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Fresh from the Festivals: July 2003's Film Reviews

Jon Hofferman reviews five short films fresh from the festival circuit: Plugs McGinniss, Seeing Eye Dog by Aaron Augenblick, Requiem by Roger Oda, Ski Jumping Pairs by Riichiro Mashima, The Toll Collector by Rachel Johnson and Tunanooda by David Zackin. 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:

Plugs McGinniss, Seeing Eye Dog (2003), 4 min., directed by Aaron Augenblick, USA. Info: Aaron Augenblick, Augenblick Studios. Email: info@augenblickstudios.com. Web: www.augenblickstudios.com.

Requiem (2003), 3.25 min., directed by Roger Oda, USA. Info: Roger Oda. Email: roda92@yahoo.com.

Ski Jumping Pairs (2002), 5.5 min., directed by Riichiro Mashima, Japan. Info: Riichiro Mashima. Email: info@jump-pair.com. Web: www.jump-pair.com.

The Toll Collector (2002), 10 min., directed by Rachel Johnson, USA. Info: Rachel Johnson. Tel: 917-549-1979. Email: rachel@thetollcollector.com. Web: www.thetollcollector.com.

Tunanooda (2002), 10 min., directed by David Zackin, USA. Info: David Zackin, 459 3rd Ave., Apt. 3, Brooklyn, NY 11215. Email: djzackin@hotmail.com.

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Plugs McGinniss gets his blind owner into trouble. All characters, stories and art © 2003 by Augenblick Studios.

Plugs McGinniss, Seeing Eye Dog

Inspired in part by Budweiser's idiotic "Spuds McKenzie" campaign (and in particular the disturbing suggestion that its canine protagonist "was a heavy drinker who was apparently mating with human women"), director Aaron Augenblick has created an agreeably jaundiced sketch about a dissolute canine and his supercilious blind owner. The film, which was hand-drawn in Flash MX, is as rich in visual design and attitude as it is thin in content, although there are a few funny ideas floating around, and the hyper-literate VO sustains one's interest when the visuals flag. Augenblick's professed love of Fleischer Studios cartoons and other early animation is evident in his retro style, which is generally very effective and needs only a stronger narrative structure to support it.

Aaron Augenblick attended the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he made the award-winning shorts, The Wire (1995) and The Midnight Carnival (1997). After working for several years at MTV Animation, he founded Augenblick Studios, which has produced shows for the Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, PBS, Nickelodeon and many others. The studio's own productions include Ramblin' Man (2000), Drunky (2001) and the upcoming series, House Arrest. Plugs McGinnis has screened at Annecy, the Annapolis Film Festival and the Filthy Animation Festival.

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Requiem shows WWII from a Japanese perspective. © 1993 Japan at War: An Oral History by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook. Reprinted by permission of The New Press.

Requiem

Roger Oda's poignant film recounts the WWII experience of a Japanese woman whose brother died piloting a kaiten, a "suicide submarine" that made its operator into a human torpedo. Based on one of the reminiscences in Japan at War: An Oral History, by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook, Requiem uses sepia tones and minimal animation to convey the special relationship between brother and sister and the personal reality of war. The film is stronger on feeling than it is on technique, but Oda demonstrates a thoughtful use of images to complement, rather than simply illustrate, the narrative, and Requiem's structure effectively integrates the visual and aural elements including the well-known "Meditation" from Massenet's Thaïs through which the story is told.

Roger Oda, an MFA student in UCLA's animation program, cites William Kentridge, Caroline Leaf and Isao Takahara as influences. Requiem, which was made as a first-year project, was first shot horizontally against a wall with a Bolex and then animated under the camera using charcoal dust and vine charcoal. It screened as part of the 2003 UCLA Prom Festival of Animation.

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Television coverage of the Winter Olympics is spoofed in Ski Jumping Pairs. © Riichiro Mashima.

Ski Jumping Pairs

In this amusing and well-made CG animation, director Riichiro Mashima takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the latest Winter Olympics event: the new and exciting extreme sport of two-person ski jumping. Mashima does a great job of re-creating the look and feel of Olympics TV coverage, complete with color commentary and instant replays, and incorporates a number of funny variations in his six teams' performances. Unfortunately, the film's impressive verisimilitude, coupled with the difficulties inherent in translation (for those of us who don't speak Japanese), sometimes makes it hard to gauge Mashima's humorous intent. However, overall the film is extremely successful in taking a clever central concept and running (or jumping) with it in a manner that's both imaginative and admirably coherent.

A graduate of Chiba University with a degree in industrial design, Riichiro Mashima worked as a businessman for three years before learning CG animation at Digital Hollywood. Ski Jumping Pairs, which was his graduation project, has won numerous awards, including a Special Jury Prize at AniFest and Audience Choice Awards at the Santamania Short Film Festival (Japan) and RESFEST 2002 Japan Program. It has also screened at Annecy, Melbourne, Hiroshima, Cordoba, and the Oberhausen Short Film Festival, among many other festivals.

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The Toll Collector is an impressive directing debut. © Rachel Johnson.

The Toll Collector

Clearly a highly personal project, some of its meaning might be known only to the filmmaker, The Toll Collector is a beautifully designed puppet animation about a physically deformed girl who dreams of being a ballerina. Filmmaker Rachel Johnson cites Tim Burton as one of her influences and indeed the spindly central character (actually the only character) and moody milieu are reminiscent of that director's work. Yet the film has a quirky tone all its own, and the high level of execution from the choice of shots and deliberate pacing, to the incorporation of Patrick Kirst's haunting score is very impressive for a first film. On the negative side, I think Johnson may not have been well-served by acting as her own narrator and, thematically, the character's epiphany at the end of the film seems imposed rather than integral to the action. If, ultimately, the many excellent parts don't quite add up to a satisfying whole, The Toll Collector still represents a sizable accomplishment.

Rachel Johnson graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1999 with a degree in photography and worked as a photojournalist before beginning her film career. The Toll Collector was shot at Trnky studio in Prague, where Johnson was mentored by producer Michil Havlik, and was completed with post-production grants from the Filmworkers Club in Chicago and Soundtrack Studio in New York. It premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and has also screened at Annecy, Newport and Tribeca.

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Tuna and truth are served up in Tunanooda. Image courtesy of David Zackin.

Tunanooda

David Zackin's quasi-autobiographical meditation on family, aquatic life and dubious recipes (OK, it's not a meditation, more of a vaudeville routine) is both very funny and despite its, shall we say, unpolished appearance highly sophisticated in its manipulation of sound and image to chronicle the sort-of conversation between a boy (voiced by the filmmaker) and his grandfather.

A disciple of the South Park school of animation, Zackin will never win any awards for his drawing skills or his characters' nuanced movements. However, he has great insight into the way people communicate (or don't) and he's able to exploit the resources of the film medium to transmit information on a number of different levels. The result here is a kind of disjointed stream of consciousness that's both highly entertaining and surprisingly truthful in its exploration of adolescence, family relationships and tuna.

Another graduate of RISD, for which Tunanooda was his undergraduate thesis project, David Zackin has stopped eating the dish from which his film takes its name. Tunanooda was shot on 16mm using a homemade four-level rig on an old Oxberry camera stand, with additional work completed in Pro Tools and Flash. Zackin cites Cezanne, Village of Idiots and Igor Kovalyov's Flying Nansen as influences, and alleges that he developed his character's voice "by imitating the disappointed scowl of the roommate of a girl [on whom he had a crush]."

Tunanooda has won numerous awards, including Best Student Film at the New England Film & Video Festival and Best Animated Film at the Big Muddy festival, and has screened at New Directors/New Films (NY) and the Philadelphia, USA, and Ann Arbor film festivals, among many others.

Jon Hofferman is an independent filmmaker, writer and graphic designer. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster (a unique work of art that makes a wonderful gift for anyone interested in or learning about classical music, available at www.carissimi.com) and a shameless promoter.