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Fresh from the Festivals: March 2002's Film Reviews

Jon Hofferman reviews five short films fresh from the festival circuit: Aria by Pjotr Sapegin, Hubert's Brain directed by Wild Brain's Phil Robinson, Oscar Grillo's Shadow Cycle, The Snowman, directed by Lane Nakamura of Duck Soup Studios, and Dave Unwin's War Game, produced by The Illuminated Film Company. 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:

Aria (2001), 10 min., directed by Pjotr Sapegin, Norway. Info: David Reiss-Anderson. Email:

Hubert's Brain (2001), 17.5 min., directed by Phil Robinson, U.S. Info: Jeff Fino/Wild Brain, 2650 18th St., San Francisco, CA 94110, U.S. Tel: 415-553-8000. Email:

Shadow Cycle (2001), 21 min., directed by Oscar Grillo, Argentina/U.K. Info: Klacto Animations, 11 Gordon Rd., London W5 2AD, U.K. Tel: 208-991-6978. Email:

The Snowman (2001), 5.5 min., directed by Lane Nakamura, U.S. Info: Mark Medernach, Duck Soup Studios, 2205 Stoner Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90064, U.S. Tel: 310-478-0771. Fax: 310-478-8773. Email:

War Game (2001), 29 min., directed by Dave Unwin, U.K. Info: Iain Harvey, The Illuminated Film Company, 115 Gunnersbury Lane, Acton, London W3 8HQ, U.K. Tel: 208-896-1666. Fax: 208-896-1669. Email:


Aria. © National Film Board of Canada, 2001.


Pjotr Sapegin's singular retelling of Puccini's Madama Butterfly employs anatomically incorrect puppets and stop-motion photography to create a film that straddles the line between sublime and ridiculous; which it finally favors will depend very much on the sensibility of the viewer. Sapegin emphasizes the artificiality of the minimalist outdoor environment, the characters and the props, while incorporating a number of striking, surreal touches (a fish-like fetus, the mother-child relationship conceived in terms of kite-flying, and, most dramatically, the central character's ultimate self-deconstruction). He also plays with cinematic conventions by bringing the film's music (excerpts from the opera, including the famous aria, "Un bel di vedremo") into the story, and by having Butterfly essentially leave the set to commit suicide. The work's ambiguities and the mixed feelings it evokes all seem calculated and, while the overall effect may not be fully satisfying, it's a strong and well-conceived piece.

Pjotr Sapegin was born in Russia, where he worked in theater, and moved to Norway in 1990. Currently head of the animation department for the production company, Pravda, he's made about a dozen independent shorts in as many years. While shaped primarily by his theatrical experience, he also mentions Jan Svankmajer, the Quay Brothers and Nick Park as influences (although if Aria is reminiscent of any film in my experience, it would be Todd Haynes's extraordinary Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story). Aria was financed by the Norwegian Film Institute, the NFB and Pravda, and had its premiere at the Montreal Film Festival.


Hubert's Brain. © Wild Brain, Inc., 2001.

Hubert's Brain

Contrived wackitude is at the core of this occasionally funny story about a boy, a brain, and the unanticipated dangers of cranial transplants. Using a flashback structure, 3D digital techniques and voice talent including Peter Falk and Jonathan Harris (Lost in Space), director Phil Robinson demonstrates a knack for slapstick and over-the-top characterizations. Yet, despite the surface wackiness, the storyline and situations are extremely conventional, and (unlike, say, The Simpsons or South Park, which the film sometimes resembles) the dialogue isn't clever enough to transcend the hackneyed concepts.

Phil Robinson is co-founder and vice-president of Wild Brain, Inc., where he's been instrumental in developing the company's 3D animation capabilities. His other credits include the features The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000) and Fern Gully 2 (1998), and the TV series Back to the Future, The Dreamstone and Wild Brain's current Mr. Baby. Hubert's Brain, which is Wild Brain's first CG film, was rendered and composited using Nothing Real's Shake software and color-corrected with cineSpace.


Shadow Cycle. © MPL Communications, 2001.

Shadow Cycle

Some extremely beautiful and evocative animation is pretty much wasted in this rather vapid and overly self-conscious film that explores the cycle of life through the experiences of its central characters, a boy and a girl. It's a shame in a way, because the film's sophisticated visual design -- which incorporates a variety of styles, as well as a pleasing use of recurrent motifs and allusions -- reveals veteran director Oscar Grillo's skill and sensitivity. The film's score, which was composed by Linda McCartney, was the inspiration for Grillo and collaborator Paul McCartney, who together drew on childhood memories and other sources for the film's themes. With all due respect to the memory of the late Mrs. McCartney, the music is nondescript at best, and its central position in the film's genesis goes a long way toward explaining the work's saccharine and essentially flat character.

Oscar Grillo was born in Buenos Aires in 1943 and has lived in Europe since 1970. An accomplished graphic artist as well as a highly regarded animator, he is a co-founder, with Ted Rockley, of Klacto Animations. His previous films include Monsieur Pett (1999). Shadow Cycle was created using traditional 2D animation techniques; the colorization and compositing were performed digitally.


The Snowman. © Duck Soup Studios, 2001.

The Snowman

Demonstrating again the inestimable value of a good central idea and a well-shaped narrative, The Snowman presents a hilarious account of what happens when some unwitting space aliens try to wrest the Earth's secrets from the wrong guy. Though The Snowman is basically a one-joke film, director Lane Nakamura knows how to get the most out of the circumscribed parameters and, if he occasionally overplays his hand and stretches out the proceedings rather longer than necessary, the deadpan humor and little narrative touches raise the work to the level of good silent comedy. The 3D animation is relatively simple, composed primarily of static shots and straight-on camera angles, but the choices are appropriate for the story and if, in the end, The Snowman isn't quite Knickknack (that title character looks awfully familiar), it succeeds admirably on its own terms.

A graduate of UCLA's School of the Arts, Lane Nakamura played a pivotal role in transforming Duck Soup Studios from a traditional animation house into a full-service CG production facility. He's worked extensively in commercials, including spots for Nestlé, Wal-Mart and Whirlpool. The Snowman, which is Duck Soup's first 3D short, was created with Alias|Wavefront's Maya software and has screened at the World Animation Celebration, the Stockholm International Film Festival and the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, among others.


War Game. © Illuminated Films, Ltd., 2001.

War Game

Based on the book by Michael Foreman, War Game is the story of three English boys, members of the same football (i.e., soccer) team, who get caught up in the national war fever and enlist together to fight in World War I. Though the book and the film are a fictionalized account, the centerpiece of the story -- a remarkable spontaneous truce that occurs between the Germans and the English on Christmas day -- is based on an actual incident. It's powerful material, and the filmmakers do their best to capture not only this unique event, but also the grim realities of life in the trenches and the ultimate futility of war. Unfortunately, War Game suffers from an overabundance of earnestness and a kind of literalness that leads to one-dimensional characterizations and a belabored quality that prevents the film from achieving its desired effects. The watercolor visual style, which emulates the look of the original illustrations, is frequently quite beautiful and effective, but the cartoonish rendering of the characters, which might have worked on the page, is less successful on the screen.

Director Dave Unwin has been involved in animation since 1970. Among his many award-winning productions are Willows in Winter (1996), Wind in the Willows (1995), and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies & Mrs. Tittlemouse (1994). Most recently, he developed and directed Preston Pig, a series for ITV based on books by Colin McNaughton. The poignant score for War Game was composed by Julian Nott, whose other credits include Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit films, as well as many other animated films, live-action features and TV dramas.

Jon Hofferman is an independent filmmaker, writer and graphic designer, as well as the creator of the Classical Composers Poster ( He has a B.A. in Philosophy & Religion and an M.F.A. from UCLA's School of Film & Television. Appropriately enough, he is currently working on a documentary about the nature of religious experience.

Attached Files 
1365-aria.mov4.09 MB
1365-hubert.mov5.23 MB
1365-klacto.mov3.11 MB
1365-snowman.mov5.55 MB
1365-wargame.mov5.25 MB