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Fresh from the Festivals: October 2002's Film Reviews

Maureen Furniss reviews five short films fresh from the festival circuit: The Mosquito and the Horse by Mikk Rand, Michael Overbeck's Tongues and Taxis, Its Alive! by Terry Ziegelman and Paul George, Caged by Ashley Hoffman and Dan Blank's Shadowplay. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

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.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.

This Month:

The Mosquito and the Horse (Estonia, 2001). 11.5 min. Dir: Mikk Rand (Estonia). Computer Graphics: Raivo Möllits. Designer: Jaanus Orgusaar. Produced as a personal project at Multi Film Ltd. and Nukufilm. Contact: Rikk Rand, Multi Film, C.R. Jakobsoni 14, Tallinn 10128 Estonia. Tel: +372 6009237. Fax: +372 6009238. Email: info@multifilm.ee. Web: http://www.multifilm.ee.

Tongues and Taxis (USA, 2000). 7.5 min. Dir: Michael Overbeck (USA). Produced at Rhode Island School of Design. Contact: Mike Overbeck or Hyun-Ho Kang (distributor). Email: mikeoverbeck@hotmail.com or ho@skunk.tv. Web: http://www.mikeoverbeck.com or http://www.skunktv.com.

Its Alive! (USA, 2001). 2.5 min. Dir: Terry Ziegelman (USA) and Paul George (Venezuela). Lead Anim: Stephen Johnson (USA). Technical Dir: Jamie Kirschenbaum. Produced at Savannah College of Art and Design. Contact: Terry Ziegelman. Email: z_depth@hotmail.com. Web: http://www.itsalive3d.com.

Caged (USA, 2002). 3 min. Dir: Ashley Hoffman (USA). Produced at the University of California, Los Angeles. Contact: Ashley Hoffman. Email: hoffmana@ucla.edu.

Shadowplay (USA, 2002). 15.5 min. Dir: Dan Blank (USA). Co-prod: Cynthia Allen. Composer: Ryan Shore. Sound Des: Clilly Castiglia. 2D Anim: Louis Mitchell, Bill Moore, Alex Woo. Contact: Dan Blank, Danmation Pictures. Email: danmation@mac.com. Web: http://www.danmation.com.

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The Mosquito and the Horse. © Multi Film 2001.

The Mosquito and the Horse

Over his ten-year career, Estonian Mikk Rand has established himself as an award-winning puppet animator, working in both the short film format and for television. In The Mosquito and the Horse (2001), Rand has combined a mixture of live-action and animation techniques, both traditional and computer-generated, in a film clearly reflecting the directors influences: Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch.

The films narrative is based on a traditional Estonian fairytale, telling the story of a group of mosquitoes that challenge a horse to a contest of strength. As the film begins, it evokes an almost documentary sensibility, in part through its use of voice-over narration (in English). Though the film might at first seem to be a relatively traditional work, it is not long until this impression changes, and drastically. The character design and voice recording, along with fantastically unrestricted cinematography and editing, combine with folk songs (sung in Estonian, with English subtitles) that might be described as quirky or maybe just really odd. Some dialogue is presented in word bubbles printed on the film as well. So much is going on, on so many levels, that the film defies its viewer to look away -- and who would want to? Its all wonderful. The Mosquito and the Horse clearly demonstrates how successful a film can be operating outside the classical Hollywood model.

The Mosquito and the Horse was made for television as a personal project within the Multi Film and Nukufilm studios, with support from the Estonian Film Foundation and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia. It employs a variety of production tools: dpsReality Animate, MAYA Alias|Wavefront, Creatoon, and Digital Fusion. It has screened at film festivals around the world.

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Tongues and Taxi. © Michael Overbeck.

Tongues and Taxis

I distinctly recall watching Tongues and Taxis (2000) at a film festival screening of student works and thinking that it stood out from the rest quite clearly. The reason, basically, is that its characters and story are remarkably interesting, surprising and imaginative — I hate to add — for a student work. Essentially, it tells the story of a man who becomes angry and bites off his tongue. His pet cat comes to the rescue with a staple gun, which readies the man for his trip to the doctor, where the tongue launches into adventures of its own. The cat comes through again at the end of the film, as the tongue — which grows to gigantic proportions — threatens the city. The story rests somewhere between a dreamlike stream-of-consciousness work and a perfectly synchronized almost linear narrative.

Director Michael Overbeck explains that Tongues and Taxis grew out of a blind storyboarding process, in which he drew up a storyboard from a single picture and gathered ideas for actions and characters as he drew. The result, he explains, is that he began by developing visual gags and characters, with themes and plotlines emerging later. Watching the film, one can see how his process influenced his work, in a positive way. Clearly apparent, too, is the influence of Monty Python, Richard Condie and especially Gary Larsen. Overbeck created the film as his degree project at Rhode Island School of Design using Flash 4 and Maya 2.0 to create its images, as well as Final Cut (for sound editing) and After Effects. It has shown at a wide range of festivals across the world and has won several prizes.

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It's Alive! © 2001 Paul George/Terry Ziegelman.

It's Aive!

Drawing upon the conventions of the horror film genre, Its Alive! (2001) tells the story of a creature who brings to life a little Frankenstein-like dog. To suggest the look of an old movie, a scratchy effect is added to the muted color images in the computer-generated production. English-language dialogue is included on black and white intertitles, suggesting a silent film aesthetic. In creating Its Alive!, the two directors of the film approached the project from very different perspectives. Terry Ziegelman drew upon his background in illustration and painting, using a self-described pragmatic approach, while Paul George came to the project with training in music and a more improvisational attitude.

The directors endeavored to create stylized characters and animation, avoiding a photo-realistic look that they felt might overshadow the films story. The project originated with George, who designed its characters, drawing inspiration from Chuck Jones and Tim Burton. Originally, Zeigelman, who is currently employed by Big Idea Productions, was brought on the project as a lighting/texture artist. However, he took over as the projects director after George accepted a position at Digital Domain. Its Alive! was completed as a graduate thesis work at Savannah College of Art and Design. SCAD later developed it into a promotional DVD, using it as a showpiece to represent its student work.

A wide range of software packages were used in creating Its Alive!, including Maya, Deep Paint, Photoshop, Renderman and After Effects. Many textures and backgrounds were painted traditionally and applied digitally. The film has shown in various film festivals, including the World Animation Celebration, where it won second place in the Student category.

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Caged. © Ashley Hoffman.

Caged

Ashley Hoffmans computer-generated work, Caged (2002), was created as a second-year work at the University of California, Los Angeles Animation Workshop. It tells the story of a girl who ventures into her basement and finds a caged object, which looks a bit like a piece of crumpled paper. She takes out a key, removing it from the cage and attaching it to a leash. Eventually, the once-caged object breaks free of the leash and the basement and soars upward, joining birds in the sky.

The girl character that appears in the film is somewhat reminiscent of a Jiri Trnka figure in that the face is fixed in its design. The entire production is relatively spare in detail, no doubt reflecting the fact that it is not a more fully developed graduation project. Backgrounds are composed of variously shaped geometric forms. No dialogue is used; sound is limited to effects. The only color images appear at the end, as the paper object flies into a blue sky. MAYA was used for modeling, animation and lighting, while Photoshop was used for titles and Premiere for sequence assembly.

Hoffman describes her influences as including Faith Hubley and Nick Park, for their strong personal styles, as well as Piet Kroon, as one example of an independent animator who challenges viewers to fill in the blanks and find the meaning of the story themselves. This seems to be a goal that Hoffman is working toward, as she seems most interested in how her open-ended story is interpreted differently by each viewer. While Hoffmans work is satisfying in its simplicity, I think Caged would have benefited from the addition of visual and thematic layering. Otherwise, a project tends to become a technical exercise without revealing much of the personal style that Hoffman finds admirable in artists such as Hubley, Park and Kroon.

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Shadowplay. © Dan Blank 2001, Danmation Pictures.

Shadowplay

Dan Blank created Shadowplay (2002) at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, as a Junior/Senior Thesis project for the Animation Production Workshop. Like the other films discussed here, digital technology was employed by Blank, but in a different way. While images were created using traditional tabletop and 2D techniques, the animation itself was recorded with a Nikon digital still camera. Adobe After Effects and Photoshop also were employed.

Shadowplay is a challenging project in more than one way. First is subject matter. The film tells the story of a boy named Akio, who is killed during the bombing of Hiroshima. The flash of the bomb seared Akios shadow into a wall and it is that shadow which goes around the city, searching for his family and trying to make sense of what has occurred. Few animated films have taken on this topic or any drama as emotionally-engaged; the Japanese features Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies come to mind, though of course they are on a much larger scale. The second challenge comes directly out of the first: creating compassion for a character that has no facial expression and is relatively limited in what it can do. Related to this is creating sets that can reflect the scale of devastation that occurred; naturally, Blank is limited to a relatively small set (he worked in a 10 x 20 foot room), and it seems his interest is actually in relating a very small, personal part of the larger story.

A third challenge, I think, is the length of the film, which runs 15 minutes. It is difficult to sustain the story and compassion for this particular character throughout such a long period. Blanks work would have had a stronger impact if it had been shortened somewhat, perhaps by three to five minutes. The personal stories of other victims woven into the film give it depth; I like the numerous still illustrations on walls that are used to launch these stories. However, Akios interaction with his family and, in particular, his subsequent search probably is given too much time. The 2D shadow animation was recorded first in the production process. Perhaps its pacing was relatively difficult to assess at that early point.

Having said that, there is still much to be commended in the project, including Blanks sensitive treatment of this significant topic — and the fact that he took it on in the first place. Noteworthy, too, is the level of professionalism evident in the production. In terms of sound, an area all too often overlooked in student productions, Shadowplay is quite ambitious. An original score by Ryan Shore was recorded by an orchestra of fifteen, including a blend of Japanese and Western instruments and sounds. Voice talent includes accomplished Asian actors from film, television and theater. Brand himself has done voice-overs and has interned at MTV in New York. The production of Shadowplay was supported through a George Heinemann Production Grant, a Charles & Lucille King Foundation Scholarship, the Richard Protovin Award, and several other grants and awards. It has been screened at several festivals within the United States and already has won several awards.

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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