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Fresh from the Festivals: May 2004’s Film Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Crimenals by Gregory Araya, After You by Christopher Cordingley, Lorenzo by Mike Gabriel, Early Bloomer by Kevin Johnson and The Old Fools by Ruth Lingford. 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:

Crimenals (2003), 2:24, directed by Gregory Araya, U.S.A. Contact: Allison Hirose, USC Festivals and Distribution, 850 W. 34th Street, Room G123, Los Angeles, CA 90089-2211. (T) 213.740.4432 (F) 213.740.5226 (E) ahirose@cinema.usc.edu

After You (2003), 2:24, directed by Christopher Cordingley, U.S.A., Contact: (E) cordingleyct@netscape.net

Lorenzo (2004), 4:47, directed by Michael Gabriel, U.S.A., produced by Baker Bloodworth. Contact: Baker Bloodworth, Disney Animation Special Projects, 811 Sonora Avenue, Office 2076, Glendale, CA 91201.

Early Bloomer (2003), 3:25, directed by Kevin Johnson, U.S.A., produced by Sony Pictures Imageworks. Contact: Chris Reichert, mPRm Public Relations. (T) 323.933.3399 (E) creichert@mprm.com

The Old Fools (2002), 5:37, directed by Ruth Lingford, U.K. Contact: Jane Colling, Sherbet, 112-114 Great Portland Street, London W1N 5PE, (T) +20.7636.6435 (F) +20.7436.3321 (E) jane@sherbet.co.uk (W) www.sherbet.co.uk

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True crime on acid sets the tone for Crimenals. © University of Southern California.

Crimenals

Any artist whos done collage knows the right juxtaposition can trigger an all-day laughing jag. Two unsuspecting images, once living quiet lives of iconic meaning in book, magazine or porn flyer, are suddenly smashed together and voila: the uniformed bobby parts his coat to reveal the body of a naked woman. Cut-and-paste in the visual arts has inspired countless artists including, to name just two recent practitioners, Burgess Jess Collins and Glen Baxter. The same ethos applied to audiocollage is whats kept musicians like Negativland in business for 25 years, and inspired Plunderphonics-meister John Oswald to take razors to Agatha Christie audiobooks and give stern and serious narrators new sentences to say like The Duke sprang forward with a pad and pencil and drew a breath of relief (The Case of Death, 1991).

Animator Gregory Araya takes aural and visual cut-up techniques on a spree in Crimenals, a delirious hard-boiled collage produced in conjunction with USCs MFA Animation program. Filmed in blistering monochrome, this CGI short is a sort of aphasic film noir, fused from equal parts crime comics, Anthony Mann and Berlin Dada. It begins innocently enough, with a stately pan across a typical comics panel, as announcer and the text box say together: Crime. Criminals. Then word and image start to play bumper cars: Crimenals! A transference from unsavory to bullet-shaped letters! With this Joycean outburst, were off and running, and over two and a half minutes we dip into a series of pulpy scenarios, chock-a-block with dames, dicks, stoolies, and snub-noses, all gloriously liberated from context and narrative logic.

If youve ever killed a whole day rearranging newspaper headlines to say Ice Queen Nabbed in Stag Film Sting or Detroit Missing! you can well imagine the giggle-fest suffered by Araya upon devising the nine true-crime-on-acid scenarios in Crimenals. In one scene, an anonymous mug is interrogating a man with a pumpkin head. Pumpkinhead is stuffed in a ventilation shaft and clinging to a rope. The mug hackles him ruthlessly: Check club check? Checkroom check! Mm hm, Pumpkinhead replies, unruffled. Cut to a man in suspenders smoking a pipe. A third arm, also holding a pipe, is grafted to his ass. Homicide says all theyve got to go on is the three Mother Goose slugs from the body. A goat sticks its head through the wall and croaks, I cant! Well, he oughta know, Pumpkinhead quips. The scene ends with Pipe-man shooting Pumpkinhead in cold blood as he delivers his devastating parting salvo: Tough luck, Nesbitt!

Hapless viewers may find themselves quoting Crimenals dialogue for months. (I for one want the oddly zen-like exclamation Hes as slippery as an Idaho in a barrel full of Nevada! on a T-shirt, or better yet the side of a building.) Crimenals is a Student Academy Award nominee, so look for a screening near you soon; Annecy attendants will get to see it this June. Greg Araya animated Crimenals in Adobe After Effects and Alias Maya; the sound mix is by Juri Hwang.

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Solid character development in After You makes an impression instantly. © 2003 Christopher Cordingley.

After You

A job applicant going up for an interview has just oodles of time to make a good impression up to 30 seconds in some cases. An actor or animator putting a new character on display for the first time has much less. In our remote-control cultural context, that figure tops out at 15 seconds, max. This makes Christopher Cordingleys efforts in After You much more impressive. Not only does he hook his viewers pronto, he establishes more, and more interesting, character traits from his two protagonists in two and a half minutes than some filmmakers do in an entire reel and he does it without dialogue.

Pitiless impatience and guileless good manners come to a head over a matter of etiquette in Cordingleys hilarious CGI short. In a generic landscape of white-on-white sand dunes, there is a lovely green door with a yellow frame, and from left and right come two characters who presumably wish to egress through it. From left bops the Yellow Dude: a bit plump, like a shell-less turtle. From right saunters the Blue Dude: tall and thin like an alien abductor.

Both look molded from Play-Doh. Yellow gives a big friendly wave. Blue reacts with cautious pity, as he would to a lunatic, and he opens the door and gestures for Yellow to proceed. Yellow throws up his hands Aw, shucks and nods enthusiastically for Blue to go first. Blue is embarrassed Lord, doesnt he get it? and gestures again, this time with both hands. Yellow shakes his head No, I couldnt possibly and HE gestures with both hands.

Blue puts one hand to his temple as he decides how big a hissy fit he is now entitled to throw. He grimaces, recovers, closes his eyes and gestures one last time, twitching slightly. His eyes open to the sight of Yellow making big windmill Go dude! You can do it! gestures and pointing at the open door. Blue now throws his hissy fit. He moves in on Yellow, who smiles nervously. Blue grabs Yellows right arm. Yellows eyes cry out bad touch and he tries to swat him away. Blue gives a cruel little smile and begins to pull Yellow through the doorway, but Yellow doesnt move, and, well, irresistible force plus Play-Doh equals you-can-guess.

This is some of the strongest animation acting Ive seen recently; After You really feels more like a good short play than a cartoon. Its not hard to see why Cordingley obviously invested the bulk of his time developing his characters before he ever stepped in front of the G4. The results are on display in his characters reactions and the personalities they reveal. I know these people in real life, and can give you their addresses. The Blue Dude in particular takes me back to an animated segment from The Electric Company circa 1977: the Why Should I? guy, tall and arrogant, standing alone with arms folded and eyes half-shut. (Three times someone approached him and whispered in his ear, but he only replied, Why Should I? and refused to budge, and, in the end, was run over from behind by a psychedelic carnival. If you have this on tape, or know which studio produced it, please write to me care of AWN.) Given 27 years, Blue and Yellow could likewise still be lingering in viewers thoughts.

Cordingley animated After You for his senior project at Ringling School of Art and Design, using Maya, Shake, Deep Paint, Painter Classic and Photoshop.

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A cat, a possessed tail and the tango intertwine in Lorenzo. © Disney.

Lorenzo

Theres a famous tango by Osvaldo Ruggiero called Bordoneo y 900, a bipolar little ditty about two competing musical styles. The Bordoneo part goes 3-3-2 (drum it now with your fingers): the brisk beat of the Milonga, the 19th century dance style of the gauchos of Argentina. The Noveciento part goes 3-1-2-2: the classic sultry rhythm of the tango, the sensation that swept the nation circa 1900. Theyre divergent yet intimately related, like stepsisters; put them together in one song and youve got a catfight. Thats probably why, when director Mike Gabriel (Pocahontas) scored $346 worth of tango CDs in his search for the soundtrack to the new Disney short Lorenzo, Bordoneo y 900 was the out-of-the-gate victor. In a classic bit of cross-cultural appropriation, Ruggieros song as performed by Juan-Jose Mosalini and his Big Tango Orchestra is now the soundtrack to a one-man catfight.

Somewhere in Argentina, around the corner from the Tango Café, the El Gato Café is bathed in streetlight. In the window is the gato in question, Lorenzo, a plump pastel-blue cat with personalized kitty lounger and shrimp cocktail. Some featherweight felines stare hungrily from outside the window, and Lorenzo shows his deep concern by puffing on the glass and drawing an unhappy face in the mist. From down the street slinks a coal-black shorthair with no tail and a dangerous gleam in his eye. Lorenzo taunts this tailless cat by showcasing his own generously fluffy posterior. But hes provoked the wrong tabby, and the visitor discharges an electric will-o-the-wisp into Lorenzos body. Before he can blink twice, Lorenzos tail has acquired a mind of its own.

The possessed tail immediately launches into a nuclear-aggressive tango with Lorenzo as partner, smashing through the café window and hotfooting down the street. Lorenzo doesnt like where this is leading, so he tries to divorce himself from his partner. He tries drowning the tail, flattening it with a door, tying it to the railroad tracks, and electrocuting it, to no avail. Finally the black cat returns with Lorenzos tool of deliverance a knife.

If this sounds dark for Disney fare, it is, and kudos to everyone involved for bringing this priceless black comedy to life. And yet its heritage is Mouse House through and through, coming from an original idea from long-time Disney stalwart Joe Grant and developed by Mike Gabriel, director of two Disney animated features including 1990s Rescuers Down Under.

Lorenzo has a unique and delicious look, the genesis of which you can read about in Bill Desowitz thorough making-of article. In short, the characters are built out of real brushstrokes, sampled in the computer and mapped onto wireframes, which are then manipulated as per any normal CGI feature. Youve seen elements of this style in other films: theres the smooth glide of the gyroscopically spring-loaded background elements of Waking Life, as well as a choppiness reminiscent of the Lumage design of Twice Upon a Time (if youve seen that gem). But this new CG-mutated 2D paradigm, the product of new software called Sable, adds up to something bracingly new.

Beyond the sheer entertainment value of this drolly sinister crowd-pleaser lies an impressive achievement in design. Though animation begins in drawings, as a rule the rough and vital textures of inspirational paintings never make it to the screen. In Lorenzo, thanks to this new technology, the labors of several dozen animators have produced a film that preserves that rarest of animation artifacts: the stroke of one artists brush. Lorenzo plays theatrically with the feature Raising Helen beginning May 28. It also screens at Annecy in June. (Full disclosure: I do occasional transcription for Buena Vista Pictures.)

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Early Bloomer: Too cute and cuddly? © Sony Imageworks.

Early Bloomer

Early Bloomer is a wholesome morality tale in CGI starring a cast of tadpoles. In a pond near you, five tadpole buddies are cutting up, zooming in and out of broken bottles and tin cans, with the biggest of the bunch, an awkward green tadpole named Lilly, bringing up the rear. Unable to keep up, Lilly is closing in on her peer group when they begin to stare and lower their eyes significantly. It seems Lilly is now dragging an embarrassing new set of protuberances: a pair of legs. Mocked by her friends in her moment of puberty, Lilly slinks away alone. The other tadpoles are having a good laugh at her expense when suddenly to their horror they all sprout similar pairs of pedal limbs; a quick swim later, they find Lilly, parade their legs about, and all is reconciled.

Early Bloomer began as an in-house training exercise at Sony Pictures Imageworks; it was rushed to theaters in May 2003 to capitalize on the success of The Chubbchubbs!, another Sony short that had won an Oscar two months earlier. With its friendly, well-lit sets and cuddly, round characters, Early Bloomer is Adorable with a capital A and the results are dispiritingly saccharine. The three-minute short played in front of Daddy Day Care and was included on that films DVD release last September. It was directed by Chubbchubbs storyboard artist Kevin Johnson. The music is by Mark Mancina (Brother Bear, Speed 2: Cruise Control).

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A rest home is the setting for The Old Fools. © Ruth Lingford.

The Old Fools

At death you break up: the bits that were you/Start speeding away from each other for ever/With no one to see. In The Old Fools, an animated short directed by Ruth Lingford based on the Philip Larkin poem of the same name, Larkins figurative lines come to literal life in tender drawings of old-age pensioners awaiting death. Lingford earned a B.A. in fine art and art history in 1990 after spending half a life as an occupational therapist working with the mentally ill and elderly. Since then shes attended the Royal College of Arts Animation School and directed a series of shorts, including What She Wants, Death and the Mother and Pleasures of War.

The Old Fools is a hybrid of drawn and digital desktop techniques unfolding in a world of deep, deep blue backgrounds, with highlights of white and black and, occasionally, a warm burst of red. An opening montage of knitting hands gives way to a grid of rectangles that resolve to playing cards, which upturned reveal the icons of a perverse game of Memory dentures, TV, catheter, ear, pills, penis, slippers none of which produces a matching pair. Memories lost, retained, or transformed become the dominant theme of the piece; silhouettes of elderly women against a window transform into soldiers parading across a background of antique wallpaper, and empty eye sockets become dark tunnels terminating in well-lit furnished rooms of the past.

Lingfords visuals examine the human body as much in the process of birth as in the waiting game of old age. In one sequence sprightly strands of DNA coalesce into a blastocyst that expands, sunflower-like, into an ever-expanding mass of cells; in another, an elderly man transforms into a fetus that shrinks to embryo and then to nothingness. Her animators kitbag includes digital video and digitally manipulated photographs, but for the most part this is a traditionally animated short in a realistically drawn style. The sound design enhances the lonely mood; theres no music to soothe or spike the emotions, just a documentary collage of coughing and dripping taps. Pop songwriter and film actor Bob Geldof narrates Philip Larkins poem.

In The Old Fools, Ruth Lingford and her production team have painfully and successfully evoked the world of the rest home: a world of cold quiet where twilight shadows darken the day room, skeletons push strollers and men and women sit and stare into the middle distance of remembrance.

Taylor Jessen is a freelance writer. He works Saturdays in a used bookstore. He has learned much from his job; in January 2001, for example, he discovered that people who buy Kant never need a bag.

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