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Fresh from the Festivals: December 2003’s Film Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films fresh from the festival circuit: Maanvis (Moonfish) by Isabel Bouttens, Im A Star! By Stefan Stratil, How To Cope With Death directed by Ignacio Ferregras, How Mermaids Breed directed by Joan Ashworth and Chainsmoker directed by Ulf Lundgren. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

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.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.

This Month:

Maanvis (Moonfish) (2002), 7 min., directed by Isabel Bouttens, Belgium. Email: Isabel.bouttens@skynet.be. Web: users.skynet.be/isabel.bouttens

Im a Star! (2002), 6 min., directed by Stefan Stratil, Austria. Email: Stefan.stratil@evolver.at Web: www.frankieboy.at

How To Cope With Death (2002), 3 min., 10 sec., directed by Ignacio Ferregras, Spain. Info: Lynn Hollowell, Tandem Films Entertainment, 26 Cross Street, Islington, London, N1 2BG, UK. Tel: 44 (0) 20.7688.1717; Fax: 44 (0) 20.7688.1718. Email: lynn@tandemfilms.com Web: www.tandemfilms.com

How Mermaids Breed (2002), 9 min., 41 sec., directed by Joan Ashworth, UK. Info: Martin Greaves, Seed Fold Films, 13, Addington Square, London SE5 7JZ. Tel/Fax: 44 (0)20.7701. Email: seedfold.films@zen.co.uk Web: www.joanashworth.com

Chainsmoker (2002), 4 min., 4 sec., directed by Ulf Lundgren, Sweden. Email: Kp96uln@hotmail.com

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Maanvis (Moonfish) is filled with dreamlike, haunting images. © Isabel Bouttens.

Maanvis (Moonfish)

Maanvis (Moonfish) (2002) is a tasty mood piece by Belgian animator Isabel Bouttens. A moonfish, a crescent moon and a woman in a bathing suit on a pier all flit about in pastels on a black background as the woman meditates on the fish and its seeming ability to devour and re-conjure the moon inside its glass bowl. With only an occasional ripple of water to clue the viewer, an underwater environment gives way to a fresh air environment, which melts into images reflected in the ocean. Its dark outside, yet all objects are well lit youve had this dream. The woman wants the moon, and she sets her fish free and dives into the darkness to get it. There are many haunting images here: not least of which a reflectionless moon rising from the bottom of the sea and splitting in two, as it and its reflection flee the horizon in opposite directions.

The piece originated with Bouttens pencil drawings, which she scanned and colored using Toonz 2D cel animation software. The drawings were printed on tainted brown paper and applied with pastels before being filmed on an Oxberry stand with additional glycerin water effects. The seven-minute film was produced at the KASK Hogeschool, Ghent, where it was Bouttens graduation project. Half of a films impact is always sound, and mention should be made of the music by Annelies Van Parys, an aleatoric work for wind ensemble that drives the film along with bursts of microtonal lines over deep-fathom drones. The music is the works only soundtrack. (Recommended)

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Im A Star! takes us to an alternate-Ol Blue Eyes universe by way of Austria. Cartoon character Frankieboy © Stefan Stratil and Peter Friedrich. Music © Louie Austen and Mario Neugebauer/Cheap Records.

Im a Star!

You never get over a broken heart. I understand, however, that playing one of my albums can help. So says Mr. Schablonski, a trapezoid on a torso with a cigarette and Five Oclock Vegas Blue fishing hat who lives in a run-down hotel with a broken elevator and goes to a bar in a broom closet. His TV is named Sammy, his chair is named Ava, a cactus in the corner answers to Dino; in short this Mr. Schablonski is, or was, or definitely wasnt ever Frank Sinatra. Im A Star! (2002) is a boozy six-minute trip through a claustrophobic alternate-Frank Sinatra universe as conjured by Austrian cartoonist Stefan Stratil.

Im A Star! is a sort of music-video adaptation of a continuing online comic strip called Frankieboy, currently in its 50th installment at www.frankieboy.at (an offshoot of Austrian webzine www.Evolver.at). In the strip, Stratil and co-creator Peter Friedrich have distilled various fragments of the Frank Sinatra myth into episodic, six-panel vignettes riffing on different themes: Frank and Ava, Frank and Dino, Frank and his fans, Frank desperately alone. Our protagonist is basically performing an exegesis of Sinatras life through conversations with his furniture and, occasionally, the hotel maid. The poignancy of Frankieboy telling his battered living room loveseat No woman had more impact on me than you, Ava, is surpassed only by the loveseats curt reply, Didnt your mom ever tell you not to tell lies?

The short film version of the Frankieboy experience is DayGlo grit. The soundtrack is a song by Louie Austen, a Vienna-based vocalist subject to the mutations of electronica producer Mario Neugebauer. Neugebauers downer-than-down tempo beats combine with Austens stretched-out vocal phrasing to create a mood of loungey desperation. The visuals are completely analog: cel animation, stop-motion, in-camera dissolves and multiple exposures combine brightly-colored frames from the Frankieboy strips with rising Ava Gardner-head bubbles, cigarettes that smoke themselves in seconds and distorted views of vintage X-rated pornographic stills (some brief yet hardcore images which will probably keep this off American TV indefinitely).

Im A Star! was produced independently with grants from Austrias Bundeskanzleramt and Stadt Wien Kultur. (Recommended)

jessen03_HowToCopeDeath.jpg The Grim Reaper comes calling in How To Cope With Death. © Tandem Entertainment.

How To Cope With Death

How To Cope With Death (2002) is a finely made, three-minute horror/comic vignette from Tandem Films Entertainment directed by Ignacio Ferreras. Produced for U.K.s Channel 4 Television in association with an artist-in-residence scheme at the Museum of the Moving Image, the short was animated entirely in 2D ink-and-paint through the Toonz software platform.

The shorts single scene takes place entirely in the living room of an old-age pensioner dozing late at night in front of her television. In an exquisitely timed series of establishing shots, we back away slowly from the TV and get a first look at the room, which is somewhat drab and mustard colored, dominated by a fireplace with a mantle covered in pictures and other ephemera from a long and vigorous life. Just as we are clocking the slow rhythms of the womans breathing, a single feather falls into frame revealing an angel of death flapping its hideous wings above her.

Scythe in hand, this genuinely creepy apparition wraps his elongated skeletal protuberances around his prey and caresses her face before backing away in preparation to deliver the final cut. As he goes into his backswing with the scythe well, at this point I simply suggest you find this and watch it, remembering only that if youre the angel of death you damned well better make sure your victim doesnt know karate. The film has played 75 festivals and won 17 awards. It is Ferreras first film and he promises never to do it again. (Recommended)

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How Mermaids Breed answers the question of how mermaids get pregnant. © Seed Fold Films.

How Mermaids Breed

Joan Ashworth is probably best known to American animators for her otherworldly stop-motion gothic horror The Web (1987), adapted from Mervyn Peakes novel, Titus Groan. A nightmarish tale of castle intrigue and giant wandering spiders with three main characters built of soft leather, I taped two minutes of this 18-minute piece when it aired on MTV in 1987 and finally bliss! saw the whole thing this month, 16 years late but rising up fast from my subconscious. It was included on a screening copy of Ashworths latest short How Mermaids Breed.

How Mermaids Breed is a sly look at interspecies breeding that finally answers the ancient maritime riddle of where baby mermaids come from. In ten droll, wordless minutes, we take a trip to the seaside and the undersea side as a man in a boat is tossed overboard thanks to the machinations of a team of mermaids intending to perform testicular milking on their unwitting donor to fertilize the eggs of a pregnant mermaid. The piece, created entirely in CGI, teams with characters that resemble moving versions of the sculptures of Henry Moore. Stoutly-proportioned beings with stocky limbs and suggestions of eyes, the clay-like characters in fact originated with clay models, infused with a Bronze Age sense of robust fertility.

Some design influences originated close to the artists home the beach is a stony appropriation of the cliffside shore of Birling Gap Beach on Britains south coast while exotica also creeps in, in the form of the mermaids extraction apparatus, a prop which could have been lifted from the painting Creation of the Birds, by Spanish surrealist Remedios Varo.

Ashworth performed 3D scans on her clay models and animated using 3ds max and After Effects. This pre-Nemo underwater adventure makes no attempt at realism, relying instead on innovative textures and mischievous invention the mermaids generate waves by lifting the sea up at shores edge and shaking it like a bed sheet; a shell we humans would normally use to hear the ocean is used to send a recorded message from shore to seafloor. Ashworth is a professor at Londons Royal College of Art. She created the short independently for Seed Fold Films thanks to grants from several sources including the Film Council of Great Britain. It won the Audience Award at the Athens International Film and Video Festival in Ohio in April 2003. (Recommended)

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See the dangers of smoking in Chainsmoker. © Ulf Ludgren.

Chainsmoker

Chainsmoker (2002) is a CGI vignette in three scenes wherein an elderly lady diagnosed with lung cancer tries to sneak a puff off various smokeable substances while her doctor isnt looking. No words are spoken over a soundtrack of big band swing, as the bespectacled lady secrets away the evidence of her habit in all the traditional ways she hides it on her person, where it promptly catches fire; she swallows the cigar whole; frustrated, she mimes lighting up and then stubbing out an imaginary stogie. All the action, barring a few simple establishing shots, takes place in the womans hospital room. Slowly arcing camera moves reveal an effectively rendered interior space where musty decay hovers in the air in beams of late-afternoon sunshine. The character design and acting technique are clearly influenced by the Pixar short, Geris Game, and the work suffers in comparison as the acting here isnt as strong. Chainsmoker was produced independently by Swedish animator Ulf Lundgren for Lost Liner Productions, using SOFTIMAGE|XSI, After Effects and Photoshop.

Taylor Jessen is a writer and archivist living in Burbank. His piece on the production history of the animated feature, Twice Upon a Time, will appear in Animation Blast #9 in first quarter 2004.

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