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Slamdance: 'Bush vs. Bin Laden' and 'Blood Will Tell...' and More

Mary Ann Skweres highlights some of the top of the crop of animated shorts from this year's Slamdance Film Festival.

Andrew McPhillips won the Jury Prize at this year's Slamdance Festival with his Blood Will Tell. All images courtesy of Slamdance Festival.

It seems that every year the Animated Shorts Block at the Slamdance Film Festival gets better and better. This year's crop of shorts is no exception. The films include political satire, explorations of self, abstract expressions of primal human emotions and Saturday morning cartoons. Most of the work is achieved by individual artists following their own individual visions, sometimes with a little help from their friends. Few receive any substantial funding, but rather are created from the creators' own pockets and worked on in their spare time over weeks, months, even years. This dedication results in films that are truly independent and worthy of our applause.

At this year's Slamdance Festival, independent work was highlighted. Bush vs Bin Laden, a satirical commentary, imagines an Old West shootout between President Bush and Osama Bin Laden.

Bush vs Bin Laden (world premiere, 2008, 4 min, USA) is a satirical commentary on what might happen if President George W. Bush could face off with Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in an Old West shootout. Much as in the real life showdown between Bush and Bin Laden, they turn out to be the only ones left standing in a contest where everybody else ends up dead.

Director Darren Way originally worked as a puppeteer, performing live marionette shows for years. "It was a lot of fun, but a hard way to make a living," admits Way. "The older I get, the more I want to stay home and create in my studio." Now he adds an armature to the marionettes so that their positions can be slowly moved during the shooting of the stop-motion animations that he creates. "It's pretty much all about the puppets," says Way, who was an art student at Cal State Fullerton with a degree in drawing and painting before he moved to sculpting and puppet-making. His work in puppetry, stop-motion animation, even editing is all self-taught.

The puppets are carved out of choice pieces of found local hardwood, which Way never paints, instead using the natural tones of the wood finished with olive oil to give them a flesh-like appearance. Each figure takes two full 50-hour weeks to carve. "They're a lot of work, but I think it's worth it. It gives a totally unique look to my animation. It is not what anybody else is doing." When he is not making films, Way sells his creations at crafts fairs across the country.

Way lives in a frontier-era home in the mountains -- a perfect location for the story. He built a minimal set close to the puppets and used forced perspective to include his outbuildings in the background. "I got away without building an extensive set like I thought I would have to," reveals Way. "It works because you can't tell how far away they are." Very little was purchased. Most of the materials were found and Way had access to wood scraps from a local lumber mill.

Darren Way carved his Bin Laden (l) and Bush puppets out of choice pieces of found local hardwood. They are finished with olive oil to give a flesh-like appearance. Each figure took two full 50-hour weeks to carve.

The film was shot outside over the course of one week using entirely natural lighting. The shadows were created by the inevitable "time lapse" as the sun moved across the sky during the course of the shoot. "The tree shadows are moving," says Way. "It looks like clouds on a windy day. It added a lot to the overall look of the film."

Way watched some old westerns to get a feel for the visual style. He shot with a Nikon D70 camera, but also tried to recreate the look of footage from an old Bolex by de-saturating and adding "noise" to the frame. Over the course of about two weeks, the film was edited frame by frame with Final Cut Pro. Because the resolution was too high for his computer to play, he had to make Quicktimes to view animated segments. "It was actually a pretty quick process for this one," he says. The director also created his own audio tracks, recording sounds on a camcorder and then layering them in and mixing in Final Cut.

Way believes that stop-motion animation is regaining popularity. "CGI is still rather flat and textureless, so I think the more CGI animation we see, the more it leaves us wanting stop motion. Stop motion is on the rise right now... Wallace and Gromit... the stuff Tim Burton is doing... I've seen a lot more of it lately than in the past. Stop motion enhances textures. It actually amplifies it because nothing is really moving, so you don't have any motion blur. I love the look. I think it is much more realistic than anything that can be done in CGI, at least at this point."

Dark, Light and Yeast

Director Osbert Parker's beautifully realized, animated collage, Film Noir (2007, 4 min, U.K.), is a dark story of romance and psychological tension that takes inspiration from the classic movies and stars of Hollywood's film noir era. The hand-made film is a mixed media composition created from found objects combined with images cut from magazines and manipulated in-camera. Unfortunately, because a number of images are of movie stars and from old films, Parker has been unable to license them for commercial use, so his creation will only be screened at select festivals. Parker works as a commercial and music video director in London.

Lux (U.S. premiere, 2007, 8 min, Spain) by director Vuk Jevremovic, takes the viewer on a beautiful and mysterious journey through the walls of an old cathedral. The film effectively feels like stepping into a work of art as the two-dimensional line drawings transform into paintings with a transcendent visual artistry, further enhanced by a poetic and musical soundtrack that captivates the imagination and immerses the audience in an encompassing, emotional experience.

Director Andy Cahill presented two stop-motion animations -- Everything Said and Spontaneous Generation -- at Slamdance, using abstract clay forms as "characters" that, through his animation skills, take on distinctive "personalities." The technique Cahill uses is clay on glass. Using a camera stand that could be manually cranked over to achieve very smooth movements, he shot through a construction paper window at a multi-plane set -- clay on glass with a background behind. The frames were edited in After Effects with a minimal amount of computer compositing.

Film Noir is a beautifully realized, animated collage inspired by Hollywood's film noir era. The hand-made film is a mixed media composition created from found objects combined with images cut from magazines and manipulated in-camera.

Everything Said (2007, 2 min, U.S.) was the result of a junior class assignment to make a 30-second film about how yeast makes bread rise. "So," Cahill shares, "I did a little research about how yeast makes bread rise and started making these characters that exude, pull things out of themselves. Then I realized it wasn't going to be a film about yeast at all. I realized it was going to be more about relationships." In the film, Cahill explores three "floors" of human relationships: abstract associations, normal interactions and primal encounters. When Cahill originally turned in the class project, he had run out of time to add sound. It wasn't until six months later that he revisited his work and laid in the audio, which contributes strongly to the atmosphere of the film.

Spontaneous Generation (2007, 3 min, U.S.) is about things that grow, change, resolve and dissolve, follow and consume. Made right after Everything Said, it was Cahill's second-semester film during his junior year. This time he had twice as much time -- 12 weeks -- from preproduction through post to create the film. Working with cardboard was both great and terrible. "It was great because I could find my materials in the street right outside my studio," says Cahill. "I tore them up into little pieces and then had this giant mess. I would grab little pieces of the mess and animate them, so it was very intuitive, but also a very messy and disorganized shoot."

Cahill starting animating films at the age of 12, when he first got hold of a video camera. "I drew a lot before that," he reveals. "But that's when I knew that [animating] would be the only thing that I would be interested in doing the rest of my life." In high school he learned Final Cut Pro at the public access station and kept making films, submitting to film festivals at 16, eventually getting into some of them. Currently Cahill is working on his senior animation project before his graduation.

Watching Lux makes the viewer feel like he is stepping into a work of art as the two-dimensional line drawings transform into paintings with a transcendent visual artistry.

Signifier and Signified

I Hate You Don't Touch Me or Bat and Hat (world premiere, 2008, 5 min, U.S.) chronicles the everyday life of a bat-like creature as it goes about its mundane existence until, when a gust of wind blows away its treasured hat, life turns gruesome as the bat mutilates its own wings to supply material for a new hat. Drawn in a 2D handcrafted style and scratched with razor blades to make cells, the film was shot in 16mm using an Oxbury animation stand because director Becky James likes the color and flicker of film. The minimalist, carefully controlled soundscape was designed to provoke audience reactions. The animation was edited on video and conformed to film.

James calls Bat and Hat "an exploration of what it means to lose that which we believe defines us. Purposefully or not, all people use personal signifiers to express who they are and what separates them from others -- be it as a punk rocker, businessman, or suburban housewife. These signifiers of identity can be lost, co-opted, or confused. I am interested in what this corruption means for the identities tied to them. At its core, the film is about what we give up when we try to make ourselves better."

In Blue Room (world premiere, 2008, 4 min, U.S.), a trapped character's imagination creates a blue-breathing membrane that devours the uncaged bird that temporarily fascinates him and ultimately leads to his disintegration. The eerie soundtrack, comprised of mechanical effects and gurgling water, enforces the emotionless action of the 3D-animated mechanical objects as the blue menace consumes all in its path.

The film's New York-based directors Ivan Orkeny and Sandy White have worked together since 2004 creating animations, prints and sculptures using found objects, computer-generated imaging, hand-drawn components and traditional animation techniques. Their work has been shown at Artists Support Witness, New York; LOOP, Barcelona; (HACS) New Media Festival, Miami; and Art Forum, Berlin. Orkeny is an MFA graduate of Columbia University and White studied architecture at the Polytechnics University of Barcelona.

Gudrun Cram-Drach's One Skin (2007, 10 min, U.S.) is a metaphorical story about the options and emotional burdens a woman confronts while growing up. Cram-Drach started out in illustration and eventually expanded her two-dimensional work into animation because she was not interested in having a strict defining style, but in exploring and stretching as much as she could.

Her original concept for the film was to make it fun throughout production. "Often in animation everything is storyboarded and laid out, so then it's just work for the next year," says Cram-Drach. "I wanted it to be a continuing process, so I let myself come up with new things as I was animating. [One key] scene happened during the animation process, so I worked it into the story and pushed it. It was always changing."

Director Andy Cahill presented two stop-motion animations at Slamdance, including Everything Said. Cahill uses abstract clay forms as

Films from Many Lands

With the colorful look of a Saturday morning cartoon, Kid Show (2007, 3 min, U.S.), directed with tongue in cheek by Tom DesLongchamp, lets flowers grow, clouds flow, and children giggle -- all because they cannot help it.

In El Viaje De Said (Said's Journey) (2007, 12 min, Spain), directed by Coke Rioboo, a Moroccan boy crosses "The Straights," and discovers that the land of opportunity is not as beautiful as he had been told.

Director Laurie Hill's My Life at 40 (2007, 7 min, U.K.) is an autobiographical collaboration between the director, aged 12, and his 34-year-old self, looking forward to a glorious future.

Tales for Cruel People (2007, 5 min, Hungary), directed by Hans Blume, Igor Buharov and Ivan Buharov, asks the question, "What happens when conscience gets tired?"

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary postproduction, with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.