Fresh from the Festivals: February 2000's Film Reviews
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Mum. © AtomFilms.

The Experimental Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts is known for its exceptional student work; headed by Jules Engel, it is considered to be one of the best animation programs in the world. Among its recent productions is Mum, a puppet animation that tells the story of a woman who appears to be trapped in a marriage with a violent man. The film was produced and directed by undergraduate Nicholas Peterson, whose faculty advisors included Raimund Krumme and Mark Osborne.

The film opens with a slow pan along wooden floorboards, slightly parted and tacked unevenly with nails. Eventually we see the fine lace of a wedding dress, followed by the fidgeting hands and tense face of a young bride. From the onset, one can see that among the film's primary strengths is its set design, which is quite detailed and lends much to the creation of mood. Producer-director Peterson created the sets, plus served as director of photography and editor. Although his use of soft focus and quick edits is sometimes distracting, on the whole the photography (on 35 mm film, using some CGI) helps with setting the mood as well; slow pans, accompanied by a mournful score by Jasper Randall, reflect the sense of entrapment and dread the character feels. To be honest, the film's "story" itself is not very clear -- though I know there is resolution at the end of the film, I am left wondering about what transpired to get to that point.

Among my other questions is why the director selected the film's title sequence, which features a zoom into the stomach of a sculpted female figure, followed by the film's title overlaid on what appears to be swirling ink in water. This part of the film was shot in high speed live-action photography, as opposed to animation. Lacking texture and suggesting to me at least that the film is about childbirth, it (thankfully) seems quite out of character with the rest of the production. Dotted though it is with elements that could be refined, the film nonetheless suggests that Peterson holds great promise, particularly as a designer. Credit also goes to lead animator and puppet construction artist David J. Candelaria, for his work with the film's armatured figures, made from wire, latex, a clay/wax mixture and fabric. The film already has won top awards for Best Undergraduate Film in two festivals, plus received numerous screenings in official selections. Completed in 1999, after two years of work, Mum runs 7.5 minutes and contains no dialogue.

The Queen's Monastery.
© Pearly Oysters Productions.

The Queen's Monastery
Emma Calder's film, The Queen's Monastery, is also quite interesting visually. This work was created with ink and paint on paper, creating the look of individually painted images combined to create a stylized animated production. The film's "story," told without words, is about the way war has changed a young man who returns home to his lover. The playful man the woman once knew (he worked as an acrobat) has been transformed into a sword-bearing warrior who lies silently in bed. She herself appears more distant too, until her flowing hair -- tied tightly to her head when he returns -- is released once more before the end of the film.

Calder studied at the London College of Printing and the Royal College of Art, with an emphasis in graphic design. Having worked in cut-outs, potato stamping, and other innovative techniques, it is not surprising that The Queen's Monastery has a strong visual element, largely consisting of black and grays on a white background. The film was produced by Pearly Oyster Productions, a company Calder founded in 1989 with Ged Haney.

Little Dark Poet. © bolexbrothers.

Little Dark Poet
From bolexbrothers, the studio which produced the pixillated feature The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (directed by Dave Borthwick, 1995), comes another film combining animation and live-action material in an unusual way: Little Dark Poet, directed by Mike Booth (whose first film, The Saint Inspector, was widely screened at festivals). Little Dark Poet depicts a clay figure writing a silent-era film scenario in which two live-action lovers interact in various ways. However, the "actors" become aware of the author's manipulations and are increasingly unhappy, particularly when the ending is a tragedy of sorts.

In order to create the sense of a "silent" film, a nostalgic look is given to Little Dark Poet through effects such as tinted frames, as well as "scratches" and "lines" laid over the images (see Osamu Tezuka's Broken Down Film for somewhat similar effects). It also appears that a visual reference to F.W. Murnau's Expressionist classic Nosferatu is created, as a large shadow of a vampire-like image is reflected onto a wall. These effects are moderately interesting, but the lighting and design of the three-dimensional writer and his environment seem more complex. This film was commissioned by the British Television Network, Channel 4. In keeping with the idea of a silent-era film, Little Dark Poet contains no dialogue.

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)

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