Fresh from the Festivals: January 2005’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Gopher Broke by Jeff Fowler, In the Rough by Paul Taylor, Suite for Freedom by Aleksandra Korejwo, Caroline Leaf and Luc Perez, Oedipus by Jason Wishnow and A Bucks Worth by Tatia Rosenthal. 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:

Gopher Broke (

2004), 4:18, directed by Jeff Fowler, U.S. Contact: Jennifer Miller, Blur Studios, 589 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA 90291, U.S. [V] 310.581-8848 [F] 310.581.8850 [E] Jennifer@blur.com [W] www.blur.com

In the Rough (2004), 4:50, directed by Paul Taylor, U.S.Contact: Jennifer Miller, Blur Studios, 589 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA 90291, U.S. [V] 310.581-8848 [F] 310.581.8850 [E] Jennifer@blur.com [W] www.blur.com

Suite for Freedom (2004), 15:40, directed by Aleksandra Korejwo (Poland), Caroline Leaf (England) and Luc Perez (France). Contact: Ron Diamond, Acme Filmworks, 6525 Sunset Blvd., Garden Suite 10, Hollywood, CA 90028, U.S. [V] 323.464.7805 [F] 323.464.6614 [W] www.acmefilmworks.com

Oedipus (2004), 8:30, directed by Jason Wishnow, U.S. Contact: Jason Wishnow [E] jw@oedipusthemovie.com [W] www.oedipusthemovie.com or www.newvenue.com/production

A Bucks Worth (2005), 6:20, directed by Tatia Rosenthal, Israel. Contact: Tatia Rosenthal [E] ABworth@gmail.com

jessen01_GopherBroke.jpg

Gopher Broke looks at five particularly interesting minutes in the life of a gopher somewhere in American corn country. © 2004 Blur Studios.

Gopher Broke

Blur Studio, just five blocks from seaside in lovely bohemian Hollywood-industrialized Venice, California, is an animation production house that makes its meal ticket producing game cinematics and TV spots. Features are what they really crave, of course, and theyll make one by gum, theyll get one going if they have to steal the equipment from half the soundstages in southern wait, they work in CG. They could make it in a closet. MONEY. Steal half the money from, I dunno, all the moguls in all the even-numbered houses on Mulholland Drive. Because theyre ready.

Last year they made the Oscar shortlist (though they didnt get a nomination) for director Tim Millers exhilarating short Rockfish, which you can finally see properly on the big screen in the Hertzfeldt/Judge annual omnibus The Animation Show starting this February. This fall Blur released not one but two new shorts, both of which deserve Oscar nods and industry attention: Gopher Broke and In the Rough.

Gopher Broke, directed by Jeff Fowler, looks at five particularly interesting minutes in the life of a gopher somewhere in American corn country. On a dusty road between fields in a rolling farm landscape, a gopher is making exploratory tunnels from one root system to another. It rejects several dandelions before hitting a very hard root indeed. It surfaces to take a look: its a friendly-proportioned orange critter with two front teeth bigger than its eyes. That tough last root was in fact the post of a sign advertising a Farmers Market, and further proof drives by in the form of a pickup with a bed swimming in crates of ripe tomatoes.

As the truck navigates the rough road, jarring the produce in back, the gophers gears start to turn and he immediately digs a pothole and awaits more traffic. Sure enough another farmer comes around the bend, bounces through the hole and dislodges a carrot that falls to the roadside. The gopher does a victory dance, and as he shimmies a rabbit makes off with the carrot. Cussing him out, the gopher tries again, and the next truck throws out several ears of corn in a cloud of dust. The gopher coughs and hacks and loses the corn to some local chickens. But then The Big One arrives as yet another truck hits the hole squarely, dislodging an airborne cornucopia of turnips, tomatoes, and other lovelies.

The gopher participates in a lovely slow-motion aerial ballet with the food, but cant quite get it together to round up the bounty before it too is nicked by local scavengers. What goods are delivered by the last truck constitute the shorts money shot, as the bell tolls for the hapless orange digger in the form of an aerial avenger called Bossy.

jessen02_InTheRough.jpg

In the Rough possesses one of the busiest and cleanest-executed slapstick montages in cartoon history. © 2004 Blur Studios.

In the Rough

In the Rough, directed by Paul Taylor, dials back the clock 100,000 years on a scenario jilted men will know the world over. Kicked out of the cave by his better half, primitive man Brog ducks as his many belongings follow him out the door. Apparently theyve just had the I wont have him in the house conversation, the unemployed brother-in-law in this case being every cavemans best friend, a big rock. Brog tucks the rock under his arm, relocates to a jungle clearing, and starts looking for food.

There follows one of the busiest and cleanest-executed slapstick montages in cartoon history, as for more than 30 seconds Brog pursues a lit fire and a critter to roast over it. He is bested by leeches, full-body massage from a snake, and a burning beard as he and his faithful Rock chase an all-too-meager roast beast, which after cooking collapses in a cloud of embers between his teeth. Alone and unprotected in the rain, Brog makes a sad decision and leaves Rock behind in favor of flowers for the old lady. But no sooner does he reach the cave door than he finds it blocked by a bear of the saber-tooth persuasion, and he rushes back to get his Rock and save the day.

Every aspect of the animation is outstanding in both shorts. The color palette in Gopher is subdued and desaturated, perfectly capturing a dusty summer in farm country, while the nighttime-daytime jungle settings of Rough are contrasty and saturated with the shocking hues of the living rainforest. The sound design is chipper and the voice acting is first-rate, with the pre-verbal grunts and complaints of Brog and his wife communicating more than the guy in mens shoes at Macys ever could. The character acting is superb, the timing is terrific, the scope is both epic and intimate.

Enough already! How many of these gems must they pump out before a studio exec twigs somethings up? Theyve got direction, theyve got a crew, theyve got story sense, theyve got humor, theyve got an address. So someone get their phone number and set up a meeting. What more do you need, blood?

jessen03_SuiteFreedom.jpg

Luc Perez Underground Railroad is the third part of Suite for Freedom, which was commissioned by Cincinnatis Underground Railroad Freedom Center. © NURFC.

Suite for Freedom

Suite for Freedom is a 15-minute piece on the subject of freedom, unfreedom, American slavery and the movement that rose up to oppose it, the Underground Railroad. Three animators contributed one movement each, moving from abstract to narrative and up and down the scale of representation.

The first movement, Freedom and Unfreedom, unfolds in a single two-and-a-half-minute shot. A mood piece with no dialogue, a single African-American figure appears in an abstract landscape dancing among multicolored energy fields. Free of limb and spirit, the figure dances to and fro, and is joined by another figure. Suddenly dissonant phrases burst into the mix as a hard gray boundary falls down between the two, and shortly more and more walls start to fall around the figure until he is completely trapped in a small box, at about the size and comfort level of the compartments in which slaves were shipped from Africa to America.

Polish director Aleksandra Korejwo animated the segment in multicolored salts, manipulated with a condors feather, shot top-lit on ones. The result is a uniquely striking look, as if the work was painted on a canvas that was nothing more than a light breeze, slipping away as fast as we can find a foothold. The acting is mostly abstract, but the facial features of the captive do come into sharp relief at the very end when his pain is at its peak, which is a nicely Tolstoyan touch.

Movement two, Slavery, is four-and-a-half minutes long and deals with a day in the life of a female slave. Up at the crack of dawn, she goes to work at her masters home, teaching a white youngster to read but being reprimanded by her owner for allowing a child from her own family to share in the lesson. She serves tea, during which she is forced to watch as a male slave on the street outside is branded R for runaway, a horrifying sight that causes her to drop the tea and stain her masters clothes. She is struck in the face for her efforts, and her day ends in a disheartening, quiet moment alone as she extinguishes the light before bed in expectation of more of the same tomorrow.

Slavery was animated by Caroline Leaf, expatriate American director who has created many award-winning shorts for NFB Canada including The Owl Who Married A Goose (1974) and The Street (1976). Leaf, who has never animated in the digital realm, only works in a computerized medium here by proxy. Her drawings were originated in pencil and graphite powder on glossy white five-by-seven cards, and her repeated erasings lend a ghostly texture to her already gentle line style.

The third movement is The Underground Railroad, a four-and-a-half minute trip into the bright, blunt painted strokes of impressionism. We follow a slave from his dog-ridden escape through fields of crops as he camouflages himself with mud, sleeps in trees, and makes his way north to rendezvous with a member of the Underground Railroad. In a thick forest he lucks on a sympathetic hunter who hides the slave in his wagon, taking him past the watchful eye of a chain gang leader and letting him off in secret in the middle of a covered bridge. At last a man with a lantern comes after dark and points the mans way to a riverboat, and the soon-to-be-freeman swims to safety under the stars.

Luc Perez animated the sequence in a roundelay of digital and analog steps. Live action actors were shot on DV, then exported into After Effects for zoom/pan work and compositing onto backgrounds. Then individual frames were printed to paper, and Perez went in with acrylics, oil sticks, and oil pastels to overlay moving impressionist paintings for every frame. Those paintings were finally scanned to create the final movie.

The entire piece is complemented with interstitials of apt quotes on the subject of freedom and slavery, narrated by Angela Bassett. The 15-minute suite was made for exhibition at Cincinnatis Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Not a didactic piece, Suite for Freedom makes its impression simply, presenting its first-person accounts not as a provocation but simply to offer as a shared experience across the centuries. (Full disclosure: Suite for Freedom is a co-production of Acme Filmworks, whose head Ron Diamond is also publisher of AWN.)

jessen04_Oedipus.jpg

Oedipus has it all: sex, violence, and broccoli rotting in fast-motion under a 1K top-light. © Mamas Boy Productions Inc.

Oedipus

Tomato-fucking! There, Ive said it. The subject, like the indiscretions of Wallis Simpson and King Edward, is now aboveboard and on the table. Careful, I left a potato peeler on the table too. Theres a garden of earthly delights, and utensils to match, in Oedipus, a stop-motion short from Compton, California-based animator Jason Wishnow.

A hoot when viewed straight, I wager this can only get better seen with a roomful of drunken theater arts majors. Its premise is simple: Sophocles immortal play Oedipus is retold in a streamlined version compressed into eight minutes. What makes this a fresh first in the history of cinema is that this oft-retold classic is here re-enacted by fruits and vegetables. Yes, in the past Oedipus has been staged in periods ranging from its original ancient setting to Victorian England, but no one yet has dared dump the humans for mixed greens. Or stage a sex scene with a potato and a tomato. Points to Wishnow for innovating on both counts.

In practical terms, Wishnow delivers his Cinemascope mini-epic in five scenes: the deadly meeting on the road, the reunion of Oedipus and his mother, a bedroom scene, a visit from a soothsayer, and Oedipus farewell to Antigone. The opening scene doesnt skimp on the violence, with the King taking the form of a head of broccoli that meets a cleaved fate at the hands of potato Oedipus two-fisted ninja peeler action. Taking his cauliflower flock with him to the city, Oedipus the shepherd and his roughage pass the time in a bar. (The barkeep will sound familiar; his most famous character had the original pink slip to the Millennium Falcon). On stage, as it happens, a tomato in a dress the dead kings wife, and Oedipus mother is the star attraction, and her closing number is, unbeknownst to her, the spectacularly ill-chosen standard Is You Is Or Is You Aint (My Baby).

Its downhill for the whole family after that, as Oedipus and Ma share explicit (never mind impossible) sexual congress. Her immediate reaction of familiarity with her new lover only meets Oedipus breezy reply, Yeah, I get that a lot. But the next day an onion soothsayer comes with bad news, and when he learns hes unwittingly killed his dad and married his mother, Mom freaks out, leaps from a high place and makes herself tomato sauce for street pizza. Potato Oedipus plucks out his eyes all of them and with a sad nod to the hubris that brought his family to its knees, he bids farewell to baby tomato Antigone and leaves the kingdom.

Wishnow created Oedipus in a warehouse in southern Los Angeles using borrowed equipment, off-the-clock professional friends and a lot of favors. A veteran of the online DIY digital ethos, Wishnow has directed Internet favs such as Tatooine or Bust, a documentary on rabid Star Wars fans, and was curator of 2000s Aggressively Boring Film Festival, the worlds first festival dedicated to works for the Palm Pilot. His influences on Oedipus, from Ben-Hur to Lawrence of Arabia, are nobly lofty even as his satire, equally nobly, has both feet planted in the compost heap. In short, Oedipus has it all: sex, violence, and broccoli rotting in fast-motion under a 1K top-light.

jessen05_ABucksWorth.jpg

A Bucks Worth is the filmmakers second collaboration with Israeli author Etgar Keret. © Tatia Rosenthal.

A Bucks Worth

A Bucks Worth is a begging letter about begging, a perfect appetizer for a feature film in the making from puppet animator Tatia Rosenthal and writer Etgar Keret. Rosenthal is an NYU graduate and makes her living as senior animator on the ubiquitous toddler fave Blues Clues. In her current film, as in her student film from 1998, this Israeli artist has chosen as her text a story by fellow Israeli Etgar Keret.

Filmed in a richly rough style with painted puppets, Rosenthals award-winning student film Crazy Glue was an intimate story about a lonely wifes attempt to draw back her philandering husband, based on the short story of the same name by Keret. A Bucks Worth is Rosenthals second collaboration with Keret, who is something of a literary star in his native country. (Los Angeles residents have been treated to a handful of his Raymond Carver-esque vignettes in local alternative paper LA Weekly, and you can read his stories Crazy Glue, Fatso, Halibut, and Ironclad Rules in the archive at the papers online site.) Brief and unforgettable, Kerets stories unfold in short, short scenes, played completely straight or dipped finger-deep in magical realism.

Sundance Filmmakers Lab sponsored the development of A Bucks Worth, the first animated short so honored by the independent festival. The stop-motion film opens with a wide shot of a city awakening, then pushes in to record an encounter between two men on the sidewalk. The mark, a ruffled man waiting for a taxi, is approached by a transient. A strange dynamic builds between them as the transient, voiced by Philip Baker Hall, talks about a dream he had of breakfast with his dead wife. The transient asks for a dollar for a cup of coffee as a gun slips from his grip and drops to the sidewalk between them. The mark, voiced by Tom Noonan, is petrified and offers to give him $50 or even a trip to the ATM for more if the man leaves him alone.

The transient is shocked at the suggestion that hes trying to rob him. But he does admit that this whole event was precipitated on a whim when the gun accidentally came into his hands, and that hed decided to approach the first man he saw for a buck for a cup of coffee. If he was turned down, he says putting the gun to his own head he might as well join the missus. The mark is shocked by this turn of events, and all he can do to defend his emotions is try to move through the situation rationally, telling the man he feels exploited, and demanding he drop the pretense and just approach him as a fellow human being asking for help like any other homeless guy.

Rosenthals foam latex puppets in A Bucks Worth are only slightly more naturalistic than her creations in Crazy Glue, which were built from mattress foam under a latex skin. She gets in most of her character work from only minimal articulations: a twisted eyebrow, a jutted chin. The voice work is highly affecting, as wed expect from Philip Baker Hall, star of Secret Honor and most of Paul Thomas Andersons filmography, and writer/actor Tom Noonan, a character actor probably best known as serial killer Francis Dollarhyde in Manhunter.

A Bucks Worth is aptly named: this story about a plea for a dollar is itself just a bucks worth of something the creative team hope to charge $10 for someday. Rosenthal ends her piece with To Be Continued, the continuation being the feature-length script, called $9.99, that Keret and Rosenthal have already completed together. A Bucks Worth is that movies first scene, and hopefully a series of screenings at this years Sundance film festival will earn them completion money and a distributor. If finished, the feature would mark a first in American cinema: a dramatic film for a mature audience made entirely in stop-motion.

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

randomness