESTI JoonisFilm. 320X240 | 160X120

On the Possibility of Love. © EESTI JoonisFilm. 320X240 | 160X120

On the Possibility of Love

Using cel animation, Estonian animation director Janno Poldma has created an interesting take that claims to be about relationships. Like most Estonian films, though, the 'story' takes dryly humorous, unpredictable and sometimes enigmatic twists and turns, ultimately ending in a way that is satisfying, if not totally comprehensible. Perhaps the best known of Poldma's other directorial efforts, 1895 (made in 1995), is just as quixotic, though the two films are not what I'd call similar. No doubt that is due to the fact that 1895 was written by co-director Priit Pärn. For one thing, On the Possibility of Love is without dialogue, while 1895 relies heavily on a constant stream of voice-over narration that provides the pretense of a storyline.

On the Possibility of Love focuses on a family of three: a man, a woman and their son. The boy is a bratty child who cuts his father's suspenders, puts salt in his coffee and eats the family pet, much to the dismay of his mother. The boy's naughty activities are contrasted with the behavior of some troublemakers in the street, a small band of men who throw things at the family's home and, when spied upon through a telescope, are even caught sawing up the surface of a distant planet. In the end, the couple unite as the man transforms into an officer on a horse and the woman, who had been watching -- naked -- in a tree, floats down to join him. Even the naughty boy's story seems to have a resolution, as he appears to be converted into a care-giver, taking over the place of his mother, who had acted as a nurse to a line of bird characters seeking attention from her. I know it might be hard to imagine, but it really does all seem to fit together in the end. If pressed to come up with a primary goal for this work, I'd go with a political agenda; the film seems to be saying that the troublemakers in the street are not much more than naughty vandals who never got the spankings they deserved when they were boys. I'm betting that the man and woman's relationship is just a distraction, one that is conventional in filmmaking.

Poldma has had a long history of working in not only animation, but theater and puppetry. He began working at Tallinnfilm Studio in 1973, as a camera assistant and then as a cameraman. In this capacity he filmed some of the earliest works of Estonian animation, including Rein Raamat's Toll the Great and Hell. Throughout the years, Poldma has worked in both 2D and 3D traditional animation techniques; his puppet films include Brothers and Sisters (1991) and Otto's Life (1992). Additionally, he has written a children's book, Judo Boys (1985); a feature film screenplay, "The Lamb Down in the Right Corner" (directed by Lembit Ulfsak, 1992); and several theatrical plays.

Just In Time. © Kirsten Winter. 320X240 | 160X120

Just In Time. © Kirsten Winter. 320X240 | 160X120

Just in Time

In 1995, when I saw Kirsten Winter's powerful experimental film, Clocks, I was impressed by the manner in which she managed to capture the process of composer Elena Kats-Cherin at work (and I do not mean process in the sense of a 'procedure,' but rather as the spiritual working through of her material). Winter's latest work, Just in Time, is motivated out of the same aesthetic as Clocks, though the resulting film is very different. Whereas Clocks is dynamic and energized, Just in Time feels much more meditative. However, the two films are definitely of a kind in that they are both impressionistic, striving to create the feeling of an experience rather than a narrative about it. Just in Time is Winter's observation of many aspects of America, where she traveled by train for four weeks. In the film, she analyzes some icons of American culture, such as the Statue of Liberty, and the country's landscapes, both natural and man-made.

Winter's filmmaking technique has parallels to the process of music composition, as she considers her visuals and her music to be of equal importance. She thinks of her film visuals as notes, and uses a 'visual score' to create high and low tension as well as rhythm. In this respect, she can be seen as a practioner of visual music, an art that has existed for many years. Winter collaborated on Muratti und Sarotti, a film about German animators of the 1920s, when the visual music tradition was at a high point and Winter sites these films as a strong influence on her own work. It's easy to see how German visual music artists such as Oskar Fischinger or Walther Ruttman have impacted her use of oil painting in Clocks, as bold strokes accompany the equally strong, pulsing score. However, in Just in Time, I also feel the influence of future generations of visual music filmmakers, such as James Whitney or a handful of other abstract filmmakers working during the 1950s and 1960s. I say this because of the almost solarized effects in portions of her film as well as the mandala-like use of bright, centered light that creates the meditative quality I sense in the film. Whether this influence is actual or coincidental, there are affinities between Just in Time and Whitney's films, for example, in their exploration of the essence of things and our inner experience of them. The contemplative quality of Just in Time, like SMASH before it, is partly the result of Winter's brush with death in a bad car accident, which almost killed her.

Winter has experimented with different techniques as she creates her works. She made Clocks using photos and oil painting. High 8 video and oil painting applied directly to a computer monitor were incorporated into her second film, SMASH, in 1997. In Just in Time (her third work), she has begun using scratching on film, along with filters applied in the lab, in her assemblage of live-action footage, oil paint and computer-generated imagery. Here sometimes digital video images were treated in After Effects and combined with painting while she shot frame-by-frame off a computer monitor, using a 35mm animation camera. Like her previous two films, Just in Time is without dialogue, but in this case her composer was Simon Stockhausen. Winter's work is supported in part by sponsorship by the German government, which has a system for funding independent film production. She currently teaches part-time at a College of Fine Arts in Hanover, plus she is working on a number of new short pieces. She works out of her studio, anigraf filmproduction, which she co-founded with Gerd Gockell in 1990.

Vision Point. © Stephen X. Arthur. 320X240 | 160X120

Vision Point. © Stephen X. Arthur. 320X240 | 160X120

Vision Point

In Vision Point, director Stephen X. Arthur takes viewers on another journey, this time across the landscape of Canada, which he traversed with his wife, Joyce Arthur. While she was driving through the Western portion of the country on the Trans Canada Highway, Arthur captured time-lapse images with a Pentax 35mm still camera, zooming in with a 200 mm lens. These images were later manipulated with Adobe After Effects, which also was used to create a heartbeat-like sound track for the film. Flight of the Stone (directed by Susanne Fränzel), a similar work that I recently reviewed, uses the 'narrative device' of a stone flying through the air to tie its 15 minutes of international landscapes together. In contrast, Arthur's images are united only thematically, as his goal was to abstract fundamental differences among regions of Canada. This strategy works in part because Vision Point is only one and a half minutes long; the repeated images form a rhythm in combination with the soundtrack, while changes in perspective and landscape types provide visual interest.

With a background in zoology and physiology, as well as an MFA in film production from the University of Southern California, Arthur brings an interesting scientific, analytical perspective to his work in animation. Among his strongest influences, he cites Norman McLaren, Paul Driessen, Jan Svankmajer and Werner Herzog, and he most admires the Bros. Quay for their employment of surrealism as 'true freedom from the intellect' and for their total devotion to their art. I do not see Vision Point as particularly surreal in its aesthetic, though Arthur himself describes it that way. However, I think he has achieved an entertaining and even slightly humorous film that is enjoyable to watch and might be studied for the way in which movement helps to sustain visual interest.

Arthur also explains that his inspiration came in part from Bart Testa's 1989 book, Spirit in the Landscape, which focuses on Canadian avant-garde landscape films in terms of the Canadian landscape-painting tradition. Vision Point was funded by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. It has been screened at events worldwide.

Passport. © Royal College of Art. 320X240 | 160X120

Passport. © Royal College of Art. 320X240 | 160X120

Passport Passport is yet another accomplished student film from the Royal College of Art, which seems to be doing more than a little right, judging by the number of excellent productions that have emerged from it in recent years. This post-graduate thesis film employs cutouts on multiplane scraper boards, black and white imagery, dimmed lighting with chiarascuro-type effects, and sound elements to set the scene for a family's ill-fated trip on a night train.

The film's director, Siri Melchior, studied art history and graphic design in Denmark before going to the U.K.'s Royal College of Art and acknowledges the influence of Russian animation upon the work. This influence is clear in the overall look of the piece, which brings to mind the visual design and even the animation style of Yuri Norstein. The story itself, which runs almost 7-minutes in length, also seems to be set within an Eastern European context. A family escapes a crowded, highly secured train station, boarding a train car after showing documents that officials accept cautiously, after scrutiny. As the family sleeps, though, a thief takes the passports from their room. Officials arrive and force them off the train, so they apparently lose their chance for freedom.

Like the other films reviewed this month, Passport is without dialogue. The film's score was created by Danish composer Soren Sigumfeldt Eriksen. Passport's production was supported by the Royal College of Art as well as Danish student grants. The film's score was created by Danish composer Soren Sigumfeldt Eriksen. Passport's production was supported by the Royal College of Art as well as Danish student grants. The film has been well received in competition, having won best student work awards at both the Ottawa and Stuttgart festivals in 1999.

The Scarecrow. © Cheryl Meier. 320X240 | 160X120

The Scarecrow. © Cheryl Meier. 320X240 | 160X120

The Scarecrow

American Cheryl Meier has created a very different student work with her 1.5 minute film, The Scarecrow. This senior thesis for the Ringling School of Art and Design was created using Maya 2.0. It tells the story of a scarecrow who decides to break out of his place in life and does so with the help of some crows. Meier says she was inspired to create the film when she drove past two real scarecrows standing guard in a sunflower farm. To get the sense of what a real scarecrow might feel as it tugged at the wooden boards that hold it up, she rigged herself to hang from a post!

Though Meier cites Disney and Pixar as influences in terms of story and visual design, her work is actually a lot softer and atmospheric than most of the computer animation work I associate with those companies. She employs soft colors and a kind of hazy fog that hangs just above the ground and gives depth to the scene. On the other hand, Meier's ability to instill a lot of character into the scarecrow within a short time would seem to reflect her study of personality animation created by the two studios. Through movement and the setting of small goals that the character sets out to achieve, viewers are able to identify with this character's struggle for freedom, which occurs in less than two minutes. Sound effects lend a hand at establishing the aesthetics of the film, as the scarecrow finally is able to hobble off, having employed the posts that originally held him captive as legs that now set him free.

The Scarecrow has been screened at SIGGRAPH and a variety of other showcases, and will be featured in an upcoming episode of Exposure on the Sci-Fi Channel. Meier is currently working on a feature film, Helgo, A Hero's Journey, at Fathom Studios, which is located in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maureen Furniss, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Film Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California. She is the founding editor of Animation Journal and the author of Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (John Libbey, 1998).

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