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Fresh from the Festivals: September 2006’s Reviews

Chris Landreth finds inspiration in all images computer-generated at SIGGRAPHs 2006 edition of the Electronic Theater.

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.

Rabbit (2005), 8:26, directed by Run Wrake (U.K.). Contact: Run Wrake, Sclah Films [E] info@runwrake.com [W] www.runwrake.com

The Bias and Sensitivity Review: Protecting the World from Assumption (2005), 7:00, directed by David Conlon (U.S.). Contact: David Conlon [T] 310.582.2276 [E] david@itl-work.com [W] www.itl-work.com

Generatio (Generation) (2006), 12:45, directedby Mait Laas (Estonia). Contact: Mait Laas [T/F] +372.6414.307 [E] nukufilm@nukufilm.ee [W] www.nukufilm.ee

Teddy (2005), 3:20, directed by André Bergs (Netherlands). Contact: Il Lustre Productions [T] +31.30.24.00768 [E] distribution@illuster.nl

Zero Degree (2005), 8:00, directed by Omid Khoshnazar (Iran). Contact: Omid Khoshnazar [E] Omid_khoshnazar@yahoo.com; info@iranfilmseller.com

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Now we are six, and filthy rich: Iconography comes with a prize inside in Rabbit. © Run Wrake.

Rabbit

Rabbit runs across a field. Run Rabbit run. Above Rabbit floats the word Rabbit in a nice sans-serif. Float font float. In the field are also Fence, Sheep and Tree, all with floating labels attached. There is also Girl. Girl sees Rabbit. Up pops a thought balloon: Muff, made of rabbit hide. Mm, cozy muff. In Girls hand is Knife. She chases Rabbit. Chase, chase, chase.

Ahead of her, Boy is up in a tree. He helps Girl by jumping down onto the rabbit, killing it. Boy, Girl and Rabbit go inside a nearby house. Girl takes Knife and bisects Rabbit. BISECT! goes Knife. Out of Rabbit leaps Idol, an ankle-high humanoid creature with yellow skin and a voice like a baby dragon stuck in the stovepipe. Boy and Girl register their shock. Boy and Girl are even more shocked to see what Idol does to Fly and Wasp: Buzz, buzz, buzz go the insects and ZAP! goes Idol, throwing out little bolts of magic that split them apart.

As radioactivity breaks things down into different substances that arent necessarily on conceptual speaking terms, so do the magic bolts from Idol seem to break the ideal objects of this Platonic world into totally unrelated A and B concepts. When Idol zaps the insects, Boy and Girl are not so impressed with thing A Feather or Ink Bottle is the result. Boy and Girl are more impressed with thing B. Its a Jewel, sparkly and big as their fists.

Boy and Girl get a good idea. Tempting Idol with Jam, which Idol loves, they lure Idol outside and attempt to flood their little suburban environment with flies and wasps. BISECT! goes Knife through a Sheep. Sheep innards attract flies. Flies annoy Idol. Idol goes ZAP! again and again and again, and Girl and Boy clap hands and dance at their booty of jewels. The next morning they cart the feathers and ink to the local Store. They trade their goods for more Jam. Trade, trade, trade. Meanwhile Idol stays locked in the house, and, seeing another Rabbit outside, tries to lure it inside with Carrot.

When Idol catches Rabbit he goes ZAP! and Rabbit is reduced to wiggly squiggly globs of color flying around the room, which Idol jumps on and surfs for fun. Boy and Girl return and are annoyed that Idol is slacking off. But Idol just reassembles the wiggly squiggly blobs into Tiger and, winking, jumps back inside the host beast, which melts and shifts and becomes Rabbit. And having un-magicked himself, the things he magicked around him begin un-magicking as well. Boy and Girl, sadly, have too much avarice on their minds to remember that storybook characters dont want to be in the room when the carriage turns back into a pumpkin...

Rabbit is a juicy pin-the-tail-on-the-paradigm I Can Read Book/Brothers Grimm mash-up in CGI. The animation is some very accomplished digital cut-and-paste, with the source material being some post-war educational stickers that director Run Wrake found second-hand in a junk shop 20 years ago and only recently detourned for use in his short. I love how the Icons splitting apart of familiar objects mirrors the real-life journey of the stickers in the 1950s they were meant to teach a small child to read, but probably never used; in the 1980s, they were a cool thing that an undergraduate art student collected; and in 2005 they became raw material in the work of an animator with 15 years of professional work behind him. Wrake, who is based in London, has done music videos for Gang of Four, Howie B and Manu Chao, as well as tour video elements for U2, and Rabbit was financed in part by Channel 4 for their Animate! scheme.

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Historical accuracy is no match for The Bias and Sensitivity Review. © David Conlon.

The Bias and Sensitivity Review: Protecting the World from Assumption

The Bias and Sensitivity Review is a choleric little lecture about censorship in education, and although it appropriates the format of a vintage primary school educational film to educate an entirely different audience, its a bit too overbearing to be persuasive, even if its thesis is solid. Out of a fuzz of scratches and frame jumps, an Eisenhower-era black-and-white educational film with stentorian narrator begins: The Bias and Sensitivity Review protecting the world from assumption! Cut to a Caucasian boy lying on the floor reading a book. Is the world perfect? the narrator asks, and when the boy answers in the negative the narrator says, But that doesnt mean we cant act like it is. Sometimes there are things about us that make us or others feel uncomfortable Isnt that right, whitey?

A huge word appears in space next to the boy Stereotyping as the narrator explains, Stereotyping is evil! He demonstrates by cutting to a scene of some tribal native of the American southwest holding up a scalp and letting loose a war cry. The scene freezes; a rolling text says that this could be offensive to people who already have been robbed of their land, slaughtered and purposely infected with smallpox by our government, and the mans native dress of feathers and leathers are replaced by a hippie vest and white pants as the scalp disappears in favor of a peace pipe. This should make you feel better, the narrator intones.

Next on the revisionist schedule is a typical scene from the birth of the United States with Thomas Jefferson and company standing around a table. But hang on there we cant call them Founding Fathers because thats sexist. Call them Founders and bring Betsy Ross into the picture. There, says the narrator, now all women are safe.

Hundreds of words start to flash by, all of them forbidden on the basis of sexism, ethnocentrism, elitism, regional bias, handicapism or ageism (ethnocentrism is listed twice in case anyone misses it). With all the forbidden words purged and no longer available, we are introduced to the one character wholl never offend anyones sensitivity: a cream-colored androgynous hairless human being in a body nylon called 1. It has a companion, also called 1, because there cant be any meritocratic tiers; that implies a values judgment. 1 and 1 are imported into the young boys books, now stripped of any content that could be deemed offensive. Now why dont you tell me a little about yourself? the narrator finally asks the boy. Nothings appropriate, he sighs.

Creeping fundamentalism and creeping political correctness are equally threatening to primary education in the way they substitute The Big Lie for the facts, in both cases eschewing The Case for the dogma that the censor wishes was true. A rich topic for an animated short, but The Bias and Sensitivity Review is a bit too angry to be funny, and too slapdash to be compelling. It doesnt help that the historical scenes it holds up as examples of painful truths that have been watered down by political correctness are themselves emasculated by cliché and stereotypes.

The short was inspired by The Language Police, a book much praised for its even-handedness that was written by Diane Ravitch, former U.S. assistant secretary of education. Books never boil down well into shorts, and topically this short bites off way more than it has the patience to chew. As for the art, the animation is minimal and strictly a vehicle for the narration, an authoritarian diatribe with a sneer that was surely meant to be a piss-take but instead just comes off as pissy.

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Reproduction gets its dream-feet wet in Generatio . © Nukufilm Oü.

Generatio

Generatio is a stop-motion/traditionally-animated short about makin babies that takes place in Dads panicky dream-moment between the water breaking and the head popping out. Following a brief shot of construction cranes whipping girders around the sky at breakneck speed, we peek inside the Ujula Swimming & Pool Co., where a young architect is playing with a new design made entirely of clear plastic. Hes filling it with water from a tumbler one drop at a time as his co-workers look on, until the fateful one-drop-too-many causes the structure to collapse, splashing water on his blueprints and over the side of the desk.

A call comes in from his wife, a fiery redhead pictured in a snapshot next to the phone. She moans passionately: The waters gone I need water and you, my kitten. The phones digital readout suddenly takes the form of a matchstick man that starts enthusiastically licking the inside of the LCD display. We jump from stop-motion to 2D and follow the matchstick man as he enters a landscape where water is being pumped through tubes into flowers, and he must get some of that water by climbing into a flower with a bucket. A huge bee buzzes by, but it cant reach the water and collapses; the matchstick man, hearing the moan of I need water, gives his bucket to the bee.

The matchstick man follows the bee back to the hive, a huge yellow crystal construction. The bee does its informational dance for its fellow workers, but instead of a map to the source of nectar it dances the triangular logo of Ujula Swimming & Pool. The matchstick man, now three-dimensional with a chestnut for a head, looks up and sees the Queen, a regal version of the mans wife with a beehive hairdo and six breasts. From the breasts comes milk and from her navel pop out clear white eggs, which embed themselves in the hive and develop into more worker bees, all with little green buckets attached to their legs.

The matchstick man starts surfing on the torrent of Queens milk, and as he licks it up the scene shifts to a huge closeup of a cat licking milk from a blue saucer. The saucer rests on the floor of a bathroom done up in white and blue tile, into which the redhead enters. She climbs in the bathtub, and the kitty purrs and walks along the shelf behind her shoulders before hopping in. He continues lapping up the water around her legs, covered in foam and the scene shifts again, the womans body becoming a rolling landscape with a valley and two high mountains on either side.

Hundreds of matchstick men are standing atop a tower heaving and blowing in sync with all their might towards a sun thats rising between those two mountains. They burst into flame as they rush towards it, and, finally one sticks its head in, the sun rises, a cell divides, an embryo appears and, in an apartment block at night, a babys cry erupts.

Reproduction is the theme, although this short from director Mait Laas of Estonian animation house Nukufilm is more about every fathers angst-ridden state of mind as he rushes home to a wife in labor. The stop-motion animated segments run from rocky to velveteen whenever you do stop-motion with real people, as here, the results are always nervous-looking, which makes a nice contrast with the smooth action of the animated puppets. The daydream obsessions on-screen in Generatio belong strictly to Dad, in the form of both the husband and his spermatazoan doppelganger, and I love the look of goofy joy on the chestnut-heads face as it goes about its watering work. Think happy thoughts and your sperms mood will follow!

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A get-ahead world just cant mesh gears with slow and steady Teddy. © Il Luster Prods.

Teddy

Teddy is a dialogue-free examination of a day in the life of a man out of time. The Teddy of the title is a middle-aged man in a green trench coat sitting on a bench at the corner of a congested city intersection. Teddy is sitting watching the busy world go by, a very busy world, a world where streetcars zip by like sparrows and crowds scurry like dropped ball bearings and the shadows leak along the ground like water from a hose. His lifes heartbeat is out of sync with everything around him and when his pace isnt out of sync, his congeniality is. Theres a man sitting next to him smoking a pipe and reading the paper, and Teddy hazards a nudge to provoke some interaction or just a reaction. But the man merely gets up and leaves, his footsteps accelerating as he blends in with the crowd.

Teddy leaves the bench and stands among a group of people waiting to cross the street. He tries to catch someones eye, but they glare or ignore him. When they cross, their speed carries them in a burst to the opposite curb, and by the time slow Teddys stepped off the sidewalk theres a car in his space expecting to get by. Teddy stares in alarm, then escapes as fast as he can.

On the other side Teddy is amazed to see a calm sight among the hurly-burly: someone whos matching his speed. Its a small child bouncing a red rubber ball in an empty lot. The girl sees him and the two start to play catch. Teddy is holding the ball preparing to make a return throw when he sees an adult-shaped blur swirling around the youngster. The girl and her mother approach Teddy slowly. Mother opens her face to emit an unearthly scream, her mouth a wet, red horror-show cavity of parental rage. Then she and the child are gone, and Teddy continues down the sidewalk as the sun sinks quickly in the west.

At three minutes Teddy is short and dramatically clipped, but its an effective mood piece and full of pathos. Director Andre Bergs started the short as a graduation project, but finished it as his proper debut opus. The character designs are simple, with toy-box curves on everyone but Teddy and button eyes and slit mouths hiding messy red rage underneath. The character animation is simple and effective, and the backgrounds are believable with just enough surrealism behind them to keep from seeming too verité.

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The god-eye of home video passes judgment on a soldier in Zero Degree. © Omid Khoshnazar.

Zero Degree

In three years writing this column Ive never been submitted work from the Middle East outside of the confines of Israel, and Im pleased to get my first look this month at new animation from Iran: Zero Degree by director Omid Khoshnazar.

The Cinemascope frame of Zero Degree is marked on all sides with the visual paraphernalia of a video camera: a TV-safe box just inside the frame, a battery icon, a timer, a red REC logo. As the picture comes up it reveals a flat and parched landscape, in which is kneeling a figure with stringy black hair with his hands tied behind his back. The anonymous cameraman shifts position, zooms in and out, and adjusts focus like in any home movie; but then the camera disconcertingly pulls back from the head of the prisoner and through the sights, and then the scope, of an automatic machine gun to reveal a soldier taking aim at the prisoner at close range.

The camera hovers, getting a variety of angles on the scene; then as the soldier hovers in close-up a single shot rings out. The image zooms out just in time to catch the victim falling forward, dead. The soldier says nothing, and doesnt acknowledge the camera in any way. Alone with his thoughts, hes overcome with remorse, and he drops the gun and backs away quickly, only to run into some invisible barrier at the edge of the screen. Now terrified, the soldier panics, running this way and that only to be smacked back no matter where he heads. He fires his machine gun, a random torrent of bullets pouring out in every direction at the threat he cant see.

Someones judging this soldier and in short order it becomes discomfortingly clear who, and what the simple rules of this world are and the soldier finds himself unable to run away, unable to fight back, and eventually fighting the invisible foe as he is pushed against his will, screaming, across the cracked mud flat towards a cliff.

So much is innovative and startling about Zero Degree the textures of the characters skin are rough and wrinkled like stepped fields of vegetables on a hillside farm; the handheld camera effect is so naturalistic you forget it instantly and simply marvel at this strange animated planet captured in the viewfinder; the mans moves are familiar and we know his state of mind all too well even though his face is always in shadow. But whats most astonishing is the cumulative effect of the thing: every moment from the execution that opens the piece to the execution that closes it transpires in a single shot, and Omid knows when to hold back the action and when to let it go wild for maximum shock value. Devastating as it is, its still not the least exploitive; the god who passes judgment on the soldier may be strictly old testament, but the soul of the animator is awash in sympathy.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. For $250 he will explain electricity to your pets. You can read his production history of Twice Upon a Time in the current issue of Animation Blast magazine.

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