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Fresh from the Festivals: January 2006’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films Amfraid by Anne Sophie Bertrand, Thibault Debeurme, Sophie Van De Velde and Pascal Verkindt, City Paradise by Gale Denis, The Fan and the Flower by Bill Plympton, Hadacol Christmas by Brent Green and The Sandbox (Sunaba) by Kory Juul. 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.

Amfraid (2004), 7:00, directed by Anne Sophie Bertrand, Thibault Debeurme, Sophie Van De Velde and Pascal Verkindt (France). Contact: Annabel Sebag, Premium Films, 130 Rue de Turenne 75003 Paris, France [E] animation@premium-films.com

City Paradise (2004), 5:58, directed by Gaëlle Denis (France). Contact: Passion Pictures [T] +44.207.323.9933 [E] info@passion-pictures.com

Sunaba (The Sandbox) (2005), 5:30, directed by Kory Juul, U.S. Contact: Meticulous [T] 510.619.9095 [E] jmpa@meticulous.com

The Fan and the Flower (2006), 7:00, directed by Bill Plympton (U.S.). Contact: [E] plymptoons@aol.com

Hadacol Christmas (2005), 12:00, directed by Brent Green (U.S.). Contact: Brent Green [E] brent@nervousfilms.com [W] www.nervousfilms.com

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Not fraid not fraid Amfraid. © Premium Films.

Amfraid

For a preschooler, spending the evening with Grandma can be pretty horrifying. Taking that concept and running with it is Amfraid, the 2003 diploma project for four animators at Frances Supinfocom. One dark and stormy night an old woman is alone knitting in her miniature gothic nightmare of a house, a no-right-angles estate perched on a clifftop with a completely incongruous tower attached. Into the scene comes a young boy in corduroy and a striped sweater, dropped off by his parents, and though he tries to leap back out the front door and escape he remains trapped inside as their car speeds away.

The old woman presents a home-cooked meal of, apparently, Porridge à la Yellow Rain Slicker, a bilious glop that is either attracting or producing horseflies. The boy sensibly pushes it away. Later hes playing with blocks as Grandma knits, and one of the flies buzzes past him into the hallway beyond. The boy decides to play Intrepid Hunter, and he steals an extra knitting needle and makes chase.

The main hall sits at the bottom of a rickety staircase spiraling up to inky doom. Up the boy goes, chasing the fly as it alights on one landing after another. Half a flight up, though, the fly lands in a spider web and the boy happens to look down at the shadow of Grandma thrown by the light of the fireplace. Shes heard the tiny cries of the trapped fly, and has suddenly grown eight huge legs out of her back. The boy doesnt like where this is headed, so he flees up the stairs as quickly and quietly as he can but the grillwork sprouts inquisitive and tangly feelers, the stair steps tilt and fall away, and he falls into a giant suspended spider web.

Up comes arachnid Grandma to get her fresh meat and the boy wakes. Hes still on the bottom step, needle in hand. He tiptoes back to the living room to check for Grandma, but sees only her empty rocking chair. He makes for the door and well, this being the genre it is, you can guess the outcome, but theres a final juicy reveal that delivers a nicely macabre topper to the proceedings.

Amfraid is another great example of how CGI is no longer a style, its every style. In the digital realm, given enough time and skill you can WayBack to any era and pitch a tent at UPA, Zagreb or Lotte Reinigers studio, possibly all at once. Amfraid lives somewhere between Paul Berrys The Sandman and the PXL This! festival, animated strictly on twos with no motion blur. The stop-motion effect is amiably retro, enhanced by an overlaid patina of coarse grain and models and sets that are shaded to look like painted mahogany.

Unusually for even a mute short like this, there isnt so much as a grunt or gasp from any character, and the sound design and music carry more than their share of the emotional weight. Amfraid wants to be screened in a dark theater, with its nods to Vertigo and creepy happenings going on just at the edge of the proscenium frame. This sinister short is yet another winning product of the hothouse/arthouse/powerhouse Supinfocom, famed secondary school and genius factory, the source of such modern classics as Overtime, Workin Progress and Tim Tom.

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Goggles and a foreign-language learning course help a woman find City Paradise. © Passion Pictures.

City Paradise

City Paradise is a polished piece of moving graphic design about a fish out of water who manages to get back in. Set in a dream London whose rain-gray murk has been replaced with saturated, glowing blues and popping red double-decker buses, its the story of a Japanese woman whos new in town and wants nothing more than good conversation and a place to swim.

Arriving by plane as the ghostly voice of Alvar Liddell announces, This is London, the girl finds herself in an Underground station asking, with understandable cross-lingual difficulty, for Piccadilly. When this fresh Japanese transplant arrives at her new flat, she unpacks her bright rose suitcase, producing flippers, English-learning cassettes and a full aquarium with goldfish (a great micro-gag reminiscent of Mary Poppins and her hat stand).

Shes getting along in her adopted language, it seems, but not as well as shed like, and shes left to sit in the portico in a swimsuit and goggles staring out into the rain and repeating after the voice on the cassette, The cold has sent my teeth chattering. Her neighbor knocks at the door, and to the girls consternation the man has nothing to say but, The cold has sent my teeth chattering. She shuts the door on this closed-loop conversational exchange and smacks the Stop button on the cassette.

Walking to the local swimming pool past gawkers with pallid complexions and spindly legs, she proceeds to the locker room and gets ready to take in some diving. With the room empty, though, she cant resist donning a mask and plunging her head into the water-filled sink, something shed liked to do with the fish tank at home. Amazingly, stars begin to rush toward her from the depths of the sink. She runs to the pool in alarm, but slips on a red foam floater and hits her head, sinking into the deep end.

Down below, though, it just gets deeper and deeper, and she is sucked inside a jellyfish which takes her below a subway line of people who cant hear her cries for help, into the clouds of some secret underground world. She floats down to a tiny Phobos-sized planetoid whose inhabitants seem to be only women with red cheeks in full, round dresses. One of them hands her a sparkler. A trio plays tambourine, ukulele and Concertina, and the girl dances giddily. When she wakes in the pool, to her surprise shes still holding the sparkler, and she safely rises to the surface and up out of the pool, and, following an exchange of pleasantries with other concerned divers, flies home to her flat.

City Paradise is as hybrid as it gets, combining live-action sets and actors with effects work, multiple planes of action, animation and all the other goodies that come with compositing and a digital paintbox. In terms of character animation, its a bit of a cheat, since the actors faces do all the acting, but its still strongly characterized and beautiful to behold. With its glowing colors, busy compositions, witty subversions of real-world geography and physics, and secret worlds, this is some very sweet eye candy reminiscent of Henry Selicks Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions. If you cant find this complete item online, just listen to the song Peach, Plum, Pear by San Francisco neo-folk popster Joanna Newsom, a wide-eyed piece of American eccentricity that well captures the tone of City Paradise a song which director Gaëlle Denis sensibly samples in the closing credits. (Incidentally I love the stretchy look of the piece, but be warned that you and I may just be watching it in the wrong aspect ratio.)

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A boy builds towers of parables in The Sandbox. © Meticulous.

The Sandbox (Sunaba)

The Sandbox is a test piece from effects studio Meticulous on which they have taken some new gear and/or new techniques for a spin. It was apparently inspired by 1990s Dreams, although its hardly up to Akira Kurosawas cinematic standards. In a barren waste in the early morning, a little boy named Koji is playing in an improvised sandbox bordered by a few logs. His parents are sitting some yards away, looking the other way into the distance. Koji is building things and trying to get Mom and Dad to look his way.

Constructing a simple one-story pagoda no mean feat, considering the medium Koji is understandably proud of his work as he cries out Mama! Look! But Mama turns her head very slowly and sadly, and by the time shes facing the sandbox a mysterious wind has blown the house down to nothing. From behind the boy a woman, her features reminiscent of Tilda Swintons, approaches wearing a yellow jumpsuit with metallic headgear and gloves. She asks what the boy is making, and the boy demonstrates, building another, bigger pagoda.

This handmade multi-story miniature is taller than the boy, and hyper-accurate in its design. Again he calls for his parents to look. But as the mysterious woman looks on in dismay, the father and mother again miss everything as once again a wind comes and blows the structure down to its original component grains. The boy cries and the woman hugs him, saying, Youll build a better house someday. The parents sit motionless, their clothes billowing around them, and then they fade to transparency and disappear. The woman carries Koji away in her arms, toward a helicopter hovering over the remains of a blasted city.

Every frame of The Sandbox is a paragon of CGI verisimilitude the skies are real digital photos; there is subsurface scattering below skin; the early morning sun casts just the right color light on one side of the sand dunes while the blue sky makes just the right color shadow on the other side. Everything looks correct right up to the moment it starts moving, at which point the acting and the cloth simulation undo the reality. Taken alone, the scenario is a nice parable about the self-sufficiency of the artist in the face of public indifference, but while trying to emulate the dream logic of Kurosawas late-period masterpiece, The Sandbox has all the artifacts of empathy crying characters, evocative music while the dramatic impetus is missing.

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Bill Plympton revisits furniture love in The Fan and the Flower. © Plymptoons.

The Fan and the Flower

Bill Plymptons animation career has been a series of exercises in extreme visual thinking, with the superbly timed sight gag as his base currency. Verbally, while hes always been fond of sentences or short phrases, like the wonderfully blasé unpunctuated life-affirmation mottoes that drive the hyperbolic visuals of 25 Ways to Quit Smoking, conversation and story points have never been a priority. Even in features like I Married a Strange Person, Plymptons dialogue is really only there to provide a segue from one cartoon set piece to the next. All this makes his recent short, The Fan and the Flower, a major departure, and the piece, written and produced by long-time TV scribe Dan OShannon, takes Plymptons filmography into a sweet storybook realm thats welcome and unexpected.

The plot concerns an old womans house and two of the supposedly inanimate objects inside it: a ceiling fan and a potted flower. The woman brings the flower home one day and puts it in the spare room with the ceiling fan, and though the flower doesnt notice at first, the fan has fallen in love with the flower. The fan has three speeds, from slow to fast, and three lamps as well, all of which he unfailingly shows off every chance hes got trying to sweep her off her feet, or at least off the table, with a cool breeze and flashing lights.

Eventually the flower, whos spent days being coyly indifferent, finally does notice and she begins to reciprocate, blooming especially for her suitor. Transcending the limitations of her species, she comes up with not one, but dozens of styles of blooms, from long red tubes to delicate purple and yellow blossoms to flat dial-shaped blue and green buds. The pair long to touch, but hes stuck on the ceiling and she on the table, and all attempts at making the old woman unwittingly bring the pot up to the level of the fan fail.

As the years pass, the woman eventually becomes senile and forgets the spare room completely. The fan gathers dust, the flower wilts. Finally one dark and stormy night the fan realizes the flower is on her deathbed, and in a last desperate gesture of love he blows through slow, medium, and fast until hes making revolutions faster than his specifications allow, and faster still, and even faster, until he helicopters up through the ceiling and into the night. He is smashed to bits on the tarmac but the hole in the ceiling lets in the rain, which waters the flower and saves her.

The Fan and the Flower is mostly in black and white, which of course makes the various blooms, the only hued objects in the piece, burst forth all the more. The art is mostly black lines on a white ground with huge black fills for shadows; in addition theres a slight diffusion layer over everything, giving objects the halo of a cherished memory. Plympton mostly holds back the extreme takes hes deployed to such perfection in shorts like Your Face and How to Kiss to suit this more bittersweet suburban fairy tale, but the goofy inventiveness is still there, not least in the sight of a salsa-dancing ceiling fan.

Writer Dan OShannon is the sort of TV writer you grew up with without even knowing it; he penned at least a dozen and a half episodes of Cheers and lent his hand to Newhart and Frasier as well, most recently writing episodes of Enterprise and Threshold. Besides OShannon and Plympton the third major voice in the piece, literally, is narrator Paul Giamatti, whom Plympton met while fishing for A-list talent when he was in L.A. last spring for the Oscars. Giamatti has only recently embarked on a serious career as an animation voice talent, playing Tim the Gate Guard in Robots and Stan in the upcoming Ant Bully from Warner Bros., and with his inimitable beleaguered voiceprint and cynic/romantic delivery he could easily carry a lead animated role lets hope he wins one soon.

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Santas a neighborhood eccentric on a drunken tear through the midnight sky in Hadacol Christmas. © Brent Green.

Hadacol Christmas

Never mind the Island of Misfit Toys, the real holiday-themed loner paradise is in Hadacol Christmas, which I hereby declare the official outsider Christmas special in perpetuity. This delicate, boozy, anarchic and yet somehow life-affirming short looks and sounds like it was made in a high Appalachian shack in 1950 not far from the truth, since animator Brent Green made it in his kitchen in a barn in Cressona, Pennsylvania (although he did it last year, and not in the Truman administration).

Hadacol Christmas is such a singular work its hard to find comparisons, but think of the animated equivalent of a Tom Waits arrangement circa Swordfishtrombones and you wont be far wrong. In Greens Christmas tale, Santa is no jolly old elf, but a lean and lonely figure whose wife is a scarecrow out in the yard, and whose toys are the obsessive found-art constructions of a scavenger and dumpster-diver.

As Greens narrative opens, its December and Santas alone at home trying to beat a lingering cold with Hadacol. Hadacol, Americas favorite desperation drink of 1951, was a medicine-show elixir dreamed up by Louisiana State Senator/quack Dudley J. LeBlanc that claimed to cure rheumatism, asthma, stomach ulcers and impotence. Really, though, it was just vitamin B in a 12% alcohol solution, and some Southern towns with temperance-stymied liquor laws used to sell it by the shot. For Santa on this cold winters eve, the drink lays him out flat and he spends an entertaining evening in bed watching the table grow six-foot legs and learn to play the violin, while a mouse comes in the window and starts dancing with the star from the top of the Christmas tree.

When he finally climbs out of bed he starts gathering up all his scavenged toys a miniature solar system, a modified gramophone, a foot-pump for putting air back into dying baby birds which he loads into his new flying sleigh. Its a stormy winter night, and an umbrella stuck to the tip of the sleigh catches the wind and sends him airborne. The people of the town pretend to be asleep so as not to encourage the drunken lunatic as Santa drops his creations at random onto the streets below. Santas discovered passed out in the snow the next morning, and though they find the presents pleasant enough, the people of the town declare the day a holiday more for the snow drifts than for the sentiment.

Green animated Hadacol Christmas to an audio track of him reading the story live to a club audience accompanied by members of Califone, a roots/folk/noise combo on Thrill Jockey records. Green doesnt have much to say about his technique, but the background looks like painted Kraft paper and the characters are funky hairball line drawings on cels, all shot on digital video with some wickedly fluctuating light sources. The kicker is that the cels arent standard size and they arent registered Green shoots off the table, straight-on or at an angle as need be, and cels are just one of any number of objects appearing under camera alongside real tree branches and cotton balls. The cels range from table-size giants to little squares dancing around the frame, their edges and frame numbers plain to see, with only a swatch of masking tape to hold them down.

The visual metaphors a hanging slaughterhouse hook in the sky for a moon, stuffed crows in an attic playing with their cotton innards are complemented by Greens vocal performance, which has a high-pitched tremolo like the anonymous found cassette fragments on Becks Stereopathetic Soul Manure (Taco trucks were crashed a Sasquatch was eating a burrito). In sound and vision alike its poetic, sweet, deranged, and totally unique, with a stunning final image that derails the sad-sack earth-tone texture of everything preceding it in favor of a candy-colored world where a man with a baton can conduct a chorus of dancing smokestacks. Like Green says in his voiceover, Wondrous things happen all the time, and to sleep through even one of them might cripple your life - but itll come back tomorrow, just more ragged, and with weeds in your teeth and blood all over your hands.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank, the city where America gets 75% of its daily supply of Opt-Out Clauses. His long and long-promised production history of the making of Twice Upon a Time will appear in Animation Blast magazine very soon indeed.

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