Taylor Jessen reviews five short films One Rat Short by Alex Weil, Smile by Chris Mais, Memorial by Matt Clausen and Jon Gutman, Coffee by Rohitash Rao and Abraham Spear, and Dog Worries by Chris Armstrong. Includes QuickTime movie clips!
Within the world of animation, most experimentation occurs within short format productions, whether they are 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.
One Rat Short (2006), 10:00, directed by Alex Weil (U.S.) Contact: Chris Byrnes (Charlex) [E] firstname.lastname@example.org
Dog Worries (2005), 7:00, directed by Chris Armstrong (U.S.) Contact: Chirs Armstrong [E] email@example.com
One Rat Short
One Rat Short is a love story where intimate glances are stolen between pairs of huge pink eyes and caresses are exchanged with a brushing of whiskers. This CGI piece opens in the bed of a subways tracks, as dozens of rats vie for whatever nourishment they can scrounge. When the train comes, it sends them scurrying and makes a plastic bag of a puffy junk food called Chee-Chees go airborne. The bag floats up out of the subway, over the night-time cityscape, and onto a rooftop, where a sleeping rat takes interest. This hero rat wants to get into the bag and extract the leftover goodies within, and behind that bar code it looks like there is indeed something orange and tasty poking out. But the wind catches it again and sends it into a revolving fan unit at the top of a ventilation shaft.
The rat pursues, and somehow squeezes in between the slats; he and the plastic bag both fall, barely missing being sliced by the revolving fan. They land on a ventilation grate just above a dark, shiny, too-tidy room, which on closer inspection reveals itself to be an animal testing lab with thousands of white rats in compartments waiting to be taken to and from a tiny testing stage by a robot arm with one big red eye.
During the action that follows, the rat manages to drop to the laboratory floor, where it tries to approach one lovely white lady rat on her way to running a treadmill. The pair makes eye contact and he tries to get closer. All the rats, it seem, have bar codes implanted on their sides, and the robot arm is working automatically through the night, plucking the specified rat from its compartment, running it through its test routine, and putting it back.
What begins as a simple case of curiosity on the part of the visitor from the outside turns into a whirlwind of chaos and mayhem when the big robot eye tries to catch the interloper, and becomes confused by the bar code on the marauding Chee-Chees bag. The lab eventually erupts in rats, free and scurrying for their lives across the polished floor, with our hero and his love interest making a desperate break for freedom.
One Rat Short is professional filmmaking all the way down the line strong character animation, verisimilitude to the point of photo-realism and an airtight tight story reel. Its especially effective in the way the point of view is kept extremely limited and only slightly shaky, just as our main characters would experience it. From the visual evidence alone, in particular the behemoth robot Cyclops with its complex articulation and polished surface reflections, this is clearly the product of an experienced commercial CG house with amazing resources. Charlex Studio and director Alex Weil are New York-based and are indeed very prolific, with Weils experience stretching back 25 years to include breakthrough CG animation milestones like the You Might Think video for The Cars. Id only quibble that they possibly fell into the trap of over-scoring One Rat Short, which is always a risk when the artist has access to a favorite composer or the budget for a proper orchestra but I always think a little music goes a long way.
Smile is a story about some toys a sort of toy story, if you will about a happy-go-lucky wire-bendy man, a mean pirate wire-bendy man and a balloon. In a childs bedroom second story, powder blue wallpaper, train set on the rug there are shelves full of toys, two of which are wire-bendy men. One is all yellow with two dot eyes and a mouth; the other is black with a pirates hat and sword. Into the room a little boy enters with a yellow balloon with a smiley-face. The boy exits, leaving the balloon behind.
The nice, yellow wire-bendy man sees a kindred soul in the balloon and tries to get near it so it can make a new friend. The evil, pirate wire-bendy man tries to get near it too so it can pop it with its sword. Evil, evil wire-bendy pirate man. In short order Pirate starts firing cannonballs at Yellow and his new friend and the balloon escapes out the window.
Yellow is devastated. But then he sees that the balloon isnt gone, its actually stuck in the branches of the tree outside. Putting himself on top of a Jack-in-the-box, Yellow jettisons out the window and down onto the lawn. He tries to reach the tree trunk, but theres a Jack Russell terrier on a chain. Yellow is about to give up hope when he has a brainwave and, disguising himself as a flower with an unusually happy bud, he sneaks past the dog and climbs the trunk of the tree. Woe is he, for Pirate has already climbed out onto the roof and grabbed the balloons string to pull it back into the room.
Yellow scrambles back up the roof to the window, where he sees Pirate has tied the balloon down to the tabletop and is now torturing it with little pokes of his sword. Yellow wont stand for this and he accosts Pirate in a final showdown involving swordfights, runaway trains and another boost from the Jack-in-the-box.
Hey, balloon, youve got a friend in me!... This isnt only a familiar scenario but also a familiar scene the story kernel, the set dressing, the choice of wallpaper, even the music is highly reminiscent of John Lasseters first feature, not the wisest thing to evoke in 2006. Yellow and Pirates centers of gravity seem off and their arcs of freefall feel wrong in fact gravity in general seems to be an unwilling collaborator in this world. The two main characters, whose movements were derived from motion capture, have been composited into live-action plates. Its an old technique, and as common as coffee, but watching this only made me hungry for old music videos by Hammer & Tongs, who did this kind of thing with such flair the greater part of a decade ago (and kindly put up the evidence at Tongsville.com for posterity).
Ghosts play out their dramas on graffiti-strewn city walls in Memorial. As the short begins, a man with a bottle has an altercation with his daughter, all visible in silhouette through the second-story window of their urban apartment. The girl leaves the fight and goes down a flight to sit on the stoop and Dad tries to join her, though she shrugs him off. He wanders, weaving, into the street, and to the girls shock he is hit by a car and killed.
Later the girl is seen sitting in the street beside her fathers chalk line, using her own chalk to fill in his physical details, adding the topography of his wrinkled features. Her drawing, which started flat, becomes animated on the ground and she tries ripping it from the asphalt, but it slips through her fingers and she falls back against the wall of graffiti on the side of her building.
On impact the girl suddenly finds herself in a Flatland occupied by neighborhood ghosts whove taken on the guises of the various graffiti art covering the walls. A giant sickly-green head with a beak for a nose serves drinks at a bar; little black bolts from the cursive of a taggers signature chase her left and right; and a miserable woman with a mask to hide her sorrow takes a stool next to the girl and gives her her mask, revealing a visage as gnarled as a bristlecone pines trunk.
Sitting at the bar with her new mask, the girl watches her drinking father, whos taken a stool and bought his usual beer for the afternoon. Dad doesnt know who she is at first and he shows the first real affection hes displayed. When she takes the mask off, she leaves the wall and re-enters three-dimensional reality. She puts the mask, which has morphed into a photograph of herself and her father, onto a makeshift memorial of personal keepsakes shes attached to the wall of the apartment building.
Memorial is more successful as a moving piece of graphic design than as animation; the reality behind the characterization, movements and gestures arent as strong as the art direction, which is extremely rich. All sorts of familiar urban textures asphalt, exposed brick walls, ancient weathered plaster and stucco cast all the right shadows and seem tactile. The art on the walls, from a Virgin of Guadalupe to giant doodles and tags, is true to the source material, which is certainly part of most Angelenos visual vocabulary and is in ample supply in the landscape surrounding USC, where directors Matt Clausen and Jon Gutman created the short.
Coffee is 90 seconds of provocation in limited stop-motion. A guy sitting alone at a table reads a newspaper and stirs his coffee, all the while various extreme grinning/scowling expressions passing over his face. A short paragraph starts spelling itself out in intertitles, hand-drawn in an angular Dr. Strangelove-esque typeface, and here it is: A man saw the face of God in his coffee. So he added a lot of cream to reassure himself that God was a white man.
The action is sepia-toned, the movement is jerky and stilted, the face is reality footage of a Harold Lloyd-ish actors face projected onto a blank white surface. It all plays out to a sour little waltz on the soundtrack. As you can guess from the prose component of the short, the piece is as nuanced as a rock dropped from an overpass, although this does admittedly take longer.
Dog Worries is an animated monologue about the neighbors pet; a hellhound with a painful past and an uncertain future. The dog belongs to the new neighbor next door, a grandmotherly type, and its a rescue dog. Right away the dog starts barking at other dogs, trucks, joggers, garages, sidewalks. The dog has issues. It head-butts the fence. It hates the narrator, who lives across the fence from the dog and who once soaks it head with the garden hose in frustration.
The narrator asks the neighbor to do something about her dog. She says shes doing the best she can. He wonders why shed buy a crazy dog in the first place. He imagines the dog offing itself by taking on more than it can handle, suffocating while trying to swallow a small child or being eaten by a bear. One day the dog isnt there the narrator thinks he must be away, marauding small villages with a pack of wolves. Then hes barbecuing and he hears a strange sound.
The grandmotherly neighbor has finally done something. The dog is different now, but in some ways hes just the same he continues to glare daggers at the narrator, for one thing. Now when she takes her altered dog for walkies, along with his new adaptation the dog sports a muzzle. The narrator looks at the muzzle, looks at the alteration and imagines the grandmotherly neighbor and her whole family and everyone she left behind in the home country, similarly Hannibal Lecter-ized. Theres no grand finale, no final confrontation between man and beast, only lingering worry as the mans words run out.
Dog Worries is virtually a one-man effort and a very personal exploration of what the filmmaker characterizes at the beginning of the film is a true story sort of. An ultra-basic ambient music bed helps the mood enormously, adding to the dread and complementing the voice of the narrator, with his middle-of-range monotone and basic nonspecific east coast accent.
The animation is based on digitally scribbled outlines that boil and shimmy; the interior fills are patterns that look like they were lifted from old carpets (front and back), decorative countertops and hand-me-down clothes. Nevertheless its very controlled and expressive and it shouldnt surprise you to learn that director Chris Armstrong is an 11-year veteran of Industrial Light & Magic, a traditionally-trained animator whos given life to imaginary creatures and scenes from Mars Attacks! to Star Wars: Episode I, Men in Black II and The Day After Tomorrow. Anyway, if this is sort of a true story, I wish him luck and hope to read more about him in future (on IMDB, please, and NOT the local paper in an article listing his next of kin).
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He is pastor of the Church of God the Ice Cream Man, and if theres a schism he wishes it to be known hell be siding with pro-chocolate forces. You can read his article on the making of Twice Upon a Time in the current issue of Animation Blast magazine, available now.