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Fresh from the Festivals: November 2004's Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: I Want a Dog by Sheldon Cohen, The Phantom Inventory by Les Armatures, Creature Comforts by Richard Goleszowski, Stars by Maya Weksler, and Concert for a Carrot Pie by Janno Poldma and Heiki Ernits. 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:

I Want a Dog (2003), 10:09, directed by Sheldon Cohen, Canada. Contact: Hélène Tanguay, National Film Board of Canada, 3155 Côte de Liesse, St. Laurent QC Canada H4N 2N4 [V] 514.283.1191 [F] 514.283.3211.

The Phantom Inventory (LInventaire fantôme) (2004), 9:44, directed by Les Armateurs, France. Contact: Didier Brunner [V] +33149290977 [E] lesarmateurs@lesarmateurs.com

Creature Comforts (2003), 120:00, directed by Richard Goleszowski, U.K. Contact: Sarah Hodson [E] sarah.hodson@aardman.com [W] www.ardman.com

Stars (Cochavim) (2003), 4:48, directed by Maya Weksler, Israel. Contact: Maya Weksler [E] maya_wl@yahoo.com

Concert for a Carrot Pie(2002), 11:37, directed by Janno Põldma and Heiki Ernits, Estonia. Contact: Kalev Tamm [E] kalev@joonisfilm.ee [W] www.joonisfilm.ee

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I Want a Dog is visually a throwback to third grade school projects. Clip: © National Film Board of Canada, 2003, All rights reserved. Still: © 2003. Photograph courtesy of National Film Board of Canada.

I Want a Dog

I Want a Dog is a 2003 short from director Sheldon Cohen, director/animator of one of NFBs and Canadas best-loved shorts, The Sweater (1980), about a young hockey fan mortified that his worn-out hockey jersey has been replaced by mom with a brand-new sweater in the colors of his favorite teams deadliest rivals. I Want a Dog marks Cohens second adaptation of a childrens book by author Dayal Kaur Khalsa, following his 1998 version of Khalsas book The Snow Cat.

Saturating the screen with the by-the-numbers hues of a 101-color paint set, Cohen retells Khalsas story of a young girl who wants a dog but meets considerable resistance from her responsibility-obsessed parents. We first meet her alone in her bedroom, as the girl conducts an imaginary chorus of sampled dogs barking Blue Danube until she loses her balance and knocks the needle off the record player. Her neighborhood, we quickly see, is overflowing with dogs, but theres nothing canine in her house other than the collage of doggy pictures that completely covers her bedroom wall.

The girl tries various tactics to lure, smuggle, or otherwise convey a dog into the house; she leads a pack of dogs home with the smell of a sausage, insisting they just naturally like her, and even tries giving a pooch to her mother as a birthday surprise. In the end, though, it leads to nothing more than an earnest lecture about the multitudinous responsibilities involved in pet ownership. So the girl pushes her creativity to the limit and, in a burst of inspiration, ties an old roller skate to a leash and drags it with her everywhere. It never leaves her side, and at first her classmates jeer; but they cant bring pets to school either, so soon the school is overflowing with kids trailing pet roller skates.

The no-nonsense color palette and primitive face and body characteristics are reminiscent of folk artist Howard Finster (best known for his cover art for Talking Heads Little Creatures LP). Mainly, though, I Want a Dog is a throwback to the after-lunch art projects we all did in third grade; its textures were even scanned directly from construction paper cutouts. It can be simple or remarkably sophisticated, alternating between action that looks like it was shot on threes and intricately observed character closeups done smoothly and gracefully on ones. The acting is terrific, and there are wonderful bits of business like a boy in glasses negotiating a leashed roller skate tangled around his leg. The droll narration is by Marnie McPhail, and guitarist Zander Ary writes and performs several enthusiastic doo-wop originals, sung by alt-country vocalist Neko Case.

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The Phantom Inventory (LInventaire fantôme) uses a dreamily de-saturated palette of browns and blues to deliver its mood of near-dark chill. © Les Armateurs/Franck Dion 2004.

The Phantom Inventory (LInventaire fantôme)

A collection agent meets his match in The Phantom Inventory, a stop-motion armature short from the aptly named Les Armateurs studio under the direction of Franck Dion. In this supernatural chiller akin to Wildes Portrait of Dorian Gray, the display of unchained imagination is complemented by the filmmakers own liberation in their mixing of analogue and digital techniques.

The story concerns a bailiff from the Debt Collection Ministry and an afternoon appointment that doesnt go as planned. The setting, though unspecified, is probably Paris in the 1920s. The debt collector takes a long elevator ride to reach his quarry, a wizened, wheelchair-bound apartment dweller named Albert from whom there is nothing, at first glance, to collect. The gaunt, tall, crimson-suited bureaucrat asks the man exactly what he collects. Memories, sir, Albert replies, memories that no one wants anymore. A quick tour through empty rooms leads to the discovery of a secret door, opening on a grand hall of tall ornamental shelves stuffed silly with other peoples tchotchkes.

Having hit the mother lode, the civil servant wanders from object to object slapping To be seized tags on everything in sight a malfunctioning radio, a mirror that scares people but somethings following him, and the objects are getting weirder: a bust of a woman caught in a desperate gesture, a wooden boy in a cage, a bear trap. Theres sun shafting down from the skylights, but somehow its never enough, like in a library a half hour after they should have turned on the lights. When the collection itself starts to go on the move, dogging the bureaucrat and chasing him down aisles of deep shadows to a confrontation with his own unwanted memory, the owner of the apartment reappears to lead him away. The bailiff storms out, vowing to return the next day and take everything, but a final twist threatens his sanity and sends him packing, empty-handed.

The Phantom Inventory uses a dreamily de-saturated palette of browns and blues to deliver its mood of near-dark chill. The short is puppet-based, with the main characters depicted in standard real-world armatures, clothes and props. Rather than articulate the faces, though, the team wisely decided to wait for their characters to stop moving and then went in with the digital paintbox to achieve mouth and eye movement. Much of the huge, intricate set design was achieved through digital matte paintings that perfectly match the style of the real set dressing. Interestingly, character bodies and props move on twos, but the bailiffs eyes and the phantoms that chase him are animated on ones. The contrast could have been jarring, but here it reinforces the distance between the bailiffs world and the heightened supernatural reality he falls prey to.

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Creature Comforts is funny and first-rate. © Aardman Animation.

Creature Comforts

Talking animals have been a mainstay of animation from day one. Whats unusual in animation is giving over those voices, usually provided by actors, to the rough and unrehearsed cadence of the vox populi. Nick Park put non-actors voices into the animals of Creature Comforts in 1989, and ordinary Britons talking about their own domestic conditions suddenly metamorphosed into animals delivering bitter and very funny polemics against zoos. Implications suddenly shifted: an old-age pensioner who feels very well looked-after became a contented koala, a woman sick of being stuck in turned into a gorilla counting days in a pen, an exchange student from Brazil who missed the warmth and fresh meat of his homeland took the form of a jaguar.

The short earned Park an Oscar, and the rich conceit of the process led to a popular UK ad campaign for Heat Electric. There was still much gold left to mine, though, and last year ITV aired Creature Comforts the series, broadcast in 13 ten-minute chunks on Sunday nights. The episodes were directed by Richard Goleszowski, a long-time Aardman stalwart whose work includes Ident (anthologized last year in the touring version of The Animation Show), Rex the Runt for BBC2, and Robbie the Reindeer in Hooves of Fire, which he directed in 1999.

Every episode is a tightly-paced riff on a single theme, from going to the vet to making a living to taking beachside holidays. The exactitude and strong acting of the original short are preserved and expanded in vignettes where sharks talk about fear of deep water, slugs rap about gardening, and fleas discuss fate vis-á-vis genetic obligation.

There are 100 hilarious one-off jokes, like the peregrine falcon (voiced by a chopper pilot) who loves getting truckers on the M6 to flash their lights. But the genius of the series lies in its recurring characters: a rat couple, a long-suffering bloodhound, and a soft-spoken cat and dog come back week after week to hold forth on a variety of topics. (The cat and dog, who nearly steal the series, are real-life friends of Nick Parks.) In one of the funniest running gags, a racing dog talks about the pressures of life as a runner, only to abandon every conversation mid-sentence as he bursts from the starting gate. On the one occasion when he gets distracted and misses the buzzer, he regards the retreating pack philosophically and notes, Tactics are very important.

The production values are first-rate, as youd expect from Aardman, and the acting is strong and criminally subtle, which youd also expect. The question of real identities versus animal portrayals will keep you guessing, and the more subtle jokes will knock you gently off the couch. (The only American voice in the series emanates from the body of, natch, an oval-eyed alien, and two monkeys discuss probability while one works furiously at a typewriter.) Unusually for a festival item, the entire first series of Creature Comforts is now available on video and will make an excellent stocking-stuffer; however you may also need to cram a region-free player in that Yuletide hosiery because this ones only available in region 2 PAL DVD.

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Stars (Cochavim) is refreshingly primal and rough. © Maya Weksler.

Stars (Cochavim)

Stars is a traditionally-animated short in Hebrew from Maya Weksler, who created it as her senior thesis at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. A grandmother, surrounded on her deathbed by her grieving family, dies and ascends to heaven only to be assigned by the somewhat alien-looking head angel to join a pool of knitting seniors in rocking chairs. But I hate knitting! she protests, as she is given a box of golden yarn and needles and assigned a chair. Not in the mood to klatch with her new companions, and keening over her missed relatives, she drops the knitting needles, which promptly lodge in the ether and poke a hole in her cloud.

Back on Earth, its nighttime and one of her surviving family members is getting married. As the wedding proceeds, a new star pops into view: its the old womans hole in the cloud, leaking heavenly light down on the ceremony. The old womans new friends follow her lead and poke more holes in the firmament, and as the rabbi pronounces Mazel tov, a crazy-bright new constellation of ancestors erupts in the heavens. Mawkish? Yes. The animation, though, is refreshingly primal and rough, and the color palette is simple and reminiscent of the desert shades of the animators home country.

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Concert for a Carrot Pie gives children 11-minutes of insanity. © Eesti Joonisfilm.

Concert for a Carrot Pie

EPISODE ONE. Sun rises, shakes hands with moon, moon eclipses sun, exits. Blind rabbit wakes on rooftop, wanders away past cat conductor and six-member classical cat ensemble. Conductor announces Overture and First Episode - Awakening. Blind rabbit walks to house of grandmother, grandfather, granddaughter; wakes them. Grandma washes self, girl. Grandma prepares carrot pie recipe. Grandpa and girl fence with garden implements. Grandma gives protractor and saw to Grandpa and girl; Grandpa and girl go to garden to carve slice from giant carrot.

EPISODE TWO. Conductor announces Second Episode Merry Flies. Grandma does washing outdoors; two boy horseflies play with ball; blind rabbit appears briefly to shake their hand, leaves. Flies kick ball into Grandmas water bucket, spill water, make mud; flies frolic in mud. Grandma scrubs flies clean, but they get muddy again. Flies get tangled up in bedsheet; Grandma tries to hold them down; they soar into sky; woman loses shoes as she clings to sheet. Flies tear through sheet, fly away; Grandma parachutes to earth past pig in flying kayak. Grandma lets go of sheet, lands in floating wooden chest in ocean; sheet floats away and gets stuck in tree. Chorus of fish appear; Grandma brushes fishs teeth. Grandpa and girl return from carrot duty to find bucket overturned, Grandma missing; they search house.

EPISODE THREE. Conductor announces Third Episode Tragic Mice. Ensemble briefly ditches classical theme for free jazz; conductor stops them, takes it again from the top.

Italian boy and girl mice appear, singing tragic duet. Moribund boy mouse sees Grandmas shoe, imagines it as coffin at his own funeral. Blind rabbit appears, interrupts boy mouses reverie, shakes his hand, steps in shoe as he leaves, inadvertently walks away in it. Mouse chases rabbit, grabs shoe, lies inside; girl mouse gives chase, harangues boy mouse for being creepy. Blind rabbit wanders under tree with punctured bedsheet; arms go through holes; sheet covers him like ghost. Girl finds Grandmas shoe with mouse inside; she and Grandpa get in tug-of-war with mice over shoe when ghostly rabbit appears. Girl recognizes family sheet, asks where it came from; rabbit starts retracing steps.

EPISODE FOUR. Conductor announces Fourth Episode Fly Love. Two lady flies wander by; boy flies want to give chase but are filthy with mud; then they remember lady who washed them. Rabbit leads Grandpa and girl to tree overlooking ocean; they climb it for better view, see Grandmas feet sticking out of water in distance. They swim out to her, find her scrubbing a squid. Flies arrive and ask for scrubbing; Grandma cleans them too. Nearby fish notes Alls well that ends well. Family swim back to shore.

LAST EPISODE. Conductor announces Last Episode The Carrot Pie. Grandma bakes carrot pie, serves to family, mice, blind rabbit. Outside boy flies impress girl flies with displays of concertina playing and ball kicking. Fly bicycle-kicks ball high into sky, past kayaking pigs, into firmament, where moon has arrived to relieve sun for the day. Ball knocks out suns teeth; sun is pissed; moon is highly amused. Conductor allows ensemble to blow free jazz as credits roll.

FOOTNOTES. Concert for a Carrot Pie (Opera by Cartoon Means, 2003), directed by Janno Poldma and Heiki Ernits, long-time staff of Tallinnfilm Studio, Estonia. Animation is traditional; Estonian-style shaggy-dog hijinks are traditional; traditional pie recipe is included in credits. Eleven minutes of pure insanity for children won special mention for Unexpected Moments of Madness from I Castelli Animati festival, Italy, 2003. Coldwater wash only. No starch.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He is the creator of Purple Passion, the imaginary energy drink that contains only as many calories as you think it does.

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