Slamdance 2007: The Ballad of Animation

Rick DeMott travels to the online animated communities to find out more about the growing corner of the animation business from leaders like Neopets and Habbo, as well as newer sites, such as Urbaniacs.

The Ballad of Mary Slade walked away with the animation prize at Slamdance. © Robin Fuller.

The Ballad of Mary Slade walked away with the animation prize at Slamdance. © Robin Fuller.

In its strongest slate in the last four years, the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival showcased 14 animated shorts in competition. Filmmakers from around the world -- U.S., Canada, Hungary, U.K., Germany, Japan, North Korea and India -- created the films using a variety of animation techniques.

Director Robin Fuller's The Ballad of Mary Slade (3min., color, U.K.) won the Sparky Award for Best Animation at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival. The tragic tale of a murdered young woman, whose untimely demise brought on by passion and infidelity, is reenacted by the insects consuming her decaying body. Despite the macabre subject matter, Fuller has created a haunting love story using a combination of techniques.

The ants were puppets animated using stop-motion animation against a bluescreen. When the characters are physically interacting with an object on screen, a real prop was used, otherwise the background's were digitally composited from photographs. In scenes where the ants are interacting with the corpse's flesh, Fuller used latex over plasticine to create the torn and decaying soft tissue. The project took about six months of work.

Fuller studied animation at Norwich School of Art and Design. The Ballad of Mary Slade was his final film before completing his MFA and his first film to be shown on the festival circuit -- an auspicious introduction to a talented animator.

Eva is a love story that won over the judges to receive an honorable mention. © 2005 Eyefoolery.

Eva is a love story that won over the judges to receive an honorable mention. © 2005 Eyefoolery.

Eva (9 min., b&w, Germany) received an honorable mention for Best Animated Film at the Slamdance Film Festival 2007. Director Martin Quaden tells a classic story of loneliness and love, with a twist. The love struck lady is an assembly of metal junk and electrical parts, with soulful eyes comprised of light bulbs. The object of her affection is a streetlamp on a set constructed of real props, including real grass that had to be watered. The film convincingly conveys the changing emotions of the title character through stop-motion animation.

When asked how long the film took to complete, Quaden shares, "The plan was one weekend and then additional weekend for reshoots. We were really blissfully ignorant. It took us four and a half years, stop and go." Taking on the project without any prior experience in stop-motion animation, Quaden shot without video assist, the common practice in that form of animation, instead instructing her animator how much to move the character while looking through the camera. The large-set took up so much room in the filmmakers' studio apartment, the sofa was left in the hallway for a year and a half, to the consternation of the landlady.

A native of Hamburg, Germany, Quaden studied film and photography at New York University. He has worked as a camera assistant and director of photography in the U.S. Currently he is a production manager on an animated feature in Hamburg and is developing his latest project, a stop-motion short titled Sminky Pinky.

Loom evokes a folk art influence. © Scott Kravitz.

Loom evokes a folk art influence. © Scott Kravitz.

In Loom (5min., color, USA), a bittersweet allegory of life and death, a street musician saves the life of a child, only to lose his own life, which transforms into a mere thread in the fabric of the quilt of heaven that a mysterious old woman is weaving. Director Scott Kravitz has delightfully art directed and designed the sets and characters of the film to invoke a look of folk art that thematically supports the fable-like nature of the story.

The exterior sets were based on photographs taken by the director in Romania. He liked the color palette, so he decided to make everything, including the people, fit that palette. The figures were six to eight inches high. The wheels on the old woman's wheelchair, were taken from a Barbie bicycle. "The larger you make the people, the larger you have to make the sets and that gets unwieldy," says Kravitz. "In my little apartment, I had to keep it pretty small." The heads of the expressive characters were sculpted. The eyelids, made from a soft clay and the eyes were the only part of the faces that moved. Beads were used for the eyes with the hole serving as the pupil. When the eye needed to move Kravitz would stick a pin into the hole, turn it and then shoot the frame. "The real expressiveness comes from the body. If it is all working together, then it reads," explains Kravitz. "That's always the challenge."

The quilt representing heaven has Hebrew letters along the side that are an acronym found on tombstones in Israel. Although there is not a direct translation Kravitz translates them as, "May this person's soul be enmeshed with God. I liked that idea of enmeshing and how it fit with the idea of the loom." The fabric was difficult to work with because the threads, which were not glued down, would move and cause an unintended "dancing around" on screen. Shooting took over three years of part time work on weekends and holidays and a bit less than a year to complete the sound and editing.

Kravitz has worked in computer animation on high profile films such as The Matrix Revolutions, Scooby-Doo 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 2. He has created stop-motion animation since he was a kid. Because there is not a lot of stop-motion work available, "I keep doing stop-motion work at home to keep myself happy and sane," shares Kravitz.

Printed Rainbow (15 min., color, India) by director Gitanjali Rao is a magical tale of an old woman and her cat that escape their everyday colorless existence to visit the colorful world depicted on the covers of the matchbooks the woman collects. The film is drawn in 2D using two distinctive styles to portray the emotional impact of the two places. Rao creates the grey mundane world with charcoal sketches and a short stroke pointillism style, while the lands of beauty and wonder vibrate in the colors of the rainbow applied with liberating brush strokes.

Rao, a native of Mumbai, India, graduated as a gold medalist in applied art from the city's Sir J. J. Institute of Applied Art and received animation training at Ram Mohan Biographics, also in Mumbai. He works as a freelance animator and an illustrator of children's books.

Jesse Norton, director of Kuro Kuma (5 min., Color, U.S./Japan), spent a lot of time in Japan, sitting around eating sushi and writing haiku poetry. Eventually, he decided haikus weren't enough and started writing in a more elevated, earlier form of Japanese poetry and came up with a story "about the notions of violence." Along with associates in Japan, he spent three years developing new software/hardware program for traditional hand-drawn animation that did not use paper and allowed an artist to instantly receive feedback on what they had animated. The goal for the project, Norton says was, "you can't use any paper, but don't make it look like it was done with a digital process."

Norton used this new computer animation method to visualize his poem, a samurai story. Artfully drawn in bold strokes, hand painted texturing and a contained color palette, several design styles were used in the film. The six artists that collaborated on the animation, each contributed their own unique style to animating the line of the poem that they were given to work on. The variety of designs worked to emphasize the storyline that every dream creates a different sensation.

Besides training at several Japanese studios, Norton, a Quapaw tribe Native American, received unorthodox animation guidance from Chuck Jones, which made up for being kicked out of two film schools.

Several films at Slamdance tackled social issues like Cranium Theater. © Jason Sandri.

Several films at Slamdance tackled social issues like Cranium Theater. © Jason Sandri.

The surrealistic story portrayed in Cranium Theater (6 min., color, U.S.) is a social commentary on the excessive demands of Church and State on the common man inspired by director Jason Sandri's own experience growing up in farm country and seeing farmers who have worked their land for generations being forced to sell. In the film the Brain Farmer carefully cultivates his field of brain cabbages, only to find himself helpless at protecting what is his from those who covet his possessions.

Sandri created the brains from a combination of epoxy plastic and sculpted, baked clay that was painted and glossed. The boots were epoxy plastic made from a mold. Sandri constructed the set like a proscenium stage. The overall stage area was 8'x4' with a little over a foot on each side being used for the curtains so that the characters could walk on the set like in a play. He built all the puppets and sewed the costumes. The windmill was scrap metal, welded together and painted. Real dirt was used for the ground, which was not the best choice "because when you move it when you are not supposed to, it jumps," shares Sandri. Stop-motion animation was used to bring the story to life. It took about a year from preproduction to complete the project.

A Chicago resident, Sandri holds a degree in traditional animation from Columbia College. He takes inspiration from the works of Ray Harryhausen.

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Films like Matière/Material, Infinite Justice and Ujbaz Izbeneki Has Lost his Soul help keep animation techniques that are slipping out of mainstream theatrical cinema alive. Matière/Material © Boran Richard. Infinite Justice © Karl Tebbe. Ujbaz Izbeneki Has Lost His Soul © Neil Jack.

Constantly shifting silhouetted bodies transform into different shapes and positions through flowing stream of consciousness 2D animation in Matière/Material (6 min., color, Canada), a visually stunning abstract work that thematically explores the sexual and spiritual aspects of lovemaking. Director Boran Richard received his interdisciplinary degree in art from the Université du Quebec à Chicoutimi. In 2005, his first short, Écoulement/Flow was awarded the Prix Tele-Québec at the Régard sur le Court-Metrage short film festival. He has worked as a photographer, video editor and indie filmmaker.

Infinite Justice (2min., color, Germany) by director Karl Tebbe uses stop-motion animation and action figures sold in the U.S. (and suitable for children over five) to reconstruct frame by frame the Iraq war news shown on German television -- from the capture of Saddam Hussein to the pyramid of naked bodies in the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison photos. A native of Dortmund, Germany, Tebbe has studied Arabic in Cairo, has a Masters Degree in Applied Theatre Science from Giessen University and has worked as an actor in Tunisia and Jordan. He attended the International Film School in Cuba and currently is studying cinematography at the Fachhochschule Dortmund.

In Neil Jack's stop-motion animated comedy, Ujbaz Izbeneki Has Lost his Soul, the damned title character literally has lost his soul. Then, as soon as he gets to hell, other things start to go missing, until it becomes apparent that nobody knows where the hell the devil has gone. After leaving the theater, I couldn't find one of my gloves. The power of cinema!

Latent Sorrow (2005, 4 min., U.S./South Korea) by director Shon Kim is a cutting-edge experiment in free-flowing artistic expression. He uses his 2D artwork, Moving Painting #7, to reach a coexistent point where abstract and figure are equally fused. Kim studied experimental animation at CalArts and continues to work on moving paintings in Los Angeles.

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Close Your Eyes and Do Not Breathe and Africa Parting both use the freedom of animation to tell vastly different tales. Close Your Eyes and Do Not Breathe © Vuk Jevremovic. Africa Parting © Robyn Yannoukos and Brian LoSchiavo.

Director Vuk Jevremovic's beautifully drawn Close Your Eyes and Do Not Breathe (7 min., Germany) is based on the Ivan Turgenev novel Ghost Story. The film is a shadowy flight of fantasy, which blurs the line between dreams and reality. A native of Frankfurt, Germany, Jevremovic graduated in Architecture at the Technical University in Belgrade and more recently graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.

The earth is confronted by a massive destructive force in Oneheadword Protection (6 min., color, Hungary/Canada) a collaboration by directors Igor and Ivan Buharov (real names: Kornel Szilagyi and Nandor Hevesi) who have created 10 experimental short films together in 10+ years using any film they can get their hands on, from 8mm to 35mm, including expired stock because they like to get the unexpected and unintentional.

Robyn Yannoukos and Brian LoSchiavoco-directed Africa Parting (7 min., color, U.S.). This allegory of the violent apartheid era in South Africa follows the story of a tormented "memory-keeper" who is offered the chance to reconstruct her creation, at the expense of her own life. Yannoukos' roots in both Africa and Greece have influenced her art, which she uses to bring escapism to life. Brian claims to have been raised by a pack of wild animators. They both have a fine arts background and met at UCLA while studying animation.

Tinnitus (7 min., color, U.S.) directed by Mark Zero Lastimosa tells the story of a man who wakes up to a terrible, on going ringing and only knows of one way to make it stop done in a 2D anime style. Lastimosa went to the School of Visual Arts for Traditional Animation and currently works at J.J. Seidelmaier Prods. His dream is to become a 3D animator.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

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