Sundance Animation Spotlight Shines the Light on Top Notch Animation

Mary Ann Skweres reports back from Sundance the premiere U.S. film festival regarding the animated encounters she experienced.

Ryan keeps marching on. It was awarded with Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking. Courtesy of Copper Heart Ent. and the National Film Board of Canada.

Ryan keeps marching on. It was awarded with Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking. Courtesy of Copper Heart Ent. and the National Film Board of Canada.

This year the Sundance Film Festival grouped animated shorts into their own program, giving animation buffs and the general public an opportunity to view the best examples of this art form at one seating. The program showcased not only the diverse techniques being used to create animation, but the imagination, humor and assorted talents of the creators. Kudos to the Sundance programmers for providing an enlightening and thoroughly entertaining experience.

Ryan

In a program so exceptional, its hard to pick a favorite, but I must admit that the creative imagination in director Chris Landreths Ryan blew me away. It must have also impressed the Shorts Jury. They awarded the film an Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking. Challenging accepted notions of animation and documentary, the film is a biography of pioneering Canadian animator, Ryan Larkin, who, 30 years ago, created some of the most influential animated films of his time, before his fall into drugs and alcohol contributed to his creative demise and led to a life on welfare, panhandling for change. Yet despite Ryans obvious shortcomings, the film reveals an artistically brilliant man acutely self-aware of his demons.

Landreths animation style is interpretive. The film uses the real voices of Ryan Larkin and the people who knew him to tell the story, but surpassing photo-realism, Landreths visualizations of characters exist in a pioneer realm, a realm that he calls psycho-realism. In this world the appearance of the 3D characters is bizarre, twisted, broken, disembodied and can be humorous or disturbing. This distorted appearance visually reflects the characters evolving pain, insanity, fear, mercy, shame and creativity.

Ryan is a 3D computer animated 35mm film produced by Copper Heart Entertainment in co-production with the National Film Board of Canada and in association with Seneca Collage Animation Arts Centre. Although the characters and sets have detailed realism, there is no live-action footage; everything was modeled using CGI tools. Centre graduates collaborated with Landreth to create the unique look of the film. Alias Maya 4.0 animation software was used for the modeling, rigging, animation, lighting and rendering of the 3D world. Other tools used were Discreets combustion 2.1 for all compositing and 2D effects, Adobe Photoshop 7.0 for painting and texturing and Adobe Premiere for creative development and editing.

Landreth came to animation as a second career, working as an engineer before changing to computer animation. At Alias|Wavefront, he tested animation software and created animated short films, including the Academy-award nominated The End (1995) and the Genie award-winning Bingo (1998).

Shane Acker was influenced by puppetry and stop-motion animation masters Jan Svankmeyer, The Brothers Quay and the Lauenstein Brothers and the old English poem Beowulf for his film 9. © Shane Acker.

Shane Acker was influenced by puppetry and stop-motion animation masters Jan Svankmeyer, The Brothers Quay and the Lauenstein Brothers and the old English poem Beowulf for his film 9. © Shane Acker.

9

With his eye for strong composition, Shane Acker has created a gritty, tactile reality for his animated adventure 9. In this ravaged world, primitive, potato-sack, rag dolls are hunted by a mechanical beast that steals their souls. Using non-verbal narrative, the film relies heavily on pantomime and staging to tell the story of 9, the rag doll, who must confront the monster.

Acker took his inspiration from many sources puppetry and the work of stop-motion animation masters Jan Svankmeyer, The Brothers Quay and the Lauenstein Brothers, the fantasy artwork of Zdzislaw Beksinski, photographs of European cities destroyed in World War II and the old English poem Beowulf. He brought these influences to the world of CGI, using Maya and Photoshop to realize his vision. Sound and music were critical elements in building a believable fantasy world. For Acker, Sound creates space. The animation was created first with the sound being inspired by the visuals. Dave Steinwedel designed the sound with music from Earganic. It took 4 1/2 years to bring the film to fruition.

Shane Acker received dual masters degrees in architecture and animation from UCLA. He joined Weta Digital to animate on the third film in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy: The Return of the King. His first film, The Hangnail, screened internationally in more than 60 film and animation festivals, toured with the Spike and Mike Sick and Twisted Animation Festival, and has aired on the Sci Fi channel. He freelances as a 3D artist, director and independent filmmaker in Los Angeles.

The Meaning of Life Its surprising how poignant stick-figure, pencil-sketched characters can become in the hands of an artist, but thats a large part of the magic of Don Hertzfeldts animated short, The Meaning of Life an exploration of time, life, death and Tchaikovsky. Another pleasure is the hand-made craftsmanship displayed in the film.

Hertzfeldt admits, I dont use computers for anything. For The Meaning of Life, Hertzfeldt single-handedly animated tens of thousands of pen, paper and paint drawings. His inspiration came from an attraction to comedy and the desire to do something different. In order to keep his interest over the long four-year production, Hertzfeldt never worked from a preconceived scenario, instead, he allowed scenes to evolve organically as part of the creative process as the film took shape.

The entire film was photographed traditionally to 35mm with all the effects work meticulously created in-camera through traditional multiple-exposures, optical compositing, backlighting and inventive trick photography techniques. The crowd scenes during the intense first three minutes of the film took two years to complete and included vocal performances by some 60 actors playing more than 150 characters. Many complex sequences required several months of work just to produce a few seconds of screen time. Eventually 45 minutes of film was shot for the films 12-minute running time.

At the age of 15, Hertzfeldt self-taught himself animation, which he prefers to live-action because animation allows him complete control. His previous film, Rejected (2001) was nominated for an Academy Award. His other animated films Billys Balloon, Lily and Jim, Genre and Ah, LAmour have received more than 100 awards since 1995 and have been seen in thousands of film festivals and venues around the world. A graduate of UC Santa Barbara Department of Film Studies, Hertzfeldt now teaches at his alma mater.

Director Pjotr Sapegin turns a true story from a tragic period of the 20th century into a tongue-in-cheek epic in Through My Thick Glasses. © 2004 National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

Director Pjotr Sapegin turns a true story from a tragic period of the 20th century into a tongue-in-cheek epic in Through My Thick Glasses. © 2004 National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

Though My Thick Glasses

To convince a shortsighted little girl to put on her cap before going out into the winter snow, her grandfather (Odd Borretzen) tells her the frightening tale of his boyhood during the Second World War. In the capable hands of director Pjotr Sapegin, a true story from this tragic period of the 20th century is transformed into a tongue-in-cheek epic. With a look stylistically reminiscent of childrens drawings, Through My Thick Glasses is a humorous, finely-tuned story, peopled by expressive and often empathetic clay characters living in a distorted world.

A co-production of Pravda and the National Film Board of Canada, the technique employed in the animation was puppet animation on glass. Chantel Masson, Kaja Wright Polmar and Marte Stensen animated with Sapegin. Photographed by Janne K. Hansen, imaginative lighting was used to heighten the both the dramatic and comedic impact of the story. Music and sound design was created by Normand Roger in collaboration with Denis Chartrand.

Sapegin worked for 15 years as a set designer in Russia at various theatres including the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. After moving to Norway in 1990, he founded Pravda Productions where he started making animated films with clay and puppets. A prolific filmmaker, he has created a dozen films including Aria, an animated short inspired by Puccinis Madame Butterfly (2001) and the Shakespeare inspired, In a Corner of the World (1999) and has garnered numerous awards at international festivals.

Morality tale The Birthday tells the story of a boy who doesnt know what to do after liberating a stubborn cow from slaughter. Photo credit: Jussi Eerola. © Knoproduction Ltd. 2005.

Morality tale The Birthday tells the story of a boy who doesnt know what to do after liberating a stubborn cow from slaughter. Photo credit: Jussi Eerola. © Knoproduction Ltd. 2005.

The Birthday

After liberating a stubborn Cow from the slaughter, a Boy, who works at the automated slaughterhouse, is unable to get rid of the determined animal. His sick Father finally solves the problem, in this morality tale about values that cannot be detected with a gauge or on a monitor screen.

Fifty percent of the sound effects and atmosphere in The Birthday were created ahead of the animation. This gave the animators the rhythm of walking to animate to. The animation was created from different layers of sets and puppets and composited in Inferno. After Effects and combustion were also used. The script had been in development for eight years. It took six months to construct the puppets and 160 days to shoot the 35 mm film that was produced by Kinoproduction Oy in cooperation with YLE TVI, SVT and with production support from The Finnish Film Foundation, AVEK. Produced by Claes Olsson, casting was by Nicola Usborne, cinematography by Jussi Eerola, sound design by Kirka Sainio, editing by P.V. Lehtinen and music by Markus Lahtinen.

Originally a metalworker, director Kari Juusonen graduated from Lahti Polytechnic Institute of Fine Arts and completed his masters in classical animation at the University of Art and Design Helsinki UIAH. He likes to do everything alone. His puppet animation Pizza Passionata won the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001. When not animating, Juusonen works as a set designer on short films, puppet animations, commercials and music videos.

A gun, a cup of coffee and two unhappy men meet up in A Bucks Worth. © Tatia Rosenthal.

A gun, a cup of coffee and two unhappy men meet up in A Bucks Worth. © Tatia Rosenthal.

A Bucks Worth

A gun, a cup of coffee and the value of a mans life are all part of an encounter gone wrong between two unhappy men (Tom Noonan and Phillip Baker Hall).

Using groundbreaking technology, A Bucks Worth was shot on a Canon10D digital still camera, input into a computer at a high resolution and output to 35mm film. Handmade puppets were shot against green- and bluescreens and composited with After Effects into the background plates that were shot separately. The system was developed by the crew in order to test a more economical, modular approach to the expensive traditional techniques of stop-motion animation with the intention of using the new techniques on the production of $9.99 the feature animation stemming from the short. The film took director Tatia Rosenthal one year to make. Burke Heffner was cinematographer, art direction was by Yael Komarovsky, Rachel Chancey was sound designer, Phil McNagny acted as technical director and Christopher Bowen composed the music.

Rosenthal previously collaborated with Bucks Worth writer, Etgar Keret, on her award-winning short puppet animation Crazy Glue. They are collaborating on $9.99, a stop-motion, puppet animation film based on Kerets short stories which was also the first fully animated project accepted by the Sundance Writers and Directors Lab.

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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