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Fresh from the Festivals: July 2004's Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Fragile by David Cumbo, Cats by Chris Choy, The Box Man by Nirvan Mullick, Going Up? by Marci Ellis and Tales of Mere Existence by Lev Yilmaz. 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:

Fragile (2003), directed by David Cumbo, U.S.A., produced by Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Contact: David Cumbo [E]

Cats (2003), directed by Chris Choy, U.S.A., produced by California Institute of the Arts. Contact: Chris Choy [T] 909.981.7723; [E]

The Box Man (2002), directed by Nirvan Mullick, U.S.A., produced by California Institute of the Arts. Contact: Nirvan Mullick [W]

Going Up? (2004), directed by Marci Ellis, produced by Ringling School of Art and Design, Computer Animation Department. Contact: Marci Ellis [E];

Tales of Mere Existence (2003), directed by Lev Yilmaz. Contact: Lev Yilmaz [E], [W]


A toddler confronts the boogeyman in Fragile. © David M. Cumbo.


People who have lost track of their own sense of surrealism would do well to watch small children at play, and ruminate on days past when upturned dirt in the bottom of an irrigation ditch could become giant brown anvil clouds blown by atmospheric winds, a few square yards of sand could be the Sahara, and the iris patch could be Amazonia. The adult imagination dulls for the simple reason that most of us don't need to think up wild new aspects of Earthly possibility; we've had years of experience of The Real Thing, or at least the edited-for-television version. But the mature mind scores over the very young mind inasmuch as experience creates an emotional cushion against life's travails. The wrecked car that once precipitated cries of I'm running away before Dad kills me in time will evoke only Oh well, find a phone and we'll call State Farm.

David Cumbo's CGI short Fragile looks at the aftermath of a traumatic event from the point of view of a small child, his imagination utterly unprepared for the landscape of grief thrust on him by the death of his older brother. The piece takes place in the gauzy late-afternoon naptime world of a preschooler's bedroom, furnished minimally with two beds and two rows of animal masks on opposite walls. The child wakes and gazes at the other bed, which is unoccupied, and he enters a vision of playing with his brother. Each dons a mask and enters the universe it implies - eagle masks lead to high flight, horse masks to a steeplechase and merry-go-round. But shortly the younger child finds himself alone in a dark room, and Death, with its own mask, enters his nightmare.

Fragile can be really lachrymose the characters always do the crying when they should be making us do it for them but that nightmare is the film's kicker: a toddler confronting the Bogeyman in the form of another toddler. Decked out in a fanged fright mask and black as a broken pencil lead, this child-size evil is Nightmare One, our species' inherited archetype for The Things That Pounce. It's also an apt rendering of the interior life of a child who's suffered a terrible tragedy and doesn't have the emotional tools to map the terrain. In a way this dream sequence is as frightening in its implications as in its execution; whereas an adult could at least recognize the dozen shades of fear, anger and sadness that make up grief, for this boy his brother's death can find expression only in the form of one terrible Boo.

David Cumbo made Fragile as a third-year project at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. It plays beautifully on the screen, if its characters do tend to move in ways that don't quite match their weight. Unfortunately it may never find commercial distribution, because Cumbo took as his inspiration Eric Serra's quietly impassioned score to Luc Besson's Joan of Arc biopic The Messenger. (It's the only soundtrack to this wordless short, and rights issues unfortunately prohibit us from including it here.) Perhaps a friendly nod from the composer and his publishers will allow the music cues to be cleared, and Fragile can find a larger audience on home video.


The feline revolution arrives in Cats. © Chris Choy.


and in 2009, award-winning and unconscionably successful feature film and TV animation director Chris Choy returned to his CalArts alma mater for a series of nine sold-out lectures. Yes, friends, this Choy fellow is the bee's knees, as this fragment from the lead paragraph of a news article warped back from the year 2014 attests. You can bank on it, if his student film Cats is any indicator. This boffo comic short has been burning down festivals everywhere it plays, and may leak into your home TV by sheer merit alone.

Mustn't give away too much, for this is an after-dinner mint that goes down in one three-minute bite, but it concerns, yes, kitties, an apartment block full of tabbies in fact, and what happens when one petulant pet gets fed up with his absent master's endlessly ticking clock and ringing phone and decides to make a break. Come the kitty revolution, all the local felines, including at least one escapee from the shelter, are lining the roofs and raising their peeled-away ID tags in one-fisted salutes; but a familiar, sentimental domestic noise drifts up from a dozen kitchens and sorely tests their determination.

Choy's animation is traditional, manipulated in the digital realm, and his cats have the stacked pipe-cleaner look of heads and bodies built from rows of straight lines. Our hero, Bud, has a personality that is telegraphed instantly and entertainingly in a handful of shots, and the comic timing is spot-on throughout. All this action rolls under the wistful whistling spaghetti sensibility of Ennio Morricone's main title theme from A Fistful of Dollars. In terms of wringing laughs out of all things Cat, this more than holds its own against its closest thematic neighbor on the festival circuit, Lorenzo.

(Incidentally, entertainment value aside, Cats has earned a Post-It note on the computer monitor of my mind for another reason: it has elbowed a spot next to Joanna Quinn's Body Beautiful in the row reserved for 2D Styles That Are The Apotheosis Of 3D. 3D, as any with-it, trendy studio executive can tell you, is the only style of animation audiences want to see right now. Anyway, that's what little Joey's dentist said. So what is the opposite of the CGI cult of perfection, with its perfectly rendered realities, perfect continuity, and perfect actor's takes? The wild-haired, jittery, buzzing, alive, alive, alive look of rough ink drawings on paper. As Steely Dan beget The Clash, the next big success in 2D feature animation will be in a punked-out style of which the work of these two artists will be stylistic touchstones. Yeah just you wait.)


The Box Man haunts the mysterious stranger in apartment 2B. © Nirvan Mullick 2002.

The Box Man

Two men battle for cardboard in Nirvan Mullick's creepy stop-motion short, The Box Man. On a downtown street at night, a man in a trenchcoat comes on a box upturned on the sidewalk. Big enough to tote a honkin' big TV set or microwave, this is just the thing he needs, but a pair of eyes jumps into view through a peephole carved in the front and the man runs away. His apartment, a cozy affair stuffed to the gills with one small painting by Piet Mondrian and little else, is across the street. He looks through the blinds from time to time to check on his quarry but those eyes always seem to be looking right back at him. Finally the trenchcoated man retrieves his own box from the closet this one with a gun with a telescopic sight and aims to take out his sidewalk-straggling neighbor.

Care for being and nothingness with that? The thematic affinity with Camus' The Stranger and the fact that the main character lives in apartment 2B should help you twig there's a philosophy student on the loose here. The student in question, animator Nirvan Mullick, is a recent MFA recipient from CalArts' Experimental Animation program The Box Man is his thesis and it's based on the novel of the same name by Kobo Abe, author of The Woman in the Dunes. You saw Mullick's work if you went to see Willard last year; his directorial aegis hangs over the movie's tasty opening credit sequence.

In The Box Man the design has a similarly nocturnal bent; the color temperature is electric blue, and omni-directional lighting casts outlying areas in deep shadow. The movement is naturalistic, and conveys the requisite character details without the help of dialogue. And then there are the bricks up alley and down avenue, nothing but bricks, bricks, bricks and not a door in sight. (Mullick began the project while in the dumps over a broken love affair, and says it seemed like a good idea to carve bricks for a few weeks.)

The mise-en-scene is tasty I especially love a brief tight shot of the trenchcoated man about to confront the man in the box, his body out of focus but his clenching/unclenching hand and the box's peephole both in perfect focus on either side of his waist, which reminded me of the What exactly is a staff of Ra? scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The dramatic tension is palpable, although the film ends not in bang but in anticlimax, which in context is actually perfect (think of that slipping-off-the-planet feeling you got at the end of Todd Haynes' Safe).

I love this short's killer opening shot; I love his The Three of Us short from last year as well. I just worry that, as an emerging conceptual artist, he hasn't found quite the right pose yet. In 2001 Mullick tried to talk the CalArts staff into letting him make a thesis film one second long; the final product, when screened, will be comprised of 12 images, all of them painted on giant five-by-nine-foot canvases. For a small fee you can buy a producer's credit in this proposed IMAX event film from the artist's Website. All fine and dandy, but that web page also contains this poison sentence, at the end of a description of the project: P.S. This is not a joke. Well, gee, now it isn't thanks a lot. To paraphrase the ancient Chinese proverb, In avant-garde, better to wonder who's conning who than to open mouth and remove all doubt.


Going down in Going Up? © Marci Ellis.

Going Up?

All America loves to be proselytized. All America loves a disaster, too, and we love killin' that Jesus guy, and also vanilla ice cream ain't half bad. These and other thoughts crowd my head after seeing Going Up?, winner of the 2004 Student Academy Award (Region II) from animator Marci Ellis. Ellis is a recent graduate of the Ringling School of Art and Design, where she was a 2003 Sony Pictures Imageworks Scholarship winner and a 2002 award winner for Outstanding Service of Campus Ministries.

Her undergraduate project Going Up? is a morality tale about a diminutive elevator operator named Otis. Amusing as his name may be, Ellis doesn't let humor get in the way of her larger moral purpose, namely to save you miserable festival whores from going to h-e-double-hockey-stick; and so this joke does not actually appear in the piece (although the gag has been given away in the film's press materials, since media people are all damned anyway).

In the short, Otis takes his passengers up and down, up and down, thanking them politely and endlessly repeating It's my pleasure even as they jostle and nudge him remorselessly. He's better than they are, that much is clear. This is a plasticky CGI universe, and Otis certainly suffers pliability at the hands of his impatient monkey-mind passengers, falling prey to both the nose-caught-in-the-door gag and the head-flattened-underfoot jape.

So it goes until suddenly Otis finds himself alone in his elevator as the cables begin to snap one by one, and with a final closing of the metal gates he plummets to his demise at the bottom of the shaft. And lo, the doors do open, heavenly ones these, and that great, backlit, faceless White Male in the sky appears in person as He tips His bellboy hat at Otis and delivers the animated work's theme/punchline/Desideratum Going up? Up as in heaven, get it you filthy agnostics? Ellis has certainly done justice in spirit to whatever verse of whatever chapter inspired her story; the animation, with its minimal texture mapping and meager use of keyframes, is less inspiring.


The need to be cool is lamented in Tales of Mere Existence. © Lev Yilmaz.

Tales of Mere Existence

Rereading old Life in Hell collections recently, I was please to find myself reacting exactly as I did when I first read them in the '80s; at any given moment I was equally likely to drop the book and a) giggle or b) have a good brood. Matt Groening's SoCal-blues comic creation could carry me along on the lilt of its amusing language and dorky graphics, and suddenly do a soul smackdown with Creative Self-Expression checklist items like Write several unsold screenplays, then move back to Idaho. A good man feeling bad, Groening as cartoonist in the early 1980s was simply a funny guy who wasn't afraid to take his darkest thoughts to their logical conclusion.

Cartoonist/animator Lev walks a similar walk, although his talk, he insists, can be stilted, especially at parties. This Bay-area artist suffers the hipster disease so many of us share, the need to be cool in a crowd followed by the I shoulda said lament on the drive home. To heal himself he began doing Tales of Mere Existence, a series of films and comic strips at once universal and painfully personal. Tales of Mere Existence, a four-minute suite of short shorts currently making festival rounds and also available as a DVD from the artist's IngredientX Website, is a collection of spoken narrations that Lev animated in real time by drawing caricatures in ink or pencil on some sort of translucent paper over glass, while filming it from the opposite side.

These micro-stories move fast and hurt good, as Lev goes for laughs in fearless ways that shock you even as you quietly nod your head in recognition. Unforgettable is a 45-second sequence called Jealous with frankly pornographic renderings of fourteen different couples copulating, under the narration I try not to think about my ex-girlfriends too much, but when I do, I know that THIS is what Carol and her new boyfriend do and THIS is what Lisa and her boyfriend do and THIS is what Veronica and her boyfriend do and THIS is what Emily and her boyfriend do and THIS is what Mary and her boyfriend do and THIS is what Kara and her boyfriend do

Running the gamut from goofy to depressing, these introspective shorts dwell on subjects from guys who quote Monty Python to Tommy Hilfiger underwear, homemade haircuts, and the Theory of Popularity. Lev is a funny sombitch go see his E.T.-related short 1982 on his Website and you're sure to wish you had had him for a friend that year. Secure in the confidence that indeed he has the comedy chops, he has now, like all smart comic personalities, freed himself of them. Like Don Hertzfeldt's Temporary Anesthetics and Scott Dikkers' Jim's Journal, Tales of Mere Existence is taking Lev beyond getting the gag to where he can focus on getting under the skin.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. On Saturdays he goes whale-tipping with a group of ne'er-do-well marine biologists.

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