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Fresh from the Festivals: July 2001's Film Reviews

Maureen Furniss reviews five more short films straight from the festival circuit. This month we learn about:The Shadow of Doubt by Cynthia Wells, Patrick Smith's Drink, Grace by Lorelei Pepei, Chicken Kiev by Thomas Stellmach and We Are Immortal (Nous sommes immortels) by Daniel Guyonnet. Includes four 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:

The Shadow of Doubt (2001), 10 min., directed by Cynthia Wells, USA. Info: The Digital Theater Group. E-mail: gandcwel@earthlink.net. URL: www.tdtgee.com. Drink (2000), 5 min., directed by Patrick Smith, USA. Info: Patrick Smith. Tel: 917-549-3763. E-mail: pat@patsmith.com. URL: www.patsmith.com. Grace (1999), 6 min., directed by Lorelei Pepei, USA. Info: Lorelei Pepei, 806 Kodak Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90026 USA. Tel: 323-953-9579. E-mail: loreleip@jps.net. Chicken Kiev (2000), 9 min., directed by Thomas Stellmach, Germany. Info: Thomas Stellmach, Ahornweg 3, 34295 Edermuende Grifte, Germany. Tel: 0049 170 2828194. Fax: 0049 5665 7762. E-mail: thomas@stellmach.com. Nous sommes immortels (We Are Immortal, 1999) 2.5 min., directed by Daniel Guyonnet, France. Info: Daniel Guyonnet.

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

furniss01.gif Tallulah returns in The Shadow of Doubt.© Geoff and Cynthia Wells. 160X120 | 320X240

The Shadow of Doubt The Shadow of Doubt, directed by Cynthia Wells, is the second production to feature the sultry redhead character who made her debut in Tallulah, Queen of the Universe. Here, the singer is haunted with doubts about her work, after seeing a once-great musician who is now happy to be running a club and serving drinks to customers. Because the film centers around Tallulah's inner questions, it is natural that the work employs a good deal of voice-over narration, to suggest her interior monologue. It is also fitting that the visuals in the work are somewhat 'dreamlike' at times, as they depict both memory and fantasy. It is in terms of the visuals that the short really shines. In terms of character design, but especially backgrounds and effects, Shadow of Doubt is very well designed.

Wells is a veteran animator, having won a number of awards for her work, which includes animation on two Emmy Award-winning shows, Ziggy's Gift and Roman City, as well as the features Anastasia (Fox), Space Jam and Quest for Camelot (both Warner Bros.). Shadow of Doubt was co-produced with husband Geoff Wells under the company name of The Digital Theater Group. The production relied on a large team of assistants who were trained in various capacities in exchange for their work, as well as seasoned professionals. Composer Steve Orich composed this short's score and song, "Shadow Days," which was performed by Deborah Pearl, who also performed Tellulah's dialogue and voice-over. Art director Donna Prince painted all of the short's fine background scenes. Geoff Wells served as writer, script editor, and sound and picture technical director. The 10-minute short is recorded in English.

Technically, Shadow of Doubt has much to illustrate about the way in which relatively inexpensive technologies can be used to create a very professional-looking work. While the animation was drawn on paper, Toonz software was used for digital ink-and-paint. Adobe Photoshop and Premier were also employed. The software was run on an NT computer, a Gateway GP6 450Mhz PC using a standard 12GB hard drive and 256 MB RAM. For backup and storage, the team used a Quantum DLT 4000 drive and an 18GB Quantum Atlas III SCSI drive for temporary storage. A softer look was achieved by using a resolution of 1K, as opposed to the standard 2K resolution of a film frame, in order to reduce the memory burden on the system. The film employs up to 50 levels of effects, with storage of source files exceeding 80 GB. Rendering of the film was done on a single computer, which ran nonstop for five weeks during final outputting.

furniss02.gif Drink.© Pat Smith, 2001. 160X120 | 320X240

Drink Seasoned industry animator Patrick Smith also created his independent short, Drink, using a combination of traditional methods and computer technologies. An exercise in both metamorphosis and character design, the plot centers on a young boy who drinks a strange green fluid from a flask (note: do not try this at home, kiddies) and finds himself evolving into a series of different individuals. These characters evolve one from another in a growing pile, so that eventually the boy finds himself (back in his original form) sitting high above the ground on a stack of 'peeled' layers from the various forms. Taking another drink, the transformation occurs in reverse.

The images used in Drink were drawn with pencil on paper and scanned into a computer, where they were colored. Adobe Photoshop and Adobe After Effects were the software applications used. Backgrounds were painted with acrylic. Eventually, the images were transferred back to 35mm film. Music was provided by Karl vonKries; the film is without dialogue.

Smith's goal was to retain a rather informal aesthetic in the work, so lines are left somewhat unrefined (particularly for in-betweens), where construction lines and even timing notes sometimes appear. I find the contrast between relatively clean and sharp extremes and rougher in-betweens a bit uneasy at times, but the result is nonetheless unique. Smith acknowledges inspiration by Bill Plympton, which is clear in the initial 'unzipping' of new characters so characteristic of a Plympton short; however, the characters themselves are original and well-designed. The director also cites illustrator Ralph Steadman as an influence in terms of the 'raw' and painterly look he aimed for in Drink. The underlying concept, that every individual possesses a wide range of personas, ranging from rich to poor, young to old, and male to female, is an interesting one and well represented by Smith's ability to create a series of distinct character designs. Professionally, Smith has animated, directed and designed for Disney, Olive Jar and MTV. Currently, he is directing the fifth season of the MTV series Daria.

furniss03.gif Lorelei Pepei's Grace.© Lorelei Pepei. 160X120 | 320X240

Grace In a very different way, Lorelei Pepei has revealed the breadth of her skills as an animator in her experimental short, Grace. With resume credentials that include CG animation for the South Park feature Bigger, Longer and Uncut, as well as stop-motion animation and assistant camera for Corky Quakenbush's Mad TV animation, one would hardly expect to see an artist produce a highly subjective, sensual film centering on a woman's experience. But Pepei's self-described "layered and flowing poem of visual metaphor" is an interesting piece, both in terms of its aesthetics and its production techniques. Eschewing the use of computer technology, the director used pixilation, single frame projection, optical printing and stop-motion under the camera to create images of performer Susan Simpson. Flame effects were made with the use of mink oil painted frame by frame onto Plexiglas.

Pepei's aesthetic is attributed to her influence by such artists as filmmakers Pat O'Neill, Walerian Borowczyk and Patrick Bokanowski, as well as early photographer Margaret Cameron and fine artists Francis Bacon and Joseph Cornell. She also cites an interest in fantasy Victorian postcards. This blend suggests a fascination with objects and individuals that are re-evaluated through a modern perspective and visual dissection. Pepei explains that she tried to access an unconscious flow in her exploration of the body, which is divided into four parts and the separation between flesh and soul. The film's sound design was created by Eric Patrick; it is without dialogue.

Grace was created on 16mm film as an MFA thesis film in experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts. Pepei not only directed the work, but also served as producer, art director, cinematographer and editor. Among the awards it has been given is the Grand Prize "Best of Festival" at the International Student Animation Festival of Ottawa and the 2nd Grand Prize "High Risk" at the Fantoche Festival in Baden, Switzerland.

Chicken Kiev Also broadening his scope is Thomas Stellmach, perhaps best known for his Academy Award winning puppet animation, Quest (1997). His drawn and computer animated short, Chicken Kiev, differs vastly in form and content from the former film. Chicken Kiev tells the story of an extremely cute baby chick who hatches and sets out looking for his mother, who left the nest to peck at some grain. Along the way, the chick tries to be friendly to a host of potentially dangerous characters, but manages to avert trouble every time. My only beef with the story is what I might call its 'Bambi Meets Godzilla-esque' ending; naturally, I won't give it away, but it left me wondering whether this was supposed to be black comedy or some kind of commentary on life. Like Quest, I think, Chicken Kiev also has an open-ended structure, where there is no real resolution to the narrative events -- or, at least, not a very comforting one.

To create Chicken Kiev, Stellmach worked with a crew of twenty individuals located in various cities within Germany. This crew included commercial artists, animators and computer specialists who collaborated via the Internet from Kassel, Mainz, Cologne and Berlin. While backgrounds were completely computer-generated, the animated characters were first drawn on paper and then digitized with a line tester on an Amiga computer so they could be exchanged over the Internet in a small file size. Later, images were drawn with heavy black lines, scanned into a Silicon Graphics computer at a high resolution, and colored with Animo. The 9-minute film was stored in 80 gigabytes of space. Its production was supported by a film grant from the Hessian Broadcast Company and the State, the Office of the Federal Government for Cultural Affairs and Media, and the Institute for Film Promotion in Berlin. It has shown at festivals worldwide and won numerous awards.

Although the film was created as a graduation film from the University of Kassel, where he studied animation with Paul Driessen (who is credited as story consultant on the film), Thomas has created animation for several years. Since 1982, he has produced sixteen animated works and currently teaches at both the Film Academy Ludwigsburg and the University of Kassel. In addition he co-founded an animation company, Lichthof, in Kassel with P. Lemken and Joachim Bode, who is credited as designer on Chicken Kiev.

furniss04.gif Nous sommes immortels (We Are Immortal).© 1999 Daniel Guyonnet. 160X120 | 320X240

We Are Immortal Working on a much smaller scale -- in fact, completely by himself -- Daniel Guyonnet created Nous sommes immortels/We Are Immortal as an animated New Year 2000 greeting card for his friends and family. In the 2.5-minute work, a series of odd and interesting characters walk across the screen. For example, a little man who rocks toward and away from the camera stands his ground as a huge fire, a gigantic creature and even a nuclear bomb threaten to destroy him, yet he holds his ground, untouched. This is the character who demonstrates the film's title message: the words "We Are Immortal" follow this series of actions. As the director explains, there is no narrative in the short; rather he wanted to create something 'energetic' and stylish. Incidentally, Guyonnet made the film in both French and English (there is no dialogue, only printed phrases following each of the actions in the film).

Two things make We Are Immortal particularly interesting to watch, aside from the array of amusing, original characters Guyonnet has created. The sound design is one of them. While minimal sound effects and music accompany the images, they are well timed and add a lot of depth to the visuals. These images are rendered in monochromatic colors, basically sepia tones, and appear to be on textured paper. In fact, the film was made through a combination of drawing on paper and Photoshop effects, compositing with Premier and output on Digital Beta. Guyonnet says he spent a lot of time creating the grainy texture used throughout the film. It was time well spent, as this texture makes his characters even more interesting to look at. We Are Immortal has shown at numerous international animation screenings, including the Annecy and Hiroshima 2000 festivals. It won the audience prize in international competition at the BITFILM festival, Hamburg.

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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