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Fresh from the Festivals: June 2007's Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films -- Niebla (Fog) by Emilio Ramos, Ark by Grzegorz Jonkajtys, En Tus Brazos by FX Goby, Matthieu Landour and Edouard Jouret, Close Your Eyes and Do Not Breathe by Vuk Jevremovic and Loom by Scott Kravitz.

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.

Niebla (Fog) (2006) 7:30, by Emilio Ramos (Mexico). Contact: Emilio Ramos, Coll del Portell 37, 1-2. 08024 Barcelona, Spain. [T] +34.9321.03791, +34.6387.25036 [E] [W]

Ark (2007) 8:00, by Grzegorz Jonkajtys (Poland). Contact: Marcin Kobylecki [F] 48.22.898.29.01 [E] [W]

En Tus Brazos (2006) 5:20, by FX Goby, Matthieu Landour and Edouard Jouret (France). Contact: FX Goby [E], Matthieu Landour [E], Edouard Jouret [E] [W]

Close Your Eyes and Do Not Breathe (2006), 7:35, by Vuk Jevremovic (Germany, Serbia). Contact: Vuk Jevremovic, Canvas Productions [T] +491774011959, +3464821668 [E]

Loom (2006), 5:13, by Scott Kravitz (U.S.). Contact: Scott Kravitz [T] 15.282.4752 [E] [W]


Remembering days when flying sheep flocked in Niebla. © Emilio Ramos.  

Niebla (Fog)

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, the setting is never quite certain (it takes place somewhere in rural Latin America) and the time is never quite named (although the story probably begins some time in the last 150 years, I guess) and some really weird things happen to a bunch of villagers (all of which they take in stride, stoically). That's magic realism -- you've got your magic and you've got your realism, and they're both roped together, and the characters are stuck with it all like a bad neighbor. If you haven't read Marquez' novel, and you should since it's both truly noble and one of the truly nuttiest shaggy dog stories of all time, one way to get in the mood is to watch the wonderful short Niebla (Fog) from Mexican animator Emilio Ramos.

The story is narrated by an old man referred to as El Pep, a wizened old man talking to a documentary film crew in the living room of his hovel. He digresses a bit, and there are too many juicy details to fit into a simple precis, but his story is about how his village was once overrun by flying sheep. The sheep descended one day out of a fog ("Don't trust a town that hides in the fog," he notes). The day they came the old man was but a boy washing windows, and suddenly there they were, hanging around the tops of the olive trees. Some bright young thing starts capturing them and tying them to strings like balloons. But economic concerns intrude. They capture the sheep; they shear them; they live off the proceeds. Things improve. They make cheese, which must be tied down. They make sweaters, and then swing down the scythe while they hover 10' above their crops. They toast their prosperity at a wild party, and a child in wooly jumpers floats helpless up on the ceiling.

But nothing lasts forever -- and the sheep eventually return to the sky, doing slow circles in the billowing fog as the young boy chases them with a butterfly net. "But all that happened before, long before you came here to listen to me," the man tells his interviewer, just to clarify that this is a story about the past. "Would you fancy a cup of coffee... ? Do you want me to prepare it? Or maybe you'd prefer to wait for Rosario? Hers is better, of course... Rosario?" Rosario doesn't appear. Perhaps she's shy. Or hiding.

Ramos actually didn't set out to ape the novelist Marquez when he thought up the story, but serendipity was with him. The impetus came from merging two strong emotional memories -- one was a real grandmother who ended her days in confusion as the people around her slipped away, while long-gone family and friends seemed to pass through her room. The other was a vivid nightmare of evil sheep swooping down from the sky. For all the way-out design you'll be popping your eyes at when you see the short, his stylistic approach is really extremely sensible, and animators in every medium would be well-pressed to follow suit: He's animated his backgrounds on 2D flats, while only the characters are 3D. As we learn the most from someone's face before we even glance at the body, so our sympathy for the world of an animated short or feature often starts not with the world but with the people in it.

The houses, yards, olive groves and billowing fog are all rendered as if scrawled upon the wind -- which they were, in a way, since animator Ramos knocked them all out by hand on a Wacom pad and then hung them magnificently in 3D space like so much abstract-expressionist laundry. The characters, meanwhile, from the old man to his imagined younger self to the coruscating avian sheep, are 3D creatures with just enough articulation to deliver the few subtle gestures that clue us to their states of mind. And unheralded oddities -- keys and spatulas hanging on a string in the man's kitchen, for example -- come and go like surrealist grace notes à la Buckaroo Banzai. ("Why is there a watermelon there?" "I'll tell you later.")

Ramos made the film as his masters project in animation at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, then formed his own production company so he could put four months' additional work into polishing it. Ramos already has a lot of advertising experience behind him, but clearly now his production shingle is available for more dramatic opportunities as well.


A man contemplates a sacrifice to save his species in Ark. © 2007 Grzegorz Jonkajtys, Marcin Kobylecki.  


Ark is a short film by Grzegorz Jonkajtys and Marcin Kobylecki, and was co-produced by Platige, the Warsaw-based studio thats given us the Oscar-nominated Katedral and the delightfully shocking Fallen Art. This August it will be feted as "Best of Show" at the Computer Animation Festival branch of SIGGRAPH in San Diego. The film opens on a dock at sunset, with a massive ship in port and hundreds of people waiting to board. Title cards spell out a back story about a virus that's killed most of humanity, and that survivors, led by one man, are bound to set sail for any land that remains uninfected... The man in question is, perhaps, the man we end up following for the duration of the short, a nondescript guy in dirty clothes whom we first meet alone in his cabin.

He's got a computer and a microscope, and he's watching in extreme closeup as a healthy cell under the scope holds some marauding viruses at bay. But the man has a wound under a Band-Aid on one hand, and he can't resist taking a sample from the wound and daubing it onto the glass slide. To his horror he gets to watch in real time as a virus from his hand attacks and kills the healthy cell on the screen. This is the worst possible result. He tears apart his lab; he crumples to the floor, he pukes in the toilet.

Eventually he pulls a gun from a drawer and puts it to his own temple. But he thinks better of it, and goes for a walk instead. The walk takes him down the corridor of the ship past open doors to other suites, some with anxious couples peering out, to a giant interior space a football field wide/high/tall, with great strings of laundry crisscrossing the air in every direction. He climbs a long ladder until he reaches the top of the cabin, screws open a porthole and emerges on top of the ship -- where he sees a beautiful tropical island on which they're about to make landfall.

At his feet are the bodies of dozens of other disease carriers, guns still in hands. He puts his gun to his own temple -- and the camera zooms way, way up in the air until we can see the whole ship, and indeed the whole island, an island which distressingly has over a dozen identical Arks approaching from every direction.

There's more, but it's such a stunning image I should stop here and let it be the signature visual that lingers in your memory. Unfortunately the short probably should have done too. Ark is reeeeally cool to watch -- those exteriors at the beginning, middle, and end are Kodachrome lovelies straight out of your dreams -- but there's no real catharsis; it's more a moment of truth in search of a story. You've heard of the unreliable narrator -- get ready to meet the unreliable Chyron operator, as (spoiler alert, avert eyes if you must) the tale that turns out to be bogus isn't acted or spoken but literally spelled out on the screen.

Those opening title cards are the big bluff -- the main character is a mental hospital inmate who's imagined the whole thing, including, apparently, those opening title cards. Well, we all dream in movies sometimes, right?... The Big Reveal contains no dramatic irony because it has no dramatic zip; our guy is a cipher whom we never get to know. This short wasn't made for dramatic reasons, of course; it's a test-bed for some cool technology (see the filmmaker interview at VFXWorld), and as such it's a smashing success. If it leads to a feature, though, it's selling the filmmaking team as a technical cooperative, not so much a story department.


Bliss is waiting En Tus Brazos. © Francois-Xavier Goby, Edouard Jouret and Matthieu Landour.  

En Tus Brazos

En Tus Brazos is yet another classy team effort from Supinfocom, and it's all about tango. In an urban apartment a man with a pencil moustache and a great banana-blade curve of a nose is looking through an old scrapbook of memories from his dancing days; he and his lovely female counterpart are seen dancing in sold-out venues and gracing the covers of magazines and newspapers until with a swish the curtain literally comes down on his career in the form of a headline screaming "¡Accidente Tragico!"

"Jorge, basta!" A woman's hand comes down hard on the scrapbook. She's had enough, and she snaps the book shut and takes it away, going back to the window with her cigarillo. Behind her we see the full frame of Jorge for the first time; the former dance champion is confined to a wheelchair. A petulant silence comes over the apartment, interrupted only by her exhaling and the distant sound of children at play. But her eye lingers on a framed photo of the two of them in better times, and she gets an idea. Going to the Victrola and slapping on a side of shellac called "El Huracan," she approaches her partner and lifts him out of his seat.

Holding Jorge in her arms, and with the first notes of the accordion-induced Hurricane coming up through the needle and filling the apartment, she moves his leg with her own, a shuffle that lets him accomplish his old steps again by proxy. He raises an eyebrow. Cut to black -- and bang, up again on a dressing room with Jorge putting the finishing touches on his outfit before another in a series of classic performances. She waits in the doorway. He tweaks his moustache. And they hit the floor once again; they dance, the lights dance, the mirrors dance and collapse on the floor in envy, whole buildings dance in the wings and fly away, and the tango is all, and the tango is everything.

When the song ends, they're exactly where they started, he in midair and she holding him up, and Jorge implores her not to let it stop: "No pares... quiero quedarme en tus brazos." In your arms is where I am, and En Tus Brazos is where I want to stay. Co-directors Gouby, Jouret and Landour strike a nice balance between abstract and dramatic. When it's just him and her in the empty apartment, the acting is very subtle throughout, with oh-so-slight emotional vectors crossing their faces conveying years of disappointment filtered through undying devotion.

Their bodies are caricatured, and their moves refreshingly are not; the dancing half of the short is a dessert tray of practical tango choreography, some favorite moves copied from real-life champions of the dance that here are performed by impossibly spindly humans who nevertheless seem to be working in real gravity. The sepia-toned color scheme is low-key but rich, like a wall of coffee blends, and the mise-en-scene with its choreographed props and art-deco fantasy landscapes moves the eye along just so even as it seemingly bursts in all directions.


When the vision comes, Close Your Eyes and Do Not Breathe. © Vuk Jevremovic.  

Close Your Eyes and Do Not Breathe

Close Your Eyes and Do Not Breathe is about a nocturnal journey into someone else's life. A city man is sitting in front of his computer late one evening when a wisp arrives at his window; it's a horse, and it's a woman, and one becomes the other in the blink of an eye. She addresses the man, giving the instruction from which the short takes its title, and with his breath held he grabs on and they burst out the window. They soar over the city; they pause over an unknown sea battle; they linger in palatial home from a century ago and he watches a simple domestic scene. They hover in the early morning sky and kiss; and finally the sun rises and the vision crumples into the middle of the screen and disappears.

Close Your Eyes and Do Not Breathe is an animated short inspired by a novel, which is already a dicey proposition before you even get to the content. "Inspired by" is uncomfortably close to "Based on," and we all know how hard it is to cram the essence of a good novel into a movie, let alone a short (an artist is almost better off expanding a short story into a feature). Taking inspiration instead offers a lot more slack, but it really only leaves room for an impressionistic voyage.

Close Your Eyes does that -- and it tries to inject drama too, which is a problem, because the characters have no visible personalities. Still it's stylistically very beautiful, with computer-manipulated traditional character drawings and backgrounds, a nice use of the Cinemascope proscenium, a willingness to mix regular line drawings and areas with inverted values, and a simple score for acoustic and electric guitar.


Fate makes found art from the threads of life in Loom. © Scott Kravitz.  


Loom is about a little old lady with big work to do. We meet her sitting in front of her floor loom, set up in a corner of her urban apartment, where she sits in a wheelchair in a pool of light thrown from the single window. She's into a rhythm with her shuttle and yarn, working on a textile whose pattern we can't quite see, when she's interrupted by the sound of a cello. She wheels herself to the window and opens it to see the source of the music. Moments later a younger man of indeterminate age comes into the room. He hands her a bag, then a pair of scissors; then he gets behind the wheelchair and pushes her out of the room.

Outside we spot the cellist on the sidewalk; it's a young man with a goatee playing for spare change. A little girl stares at the busker while her father stands reading a newspaper. She tugs at his sleeve; he gives her a single coin. She walks over to drop it in the can, but it hits the edge and bounces and rolls. The little girl follows. The coin goes out into the street. The cellist is distracted somewhat by the sight of the old lady being pushed in her wheelchair across the street, but with a start he notices the girl and, in a flash, he drops the cello, rushes into the street, and pushes her out of the way of an approaching truck. She's lucky. He isn't.

He's still gasping hard for breath when the lady in the wheelchair appears in front of him with a little spindle that she produces from her bag, holds in the air above his head, and lets go. It hovers, it spins, and in a few magic seconds it starts to spool up a golden thread that's emanating from the dying cellist's head. Just a few feet is all she needs; then she takes the scissors and snips it in mid-air. The man falls still and deathly silent. The woman pockets the spool and is wheeled back to her apartment -- where, feeding her newly found thread into the loom, she gets back to work.

Stop-motion animators necessarily live in a professional world where personal craft duets with the client's vision, whether they're making commercials or giving life to tiny fractions of scenes in TV shows or features. Loom is Kravitz' chance to put himself back on both sides of the creative divide, and his dramaturgy and tradecraft are both superb. Dude's got mad skills, first of all; the characters' body movements are so startlingly true-to-life that I spend my first viewing distracted by the thought that these might be real people with stop-motion heads and clothes grafted on in post.

The dying character has a red face (with a striking resemblance to Trainspotting's Ewen Bremner); the death angel is blue-skinned; the child is sunflower yellow. As their urban surroundings vary in hue, so do the characters; it's organic and surrealist all at once. Kravitz's acknowledgements list is a Who's Who of NoCal and SoCal stop-motion greats, including Seamus Walsh, Mark Caballero, Tom Gibbons and Carl Willat, and based on the evidence at hand, the honors should flow both ways.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. Allow 36 hours before exposing to moisture. OK to sand.