Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Backseat Bingo by Liz Blazer, Fowl Play! by Christopher De Santis, Save Virgil by Brad Ableson, A Work in Progress by Wes Ball and Tricks for a Treat by Jeff Mednikow. 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.
Backseat Bingo (2004), 5:25, directed by Liz Blazer, U.S. Contact: Liz Blazer [W] www.backseatbingo.com
Fowl Play! (2002), 2:45, directed by Christopher De Santis (U.S). Contact: Christopher De Santis [E] firstname.lastname@example.org
A Work in Progress , 8:00, directed by Wes Ball (U.S.). Contact: Wes Ball [E] email@example.com
Tricks for a Treat , 1:50, directed by Jeff Mednikow (U.S.).
Are you thinking about it right now? They are in Backseat Bingo. © Liz Blazer.
You thought about sex a few minutes ago. Youre thinking about it right now, and in 28 minutes you will ponder it once again. Weighing as heavily as it does on your mind, O Relatively Young One, it shouldnt surprise you that sex is a choice topic with senior citizens, too. Libido has no sell-by date, which means people who probably look just like your parents are doing it RIGHT NOW.
Its good news for them, a concept that is not lost on the interviewees in Backseat Bingo by Liz Blazer. Blazer interviewed a gaggle of pensioners and used their voices as the basis for her animated short, which was created digitally in a cartooney, 2D idiom. In choice sound bites, Blazer cross-cuts between interviews with men and women, some alone and some with their spouses, talking about shopping around after the death of a loved one or describing their best character traits in a slow slide from documentary interview to video dating testimonial. In one memorable exchange a husband reveals that, yes, it still works, and when it works its just the best time ever. This earns a frankly ambiguous chuckle from his wife. Great for him, maybe, but well
Backseat Bingo is cut together with spot-on timing, is full of momentum, and makes a terrific short. On the face of it, though, its hard to see why it had to be animated. The characters are unexaggerated, never going beyond mild caricature, and the acting is dispirited. To make elements of documentary work in animation, usually the reality must suffer some major stylistic mash-up, whether it be the species-switcheroo comedy of Aardmans Creature Comforts series or the normality-smashing psychedelia of Chris Landreths Ryan. Backseat Bingo appropriates the voices of old folks at home and through the magic of animation transforms them into old folks at home.
Ducks, penguins and ostriches join the soccer league in Fowl Play! © Christopher De Santis.
In Christopher De Santis sprightly animated short Fowl Play!, ducks play soccer with penguins and ostriches to the tune of Song 2 by Blur, which is sure to bring a smile to the faces of the under-five set. It may also drive serious men mad, so in the spirit of Charles Cros The Salt Herring and to boost my word count, here are some facts relating to the main points covered in this short:
Penguins (of the order Sphenisciformes) are flightless birds which live in the southern hemisphere, primarily in cold climates but also in the tropics. They eat krill, grow to 1.1 meters in height, and move in large groups. The species emerged 40 million years ago in the Eocene era.
Ducks, from the family Anatidae, are aquatic birds found in both saltwater and freshwater. Some duck species are migratory; some are nomadic; many are domesticated. The male or drake molts in summer, usually before migration. The down from Eider ducks is shed freely, and need not be plucked.
Soccer, also known as Ostrich, is the most common sport in the world today. Two teams of 11 players each use their small vestigial wings to bat the ball past the goalie to score points. Of the worlds near quarter-billion ostrich players, the majority come from Europe, where massive football farms turn out thousands of these flightless birds who not only can maintain tight ball control but also achieve land speeds up to 65 km/hr.
Blur is a popular British pop group whose albums include Think Tank and Parklife. For many years Blur carried on a famous feud with fellow chart-toppers Oasis, which remained unsettled until 1998 when Noel Gallagher beat Damon Albarn in a refereed match of log-throwing in Pittenweem, Scotland.
Save Virgil almost became save Brad. © Brad Ableson.
Animator Brad Ableson, who makes his rent storyboarding for The Simpsons, gave up a lot to make his 14-minute short Save Virgil. He gave up sleep. He gave up his credit rating. He also gave up seven feet of his colon. A victim of colonic ulcers, Ableson nearly killed himself, literally, to make Save Virgil in his spare time with a Hollywood crew and a handful of famous names. So let me state up front: not for a nothing of a fraction of a second should Brad Ableson consider giving any percentage of a rats ass about my opinion of his film, which is really quite funny, nor under any circumstances should I be allowed to let said opinion spew forth vapidly from the monkeymind gray matter inside my sorry skull in the first place.
That said, was Save Virgil worth dying for? Jesus, no. Except, of course, for the inestimable and glorious virtue of being able to say he did it. Save Virgil is basically the dirty prime-time special that the Family Guy crew wish they were doing a sort of animated X-Files gag reel with a budget. Its too blue for prime time, but you may catch it on the box someday on HBO or Showtime. And while such a scatological truffle may have been worth a week of late nights and a couple of maxed-out credit cards, only in the lowest circle of Hollywood hell should product such as this be bought with two trips to the hospital.
Save Virgil is a live-action short with traditional cel animation schlepped in on top à la Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It tells the story of Virgil, who entered the world from the womb of a normal woman but, freakishly, came out not human but Animated. Repulsive and ridiculed by all, Virgil survives kindergarten group-beatings only to fall in love sitting in front of a TV set, smitten by a big-bosomed after-school animated heroine named Viking Girl. He sets off to find his love, surviving a harrowing bout of hitchhiking in a VW bus before arriving in Hollywood at the gates of famous Hollywood Studios (you know, on Melrose). But after he discovers that Viking Girl isnt real, he perches on top of the Hollywood sign threatening to blow himself up, where he reveals his life story to a TV reporter (the details of which form the shorts narrative, which is told in flashback).
Virgil is voiced by Man Show and Loveline funnyman Adam Carolla, and he imbues Virgil with the attitude and speech patterns of Mr. Birchum, a Vietnam vet shop teacher that he originally created for KROQs Kevin and Bean morning show. There are some great gags, including a brief claymation sequence brought on by Virgils bong-induced hallucinations; and Virgils Dads first reaction of You been sleepin around, woman! to his wife on the occasion of Virgils birth is priceless. Still, overflowing as it is with tit jokes, ass jokes, poo jokes, dick jokes, pot jokes, and Gary Coleman jokes, it aims so low and tries so hard that it misses the dartboard and knocks down the wall. Still, this would play great stoned.
Save Virgil will be many different things to many different people, but to writer/director/animator Brad Ableson it will always be fondly remembered as, in his words, independent film created for advancement of career. And he had to do it, not for his career but for himself, whether or not he inadvertently leads his audience to share that assessment. He neednt worry about the career thing as Im sure UPN and FX are already in a bidding war for his services. However, on the subject of the longevity of animated series on bottom-feeding broadcast networks, I have six words of warning for the artist: The Dick And Paula Celebrity Special. It was great, but it was on FX, which is like stocking Beluga caviar in the salad bar at Sizzler. Needless to say, it didnt last. Better, surely, for Ableson to keep the corporate day job and milk that cash cow for all its worth and fill his spare time with something that, if not worth dying for, is at least a bit more personal.
A shape-changing bear learns to be himself in A Work in Progress. © Wes Ball.
A Work in Progress
Being a student filmmaker is a lot like being a starving independent filmmaker, with the added bonus that the student doesnt have to pay for any music cues. Everything in the school library, and the students library, is up for grabs, and dont you just love the soundtrack to Shawshank Redemption? What works in support of a feature film with a two-hour dramatic arc, however, can totally derail a short film. Henrys Garden, an otherwise charming short with a wonderful signature image of a garden overrun by runaway car tires, turned out to be unwatchable because of its screamingly overwrought musical score.
A Work in Progress, the third-year thesis project from Florida State University film school student Wes Ball, is a morality tale about a lonely girl who makes friends by making up stories, and its bathetic story line is further caramelized by its appropriated soundtrack. In live action sequences that open and close the piece and reappear as interstitials along the way, a young girl sits under a tree at the edge of a field full of other young people tossing a ball in an orgy of wholesome fun. With no one to talk to, the girl takes out a pad and draws and speaks aloud the story of a bear without a friend. The bear tries to buddy up with, and make himself look like, a turtle (who retracts into his shell), a frog (who hops away across the pond), and a bird (who remains airborne as the bears improvised wings fall apart leaf-by-leaf and he plummets from the sky).
Hey, did you know that the best thing you can do is just be yourself? I read that somewhere, I think. The bear learns it, the girl learns it (when slowly, one by one, the crowd in the field becomes the crowd at her feet, hanging on every word of her story), and you learned it just now when I told you. So, best of luck with your lives, everybody go and be well. The animation in the piece is actually very well done, and the character acting is terrific, particularly considering this is the artists first animated piece. But its like the old Disney dilemma every project has to be singularly expressive, so they hire Gerald Scarfe to design Hercules; but nothing about it can be unpalatable or weird, so Alan Menken scores and Michael Bolton sings. The results offend no one, and engage even fewer. A Work in Progress aims for middle-middle and scores a bullseye, and as Mr. Miyagi warned, Walk down middle, sooner or later get squished.
A cat has to perform Tricks for a Treat. © Jeff Mednikow.
Tricks for a Treat
Tricks for a Treat is a keen comic scherzo from animator Jeff Mednikow. In this traditionally-animated piece, a cat named Shadow perches on the kitchen linoleum anticipating a tasty tidbit from his owner, but the woman refuses to relinquish the goody until kitty does its trick. It has to be special, this performance, or no num-num; so Shadow proceeds through a series of ever-more outlandish shenanigans to earn the mystery morsel. At under two minutes this is way too short for me to be any more specific, so if you can find a copy for yourself, enjoy.
The animation is sturdy and the acting robust, quite appropriate for an animator who has already worked and interned for Nickelodeon, Bill Plympton, and New Yorks Noodle Soup Productions. Tricks for a Treat was created by the animator as his third-year project at New Yorks School of Visual Arts, from which Mednikow is scheduled to get his degree in May 2005.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. His checking account number is available on demand (deposits only, please).