Fresh from the Festivals: October 2006’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films cNote by Chris Hinton, First Flight by Kyle Jefferson and Cameron Hood, Tragic Story with Happy Ending (Histica Trica com Final Feliz) by Regina Pessoa, Puppet by Patrick Smith and Shipwrecked by Frodo Kuipers. 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.

cNote (2004), 6:45, directed by Chris Hinton (Canada). Contact: Hélène Tanguay, Marketing Manager, NFB [E] h.tanguay@nfb.ca [W] www.nfb.ca

First Flight (2006), 8:00, directed by Kyle Jefferson and Cameron Hood (Canada). Contact: Olivier Mouroux, Paramount, [T] 818.695.3425 [F] 818.695.6180 [E] Omouroux@DreamWorks.com

Tragic Story with Happy Ending (Histórica Tràgica com Final Feliz) (2005), 7:40, directed by Regina Pessoa (Portugal). Contact: Julie Arseneault, Marketing Manager, NFB [E] j.arseneault@nfb.ca [W] www.nfb.ca

Puppet (2006), 6:30, directed by Patrick Smith (U.S.) Contact: Patrick Smith [E] pat@blendfilms.com [W] www.blendfilms.com

Shipwrecked (2005), 5:30, directed by Frodo Kuipers (The Netherlands). Contact: Aad van Ierland, RNTV [T] +31 (0) 35-672438 [E] rntv@rnw.nl

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A hundred bucks? A Yucatan sinkhole? Or the middle of a piano? You may see them all in cNote. © 2004 National Film Board of Canada. 

cNote

Its been a good year for the late Norman McLaren NFB has a seven-DVD box set out, and holy cats to that action (a full appreciation will be forthcoming in these pages in the next few weeks), and with his shorts touring the Americas in this 65th year of animation from the National Film Board, hes getting more cultural headroom than ever. So I shouldnt hesitate mentioning him up front as a preface to writing about Chris Hintons new short cNote, an abstract piece to a jazz soundtrack. As Hinton, or other abstractionists like Steve Woloshen, would surely agree, when it comes to non-narrative eye candy with a beat, McLaren casts such a long shadow theres no point dodging it sure, he did it first, and hats off to Hinton for carrying the torch.

Hintons cNote is about seven minutes long and accompanies a free-jazz workout by a septet with a clarinet out front. The long strings of clusters, silent spaces, and tone blasts the musicians deliver in the soundtrack are complemented by polygonal cutouts, squiggles, toothpick-matrix chains that spin and multiply like carbon compounds, little agitated clouds of fog, and tornadoes of alphabet letters. Separately the music and visuals would be standalone treats; together they coax a hundred moods into existence in rapid succession.

The pieces of arts-and-crafts detritus making merry all over the screen look at various times like cutout construction paper, distressed watercolors, scratches, crisp CG work, and that hair in the gate of the sixth-period educational film that crawls and crawls and suddenly leaps to freedom. The execution of mood shifts from peacefulness to frenzy is all in Hintons juxtaposition of one color against another: bright saturated rectangles coruscating wildly when all seven musicians improv at once, or a single red slash on a nervous background throbbing with sparks and possibility when the clarinetist teases a continuum of textures out of a long held note.

Hinton is the creator of some truly out-of-control comedy masterpieces, including A Nice Day in the Country and his recent Oscar-nominated short Nibbles. cNote takes the raw, mad energy propelling these earlier works and pushes it to the foreground, and like McLaren did in Blinkety Blank and Hen Hop and so many other seminal shorts he smashes visual excitement onto the proscenium frame, turning that TV or movie theater screen from a window onto drama into briefly a gallery wall with a 24-painting-per-second refresh rate.

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A man slips surly bonds of another kind as he helps a bird take First Flight. Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation. 

First Flight

First Flight delivers a transformative life experience to a run-of-the-mill schlub in eight minutes or less. The schlub is a middle-aged man with a paunch and a comb-over, a low-level accounting functionary type with a briefcase so tidy it could kill bacteria on the other end of a phone. In an outlying urban area of brownstones and cramped landscaping that doesnt quite qualify as city parks, the man walks up to a bus stop one morning and waits for his usual commute.

His brow has been deformed by decades of worry, and his expression doesnt improve when his wait is interrupted by a chirruping bird sharing his seat. The bird is a tiny fledgling whose eyes cant quite focus, and no sooner does it notice the man than it bonds with him as it would with a parent. The man looks up into the tree beside the bench, but this baby bird has no mother or father watching over it; its strictly an orphan that fell to bench-level and never got the flight training necessary to return to the tree.

It could certainly learn, though, if anyone would just take the time out to do the teaching, and the man discovers that even his limited flapping gestures are being taken as gospel and very nearly helping the bird become airborne. The man, though, isnt the least bit confident he could do the job, as sympathetic as he is to the bird, because he and his bus have schedules to keep. Indeed he can only offer the most peremptory encouragement before the bus arrives, and he must decide whether to help the bird take to the skies or simply take flight himself.

At least a small part of the American movie-going public i.e., selected ticket-buyers in Los Angeles and New York got to experience First Flight on the big screen this summer as a short subject in front of the animated hit Over the Hedge. Like Hedge, First Flight is a product of DreamWorks Animation Studios in Glendale, and its the passion project of directors Kyle Jefferson and Cameron Hood. The story kernel started forming as much as three years ago and was finally approved as a budgeted project after the pair pitched it to studio executives in 2004.

Hood and Jefferson are both Sheridan College grads whove been involved in projects on the Glendale campus since the era of Prince of Egypt. Their storytelling is impeccable, and the character animation and design is as richly textured as one would expect from a studio stuffed with such talent and resources. The piece is wordless, and the pantomime more than carries the drama which unfortunately makes James Dooleys fine score almost superfluous. Character animators know that to make the audience come to you, youve gotta hold back, but its the rare studio executive who can show the same restraint when theres budget enough for a full orchestra; and unfortunately like too many a DreamWorks or Disney product the music in First Flight plus-plus-plusses that emotion until it rips the roof off. But lower the soundtrack and take a look and youll see some top-drawer acting, unique designs, and breathtaking effects most subtle of which may be the world as seen from the birds point of view: not so much out-of-focus or untrue as impressionistically soft with curiosity.

First Flight was not included on the recent Over the Hedge DVD, which contains no extras. The short film may debut on disc if Over the Hedge ever rates a special edition DVD, perhaps next spring, when DreamWorks will no doubt be campaigning for a Best Animated Feature Oscar for Hedge.

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Theres only happiness enough for one in Tragic Story with Happy Ending. © 2005 Folimage, Ciclopes Filmes, National Film Board of Canada. 

Tragic Story with Happy Ending (Histórica Tràgica com Final Feliz)

Not everyone lives happily ever after in a story with a happy ending, a trope demonstrated by a startling 2005 short by Regina Pessoa, Tragic Story with Happy Ending. Animated in a monochrome storybook style of heavily cross-hatched ink drawings, Tragic tells the tale of a vulnerable young girl with a birds heart whos having trouble fitting in. Shes bicycling into town from the countryside as the story opens, and as she passes the streetsweeper, the woman with the groceries, and the local dogs, everyone gives her an uneasy sideways look: shes that girl, the one whose heart is beating triple time and loud enough to hear for a block.

She goes to sleep that night in a panic, well aware that her heartbeat is making the dishes dance on the counter, but despite pulling the sheet up over her head she cant shut out the fact that all the lights are lit on her block, windows are opening, families are glaring, an angry man is shouting and waving, dogs are barking. The next morning an angry contingent of citizens confront her at her door and all she can say is that her heart wasnt made for her body if its truly her body, that is, if in fact the mistake isnt the wrong heart but the wrong body to hold it. The neighbors whisper and tut-tut at her obvious dementia as she flees.

But after a rampage of a bike ride through a country storm, she finds herself calmed by the rain soaking her exhausted frame, and that night her heart is quieter and the neighbors can rest easy. The days pass and her calmed heart is no longer an angry klaxon but a subconscious village clock, giving a rhythm to the day and the people of her town as they shop, walk, sweep, and type. The girl even starts to feel comfortable in the human-shaped body covering her birdy soul, a feeling that continues right up to the day when she sprouts wings from her back and, leaping from the windowsill, flies up into the clouds. Here Pessoa pulls the rug out from under the promised and delivered happy ending, providing four tiny epilogues where the girls neighbors go sullenly on with their newly rhythm-less lives as we realize theres only one happy ending to go around.

The titanic India ink-scratched glory of Tragic Story is bewilderingly beautiful when you consider how much work was involved in making every second of the short, wherein the minutely-detailed characters and backgrounds are more often than not both refreshing on twos or even ones. But the pacing and narrative drive are so acute theres very little time to reflect on the depth of the artifice, only enough to luxuriate in its effect. The short was co-produced by Folimage, Portuguese production house Ciclope Filmes, NFB and ARTE France.

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Ill do funny things if you want me to Im your Puppet. © Patrick Smith.  

Puppet

New York independent animator Patrick Smiths newest short is called Puppet, and like First Flight it shares the unlikely distinction of being something general audiences can actually see this ones on DVD. So, first things first the DVD is called Liquid Tales and it includes all of Smiths shorts to date, including Drink, Delivery, his music video to the Planets Moving Along, Handshake and this years Puppet. We all need a copy of Drink in the house to spring on unsuspecting friends and family, so head on over to the online retailer named after the Brazilian river and treat yourself.

Puppet is all about some poor soul with strings attached and the 100% cotton, button-eyed creatures in charge of his destiny. The short opens on a young man sewing two buttons on a gray gym sock, which he sticks onto the end of his right hand. Its generic, its smiley, its inoffensive. Then it punches him. The fact that its the boys own hand inside the puppet doing the punching only makes the scenario more poignant as the vindictive sock socks him repeatedly in the choppers.

The sock then throws gas on the fire by dragging the boy back to the workbench, where it takes needle and thread in its fingerless hands and sews eyes on its twin, which it then shoves over the boys left hand. His threat now ambidextrous, the boy can do nothing as both his hands are shanghaied to grab some leftover string from the bench and loop the loops over his own feet.

The puppets having made a puppet out of the man, they take him marionette-like on a disastrous tour of the neighborhood, face-planting him on an open barbecue grill, forcing him to get cozy with a hornets next, and shoving him off a cliff. In a daze at the bottom of an embankment, he imagines more be-socked arms sprouting from his chest and a horde of button-eyed fiends chasing him down. He wakes to see a friendly pair of strangers hovering over him, who take him to the hospital. But hes suffered two broken arms, and the traditional plaster devices used for treatment in such cases dont bode well for his future.

Puppet continues in the xerographic mien that Smith has favored in all his shorts to date, while the animation technique is noticeably more detailed; moving on from the iconic faces and limbs of his human characters in Drink and Delivery, the people populating his latest short have greater textural depth and more naturalistic anatomy and movement. You can see the evidence on the DVD. Did I mention hes got a DVD? This is on the DVD, and you can revisit this and Smiths indispensable early work to your hearts content although you wont find those great Zoloft commercials on the menu (no worries, theyre at the SquareFootageFilms Web site).

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Islandsunk, treasurelost, Shipwrecked. © NIAF.  

Shipwrecked

The new acid test for laughs is Shipwrecked, the latest short by a Dutch animator with the winning name of Frodo Kuipers so effective is it as a laughter calibration tool that if youre between the ages of two and dead, you will see mirth in it. The main characters in this very freehand traditionally-animated short are iconic body parts whose joints are merely suggested: extremities, a head, a comma of a backbone, all orbiting each other in a gravity of worry or grim determination.

The worried half of the cast is a man on a desert island. The grimly determined half is a pirate off in the distance. Theyre both out on the open sea dealing with a series of desert islands that, in the tradition of cartooning dating back at least to the Lascaux caves, are all six-foot piles of sand with one palm tree in the middle. The castaway is looking for help and a ride off the island on which hes marooned. Theres no one in sight, only mysterious plumes of water on the horizon, and when he accidentally digs up a bottle and a scrap of paper, he makes a little drawing of the island with an X marking the spot and flings the lot into the sea. Just so the map and the territory match, he makes sure to scratch an X in the sand under his feet.

Meanwhile the mysterious water jets in the distance are the pirates fault. Miles away in a little archipelago of a dozen tiny islands, the pirate is going from one to the next in a tiny sailboat with a Jolly Roger and a cannon. On each island, he leaps from the boat screaming Money! and tears into the sand; but each time, like a rubber raft, the islands react to his hole-digging by spraying a fountain of water and sinking without a trace. Always stymied, the pirate must repeatedly jump back to the safety of his boat, muttering No money in a salty brogue before moving on.

Needless to say, what should come floating by but a bottle with a map inside a map marked with an X. Hot dog! The pirate screams Money! YEAH! and races to find the castaways island. As the castaway sees the skull and crossbones approaching, he hides in the palm tree with his eye on the ship and a hankering for freedom brewing inside, while the pirate leaps at the X in the sand and goes all-out for the booty hes sure is hidden beneath. I should shut up now except to say that in the breakneck minute that follows, both parties more or less get what they were looking for, and the result is sheer perfection.

Kuipers, whose short Antipoden earned him much renown in 2001, is an educator as well as animator, and in 2005 he founded his own production house Studio Mosquito. Shipwrecked is a coproduction of Netherlands Institute for Animationfilm and Dutch public television, and its a joy to look at and would be so even as a series of stills on a wall. The backgrounds are watercolors on rough paper and the caricatured designs mix the urgency of Duck Amuck-era Chuck Jones and the wet-noodle drip-and-slip of Paul Driessen. What makes Shipwrecked unstoppable is the pacing; goofy action plus quick cutting equals firecracker laughs, and this is at the very least an M-80 in the old ladys mailbox we call Cartoon Comedy.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. You can read his production history of Twice Upon a Time in the latest issue of Animation Blast magazine. You can read his short story The Footnote Conspiracy by looking out in front of that movie bookstore in Burbank (I droplifted six copies in the 99-cent bins).

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