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Fresh from the Festivals: June 2004’s Film Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Lemmings by Craig Van Dyke, Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher by Alexander Woo, Rock the World by Sukwon Shin, Ryan by Chris Landreth and Flashbacks from My Past: Starry Night by Irra Verbitsky. 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:

Lemmings (2003), directed by Craig Van Dyke, U.S.A., produced by Brigham Young University. Contact: R. Brent Adams, associate professor of industrial design/animation, 265 CTB Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602, (T) 801-422-4504, (F) 801-422-0490, (E) adamsb@byu.edu, (W) www.et.byu.edu/animation.

Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher (2004), directed by Alexander Woo, U.S.A., produced by WooHoo Pictures. and New York University. Contact: Alexander Woo, WooHoo Pictures, (E) alex@woohoopictures.com, (W) www.woohoopictures.com.

Rock the World (2004), directed by Sukwon Shin, Korea, produced by School of Visual Arts. Contact: Sukwon Shin, 55-1816 River Drive South, Jersey City, NJ 07310, (T) 917-392-9768, (E) ugly123van@hotmail.com.

Ryan (2004), 13:50, directed by Chris Landreth, Canada, produced by National Film Board of Canada and Copper Heart Ent. in association with Seneca College, Toronto. Contact: www.nfb.ca.

Flashbacks from My Past: Starry Night (2003), 3:46, directed by Irra Verbitsky, U.S.A. Contact: Irra Verbitsky, 421 Hudson St. #510, New York, NY 10014, (T) 212-352-1375, (E) irrav@aol.com.

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If Lemmings proves anything, it proves that some students can hang technically with top industry players. © BYU.

Lemmings Ed Wood woke up early the day he died Cliff the lemming wakes up late the day his species offs itself. Cliffs a bookish sort, and on the morning in question, he awakens to dirt clods knock, knock, knocking on his head as the ground trembles beneath him. Cliff has fallen asleep reading a big friendly book about lemmings: A LEMMING IS A SMALL ARCTIC RODENT, it begins. THEY LIKE TO JUMP OFF CLIFFS, it continues breezily, with a centerfold image depicting exactly how this looks in real life. Cliff is momentarily panicked, until he eyes the spine of this library loaner and reads a curled-up label saying Fiction.

Calmed, he leaves his hole-in-the-ground domicile and goes for a stroll in the light of the Arctic summer, where he watches a crowd of several thousand of his best friends all heading toward the ocean. Cliff takes another wary look at his dire nature book, and his fears are confirmed when he rolls back the curled-up portion of the label: Its Non-Fiction after all. Then its a race to the edge of the precipice, hopefully to beat the crowd and turn them back, but slippery ice and a domino-effect crowd surge threaten to thwart his rescue efforts.

I love the nested label-pulling conceit of Lemmings because it extends into the viewers own reality; we get to pull the last label off this work ourselves, since, yes, the whole lemming-suicide-en-masse thing is actually a Disney True-Life Adventure myth. Besides this post-modern phlegmatic interlude, Lemmings has a lot going for it, despite the cracks in the sheen of production values; its funny, the production design is a delight, and the music is by a real wind ensemble (always pleasant). The real reason this short took the Bronze Medal in Animation at this years Student Academy Awards, however, may lie in the college course from whence it came. Lemmings was produced at BYU for an animation class that was run like a studio everyone had to pitch, duties were delegated, there was a pipeline. (In the class one sop to creative idealism and dodge from reality, the whole group voted on which pitch to make as a final project.)

In denying students a hothouse environment of overweening individualism, this BYU course is turning out ready-for-industry professionals, and the Academy just has to love that to pieces. Whether these students nearly all of which, the shorts publicity insists, are now at effects studios all over the Left Coast are being prematurely shoved into a mindset of cold-blooded professionalism is unknown. Cold-blooded or warm-, however, by the looks of this short theyre all gonna make it.

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When will we be seeing the Rex Steele feature or animated series? © Alexander Woo.

Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher

Those darn nazis! Theyre in my decaf. Theyre in my carburetor. Theyre in everybodys eggs. And Rex Steele is the man to take care of business! Eyes gleaming over exploding pectorals, his fist is playin a waitin game waitin to smash a dirty nazi jaw! The Premise Police got no dibs on this action, Charlie nothing spells total entertainment and genre-spelunking fun like Aping the Serials. In the transparently titled Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher, recent NYU graduate Alexander Woo has adapted the comic stylings of Bill Presing and Matt Peters and delivered a belt-buckling, swash-tightening, neck-bulging 1940s matinee miniature.

Bombing into Mt. Koyol Qui in a 60-fathom-blue Corsair, Rex and his faithful sidekick Penny crash-land in a deserted muzzle of greenery atop a sprightly beachhead. Leaving Penny to do her best for the Corsair equipped only with a wrench and her rambunctious enthusiasm, Rex boldly ascends the volcano at the islands center where he lays eyes on his destination the evil lair of the deeply demented Eval Schnitzler. Tragically, Schnitzlers abundantly mammarian henchwoman Helga pricks our Rexs back with a bevy of blowdarts and down he drops, cold as a Canadian doorknob.

He wakes to find himself staring down the barrel of a drill bit the size of a school bus, poised to pucker his manly mug and drill a hole straight to Perdition. Schnitzler, monocle in one eye, watches the proceedings from a nearby television monitor, cackling and delivering the mandatory serial thriller exposition until the inevitable action-sequence free-for-all begins. Can Rex be saved? Will Helgas cleavage conquer all comers? Can Penny and her wrench defeat an army of Nazi foot fighters? Must we stay glued to our seats in THIS CINEMA until next week to find out?

Well, no. Rex Steele does cheat the genre in that this, ostensibly part 13 of a continuing serial thriller, ends with a drawn-out cliffhanger AND a tidy finale at the conclusion of its eleven minutes. Rex Steele is animated traditionally, with the usual hybrid computer-aided accoutrements of our fabulously hybrid decade. The baroquely deco-inspired design sense and good-hearted humor make a swell match with dialogue so self-consciously wooden youd better bring tweezers.

Like Lemmings, this Student Academy Award Gold Medal-winner worries me a bit when it veers away from lone-artist-burning-in-solitude territory into the so-have-you-seen-my-reel? country of utilitarian auto-salesmanship. (Its hard to work up the traditional pity-the-student pathos for a project with such copious production values. You mean all you could get to record the score was the rotten old Czech Philharmonic? You poor dears.) Its fun, though, and vital for an audience to experience its undeniable whiz bang now rather than five months hence, after The Incredibles comes out a fact Woo and associates couldnt have known when they started this fine and worthwhile project three years ago.

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Rock the World uncovers president George W. Bush's and secretary of state Colin Powell's hidden desires. © Sukwon Shin.

Rock the World

Speaking of Lemmings In the glory days of the National Lampoon circa 1970, at the peak of their We may not be funny, but were right, so fuck you phase of satire as social stiletto, the motto of satirists in general was Its not comedy unless someone gets hurt. Certainly this was the reigning credo for the war years circa 1965-75 in America; interestingly we learned the same thing from overseas a few years back when the kids in Eastern Europe brought down Milosevic. They did it simply; they humiliated him in the streets. It bears repeating: he who laughs, lasts. The oppressor cant have a sense of humor, you see, so you gotta. Every successful cause needs a serious dose of surrealism in its attack, a pointed finger and belly laugh with a note attached saying Were not laughing with you, chowder heads.

Rock the World, the Silver Medal Student Academy Award-winning CGI short from Korean animator Sukwon Shin, qualifies as agitprop. However this item burrows deep beneath agitational propaganda and humor into some seriously wicked subconscious realms of humiliation. This is authentic dream-to-screen territory: a bobble-head version of George Bush walks briskly down an all-metal hallway to a door, past an eye scan and into a situation room where an identically bobble-headed version of Colin Powell awaits. Both carry briefcases, and after a brief whispered exchange in almost-audible double speed Bush-chirp, Colin looks appropriately grave and they open twin briefcases to reveal matching blue and gold keys.

The keys are inserted into special receptacles, and Bush and Powell suddenly enter their own private rock video. Two saucer-shaped risers emerge from the floor, complete with microphone stand for George and guitar for Colin. Colin straps on his ax and George caterwauls as the editing starts to go seriously MTV, with quick shots of P and W posturing, pouting, chillin on the couch, DEFYING the viewing audience to dis their righteous asses. Then the song lyrics begin, but they defy comprehension the best I can say is that the tune resembles a copy-changed version of Separate Ways by Journey. The whole thing collapses after only two verses, as the picture goes staticky and blacks out.

Oliver Sacks writes in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat about watching a group of aphasics watch a speech by Ronald Reagan. They reacted to the words of the Great Communicator, our Actor-in-Chief, with roaring laughter. Incapable of understanding words, they were left to gawk at Reagans catalogue of nonverbal tics, gestures, and tone of voice and left as they were with an acute sense that he didnt mean a word of what he was saying, they were reduced to helpless laughter. Rock the World is a similarly aphasic look at our current commander-in-chief, moving past any of his verbal acuity lets face it, its a short trek and removing it completely in favor of amplifying the arrogance and posturing behind the words. Whats he saying? I cant hearit doesnt matter. Its all in the face.

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Ryan continues the long tradition of groundbreaking productions from the NFB. © Copper Heart Ent. and the National Film Board of Canada, 2004 All rights reserved.

Ryan

Chris Landreth had a background in mechanics, theoretical and otherwise, when Alias|Wavefront hired him in 1994 to define, test and abuse the companys spiffy new animation software. Abuse became the operative word, and Landreth gave Reality the what-for in animated shorts like The End (1995) and Bingo (1998), surreal and darkly comic grotesqueries that pushed the companys software capabilities to the limit, and earned him an Academy Award nomination and a slew of accolades. Coming into animation as he did through the window, so to speak this former fluid mechanics researcher found that his design influences, particularly his fondness for English painter Francis Bacon, found easy purchase in the counterfeit realities of computer animation. Indeed, if Bacon were alive today and had access to Maya 4.0, he might produce something much like Landreths new short, Ryan.

Ryan is akin to Richard Linklaters Waking Life as an adulterated documentary where the aural component remains largely untouched while the visuals soar freely with the unfettered whims of the animator. The subject is Ryan Larkin, a former animator who was nominated for an Academy Award for his National Film Board of Canada short film Walking in 1968, and who made his last film three years later. Personal problems, from cocaine addiction to alcoholism to familial abuse, have stopped him making another film from that time to this, and when Landreth found him panhandling in Toronto he set out to interview him and the people who knew him. Altered apparitions of Landreth and Larkin appear onscreen alongside other real-life figures from Larkins past, including Larkins long-ago girlfriend Felicity and Larkins mentor Derek Lamb.

Whats devastating about Landreths technique in Ryan is how he takes Bacons approach in facial rendering to new extremes. For both artists, a smudge, a reordering of facial parts, or simply a gaping hole in someones visage can be explained in terms of manifesting interior moods or morals externally. Landreths work, naturally, uses the movie format to climb the Richter scale in terms of visceral impact. Theres a difference between experiencing Bacons painting Four Studies for a Self-Portrait and marveling at how different aspects of his face shift and fall away, and watching it happen in realtime to an animator with 80% of his head missing.

Landreth squeezes dramatic meaning into every special effect on display in Ryan a thermos of alcohol sprouts arms and cries I love you, a paralyzing self-defeating all-pervading dread of personal failure bursts from Landreths own head in the form of suffocating rainbow-colored ribbons; the 20% version of Larkin panhandling on the street is reflected in a shop window as the 100% version of his youth. In fact the film is an orgy of effects work: all of it tightly married to the themes that propel the narrative, to be sure, but exhausting nonetheless.

By choosing to thread the subject of his own phobias and hang-ups into the piece as well, Landreth has brought a withering emotional kick to an already intense experience. But if the raw power of Landreth and Larkins confrontation in Ryan may lose its shock value with repeated viewings, those same viewings will continue to illuminate, as the universe of details in the background rise to foreground appreciation for the first time. In a way its akin to a Firesign Theatre album of the early 1970s; you may never stop getting new things from it.

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Starry Night reminds us that a child's point of view is often starry eyed. © Irra Verbitsky.

Flashbacks from My Past: Starry Night

A child crosses a field, dragged at a quick pace by her mother. Above, a million stars and comets flit and flutter. She loses a shoe, but her mother pulls her onwards. Its all very exciting, this night-time adventure, as recalled from the adolescent perspective of Irra Verbitsky, a now grown-up fine artist who lives and teaches in New York. That she and her family are under attack by invading Germans on the edge of Babi Yar, later to become the site of the execution of thousands of Russian Jews, is naturally lost on the young girl. Context always comes afterwards, too often at a terrible price. In Verbitskys animated short Flashbacks from My Past: Starry Night, the artists juvenile and mature perspectives are literally separated, as her wide-eyed younger self and her current worldly-wise consciousness take turns describing a biographical portrait of her familys flight from their Russian hometown.

In keeping with the night full of stars she so vividly recalls, the short is delivered in a chunky painted style reminiscent of Van Gogh, with big friendly brushstrokes of vivid color. The animation is primitivist, with short sequences of action repeating in loops as Verbitskys expositional voiceover moves from topic to topic. Irras father was a multitalented artist who worked at the local Film Factory, pumping out animation, character designs and a dollop of film acting as well, and Irra incorporates some nice vintage stills and great source music of the period to give a tasty miniaturized impression of his lifes work to bridge her own past and present.

Verbitsky takes full advantage of the animated medium as dark puns form a bridge from text to visuals; an episode of shooting out stars mutates into a powerful metaphor for anti-Semitism when a series of gunshots make empty holes of a nightscape full of Stars of David. Flashbacks From My Past: Starry Night was created very simply through the digital compositing of painted images; the soundtrack is likewise spare and endearing in its simplicity. This could be (and from its title, hopefully is intended to be) part of a larger series of autobiographical reminiscences.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He shares his neighborhood with a pair of thieving magpies, who steal his ideas, and a flock of feral parrots, who are secretly building a hybrid car.

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