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Fresh from the Festivals: October 2007's Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films -- One Voice One Vote by Cile Rousset and Jeanne Paturle, Once Upon a Christmas Village by Michael Attardi, Mesh by Beau Janzen, Haunted Hogmanay by Neil Jack and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf by Suzie Templeton.

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 attests to the vitality of these works, but there are few other venues for exhibition of them, nor are they often reviewed. As a result, distribution tends to be difficult and irregular. On a regular basis, Animation World Magazine will highlight some of the most interesting of these films.

One Voice One Vote (Je suis une voix) (2007), 13:38, by Cécile Rousset and Jeanne Paturle (France). Contact: Jean-Christophe Soulageon, Les films Sauvages, 33 avenue de Saint Ouen, 75017 Paris, France [T] +33.1.42.29.55.04 [F] +33.1.53.31.19.47 [E] festival@filmsauvages.com. International sales: La Luna Diffusion, 20 rue de la chappelle, 75011 Paris, France [T] +33.1.48.07.56.00 [F] +33.1.48.07.11.88 [E] diffusion@lunaprod.fr

Once Upon a Christmas Village (2007), 15:00, by Michael Attardi (U.S.). Contact: Dream Balloon Productions, 123 East River Road, Rumson, N.J. 07760 [T] 848.218.9009, 888.766.9955 [W] www.dreamballoonproductions.com

Mesh (2006), 39:00, by Beau Janzen (U.S.). Contact: Beau Janzen, Zipheron Design Labs [E] beau@zipheron.com [W] www.zipheron.com

Haunted Hogmanay (2006), 29:00, by Neil Jack (U.K.). Contact: Cameron Fraser, Ko Lik Films Ltd., 75 Trafalgar Lane, Edinburgh, EH6 4DQ, U.K. [T] +44. (0)131.553.4494 [F] +44 (0)131.553.2828 [E] info@kolik.co.uk [W] www.kolik.co.uk

Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (2006), 32:32, by Suzie Templeton (U.K.). Contact: Elva Tarpey, Breakthru Films [T] +44. (0) 20.7580.3688 [E] elva@breakthrufilms.co.uk [W] www.breakthrufilm.co.uk, www.peterandthewolf.co.uk

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Two strangers hash out everyones least favorite after-dinner topic in One Voice One Vote. © Les films Sauvages. 

One Voice One Vote

One Voice One Vote is a mutant documentary from France about politics at a very local level, so local it's sitting opposite us on the sofa. It's based on two audio interviews, one with someone who's politically active and the other with someone apolitical (making the title somewhat ironic; there are actually two voices here but, between them, they'll probably cast a total of, yes, just one vote).

Arnaud is 28, an engineer, with two-year-old twins. He doesn't trust politicians; he doesn't think political processes work. He doesn't particularly like talking about the subject, and he certainly never brings it up with his own family. Martine, on the other hand, is active, charged, engaged, and enthused about politics. She was working at the local City Hall when the protests of '68 went down, and she remembers vividly how normal services -- garbage collection, funerals, marriages -- went unperformed after all the protesting civil servants went home. With everyone on strike, she and her compatriots on the strike committee suddenly found themselves in charge of local civic affairs, and she stepped into the breach. She's now 66, and a sociologist.

Arnaud is aghast at the idea of voting; Martine embraces it even as she insists it's only a small part of one's total civic duty. They both live in or near Grenoble, a skiing town in the south of France quite removed from the hurly-burly of Paris -- and they've never met. They talk only with the documentarians at first, but then the filmmakers start playing back bits of each participant's interview to the other party to get his/her reaction.

The simple life lessons they describe, and the droll and elegant way the animators elaborate on them, feel so true that with any luck you're going to become enraged by the fact that you agree with both of the speakers even though they seem to be in diametric opposition. Arnaud is right; politics is extremely annoying and perfidious. And Martine is right; politics is necessary, and it's its own solution. What Arnaud tries to articulate (all the while apologizing for how inarticulate he feels) is the disgust we all feel for things political. Just free-associate on the topic for a minute and see if you come up with anything but bummers... Politics is electing Presidents and then sitting back and waiting for their crimes to catch up with them (with six years being the average for a two-termer). Politics is making rulers when, as Douglas Adams noted, "those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it." Politics is shouting TV shows where the pundits don't actually know anything, but it's okay because wow, they're outrageous! Politics is the creeping realization that a successful scientist ignores received truths and popular wisdom and focuses only on the evidence -- whereas a successful politician does exactly the opposite.

All that may be the case, but what Martine tries to articulate is just as compelling: politics is annoying because the process is work, lots of work, and we'd rather just not do it. Maybe she is politically engaged because she got involved in politics before she got interested -- the job was open, someone had to do something, so she, a basically competent person, stepped up to the plate and discovered that she, like her predecessor, was qualified too. I like to think the only competent political personalities are the ones who have been dragooned into the job -- a feeling I've harbored ever since reading William Brown's great 1990 comic strip collection President Bill, wherein the cartoonist imagines how his life would change if he were shanghaied lottery-style into being President against his will. But on a smaller scale, it probably means I need to go to that local zoning hearing - and read up on it first.

Arnaud and Martine's personal stories are told simply and effectively through the animation, done in charcoal and colorful collaged paper cutouts on a friendly cream background. The line work is minimalistic at first, with just splashes of aqua and orange to identify the man and woman as they move through an abstract space. Then the color scheme expands, the environments become lavishly detailed, and the collage bursts out in printed slogans and teeming crowds. Cécile Rousset teaches at Paris' ENSAD school, where she and her Montreal-educated colleague Jeanne Paturle created One Voice One Vote this year with their production company Les Films Sauvages.

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Lovers keen, villains plot, and reindeers fart in Once Upon a Christmas Village. © Dream Balloon Productions.

Once Upon a Christmas Village

Once Upon a Christmas Village is astonishing in its utility, as the following synopsis reveals:

Jim Belushi plays the voice of Santa Claus, whom we meet in his sleigh somewhere over New Jersey on Christmas Eve. Afore are the reindeer, farting evil fluorescent green clouds, and behind are some elves from the workshop, up to their usual shenanigans. "Don't make me pull this over," Santa warns. He fumbles for his magic watch, which makes these holiday jaunts possible. It's a basic pocket-watch design with some optional extras, including "Bring Inanimate Objects To Life" and "Stop Time In Its Tracks." Tonight Santa must use it between deliveries to avoid a near-miss with Air Force One, but, as he's doing so, the gears slip and time restarts too soon. The sleigh has to do a loop-the-loop to avoid an approaching jet engine, and the watch disappears into the night air.

It drops down and down and eventually spikes into the middle of someone's chimney, where it bounces off the fire grate and spills its magic dust all over the Christmas tree and the toys waiting below. First to feel its effects are the inhabitants of an ice-rink music box, complete with dozens of miniature magnetic ice skaters. There's a mayor, some trouble-making boys, some gossipy girls, and our hero and heroine, Troy and Noelle. If only young Troy could profess his love for the beautiful Noelle. We feel a song coming on. It comes on. But first one of the 19th-century bonneted maids harangues Noelle in ghetto-speak.

Other exciting events transpire: a purple plastic dinosaur starts to attack; an angel throws a Christmas ball at it; Troy and the dinosaur are hit by a model train and Troy discovers a box marked "Sir Evil's Castle of Fear." Inside the box, Sir Evil (voice of Tim Curry) sings a song about how evil he is. Troy runs for his life. Sir Evil gives chase and catches up with Troy in the village. But before he can put his evil plans into effect, he is hit by the train. Noelle kisses Troy. Then everything freezes; Santa has entered the living room and reclaimed the magic watch. The toys become inanimate again, and Santa goes back to work. Cut to closing credits, complete with a Smash-Mouth-sound-alike theme song.

Yes, the makers of Once Upon a Christmas Village went to the Animated Feature Organ Farm, plucked out some nice pectorals, high cheekbones, a good haircut and an ample behind, then threw all the parts in a bag that they made just for you. All those pesky sinewy details -- finessing the MoCap, or the character designs, or motivation, or logical setups, or practically anything character-related -- have been streamlined on this body so we could focus on the ingredients that have really been making animated features successful all these years. From Robots, here are the fart jokes; from Doogal, the name talent on the marquee; from The Thief and the Cobbler, those Broadway-lite pop songs; from Shark Tale, a tendency for every character to talk like an urban 12-year-old. All of it has been squeezed into a package less than 15 minutes long, which is unmissable viewing for everyone in this industry. Friends, if you make animated entertainment, this film is your flu shot. You miss it at your peril.

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Forces of nature are laid out in Mesh. © Beau Janzen.

Mesh

Mesh is not a story, contains no characters, and follows no dramatic arc; but don't think you won't be engrossed. This 40-minute CGI educational film is about the engineering challenges surrounding meshes, the three-dimensional arrays of points and lines that let computers translate a world of endlessly curving shapes into a data set of something less than infinite size. Mesh work makes possible the big and the small, from Disney Hall to a five-quart KitchenAid bowl -- as well as both the screen's Buzz Lightyear and his plastic toy counterpart at Kmart.

Mesh lays out the full theoretical framework behind the use of meshes, starting from first principles with the Platonic solids and moving through basic math, geometry, the invention and limitations of calculus, and the dynamics of surface tension, until we have enough background to get our heads around The Big Concept. The Big Concept is, I'm pleased to say, a soap bubble: a wickedly complex wisp of a thing that's in such an astonishingly massive amount of flux all the time at every point on its surface that it's a wonder our heads don't explode just watching it. The common soap bubble is an elegant and practical example of a system of maaaaaaaany points with varying tension between them, and how that tension tries to reach equilibrium affects everything from when bubbles go pop to whether a building or a bridge will hold together.

As a practical teaching tool, Mesh has all the necessary depth to introduce the subject to a student; as a film for general audiences, it's clear enough for the neophyte with a bit of advanced high school science to follow; and as a primer, it's bright and colorful enough to make a 10-year-old want to revisit the subject in years to come. The film explains all the relevant principles and presents a variety of landscapes full of cogent examples. Triangle-men dance on bridges and eat triangle-apples; we take a virtual tour of a Greek temple; Kepler's Platonic-solid solar system model forms itself out of thin air.

Mesh's blissfully smooth designs were created in Maya using a single PC workstation. U.S.-based director Beau Janzen has an extensive background in computer graphics for education, and is now teaching math and computer animation at Los Angeles' Art Institute of California -- his credits include X-Men and the Philip Glass/ Robert Wilson opera Monsters of Grace. His collaborator Dr. Konrad Polthier is a professor of mathematics at Freie Universität Berlin, and is in charge of the visualization department at MATHEON, one of five research centers funded by Germany's research foundation DFG. They had similar interests; they liked each other's work; they decided to make something together. Score one for the Department of Better Understanding.

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Brothers-in-law dig up old trouble for a new year in Haunted Hogmanay. © Ko Lik Films, Ltd. 

Haunted Hogmanay

Haunted Hogmanay is the first full half-hour special from Ko Lik Films, an Edinburgh-based stop-motion company who've done a series of shorts on commission for BBC Scotland including Show Ponies and Ujbaz Izbeneki Has Lost His Soul. Hogmanay is set in the crew's hometown, and it deals with a paranormal investigator and his irksome brother-in-law on a haunted New Year's Eve misadventure.

The story opens in the middle of a slide show that Jeff, a paranormal investigator, is giving for his friends on December 31. An odd choice, perhaps, for an icebreaker before an evening's festivities on Hogmanay, that particularly Scottish holiday that first unleashed the traditional singing of "Auld Lang Syne" on the world. But Jeff is obsessed with ghost sightings, and as a warm-up for the evening's party he's organized a little presentation on none other than Morag Lachlan Maclachlan. Archaeologists have only recently found an entire street entombed under the local High Court in Edinburgh, Jeff reveals, and this may have disturbed the soul of Maclachlan, the least at-rest spirit the town has ever known. Maclachlan was a female tavern-owner and convicted smuggler and murderer, and supposedly, Jeff explains, as the noose was tightened around her neck on December 31, 1836 she promised to shower misfortune on anyone who ever crossed the threshold of her old bar, and in particular was rumored to haunt her old ground on Hogmanay.

Jeff is interrupted by the arrival of his brother-in-law Thurston, who demands his assistance for a special mission. Thurston is an egomaniac and classic seeker of the true make-money-fast grail, and he's come up with a scheme. A friend has tipped him off that there's a way into the newly unburied street, through a hole in the floor of the women's lav in the High Court. He knows about the Hogmanay haunting rumor, and he's determined to go down there with cameras and shoot footage for his own "Debunking the Paranormal" TV special -- in which nothing, he insists, will happen. Jeff resists, but Thurston eventually talks him into it, and they set off for the women's bathroom, where they push away a toilet fixture, revealing a tunnel entrance beneath.

Down in the tunnels, they find Morag's tavern, and Thurston sets up to shoot the video while Jeff goes off to do his own exploring, only to be attacked by Morag's one-eyed ghost. Thurston, meanwhile, has begun to deliver a skeptical monologue to his unseen TV audience. Because he's looking purposefully into the camera, he doesn't notice the supernatural events occurring around him. A cupboard collapses on his camera rig, revealing a hole in the wall with bottles of whiskey in it--bottles that could command thousands from collectors! But Jeff and Thurston are in for a surprise when they try to take even a single drop of that whiskey past the threshold of the tavern.

Haunted Hogmanay has superb production values -- the sets are intricate and well-lit, the character designs are charming and varied, the body motion is fluid, and the camera trickery is seamless. Everything makes sense. It's just not too terribly compelling -- and the company's last short Ujbaz Izbeneki was much the same. Maybe it's because of a lack of articulation around the characters' eyes, but there's something missing from their emotional reality that kept me at a distance. Voice talent Peter Capaldi and Alex Norton put acres of life into their dialogue, but the writing never quite throws sparks. Function often has to outweigh form, but I still long for the occasional Henry Moore sculpture or Tilt-A-Whirl seat amongst all the solidly built park benches. Still, BBC Scotland continues to give Ko Lik full support, which is always good news for an ambitious young production company. With network encouragement, and the clearly Aardman-level aspirations they harbor, Ko Lik's evolution is guaranteed to continue unabated.

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A 70-year-old story burns like yesterdays frostbite in Prokofievs Peter and the Wolf. © Breakthru Films Ltd.& Se-ma-for.

Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf

In our mod a-go-go 21st century, the words "chestnut" and "hoary" are more likely than not to be found in paragraphs containing the phrase "Peter and the Wolf." We've heard it and we've heard it and, man, have we heard it, from all those celebrity-narrated CDs to Sterling Holloway talking us through the Disney version with its warm color scheme and round character designs and a duck that doesn't actually get eaten. Peter will show 'em all and everything will be all right. There's a new stop-motion version, though, an extraordinary half-hour mini-epic, in which everything will almost certainly not be all right. Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf as directed by Suzie Templeton is five percent fantasy and 95 percent contemporary Russia, a little whimsical and decidedly dark and dangerous; and Prokofiev's famous tunes are the stirrings of pride and excitement inside the head of a bored and sullen little boy.

Peter is a gangly kid in a leather cap with enormous blue eyes and a glare that could best Hayden Christensen's any day of the week. Grandpa is something of a nature-paranoid, and they live in a house on the edge of town that's thoroughly wilderness-proofed with a tall fence improvised from lumber and sheet metal, topped in barbed wire, with guard posts from which Grandpa braves a fierce Russian blizzard to ward off unknown enemies with a rifle. There's a goose inside the fence, who is a friend of Peter's; there's a fat orange cat, who'd rather cozy up to Grandpa; and there's a gate in the fence, not just locked, but very locked.

Peter is loitering one morning trying to peek through the fence into the forest beyond, when Grandpa sends him on an errand to get potatoes. Peter heaves a sigh and walks into town, where there's a big out-of-town dude in a purple silk shirt and fur hat drumming up interest for the visiting circus. Peter has a run-in with a couple of hunters (who unfortunately fit squarely into the category of Assholes Looking For A Fight) and he winds up stuffed in a dumpster.

Later, boy and goose sit in the backyard, goose quacking, boy brooding. From above, a flight-challenged crow with a bum left wing soars down for a visit and Peter, very much in need of some cheering up, decides it's time for a field trip. He sneaks inside to where Grandpa is napping with the cat and snags the keys to the gate. As the boy and the birds escape into nature, the Prokofiev at last kicks in. On a frozen pond fed by a big drainage pipe, Peter and his two bird friends slide on the ice to their hearts' content. Later they're joined by the cat, who, in an effort to get at the crow, winds up taking a very cold bath.

When Grandpa wakes from his nap, he sees the open gate, rushes out, grabs Peter, and pulls him back inside. Peter, despondent, stands and stares into space. Then, sensing something, he peels back a square of metal sheeting and sees the wolf on the side of the hill above the drainage pipe. The wolf stalks, he creeps, and the build-up is unbearable, but mayhem does eventually ensue. The wolf eats the goose whole. Peter despairs. The wolf stalks the cat, which runs up the tree. The crow jumps to safety and barely makes it.

Peter, properly pissed, grabs a net from inside the house, and after a series of hair-raising events, throws it on the wolf, who is immobilized. It's here that the hunters wander by in the nearby forest. Unfortunately, they're stoned. Now Grandpa shows up with a rifle, but Peter stays his hand. Cut to later that night as Peter and Grandpa drive into town towing a wooden crate with a barred window. Grandpa wants to make a deal for the wolf with the owner of a sporting goods store, but Peter's pride is stronger than his anger over the wolf eating his friend the goose, and he makes a brash decision.

This is going to make one helluva impression on animation industry people this year, because it was just iskoshi bit too late to make the Oscar noms last year and it'll be a crying shame if it doesn't qualify this year, so chances are you're going to see many pieces about this short, and its director, very soon. (You'll want to start with Andrew Osmond's piece for AWN from one year ago.) So I almost feel bad gabbing on too long about it here, when you should have stopped reading six paragraphs ago and called somebody you know about scoring a promo copy or getting into a screening -- but while you're pooling your Insider resources you should YouTube Templeton's earlier shorts Stanley and Dog (the former about a man who falls in love with a cabbage; the latter about an agoraphobe who kills the family dog and may have done worse).

The technical achievement in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf is startling, the scope is immense, and I can only describe Suzie Templeton's adaptation as Righteous in that, if this story has been accumulating seven coats of Disneyfied cuteness in the last 70 years, this version cuts that to the quick and restores it to something Prokofiev could eminently respect. If he'd written his suite today, in an age of post-Glasnost uncertainty and graf artists and broken-down Ladas, and Suzie Templeton was the very first to adapt it to another medium, I'm sure he'd say she'd nailed it -- and all without a single word of dialogue.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He just replaced his bike, and you can have the old broken one if you want -- it's out on the landing and it's not locked.

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