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Fresh from the Festivals: March 2004’s Film Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Demitris Violin by Niki Yang, Live Bait by Sarah Brown, The Fine Art of Poisoning by Bill Domonkos, Story of the Kolobok by James Boekbinder and Model Prisoner by Katherin McInnis. 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:

Demitris Violin (2002), 6:50 minutes, directed by Niki Hyun Jeong Yang, Korea. Contact: niki919@hotmail.com

Live Bait (2003), 7 minutes, directed by Sarah Brown, U.S. Contact: valeskabsb@yahoo.com

The Fine Art of Poisoning (2002), 5:37 minutes, directed by Bill Domonkos, U.S. Contact: www.bdom.com, www.jilltracy.com

Story of Kolobok (2002), 12:30 minutes, directed by James M. Boekbinder, the Netherlands and U.S. Contact: Il Lustre Productions, illuster@illuster.nl

Model Prisoner (2003), 8 minutes, directed by Katherin McInnis, U.S. Contact: katherin@earthlink.net

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The life of a butcher is filled with hopelessness and despair in Demitris Violin. © Niki Hyun Jeong Yang.

Demitris Violin

Demitris Violin turns up in an unexpected place in this enchanting short from Seoul-born animator Niki Yang. Demitri is the diminutive, slightly canine proprietor of a butcher shop, his hope slowly draining away thanks to the grisliness of his work and the drudgery of his routine. (Part of that drudgery, apparently, as illustrated in the opening shots, is giving chops to a centaur for delivery. Dullness, naturally, is relative; in this world, the presence of a centaur isnt enough to cure the dread of decapitating chickens.)

Afterhours, Demitri slips into reverie over an empty violin case pulled from his bedroom shelf, as he heaves a sigh over missed opportunities. Time passes, and hes chopping and grinding one day when suddenly he hears the sound of solo violin coming from somewhere inside the shop. Unable to track it down at first, hes left to mime bowing his missing violin and float away on a soaring tune coming from somewhere just out of reach. At last, he traces the sound to inside the meat locker; and off he goes, back into the racks of hanging carcasses, toward the ever-loudening melody.

In a different short the next one on this list, in fact such bait would be lethal, and the scenario would resolve into your basic gotcha story with the foodstuffs exacting revenge on the butcher. This narrative, however, has a more bittersweet resolution. Its the hopeful counterpart to Richard Goleszowskis Ident for Aardman/Channel Four (1989), where a character distressed by the multitude of identities he is forced to assume daily sheds them all following a trip through the looking-glass, but finally cant let his guard down even in paradise. In Demitris Violin, Demitri frees himself for good when he finds out his violin wasnt lost after all.

The short was animated on paper with charcoal, pen and watercolors, and then digitally manipulated in After Effects, Premiere and Photoshop. The design work on display is breathtaking, in particular the explosive use of color and hand-drawn morphing techniques on display in the final minute. Director Yang cites the influences of Priit Paarn and the Quay Brothers, but her fanciful character designs and freewheeling layouts remind me more of John and Faith Hubley. Demitris Violin, as well as Yangs more recent short, Harmony in Red (to be reviewed in this column in the near future) are visual treats that should be sought out on the festival screen.

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A dazed and confused fisherman is Live Bait. © Sarah Brown.

Live Bait

In the surgeons tool tray of animation, Live Bait is a blunt and effective instrument. This desert-island yarn about creative predators gets its point across on its own visual terms without the intrusion of finesse or verisimilitude. A man is fishing alone on a boat at sea, a situation hes been stuck with for far too long by the look of the empty barrels and crowds of roaches. After a stretch of time spent waiting for a bite and lying dazed as the clouds roll by, he is suddenly aware of a patch of green on the horizon.

Its an island, and as he makes landfall and climbs up the beach to the base of a palm tree, an amazing thing happens: a clump of meat falls from the sky, dropped from the maw of a bird. Clearly thinking with his stomach, the man doesnt think twice about following a trail of meat as its neatly dropped in a line running up the beach toward the peak of the mountain in the center of the island, where a nasty revelation awaits him.

The art, in this case, is definitely not to conceal the art: in this stop-motion animated short, the beach is a shag rug, the mountainside is fake black fur, and the birds mountaintop nest is a wig. Clouds pass and meat drops from the sky on fishing lines that are gloriously unconcealed. The style is a throwback to those games you played with your moms wardrobe when you were four, and as you well know, thats strong stuff that sticks tenaciously in the memory.

Director/animator Sarah Brown completed Live Bait for her senior thesis at Rhode Island School of Design. It is her first stop-motion piece and her first time working with puppets. Incidentally, if the Borges-inspired symbolic power and sheer visceral impact of the short dont stir you enough, meditate on this: all the meat is real.

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Gothic creepiness is on display in The Fine Art of Poisoning, based on a song by Jill Tracy. © 2002 Bill Domonkos and Jill Tracy.

The Fine Art of Poisoning

The Fine Art of Poisoning is a superbly creepy CGI short from director Bill Domonkos that lives in a faux 19th century milieu of monochrome, iris-outs, gate weave, and scratchy emulsion. As the title suggests, the piece deals with the exploits of certain shady characters who hang out in gothic mansions and like to collect little glass vials of unmentionables from the apothecary.

In this dark little universe of doves, marble sculptures and furtive glances, a series of instructive tableaux in the Poisoners Art are demonstrated in a variety of social situations, from a daily meal to a festive masked ball. Corpses are flying left and right, or rather lying serenely in state this is the Victorian era, after all, so the characters and the camera glide demurely to and fro: no flying, convulsing, or inconsiderate bugging-out of eyes. A happy cherub morphs into a screaming babe, a man places a single rose on a gravestone and walks away smiling dementedly, and a gaggle of morbid keepsakes pass under the lens of a magnifying paperweight that becomes a mans head.

The short is a collaboration between the director and Bay area chanteuse Jill Tracy, who wrote and sang the sultry title song, a downtempo shuffle where even the modulations into major keys feel like theyre in minor. This chiaroscuro mood piece, with its disembodied eyeballs and silhouetted figures, evokes the earliest days of filmmaking, stylistically still hung over from the shadow-play rubric that dominated the century preceding it. Director Domonkos is a flea-market lurker and craver of antique photos, and watching these long-dead anonymous citizens parade serenely across the screen is pointedly unsettling. Maximum uneasiness is delivered through minimum movement, as Domonkos freezes his characters faces and then slowly swivels their eyes.

Domonkos is a frequent collaborator with San Franciscos own avant-garde pop stalwarts The Residents, and this résumé item alone proves he knows whereof he spooks. The Fine Art of Poisoning was built from collaged cutouts and hand-drawn images and manipulated in Photoshop, Premiere and After Effects. It proves by example that, more and more often, one of the things CGI does best is hide the fact that its computer-generated.

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Follow the travels of a little round cake in Story of Kolobok. © Il Luster Productions/James M. Boekbinder.

Story of Kolobok

The Story of the Kolobok is a shaggy-dogger on the subject of a bread product. Once upon a time, goes the old Ukrainian folktale, there was a kolobok a little round cake that a poor old lady baked for her poor old husband, and when it was done she put it on the windowsill to cool. It rolled onto the ground and down the road, where it met a rabbit, a wolf and a bear, and to each one of them the cake sang a little song about everyone it had run away from, ending, And Ill run away from you, too. The cake finally met its demise when a fox asked it to sing its song again from atop its nose, so it could hear better; and down his gullet it went.

American/Dutch animator James Boekbinder has appropriated the story in a sly new traditionally-animated version set in a modern Russia of subways and food shortages. This time the cake shuts up and each citizens hunger does the taunting. From the old ladys oven, the Kolobok, a grapefruit-sized lump of dough, is bound up to the old mans cart and wheeled down into the underground. There the man loses it to a rabbit who happens to be the lady running the public address system.

This vain, preening public servant has the first of a series of on-screen fantasies of eating the kolobok; in her dream, she lounges in an elegant outfit as a frog takes her punting down an idyllic waterway in a gondolier, the kolobok awaiting her consumption atop a golden platter. But she has to break away from her ecstatic vision to make an announcement over the P.A., and the kolobok rolls away.

As the cake passes from hand to hand, it inspires more hungry dreams. A goat, the subway sweeper, pictures feeding the cake to his entire family including the house spider who attack it with abandon. A pickpocket weasel, on the other hand, shudders at the sight of the kolobok, flashing back to a time when he was in jail and a kolobok thrown to some starving prisoners spawned a bloody riot. Finally the kolobok falls into the hands of a blind mole, the conductor of the subway theyve all been riding; presented with the savory smell of bread, the mole imagines only a freshly cooked loaf of bread and he acts practically and without hesitation.

Part of the fun is all the Russian scenery on view, as we go down escalators and into subway cars that wind their way through arches held up by giant sculptures of iconic socialist workers in proud poses. The short explodes in bright, saturated colors, which is a nice change of pace for depictions of urban Russia. Boekbinders clean line and vivid character portrayals give this old folk story new and urgent life.

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Issues of life, death and privacy are raised in Model Prisoner. © Kathrin McInnis.

Model Prisoner

Model Prisoner isnt strictly an animated short, but theres a stunning and intimate piece of stop-motion animation in it: a human body viewed in cross-section a millimeter at a time, from head to foot. The body belonged to death row inmate Joseph Paul Jernigan, a former Texas prison detainee who was executed on August 5, 1993. Jernigan donated his body to science, but was unaware to what use his mortal husk would be put. In this minimalist, ambient, documentary short subject from Katherin McInnis, Jernigans story is outlined from detention to execution and beyond through short snippets of documentary footage and brief interstitial titles.

McInnis short plays out in a series of vignettes detailing Jernigans crime, the environs and history of the prison town of Huntsville, Texas where Jernigan was incarcerated, the contents of his last meal, and the simultaneously prosaic and arresting details of his execution, down to the minute-by-minute schedule of his last hour and the contents and costs of the lethal injection that killed him. Theres very little music and no voice over, just judiciously chosen sound effects primarily, and eerily, the waxing and waning sound of crickets.

Such minutiae seem mundane indeed compared to the extraordinarily personal spectacle of the interior of Jernigans body, which was scanned nearly 2,000 times as his cadaver was cleaved off in millimeter-thin wedges. As part of the Visible Human Project under the auspices of the National Library of Medicine, the 15 gigabytes of data compiled from the scanned views of Jernigans interior were used to generate a virtual cadaver, which quickly became an invaluable tool for teaching human anatomy. (A head-to-toe animated movie of the Visible Human cryosections is available at (www.nlm.nih.gov/research/visible/mpeg/umd_video.mpg).

Theres multi-layered irony to Jernigans unwitting participation in the project, invoking issues of life, death and invasion of privacy; if indeed McInnis harbors any feelings on the subject she has concealed them here, and her artful yet cut-and-dried presentation leaves the viewer very much alone to form his or her own opinion on the matter. Model Prisoner was animated in 2D in After Effects and in 3D in Cinema 4D.

Taylor Jessen is a writer and archivist living in Burbank. His piece on the production history of the animated feature Twice Upon a Time will appear in Animation Blast #9 in April 2004.

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