Taylor Jessen reviews five short films -- The Runt by Andreas Hykade, One D by Mike Grimshaw, Africa Parting by Robyn Alice Yannoukos and Brian LoSchiavo, Crossing the Stream by Skip Battaglia and Changing Evan by Steven Woloshen.
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.
One D (2005), 4:38, by Mike Grimshaw (Canada). Contact: Mike Grimshaw, Oddsock Cartoons [T] 1.250.475.3542 [E] firstname.lastname@example.org
Africa Parting (2006), 8:10, by Robynn Alice Yannoukos (South Africa) and Brian LoSchiavo (U.S.). Contact: Robynn Alice Yannoukos and Brian LoSchiavo, darkRay Productions [T] 310.254.4442; 310.367.3225 [E] email@example.com [W] www.africaparting.com
Crossing the Stream (2006), 4:00, by Skip Battaglia (U.S.). Contact: Skip Battaglia, 105 Meredith Ave., Rochester, N.Y. 14618 [E] firstname.lastname@example.org
Changing Evan (2006), 1:14, by Steven Woloshen (Canada). Contact: Steven Woloshen, 5787 Rue Cartier, Montreal, Canada [T] 514.270.3563 [E] email@example.com
Andreas Hykade has explored some startlingly personal territory in his last three longform short subjects. We Lived in Grass was a stick-figure nightmare vision of domestic strife, where a boy whose father is dying of testicular cancer wanders the plains by day and falls in love with a dandelion girl; Ring of Fire depicted an alpha-male cowboy and his submissive sidekick and their misadventures in a surrealistic garden of sexual delights; now, in his latest short The Runt, a boy comes to the end of the age in his life when he was still able to treat the family livestock as pets.
A boy, a dad and a monster-sized Uncle live in an abstract plateau where they raise rabbits. They boy is stick arms and legs coming out of an oval body, with two dots for a face and a frizzy shock of hair. Dad is basically a taller version of the boy, only with hair loss. Uncle is something much bulkier, a giant inverted U with a head and arms, and as big as a car. One day, their two-rabbit farm increases in population by three. Mom and Dad rabbit are regular white-furred creatures, and so are the first two offspring, but the third newborn is a tiny blue runt. Uncle grabs it to seal in a sack -- perhaps to throw in the river -- but the boy cries out in protest.
Uncle agrees to spare it, but only on the condition that the boy tends to it for one year -- and when the year is done, he must kill it. The boy agrees. In the next 10 lyrical minutes, we peek into tiny episodes from the year that follows: boy lies on his back and bounces rabbit on his upturned legs. Uncle disappears into the basement with Mom and Dad rabbit. Boy watches rabbit's nose twitch. Uncle comes up from basement with two rabbit skins and two cooked rabbits. Uncle and Dad tuck in to cooked rabbits while wearing the skins on their heads. Boy bounces rabbit -- now much heavier -- in the air.
Knowing the year is almost up, one evening the boy strokes the runt's fur protectively, then lets it go and watches it bound away into the sunset. Uncle wakes the boy the next morning. "The year is up," he says sepulchrally. The boy turns to look at the runt's cage. It's come back home in the night; its nose calmly twitches.
Boy and uncle take the runt to the basement, where there are stirrups and a club. Uncle hangs the rabbit by its feet in the stirrups. "Kill it quickly!" he hisses, but it's already begun to beat its head against the wall in terror. The runt is staring at the boy in panic with one blank eye, and the boy can barely lift the club. Finally his momentum dies entirely, and he is frozen in front of the increasingly bloody wall In the end this boy grows up, which is something Hykade's characters have been doing consistently in all three parts of this animated trilogy. As you'd expect from Hykade, the animation is superb throughout; he has directed his usual large crew and created something with a perfect balance of movement and stillness that still conforms to his singular vision and style. It's a tough piece, not the least sentimental but entirely sympathetic, and heartbreaking to watch (and it'll be equally heartbreaking if all three of these shorts don't get a DVD release soon).
One D is an animated short that lives up to its name in more ways than one. After the opening titles, which announce that the short has been "Filmed in glorious UNIVISION", we see a one-dimensional Earth as viewed from space -- a green sliver on a starry background. Push in on the green sliver to a town, represented by a bell curve of dark slivers; push further to reveal a sliver-hood of suburban houses; and finally push to reveal Bob inside one of those houses. Everything is, yes, one-dimensional, built from just one blocky line akin to old Apple II graphics. Bob, a line with alternating flesh-colored and clothing-colored segments, enjoys the view (green/blue line) before noticing the clock (a dot), which says he's late, and he rushes to pick up Diane by hopping in his car (a sleek red line).
He honks at a semi (two thick lines, four points) as he races to Diane's house. Diane (one line, plus two prominent dots just below shoulder height) comes out to meet him, but she's distracted. "Does this top make me look fat?" They rush to the Uniplex to see a cartoon in -- oooh! -- two D. Diane says she's up for it as long as it's not about aliens, chainsaw killers, hillbillies or ghosts. They arrive; they take their seats; a cell phone goes off; there is a gunshot; the audience applauds.
Then the movie begins. It's "Finding a Toy Bug's Life Story: An Adventure in Ma$$ Merchandi$ing." It's quite short. A traditionally-animated creature with four arms, two legs, a clown fish's body and Mickey Mouse's head dances out in a spotlight, sings one bar of a song, pulls its own head off, kicks it into the audience and dies. Bob tells Diane afterwards that it was all right, "but it'll never replace good old one-D cartoons." They drive to Lookout Point. Martians arrive (two green lines). They run to the forest (15 dark lines). A hillbilly plays a banjo. They find a deserted cabin (1 brown line). Diane takes off her top and investigates.
A chainsaw killer cuts Diane into small segments. Bob is attacked by gators. Diane's ghost wails advice to Bob. Bob follows her advice and befriends the pursuing Martians by giving them beer. Unfortunately when the drunken aliens take off in their spaceship, they crash into the Earth and the planet explodes It sounds funnier than it is, unfortunately, as the timing is badly off and one guy is doing both main characters in two barely-differentiated tones of voice. It's not quite Satire with a capital S, and not quite a chortle-fest, but Bob's moment of truth in the woods is good for a giggle.
Africa Parting is a simple, painful and beautiful allegory of giving the next generation a fresh start when your heart's too heavy to ever get one of your own. The piece opens on an unseen hand flipping backwards through a book, a collage of images from Apartheid-era South Africa of the 1970s, improved with painted slogans to resemble agitprop. The hand turning the book turns out to belong to a giant skeletonized beast with proportions akin to the alien at the end of Close Encounters -- but with the sad, sympathetic face of a traditional African mask.
The creature is trapped in a room whose walls are festooned with keepsakes, some sentimental, many painful, all fractured from a violence of long ago. The walls are whispering and the creature's heart is locked in the birdcage of its own torso. The creature closes the book of collages, which has "Africa Parting" carved in its red leather cover, and scuttles over to another part of the room to flip through a different book. Filled with chapter headings like "Book of Races", the tome is full of happy-go-lucky racial profiling that looks like it's the product of some tragically wrong-headed eugenics enthusiasts of the late 19th century.
Once it's flipped through the second book and had time to reflect, the creature tears up the agitprop book into little pieces -- but it forms the crumpled pages into an egg, then leans down to listen for a heartbeat. It hears nothing. Opening its own torso-cage, the creature plucks out its own heart. A hole bursts open in the egg, and in goes the heart, the leaves of the egg's paper shell folding shut behind it.
The creature writhes, and dies. The egg turns white. Iris-in, fade out. Director Robyn Alice Yannoukos, a South African and her animating partner Brian LoSchiavo have built a perfect vehicle for the expression of a particular brand of inexpressible grief: the torment of apartheid survivors whose pain informs every moment of the future even though the generation that follows can never put a hand to that pain. The sound design is exemplary, making inroads into our soul with every creak of the creature's bony superstructure and scratch of its nails. The solo soundtrack performance by cellist Rachel Arnold is tormented and passionate, unloading the burdens of the main character even as it carries the film's emotional through-line along in its wake.
Crossing the Stream
A man crosses a stream with two horses and a pack mule. Water skippers dart back and forth. The river bubbles. The man reaches the other side. The short is called Crossing the Stream, it's a lyrical bit of abstraction, and it has the rough burnish and bright pop of colored pencils and watercolors. The soundtrack is a molasses-stirring concoction for slowed-down saxophone and a variety of African instruments.
That's all there is to this meditative short from teacher/animator Skip Battaglia -- no great interpretive effort necessary on my part, really.
It's Steven Woloshen's new short! Woo hoo! You'll recall that Mr. Woloshen is the animator from Montreal who has given us the giddily avant-garde slabs o'joy Curse of the Voodoo Child and Snip. Woloshen paints his abstract films directly onto the emulsion a la McLaren or Brakhage, and it boils and bursts and bewilders and bewitches.
He also loves blowing up his works to Cinemascope ratio, which cheers me up no end. His new one, Changing Evan, is again in Scope, and with the Count Basie score it already feels like a throwback -- echoes of widescreen Droopy cartoons and Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom -- and yet it simultaneously tweaks the format's original grandiose intentions. Here's a big-as-life aspect ratio invented to showcase epics of sword and sandal like The Robe, and the great landscape Woloshen uses it to showcase is a passel of bright squiggly lines. Love it.
Beyond "Heavens to Murgatroid" or "Yeah man I can totally dig it" or just "Mmm shiny object," there aren't many more nouns or adjectives needed to size up this 76-second short. I can, though, give you an idea of the arc of its three short acts. Act I (32 seconds): Count Basie boogie beat, looped. Little blue boxes. Interesting colorful things dancing in boxes. Boxes dance too. Act II (15 seconds): Little orange thing with spikes arrives, swamps screen. Jazz drops away, is replaced by aleatory mass of shouts, bellows, fists banged on the piano. Unfriendly shapes pulse in dismay. Act III (27 seconds): Boogie returns. Orange thing with spikes turns a passive light blue, gets smaller, fades away. Blue boxes dance again, interesting things dance again, all is dancy-ness. End. (The spiky orange thing is chicken pox, by the way -- the short is all about his daughter Evan catching it.)
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. His latest book Creepies is a board book for children with 16 wipe-free pages of famous quotes from Crime and Punishment.