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Fresh from the Festivals: September 2008's Reviews

Andrew Farago reviews four short films: A-Z by Sally Arthur, The Gloaming by Andy Huang, KJFG No. 5 by Alexei Alexeev and Skhizein by Jérémy Clapin.

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 their exhibition, 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.

This month:

A-Z (2007), 3:00, directed by Sally Arthur (U.K.). Contact: Sally Arthur, ArthurCox Ltd; [T] 00 44 (0) 117 953 9788 [W] www.worldofarthurcox.com; [E] info@worldofarthurcox.co.uk

The Gloaming (2007), 3:04, directed by Andy Huang (U.S.). Contact: Andrew Huang [T] 310.918.7688 [E] andrewhu@gmail.com [W] andrwthomashuang.com

KJFG No. 5 (2008), 1:52, directed by Alexei Alexeev (Russia). Contact: Studio Baestarts, Budapest, Szinhaz u. 5-9, H-1014, Hungary; [T] +3613758574 [W] www.studiobaestarts.com [E] info@studiobaestarts.com

Skhizein (2008), 13:05, directed by Jérémy Clapin (France). Contact: Dark Prince/Wendy Griffiths (producer) [T] +33 613 046 280 [E] wendyg@darkprince.fr [W] http://darkprince.fr

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The story of A-Z is engaging enough by itself, but the beautiful combination of hand-drawn illustrations, cut-outs and simple Flash animation results in a stunning short film. © Arthur Cox Ltd.

A-Z

"London, 1935. We were all lost. And people stayed at home to avoid getting lost."

Strange as it seems, one of the most populous and popular world cities was one of the most difficult to navigate as recently as the 1930s. There are more than 23,000 streets in London, and the average British citizen relied on blind faith, prayers and kindly neighbors to guide him from Point A to Point B (or Point Z, to be more precise).

Enter "Mrs. P," an eccentric artist with a vision. Each morning, over the course of a year, Phyllis Pearsall set out from her flat and walked through the streets of London -- all of the streets of London -- and carefully documented each one. Several pairs of shoes and notebooks later, she'd accumulated enough information to create the A-Z Map of London, which she sold to publisher W.H. Smith. The book was an instant success, and Mrs. P's guidebook earned her millions of dollars and the adoration of the citizens of London (and its visitors).

Britain's Channel 4 decided that Mrs. P's story would be a great subject for an animated short, so they provided animator Sally Arthur with an Artist-In-Residence (AIR Scheme) grant and set her to work on a three-minute mini-epic. Arthur decided to frame the story by choosing another character, an unnamed neighbor of Pearsall's, to observe her daily rituals and provide Mrs. P with the idea of using shoeboxes to help sort the massive pile of notes, papers and cards she acquired.

Prior to her neighbor's intervention, Mrs. P is nearly as overwhelmed by the chaos of London as everyone else, with a cacophony of jumbled street names and random words and letters surrounding her and invading her home. Once she gets a handle on things, the book comes together rapidly, and soon she's a hero to taxi drivers, tourists, cyclists, and the entire city of London.

The story itself is engaging enough that a dry recitation of Pearsall's accomplishment would still be entertaining, but Arthur's animation, a beautiful combination of hand-drawn illustrations, cut-outs (courtesy of assistant Helene Friren, who animated Mrs. P.) and simple Flash animation results in a stunning short film. The soundtrack consists of inspirational music by a group called The Inkspots, as well as the natural rhythm of Arthur's script, including long, alphabetical lists of street names.

Award-winning actress Emily Watson overcame a bad cold to record the role of Mrs. P., and Arthur also wishes to note that during the production of the film the producer, the director and the editor all had babies. (But not together.) That really does hit just about everything from A to Z, doesn't it?

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The Gloaming is only a dream, or is it? © 2008 University of Southern California - School of Cinematic Arts.

The Gloaming

An unassuming office worker sits at his desk, typing away and working at his soul-sucking, unrewarding job. The world outside is dark and bleak and ominous, shadowy birds circle his office building, harbingers of impending doom. After nearly nodding off, and convinced that his eyes have been playing tricks on him, our humble worker notices that his computer monitor has transformed itself into a deep, deep corridor. With nothing to lose, he climbs in. As he crawls, the crows that surround the building discover his path and follow him down the corridor. He moves frantically toward the light, trying to escape, but the crows engulf him, plunging him into complete darkness, and then -- gasp -- he wakes up, back at his desk.

As plots go, "it was only a dream -- or was it?" automatically makes me suspicious that the storyteller ran out of ideas just short of reaching his page count, word limit or time limit, and just barely decided against killing, maiming or otherwise permanently altering his protagonist. It doesn't fly on Saved by the Bell, and it doesn't fly here.

That's not to say that there isn't anything to like about this short, however. Student director Andy Huang gets a good performance out of his lead actor, and his combination of live-action and computer rendering is impressive. The crows look truly menacing and ominous, and Huang's choices in lighting and staging are well choreographed, but "office worker menaced by something that may or may not actually be real" is the start of a good idea, and not a satisfying tale on its own. Huang's a skilled filmmaker, though, and I look forward to more innovative storytelling from him in his future endeavors.

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KJFG No. 5 presents a very simple concept, executed simply, and the results are thoroughly enjoyable. © Studio Baestarts.

KJFG No. 5

Although I immediately tense up when I'm presented with a story about the mundane lives of office workers or a situation which may or may not be a dream, I seem to have a much higher threshold for an equally common set-up -- animals acting like people.

In KJFG No. 5, a bear, rabbit and wolf (or Bear, Rabbit and Wolf, if you want to use their proper character names) are hanging out in the forest, playing on crudely fashioned musical instruments and preparing, no doubt, for their next paying gig. Not long after they've started, a hunter and his dog approach, and the band hides until the coast is clear.

It's a very simple concept, executed simply, and the results are thoroughly enjoyable. A bear playing a log like an upright bass, a rabbit tapping its feet rhythmically on a stump and a wolf howling in accompaniment doesn't require state-of-the-art 3D computer graphics to get the point across, any more than Gary Larson or Scott Adams need lavish illustrations to deliver a solid punchline. Director Alexei Alexeev's film is made from drawings on paper brought to life through Anime Studio Pro, and that's enough to make a successful short.

That, and a bear playing music on a log.

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The ambitious Skhizein features a fun, quirky premise and beautiful animation, from the character and environment designs to the soundtrack, art direction, coloring, and every other aspect of the film. © Dark Prince.

Skhizein

The longest and most ambitious of this month's films is Skhizein, an amazing new short by director Jérémy Clapin, with major contributions from 3D supervisor Jean-François Sarazin and producer Stéphane Piera.

The film opens with our protagonist lying on his psychiatrist's couch, explaining his recent troubles. The nervous doctor tries his best to listen, but seems more than a little distracted by the fact that his patient is not actually atop the couch, but floating in the air just next to it.

The next scene is a flashback set in outer space, as meteors hurl through the cosmos, setting up our protagonist's origin (and reassuring the audience that, yes, this is going to be epic). Hearing a strange noise coming from the night sky, he rushes to the window and is bathed in an eerie light, is struck by a large meteor, then loses all sense of... well, everything, actually. When he regains his composure, he finds himself passing through walls, stumbling into things that aren't there, and unable to touch things that are right in front of him.

Through trial and error, he realizes that he is now out of synch with reality by a distance of 91 centimeters. He can pick up the telephone when it rings by standing 91 centimeters to the right of it and grasping it as he would if he were in touch with normal reality. If he needs to exit the door, he must stand 91 centimeters to the right of the door, open it, and walk through the solid wall in front of him. In order to drive his car, he needs to mimic his normal driving activities while floating just outside of his vehicle. And so on. In an ingenious move (and a great visual), he creates an elaborate series of chalk illustrations on the walls of his apartment and his office space at work that provide him with a ready guide for manipulating the world around him.

It's a fun, quirky premise, like something out of Being John Malkovich, but the increasing disconnect with the world around him drives the character into depression, desperation and a hint of insanity. He makes one last-ditch effort to realign himself with reality by further harnessing the power of the cosmos... and let's just say that things don't end well for him.

Skhizein is a beautiful piece of animation, from the character and environment designs to the soundtrack, art direction, coloring, and every other aspect of the film. Writer/director Clapin and animation company Dark Prince spent several years bringing it to fruition, and the care and attention to detail show throughout. Clapin and his crew used a variety of programs to achieve the desired "hybrid" effect, with 3ds Max used for the backgrounds and character animation, Pass-Manager (developed by Sarazin's company Vanilla Seed) for rendering, and After Effects and Dark Prince's proprietary GenerActor software used to coordinate the lip-synch and animate the characters' faces. The meteor and some additional fx were created with film and stop-motion photography, and the end result is a thoroughly engaging instant classic.

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and the creator of the weekly online comic serial The Chronicles of William Bazillion.

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