Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Command Z by Candy Kugel and Vincent Cafarelli, Prowlies at the River by Adam Phillips, Still I Remain (like a fish out of water) by Tom Gibbons, Woman in the Attic by Chansoo Kim and Patricia Grey by Anne Koizumi. 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.
Command Z (2004), 4:30 minutes, directed by Candy Kugel and Vincent Cafarelli, U.S. Contact: Candy Kugel [E] firstname.lastname@example.org
Woman in the Attic (2003), 4:53 minutes, directed by Chansoo Kim, Republic of Korea. Contact: Allison Hirose, USC [E] email@example.com [W] www-cntv.usc.edu.
Patricia Grey (2004), 5:39 minutes, directed by Anne Koizumi, Canada. Contact: Anne Koizumi [E] firstname.lastname@example.org [T] 403.280.3944.
Candy Kugel and Vincent Cafarelli are the animators behind a trio of licorice-colored, musical satires of the entertainment industry that fans of the International Tournees should remember from the late 80s and early 90s. Their latest short film, Command Z, shares the same instantly recognizable style as I Got a Warm Reception in L.A., Snowie and the Seven Dorps and We Love It, not just for the friendly, thick lines of their cartooning but for the song stylings and inimitable vowel sounds of New York-based writer/arranger Lanny Meyers.
To refresh your memory of this animation team and their sly, sardonic trilogy, I Got a Warm Reception in L.A. (1987) is a five-minute chunk of mid-tempo pop from the Yamaha DX7 era, telling the musical story of a New York writer who gets a good meeting at a Los Angeles film studio. Hes got a screenplay, and they love it, lotsa laughs one writer even dies laughing but darnit, once he returns to NYC and faces the bill collectors he cant get anyone at Gigantic Studios to even remember his name. The animation has a unique look of liquid pastels on a black background, giving the short a neon glow that it also shared with Kugel and Cafarellis next short, Snowie and the Seven Dorps (1990).
Of the three, this passive-aggressive fable for the nineties probably gets funnier the longer youve lived in Southern California. In this modern retelling of Snow White, the evil witch is Big Apple-based a clotheshorse with a Gucci fetish who can no longer abide her little-miss-perfect maid, Snowie. She hires a hunter to put Snowie on a plane to Detroit, but theres a mixup and Snowie lands in L.A., only to end up cleaning house for the Dorps Sorry, Creepy, Geeky, Later, Wimpy, Sleazy, and IllCallYa, a septet of dwarfish theatrical agents. The witch tracks her down and poisons her, so the Dorps do the honorable thing they schlep her comatose body onto a chaise lounge by the pool and hope nobody notices. But a roller-skating, narcissistic prince happens by, decides a girlfriend in a coma is a relationship he can really get behind, and gives her the kiss of life.
We Love It (1992) rounded out the trio with another song, this one sung by a group of executives reacting to a boy-and-his-dog pitch from Kugel and Cafarelli's production house, BuzzCo. Yes, they love it, provided they concede one teeny-weeny change can the dog be a girl? Yes, and make the boy another woman who falls in love with her own hologram no, a robot! And make them crime-fighters! Et cetera.
In the last decade the team have made their rent at Buzzco making commercials and interstitials, and in between jobs have continued making festival shorts such as Fast Food Matador (1991), The Ballad of Archie Foley (1995), KnitWits (1997, originally a TV pilot) and (It Was) Nothing at All (2000). Command Z finds them collaborating once again with Lanny Meyers, a busy arranger for TV and film who has composed a song about a keystroke wed all like to take around with us in life.
Command Z is a fast-paced laundry list of various life situations where mistakes are made, be it the painter tracking yellow footprints in the living room or Lots wife sneaking one last peek over her shoulder. And wouldnt it be lovely if we could Edit-Undo these everyday gaffes? From the parallel parker to Martha Stewart to God Almighty, we get to watch a variety of citizens undo their mistakes with ease using only two fingers of the left hand. If only, babe.
The color stylings are spiffy, the pace is brisk, and Meyers themes are as catchy as ever. No longer working in neon, the color palette has returned to daytime-TV shades. Also, and this is a good thing, they apparently no longer have a predilection for filling screen time by doubling the voice over with giant on-screen word graphics. (It was all very Downtown in 1989, but now it would just feel like filler.) Command Z was animated traditionally, colored in Photoshop and compiled in After Effects.
Prowlies at the River
Brackenwood is an animated forest glade populated by a mean hairy-faced faun, a hairless Sasquatch, a simpleminded elf, jet-black lizardy things called Prowlies, and a raspberry-blowing bird that looks like a cross between a canary and a dodge ball. Creator Adam Phillips has done some wonderfully cinematic things with it, and he has enough faith in its success that he gave up a 12-year-stint at DisneyToon Studios in Sydney to devote himself to it full-time. BiteyCastle.com is Phillips playground as well as his new career, named after Bitey, the unshorn, cloven-footed hero of his latest short film Prowlies at the River.
Its best to watch the three previous Brackenwood shorts, all done in Flash, before taking in Prowlies, but Phillips pacing and characterizations are so strong that you dont require any previous introduction to his imaginary cast. Bitey is asleep in his hollowed-out tree one morning, dreaming of fun and horseplay with Giblet, the canary/dodgeball, when a loud pecking wakes him. An olive-colored woodpecker thing is harassing him, and Bitey fells it with a thrown rock. Unluckily the bird falls in his local water supply and contaminates it, so Bitey swings away in the branches to visit the local river.
At riverside the aforementioned Prowlies are cavorting in the grass, chasing each other and lazing in the sun. Bitey comes crashing into their reverie, so naturally they pounce; and he counterattacks, sending one flying over the river and the other four scampering into a tree. Bitey hops into the river for a drink, but the Prowlies start to guffaw. Bitey cant figure out whats so funny and then he sees whats going on upstream.
Like his other films, even his admittedly crude early efforts, Phillips pacing is exquisite in Prowlies at the River, with his action being all the more effective complemented with stillness and quiet, or just a well-timed blink of the eyes. Most of his work is dialogue-free and he gets great mileage out of simple gestures and facial tics. The blues, greens and rich browns of temperate climes after a heavy rain dominate his color palette.
You can catch all of his films but one on his website, the one being his mini-epic, pod-people music video for the Ween song Transdermal Celebration (its on a Ween concert DVD, and theres a link to an online copy at milkandcookies.com). You can watch them in chronological order his debut Flash animation, Pokies, is pretty impressive for a first effort but I suggest you save the Hitchhiker pair for last. Its a sublime creep-out adventure tale in two parts that will keep you guessing to the last moment.
And Still I Remain (like a fish out of water)
Tom Gibbons, painter and animator of The Hunger Artist has a new short called And Still I Remain (Like A Fish Out Of Water). Its two minutes long and as open-ended as a Slinky. As in The Hunger Artist, his new short is stop-motion, this time using only paper cutouts, and Gibbons mastery of the technique comes through in his ultra-smooth flow and subtle follow-through.
To the sound of a mid-tempo shuffle with wordless vocals, a red curtain opens to reveal a man and woman on a stage. The man is seated, the woman lying prone in his lap. A quiet look between them indicates the ghost of a once-thriving love, and then she slips away and disappears. A hoop flies in from stage right, the man grabs it, and he holds it up as a series of animal masks soar in to land on his face and then jump through the non-flaming hoop. He lowers it to his lap, and then it catches on fire, burning down the stage.
When the flames clear the man is revealed with his hands raised in obeisance to some monster aphid-thing, blinking calmly and hopping on one giant leg. It hops offstage left. Then something monkey-like comes down on the end of a pole and makes the man shiver with fright. The monkey reaches offstage and plops a skeleton fright mask on the mans head, then leaves. The man slumps, morose. A small crowd of forks rattles by downstage, and one pauses as the fright mask falls off the mans head. The mask sticks on the end of the fork and both disappear stage left. Then the woman slides back onto the mans lap from stage right, and the curtains close.
If you get the point of this, youre probably missing the point. (Actually the content is up to you, but the artists take is that its about recurring relationships, which fits the piece right down to the Again tacked on at the finish, as it would be on an Internet Flash animation.) Every bit of this avant-garde truffle is as friendly as can be. The sound effects are a grab bag of post-Hanna-Barbera tiddley winks, including the two-note marimba lick, slide whistle, creepy skeleton rattle and quacking duck. The short was originated on Super 8, and the affable graininess has been enhanced with artificial gate-slip and scratches added in After Effects.
Woman in the Attic
Woman in the Attic is a stop-motion film from USC animator Chansoo Kim, a dream about a dream about a womans memories of her younger self. The delicate wisp of incident in the short crumbles under the scrutiny of rational examination, but a good reference would be the Star-Child sequence at the end of Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey (which was just as irrational, and just as lovely).
In a tall attic space, an old woman sits with a fan staring at her image in a mirror and listening to distant noises and dripping water. She enters her dream as a childs voice from above murmurs, Im getting old. Looking up, she sees the toddler version of herself teetering in a ceiling-tall highchair. A mans voice drifts up to her, an overlapping insistent mumble, unintelligible but for the final command of Wake up.
She lights a match, and we see her as a young woman sitting at a table, staring into a candle and drumming her fingers. Theres a knocking at the door behind her and she goes to open it. In the room beyond she sees herself on her deathbed. Here the frames of reference really begin to fracture, and with every cut of film observer and observed play musical chairs: now the young lady, now the child. The woman/child sits and watches the old woman, who wakes only briefly to acknowledge her before lying back and breathing her last.
As she dies we see the young girl awaken and cry, but she dissolves into nothing in the light of morning coming through the old womans window. The old woman gets out of bed, mutters, Im getting old, and goes on with her day.
Woman in the Attic is a rich visual experience, with warmly lit characters and set dressing done entirely in antique shades of cream and chocolate. With no articulation on the faces of his armature characters, Kim does his acting exclusively through gestures. Kim also did the shorts sound design, and thats where home viewers assuming this makes it to a video anthology will be in for a real treat. Every room in the house has a unique tone, and the silence isnt silent at all but filled with the distances between walls and the weather behind the windows.
Chansoo Kim has three other shorts in his filmography, Island (2001), Floating (2001) and Rainy Day (2002), all in traditional drawn style, and still images are available at his website (spell out his name). Kim studied graphic design at Seoul National University and worked as a graphic designer for five years, and now hes at USC to earn an MFA in animation and digital arts, for which this is his second-year project. Kim shot Woman in the Attic using an Olympus E-10 digital still camera, and the finished product was output to 35mm. At a school with a reputation for overabundant resources and the cultivation of commercial instincts, its perhaps appropriate that when Kim finished this highly personal endeavor, his Olympus camera died, like Townshends guitar, at the completion of the last shot.
Patricia Grey is a darkly ambiguous stop-motion piece from Japanese-Canadian animator Anne Koizumi. Koizumi lives in Alberta and is a member of Calgarys Quickdraw Animation Society, and she completed Patricia Grey as her fourth-year project at the University of British Columbia Film School.
The short alternates between a present-day interrogation of a mother named Patricia and her reminiscences of a family life thats gone forever. In the present day, Patricia sits in a chair wearing a simple red dress as an unseen voice asks her some simple questions. Shes slow to respond, but when asked to describe her marriage sighs and calls it Good, as if it were a colonoscopy that took 10 minutes less than usual this week. Somethings happened, and between her interrogators questions and Patricias memories, we end up with a clear view of the results but a murky, cryptic picture of whos responsible and why.
The act took place in her home, a feeble space with paint peeling off the walls. There was a daughter, seen dragging her jump rope behind her, reading books by herself, and falling asleep on the floorboards. There was a husband, who approaches his daughter in stealth and hovers over her in an uncomfortable straddling pose. And there was Patricia herself, who is last seen in flashback cradling her daughter in her arms, the girl unmoving, her neck encircled by the jump rope. All these reminiscences drift across the screen as the voice asks her about photographs of her various family members, and the piece ends as he offers her own picture to identify and gets only a stony silence. Take your time, he murmurs.
Koizumi shot Patricia Grey on 16mm using an animation motor-equipped Bolex. The sound design is evocative of real-world spaces, from windowless rooms to playgrounds full of children; the music is ambient, with electronic noises over chords from a Fender Rhodes. Koizumi blended two styles of stop-motion in her short, with the present-day scenes done in clay animation and the flashbacks in puppet animation, and its perfect for the dramatic needs of the piece. The flashbacks take on a look of solid three-dimensional substantiality, the ground solid, the faces stoic and unmoving her interrogation, animated in plasticine on glass, is flat and gelatinous, her countenance literally falling to pieces, a nightmare she wishes would go away.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He is currently shopping a pitch for a new daytime soap about the tragic lives of health-obsessed young professionals called Land Without Carbs.