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Sundance Film Festival: Spotlight on Animation

Mary Ann Skweres focuses the spotlight on the animation that appeared at the Sundance Film Festival.

Meticulous craftsmanship informs every minute detail of Madame Tutli-Putli -- from the hand-built sets and costumes to the original oil paintings. © 2007 National Film Board of Canada.

The spotlight at the Sundance Film Festival shone on an international collection of award-winning animations created from a mixed bag of techniques including hand-drawn, painted cell, enhanced live-action, 3D computer animation and cutting-edge stop motion.

Directors Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski formulated ideas for their 2008 Academy Award-nominated film, Madame Tutli-Putli (Canada, 2007, 17 min., color, 35mm), while on a train trip across Canada. Those ideas have manifested themselves as a stunning, stop-motion animation that takes the viewer on an exhilarating existential journey with the lonely Tutli-Putli, who boards the night train, weighed down by the excess baggage of her life. As the night deepens, she is caught up in a desperate metaphysical adventure where, traveling between reality and imagination, she confronts the haunting demons of her past as she is drawn like a moth to the flame into an undertow of mystery and suspense.

Meticulous craftsmanship informs every minute detail of the production -- from the hand-built sets and costumes to the original oil paintings that formed the saturated skies outside the train, to the unforgettable live-action eyes of the characters -- which combine to bring a fully imagined, tactile world to life. Abandoning traditional storyboards early in the process because they were too restricting, the filmmakers taped live performances with actress Laurie Maher, on whom Tutli was modeled, to create a "video" storyboard that was used both as a reference for the action and for character and emotion.

The filmmakers used groundbreaking visual techniques to update stop-motion -- one of the oldest animation techniques -- for the new millennium. The hand-designed, molded puppets were made with silicon to avoid the joint seams normally associated with the technique. Live-action eyes were filmed for each puppet and painstakingly selected from among the multiple takes. Opting for a slightly larger-than-normal size, they were then composited frame by frame onto the puppets by visual effects artist Josh Walker, bringing an unprecedented human expressiveness and emotion to each of the characters. Extreme care was taken to match the lighting of the live-action to the stop-motion set-ups.

Adding to the collaborative efforts of the visual artists were David Bryant and Jean Frederic, who embraced the same experimental and avant-garde spirit to create the film's soundscape and wonderfully mysterious musical score.

The film was shot digitally on a Canon EOS 30D. The digital stills were edited together and output to a HDTV master format, then filmed out to 35mm.

The filmmakers credit the National Film Board of Canada, producers of the film, for the insight and artistic integrity that made creation of the film possible. Madame Tutli-Putli premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. It won the Best Animated Short at the 2007 Toronto Worldwide Short Film Festival and the Grand Prize at the 2007 Cinanima. It is nominated for Best Animated Short at this year's Academy Awards.

Dog has the look of old-fashioned animation, but was created using a mix of 2D computer-drawn and painted-cell animation. Unless noted, all images courtesy of Sundance Festival.

The mastery of director Hermann Karlsson's Dog (Iceland, 2006, 1 min., color, Sony HD Cam) is the animated film's ability to convey deep emotions -- both sorrow and humor -- in barely over a minute's time. The story is a remembrance of the death of a boy's special companion, the dog, and the decision that would haunt that youth for the rest of his life.

Using a muted, mostly gray and white color palette, the visual look of Dog mirrors the melancholy subject matter. It has the look of old-fashioned animation, but was created using a mix of 2D computer-drawn and painted-cell animation. The narration is unspoken, instead appearing as words on the screen. Atmospheric sound effects such as wind blowing and crackling fire enhance the visuals. Max Elliot's sparse piano provides a simple accompaniment to the simple story.

Dog premiered at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival.

Director Osbert Parker combines animation and live action in Yours Truly (U.K., 2007, 8 min., color & b/w, Sony HD Cam), telling a dark love story filled with psychological tension that ends in murder as two men sacrifice their morality for the woman they love. The 16mm "in camera" reconstructions manipulate photo cutouts from magazines, movie clips and real objects in miniature 3D environments animated thru stop motion, into a multi-layered collage.

Osbert is a graduate of Middlesex Polytechnic who currently lives in London. His BA graduation film Clothes won Best Original Concept in Animation at the 1988 British Animation Awards. He has been working professionally as a commercial director for MTV, Nike, Budweiser, Citibank and Coca-Cola. He was 2nd Unit Director on Hallmark's TV feature film Arabian Nights and has created animations for the South Bank Show.

Yours Truly won the Gold Plaque for Best Animated Short Film at the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival. His animated short Film Noir (2005), a companion piece to Yours Truly, was nominated in 2006 by BAFTA for Best Short Animation and received a Palm d'Or nomination at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.

Yours Truly uses 16mm

Directed by Luis Cook and adapted from a short story by Mick Jackson, The Pearce Sisters (U.K., 2007, 9 min., color, Sony HD Cam) is a horribly funny tale of "love, loneliness, guts, gore, nudity, violence, smoking and cups of tea." In the bleak story, a couple of ugly, twisted sisters living on a grimly isolated scrap of coastline scrape out a measly livelihood from the sea, but when the handsome man they have saved from drowning rejects the spinsters in disgust, things go terribly awry for the ungrateful man.

Cook wanted to go against the happy, claymation style of animation typically produced by Aardman Animations and create a dark story using computers and hand-drawn animation. To support the austerity of the story, he wanted very little music and no dialog. Before the animation process, sound was laid in and acted as a framework for the editing. Expressionless characters were animated in the computer. The animation was then printed out. 2D details and expressions were hand-drawn in a rough, scratchy style over each frame then scanned back into the computer and used as an overlay to the 3D animation. Colors were generally washed out as if bleached by the sea.

Cook has directed commercials for years and is a staff director at Aardman Animation in Bristol, England. The Pearce Sisters has won numerous awards including Best Animation at the 2007 ANIMA -- Córdoba International Animation Festival and the 2007 Cinanima Grand Prize. It received a 2008 BAFTA nomination for Best Short Animation.

Director Joe Tucker's entertaining stop-motion animation For the Love of God (U.K., 2007, 11 min., color, Sony HD Cam) is the irreverent story of Graham (Steve Coogan), an overgrown man-child, who lives with his domineering mother (Julia Davis) and their ever-watchful pet jackdaw (Sir Ian McKellen) in a dusty Christian bookshop, on the seedy outskirts of a crumbling town. He and his mother both love God, but in very different, humorous and unexpected ways.

For the Love of God director Joe Tucker sent his script on a

In casting his graduation film, Tucker sent the script -- written with fellow National Film and Television School graduate Raphael Warner -- on a "whim" to Sir Ian's agent. Excited by its dark humor and originality, the renowned actor called a couple of weeks later and agreed to appear in the short. Armed with NFTS's best recording equipment, Tucker trekked to Sir Ian's apartment to record his lines where, undaunted, he directed one of the greatest actors of his generation. He was also able to work with Steve Coogan, the comedy actor he most admired.

Born in Warrington, Cheshire, Tucker has wanted to make films for as long as he can remember. He graduated from the National Film and Television School in London just two months before his film screened in the Palme d'Or competition at the Cannes Film Festival. It is one of 16 films selected for the Cinéfondation section of the festival, which promotes the new generation of filmmakers.

For the Love of God won the Grand Prize for both Best Animated Film and Best Film at the 2007 Rhode Island International Film Festival and the Silver Hugo for Best Animated Short Film at the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival.

The beauty of director Juan Pablo Zaramella's humorously engaging animation Lapsus (Argentina, 2007, 9 min., color, Sony HD Cam) is in its simple geometry. The black and white two-dimensional animation morphs into different images out of similar shapes, underscored with original music by Germán Castro. The film plays with the concept of black and white as metaphor for good and evil, while having some harmless fun with religion, in this story about a curious nun who ventures into the darker side of her animated world.

Lapsus won Best Animation at the 2007 ANIMA -- Córdoba International Animation Festival and Best Short Film -- Special Mention at the 2007 Guadalajara Mexican Film Festival. It played in Argentina at the Mar del Plata Film Festival, Buenos Aires Festival Internacional Cine Independiente and Buenos Aires Festival of Film for Children and Youth.

1977 reveals a young girl struggling with gender-identity issues against the restricting mores and close-mindedness of a conservative small town.

Named for the momentous year of her birth, 1977 (U.K., 2007, 9 min., color, Sony HD Cam) tells the story of director Peque Varela's life through a lively collage of images, photos, and animation. Varela drew upon her own memories of rejection growing up in Galicia, Spain to form the basis for the script, then associated images with these events to reveal a young girl struggling with gender-identity issues against the restricting mores and close-mindedness of a conservative small town.

The short was made while Varela was studying animation at the National Film and Television School in London. She had to learn most of the technical aspects of the project while making the film -- often by improvising and trying out new ideas. She tried to get her whole team involved in the creative process, taking them on a trip to Galicia so they could understand better where she had come from. Six of the group spent almost a week shooting, photographing, and recording sound at several locations. Upon her return to school she spent around seven months animating on her own, then continued animating another three months with the help of two assistants. The whole process took over a year.

Set against the hot sun of Las Vegas and the freezing void of outer space, The History of America (U.S., 2006, 31 min., color, Sony HD cam) is a psychedelic western space opera where the iconic heroes of the West and outer space are pitted against each other in an epic struggle for America. The film is design and filmmaking collective MK12's tribute to all things American -- cowboys and astronauts, Las Vegas, the Civil War and Manifest Destiny

Chonto mixes photorealistic backgrounds and flat two-dimensional cartoon images with filmed footage of an actual moving mouth inserted into the cartoon drawing.

Using a similar process to one they developed for commercials and a music video for Hot Hot Heat, MK2 manipulated live-action footage in their watercolor version of Las Vegas that included real actors in costume performing -- and even flying around on ropes and pulleys -- in front of green screens as a basis for the animation.

The Kansas City, Missouri collective was founded in 2000 by art school refugees Jed Carter, Tim Fisher, Matt Fraction and Ben Radatz and has earned acclaim in both commercial and artistic arenas with their work in design, commercials, and short films. Over years of working together, MK2 has developed a collective brain by keeping the structure loose and allowing everyone to contribute to and critique all aspects of production.

The History of America was one of 16 works chosen by New York Magazine as the best online content of 2007.

In the bizarrely amusing buddy pic Chonto (U.S., 2007, 15 min., color, Sony HD Cam), director Carson Mell follows last year's Sundance-featured short film Bobby Bird: The Devil in Denim with another adventure starring the aging, wilted rock idol Bobby Bird, who this time tries to buy a friend when he adopts a monkey from a zoo in South America.

Mell's animation style is a mix of photorealistic backgrounds and flat two-dimensional cartoon images with filmed footage of an actual moving mouth inserted into the cartoon drawing. Camera movements are primarily limited to slowly zooming in and out. Bobby drawls the narration with a Southern homespun been-there-done-that ex-rocker mentality. With his web presence, Bobby Bird has garnered a cult following of fans.

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.