Fresh from the Festivals: September 2007's Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films -- Mr. Reaper's Really Bad Morning by Kevin D.A. Kurytnik and Carol Beecher, Birdcalls by Malcolm Sutherland, Lapsus by Juan Pablo Zaramella, I Like Pandas by Jessica Borutski and La Memoria dei cani by Simone Massi .

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.

Mr. Reaper's Really Bad Morning (2004), 16:43, by Kevin D.A. Kurytnik and Carol Beecher (Canada). Contact: Carol Beecher, Fifteen Pound Pink Productions [T] 403.541.1527 [E] reaper@nucleus.com [W] www.mrgeorgereaper.com

Birdcalls (2006), 5:00, by Malcolm Sutherland (Canada). Contact: Malcolm Sutherland [T] 514.527.3623 [E] animalcolm@yahoo.ca [W] www.oneiropod.com

Lapsus (2007), 3:30, by Juan Pablo Zaramella (Argentina). Contact: Juan Pable Zaramella, JPZtudio [T] +541149237484 [E] contact@zaramella.com.ar [W] www.zaramella.com.ar

I Like Pandas (2005), 2:55, by Jessica Borutski (Canada). Contact: Jessica Borutski [E] jessicaborutski@hotmail.com

La memoria dei cani (The Memories of Dogs) (

2006), 8:00, by Simone Massi (Italy). Contact: Simone Massi [E] nuvole@simonemassi.it, Arte France [W] www.arte-tv.com, Sacrebleu Productions [E] ron@sacrebleuprod.com

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Cities fall, but flowers refuse to stop singing in Mr. Reaper's Really Bad Morning. © Kevin D.A. Kurytnik and Carol Beecher. 

Mr. Reaper's Really Bad Morning

Mr. Reaper's Really Bad Morning isn't new to the world -- it debuted in 2004, and 2005 was its big festival year, including a screening at Annecy -- but it's new to DVD and it makes its own animation-love gravy every time someone new sees it. So if you've seen it, it's time to revisit it, and if you haven't seen it, the right hemisphere of your brain may need a condom because this is a true cartooning orgasm.

The short begins in the middle of what will turn out to be the only pleasant part of Mr. Reaper's day, the dream he was having right before his waking day started. To the tune of "Them Bones," he enjoys a magical mystery tour of his career highlights through the ages. Wild animals kill some hunter-gatherers. Horus dispatches some Egyptians. The Black Death offs some serfs. Amidst this collection of greatest hits, his alarm clock intrudes. Annoyance. He forces himself out of bed and into the bathroom, and we get a brief look at his very stylish -- if severely decorated -- apartment. Fine art is everywhere. Bosch dominates, of course.

He warms some toast. He pops a tape in the boom box. It's motivational, and consists of nothing but an endlessly repeated chorus of "War!" "Plague!" "Famine!" and "Taxes!" This and his usual radioactive brand of coffee should get him in a good mood. This good mood is not coming. He grabs the scythe, slips on the black holocaust cloak and goes to catch the bus.

One commute later, he's tantalizingly close to his goal -- a major North American city, full of folks who need to die today. His to-do list is succinct: "Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill... " But he can't quite get to the city -- an invisible dimensional wall still must be crossed to get from the Styx to the physical world. For that he needs to catch the connecting bus. For that, he needs to wait -- he checks his digital wrist-sundial -- three hours. Three hours? Oh, man.

Now he's just killing time. He's tapping his fingers. He's grumbling. A meteor destroys the city. He can't move. A mushroom cloud envelops the whole state. Still he can't get to where the action is. Damn. And then, insult to injury, he notices there's a little daisy growing down by his right foot. Well, it's not a head of state, but it'll do -- he kills it. It grows back. He kills it again. It comes back again. He smacks it with his scythe and pulls away his hands with something repulsive on them. Omigod, it's life! Ewww! He tries a green radioactive cloud on the little bugger. Not only does the flower not die, it comes back singing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Then things get truly odd.

This is an orgy of cartooning, a Looney Tunes short by way of Richard Williams' Thief and the Cobbler, a real hell of a thing to behold. It's animator porn, like the on-ones, big-budget "wow" reels that the live-action studios used to deploy to bomb the audience as title sequences to their big-budget action comedies. The timing goes beyond knife's-edge into atomic fission. The extreme attention to detail overflows into the sound design as well. Co-directors Kevin D.A. Kurytnik and Carol Beecher of Calgary are long-time members of the Quickdraw Animation Society, and the short was the society's pet project for a full decade. As animation for animation's sake, it's nonpareil. I only have one quibble, which is that I'd love to see it someday without the "movement" intertitles separating it into four parts (when you spend 10 years on something, it makes sense to break it into discrete parts, but the whole piece holds its own so well in terms of timing that they're hardly necessary).

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We'll just have to keep taking messages until we know how to answer the Birdcalls. © Malcolm Sutherland.

Birdcalls

Beep. You have. NINE. Missed calls. The first one went "Tweet!" The next one went "To wit, to wit, to wit. We too. We too." Next came one expressing more relief: "Whee-oo. Whee-oo." Birdcalls are pretty, aren't they? They are also high drama. Just last Sunday in Griffith Park I saw a few of those dramas: some winged predator was divebombing a raven, possibly because they both had dibs on the same prey on the ground below. Five minutes earlier, I was about to take a steep shortcut up a rabbit track when a hawk flew past ahead of me, accidentally dropping a big juicy rabbit in my path. It perched in a tree and stared at me balefully as I decided whether or not I should pick a different route -- I mean, I knew I didn't want the rabbit, but how do you explain that to a bird?

We shout and sing and laugh at each other, and the birds do likewise, and both birds and humans alike can only think, "What can they be trying to tell us?" A lovely new short from Malcolm Sutherland, Birdcalls, has an answer of sorts. The piece starts in close on a human hand transcribing a bunch of new messages from an answering machine to which every neighborhood bird seems to have the number. Gradually, as the hand writes, the shorthand it's writing starts to write itself. It bobs and flows across the page with the inflection of the birdsong. It stays on the page at first, and then hovers just inches away, then takes off completely and squirts ink at the oppressing hand before going airborne. The pieces of paper, random sheets of scratchpad or ledger or restaurant check-pad or graph paper, take on acres of overlapping print as the birdsongs multiply, then evolve into seas of dark scribbles where the scratched-in shorthand is the only place on the page lacking ink. Finally the paper disappears entirely and the background becomes a rotoscoped abstract vision of a city as seen from high above, with the handwritten birdsongs swooping and soaring above the ever-increasing traffic noise.

So what the hell is all this chat about anyway? Sutherland, a Montreal-based animator whose short The Tourists was featured this year at Annecy, has taken the songs of a dozen different birds and transcribed them into a shorthand that, though it provides no answers, at least transliterates the sounds into that handwriting witchcraft our species is so fond of. In its whimsical way, the film suggests that, like the Chinese newspaper you found at the market, this mysterious language you don't understand is probably all about sports and scandals and food and war and weather -- and, just maybe, you could figure it all out if you could only stop a bird and hit it up for a translation.

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A nun's slip is showing in Lapsus. © Juan Pablo Zaramella/JPZtudio.

Lapsus

The Nun's Story meets Duck Amuck in Lapsus, a goofy, abstract, and downright metaphysical new short from Argentinian Juan Pablo Zaramella (stop-motion animator and creator of Journey to Mars, here embarking on his first 2D digital short). Lapsus takes a binary color scheme, three words, and a collection of animated body parts and sends them on a four-minute romp of deconstruction and riffing and tenderizing and pureeing.

The short begins portentously, with some properly ecclesiastical Bach on the organ, playing over a white oblivion into which scuttles the iconic figure of a nun endlessly muttering, "Oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God..." She worries a cross on a chain. Her eyes dart. She wanders across the screen from left to right. Coming at her is a huge blackness. It's not really a division of space, a border -- it's just a huge vertical slab of zip-ola, nothingness without end, and she's about to touch it. She touches it. She pokes her head through. Her face falls to the floor and bounces lightly. "Oh my God."

The rest of her body remains on the other side of the division, and it worries the cross with redoubled vigor. "Oh my God!" Then her body gets frustrated, and it jumps through into the black as well. The black bits merge with the background. The white bits -- the cross and the hands -- fall to the floor. "Omigod!" The head tries to bounce out into the white area again. But it hits the border and bounces back, landing on the cross and the hands in successive bounces -- which disappear in a volley of pinball sound effects, scoring her 250 points for each hand and 1,000 for the cross.

What happens next would make about as much sense in prose form as an opera about valence electrons in the transition metals, so I'll merely inform you that Mickey Mouse and an exotic dancer are involved; the nun's eyes enjoy solo adventures; God intervenes; and finally the Big Blackness starts behaving like an irritated gyro horizon from an airplane's instrument panel. Fortunately, although it's perfectly acceptable to view Lapsus as your basic experimental short, this is hardly a dry academic visual aid accompanying someone's philosophy thesis -- the skweeky-toy sound effects alone would disqualify it. Chalk it up as a diabolical exercise in deflecting expectations and a droll and extremely well-timed comedic showcase for Zaramella in his digital debut.

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I like lollipops! I like music! I Like Pandas! © 2005 Jessica Borutski. Music: Warp Records 2005.

I Like Pandas

Jessica Borutski's short I Like Pandas is poised to do for the loveable endangered bear what Weebl's "Badger" song did for the short-legged furry omnivore. First things first: I Like Pandas is an Internet short and, you guessed it, it's on the Internet, which you are also on; so go verb it, with the verb in "verb" being the usual user-generated video site where you can see just about every animal there is, likeable or unlikeable (but never for more than 9:59 at a time).

Aren't you happier now? And aren't you stunningly unable to dislodge that tune from your head? Yes and yes! I like pandas! You like pandas also! Together we all third person plural like pandas simultaneously! Some of you, it is true, are staring at these words printed on a slice of dead tree. That means someone had an Internet once, and they printed out this month's AWN PDF file, but you may not have an Internet now. For you, henceforth, a plot description.

Pandas! Two of them! In jungle! Is bamboo! Is fireflies! Is two lollipops, one purple, one orange! Pandas and lollipops! Lollipops and pandas!

Pandas like each other. Pandas hop to and fro. Pandas suck on lollipops. Panda One pulls lollipop from mouth and sticks demurely on Panda Two's head. Pandas are both pleased with this outcome. Now Panda One demurely suggests with pantomime that Panda Two should remove lollipop from mouth and stick to Panda One's back. Panda Two does so. True love.

"I am enjoying this happy time!" cries one panda. Word balloon spells out "I am enjoying this happy time!" in Chinese. "Me too!" cries other panda. Word balloon spells out "Me too!" in English. Other panda says, "?"

Pandas watch orange lollipop sun arc across sky, sink below horizon. Pandas rush towards each other across meadow. Owl watches pandas rush towards each other. Pandas smack into each other. Pandas still had lollipops in mouth. Lollipops lodge in windpipes. X X go the pandas' eyes. Panda ghosts fly up out of panda bodies. Panda ghosts frolic to and fro up in the clouds. Owl sheds a tear.

Sick, really, but this isn't just a startlingly effective safety video for the four-and-under set -- like the lollipops, this is just the sweetest damned thing you can imagine. Borutski's line style, posing, and timing are all very Kricfalusi-esque, right down to the overbite and squint the characters put on when they're about to experience something unbearably joyful. No surprise since she worked on John's own Adult Party Cartoon for Spumco. But though the viewer may suspect some Spumco-esque malevolence along with the art stylings, and though the piece basically ends with two endangered animals making each other extinct, this turns out to be the absolute opposite of a downer. In fact Borutski is constantly getting emails from parents telling her their toddlers are obsessed with these pandas. (Not surprisingly, she smelled a series, and is now developing one with Copernicus Animation Studios in Halifax.)

Part of the charm of I Like Pandas comes from the obvious pleasure she got from making the piece, which she says she animated scene by scene without any boards as she followed the emotional dictates of the song. Which brings us to the springboard of all this joy: the song, which is called "Bibi Plone" and was created by the sadly defunct U. K. band Plone on Warp Records. It's analog synths and all-white-notes piano scales and the cloppity-clop of synthetic horses' hooves, a warm bubblebath of preschool happy-place ecstasy. Borutski animated I Like Pandas starting with hand-drawn key poses, which she scanned and cleaned up with a Wacom tablet in Flash.

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Man and beast dream in black and white in The Memories of Dogs © Sacrebleu Productions.

The Memories of Dogs (La memoria dei cani)

David Hockney made a painting in 1970 called Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, a portrait of two married friends and their cat. The details of the scene, the phone and the shag rug and the trees outside, are all slightly rough and abstract in texture; but Mr. Clark's eyes go beyond photorealistic into a realm where they bore into you and then drill little holes of unspoken accusation through the wall behind you into the next room. Italian animator Simone Massi has accomplished something quite similar in his intense short The Memories of Dogs, where the viewer is set adrift in a landscape populated by the animator's long-gone relatives who say nothing but surely know more than we wish they did.

The Memories of Dogs obeys dream logic to a truly comprehensive degree. Taken in its component parts, everything here is a representation of some concrete reality we can all relate to: landscapes, houses, furniture, people old and young. But what is -- and which way is up -- are fluid, in constant motion. The world changes as quickly as we can look away and back; sounds come from everywhere but the direction we're looking; perspectives are smashed. The animator, who as the creator gets to wear the hat of Dreamer, is revisiting people and places, possibly from his life, possibly from the lives of his grandparents whom he learned about only through stories they used to tell of their lives of 100 years ago. These are well-remembered landmarks from someone's youth, and like the places you grew up in, the dream is reassembling them so that the pieces stay the same but the chessboard keeps changing its mind.

Along the length of this continuous tracking shot of an imagined walkabout, there are icons of places we've all known: a farmhouse, a row of trees, a lonely brick wall. There are people, too, ancestors in period clothing, but they're hardly acting like friends and family -- they're more like docents in the "My Life" exhibit in the museum of the mind. They're aloof to whatever need we may have for reassuring physical touch. We've interrupted Grandpa cleaning the fire grate, or Grandma tilling the field, or Auntie staring into space -- and when their eyes eventually meet ours, they see straight through to every lie we've ever told, every subterfuge we've ever pulled, every disappointment we've ever levied against their expectations.

Massi animated the short entirely traditionally, starting with drawings on paper and adding oil pastels and finally bearing into them with engraving tools. The entire short is in monochrome except for a single shot of one vividly remembered object from the past -- and like the color home movies in Raging Bull, it's so effortlessly melded into the rest of the film you may find yourself shocked afterwards to remember there was any color in the film at all. The dramatic arc of the short -- if there must be one -- is how the family dog is killed, accidentally or intentionally, by a man with a hunting rifle, but the power of the short comes from how neither this nor any of the other usual dramatic niceties needs to be resolved. In a remembered time and place where everyone in the animator's Italian homeland was on the labor force and anyone was a potential dogsbody, the question of whose memories these are -- or who, on-screen, is the dog -- remain open.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. Below its melting point of 14 Kelvin degrees, solid hydrogen is an insulator.

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