Taylor Jessen reviews five short films -- Copenhagen Cycles by Eric Dyer, Slide by Sharon Katz, Down the Road by Rune Christensen, The Toll by J. Zachary Pike and Who I Am and What I Want by Chris Shepherd, David Shrigley.
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.
The Toll (2006), 7:00, by J. Zachary Pike (U.S.). Contact: Hatchling Studios, P.O. Box 1094, Portsmouth, NH 03857 [T] 603.436.0056 [F] 603.436.0061 [E] firstname.lastname@example.org [W] www.hatchling.com, www.thetollmovie.com
Who I Am and What I Want (2005), 7:30, by Chris Shepherd and David Shrigley (U.K.). Contact: Slinky Pictures [T] +44. (0) 20.7247.6444 9F0 +44 (0) 20.7247.0164 [F] email@example.com [W] www.slinkypics.com
In the world of moving pictures, there are three basic components you're going to find in any delivery system, from Zoetrope to MiniDV player: the action being depicted, the on/off gate that gives you the action in discrete flashes, and a flywheel. It seems like 100,000 years have elapsed between the first Zoetrope and the Sony HDW-F900, and, in terms of the man-hours necessary to invent all the intermediary technologies, that's not far wrong, but animation still has discrete frames of action every second, and VCRs still have flywheels and a Super 8 projector has a gate. Baltimore-raised animator Eric Dyer is taking some of the gadgets we're so proud of in the industrial age, from that nutty internal combustion engine to the miraculous handheld digicam to that myth engine Photoshop, and is mashing it all up to create modified Zoetropes.
Dyer was in Copenhagen on a Fulbright award when he started making the awesome and scintillating animated short, Copenhagen Cycles. Naming the short was a no-brainer, as the Zoetropes on view in the film are not only cyclical animation loops, but also reality footage that Dyer shot from his bicycle while commuting back and forth across the city. In making new content for this sadly neglected 19th-century animation medium, Dyer provides wheel, action and on/off gate using common materials that are in fact perfect for making Zoetropes though the manufacturers never guessed it. Dyer's wheel, that friendly wide dial holding down the action on every Zoetrope, is a disc whose speed is motorized and adjustable.
The action is a series of cutouts captured from Dyer's home movies, manhandled in After Effects and Photoshop and printed and cut-and-pasted on a stiff backing. And best of all, the on/off gate is a video camera with a fast shutter: a portable slit-making machine that can stutter the action perfectly even while zooming, twistingand pedestaling. Dyer calls his creative hack a "Cinetrope."
In the six-and-a-half-minute mood piece, a bicyclist moves in and out of view as scenery passes before and behind him -- there are other bicyclists, pedestrians, dogs on walkies, swans in a river, brightly-colored facades of buildings, blue sky, rushing cobblestones, teams of horses. Every piece of the mise en scene is spinning in its own nested orbit, and the cutouts can stretch up into space or hand down from a wheel turned upside-down. The effect is beautiful and dizzying.
Dyer's designs are spectacular, and he promises that everything you're seeing on-screen is as it happened in the studio. Beyond some cross-fades there's no digital compositing, no multiple layers created in post. The wild rush was all there on the tabletop - except of course only the camera saw it, it being the only creature in the room with eyes calibrated to defeat the blur.
With no plot to recount beyond a fantastic retelling of Eric's daily commute, and nat sound mixed with the minimalist Phrygian Gates by John Adams for a soundtrack, Copenhagen Cycles doesn't aspire to be anything beyond a dynamic mood piece. As a fellow cyclist, though, I actually see bravery in this -- not because he put himself in great danger by filming while cycling, but because he made the piece at all. Like Dyer, I'm an urban bicyclist, and the night I wrote this, like every weeknight, I biked the same seven miles home from work that I biked the previous day and will bike again many times in the future. The artist's worst enemy isn't being broke or being less than great, it's being bored; and that Dyer could continue to see beauty in the very, very familiar -- even if his subject was as bewitching as the suburbs of Copenhagen -- is no minor achievement.
Some works of art are open to interpretation. British sound artist John Wynne did an installation called 230 Unwanted Speakers wherein he gathered 230 abandoned stereo speakers in a pie-chart arrangement in a warehouse, and, in the middle of the hub a group of eight speakers, played a constantly rising sine wave, while on the periphery the rest of the speakers played a series of synthesized sounds that came and went in flux like random neighborhood noise. We know this work was open to interpretation because one writer came away thinking, "You come away thinking about recycling, about the personality of inanimate objects, about the artistic merits of sound installations, and maybe even about the nature of adoration."
Other works are not open to interpretation, and you will come away from Sharon Katz' animated short Slide thinking, "Even loving parents hand us crutches... what we do with them is up to us." The reason you will think this is that those very sentences appear on-screen at the beginning of the short. Slightly deflating, but at least we know what to look for.
Slide is short and purely inspirational: a child is born, a protective parent kisses the child and sighs at its deformed legs as it puts it in crutches; some years later the child comes upon some children playing on a slide in a playground; the child decides to climb the slide; and, conquering its fear of failure and overprotective parenting, the child climbs up and slides down.
What's left to enjoy after your exaltation is complete are some quite graceful digital drawings, all input in a painterly manner on a Wacom tablet, which taste like real-world pen and ink drawings or even sand. There's not a great deal of room for acting moments in the scenario but Katz makes the most of them, and just a few shrugs and eye movements communicate all we know or need to know about a parent who's intent on bearing that cross no matter what.
Down the Road
Down the Road is a 16-minute thriller from JA Film and Danish director Rune Christensen, and, in addition to being in rotation on Danish TV, it was honored as a pick at this year's Annecy festival. The black-and-white Flash-built short is a plotty but fun suspense film about a driver alone on a road at night returning to his wife, and the hitchhiker he picks up, who knows a bit too much about him. The picture opens on a man of the cloth on his way home from a trip at night, calling home from the car. He gets his own answering machine, hears the outgoing message he and his wife recorded, and leaves her a message saying he misses her.
Then he stops to pick up a hitchhiker. They both live in the same town, which is nice. The hitcher claims to be a psychic and guesses the driver's name, which is a little more disconcerting. But then the driver sees that he's left his name badge on the floor of the car. He's a Protestant priest, a latecomer to the faith, and so uncommitted to the Christian mythology he's supposedly bought into that the most he can say is, "Belief is a personal matter, don't you think? Let me put it like this. I believe in the Beatles. You know?"
The Hitcher seems quiet, but pleasant enough for the first few minutes. Then he drops his bombshell: he recites a litany of personal details about the driver's life, all things he couldn't know from any Sherlockian powers of observation -- all of it very off-putting to the driver, who's been running away from something in his past. The hitcher tells the driver to open up to him, let it all out. Having pulled over to the side of the road, at first to kick the hitcher out, but now in rapt attention to his calming tone, the driver does open up. He confesses something nasty involving a hit-and-run and a woman he once knew. He says he felt terrible and decided to turn his life around as a result. He says he got religion as a result. The hitcher reaches in his coat. Then the fun begins.
Comedy can still be comedy even if you don't buy into the reality of it (quite often because you don't buy into the reality), but when you make a thriller your audience has gotta, gotta, gotta believe it from word one. I can't tell if Down the Road is dubbed, which is a good sign, but something in the word choice or the voice direction of this Scandinavian-bred short that's set in --America? Canada? -- threw me off at the beginning of the short and I never quite recovered. Despite their seeming two-dimensionality, in hindsight, the character's choices do make sense. But, at the same time, the driver is suffering terribly from the movie-driving disease that allows people to stare at their passengers for five or more seconds at a time while driving at freeway speed. (Try this sometime, and see if you can make it past two, even if your passenger is telling you where he buried a quarter ton of Nazi gold.)
Still, even if it's not 100% there for an American audience -- a hell of a tough assignment in the first place -- it has a number of delicious turns and an elegant and unsettling ending. JA Film is a busy commercial house that does work in a bajillion styles. For this short they've adopted a Flash look that's totally monochrome with a light dusting of artificial muss and wear, like a horror film you dubbed off HBO in 1983 that never made it to DVD. Voice actor Mark White does well as the driver, and Peter Glaser is especially effective as the unnamed hitchhiker. The animation acting is iconic and workmanlike, while the backgrounds that pass in the windows of the car are a cavalcade of evocative, chilly multiplane vistas that seem to reject the sun's attempt to warm them even as night passes into day.
The Toll is a mockumentary animated short by your friendly dungeonmasters at Hatchling Studios. We know mythical bridgekeepers must have a lonely life, but if anyone's ever wondered what, for example, the Old Man From Scene 24 in Monty Python and the Holy Grail or those of his ilk actually do in their spare time, now all can be revealed. The Toll is a seven-minute interview with a troll keeping guard on the bridge that forms the roof of his house. The job requirements say he has to extract a toll of one gold coin. What they don't say is exactly how he must deal with people who try to stiff him, or how to make the best of those empty hours between travelers or what his long-term goals ought to be. And as this poor troll makes painfully clear as he lets his guard down to the documentary crew that comes to interview him, there's no super-DM telling him the wherefores and whys -- he's making this life up as he goes, just like all of us, only with a pet dragon asleep on the back of the La-Z-Boy.
He's looking for a girlfriend. Naturally, he's into computer dating, and doesn't hesitate to make an on-camera proposal to the general population through the documentary. He's ambivalent about the terms of punishment for people who don't pay to cross the bridge -- he insists he doesn't eat everyone who breaks the rules -- and he takes the opportunity to do a little race-baiting as he mouths off about elves, whom the public seems to love unconditionally even though everybody knows they occasionally steal babies. And he has a priceless rant about a well-known woodland tribe that's royal blue and just three apples high.
The creative team at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, animation house Hatchling Studios is well steeped in D&D and NES, and they probably have T-shirts that say, "Warrior is about to die" (actually, they probably have that game out in the lobby). They're the makers of the Internet series Endurance Challenge where a voice-over team starring Billy West plays a variety of Orcs, Healers and sundry characters who've bested many dragons and hung out in their share of dungeons. The Toll is the in-house promotional device for the festival circuit that they've been putting together between billable hours for some time now, if the list of production babies is any indicator. The CGI characters are intricate and grotesque even as the acting pushes all the goofiest emotional buttons. The lighting shifts from cool to warm and back and gives an arc to the day, as it gives shape to the intricate interior where this uncivil servant has clocked most of his life's hours. The sets are full of mischievous detail, including a magic gargoyle candlestick that simply walks into shot at one point like a pet cat.
Who I Am and What I Want
Who I Am and What I Want is the shocking, puerile, crudely drawn, entirely creepy, very well-written and suffocatingly funny short from Chris Shepherd and David Shrigley you may have heard about recently. These co-directing co-writers share similar temperaments, but generally work for very different audiences, so first a word about each of them in turn:
David Shrigley is gallery artist schooled and based in Glasgow. Though he sculpts and animates (but strictly in the Twelve Ounce Mouse definition of the word), his style is primarily defined through his drawings, done in thick black marker on paper. He shares Don Hertzfeldt's keenness for the macabre/poetic/whimsical detail, but his closest American equivalent would probably be Shel Silverstein, if Shel had come up during Punk and Thatcher. His scribbled crossings-out of words, pupil-free eyes and impressionistic approach to anatomy in his characters scream Outsider Art. But, then you read his fable-in-a-painting A Bedtime Story (Google his home page; it's the first thing you'll see under "Drawings") and you realize there are probably whole novels waiting to burst out of every one of those drawings.
Chris Shepherd is firmly of the animation world, being co-founder of the London collective Slinky Pictures (they brought you the fantastic Moo(n) a couple years ago). Shepherd likes to leaven his animation with live action -- or vice versa -- in fact, he's equally adept at both and probably enjoys making his audience wonder if one's his livelihood and the other's just the icing on the cake. Shepherd's best known recently for his gripping short Dad's Dead, a slice-of-life from the bad old days of '77 that's so true-to-life you'll be thinking it's strictly autobiographical right up to the moment he pulls the rug out -- and the whole council flats with it. (If you haven't seen it you should immediately take a peek at the copy currently available on the popular home video site beginning in "Yo.")
So what's the short about? Well, if you haven't seen it, you should, um, immediately take a peek at the copy currently available on the popular home video site ending in "be." A man (played by the voice of Kevin Eldon -- Americans only saw him for a moment in Hot Fuzz, but Britons will know him from Brass Eye, Jam and Big Train) talks about his personal past and hopes for the future. Between sound and vision, the dialogue at least starts reasonably enough. ("I like art, and I am very proud of my artistic achievements. I like sport. I like to watch, and I like to participate.") On the other hand the visuals start and end on a plane where the voice-over eventually ends up: total quivering psychotic dementia. Dad pisses on his ankle-high son; naked people dance to house music; the boy bites the heads off rabbits and goes after wriggling babies with a magnifying glass after diving into a swimming pool of gin.
If you've got a rotating schedule of net destinations you're trying to fit in at work during hours when you just can't face the paperwork, put davidshrigley.com and slinkypictures.com on your to-surf list. There's a body of work at both artists' websites that informs and is informed by this monochromatic shocker of a short, and you'll wonder why they didn't collaborate years ago. I don't know what sparked this collaboration, but Who I Am And What I Want is an Animate! project commission through Arts Council England and Channel Four, and it was probably inspired by a cycle of drawings of the same name that you can view at Shrigley's website. The animation is smooth without being unnecessarily clean, and the character notes come through with only minimal articulation and subtle acting. The short unfolds at a fast clip with impeccable timing, and Eldon's delivery is dynamic and disturbingly hilarious, going from good-evening-your-Grace to flying two-by-fours in the same breath.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. Doctor Wozrozoff! Behind you!