Maureen Furniss reviews short films: Fugue by Georges Schwizgebel, Pleasures of War by Ruth Lingford, Humdrum by Aardman's Peter Peaks, Uncle and Cousin by Australia's Adam Benjamin and Plug, directed by Meher Gourjian.
Within the world of animation, most experimentation occurs within short format productions, whether they be 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. This month: Fugue (1998), 7 min., directed by Georges Schwizgebel, Switzerland. Info: Studio GDS, 15 av. Vibert, 1227 Carouge, Switzerland. Pleasures of War (1998), 11.5 min., directed by Ruth Lingford, England. Info: Finetake Productions, 110 Calabria Rd., London, N5 1HT, England. Humdrum (1998), 7 min., directed by Peter Peaks, England. Info: Aardman Animations, Gas Ferry Road, Bristol, Avon, BS1 6UN, England. Uncle (1997), 6 min., and Cousin (1998), 4.5 min., directed by Adam Benjamin Elliot, Australia. Info: Adam Benjamin Elliot PTY, LTD., 43 John Street, Elwood, Victoria 3184, Australia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Plug (1999), 11 min., directed by Meher Gourjian, USA. Info: Jamie Waese, tel: 1-310-453-5438. E-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Plug is distributed by AtomFilms. If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.
George Schwizgebel's Fugue is a cyclically-structured, non-narrative film described as the story of a man who "races down a flight of stairs. He takes refuge in a hotel room and begins to dream. The underlying structure of the fugue visually represented." Paralleling the musical fugue structure, the film reveals various visual images and actions that are shown repeatedly and woven into a complex whole. The movement pauses occasionally, perhaps to take in a seated character deep in contemplation, but for the most part the action is constant and fluid. The word "dream" in Schwizgebel's description is perhaps the best word to describe the essence of this film, which is fascinating in its complex repetitive structure. One is invited to consider structure as perspectives shift and the edges of the frame reveal themselves (as a young girl swings, the edges of the picture begin to rock back and forth, revealing another image below). Anyone familiar with this Swiss animator's other films, such as La Course à l'Abîme (1992) and L'Année du Daim (1995), will recognize his distinctive painterly style. Brush strokes, evident throughout the film, and other effects are achieved through a combination of acrylic on cels and pastels. With no dialogue, the film's music, by Michèle Bokanowski, has (as one might assume in a film called Fugue) a significant presence of its own.
Pleasures of War
Ruth Lingford's film, Pleasures of War, is also a relatively `textured' film visually, relying on metamorphosis and moving camera to move its narrative along. Also without dialogue, this film invites viewers to speculate on the natures of sexuality and brutality, which here are closely linked. In the film, a woman seeks the enemy general, with deadly results from their sexual affair. The overall effect of the film can be described as chilling, as erotic imagery filling the end of the film is `climaxed' by a bloody victory of sorts. Lingford created the film on a desktop computer, working with writer Sara Maitland. However, its 2D imagery has the appearance of etching, reminding me somewhat of scratched-on-plaster work by Polish filmmaker Piotr Dumala. The effect is achieved by the use of numerous silhouetted images and reliance on black and white primarily, with very limited use of yellow and red color patches. This choice of visuals enhances the shadowy, clandestine activity of the film. Pleasures of War was produced by Dick Arnall, and sponsored by England's Channel 4 Television as part of an ongoing initiative to create collaborations between director/animators and writer/novelists.
Also from England comes the Aardman Studios produced film Humdrum, directed by Peter Peaks. From the beginning of the film -- as its two characters say, "Anything on telly? . . . Only some weird animation thing. . . . Oh God." -- it is evident that the film will be a self parody. Since the characters themselves are composed of cast shadows from animated figures, the joke is heightened when they resort to playing shadow puppets with their hands. One character comments, "I can't think of anything more boring than staring at some stupid shadows for God's sake. Is this what happens when you don't have any friends?" One has the feeling the idea for this film came about after some animators found themselves having the very same conversation. Heavily reliant on the dialogue of its two characters, the short work remains a relatively simple, humorous film that turns on a few good jokes.
Uncle and Cousin
Even simpler in its execution are two films by Australian animator Adam Benjamin Elliot, Uncle and Cousin, the first of a trilogy that will be capped by a film called Brother. As these films' titles suggest, they are personal works based on relatives of the artist. Strongly driven by voice-over narration, read by William McInnes, the actual animation in the film is relatively little. Instead, clay figures tend to remain relatively still in front of simple, flattened backdrops, as if they were created by a child. The stories themselves are at once charming and sad, investigating two individuals who are removed from mainstream society in some manner. The "Uncle" is a sensitive man who loses touch with reality after his wife commits suicide and his dog gets killed. Living out his last days in a "gentleman's home," he dies quietly with a cup of tea and a scone in his hand. The "Cousin" is a boy born with cerebral palsy, who is the subject of ridicule by neighborhood children but nonetheless finds his own way in the world. Cousin was funded by the Australian Film Commission, Film Victoria and SDS Independent, and also is part of an Australia-wide initiative, "Swimming Outside the Flags," a one-hour showcase of Australian animation screened on SCS.
At the other end of the spectrum is a sophisticated computer animation film, Plug, by first-time director Meher Gourjian and first-time producer Jamie Waese. Described as being about "a futuristic society in which people live their entire lives plugged into electronic dream machines," the film is visually interesting for its combination of live-action and animated effects. The basis of the action was provided by live performers in front of a blue screen, whose images were scanned into a computer and modified. The effect is something in between rotoscoping and motion-capture, with the characters reminding me of the movie Tron, or in general the rotoscope work of Ralph Bakshi films. Computer-generated backgrounds and props were composited with the characters and, after being digitally compressed, the footage was then recorded back to 35 mm in CinemaScope. The production of the film, costing a mere $12,000, was supported by numerous computer-related companies in the industry. Sound design is by Randy Thom, an Academy Award winner with impressive credits to his name, including Contact and Forrest Gump. Maureen Furniss, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Film Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California. She is the Founding Editor of Animation Journal and the author of Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (John Libbey, 1998).