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Fresh from the Festivals: June 2008's Reviews

Andrew Farago reviews five short films: Berni's Doll by Yann J, Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor by Koji Yamamura, Ron the Zookeeper by Darcy Prendergast, Sebastian's Voodoo by Joaquin Baldwin and Presto by Doug Sweetland.

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 attests to the vitality of these works, but there are few other venues for their exhibition, nor are they often reviewed. As a result, distribution tends to be difficult and irregular. On a regular basis, Animation World Magazine will highlight some of the most interesting of these films.

This month:

Berni's Doll (2008), 11:20, directed by Yann J (France). Contact: Yann Jouette [T] [E] [W]; Dummy Productions [T] 63.43 [E] [W]; Autour de Minuit [T] [E] [W]; Distribution USA/Canada: Dane Alan Smith [E] [W]

Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor (2007), 21:00, directed by Koji Yamamura (Japan). Contact: Shochiku [T] (+81) 3.5550.1623 [F] (+81) 3.5550.1654 [W]; [E]

Ron the Zookeeper (2007), 6:45, directed by Darcy Prendergast (Australia). Contact: Darcy Prendergast, Dee Pee Studios [T] +61 (0) 401.732.945 [E]

Sebastian's Voodoo (2008), 4:07, directed by Joaquin Baldwin (Paraguay). Contact: Joaquin Baldwin [T] 818.380.0085 [E] [W]

Presto (2008), 5:14, directed by Doug Sweetland (U.S.). Contact: Pixar Animation Studios [W]


Headless women are nothing but trouble, as shown in Berni's Doll. © Yann Jouette. 

Berni's Doll

You can't put a price on true love. That may be true in the here and now, but in our not-too-distant dystopian future, the cost is negotiable.

Berni's got a dead-end factory job, attaching lids to cans of rat-infused cat food. His world is gray, bleak and miserable, but, as is the case in our modern world, television offers the solution to all life's problems. Seeking companionship, Berni responds to a commercial offering true happiness in the form of a headless, limbless, living female torso, available in a complete array of races and body types.

Soon, Berni is delighted to receive his very own "Woman Body," and his productivity at work (and, sure enough, in the bedroom) increases exponentially. He gradually becomes dissatisfied with his African-model Woman Body, which is unable to do much beyond hopping around his small apartment and ingesting meals through its neck hole, so he saves up and purchases accessories piece by piece, creating his own sexual Frankenstein's monster, complete with Mexican arms and Eastern European legs.

As the body parts pile up, so do Berni's expectations. The limb-ful Woman's Body's duties grow to include Berni's cooking and cleaning, in addition to fulfilling all of his sexual needs. He feels a growing sense of freedom as he further enslaves his Woman's Body, but this feeling fades more rapidly with each successive purchase. Dissatisfied again, Berni decides that a head, an Asian head, will finally complete the package, and only then will he know true happiness.

As anyone who's read any of R. Crumb's Mr. Natural stories can tell you, Berni would've been much better off if he'd just turned off the television and read a book instead. Headless women are nothing but trouble.

This multiple-award-winning film (including Special Distinction at the recent Annecy International Animated Film Festival) was created by a very small crew, consisting of director Yann J, who handled the writing, directing, modeling, texturing, lighting, rendering and compositing; animators Andres Gomez, Kaï Lydecken, Geoffroy de Crécy, and Maud Henry; and Seal Phüric and Trionix on sound design. Utilizing Adobe Aftereffects and 3-D Max, the small, tight-knit team brought together in a stunning fashion J's disturbing vision of a world in which every person and culture is commoditized -- a sad and frightening picture of a world that could be coming.


The brilliant, engaging Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor was created in a decidedly low-tech manner. © Yamamura Animation/SHOCHIKU. 

Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor

Of course, if you want to talk about disturbing imagery, you can't go wrong with a Franz Kafka adaptation. This is the tale of a hapless country doctor from a small European village who is summoned in the middle of the night to provide emergency treatment for a dying boy in an even smaller, more remote village. Unearthly, quasi-demonic horses lead the doctor on a high-speed, nightmarish journey to the otherworldly village. A routine procedure becomes anything but, and self-doubt and excessive introspection set in immediately. The doctor's own personal distractions and neuroses cause him to fail at his task, ultimately sealing his own fate in the process.

Director Koji Yamamura was inspired to adapt the rich, dreamlike world of Franz Kafka for animation following a disastrous trip to Poland, during which he found himself crossing the country via taxi, saddled with a dead cell phone, a missed flight and the inability to converse with anyone around him. The sense of anxiety and foreboding was quite stressful for Yamamura, but he was able to draw upon those experiences firsthand while attempting to convey the doctor's emotional state.

This brilliant, engaging work was created in a decidedly low-tech manner, utilizing pencil, color pencil and oil marker on paper, with Japanese animation software RETAS! PRO HD, Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro to produce the film. Each shot is beautiful, even when the subject matter (demonic horses, sickly peasants, angry villagers) is not. The distortions and sharp angles prevalent in the film, along with Hitomi Shimizu's eerie, nightmarish soundtrack, sets a very tense, angst-ridden mood from the very first shot, and it keeps the viewer on edge throughout the entire film. Yamamura has taken a classic work of literature and breathed new life into it, creating a classic work of his own in the process.


Not high on the desirable jobs list is that of the zookeeper who has to collect a sperm sample from the world's last surviving male grey panda, as seen in Ron the Zookeeper. © Darcy Prendergast/Dee Pee Studios. 

Ron the Zookeeper

Slightly less ambitious than a 21-minute adaptation of a Franz Kafka short story is Darcy Prendergast's clay-animated short Ron the Zookeeper, in which the titular zookeeper has to collect a sperm sample from Sushi, the world's last surviving male grey panda. (If that sentence disturbs you, please skip ahead to the next review, Sebastian's Voodoo, which contains much, much, much less zookeeper/panda masturbation.)

Prendergast's goal with the film was not, as you can imagine, to create a fun, inviting world for his audience. "This film was a bit of an experiment in uncomfortablilty [sic]. People generally go to the cinema to escape. I didn't offer one." The plot, as mentioned above, is a simple one -- Sushi, the last male grey panda, is uninterested in just about everything, including sex, and Ron's unenviable task is to procure a sperm sample from him. When panda pornography doesn't do the trick, Ron resorts to chemicals (i.e., Viagra) to arouse Sushi to the point that he can… um… let's just say "ensure the future of the grey panda species" and leave it at that, okay?

The inspiration for this film, interestingly enough, comes from Prendergast's own childhood in Australia, in which his father, Ron (Prendergast) the Zookeeper would regale him and his sister with tales of tiger attacks, and occasionally allow his children to visit the zoo to swim with seals, ride elephants and play with monkeys. The elder Prendergast assisted his son with this film by providing technical information, as well as recording the film's sound effects on location at his own zoo.

Stop-motion animation is a slow, painstaking process, best suited to a very small crew (often a single person) manipulating figures a tiny, tiny little bit at a time over the course of many weeks or months, during which the animators are confined to their studios for long hours at a time, eschewing daylight, downtime, decent meals, human contact and any semblance of a social life, which is enough to unhinge even the heartiest of individuals. Somewhere along the way, the notion of creating a seven-minute film about panda masturbation transforms from "absolutely should not be done" to "not a bad idea" to "the world needs this film, and I must complete it no matter the cost to my sanity or the world's collective unconscious." The end result is an odd little film, and a disturbing one at that, but I've got to admire Prendergast for sticking to his guns on this one. He set out to make an uncomfortable viewing experience, and anyone who gets through this one has to agree that he more than lived up to that pledge.


Sebastian's Voodoo is an exciting, tension-filled production that foretells a promising career for the director. © Joaquin Baldwin. 

Sebastian's Voodoo

Also in the "hard to watch" category, but for different reasons entirely, is Sebastian's Voodoo, a student film by Paraguay-born director Joaquin Baldwin. This four-minute short is an exciting, tension-filled production, and the palpable stress with which Baldwin infuses the film results in several cringe-worthy moments throughout the story.

The film opens in a dark, mysterious cellar, as a voodoo doll suspended from a meat hook struggles to escape. A voodoo priest enters the room and grasps the doll, prodding it with pins conceivably in an attempt to inflict pain upon others, but possibly for the sole purpose of inflicting pain upon the dolls. When he grows tired of this practice, he drives a needle through the heart of the doll, killing it.

Upon witnessing this, two of the dolls plan an escape. The first manages to leave its hook and find sanctuary within the room, mere moments before the priest can find him, but the second is not so fortunate. As doll number two prepares to meet its doom, the first doll realizes that by inflicting pin wounds upon himself, he has the ability to harm the priest. By stabbing himself through the hand, he is able to bring pain to the priest's hand. By stabbing himself through the leg, he's able to bring the priest to the ground. These are only momentary setbacks however, and the doll soon realizes that the only way to save his friend -- and all of the other captive dolls -- is to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Baldwin created this work as a graduate student at UCLA, primarily utilizing Alias Maya, with minor additional work performed with After Effects, Photoshop and Premiere, and the entire process took nearly 10 months from initial concept to completed film. His initial concept involved a battle between two voodoo dolls, but he passed on that initial idea in favor of "something more meaningful," as he put it. The result is a very moving, entertaining short, full of memorable visuals and some terrific character animation. Also worth noting is Nick Fevola's score, which adds an extra layer of suspense and uneasiness to the proceedings. This is a very accomplished piece of work, and I look forward to Baldwin's future efforts. If this is what he was able to create as a graduate student, he's got a very promising career ahead of him.


The creators at Pixar have been at the top of their game for two decades now, and their winning streak continues with their latest short, Presto


It seems unfair to include a review of a Pixar project alongside other animated shorts. Sight unseen, it's safe to toss out phrases like "you'll be hearing about this one again during Oscar season," "production values are light years beyond any other studios," "this film is an instant classic," and "no other studio has the ability to create such a timeless piece of animation in this modern era," but you know what? It's true. The creators at Pixar have been at the top of their game for two decades now, and their winning streak continues with their latest short, Presto.

From the opening shot, with a full trumpet fanfare blaring as a Disney/Pixar title card reminiscent of classic Disney intros from more than half-a-century past, the viewer is reminded that it's an event whenever Pixar releases a film, and Presto lives up to all expectations.

Writer/director Doug Sweetland tells the story of Presto Digiotagione and his amazing hat... well, two hats, actually. When Presto reaches into his top hat, the end of his arm reaches through his other hat, a traditional wizard's cap. He's assisted, naturally, by his pet rabbit, Alec Azam. Once again, Presto has forgotten to feed Alec prior to showtime, and the rabbit refuses to cooperate unless he receives his dinner, much to Presto's chagrin. The ensuing battle results in some of the most inspired and fast-paced sight gags since Tex Avery's heyday, with classic slapstick and expert comedic timing, producing one of the best animated shorts of the past decade.

And it's all done without any dialogue, which makes the film all the more impressive. The film's premise is established immediately, allowing Sweetland to spend the vast majority of the film riffing on the magic hat/portal concept.

As with every Pixar film, this is a group effort, and every aspect of the film from start to finish is handled by one of the best in the business. Scot Stafford provides the music, drawing on vaudeville tunes and classic Warner Bros. cartoons for inspiration. Ellen Moon Lee handles the graphic and title design, using old-time playbills and circus posters as a starting point.

One of the real stars of Presto, however, is character designer Teddy Newton, who's best known for lead design on 2004's The Incredibles. It's difficult enough to express ideas through dialogue and narration, but pantomime cartoons are the animated equivalent of performing without a net. One misstep and the audience is lost, and the entire viewing experience is ruined. Newton is more than up to the challenge, and each raised eyebrow, panicked jaw-drop and exasperated eye-roll speaks volumes... and looks great, too.

In summary, "you'll be hearing about this one again during Oscar season," "[Pixar's] production values are light years beyond any other studios," "this film is an instant classic," and "no other studio has the ability to create such a timeless piece of animation in this modern era." I'll be sure to cut-and-paste that into next year's review of whichever short Pixar pairs with Pete Docter's Up.

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's The Chronicles of William Bazillion.