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Fresh from the Festivals: March 2006’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films Clara by Van Sowerwine, Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot by David Chai, Book of Visions by Annie Poon, The Boy with No Name by Adam Smith and The Flooded Playground by Lisa Crafts. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

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.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.

Clara (2004), 6:53, directed by Van Sowerwine (Australia). Contact: Film Camp Pty Ltd., Level 1, 179 Johnston Street Fitzroy Victoria 3065, Australia [T] 61.3.9419.0150 [F] 61.3.9417.7336 [E] pcampey@bigpond.net.au

Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot (2004), 7:07, directed by David Chai (U.S.). Contact: David Chai, Thunderbean Animation [E] davechai@thunderbeananimation.com [W] www.thunderbeananimation.com

The Book of Visions (2005), 11:00, directed by Annie Poon (U.S.). Contact: Annie Poon, The Paper Theatre [T] 212.564.0177 [E] anniebenac@yahoo.com [W] anniepoon.com

The Boy with No Name (2005), 5:36, directed by Adam Smith (U.K.). Contact: Adam Smith [E] barry901@hotmail.com

The Flooded Playground (2005), 19:48, directed by Lisa Crafts (U.S.). Contact: Lisa Crafts [E] barkingtree@earthlink.net [W] lisacrafts.com

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No comforting adults populate the nightmare suburbia of Clara. © Film Camp and Film Victoria 2004.

Clara

The Clara of Clara could, on first viewing, be dead or alive. The short is populated by two girls with plasticy skin and doll hair one is stop-motion animated and the other has simply stopped. The fact that the title character could be the name of either the deceased or the survivor is just one creepy question mark in this unsettling, mesmerizing Australian short from 2004.

The piece opens in the front yard of someones suburban home beside a park. A little brunette girl is playing alone next to a bed of flowers, little crimson five-pointed beasties on long snaking stalks that actively grab at her wrist and tug. She pulls one out of the ground and falls back onto the lawn. Pocketing the plucked flower, she unlocks the front door to the house and goes inside. In the hallway is a doggie pull toy. She pulls it down the hall and around the corner, not seeing the ants that are following her in from underneath the front door.

She passes through the kitchen. Its empty, despite something golden bubbling at full boil on the stove. She continues into the living room, where theres an open coffin waiting. Inside is another little girl, this one blonde. The girl hovers over the coffin, not crying so much as letting the moisture swirl about her despairing eyes. She puts the pull toy into the coffin with the flower and leaves the room.

In the kitchen, shes watching the pot boil when she decides to stick her index finger in and hold it there. For several long seconds it suffers the boiling water and when she finally snatches it out, red and blistered, she faints to the floor in agony. When she wakes, she finds herself looking at a row of ants making their way from outside into the living room. She follows, and finds them gathered en masse inside the coffin, circling the plucked flower and winnowing around the dead girls blouse.

She snatches the flower away and dashes it to the floor. Finally making inroads into a fit of sobbing, but not quite letting go, she picks up the flower, dusts the ants off her dead companion, and takes the flower outside. The ants follow. Its dusk now, and back outside in the garden she parts the dead leaves in the flowerbed and sticks the flower back into the dirt. It takes to the dirt like a miniature tube dancer from a car dealership, wriggling enthusiastically as the girl sits and stares back at the front door of the house, the sun going down behind her.

No epiphany, no catharsis, no dialogue, no adults, and hyperactive plant life this is an altogether sinister experience thats candy for the eye and witch hazel for the heart. The tone as well as the production design are highly reminiscent of Todd Haynes Safe, an equally unsettling experience set in a clean, bright suburban landscape where ordinary horrors fall into the lap like so much junk mail.

Director Van Sowerwine animates in what look like plastic dolls, and with only fluttering eyelids and painted-on eyebrows providing any malleability in the face, the acting comes mainly through some very naturalistic full-body mime. The girl Clara (it turns out shes the living girl, not the corpse) shuffles to and fro in a depressed heap, heaves with a sorrow she cant express, and is clearly wracked by grief, the effect all the more impressive given the usually limited range of movement that the medium allows. (Actually, though this looks like the usual hard doll plastic, Sowerwines characters are silicone.)

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Better wear a helmet, here comes Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot. © Film Camp and Film Victoria 2004.

Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot

For cartoon violence the whole family can enjoy, look no further than Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot, a hilarious Sundance-selected short about a girl, five toes and the worst bad luck streak since mankind invented the Cubs. Its a very simple, all-too-brief story about Fumi, a young woman with a bowl cut, a pretty blue dress, and a foot that sadly attracts more violence than an English pub full of footballers after a five-game losing streak. As the short opens, a wandering black cat sees Fumis bandaged foot and flees in terror, right before poor Fumi watches it get impaled with a knife, smashed by a heavy safe and struck by a falling passenger jet.

Everywhere she goes, it seems, this impossibly bad luck follows. In flashback, we see that it all began at birth, as her obstetrician held her upside-down to administer the slap of life and immediately grounded Fumis foot in a light socket. Now bad luck preys on her everywhere, at home, at work, and at play at the beach her foot is chomped by a giant crabs claw, which she is forced to drag home, and she loses it only to have it eaten again by a passing moose.

Morose and at her wits end, Fumi is wheeling her cast-encased foot down the sidewalk one day when she hears a cry of distress. Theres a baby in a carriage in the middle of the street, with her mother running fast from one direction and a car coming from the other the driver of which is leaning out the window, stupefied, holding both a beer bottle and a bong. Gadzooks, this could be a disaster! But Fumi thinks fast and, putting her albatross to good use for the first time in her life, points her bad luck foot in the direction of the approaching car, which immediately swerves out of the babys way and makes a beeline for the foot. It smashes Fumis cast and sends her flying through the air and the day is saved!

This genius premise makes Fumi absolutely unstoppable, and it could be the single-biggest crowd-pleaser on the festival circuit this year. The animation is based on traditional pencil drawings tested with Digicel Flipbook and composited in After Effects, and the scratchy character texture is simple and endearing. There are a lot of great bonus touches, not the least of which is the opening musical cue for gamelan orchestra, unusual in any setting and very effective in getting your guard down so youre even more unprepared for the laughs that follow.

Director David Chai (25 Ways to Die, Flames of Passion) is an animation instructor at San Jose State University and proprietor of commercial shingle Thunderbean Animation. David self-funded Fumi and produced it with assistance from students, whose services he acquired through the usual offers of free Taco Bell take-out on Fridays.

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Oh look, a book The Book of Visions. © Annie Poon.

Book of Visions

Book of Visions is 12 minutes of limited cutout animation on the subject of dialogues with the spirit world angelic and otherwise. It starts with an old man in his home with his dog. The man speaks a brief incantation directly to the camera, and his dog goes out into the yard and digs up an old illuminated manuscript, which he brings to the old man in his study. The man begins to read, and three different narrators start to relate the stories of three spirit-talkers from history.

First a historian relates the story of Joan of Arc; then Black Elk tells the story of the vision quest he had as a young boy; and, finally, Joseph Smith tells the story of the revelation that led to his unearthing documents that inspired him to found the Mormon Church. In between stories, the man reading interacts only slightly with both the stories hes reading and the story were watching.

The animation is minimal, with mostly black ink drawings on white paper shifting around on white paper backgrounds. The technique is akin to John Kortys mid-1960s method where a full cartoons-worth of character parts fit in one envelope, but here there isnt nearly as much character development. Characters in the stories move about the pages of the book, casting shadows that produce a nice two-and-a-half-dimensions multiplane effect, but the expressions and movements convey precious little character.

Animator Annie Poon is a member of the Mormon Artists Group, an all-LDS collective based in New York City. The Book of Visions has a lot of promotional cash behind it; it comes in a basic plastic DVD shell as well as a deluxe cloth box with soft figurine, game board, and game pieces in a suede pouch. Its a terrific package for the religious discussion group and its animated too! As the eight-page brochure accompanying the DVD raves: It is nearly 12 minutes long (think how many frames that represents!) and, amazingly, in color.

The promotional materials and the short itself call out loud and clear that Book of Visions wasnt exactly made to advance the animation art form. Like the suede bag in the deluxe edition, this animated short isnt a whole; its a bag full of pieces. The addition of little magical-realist vignettes, where a tree grows in the mans living room or a lighthouse in a painting on the wall turns to shine its light out of both sides of its frame, dont change the fact that this is just three angel stories strung back-to-back. The tales all share a spiritual thematic thread, but work toward no overall narrative goal. At the end the man goes to sleep and he and his dog astral-project and fly away to the stars. A nice visual aid for the religious roundtable, but is there a story?

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Feeling self-conscious? Tag along with The Boy With No Name. © Adam Smith.

The Boy With No Name

The Boy With No Name is a student thesis work from British animator Adam Smith of Southampton Solent University, and the short, which he wrote, animated and narrated in verse, is as wonderfully naked a personal expression as the medium allows. A diabolical and delicious fairy tale about a true outsider, The Boy With No Name is perfect for the young-at-heart, the old-at-heart and additionally-limbed.

The eponymous and anonymous boy of the shorts title (He had no name, but we shall call him Roy) is introduced waiting, swaddled, on the doorstep of an orphanage. Its not exactly a hell-on-earth theres a fire extinguisher on the wall, at least but our young hero isnt having a wonderful time. For you see he has long, spindly and probably very nimble arms growing tragically out of the top of his head. The I dont fit trope that we all spend our lives rehearsing silently to ourselves sadly is not, in Roys case, a ruse.

Roys days are spent looking ruefully out the window; his nights are spent curled up on the floor keeping an eye out for attacks from his dolly, a huggable button-eyed creature whom the boy is nevertheless convinced is a paranoid schizophrenic intent on getting him in his sleep. Then one day he sees a green glow coming from the forest behind the orphanage. Going for a walk with his doll, he investigates.

He finds nothing where the glow had been, only a bench on a hill with a good view of the sunset. The boy sits with his doll and watches the sun go down, and is actually enjoying himself for once when a crow suddenly swoops down and plucks his doll from his side. Giving chase, the boy is led further and further into the woods when he suddenly comes on an eerie sight:

Just as Roy had lost hope and his eyes started swellingThe animal dropped its burden outside a strange dwellingThere were collections of carpets and toys, a doll with a knife inside herAnd old sports magazines in a kennel, and many empty bottles of ciderA man, he was a tramp, was collecting leaves into a bag from the local cash-and-carryHe spun around and glared at Roy he had a badge, which read, Hello, my name is Barry

The man crawls into his hut and disappears, and the teary-eyed boy follows, only to fall down, down, down a deep hole (This reminds me of something, he thought to himself). He lands in what looks like a huge, surreal assembly-line factory. Machines are turning out thousands of copies of himself, arms sprouting from heads exactly like his own. In the corner is a trio of frogs on drums, saxophone, and guitar, playing accompaniment to the whole melee. What could be going on? The tall man approaches him and explains: This is where Roy was made and Earth was not where he was meant to be shipped. He was put in the wrong box, and was destined for a completely different world indeed, a place where all heads look like his.

Theres a denouement, of course, but Ill withhold it and just say its in perfect accord with the tone of the rest of the short, and packs a snappy punch. The six-minute piece won Smith his degree from SSU, and was traditionally animated with watercolor backgrounds. Like Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot, Smith chose Digicel Flipbook and After Effects as his software tools. He cites influences from the mad inventiveness of Michel Gondry to the outcast deliberations of Tim Burton, the lyric misanthropy of Roald Dahl, and especially the rabbit-hole fantasy cosmologies of Neil Gaiman. With a development deal and a bit of luck, a press of the Im feeling lucky button could one day beat out the many web pages devoted to his economist namesake and return Mr. Smiths feature filmography instead.

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Little baby had a great fall, but recovered in The Flooded Playground. © Lisa Crafts.

The Flooded Playground

The Flooded Playground is a recent animated short that, like Spirited Away, explores the beginning of self-reliance. Playground, though, is definitely the creepier of the two, and unfolds like a nightmare you have to work through rather than wake up from.

The film begins in the middle of a dream, as a young boy in the form of an antique doll comes face-to-face with a giant spider in a top hat, who steals the boys yellow security blanket and forces him to polish the spiders shoes with it an act that drains all the color out of the boys world in the process. The toddler awakes with a cry. Of course, as in all the best dream yarns, things dont get better in the waking world.

As a crack bursts across the plaster wall of his room, the boy goes downstairs to the kitchen to get something to eat. Theres a motherly wind that blows the refrigerator door closed, tries to prevent the boy from grabbing a between-meals bread roll from the countertop, and pushes the chair in after the boys left the table. The wind is maternally-minded, but theres no mother here, and in fact no other humans at all just discomfiting noises and ghoulish faces appearing in the wallpaper of the empty house.

The boy returns to his room, but the room disintegrates, with thorny branches shooting in through the cracks in the walls and tearing the place apart. Waking homeless on the floor of the forest thats now encroached into where the house once was, and losing his precious security blanket to the forest, the boy has no choice but to wander. On his travels he runs into a pair of rocks with human features, sunflowers with puppy-dog faces who may or may not be friendly, and, at last, a playground in shallow water.

There he meets Humpty Dumpty, his only friend an amiable yellow egg whos a match for the boy both in height and playfulness. Hes more than happy to while away the afternoon with the boy on the jungle gym, and things are so nice a nearby tree bursts into a song about their blossoming friendship. But storm clouds move in, and the boy loses his friend, who has a great fall and floats downstream.

Coming to a gaping cave entrance in the shape of a bellowing giants head, the boy enters and finds various detritus from the house, swirling around the room in the grip of the motherly wind. In the back of the cave he finally reaches his moment of truth; his eggy friend is tied by his legs to the ceiling, where the evil spider awaits, holding the security blanket as bait. The boy defeats the spider with a stake through the belly causing the spider to noisily deflate like the balloon it was and boy and egg catch the next trolley out of there. This forest-bound dream-trolley is headed for a destination marked Worth; and when they arrive at the Worth St. underground stop, both boy and egg ascend the staircase together, where the two merge into one boy-shaped figure that clicks its heels as it emerges into the light.

At its root, this is basically an inspirational item, but the surrealism and the willingness to dive headfirst into a toddlers dream landscape take this to a level more of a subconscious appeal than something offering practical advice about self-actualization. The Flooded Playground is basically a living collage, made of photos of real exteriors that the animator collected on several continents there are bayous, forests and jungles shot digitally on location in Gloucestershire, Michoacan, Louisiana and Washingtons Olympic Rainforest. The animation takes the minimum number of character parts and puts them through the maximum manipulation your basic After Effects tornado a la the Williams Street block on Adult Swim, only more graceful.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. If a small pageboy appears at your side while reading this, tip him.

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