Fresh from the Festivals: June 2003's Film Reviews

Jon Hofferman reviews five short films fresh from the festival circuit: Aunt Luisa by Tim Miller and Paul Taylor, Capoeira by Lewis Campbell, From Darkness directed by Nora Twomey, Harvie Krumpet by Adam Elliot and Little Red Plane directed by Joey Jones and Wira Winata. 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:

Aunt Luisa (2003), 3 min., directed by Tim Miller and Paul Taylor, USA. Info: Tim Miller/Paul Taylor, Blur Studio, 589 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA, 90291. Phone: 310-581-8848.

Capoeira (2002), 7 min., directed by Lewis Campbell, U.K. Info: Adam Boulter. Tel: +44 (0) 207-590-4512. Email: adam.boulter@rca.ac.uk.

From Darkness (2002), 8.5 min., directed by Nora Twomey, Ireland. Info: Paul Young/Nora Twomey, Cartoon Saloon Ltd., St. Joseph's Studios, Waterford Road, Kilkenny, Ireland. Tel: +353 (0) 56 64481. Fax: +353 (0) 56 20089. Email: info@cartoonsaloon.ie. Web: www.cartoonsaloon.ie.

Harvie Krumpet (2003), 22 min., directed by Adam Elliot, Australia. Info: Melanie Coombs, Melodrama Pictures, PO Box 347, Fitzroy, VIC 3065, Australia. Tel: +613 9416 3566. Fax +613 9417 7336. Email: melodramapictures@bigpond.com

Little Red Plane (2002), 8.25 min., directed by Joey Jones and Wira Winata, USA. Info: Joey Jones, Shadedbox Animations, 202 S. Lake Ave., Suite 300, Pasadena, CA, 91101. Tel: 626-356-3663. Email: info@shadedbox.com. Web: www.LittleRedPlane.com.

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Nutty Aunt Luisa searches her house for Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. © 2003 Blur Studio. All rights reserved.

Aunt Luisa

One of two shorts this month that deal good-naturedly with cognitive impairment (see Harvie Krumpet below), Aunt Luisa is a brief vignette about a woman who's become convinced that bandleader Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians have taken up residence in her house. Though she never manages to actually catch sight of them, she knows they're there because she can hear them playing. Director Tim Miller apparently based the character on one of his own relatives and, given the benign nature of Aunt Luisa's dementia, it's a pretty funny idea, one which he and co-director Paul Taylor exploit fairly thoroughly.

The CG animation is imaginative and nicely detailed, and the filmmakers employ a variety of interesting angles, colors and camera movements to explore the spatially constrained environment. At the same time, though, Aunt Luisa never moves much beyond being a funny idea, and the absence of some kind of narrative trajectory or a larger theme makes it feel disconnected and blunts its impact. However, since the film was produced "as a warm-up for producing animated features," it probably should be judged a success on its own terms. One can hope that, with the right script, the animators of Blur Studio will bring their talents to fruition.

After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, Miller worked as a broadcast designer, visual effects artist and character animator before co-founding Blur Studio in 1995. Recent projects of the studio include large-format films, commercials, concept art, feature effects, ride films and game cinematics. Aunt Luisa has screened at the Brooklyn International Film Festival, the Boston International Film Festival, the Dahlonega Festival (Atlanta) and the 3D Festival in Copenhagen.

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African slavery and the Brazilian martial art form come together in Capoeira © Royal College of Art.

Capoeira

Director Lewis Campbell's impressionistic hand-drawn film takes as its subject the Brazilian martial art of capoeira and, more specifically, its roots in the experience of the African slaves who created it. Considering capoeira's inherent kinetic appeal and its poignant and dramatic origins, it's a natural subject for an animated film, and Campbell is reasonably successful in evoking both the beauty of the form and the brutality suffered by its originators. Yet, while Campbell shows ability in many areas particularly in his sophisticated use of framing the film as a whole feels disjointed, frequently appearing to be more a series of movement studies (an impression heightened by his sketchy style) than a coherent whole. Also, despite the pointed juxtaposition of scenes of enslavement and capoeira practice, the connections between the two remain unclear, a problematic flaw in light of the film's primary objective.

Lewis Campbell attended the Royal College of Art, where he made Capoeira as his graduate film in the M.A. program. The inspiration for the film came from his own practice of the martial art. Capoeira was screened at the 2003 Tehran International Animation Festival and at the 2002 Ottawa festival, among other venues.

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A fisherman catches a surprise in From Darkness © Cartoon Saloon, Ltd.

From Darkness

Based on an Inuit folktale in which a woman who's tossed into the sea by her cruel father is reborn when a desperate fisherman inadvertently rescues her, From Darkness is often quite lovely to look at, but perhaps as a result of the filmmaker's efforts to be faithful to her source material suffers from a rather too schematic presentation that robs the film of resonance. Rendered primarily in shades of blue, grey, and brown, director Nora Twomey's drawings have a diaphanous, almost abstract, beauty, especially at the beginning of the film, and, though the flatter, harder-edged figure of the fisherman often seemed to me to be at odds with the other elements, for the most part her stylized primitivism works quite well. It may be that there just isn't enough story or character development to fully engage the viewer and, ultimately, to support the climactic transformation of the "skeleton woman." Her magical regeneration at film's end, while touching, also seems a little silly and doesn't offer a very meaningful or wholly satisfying denouement.

A project of Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny, Ireland, From Darkness was funded by a grant from the Irish Film Board as part of its "Frameworks" program. The backgrounds for the film were executed in charcoal, chalk and watercolor and modified in Photoshop. The effects were created using both traditional animation and Cambridge's Animo. In addition to being shortlisted for an Academy Award, From Darkness was voted Best Animated Short at the Galway Film Fleadh and received the award for Best short film/Animation at the Boston Irish Film Festival. Other screenings include Festival d'Amiens, the International Festival of Navarre, the Brisbane International Fanimation Festival, Animadrid, and the Anima festival in Brussels.

hofferman04_harvieKrumpet.jpgHarvie Krumpet tells the saga of a man with Tourette's Syndrome. © Melodrama Pictures.

Harvie Krumpet

Drawing on themes previously explored in his award-winning clay animation trilogy, Uncle (1996), Cousin (1998), and Brother (1999), director Adam Elliot here expands his study of damaged human beings in the saga of Harvie Krumpet (né Harvek Milos Krumpetzki), a simple, ill-fated man with Tourette's Syndrome whose series of misadventures begins in a rustic cabin in Poland and ends in a nursing home in Spottswood, Australia. Along the way, he works in a dump, gets struck by lightning, liberates chickens, adopts a thalidomide baby, joins a nudist colony and learns a large number of "fakts," among other things.

If only by virtue of its 23-minute length and Dickensian scope, Harvie Krumpet is an impressive piece of work. Evaluating it as an animated short, however, is a bit more problematic. The film is very text-dependent (the extremely well-written narration is read by Academy Award-winning actor Geoffrey Rush) and many sequences would be just as effective and some perhaps more so without visual accompaniment.

Also, there's not much animation. Yet Elliot's minimalist style, which almost exclusively favors static shots in which most of the motion is confined to the characters' eyes and mouths, is well-suited to the film's deadpan approach. And then there's the (not quite motivated, but thoroughly enjoyable) Busby Berkeley wheelchair sequence (wait for it).

Though the whimsy sometimes feels a bit forced, and the film is not without its moments of cloying humanism, Harvie Krumpet is admirable for its straightforward and humorous treatment of a number of dicey subjects, and its successful blend of humor, pathos, and the grotesque is a substantial achievement.

Adam Elliot grew up on a prawn farm in South Australia and attended the School of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. His biographical trilogy, Uncle/Cousin/Brother, has screened at more than 300 festivals and won more than 50 awards, including four Australian Film Institute Awards. Harvie Krumpet was shot in sequence on Super 16mm with a converted Bolex over 15 months and was finished to 35mm in May 2003. It received the jury prize, the audience prize and the Prix FIPRESCI at the 2003 Annecy festival.

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A young boy remembers his fighter-pilot father in Little Red Plane.

Little Red Plane

A joint project of students in several departments of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Little Red Plane is a very nicely made CG production about the bond between a boy and his fighter-pilot father who was killed in action. The centerpiece of the film is an extended fantasy in which the eponymous toy becomes a real plane in which the main character is able to take to the skies to join his heroic parent. While there's no real story in a conventional sense, the narrative rhythms are well judged, and the film makes good use of a number of traditional visual storytelling devices, as well as the use of a tangential character (in this case, a bird) to facilitate transitions and help provide continuity. Despite its high production values, though, the film has a distinctly generic feel and suffers from a surfeit of sentimentality that only tends to underscore its lack of a strong emotional core. Also, while 3D animation is great for objects or for highly stylized characters and environments, it tends not to work as well in naturalistic contexts. Thus, while the planes look terrific, the human characters look unpleasantly artificial, a contrast that impeded my appreciation of the film's created world.

After graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in architecture, Joey Jones developed an interest in animation through designing simulated walk-throughs of his virtual spaces. He went on to graduate work at the Art Center College of Design, where he completed his thesis on character animation and storytelling. Wira Winata, a native of Jakarta, Indonesia, began his education as a manufacturing engineer, but soon switched to animation, graduating from the Art Center with a concentration in entertainment design and animation.

Little Red Plane was created using Maya and After Effects, with Photoshop and Illustrator used for texture maps and background paintings. The film's many awards include a Student Emmy, a Director's Choice Award from the Kalamazoo International Animation Festival, and First Place animation awards from the San Luis Obispo and Columbus International Film Festivals. Other screenings include Anima Mundi, Palm Springs, Edinburgh, Hiroshima, Tenerife, Animadrid, Tehran and Hong Kong.

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.