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Fresh from the Festivals: March 2007’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films -- The Passenger by Chris Jones, Ujbaz Izbeneki Has Lost His Soul by Neil Jack, Cranium Theater by Jason D. Sandri, The Ballad of Mary Slade by Robin Fuller and Pika-Pika (Lightning Doodle Project) by Takeshi Nagata and Kazue Monno. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

Within the world of animation, most experimentation occurs within short format productions, whether they are 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.

The Passenger (2006), 7:00, by Chris Jones (Australia). Contact: Chris Jones [E] [W]

Ujbaz Izbenki Has Lost His Soul (2006), 5:00, by Neil Jack (Scotland). Contact: Cameron Fraser, Ko-Lik Films [T] +44 (0) 131.553.4494 [F] +44.(0).131.553.2828 [E]

Cranium Theater (2006), 6:45, by Jason D. Sandri. Contact: Jason D. Sandri [E] [W]

Ballad of Mary Slade (2006), 3:36, by Robin Fuller (U.K.). Robin Fuller [T[ +447986512135 [E]

Pika Pika (The Lightning Doodle Projects) (2006) 4:00, by Takeshi Nagata and Kazue Monno (Japan). Contact: Tochka Factory, 22.9-5-1 Simorenjaku, Mitaka-city, Tokyo, Japan 181-0013 [T] +81 (0) 422.43.7741


It aint Antonioni: Music makes the beast a savage in The Passenger. © Chris Jones.

The Passenger

It's hard for a major studio to make a short film without someone noticing. Even Little Matchgirl, the garage-built secret weapon to complement Disney's living-room showpieces of Chicken Little, et. al., had a budget. It was tiny, but there were check stubs, and friends told friends they were making it. So when I saw The Passenger unfold before my eyes at a recent L.A. screening, my first thought was -- hey, I know I'm mostly out of the loop in this business, but is this some sub rosa Sony Pictures Imageworks project they're unveiling at the last minute to shock and awe the Oscar crowd? For this was without a doubt a product of studio largesse. The production values screamed it. The whole short screamed it.

The Passenger is a scream, and it contains a lot of screaming, and I shouldn't delve much past the setup. It's your basic suburb, maybe a historic district, with lots of big hundred-year-old fenced-in houses set back from the street. It was sunny, but now there's a storm coming in, with big gray bulges under an anvil of approaching rain. Wind stirs the branches of trees lining the street, trees whose bright colors fade as the sun goes away, and, down the sidewalk through a whirl of leaves comes Guy With Book. I say "Guy" but although the limbs match us humans, the head is not that of your typical guy or gal but an idea of Head with two huge eyes on a, um, shape. In a short full of props and textures of astonishing verisimilitude, Guy's face is a welcome cartooney curveball.

Anyway Guy has a book, a cassette player with headphones, and an umbrella. He's walking down the sidewalk and trying to avoid flying leaves and runaway newspapers and concentrate on his paperback thriller, titled, The Passenger. He does put it away long enough, however, to peek through a wooden fence when he gets to the house where Angus lives. Angus isn't in his doghouse, but as the Guy peeks through the knothole in the fence he can see his Angus' dog toys strewn about. Angus lives by the bus stop, and Guy pops open his umbrella and goes back to his book while he waits for the bus to arrive. Then Angus appears, barking like some rabid hell-beast from the planet of Great Hunger And Boredom And No Dog Chews. Guy takes two deliberate steps away from the fence.

His bus comes, and he gets on, leaving the barking, barking, barking dog behind. He reads. His eyes wander momentarily. There's something next to him on the seat. It's a fish in a plastic baggie. Guy looks around. Guy is alone on this bus. He regards the fish. The fish burps a bubble of air. Guy blinks. Guy goes back to his book, and, to push away the sound of the bus and the storm outside, he slips on the headphones of his cassette deck and presses, "Play." The fish notices. The fish really notices. The fish grows fangs. The fish multiplies its mass. And in a second the fish explodes roaring out of its bag, turned horribly into a six-foot-tall beast of a sort that even the most Satanic-looking of deep-sea Anglerfish would only see in its nightmares. Then the fun begins.

The Passenger is a horror-thriller short animation throwback to the likes of Gahan Wilson's Diner from 1992, ablaze with hardcore Hollywood production values in sound, music and movie-movie thrills. It's the kind of mini-spectacular made by movie heads for display in movie theaters. The giveaway is the music, an arrangement for full orchestra that juts and purrs like a John Williams score in a Spielberg genre exercise. But a crew of a hundred seem to be poking out of every shot -- to take one at random: a simple long shot pointing down the length of the sidewalk with the Guy in the middle ground. The personality of his walk, the attention to the depth of focus and the way the background haze says in an instant that while it's raining here the sun is still out halfway down the block -- all points inescapably, along with a superbly tight story reel, that a whole floor of some well-known studio did this for love and it's coming in front of a blockbuster near you soon.

So what's the mystery studio? His name's Chris Jones, and he lives down the block from East Camberwell Station in a suburb about six miles outside of Melbourne. He turned down a $55,000AU post-production grant, and a $40,000AU offer to use a university supercomputer to render his frames. Instead he rendered the film overnight on a Pentium III for about two years. Dude did this at home, and when I saw it screen on a bright day last November in Los Angeles, that day the studio system -- not just the studio animation pipeline paradigm, but the whole shooting match -- died a little. It's been true for years, but the last scrap of skeptic in me knows now without a doubt: You don't need a studio anymore to make a studio-quality film. Now if you want to distribute one


Gods in heaven, the Devils in reception, and Ujbaz Izbeneki Has Lost His Soul. © Ko-Lik Films.

Ujbaz Izbeneki Has Lost His Soul

Ujbaz Izbeneki Has Lost His Soul is a stop-motion production for Britain's Channel Four about one man's trip to hell and how that might actually spell bad news for Beelzebub. After a Flash-animated opening we follow Ujbaz, an average-average nebbish, along a narrow path through the traditional dark, red cave to the Hell reception area. Satan, his head a crescent moon atop a red, spiky body, sizes up Ujbaz, an ineffectual-looking ordinary human with nervous hands and a green scarf.

The horned one is obsequious and very British to his visitor as he asks his name. It's an unusual name, Satan informs his guest upon hearing it, a name that Satan should be able to look up easily -- and he cracks open the Big Book of the Damned to check. Sure enough, there he is: "Izbeneki, Ujbaz -- LOST HIS SOUL." But Ujbaz continues to twiddle his hands not in dread or terror but plain old neurotic tremors. Ujbaz isn't there for the usual reason -- he's simply lost his soul like other mortals might lose their wallets. As Satan extracts this information from Ujbaz with increasing impatience, from behind him a minor devil opens a door to a room with roaring fire and the sound of flesh being flayed off screaming sinners. The underling apologizes for the interruption. The Devil says crank them on the rotisserie for an even roasting.

When Satan turns back to Ujbaz he's surprised to see his book is missing. Also he's got a Newton's Cradle on his desk, the five metal balls in their usual dance of simulated perpetual motion -- and it's suspiciously down to four balls now. The devil gets worried. Ujbaz simply says he "loses things." The devil gets up from his desk to look for a backup copy of his book. He goes to the door behind him, swipes his passcard -- which doesn't work -- and finally buzzes the buzzer to be let in. Minutes go by. Ujbaz hangs out, stands at one side, stands at the other side, sits on the desk. Balls continue to vanish from the perpetual motion device. Finally the devilish underling comes out from the back to find his boss. The boss is missing. "Hope he didn't get lost," the underling says, as the Newton's Cradle finally stops clicking, its last remaining ball swinging forlornly in the frame.

Ujbaz Izbeneki Has Lost His Soul is an interesting comic piece, but it's slightly less effective than it probably could be, and the adequate if not spectacular stop-motion animation is badly overshadowed by the brilliant and complex After Effects work that opens and closes the short in slick 2D fashion for the opening and closing titles. There are good laughs here, but it feels underdeveloped, less like a short story and more like an unsold pilot. That name, though, truly rocks -- and I'd be remiss if I didn't suggest you see it when it debuts online in the near future at the BBC Film Network Website, along with director Neil Jack's previous short The Tree Officer.


A farmer gives the Man a piece of his mind in Cranium Theater. © Jason Sandri.

Cranium Theater

Years ago the late American poet/playwright Kenneth Koch wrote a collection of micro-plays called, 1000 Avant-Garde Plays. The book -- actually just a 116-play omnibus -- is a piece of continuous lunatic whimsy. In "Little Red Riding Hamlet" a team of actors perform Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy while doing "Little Red Riding Hood" in dumbshow; in "Departure Malagache," Madagascar breaks free from its home continent and Africa wishes it and its lemurs good luck. It's big fun but many of the plays are, by design, impossible to stage. Guess what medium make impossible surrealist scenarios possible? And animator Jason Sandri is already there with his seven-minute short Cranium Theater, a simple meditation on the creative spirit starring some familiar characters with unusual physiognomies.

The action takes place out on the plains, represented by a painted backdrop of rolling farmland with a working windmill. The stage is dirt-covered, with a wooden fence behind and red curtains on either side leading to blacked-out offstage areas. Into this proscenium enters the farmer, your usual man of the earth in overalls and work boots carrying a hoe, the big difference being that in place of a head there's just an exposed brain on a flexing yellow spine. The farmer goes about his work, making little furrows in the dirt.

Next to each of six holes he's dug, he crouches down and inserts a helping of his own brain, which he pulls off his head like a chunk of coffee cake. Plop into the holes go the chunks, and when he has only a brain plate left he surveys his work and leaves. Blackout, time passes and the lights come up on six perfect cabbage-y things basking in the sun. The farmer returns as the leaves of the plants part to reveal little brainlets inside, ripe and shiny like glazed apple fritters.

The farmer plucks one brain to put in his bucket. The curtain swishes open. Enter the Religious Obligation, in the form of a guy in a black suit with a book marked Holy for a head. R.O. walks up to the crouching farmer and extends a yellow collection plate. The farmer is taken aback, but he eventually puts one harvested brain in the bowl. R.O. exits.

One more plant, one more harvested brain. The curtains part again and here comes Fiduciary Obligation, a taxman in a silk suit with a parking-meter head. F.O. proffers a "past due" notice. The farmer gives up another brain. F.O.'s meter clicks from violation red to thank-you green, and he exits. The farmer is seriously downhearted now, but he rushes to collect the last two remaining brains of the harvest -- when out of the wings march two bulletheads in crisp brown uniforms with insignia. The Patriotic Obligations demand everything. The farmer pleads. They throw him against the fence and take his bucket -- and smash the last un-plucked brain for good measure. The farmer crumples on the ground, and the wind blows the dirt around him until he is subsumed. Following a last blackout, however, the lights come up to reveal a giant brain-flower in the middle of the stage, a big friendly cerebellum staring out from the middle of bright yellow petals.

Chicago animator Jason Sandri created Cranium Theater the old-fashioned way, with stop-motion armatures on a set he built in the basement. The film was created as a student thesis project for the Columbia College, Chicago, and mysteriously the college rejected it for their end-of-year screening of student works. Since then it's slowly been making the festival circuit, in screenings close to home and as far away as Macedonia. Sandri shot Cranium Theater on ones using a Minolta Maxxum 5D and composited it in After Effects. Considering he did it "blind" without on-set motion playback, his acting is amazingly accomplished. With no faces to work with, he does wonders with full-body mime. The short is scored mainly for solo accordion, and it nicely grounds the drama in folksy mood of C-major familiarity.


Jealous rage trickles down the food chain in The Ballad of Mary Slade, which won the Sparky Award for Best Animation at this years Slamdance Film Festival. © Robin Fuller.

The Ballad of Mary Slade

The Ballad of Mary Slade could have used a good murder ballad behind it. This stop-motion animated short tells a story of a recently-murdered woman with a few bullets in her who is being slowly torn to pieces by three scavenging insects, insects who in turn begin to imitate the voices and behaviors of the members of the love triangle that led to the woman's death in the first place. There's a snapshot next to the body of the woman with a man she once loved, and the bugs cut the faces out of the picture and strap them to their own. Then they cut slabs of equal size out of the woman's arms and legs. As the short progresses, the bugs -- a female and two males -- get into an argument over a liaison the female bug's supposedly had with one of the males, and a fight erupts.

The bugs pull the bullets from the woman's body -- the bullets, which, coming either from a jealous lover or the woman's own hand, ended her life. They threaten each other, the giant metal shafts sticking out into space as far as a gun would in a human hand. They scream, they threaten and they point the bullets menacingly at each other, until the female bug finally takes her own life. Just like the woman they're eating. Geddit? The animator and two co-creators have provided the characters' voices, and they deliver their lines at a constant fever pitch of redlining angst. With the emotional volume turned down out of the distortion range and accompanied by some appropriate Nick Cave, this would have been a creepy concerto. As it is it's just sort of unpleasant.


Pure self-expression is just a few streaks away in Pika Pika. © Takeshi Nagata and Kazue Monno.

Pika-Pika (Lightning Doodle Project)

Occasionally I feel like blowing off this column and simply taking my readers by the hand, leading them to the nearest home theater and saying, "Here, watch this" (i.e. and about 50 others). I get a similar feeling after watching Pika-Pika (Lightning Doodle Project) from the Tochka Factory artist collective of Japan, only now I don't want to show you some animation, I want to go make some. In the meantime, you can watch our clip -- or see the whole thing in Flash at the Japan Media Arts Plaza web site, where it won the Excellence Prize in the Animation Division at the 2006 Japan Media Arts Festival. (Search for the phrase "depict the infectious thrill of youth" and you should bounce right to it.)

Blissed out yet? Oh yes you are. Here are the details: the Tochka Factory is a bunch of Tokyo-based artists, and they produce music videos, channel idents and graphic design for print media. The video was shot at night in Tokyo, Kobe and other local haunts. They set up the camera, took long exposures and painted with light. If you are still reading this paragraph, you should be outside with the camera doing likewise.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. Here's a short riddle: What's green.