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Fresh from the Festivals: July 2002's Film Reviews

Maureen Furniss reviews five short films fresh from the festival circuit: Airship by Sam Yousefian, King Tangun by Jun Eun Lee, Nina Paley's The Stork, Drunky by Aaron Augenblick and Billy Greene's Thought Bubble. 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:

Airship (USA, 2002). 4 min. Dir: Sam Yousefian (Iran/USA). Music: Michael Sean Colin. Produced at the University of Southern California. Contact: Sam Yousefian, tel: +1-310-777-0189.

King Tangun (USA, 2000). 6.5 min. Dir/Anim: Jun Eun Lee (Korea). Music: Michael Colin. Produced at the University of Southern California. Contact: Jung Eun Lee, email: yijungeun@hotmail.com; or Sandrine Cassidy (distributor), 850 W. 34th St. G132, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA; tel: +1-213-740-4422; email: Cassidy@cinema.usc.edu.

The Stork (USA, 2002). 3 min. Dir: Nina Paley (USA). Music: Edvard Grieg. Produced at Parasite Pictures. Contact: Nina Paley, P.O. Box 460736, San Francisco, CA 94146, USA. URL: www.ninapaley.com/parasite.html .

Drunky (USA, 2001). 3 min. Dir: Aaron Augenblick (USA). Music: Bradford Reed (USA). Produced at Augenblick Studios, Inc. Contact: Augenblick Studios, 55 Washington Street #805, Brooklyn, NY 11201, USA. Tel: +1-718-855-9226. Fax: +1-718-855-9227. E-mail: info@augenblickstudios.com. URL: www.AugenblickStudios.com.

Thought Bubble (USA, 2001). 4 min. Dir: Billy Greene (USA). Photography: Jean Margaret Thomas. Produced independently at Will Vinton Studios. Contact: Jean Margaret Thomas, e-mail: girl-spark1@excite.com or Karen Davis, e-mail: magren@mymailstation.com.

festival01.jpgAirship. © Sam Yousefian, 2002.

Airship

In director Sam Yousefian's graduate film, Airship, created at the University of Southern California, a child drifts to sleep and dreams that his bed becomes airborne, gliding him through the starry night sky. It seems that a conventional ending closes the adventure, as he wakes up to go to school. However, Yousefian adds two small plot twists in the remaining moments of the film to make the concept magical and the story more fulfilling. The result is a well-developed film that explores an experience and state of mind in some depth, without the use of words, and yet with a clear sense of story development.

Ultimately, I think it is more difficult to build a film around a theme rather than action, particularly at the student level. Yousefian has shown his ability to maintain a thematic focus throughout the four-minute work, as well as restraint, holding back from an often powerful temptation to fill a film with a lot of movement. Aiding in the development of the film is a lovely soundtrack by Michael Sean Colin, which contributes a dreamy sensibility to the film. Yousefian's choices in designing the look of the film also add to its soft dream-like reality. Airship was created using 3D Studio Max for animation, Painter 6 for coloring, and After Effects for compositing. In order to create his soft images, the director did not render them in 3D, but instead made lighting and coloring decisions when he was painting over the images. Hazy effects were created with the 'chalk' tool in Painter, resulting in a look that is almost like pastels. The main character is made with a much more solid line, which sometimes makes him a bit too stiff-looking and unemotional within his environment; I don't think the character is as expressive as he might be. Still, the film has a nice look overall.

festival02.jpgKing Tungun. © Jung Eun Lee, 2000.

King Tangun

Also from the University of Southern California comes another contemplative work, this time by Korean director Jun Eun Lee. An accomplished artist, Lee has shown her painting work in three solo shows, in addition to over fifty group shows throughout the world. In her graduate thesis film at USC, King Tangun, Lee tells a story from Korean mythology about the first king in Korea. Using cutouts and drawings, she depicts a bear and a tiger who pray to Holy Hwanung to be turned into human beings. Only the bear persists in fulfilling the requirements to stay in a cave for a hundred days, eating garlic; she is turned into a woman who later gives birth to the child who would become Korea's first king.

The film's dialogue (in English) is limited to voiceover and it is not the strongest element of the film; by far the majority of the work is accompanied only by music, which is a good decision. The film is slow-paced and employs a limited animation technique, but these work well with the subject matter. The bear and tiger characters are stylized in such a way that they are endearing and it is a pleasure to watch them. Like Airship, the movement in the film is artfully restrained. Also like Airship, this film imparts feeling even more than content; anyone unfamiliar with the Korean myth might have trouble understanding exactly what is going on. Nonetheless, the film is captivating, and I watched its gentle characters with pleasure. Clearly, others have as well. King Tangun has done well in festivals, earning a Special Prize for Children in Dong-A.LG International Festival of Animation, in Korea, and being selected for screenings in The World Animation Celebration (USA), the Ashland Film Festival (USA), the Sprockets Toronto International Film Festival for Children (Canada), the 42nd International Film Festival for Children and Youth (Czech Republic), and others.

festival03.jpgThe Stork. © Nina Paley, 2002.

The Stork

One might expect a similarly warm and soft film from the opening moments of The Stork, as we see the bird carrying its 'bundle of joy' -- a baby on its way to its new home. Suddenly, though, not one but several, then hundreds of storks fill the sky, dropping their 'bombs' into the unsuspecting natural environment. The bundles explode in a 'baby boom' (as director Nina Paley describes it), resulting in row after row of identical tract homes, SUVs and beautiful, smiling suburban family members -- mothers, fathers, and -- of course -- chubby, charming babies.

Paley explains that she was motivated to make the film because she is passionate about the cause of population control; indeed, the Internet's "Cruel Site of the Day" describes her as probably "the world's worst person to invite to a baby shower." But her film is effective, largely because she carefully controls the tone of the work. While Edvard Grieg's "Morning" provides a pastoral feeling to the film, Paley counters with visuals showing not only the destruction of the Disneyfied animated habitat but also more realistic-looking images of sprawling cities obtained with aerial photography.

Paley describes herself as self-taught, saying she began to animate in 1998. For this project, she employed Flash, Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. Paley intends to develop her 'animated documentary' into a longer project titled "Thank You for Not Breeding," for which she is fund-raising. More information is available at her Website, www.ninapaley.com/parasite.html.

festival04.jpgDrunky. © Augenblick Studios, 2001.

Drunky

In contrast to Paley's film, there is no soft side to Drunky, an aptly-named work and self-described 'dark comedy' that focuses on the alcoholic existence of a little man who has trouble remembering what he does at night. To give you an idea of the basic scenario of the film, its publicity material describes Drunky's world as "a terrifying place, where the cold metropolitan landscape of seedy bars and dark alleys is populated with sexual predators who prey upon Drunky's ignorance and naiveté." Drunky is subtitled, "In through the Out Door," because Drunky ends up in a gay bar on this particular night, finding the bartender -- a 'Tuxedo Tiger' character -- in his bed the next day. Augenblick hopes to develop this concept into a series (and has recently made an announcement with Film Roman), though at this point I am uncertain as to how far the concept would be modified in that context.

Visually, the film is intriguing. It is filled with strange creatures, many of whom are clearly intended to look like (even more frightening) versions of well-known animated characters. Director Aaron Augenblick explains that he was influenced by the Fleischer studio and other early animations, which he sometimes finds disturbing. He asks, "Does anyone find Betty Boop funny any more? I find her terrifying." Augenblick does a great job of translating the strangeness of some of those early works into his film. However, I think it is less a dark comedy than a commentary on what it means to be alcoholic.

I can chuckle a bit at this guy's experience within the gay bar he stumbles into, with all manner of fancy, fruit-laden drinks presented to him courtesy of others in the bar. But I find a great difference between Betty Boop-like weirdness, with its unpredictable, nightmarish goings-on, and this film, which for me is quite differently disturbing. I admire its style and its authentic creepiness, but the main character bothers me. The reason, I've decided, is that the drunkenness is clearly not a one-night binge (hence the ability to potentially form a series); this character is an alcoholic who is frightened even by himself and cannot find a way out, though he appears to want to. And then he is victimized. Now, I can laugh at frog baseball, death matches between my favorite celebrities, and a lot of other pretty outlandish animated stuff, but there is something a bit too sad, a bit too realistic in this work, underneath its stylized exterior. I can already hear the protests of, 'It's just a cartoon!' coming my way, but for the record, I'm not convinced this is a comedy of any sort. As a one-shot, I'd say this is a memorable film; it's when I start thinking 'series' that I get uneasy.

Augenblick has extensive industry experience, having worked for MTV on such television series as Daria, Cartoon Sushi and Downtown, and having been involved with virtually every aspect of the animation process during his career. He now has his own company, Augenblick Studios Inc., in Brooklyn, New York, and produces animation for such clients as PBS, MTV, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network. The writer/animator of Drunky, Frank Suarez, brings his own great expertise to the film, with a wide range of studio experience, including numerous credits on features, commercials and television series. Bradford Reed provides music, using an instrument of his own design called the 'pencilina,' described as "an electric ten stringed collision of the hammer dulcimer, slide guitar, koto and fretless bass with six pickups of varied types," which can be struck with sticks, plucked or bowed.

festival05.jpgThought Bubble. © Octopus Ink/Billy Greene, 2001.

Thought Bubble

In the stop-motion film Thought Bubble, director Billy Greene also takes a look at a down-and-out alcoholic, though without even a hint of comedy, dark or otherwise. This film depicts a clay character who lives within a world made of paper -- silhouetted characters walk around him, suggesting the world that he apparently will never rejoin. The main character's thoughts and desires formulate themselves as drawings within paper 'thought bubbles' emerging from within him. Particularly effective is a scene in which an attractive figure lures him into a thought bubble with the promise of pleasure; the only thing holding him back is the bottle he clenches in his hand, which cannot be admitted through the bubble's border. As a whole, the film provides a beautiful example of mixed media animation and clay animated imagery, in particular.

Greene played in several bands, including a 40-piece Brazilian percussion group. His love of Brazilian music is clear in his choice to feature the bossa nova guitar throughout his film. Actually, another aspect of Brazilian culture had an even stronger inspiration on the film. The concept of Thought Bubble developed after Greene took a trip to Brazil and witnessed firsthand the poverty and homelessness there. Despite these connections to Brazil, the film is not culturally specific; for example, there is no discernable dialogue, only some non-specific grumbling heard at times. The alcoholic in this film is a fairly typical 'drunk type': a middle-aged man, in need of a shave and bath, who apparently lives an impoverished existence, on or near the street, much like the character Drunky. The same type of character is found in Closed Mondays, the Academy Award winning claymation film by Will Vinton and Bob Gardiner.

In fact, there is another link between Thought Bubble and Closed Mondays. Greene's skill as a clay animator was developed in part at the Will Vinton Studio, where he worked as animator on The PJs television series. Thought Bubble was an independent project produced by Greene and shot at Vinton during off hours. Sadly, in 2001, after he moved from Oregon to San Francisco, Greene was killed in a still-unsolved, apparently random shooting. The film is being distributed in his memory by the film's director of photography, Jean Margaret Thomas, as well as friends and family.

Maureen Furniss, Ph.D. is founding editor of Animation Journal and author of Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (1998). She teaches in the Department of Film and Digital Media at Savannah College of Art and Design, in Georgia, and is currently writing a book related to animation production.

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