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The Odyssey Video Collection of Computer Animation: The Good, The Bad and the Brilliant

Judith Cockman reviews the good, the bad and the brilliant of four new computer animation home video titles released by Sony Music Video.

Click here to view a Quicktime from Turbulance. (636k)

Oh, what fun the animators of the last decade and a half are having! Those who are creating with computers are taking us on journeys into the center of our minds' eyes and, the best of them at least, are stirring the emotional pot that simmers within all humans.

Call me naive, but some of the artwork still amazes me. As entire computer-animated feature films come hurtling into view, I guess I should be a little more world-weary about the results. But I cannot wrap my head around the fact that a mouse, keyboard and silicone chips are the capable tools of such mastery as offered in some of Odyssey's collection. Odyssey Video has recently released through Sony Music Video four new titles: Computer Animation Classics, Computer Animation Showcase, Cyberscape and Turbulence.

Grab Your Popcorn

Some of these techno Van Gogh's manipulate the tools of their burgeoning trade with true glee. As witnessed in Computer Animation Classics, the pioneers of computer animation set the standard in the '80s with imagination and heart.

If it's your idea of a good time to sit down with popcorn in front of computer animation, the Computer Animation Showcase and Classics videos offer up morsels of entertainment in three-dimensionality that can give the Road Runner a run for his money. Not in silliness necessarily, but certainly in satisfaction. A mix of funny and touching, both videos are great rides through the world of brilliant animation.

Artistry and Skill Not Necessarily Synonymous

Sadly, not all videos are created equal. Where artistry and skill alone part ways is annoyingly evident in the offering of award-winning Beny Tchaicovsky's Cyberscape.

Tchaicovsky is unarguably a terrific technician. He may even occasion a point of view or two, albeit in a deafeningly repetitious manner. But he certainly doesn't deliver the "surreal history of the evolution of human life and thought" that the Odyssey marketers would have us believe. If indeed, there is cerebral candy to be eaten here, it's two-cent licorice, not fine chocolate.

Tchaicovsky's lack of emotional commitment to the work is tiring. One can only witness so many robotic men marching to the tune of the same drummer. True, their heads may change ... we have apple heads, block heads, globe heads, cow heads; none-the-less, they all march with similar purpose and an excrutiating lack of humanity. Not to mention imagination.

Music Is The Critical Component

Peter Bernstein's music only makes Cyberscape worse, I'm afraid - a synthesized attempt dominated by the dreaded sound of a drum machine that directly mirrors the one-dimensionality of the video. I could have sworn I was hearing the same riff over and over. It's tinny and tedious and does very little to illuminate the imagery. Odyssey calls it "mesmerizing." I call it mind-numbing.

The one song in the piece, "A Different World," is embarassingly immature. The lyrics, such as, "A perfect island in the stream, Where life is kind and love is free," would be a proud addition to a seventeen year-old aspiring song writer's repertoire, but has no place in a $15.00 video touted as a "journey into our undiscovered self."

The best animation proffered by these Odyssey tapes weaves seamlessly with the music. In fact in some, such as Beyond The Walls, produced by animusic and the grand finale on the Computer Animation Showcase video, the music becomes the storyteller and the animation an organic outpouring celebrating it. Composed by Wayne Lytle, each note is made stunningly visual through an amalgam of highly personalized drums, horns and laser beams.

The raison d'etre of the final offering on the Computer Animation Classics video is, in fact, the song itself - Mick Jagger's Hard Woman, a ground breaking music video produced in '86. The magic of this animation allows a series of spirals to actually ooze sexuality in the form of a female Mick alter ego, highlighting one of the delights of the more brilliant of these shorts ... that of creating mankind from abstract form.

Storytelling and Laughter, We Want To Be Touched

For all of it's majesty of skill, the characters of Tchaicovsky's Cyberscape elicit no recognition of the human experience. Contrast that with the mere line drawings of Steve Segal's Dance of the Stumblers rendered to music by Rimski Korsakov on Computer Animation Classics. With glorious simplicity, we are allowed to applaud ourselves through the interpretation of these squiggles, recognizing ourselves as adept and graceful, athletic and balletic even as we stumble and trip in the effort. We may hurt ourselves, but we support each other, and turn nonsense into whimsy in the process.

Ultimately, it's the superiority of the storytelling fused with skill that divides the fine from the brilliant in this wonderful medium. The animator that is moved by his or her story and can equally translate the human experience into the artwork triumphs with their work. A great example of this is Tony de Peltrie on the Classics video: a baby grand on a gorgeous hardwood floor with true stage lighting and Tony, a washed up, enormously-chinned lounge player tickling the ivories as he silently reminisces about the good old days. As his voice-over tells the tale, his magnificent face lives it. What a remarkable evocation of deeply felt memory. What great music. Until, in sadness and fatigue, he's turned to stone and wind-chipped away until no part of him is left behind but the piano ... on a gorgeous hardwood stage, beautifully lit, awaiting the next entertainer to sit down to its spell.

Of course, the humorous anecdotes are appreciated in the midst of the contemplative and both the Classics and the Showcase videos have their share. A short, but infinitely sweet example on the Showcase video, is a commercial for a potato chip product called Bluebirds. The ominous introduction of a shark slicing through the water evolves into a funny episode of a penguin showing off on water skis, unexpectedly being launched into a precarious and bumpy ride, while being wildly cheered and applauded with scores of 9's and 10's by a platoon of penguins on a glacier peak. The piece has humor, great storytelling and human characterization all wrapped up in great animation.

Turbulence: In A League Of It's Own Quicktime (636k) The fourth offering from this Odyssey library, the first Prize Winner of Images du Future, Turbulence by Jon McCormack, stands in a league of it's own. It succeeds where Cyberscape failed in that it offers great depth behind it's showmanship. If the imagery is often ambiguous, it's meaning, somehow, is not. It excites us on a primal level that we understand intuitively. Even as McCormack offers us insight into the human/divine condition, he honors its mystery.

The entire video is rife with provocative imagery. A mere example is that of alien-looking fixtures, opening and spinning, transporting us to an existential field of universal thought processes. Through the marriage of the artistry to the sound track, we are connected with human energy fields receptive to enlightened sonar systems in space.

Each segment of Turbulence, and the additional two shorts, ENS and TISA , has a fluidity that sails easily from concept to concept, titillating our thought processes even as it regales us with glorious imagery and music. Photographic images are fused into the piece, and the music and soundtrack are truly integral to both the images and the intent. "Outside knowledge begotten in earnest," the voice-over intones, and we believe her.

The ending of Turbulence, a desert regeneration that sounds dry even as it promulgates remarkable creation, displays a desperation of energy, an urgent need to be born. A metaphor, perhaps, for the dreams of it's author.

Computer Animation Classics. 27 films by various artists, 55 minutes. Computer Animation Showcase. 21 films by various artists, 46 minutes. Cyberscape by Beny Tchaicovsky, 45 minutes. Turbulence by Jon McCormack, 30 minutes.

All four titles are available for $14.98 each from Sony Music Video.

Judith Cockman, a Canadian currently living in Los Angeles, is a playwright, award-winning documentary writer, actor and journalist. She has written about animation for The Toronto Star, Kidscreen Magazine and SPLAT!, a behind-the-scenes-type television series about the world of animation.