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.
Letter to an Agony Aunt, 6 min., directed by Phil Croxall, the U.K. Info: S4C International, Parc Ty Glas; Llanishen, Cardiff, Pays de Galles CF14 5DU, the U.K.; Tel.: ++44 1222 74 7444; Fax: ++44 1222 75 4444; Web: www.s4c.co.uk; E-mail: email@example.com.
Stanley, 7 min., directed by Suzie Templeton, the U.K. Info: Royal College of Art Animation Department, Kensington Gore; London, SW7 2EU, the U.K.; Tel.: ++44 171 590 4512; Fax: ++44 171 590 4510; Web: www.rca.ac.ek; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brother, 8 min., directed by Adam Benjamin Elliot, Australia. Info: Adam Elliot Ply Ltd., Flat 2, 1/a Kingsley Street, Elwood, Victoria, 3184 Australia; Tel.: ++61 3 9525 6209; E-mailL email@example.com.
Furniture Poetry, 5 min., 15 sec., directed by Paul Bush, the U.K. Info: Ancient Mariner Productions Ltd.; 93 Lausanne Road, London, SE15 2HY, the U.K.; Tel.: ++44 20 7635 7533; Fax: ++44 20 7635 7533.
In/Dividu, 7 min., directed by Nicole Hewitt, Croatia. Info: Zagreb Films, Vlaska 70, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia; Tel.: ++385 1 46 13 689; Fax: ++385 1 45 57 068; Web: www.zagreb-film.hr; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 2000 Annecy Animation Festival's competition for short fiction films included animated works made with a wide range of techniques. Among the most interesting to me were the numerous puppet, clay and object animations. This month I will review five of these films.
Letter to an Agony Aunt
So often, cel animation feels very 'invisible' in terms of technique. Storytelling is foregrounded and the actual cels and paints themselves become a means to this end. Part of the reason that 'traditional' 3D objects (such as puppets and clay) are increasingly of interest to me is that I find that these works more often seem to employ the animation technique -including the actual objects used to enhance the storytelling.
Such is the case with Letter to an Agony Aunt, a mixed media film directed by Phil Croxall, which employs puppets, photos, pixilation and live-action footage. The film is about a live-action woman who responds to advice given by a newspaper columnist. She reads her letter to the audience, which meanwhile sees a re-enactment of a situation she found herself in because she followed the columnist's advice to 'act on one's feelings.' Her friendship with a man was strained when he misread her gifts as a sign of romantic interest, when in fact she just felt like thanking him for being such a great friend. The situation is typical enough, but here's the twist: this male friend is a small puppet.
At first I wondered if the use of the puppet was an ill-conceived attempt to symbolize this man in some manner. Much to my relief, I quickly realized that, no, she is friends with an actual puppet -- a puppet that moves very little and really is a puppet, as opposed to a small-animated man. In terms of the narrative, then, the woman somewhat unusual, but her character is further enhanced by pixilation of her movement. She is also animated through a series of photos of her figure, which are used outside a small store set (that is, a model). The animation techniques, objects used and narrative have a cohesiveness, which makes the film feel well rounded and thoroughly developed. It runs 6 minutes and contains English-language dialogue, having been produced in Cardiff, Wales, by Harmchair Cinema.
From the Surrey Institute of Art and Design comes a first film by director Suzie Templeton. It employs puppets and a few objects -- in the form of fresh meat -- to tell the story of a man obsessed with growing a gigantic cabbage and his maniacal wife, equally obsessed with chopping animal flesh for dinner.
Both characters are designed to be sweaty, greasy and-overall-rather unpleasant to look at. The wood and brick backyard and dingy kitchen sets in which the action takes place add to the visceral feel of the film, as does the flecks of 'blood' that appear on the characters and on the meat itself. It seems that the use of Beta SP for recording the animation probably added to the grainy quality that seems to pervade the environment in which the story takes place. Since the 7-minute film contains no dialogue, the setting, puppets and animated movements are all the more important to the development of the narrative.
A much more 'minimal' approach to both animation and design are taken by Australian director Adam Benjamin Elliot, in Brother. The 8-minute film completes a trilogy of clay animations telling very personal stories inspired by members of the director's family; the others are Uncle (1997) and Cousin (1998). Like these two films, Brother takes a loving and humorous, but very matter-of-fact look at the life of its subject.
At the Annecy festival, Brother won a special distinction awarded for its humor and sensitivity. Elliot's talent in these films is in creating a character that viewers like and can identify as 'real' in a relatively short time, using strong dialogue that is expertly delivered as voice-over narration by William McInnes. The simply designed figures and minimal animated movement are strongly suggestive of childhood experience, out of which the stories grow. The English-language narration, though, is delivered objectively refusing to foreshadow the ups and downs along the way. Neither happy nor sad tales, these films are nonetheless very affecting. Elliot has developed a very distinctive style in these three works and it will be interesting to see how his future work develops.
The final two films take similar objects (household objects) and aim to explore form, but in completely different directions. In/Dividu, a 7-minute work produced at Zagreb Film, and directed by English filmmaker and multimedia artist Nicole Hewitt, is objective and analytical. It studies the material composition of various things, which include a common chair, a small office refrigerator and the human body. The inanimate objects are torn to pieces and then strung on what appears to be fishing line or another clear material. These pieces dance, transform and disappear in a choreographed study. At one point, the plastic line itself becomes woven into the shape of the chair, which is then further manipulated. The human body is filmed in extreme close and close shots, revealing the texture of skin and quick glimpses of whole body parts.
In a way, this section seems out of sync with the rest of the animation, since it is framed so differently. Although it is a study of the materiality of an object, its shots lack the environmental space of the other studies. As a result, it has a very different look and feel. Of course, this separation also is apparent because the objects are, of course, inanimate, while the human body, though analyzed like an object, nonetheless has a wholly different quality.
The final film, Furniture Poetry, works with household objects again. Household noises on the soundtrack ground some of the animations in a domestic space while other segments lack sound or feature other types of noise. Uniting these sequences, though, is a pleasant chime that occurs during the transitions, helping to create a cohesive work.
While Furniture Poetry is non-narrative (like In/Dividu, it lacks dialogue), it nonetheless has developed a kind of humor through its animation. Not completely unlike squash and stretch in cel animation, the metamorphosis of household objects in this film gives character to the items depicted on screen.
Computer software has automated the process of 2D cel animation, so the 'perfection' of that look is relatively easily accomplished. However, the short films in competition at the Annecy festival have shown that there is not only a sustained (probably growing) interest in traditional 3D techniques, but an increasing expertise in using 3D materials. A member of the selection committee told me that by far the largest number of submissions were computer-animated, but a decision was reached to assure a more equal representation of materials and methods. I think this was a good decision. Happily, the festival has shown that a range of animation techniques continue to be applied successfully at all levels.
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 (John Libbey, 1998).