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Fresh from the Festivals: July 2005’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films Moo(n) by Leigh Hodgkinson; The Man Without a Shadow (Lhomme sans ombre) by Georges Schwizgebel, The Birthday (Syntymv/em>) directed by Kari Juusonen, Handshake directed by Patrick Smith and Through My Thick Glasses (travers mes grosses lunettes) directed by Pjotr Sapegin. 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:

Moo(n) (2003), 3:25 directed by Leigh Hodgkinson (UK). Contact: Richard Barnett, Slinky Pictures, The Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL. [T] +20.7247.6444 [F] +20.7247.0164 [W] www.slinkypics.com

Man Without a Shadow (Lhomme sans ombre) (2004), 9:35, directed by Georges Schwizgebel (Switzerland). Contact: Contact: Christine Noel, NFB [E] c.noel@onf.ca

The Birthday (Syntymäpäivä) (2004), 15:00, directed by Kari Juusonen (Finland). Contact: Kinoproduction Oy, Leila Lyytikäinen, Pasilan vanhat veturitallit, 00520 Helsinki Finland. [T] +358.9.6850.460 [F] +358.9.6850.4610 [E] kino@kinoproduction.fi [W] www.kinoproduction.fi

Handshake (2004), 4:40, directed by Patrick Smith (U.S.). Contact: Patrick Smith, Blend Films, [T] 212.406.1631 [E] pat@blendfilms.com [W] www.blend films.com

Through My Thick Glasses (À travers mes grosses lunettes) (2003), 12:41, directed by Pjotr Sapegin (Norway). Contact: Christine Noel, NFB [E] c.noel@onf.ca

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The little girl laughed to see such fun but not for long in Moo(n). © Slinky Pictures.

Moo(n)

Moo(n) takes as its text the classic rhyming narrative about the cow, the jump and the lunar circumnavigation. Not all of the classic rhyming narrative, mind you, just part of it. As the modern reader quotes certain Biblical verses to justify one thing and another, but conveniently ignores the bit about No Shellfish, so has animator Leigh Hodgkinson amusingly glommed on to the more true-to-life aspects of a certain nursery rhyme while skipping others. To which I say, oh yes, its all fine and good to dramatize a cow jumping over the moon when its part of our everyday reality, but whither the cat? Whither the fiddle? Whither the fork and spoon? Where, in short, is the accountability?

Sorry... Moo(n) is an animated short about a little girl, a cow, a wretched bee and a rhinovirus, and its the kind of nuttiness that drives children gaga. On a very small planet lives a girl and her cow. They are inseparable until the day the girl catches cold, whereupon her parents sequester her in her room. The cow tries to cheer her up by jumping over the moon, one of many small local planetary bodies and stars. But the cows arc takes it only far enough to plough into the moons surface, and there it stays, marooned.

On the same moon is a very loud and cranky bumblebee, its stinger stuck fast in the lunar surface. Its actually the cows fault that the bee is there, the cow having swatted it fiercely in irritation at the storys beginning and launched it into orbit. (This is a really small solar system.) The bee cant accept his fate, stuck forever with his tormentor, so he insists the cow eat all the neighboring moons and asteroids and let the force of gravity draw his enormous bulk back to the surface of their home world.

Leigh Hodgkinson, a director with the Slinky Films animation collective, animated Moo(n) digitally as a three-dimensional universe made entirely from staggered planes of 2D action the wet-dream multiplane array that Walt Disney never got. In one of the shorts best animated meta-gags, the camera actually does a 180 as it moves through one virtual glass plane after another, letting us see the back of the cow in the reverse P.O.V. we never got in Pinocchio. (Sadly, the cows reverse holds no secrets its only a flip of the obverse.)

Apart from the funky textures and goofy cutout-style character poses, the tastiest treat is the lighting. All the world seems lit single-source by a 40-watt bulb just behind the camera. Characters and set dressing throw enormous shadows in a flickering light that vignettes at the edges of the frame like a pay telescope.

The color scheme is a palette of bleached-to-nothing earth tones, as close to black-and-white as possible without being monochromatic. In subject and tone, it evokes the King of the Moon sequence from Terry Gilliams Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and the voices are appropriately comic. Bumblebee Matt Lucas is a ubiquitous presence on British TV whom you may have spotted as Cousin Tom in Shaun of the Dead, and narrator Robert Llewellyn is best known as the put-upon Mechanoid hero Kryten in Red Dwarf.

Moo(n) is the latest product of Channel 4s Artist in Residence scheme with the Museum of the Moving Image, and Hodgkinson practiced her art in public in a glass box on Londons South Bank under the watchful eye of holidaymakers and cranky schoolchildren (which may or may not have influenced her choice of subject matter).

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Man without a Shadow (LHomme Sans Ombre) wishes he could darken someones doorstep once again. © A co-production GDS, the National Film Board of Canada and Télévision Suisse Romande, with the participation of Arte France 2004. All rights reserved. Photograph courtesy of National Film Board of Canada.

Man without a Shadow (LHomme Sans Ombre)

Georges Schwizgebel is a graphic designer making prints at 24fps. This Swiss-born and -educated artist is probably best known for his 1992 short, La Course à LAbîme, a 72-frame loop on a massive scale with individual components living independent existences, never seen at once until a fiery finale scored by Berlioz. Course was picked up in a number of omnibus animation programs in the 1990s, and was included in volume one of Don Hertzfeldt and Mike Judges Animation Show in 2003. Schwizgebels latest, LHomme Sans Ombre, likewise made it into volume two of the program, which began touring the U.S. this year.

LHomme is a magical-realist fable about a man who sells off a previously disregarded part of himself. An opening montage of gray geometric shapes throwing crazy shadows gives way to an image of a man in a bowler hat wandering an urban landscape. Throughout the short Schwizgebel toys with up and down, horizon lines and time of day like an impatient God, a Deus ex Amphetamina.

The man scores an invitation to a garden party, and, as he enters it, his black-and-white world gives way to brilliant color. In a secluded grove, he meets The Dealmaker. The Dealmaker offers money, property, a beautiful companion. In return he walks off with the mans shadow. The man hadnt needed it until then, and as he settles into a life of comfort, he thinks he still doesnt, until the love of his life and everyone around him start to shun his as a freak of nature.

He follows a woman down a shady lane, the tree-dappled light hiding his deformity, but reaching the open sun, the woman rushes ahead and he cannot follow. At wits end the man returns to the Dealmaker and insists on one more trade. He gives up all he has for a magic pair of boots, which lift him effortlessly over hill and dale as he runs away from his woe. Only in a far-distant land of gamelan and shadow-plays does this tragic figure find peace and purpose.

Schwizgebels been in love with shadows since he began animating in the 1970s, but this is the first time hes made them the subject of an entire short. All his works to date have been dialogue-free, and the artist has never pursued great detail in his characters faces, so the emotion is driven primarily through camerawork and music. LHomme showcases his trademark style of thick, blunt-edged strokes, and his penchant for a wandering omniscient down-pointing camera angles gets full rein here only to be dropped suddenly when the heros fate changes. In fact the beats of the dramatic arc are cued primarily through camerawork, which shifts to drowsy pans across static fields after the first deal with the devil, and then is set free when the hero begins his great run.

LHomme is available on DVD from Canadas NFB as part of a career survey called, Les Films de Georges Schwizgebel. Seeing the more obvious humor of his early catalog helps inform his sometimes opaque later filmography. To a first-timer, La Course à LAbîme might seem pretentious in its attempt to merge the drama of a piece of music with the drama of making that music (the creatures who roam the film eventually roam into the middle of the orchestra playing the soundtrack). But in fact theres an enormously goofy experimental streak running through his entire oeuvre, particularly in films like the blink-and-youll-miss-it Zig Zag; the stunning Hors-Jeu, a perspective-defying vision of a ball game where the rules and the equipment keep changing; and Le Ravissement de Frank N. Stein, an avant-garde virtual New Home tour inspired in equal parts by Bride of Frankenstein and the old Apple II+ version of Castle Wolfenstein.

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The morning after The Birthday (Syntymäpäivä) could be a good time for career reassessment. © Kinoproduction Oy 2005. Photo Jussi Eerola.

The Birthday (Syntymäpäivä)

Everyone over legal drinking age knows a birthday, like Christmas, is less a treat to be enjoyed than a horror to be survived, a day made special only by the fact that it used to be special but isnt anymore. These blue-ribbon holidays become character tests, and we define ourselves by how we live through them and the days that follow. In the extraordinary new Finnish short The Birthday, the only guy not having a birthday is the one whos going to have the most to think about the next day.

Somewhere up north in a one-up-two-down in the middle of a frozen plain live a boy and his elderly dad. The boy is the sole caretaker of an automated slaughterhouse just up the road, and Dad spends his days at home staring into a darkened TV set, reliving old memories and waiting for the end. This day starts with the son lighting a candle on Dads single slice of cake, but Dad doesnt even look away from the window as the son leaves for work.

Work is sitting in front of a monitor, as cattle with little yellow crosshairs on their foreheads move into his cameras field of vision. With a joystick he aims his cattle prod by remote control, and with a push of a button they are safely shocked into unconsciousness and ready for the killing floor. Today a very cranky cow comes through and has a disagreement with that cattle prod. The electrical charge arcs back into the mechanism and everything grinds to a halt.

The kid grabs the manual prod out of his locker and goes to take care of this little problem. One look at the enormous bovine, though, and he chickens out, lowering a metal door between them. The cow butts the door with its head. The boy opens another door by remote control, and the cow finds its way outside. End of issue, the boy thinks, and he spends the rest of his day futzing with his hardware and wondering what went wrong.

The cow has other plans, though, and follows him home. What the hell is this personal now? The boy mulls it over and cooks a microwave dinner, while Dad toys with a spring-loaded arm exerciser. The cow puts its nose to the living room window. The boy tries scaring it away with loud noises and a stick. The cow lifts him bodily between its horns and throws him.

When Dad tries to get involved, the boys frustration erupts into old family resentments, and he locks Dad in the house. The boy finally grows desperate enough to go after this mad cow with an axe and gun but experience carries the day, and Dad puts an end to his sons aggression by insisting on checking out the sorry cow from stem to stern, finally discovering the real reason behind her bitter mood swings.

Director Kari Juusonen had The Birthday in development for 10 years, and it shows. Like The Wrong Trousers, The Birthday is first and foremost strong cinematic storytelling that happens to be done with puppets. The production design is extremely rich, delivering a world that doesnt just look lived-in, but fully furnished, indoors and out. The verisimilitude isnt just truthful, its downright eerie, to the point where a shot of the boy coming home from work with his bicycle behind him, a field of cracked frozen mud behind that, and an early-evening winter sky behind it all, is lit so well your eyes may not be able to navigate the fact that this is a set with a stop-motion puppet in it.

Juusonens characters dont have articulated mouths, and the eyebrows are all applied plasticine, so the acting comes mainly from well-timed miming and darting eyes which speak volumes. Altogether its boilerplate excellent filmmaking with a strong story reel, fascinating character interactions and incident thats equally suspenseful and goofy. In a better world this 15-minute narrative would open for a first-run movie, and it would probably outperform most of this years main attractions.

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Nothings simple, least of all a Handshake . © Patrick Smith/Blend Films 2005.

Handshake

What became of us? We seemed like such a perfect match. When we first came together it was magic, but in the blink of an eye there were misunderstandings, recriminations, emotional tug-of-war. We passed the days in pretty shoving matches and fleeting moments of ecstasy until at last you ate me alive. Youve taken all Ive got, woman, and now its some other Joes turn. How could you?

The lament is familiar, but it took Patrick Smith to put his magic animators sunglasses up to life to defeat that alien mind-control and reveal the truth about interpersonal dynamics. The reason she ate him alive is really very simple. He and she were both made out of Silly Putty. And you know what happens when you bring two chunks of THAT together. It was doomed from the moment they shook hands, and that nuclear point of contact and its subsequent fallout is the subject of Smiths new short Handshake, a miniature look at the full cycle of a relationship seen through the lens of Smiths trademark cartoon mayhem and crack timing.

In a suburban street, a young man is standing at a bus stop when a young woman wearing a pink tank top approaches. He notices her and extends a friendly handshake. She hesitates, but only briefly, and, with a guarded but hopeful smile, she takes his hand in hers. To the supreme annoyance of both parties, neither can retract this handshake the mitts have become a single stringy mass that stretches like pizza cheese but refuses to snap.

What follows in this wordless short is one exquisitely choreographed action set piece, with both parties making things worse as they push, pull, get a hand in for leverage, cant pull that hand back, and turn their single contact point into a cats cradle of mutual harassment. He stretches, he strains, he bangs his head on the bus stop sign, but in the end hes only made an unbreakable full-body connection with the mystery girl.

His shirt has even taken on the pink of her tank top. Before he can scream she overwhelms and consumes him completely. She grimaces like it was all just indigestion, and with a sigh she stands and waits for another guy to offer another chance.

Handshake is in the same singular style of Smiths earlier shorts, Drink and Delivery, with the drawings originating in pencil sketches that have the tang of 101 Dalmatians-era Xerography. His characters have the usual dotted eyes, trapezoidal heads, oversized hands and tendencies to break down into 1,000 little homunculi versions of themselves. Like Drink and especially Delivery, the power is in the spaces between actions, the luxurious pauses over tableau of the couples most awkward contortions that make their frenetic flailing of limbs even more hilarious.

The music deserves a good deal of credit for the shorts effectiveness, with Smith using a 40-piece orchestra for the first time. Composer Michael Suby is in full Carl Stalling mode, punching the physical bits and enhancing the poignancy with equal aplomb.

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A girl puts a surreal spin on Grandpas tragic past when she sees his world Through My Thick Glasses (À travers mes grosses lunettes). © A Pravda and National Film Board of Canada co-production, 2004. All rights reserved.

Through My Thick Glasses (À travers mes grosses lunettes)

Pjotr Sapegin is the Norwegian animator behind the goofy and charming festival shorts, Katten Mons and One Day a Man Bought a House, as well as the heartbreaking Aria anthologized in The Animation Show Volume 1. In 2003, he debuted his latest work, Through My Thick Glasses, where a grandfathers personal history of World War II runs headlong into the imagination of his shortsighted young granddaughter.

Just inside the front door of her grandparents house, a young redheaded girl shaped like a turtle in full winter gear and bottle-thick glasses waits to go outside, held back because she wont put on her cap. Grandpa gently coaxes her to relent by distracting her with an exciting story from his childhood. He quietly regales her with a ripping yarn about German invaders, his sensitive poet father, and how Dad and Mom fled German occupation and left him alone with his aunt. The boy version of Grandpa is seen loitering in the usual childhood boredom before running into a group of boys whove scavenged a soldiers gun. They agree to share it, but the boys aunt confiscates it before his turn is up.

Three of the boys have a sleepover and decide to escape to Britain to enlist in the army, but one of them cant sleep and he spills the whole story to his mother. Mom calls the Gestapo and turns in the two strangers in return for keeping her boy. Our hero and his luckless friend spend the night at the local jail, but the aunt comes in the morning and admonishes them for skipping school thus rescuing them.

At last the Gestapo come after the boy in a last-ditch effort to trace his flown parents. To the boys great surprise, Auntie reveals herself as a spy and she spirits him away to Britain to enlist. When Norway is finally liberated he returns a hero, his hair freezes off, and his aunt gives him a cap to wear for good health. His story over, Grandpa has finally obliquely convinced his young granddaughter of the importance of covering ones head, and she doffs her cap and goes out to play in the snow.

Theres an undercurrent of real terror in Grandpas tale, and some of that comes through in the animated narrative, which is told from the point of view of the young girls imagination. That dread is overpowered, though, by a vivid depiction of the girls delightfully naïve vision of the events her grandfather describes. Talk of the German war machine inspires an image of a great mass of gun parts and twisted metal the size of a city block shaped like a gerbils spinning wheel, rolling spitefully to and fro over the Norwegian countryside.

Grandpa identifies the weapon the boys have found as an artillery gun, which the girl pictures as a tennis racket-sized doorstop shaped like a Colt 45. Grandpas dad, a sensitive type who lived under a cloud, is depicted exactly thus, fretting silently under a highly localized rain shower while his wife lounges in perfect weather ten feet away. And when the aunt reveals her true undercover nature, the girl imagines her taking on foes with a saber and segmenting them like sausages.

Sapegin animates in clay on glass, his characters interacting with backgrounds that cheerfully defy perspective in favor of good composition. As in Peter Lords War Story for Aardman Animation, cartoon physics proves the perfect tool for compressing a story of considerable scope into a few elegantly-staged, fantastical setups unbeholden to gravity or anatomy. The multitalented Odd Børretzen provides the narration, and he carries it off with the same bemused, uninflected drawl that he brought to the hilarious One Day a Man Bought a House.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He was recently seen in Disneys Strategic Planning department running up and down hallways screaming ONE TWO THREE NOT IT!

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