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Fresh from the Festivals: January 2007’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films -- Lifted by Gary Rydstrom, Dreams and Desires -- Family Ties by Joanna Quinn, Guide Dog by Bill Plympton, No Time for Nuts by Chris Renaud and Mike Thurmeier and The Danish Poet by Torill Kove. 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.

Lifted (2007), 4:48, directed by Gary Rydstrom (U.S.A.). Contact: Pixar Animation Studios [E] publicity@pixar.com [W] www.pixar.com

Dreams and Desires -- Family Ties (2006), 9:50, directed by Joanna Quinn (U.K.). Contact: Catrin Unwin, Beryl Productions International Ltd. Chapter, Market Road, Canton, Cardiff, CF5 1QE, Wales, U.K. [T/F] 00.44. [0] 2920.226225 [E] studio@beryl@fut.net, studio.beryl@btconnect.com [W] www.berylproductions.com; TV Sales/Distribution: Anna-Lisa Jenaer [T] 00.44 [0] 2920.44193 [F] 00.44.[0] 2920.521.226 [E] annalisa@s4c.uk

Guide Dog (2006), 5:45, directed by Bill Plympton. Contact: Plymptoons, 107 West 25th St. #4B, New York, NY, 10001, [T] 212.675-6021 [F] 212.741. 5522 [E] Plymptoons@aol.com [W] www.plymptoons.com; International sales: Sydney Neter, SND Films, P.O. Box 15703, 1001 NE, Amsterdam, The Netherlands [T] 31.20.404.0707 [E] info@sndfilms.com

No Time for Nuts (2006), 7:06, directed by Chris Renaud (U.S.) and Michael Thurmeier (Canada). Contact: John C. Donkin, Blue Sky Studios, 44 S. Broadway, 17th Floor, White Plains, N.Y. 10601. [E] jcd@blueskystudios.com [W] www.blueskystudios.com

The Danish Poet (2006), 15:00, directed by Torrill Kove (Norway/Canada). Contact: Marcy Page, 3155 Côte de liesse, St. Laurent, Quebec, Canada, H4N 2N4 [T] 514.283.9618 [F] 514.283.3211 [E] m.page@nfb.ca [W] www.nfb.ca/thedanishpoet

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Strange invaders with learners permits are coming for us all. To keep it fresh for its playdates with Ratatouille, Pixar is holding back clips, but you can watch a short teaser for a limited time at AWNs Oscar Showcase. © 2006 Pixar.  

Lifted

You probably already know and love Gary Rydstrom even if you dont know the name; hes been bringing awesome sound design to the movies since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The former 20-year veteran of Lucasfilm also designed sound on every Pixar feature from Toy Story to Finding Nemo, and most of the studios shorts up to and including Knick Knack. Hes never directed, though, until now, and his opus one in the directors chair is a little gem called Lifted.

This latest animated short from Pixar will be playing in front of Ratatouille in June, and if you want to come fresh to what will surely be a highly entertaining evening out youd better stop reading now, because I can barely describe this short without ruining it. It establishes, it reveals the premise, you start laughing, you dont stop laughing, and its over, all in about five minutes flat, he wrote, putting as much text as possible between the spoiler alert and the spoilers to protect his innocent readers, maybe I should go on another few lines, hey do you realize I just got paid for writing a run-on sentence, I either saw a bobcat or a mountain lion while I was hiking the Verdugos, Triskaidekaphobia means fear of the number 13.

Okay, okay. Aliens. Alien abductor. Student alien abductor. Spoiled you yet? Lifted opens on a farm at night. All is calm and dark. The porch swing is steady. Then it starts to move. The windmill spins. Inside the house a man stirs in his sleep. BANG, a blinding white light shines in the window. The man rises, still sleeping, and hovers above the bedclothes. Slowly he moves headfirst toward the window. The music swells. The tractor beam hums. Then he bonks his head against the wall.

Cut to inside the UFO, where a shortish green-skinned tentacled thing is sitting next to a very big green-skinned tentacled thing in front of a massive control panel. The short one has a helmet that was made for someone about three grade levels ahead of him. The big one has a clipboard. The student has just pressed what he thought was certainly, definitely the right button, no doubt about it. The abductee bonks his head again. The teacher is not impressed. The student withers. The teacher makes a tick mark on his clipboard.

Engineers, you have seen this control board in your worst nightmares; there are 10,000 knobs, and not one of them is labeled. The student tries one tentatively. Wrong again. He tries another. The abductees body shoots straight up and hits the ceiling. The student cries out in frustration and pushes every button at once. To his delight the abductee is now aimed at the window again. Slowly he tractors him in. Then he gets stuck in the window, ass-first.

Then he gets stuck in the tree outside the window. No, no, NO I cant go on -- its just too beautiful. I have to stop. Garys a seven-time Oscar winner. The sound is terrific. The visuals are terrific. Its got Pixar production values. Its nominated for an Oscar. Youre going. Enjoy.

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Our Beryl takes on the documentary arts in Dreams and Desires -- Family Ties. © Beryl Productions International Ltd.  

Dreams and Desires -- Family Ties

If ever there could be a not-CGI look, its got to be the drawing style of Joanna Quinn. Inspired by equal parts Goya, Daumier and Toulouse-Lautrec, she searches for the line in her figures and then leaves the search on the screen, showing her work and delivering a lot of squiggly rough magic in the process. Quinn and her producing partner Les Mills have written and animated a number of short-format favorites over the last two decades, including Britannia, Elles and Famous Fred, as well as popular ad campaigns for Charmin and Nips. But theyre probably best known for the Beryl shorts that gave their company, Beryl Productions, its name. First seen in Girls Night Out in 1986, Beryl, a Welsh factory worker, reappeared in Body Beautiful in 1990 and is finally back in Quinns latest short, Dreams and Desires -- Family Ties.

Beryls a big working-class girl, big-hearted and tart of tongue, and shes had various factory jobs in her part of Wales as the various factories have come and gone from the real Welsh landscape more than 20 years. Now her sister living in America has sent her a Digicam, and shes determined to channel her latent artistic energies as a documentarian. The focus of Family Ties is her friends wedding, which she films from start to finish and beyond. As far as Beryl is concerned, its an all-day train wreck, and most of the derailments are her fault.

The whole short plays out in the first person, as Beryl uses the Digicam both to document the days events and to function as her own portable confession booth. After a brief introduction she heads to the brides house, where the bride is trying to squeeze into an impossibly small red dress. Despite attentions from her friends and her Mum, though, after pulling and pulling, all they get is a broken zipper. Meanwhile the brides dog Digger has irritable bowels and is crapping in the living room corner.

They all board a limo to the service, with Beryl in the front, and the bride and her father -- and Digger, now diapered -- in the backseat. Later at the church, Beryl stands at the rear to capture the ceremony, watching the brides father take the bride up the aisle with a tiny veil that entirely fails to reach down her back and cover the open zipper going straight down to her purple-thong undies. To bring some spice to her camerawork, Beryl recruits a man in a wheelchair to hold tight to the camera as Beryl gives him a nudge down the aisle for a tracking shot. Unfortunately he cant stop, and the air fills with screams, crashes, a flying priest, flying undies and a perilously airborne crucifix.

Cut to an aerial view, as Beryl is banished to the choir loft. She needs to relax, so a sympathetic friend passes her an interesting cigarette. In the hallucination that follows, Beryl dances at the altar with Digger as cherubs frolic in the heavens above. Later, shes back down to Earth and drowning her remorse in a lot of champagne and red wine at the reception, when she decides to get something more candid by attaching the Digicam to Digger and letting him roam the reception. He doesnt disappoint; he captures a couple having sex in the bathroom, and then gets some primo footage of himself jumping on the wedding cake, which collapses.

Family Ties is as big a blast as the Beryl shorts that came before it; the character drawings burst with life, the humor is earthy and flowing in from all directions at once. The voice talent is impeccable, particularly the indefatigable Menna Trussler whos once again performing as Beryl. Theres actually almost too much action. Beryl moves from one disaster to the next with barely a moment to breathe. And Quinn and Mills more or less agree; Les says it, could have been at least three minutes longer and left us with a little more stasis to help with the comic beats, but as they ran out of time and money a bit of compromise was in order just to get the thing out of the gate at all. And on DVD, as this short must eventually find itself, with repeated viewings all those not brought up in the U.K. will be able to navigate those wonderful west-country accents, catch all the lines and just luxuriate in the sight of Beryl strapping a camera to a dogs back and crying out Kinopravda!

The 10-minute film is the first part of what Quinn and Mills hope will be a five-part Dreams and Desires series, with part two to be called Beverly Thrills.

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Death follows in the wake of a peppy pug in Guide Dog. © 2006 Bill Plympton.  

Guide Dog

He will kill again. So promised Bill Plympton two years ago following the success of his Oscar-nominated Guard Dog, a literally drop-dead funny short about an overprotective pug who accidentally kills his owner while out on a walk in the park. True to his word, the killer returns in Guide Dog, a survey of the dogs short and unlucky career as a seeing-eye dog for the blind.

The little whippersnapper enters our lives again barreling down the street, a free spirit, stopped only by a sign saying WANTED: GUIDE DOG. He licks the sign, he bursts inside, he meets the Authority Figure behind the desk. He flexes his muscles; he barks at imagined foes. The dog gets the job. His first master is a blind dude who sashays down the street eating popcorn. The dogs liking the job. The guys liking the walk. The birds are liking the popcorn. In fact the dog happens to look down at one point to discover that hes a mile up in the air, the birds having swarmed on the popcorn and carried his owner away. The dog drops to Earth and rushes back to the agency.

The Authority Figure is not pleased. But the dog pantomimes what happened, whimpers and cries for mercy, so he gets a second chance, this time with an elderly lady. Shes a tad slow. Crossing the street, the dog leads her across only to have the light change while theyre halfway there. He bravely faces down the traffic and stands the woman on his back out of harms way. Then when the first wave of cars passes he darts to the curb. He sits on the curb and pants. The old woman stands quietly just behind him. Shes still in the street -- and a truck instantly sweeps her away.

It takes a lot of apologetic whimpering to the Authority Figure, and some bootlicking too, but the dog gets one last chance. With a blind man in tow, whos gripping the dogs handle with everything hes got, the dog zips down sidewalks and zooms along streets too fast for any potential threat to catch them. In seconds hes back at the agency, his master still behind him and still in one piece. The dog beams with pride. Then his master has a heart attack.

In part one you thought he was needlessly paranoid! In part two you found he was needfully paranoid! So stay tuned for part three -- Parallax View Dog -- and trust no one!... Hey, its a Plympton short -- what can you do but be steamrollered by the comic style weve known and loved for 20 years? Its extreme expressions, its extreme slapstick, its animating on twelves, its the goofy music, its the slobber. As far as tech details, Guide Dog was animated, as all Plymptons shorts since Guard Dog, in the analogue world and then composited in digital. The colored pencil textures are creamy and the timing is spot-on as usual.

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For a hyperactive squirrel lost in history, theres No Time for Nuts. © 2007 Fox. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Ent.  

No Time for Nuts

A franchise of Looney-Tunes-esque theatrical shorts can be a wonderful, if expensive, thing to behold. Disney tried it in the 1990s with Roger Rabbit, and they got through three episodes of rollercoaster-style slapstick before costs caught up with them. Blue Sky could have a franchise on their hands with Scrat, the two-octaves-above-high-C high-strung squirrel from Ice Age whose life is an endless quest to hoard acorns. After nearly stealing the movie in the original Ice Age feature, he starred in his own Oscar-nominated short Gone Nutty in 2002, and hes back in another standalone adventure called No Time for Nuts.

We meet Scrat bopping across the glacier at night with a nut under one arm. Hes distracted by a glow from under the snow. He digs, but the only acorn-shaped thing he comes up with is a little football-sized box of electronic buttons and readouts reading 20,000 B.C. He stares in wonder, completely missing the sight of a skeletonized body of a man in a white lab coat frozen in the glacier. He presses some buttons at random. With a green-white ZAP, the acorn disappears. Its too much for him to take. He smacks at the thing furiously, and, ZAP, he disappears with it.

He reappears in a sylvan forest landscape in the afternoon. To his delight the acorn is just 10 feet away. Unfortunately its materialized under a rock the size of a Volkswagen. He pulls, he tugs, he strains, all to no avail. So he looks around for a tool. Hey, whaddya know, its Excalibur! He races to the rock and pulls the golden sword from the stone. Arthurs army is not pleased. Quickly Scrat pries the acorn loose and races away with it and the time machine in tow. He zips up a stone wall and hides in a cozy iron tube. Safe. The iron tube is a cannon. Not safe. He goes flying toward a cloud of advancing arrows. He pushes some buttons on the time machine.

ZAP, hes on the floor of the Roman Coliseum. The crowds cheer. He gets his tail caught in a chariot. The crowds cheer louder. He pries himself free and lands on the acorn. He takes a moment to bask in the crowds accolades. Then he looks behind him to discover that they were actually cheering for the growling thing thats now racing toward him out of an open gate. He pushes some buttons.

ZAP! Hes back in a snow bank at night. Ah, bliss. Then the Titanic approaches out of the fog. He makes a little Scrat-sized indentation in the iceberg. ZAP! Hes back in 20,000 B.C. So is Diego, Sid and Manfred -- and Scrat. The Scrats fight over the acorn. ZAP! Shuttle takeoff. Scrats under the main engines. ZAP! Museum -- hes caught in the middle of a jewelry display with the security lasers on him. ZAP! Ladies locker room. ZAP! The French Revolution. ZAP! The base of Ben Franklins kite. ZAP ZAP ZAP -- wrecking ball, nuclear bomb, speeding train.

Hes falling desperately through the space-time continuum now, a blue swirl of clocks, calendars -- and the acorn! He must reach it before the whirlpool of time catches him! Reach for it, reach for it -- ZAP! Hes on the grass. Hes next to a tree. The acorn is next to him. Its a happy ending -- but wait, that tree is covered in acorns. Nut city! This is paradise! But the time machine is acting up, and threatening to zap out uncontrollably, so he smashes it. On to paradise.

Insert your own twist ending here, then catch the real twist ending on DVD -- this Oscar-nominated short is on the Ice Age: The Meltdown supplement. Co-director Chris Renaud is a storyboard artist who worked on Robots and the second Ice Age, and second co-director Mike Thurmeier was a lead animator on Robots and both Ice Age features. Their comedy/pacing/acting chops are all impeccable, and theyve got a studio full of talent behind them, so this is strong product all the way, but whats certainly making their job easier is the brilliance of Scrat as an original character design. Neurotic and hyper-caffeinated, with ping-pong-ball eyes bigger than his brain, this is someone who doesnt have to waste time between extremes; and Renaud and Thurmeier dont waste a frame. Scrat goes from pose to pose exactly long enough for the eye to read it -- and then hes off again. By thus applying all the right controls, they keep the action just this side of out-of-control, and strike comic gold.

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Mom and Dad never would have met if not for The Danish Poet. © Mikrofilm AS and National Film Board of Canada 2006. All rights reserved.  

The Danish Poet

The Danish Poet is a goofily charming shaggy-dog story about star-crossed lovers, based -- with a twist -- on the story of how the animators own parents met. It seems that in the years following WWII there was a poet living in Denmark named Kasper Jørgensen. Like every artist, he was afraid hed never have another good idea in his life; unlike most artists, he was seeing a psychiatrist who specialized in artists with creative block. His shrink told him he needed a vacation, and, because Kasper didnt speak French, he should go north maybe Norway. Kasper went to the library to research it, and he found a book about famous Scandinavians who werent from the countries everyone thought they were -- famous Swedes who were actually Danes, famous Danes who were actually Norwegians -- and there he read an article about Sigrid Undset. She was a Nobel prizewinner for literature, and her masterwork was a 1500-page trilogy called Kristin Lavransdatter.

The three novels tell the life story of Kristin, a medieval peasant who abandons her arranged marriage to marry her true love. But she loses favor with her father, and eventually dies in shame and despair. Kasper devoured the whole trilogy, and when he found out Sigrid was living in Norway he wrote and asked if he could visit. She said yes, and Kasper got on a ferry. While heading inland on foot, though, it started to rain and he took shelter with a local farmer. Kasper told the farmer he was on his way to see Sigrid, and the farmer said he and Sigrid were distant relatives.

Kasper told the farmer hed leave when it stopped raining, but somehow it never quite stopped raining, so Kasper found himself staying for most of the summer -- and unexpectedly falling in love with the farmers daughter, Ingeborg. He was so in love, in fact, that he couldnt leave without proposing marriage. But even though she loved him too, she couldnt marry him -- she was engaged to another local farmer. It was an arranged marriage, and they would do the deed in August.

Kasper smacked his forehead -- boy was this scenario familiar. But before he could talk Ingeborg out of it, she said shed read that book too, and she knew how it ended, and no way in hell would she do that to her father. Kasper couldnt talk her out of it, and so he left, heartbroken. Ingeborg stayed, heartbroken, and gave Kasper a lock of her hair, promising shed never cut it until they were reunited. Kasper went home and couldnt write. Ingeborg stayed at the farm and couldnt stop thinking about Kasper. And then, one day, a cow fell on her husband. In an instant she was free! She immediately wrote to Kasper to tell him Im yours! The postman came. The letter went in his bag. The postman went down the road. The letter slipped out of the bag. A goat found it. The goat ate it. No more letter.

Years went by. Ingeborg couldnt cut her hair, so the local kids helped her braid it. Kasper couldnt write happy poetry, so he tried to write sad poetry. Then in 1949, Sigrid died. He didnt want to go at first, but finally Kasper decided to go to the funeral. Ingeborg didnt want to go, either, but Sigrid was a relative, so she went. And there, over the dead body of a Nobel prize-winning author, Ingeborg and Kasper were reunited.

Theres more, and its a well-earned happy ending, but theres a gentle twist that makes this story of chaos and coincidence even more improbable than your usual how-Mom-met-Dad yarn so Ill knock off here. The Danish Poets characters have a wonderfully endearing cartoon style of pinhole eyes and clean, thin lines reminiscent of Ken Kirkwoods Peabody childrens books from the 1970s. Director/animator Torill Kove is, in fact, a childrens book veteran, and the 15-minute piece is suffused with good-natured whimsy, including a priceless running gag about Kasper getting off the trans-North Sea ferry year after year followed by the same group of drunks and backpackers. Liv Ullmann provides the sweet, understated narration. Its funny and poignant and justly deserving of its Oscar nomination.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank, California, where diet drinks are plentiful. He can currently be seen on the DVD The Animation Show (Vol. 1-2 Boxed Set), for which he recorded some amusing comments and wrote the liner notes.

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