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Fresh from the Festivals: March 2009's Reviews

In the first part of our in-depth Watchmen coverage, we get an overview from Alex McDowell, the production designer, and John DJ DesJardin, the overall visual effects supervisor.

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:

E1even Roses (2008), 5:00, directed by Pedram Goshtasbpour, Canada. Contact: Pedram Goshtasbpour, MoM Studio/Vesta Pictures [W] www.e1evenroses.com; Iris Li, Producer, 300ft, Hong Kong [E] irislm_li@yahoo.com

Hungu (2008), 9:10, directed by Nicolas Brault, Canada. Contact: Johanne St-Arnauld, Director General, Distribution, National Film Board of Canada [T] 514-283-2703 [F] 514-496-1895 [W] www.nfb.ca [E] customerservice@nfb.ca

I Have Seen the Future (2007), 6 :00, directed by Cam Christiansen, Canada. Contact: Cam Christiansen, Anlanda Digital Studio, [T] 403-229-2576 [W]www.anlanda.com [E] cam@anlanda.com

A Letter to Colleen (2007), 8:36, directed by Andy and Carolyn London, U.S. Contact: Andy London, London Squared Productions, [T] 212-665-3343 [W] www.londonsquared.net [E] andyandcarolyn@mac.com

L'Ondée/Rains (2008), 7:42, directed by David Coquard-Dassault - France. Contact: Johanne St-Arnauld, Director General, Distribution, National Film Board of Canada [T] 514-283-2703 [F] 514-496-1895 [W] www.nfb.ca [E] customerservice@nfb.ca

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Outstanding graphics and a beautiful soundtrack make up for the lack of heart in E1even Roses. © MoM Studio/Vesta Pictures. 

E1even Roses

October 22, 1929 was a day that changed America forever. People foolishly placed their futures into the hands of irresponsible, reckless investors, who gambled away the hopes and dreams of the common man, rendering him helpless in the face of overwhelming adversity. Thankfully, we all learned a valuable lesson from that, and... um...

E1even Roses opens as Trevor, a balding, overweight nebbish daydreams about his neighbor, Anna, who lives across the street from him. He imagines himself a valiant knight, and her, a beautiful princess, who will gladly give her heart to him, given the opportunity. On that fateful October evening, however, as he spies on her through his telescope, Trevor's fantasy world is shattered as Anna's new boyfriend, Vince, enters the picture. Trevor snaps, and rushes across the street to confront them, with cataclysmic results.

There's much to like about this film. The computer graphics are done well, the character designs are solid, and the animation is smooth. The second dream sequence is the film's real standout, however, with 2D animation done in the style of famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, one of several shifts in tone during the film. A film unit in Hong Kong handled the 3D renderings, while the Canadian unit handled the 2D material using Flash and Maya. Louis Solis handled the "classical" animation beautifully, including the difficult task of editing 3D characters into a 2D world.

The soundtrack, Tchaikovsky's unmistakable "Piano Concerto No. 1," also gives the film a big lift. Classical music and cartoons have been a successful combination for decades, and it's the rare cartoon that isn't enhanced by a bold, sweeping score with which the audience is already familiar.

The story, however, leaves something to be desired. Director Pedram Goshtasbpour tries to present Trevor as someone to be pitied, and someone with whom the audience can empathize. At best, he's a sad, lonely man trapped in a world that has no place for him. At worst, he's a deranged peeping tom with severe anger management issues and homicidal tendencies. The object of his affections isn't given a personality, nor is her boyfriend. Many of the technical aspects of E1even Roses are superb, but the heart of at the center of the film, like the heart of its protagonist, just isn't there.

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Hungu looks as if the figures have stepped right off clay pots to animate this ancient tale. © National Film Board of Canada. 

Hungu

An old man sits in the dirt, sadly plucking away at the hungu, a musical instrument native to the African continent. As his song progresses, the old man reflects back on his life, his travels and the people that he met along the way.

Director Nicolas Brault spent much time traveling in preparation for this film, but oddly enough, he was a full ocean away from Africa while he conducted his research. Inspired by an instrument similar to the hungu, the Brazilian berimbau, Brault took an ethnologist's approach to music and its intersection with cultural development and diversity, and his studies in African oral tradition led him to create this short film.

Brault drew much inspiration from African tribal art, which informs the design of Hungu. It's as if figures have stepped directly off of clay pots and tablets, scratches and all, to relate this ancient tale.

To create the unusual look for this film, Brault mixed several techniques, including cut paper, the creation of 2D animation on a graphics tablet and sand-based animation, resulting in an interesting combination of old and new techniques. The characters were created using the interactive pen display of the Wacom Cintiq 21UX and the software program Flash CS2-CS3. Brault used neither digital interpolation (Twain) nor skeleton to articulate his characters' limbs in an effort to make the human hand more evident than the work of the machines involved. The sand effects were achieved with a digital camera and shadows created with an Apple Cinema HD Display (30" flat panel). This screen was used as a light table and as a reference screen to synchronize the shooting of the sand with animations done at the computer. Final compositing of the sand and the computer animation was done with the help of After Effects CS2-CS3 software.

It's a very powerful piece of animation, and the stark black and white contrast is a bold and effective choice. Composer René Lussier admirably recreates the music that inspired Brault. The timeless subject matter and the simple designs ensure that this film can be revisited again and again for years to come, just like the stories that inspired it.

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I Have Seen the Future, and I see bratty teenagers. © Anlanda Digital Studio. 

I Have Seen the Future

Whether you want to believe it or not, the children are our future. And that's what Kris Demeanor is afraid of.

While enjoying a game of tennis with his father one sunny afternoon, our narrator, spoken word musician Kris Demeanor, runs afoul of some kids who can think of no better way to spend their own afternoon than harassing Demeanor and his father. Reflecting back on his own misspent youth, he comes to the not-very-uplifting conclusion that teenagers have always been jerks, and will always be jerks, and the best that we can hope for in this world is that our paths won't intersect with theirs very often.

Director Cam Christiansen adapts Demeanor's monologue into an engaging short film. He utilized Cinema 4d, Maya, After Effects, Photoshop and stop-motion to animate the film, and the results are striking.

Christiansen's design work owes a lot to contemporary print advertising, among other sources, and that, along with the cutting-edge soundtrack and bold use of computer imaging and graphics gives the film a very "now" feeling, while tackling the age-old problem of teenage boys being completely insufferable. The subject matter is likely to age much better than the film, in that regard, since teenagers will still be giving us grief 10 years from now, while graphic design will have attempted and abandoned several movements over the course of the next decade. By that time, of course, the kids in this film will be playing tennis with their own fathers and being harassed by the next generation of kids, so it all comes full circle, after all.

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Directors Andy and Carolyn London give an animated retort to Andy's high school ex-girlfriend in A Letter to Colleen, a disturbing view of late '80s New York. © London Squared Productions. 

A Letter to Colleen

Speaking of teenagers, as much as most of us try, it's impossible to get over those years of our lives. So many formative experiences, good and bad, shape us during that awkward transition from childhood to adulthood. Director Andy London (who co-directed the film with his wife, Carolyn London) tries to get over his lingering teenage angst by writing a letter to his ex-girlfriend, Colleen, several years after his unforgettable 18th birthday party.

The tale of that birthday party was, "a coming of age story, or a loss of innocence story, however you want to look at it," according to London. After receiving a drunken phone call from Colleen, he wrote an illustrated letter in response to her, which he completed over the course of a single day, and published in comic book form the following day. Fifteen years later, Andy and Carolyn London felt that the story warranted revisiting, so they set about adapting it into an animated short.

The animation in A Letter to Colleen is sparse and simple, complementing London's straightforward, plain-language narrative. The original footage for the film was shot in Harlem, Brooklyn, Central Park and Long Island on a Sony Digital Hi-8 camera. The footage was edited in Final Cut Pro, then rotoscoped in Flash with a Wacom tablet. Final compositing was done in After Effects.

It's an unsettling story, and an unsettling film, but it perfectly captures late 1980s/early 1990s New York through the eyes of someone just barely removed from his teenage years.

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L'Ondée/Rains is a sweet mediation on life and our relationship with nature. © National Film Board of Canada. 

L'Ondée/Rains

And wrapping up this month's "FFF" is L'Ondée/Rains, a sweet, simple cartoon about nature and about human nature.

The film opens as a summer day turns dark as a sudden rainstorm sets in. People hide in their apartments, birds seek shelter, and the populace scurries about from place to place as they go about their business and attempt to keep themselves dry in the process. The rain actually brings people together in odd little ways, such as forcing them to share limited space at bus stops and on public transit, or stranding young lovers in stalled automobiles or causing children to stay close to their umbrella-toting mothers. L'Ondée/Rains is a meditation on everyday life and its relationship with nature and the world around it.

Director David Coquard-Dassault, as well as most of the directors this month, uses simple black-and-white imagery to convey a story focusing on regular people going on about their everyday lives. Coquard-Dassault is a gifted artist, and he maintains the delicate balance between the simple and the complex and the abstract, both in terms of artistry and storytelling. Each scene in the film required a subtly different style of rainfall, as the rain had to constantly adapt and progress along with the story. I'm not sure how one determines which raindrops are best suited for rooftops and which should instead be used at bus stops, but Coquard-Dassault managed to figure it all out.

To create his film, Coquard-Dassault used a simple pencil on paper to illustrate his backgrounds. Traditional animation was done on paper, with TV Paint animation software assisting the process. The compositing and visual effects were created utilizing After Effects CS3. The end result is beautiful and poetic, and best viewed safely indoors as a light rain taps against the window.

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and the creator of the weekly online comic serial The Chronicles of William Bazillion.

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