Russell Bekins chronicles the eclectic mix of films from the East and the West at the Future Film Festival.
The Past as Container of the Future
Once upon a time in the city-state of Bologna, the army marched forth to do battle with the forces of the Emperor. They won a great victory that day, carrying away the King of Sardinia, Re Enzo, and held him hostage in a tower-house in the center of the city. Cultured and urbane, Enzo whiled away his time in a sort of house arrest, writing poetry and engaging in love affairs, and occasionally trying to escape. Enzo had grown up in the most cosmopolitan court in Europe, in Palermo, where philosophical and literary gifts were prized, and tolerance of the Arab minority allowed a free-flowing exchange of ideas from east and west. He became the center of a salon of artists and intellectuals who frequented his prison home, where he died after 23 years, in 1272.
The Future Converges with the Past
The Palazzo Re Enzo is once again host to an exchange of East and West, for the Future Film Festival. Medieval battles of Guelf and Ghibelline, pope and emperor, play themselves out again as the epic struggle between animation and live action. Once again the palazzo rings with poetry and love, with salons of intellectuals and exotic guests, from which your dedicated reporter occasionally felt like escaping...
But only to see more films, naturally.
Oh, and have a plate of tortelloni ai fungi porcini e tartufo and a bit of that sangiovese superiore riserva wine. This is "Fat Bologna" after all, and I have the paunch to prove it.
Stop talking about food.
All right. What makes the Future Film Festival unique is its dedication to both animation and digital effects. The festival celebrates convergence, as opposed to other festivals that struggle with the issue. Now in its 10th incarnation, this year's fest featured a competition that played five animation films against five live-action films in which there was some element of digital effects.
Festival organizers Oscar Cosulich and Giulietta Fara both muster strong arguments as to why they believe in putting live action and animation head-to-head. "There are festivals of animation and festivals for live action; we are the only one that makes no distinction," asserts Cosulich. "Animation is not a genre, but a technique, like a lens or high definition. There is no [mainstream] film without digital effects, nor animation without digital enhancement. The future is simply more mixed, neither black nor white."
Wow. How does that square with the strict delimitation between mo-cap and "pure" animation? Will our friend Gene Dietch read this and take after them with an HB pencil? Are these guys serious, or is this just more convergence malarkey? Is this wide-eyed puerile enthusiasm for the future really happening on the old continent? Is this like a scene from GE's "Carousel of Progress," where we're all waiting for the refrain "It's a great, big beautiful tomorrow... "?
Enough with the rhetorical questions.
Um... yes. In fact, one has the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff to be seen at the Future Film Festival: 10 films in competition, 17 out of competition; 157 shorts in 10 programs; presentations from Blue Sky, ILM and Pixar; roundtable discussions; homage programs to Toei Animation, Latin America, Spain, and Halas and Batchelor (the British animation team that husbanded Animal Farm). I have left out a great deal in this unreadable sentence, but there are limits to human patience.
Truer words were never spoken.
With so much happening, I had to split myself in two, and send my alter ego off to watch some of the screenings I couldn't attend. That's why he chimes in sometimes. Call him Enzo.
Re Enzo to you.
The Future Film Festival has a long tradition of presenting high-level Japanese animation films. This year's offering, curated lovingly by Luca Della Casa, included the presence of Madhouse Studio producer Masao Maruyama (see sidebar, next page) and the European premiere of Yoshiaki Kawajiri's Highlander; four of 10 films in competition, as well as three of the 17 out of competition, were Japanese as well. A series of programs showcasing Japanese TV shows and an homage to the groundbreaking work of Toei Animation rounded out the bill. It was no accident, therefore, that both winners of this year's festival were of Japanese import.
The winner of the Special Mention, Tekkonkinkreet, is an anomalous piece whose every frame is a study in contrasts: simply drawn yet expressive characters over an amazingly textured urban jungle; tender boys with incredible powers to scale buildings and put the fear into tough yakuza hoods; animated cops and bad guys who spout surprising dialogue; Hindu and Balinese decor in what seems an old-fashioned Japanese slum. The eye happily wanders through every setting, noting details such as the ragged edges of chairs in a run-down strip club, the way a pile of junk is organized and what it says about the characters.
The original Japanese manga about a pair of orphan boys who patrol a crumbling slum of a large city was written and designed by Taiyo Matsumoto, but the film seems to owe a great deal to the directing talents of CG artist Michael Arias and the writing talents of Anthony Weintraub. While the story occasionally seems to meander, you don't really mind because you're having such a good time with the scenery, which Arias has carefully storyboarded himself, and the wacky characters. The final sequence is real eye candy, but the creative team indulges a bit too long in abstract symbolism and Jungian psychology. As the end of the film approaches, we have a good idea that our lead character's alter ego has saved the day, but we don't really know how.
Perhaps you weren't watching closely enough, Grasshopper.
Byousoku 5 Centimeters won the Lancia Platinum Grand Prize. While this piece is nominally about first love, what it is really about is how we perceive time and distance at different points in our life. Presented as three short stories, "The Chosen Cherry Blossom," "Cosmonaut," and "5 Centimeters a Second" (which refers to the rate at which cherry blossoms fall), the film recounts childhood love, separation and reconciliation through various narrative techniques and narrators. The first chapter takes us through a childhood love and separation that evolves into an epistolary relationship. When the boy Takai decides to go to visit his friend Akari, who has moved to another prefecture, the most poetic moments of the film occur: Takai, stranded on a train in the snow, wonders if Akari will be waiting for him when his train arrives late. Suddenly, the relativity of time when one must wait upon love, which has been running as an undercurrent up to this point, bursts into full bloom. This wafer-thin premise becomes truly moving in the hands of director/writer/character designer Makoto Shinkai.
"Cosmonaut," the second act, reflects the voyager status of Takai's soul as the distance between the lovers has grown. Big-eyed anime waif Sudime Kanae works hard to get his attention after he has moved to the far southern island of Tanegashima. Their trips home from school through gorgeous twilight landscapes create an odd sort of tension as Takai continues to remain oblivious of Sudae's feelings, presumably because he's still hung up on Akari. Makoto Shinkai is said to be most fond of this chapter, and the love is apparent. The landscape itself is a shimmering character, encouraging or hindering the relationship between the lovers. The final act is a sort of coda, in which the author makes sure things remain open to interpretation.
Admit it, you hated the song montage at the end.
Yeah, but it was one of the few animation films I've seen that was truly moving.
Live Action Up to Bat
Films that exemplify the convergence of digital and animation, such as 300, Sin City or Beowulf -- films that the festival anticipated when it was born 10 years ago -- went off to more prestigious festivals such as Berlin or Venice. So what is competing with what? How is one to compare a live-action film struggling to find a distributor to a quality animated feature from Japan that is perfectly happy without distribution? Is this fair?
It might just be. The Future Film Festival managed to put forward live-action films that surprise and make one think more deeply about the division between live action and animation.
Shut up and tell us about the films.
Okay. One live-action film in competition was The Aerial, a really goofy political satire in the fine Argentine tradition. This black-and-white film borrows consciously from silent films of the twenties and thirties, with campy acting and dialogue subtitles with which the actors interact. Esteban Sapir directed and wrote this wacky melodrama, but the real stars are the sets by Valentina Llorens and Sebastian Serra. Every frame features lovely compositions of art deco and art nouveau in architecture and interior design, and the final sequence positively explodes with Brazil-like retro surrealism.
The visual effects are important in this film, and one could see how it found its way into the competition. Sapir has spent much of his career as a director of photography, so the attention paid to the composition was not surprising. What was surprising was that the quality of the black-and-white lacked the rich tones one has come to expect of a good 35mm print. Perhaps the print had seen better days, or the author made a deliberate choice to give the film a sort of silent-film washed-out look.
Argentina and Italy have a historical affinity, and the film hit the nail on the head with Italian audiences. The arch-villain Mr. TV has painted-on hair similar to the implants of television tycoon and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Stay away from politics. The Italian government just fell. Again.
The best of the fest in terms of live action, however, was Belgian film Ben X. The film recounts the trials of an autistic teen, tortured by his schoolmates. He displays his prodigious mental powers only in online gaming, where he beats up orcs and cavorts with the avatar of his female pal Scarlite. While filmmaker Nic Balthazar sometimes overplays his hand building up the foreboding, lead actor Greg Timmermans is hypnotic as Ben, and the film positively takes off in the third act with a series of spectacular twists.
The RPG graphics in Ben X are pretty rudimentary when compared to other offerings, but the dangerous ways in which Ben confuses gaming with reality provide a very real commentary on where gaming is taking us as a society. Ironically, the final message of the film turns the question on its head and focuses on just what are the limits of what is acceptable or unforgivable in human behavior, and asks if we might just be taking ourselves a bit too seriously.
Marijka Pinoy, as Ben's mother, shows more colors of pragmatic suffering than one would have thought possible, and Laura Verlinden as his would-be online companion Scarlite glows in Ben's presence in a way that makes you wonder whether she is real.
You mean she wasn't?
Judging (Digital) Reality
So here we are, talking about the performances of actors while ignoring the voices in our heads. This is where it really gets weird. Rumor has it that the jury was concerned that real high school kids are not as mean as they are portrayed in the live-action film Ben X.
Well, now. I can remember scenes precisely like that from my school days, but I've worked most of it out with my therapist and that's beside the point.
Is it now?
What I mean is that most of us don't really go around concerning ourselves too much about the fact that kids can't really leap up the faces of buildings, Spider-Man style, as they are able to do in the Special Mention winner, Tekkonkinkreet. It's an animation film, after all. Why the problem with the "reality" of live action?
The festival set no ground rules. "They didn't tell us anything... " said festival judge and animation producer Carlo Alfano, his eyes wide with... was it fear?... as he pondered, between screenings, what to make of the festival choices.
Once the decisions were in, the judges were calmer. "The films were so varied," nodded animation director and fellow judge Enzo D'Alo, "that we had to invent the criteria ourselves." In the end, however, they were unanimous. "Both of the winners had dense screenplays," said screenwriter and festival judge Georgia Cecere, clearly showing relief after the decisions were in. "Aside from all the technical considerations, what won out in the end was that which was simply beautiful."
This is the first year in which the festival has appointed a jury, so the organizers and judges must be praised for taking this important step toward professionalism. If a jury is being asked to judge live-action films in competition with animation films, however, then the festival organizers should probably spend some quality time laying down a set of criteria.
It sounds like you're criticizing their choices.
No, it's not that. I just think that... Oh never mind. I can never win an argument with myself.
Shorts as a Container of... Short Shrift?
The award for best short is an audience award, the Premio del Pubblico Grupama (named for the sponsoring insurance company). The winner was a Spanish offering, Attencion al Cliente, which postulates a future in which anti-theft robots in supermarkets will go up against a gizmo-toting grandma intent on feeding her dog. Second prize went to the Italian Scaramuccia, a very short joke about the domestic lives of spiders.
When one considers that these were up against shorts that have won elsewhere, including The Pearce Sisters, Pib and Pog -- Peter's Room, and Wives' Supermarket, it's nice to see others win. One may wonder, however, about the fairness of handing out the audience award for shorts when the 10 programs had really varied audiences. One program I attended had few people in the theater, and not all of us voted.
Festival artistic director Giulietta Fara defends the popular award as being important in keeping the festival open to the public and not having it be just a festival for folks from the profession. Well and good, but having an audience award does not preclude having a jury award as well. Fara may have a more valid point when defending their policy of lumping student films with more professional offerings. "We think it's important for students to see themselves up against the great masters to see how they measure up," she asserts.
This may run contrary to the festival's stated desire to make the festival a popular one. The general public is far less forgiving when some of the films (student or otherwise) are unsuccessful in their attempt to make a point or amuse. In a program of shorts, these quizzical moments create holes in the overall program that discourage further visits by the audience.
Certainly the festival registered good attendance, thanks to a crowd of passionate students staggering out of their exams for a bit of entertainment. Lest we forget, Bologna is a bustling town whose university was established two centuries before Re Enzo appeared on the scene.
The Making of Presentations
In the end, the positive qualities of the festival far outweigh the quibbles one may have. Certainly Jim Capobianco's presentation of the making of My Friend the Rat was inspiring and provided insight into the process of 3D filmmakers trying to re-learn 2D and stop motion. Likewise, production designer Mark Holmes provided insights into the workings of Pixar with a presentation of the making of the hilarious short Lifted. The lessons about Pixar continued with director Leslie Iwerks' program about the making of The Pixar Story. Then there were the digital-effects shows about ILM by Vicki Dobbs Beck, and Weta's Matt Aitken talking about the making of Water Horse.
Did you see them all?
No, well, look, there was this press conference at the same time... That's why I sent you!
I was enjoying a good cotoletta alla Bolognese.
I thought we agreed not to talk about food.
In short, the festival organizers have cultivated their relationship with large animation and effects studios and do a great job in bringing in talent to give presentations you would normally find at SIGGRAPH. Again, it allows us to think more deeply about the changes occurring in the medium.
You mean media.
No, media is plural. The philosophy here is that it's all one.
You bought it, huh?
Shut up and listen to what the real futurists have to say.
The Future: Control or Chaos?
In a special session, the festival presented a roundtable of experts to expound on the last 10 years of digital progress and prognosticate about the future.
"Collectively the visual effects community has resolved most of the issues," said Matt Aitken, visual effects supervisor for Weta Digital. "We have more processing power now. There is a maturation in the area of facial animation and the use of pre-visualization in order to do the planning of feature effects." He also spoke about the importance of the growing specialization for reference performance. "We at Weta wouldn't do a sequence without the reference actor any more. If you want a real performance, you go to actors because that's where their expertise lies."
Aitken also spoke about the next stage, virtual cinematography, wherein a director on a motion-capture stage will be able to see what the scene will look like in low resolution, in real time. A virtual camera can even be introduced and camera angles changed. "A lot of the stuff that we think of as progress is about allowing the filmmaker to retain control. Working with actors is a traditional method for the director to retain control."
"We are now able to give the director more control over the various solutions," agreed Vicki Dobbs Beck of ILM, who pointed out that the convergence of film and games is the first place where tools developed in-house are being applied. "What we are seeing is the use of tools by games people who are now able to use our technology at our sister company, Lucas Arts." She is dismissive, however, of the levelling effect of powerful filmmaking tools in the hands of the public at large. "Just because you have the tools at your fingertips doesn't mean you have a great story," she shrugs. "I think that great stories will be the thing which will emerge."
"Let me do something entirely different," said author and journalist Bruce Sterling, next up on the bill. "I'm going to blatantly predict the future." He stated that there were four main driving forces: technological advance, and the ethical, legal, and social implications thereof. "Which means that you innovate, and the world kicks back." Using a trick called a "forecasting scenario," he laid out four different kinds of futures:
1. Low-tech and low-control: Bollywood. "You're chuckling, but it is the biggest in the world."
2. Low-tech and high-control: "Sarkozy, the Euro domain of control. Tax the Internet to underwrite French films... we are trying to civilize the Internet."
3. High-tech and high-control: "The WTO, MPAA, and all of the other regulatory alphabet. It's a multinational, stable, money-making world. We use very expensive locked patented tools in your business. Movies are distributed with cunning dongles and barbed wire. It's as much as your life to pirate a film! There's a video camera everywhere. Crush the individual artist! It pervades every part of your life. It's 2018 as 1984."
4. High-tech and low-control: "Or, where did my business go? There are no barriers! Free video cameras for everyone! The world is a giant film school that never ends! There are no films, just snippets. It's YouTube 3.0."
"Which of these worlds will actually occur?" Sterling asks the audience. "I will share a secret: All four will happen at the same time. There will be a melange of various aspects. The best you can do is weigh the alternatives, decide the kind of world you want to live in, and push in that direction."
I vote for a good plate of affettati at Tamburini.
Now we are having what is called convergence, Enzo.
Russell Bekins has served time in story and project development for Creative Artists Agency and Disney. He now lives in Bologna, Italy, where he specializes in concept design for theme park, aquarium and museum installations.