Fresh from the Festivals: November 2002's Film Reviews

Maureen Furniss reviews five short films fresh from the festival circuit: Hessi James by Johannes Weiland, Tomek Baginski's The Cathedral, The Lark by Gil Kenan, Passing Moments by Don Phillips, and Slava Ushakov's Orange. 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:

Hessi James (Cockney James, Germany, 2000). 6 min. Dir: Johannes Weiland (Germany). Script and Voice: Badesalz. Producer: Martin Burkert. Score: Thomas Mehlhorn. Produced at Filmakademi Baden-Wuerttemberg. Web: http://www.hessi-themovie.de .

Katedra (The Cathedral, Poland, 2002). 6 min. Dir: Tomek Baninski (Poland). Story: Jacek Dukaj. Prod: Jarek Sawko and Piotr Sikora. Music: Adam Rosiak. Produced at Platige Image. Contact: Piotr Sikora. Tel: +48 60 134 30 09. Or contact: Platige Image, Pilicka 58, 02-613, Poland. Tel/Fax: +48 22 844 64 74. Email: info@platige.com. Web: http://www.platige.com/katedra.

The Lark (USA, 2002). 10 min. Dir: Gil Kenan (USA). Music composition and orchestration: Douglas Pipes. Produced at the University of California, Los Angeles. Contact: Gil Kenan. E-mail: gkenan@attbi.com.

Passing Moments (USA, 2002). 2.5 min. Dir: Don Phillips (USA). Produced at the Ringling School of Art and Design. Music: Pat Osborne. Contact: Don Phillips, Jr., 1914 Shadowood Court, Spartanburg, SC 29301 USA. Tel: +01 941 266 6983. E-mail: dphillips@ringling.edu. Web: www.rsad.edu/~dphillip .

Orange (USA, 2002). 11 min. Dir: Slava Ushakov (Russia). Prod: Mikhail Shindel. Produced at Kinofilm. Contact: Kinofilm and Slava Ushakov, 10980 Ohio Ave. #202, Los Angeles, CA 90024 USA. Tel: +01 310 444 9367. E-mail: slavaushy@cs.com. Web: http://www.slavaushakov.com .

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Hessi James features bug action set in the desert. © 2000 Ascaland Animations.

Hessi James

Two major influences have shaped the 6-minute Hessi James, a student project directed by Johannes Weiland at Filmakademi Baden-Wuerttemberg. Most significant is the German comedy duo Badesalz, which have been performing since the mid-1980s and have recorded CDs, videos and a feature film based upon their work. Weilands film is an adaptation of one of their most famous sketches, originally recorded in 1993, the story of a small Cockney bug who overpowers all he meets with his unceasing chatter. Set in a desert town, the film attempts to recreate the atmosphere of Oliver Stones film, U-Turn, employing Maya to create the dusty gas station where the action takes place. The textures employed in the work were painted onto paper.

Harmonica music sets the scene as the action opens on two bugs lingering in the filling station. One, the owner, warns the other, a tough roach who goes by the name John G. G. Tucker, that he should not provoke the puny bug who madly drives up to a pump, careening across the open desert landscape. Action is captured in what might be called an MTV style, with hand held looking zooms and blurs. Not heeding the advice, Tucker meets his destiny when his eardrums explode from the non-stop, unintelligible banter spewing forth from the chatty, strongly-accented little insect. Dialogue, originally in German, has been dubbed into English.

Before he entered the Filmakademie in 1998, Weiland worked at the Städtische Bühnen Freiburg as assistant stage designer and assistant director. He also worked on several animation-related projects with production companies on a freelance basis. One year in the making, Hessi James was released on 35mm film. It has won several awards at festivals, as well as a Student Academy Award nomination (from the USA).

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The director's architectural background is highlighted in Katedra. © 2002 Platige Image.

The Cathedral

Katedra (The Cathedral), a computer animated film by Polish director Tomek Baginski, made a name for itself when it won the award for Best Animated Short at SIGGRAPH in 2002. Also an adaptation, the film is based on an 80-page story by Jacek Dukaj. However, other influences, such as the architecture of Antonio Gaudi, the paintings of Zdzislaw Beksinski, and the animated works of Mamoru Oshi, such as GITS and Blood, are also apparent in the work

The narrative element of this work is relatively minimal: a man makes a pilgrimage to a cathedral that rests on the edge of an abyss, where he undergoes a transformation of sorts. Dense in atmosphere and lacking dialogue, the six minute work is both dramatic and contemplative. A fiery ball in the background, filling the sky, and stone-like faces that stir within the cathedral walls are visually interesting elements that complement the quietness of the central character. Covered in shadow, this figure drifts slightly between a realistic representation and one that is highly stylized. The director felt his strengths were not in character animation, so he devoted more attention to the environments. This seems to be a natural decision for Baginski, who studied architecture for three years before becoming a modeler and animator at Platige Image, where he has worked for four years.

Baginski worked with the storys author, Jacek Dukaj, over a year and a half period to create a screenplay for the short film. He then received the support of his employers at Platige Image, in the form of both funding and equipment, to create the film. He worked on it full-time for 15 months, though in total it took over two and a half years to complete. Though motion-capture sequences were created, in the end the director said the post-production work on this material was too time consuming and this footage was used only in a small number of distance shots. Images throughout the rest of the film were keyframed, using 3dsMax4 for modeling, animation and rendering. Other applications used include Photoshop for painting; Adobe After Effects for compositing; and Softimage DS for editing.

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The Lark becomes an abused woman's protector. © 2002 Gil Kenan.

The Lark

Two days of live-action photography, one year of animation. This is how director Gil Kenan describes the production of his graduate thesis film, The Lark. That kind of makes you wonder what the attraction of the animation process would bebut then you see the finished film and know it was worth it.

The Lark tells the story of a domineering, abusive man and the woman he has pushed to the brink with verbal and physical assaults. The cycle is broken one day when a bird appears in the window and is taken in by the woman. Eventually the bird grows, quite literally, to fulfill a role as the womans protector or so it seems. The ending is happy in a very dark kind of way.

What is interesting about this film, beyond the story itself, is the range of techniques employed in it, as well as its visual style. The woman and man are live performers who were filmed in real-time on a black stage for masking purposes and then pixilated through the use of After Effects (also used for lighting). The bird was created as a stop-motion puppet. The space in which these characters appear is 2-dimensional and stylized; the walls are literally cut in half to reveal interior and exterior space within a shot. The entire work is created in black and white, lending a kind of nostalgic feeling to the suburban setting.

The result is a film that is interesting in terms of its story, its look and its technical achievement -- elements that integrate well within such an offbeat tale. Sound, too, is employed effectively with music composed and orchestrated by Douglas Pipes. Kenan received his MFA in Animation from the University of California, Los Angeles in spring 2002.

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Romance comes to strangers on a train in Passing Moments. © 2002 Don Phillips, Jr.

Passing Moments

From Ringling School of Art and Design comes Passing Moments, a senior thesis by director Don Phillips. Set in the 1930s, the film employs Art Deco design around male and female characters who meet suddenly on a train and are mutually attracted though there are barriers that stand between them. The film is a short study in character animation, influenced by the work of the PDI and Pixar studios, with no dialogue. Story details are suggested through subtle movement and facial expression, as well as images representing the internal thoughts of the male character. Unfortunately, these thoughts occupy so much of his time that he misses the opportunity to express his feelings to the woman of his dreams.

Phillips employed a range of applications in creating his film, including Alias|Wavefront Maya 4.0, Deep Paint 3D and Nothing Real Shake 2.4. Although the characters and most of the environments were 3D, Photoshop was used to create some 2D elements that were composited into the film.

The director came to the work with a range of professional experience, including an internship at LucasArts Entertainment, where he worked on character animation for a video game. He also interned at Animink, Inc., where he created traditional animation and did cleanup for commercials. Passing Moments has been well received, winning a Student Academy Award and appearing within SIGGRAPHs Electronic Theater, both in 2002.

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Orange follows a sailor's experiences in a small town. © 2002 Kinofilm.

Orange

Orange tells the somewhat loosely structured story of a man who goes through a series of actions within a small town. The man, a sailor, appears to be attracted to a woman who sells oranges there. When he comes into port he buys fruit from her and she gazes wistfully at him, seemingly intoxicated by the lingering smoke of his cigarette. While he is in port, he engages in a chess game with a man there. Though he loses at first, on his next attempt he literally takes home the bank, which appears to result in his winning the young womans love as well. During these adventures, he is followed by a small mouse.

The visual style of the piece and the music work together to complement the storytelling, which is lively and unpredictable. Told without dialogue, the film is interesting to watch, in part because one never quite knows where the story is going. The director has created funny asides that are worked into the background or cut into the story as quick cutaways. For example, there is a huge fish that quickly snaps up things as they fall into the water and a beached whale that onlookers try to push back into the water.

Unfortunately, there are also elements which are less compelling to watch, which is unfortunate. In order to build his chess board, the sailor ventures to Africa and comes across some tribal members who lead him on a trek to hunt a rhinoceros for its tusk. I find this material, which is somewhat stereotypical and involves poaching, to be a major distraction in an otherwise well-made film. On the other hand, the action that the tribal members undertake in guiding him through the terrain is well developed; one by one, they succumb to dangers along the way in a sequence that is well-timed and humorous.

Ushakov worked for the Pilot and Nils studios in Moscow before moving to America and beginning work for Kinofilm in Los Angeles. Orange was created as a personal project at the studio, with funding from Kinofilm. It was made using cel animation and 35mm film.

Maureen Furniss, Ph.D. is founding editor of Animation Journal and author of Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (1998). She teaches in the Department of Film and Digital Media at Savannah College of Art and Design, in Georgia, and is currently writing a book related to animation production.

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