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Those Who Shall Be: The New Faces Under The Animation Sun

Chris Robinson profiles Don Hertzfeldt, o Pikkov, Andreas Hykade and Priit Tender, four of the brightest new stars in independent animation.

When Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes breathed that there were "no new things under the sun," no doubt he stole it from someone before him just as I steal this thought from a voice before mine. Things aside, there are always new combinations and imaginings under the sun.

In animation there are fewer fresh voices every year. With state support in decline, it is more difficult to carve out a career as an independent animator. Increasingly, we see one great first film followed by nothingness. The newcomer moves to a studio where they fall under the spell of 18-hour days hacking away for 'steady' pay.

Under my sun newcomers are those who've managed to make at least three films and meet with some degree of critical and popular success (i.e. win shining trophies). With this in mind, let's meet a quartet of the newest, hip, happenin' coolsters.

Rejected, Hertzfeldt's Oscar nominated short. © Bitter Films.

Don Hertzfeldt (U.S.A.)

Don Hertzfeldt has been drawing since he smashed Lacan's mirror. He's self-taught and when he did go to school, he went to a sanctuary for eggheads (Santa Barbara) where talking about a film was more important that actually making one. However, the school did have an animation camera. For four years, the camera was Hertzfeldt's best friend and together they made a film each year.

Like Bill Plympton, Hertzfeldt self-finances his work using profits from his past films. "I made Ah, L'Amour in 1995, the first thing I ever shot on film. Spike 'n' Mike picked it up and turned it into a giant cult hit." L'Amour funded Genre (1996), which bred Lily and Jim (1997) andyou get the idea. "I've never lost money on a film and have never had to have a traditional job, never had to do commercial work out of necessity."

At 24, Hertzfeldt's already an animation veteran and the landscape has changed since his school days. The biggest change he's seen is the onslaught of technology: "When I recently told some students I made cartoons, they immediately asked what kind of software I used. I said I didn't use computers, I shot them traditionally. They looked at me bewildered. That's a scary thing."

No, a scary thing is the thought of Don Hertzfeldt not being able to make films. Be very, very happy that he's an animator. His films drip violence. His stick figure characters often stab, saw, beat, shoot and gut each other. My initial tendency was to write Hertzfeldt's work off as an empty and juvenile celebration of violence. I was wrong. Hertzfeldt like Michael Dudok de Wit, Igor Kovalyov, Michele Cournoyer or any other supposedly legitimate artist is simply working through internal emotions and thoughts. Hertzfeldt's characters (Genre, Ah, L'Amour) are anguished souls simply longing to be accepted, to be loved, to be. The fierce frankness of these violent emotions are legitimate feelings. Hertzfeldt's work shares a strange sort of kinship with the writing of Hubert Selby Jr. (The Room, Requiem for a Dream) in their unearthing of the rage of existence that creeps and crawls within each of us. There are times when it howls to be unleashed upon the world. Often it spurts out in a small shout, a dirty look or a middle finger. It's never enough, so we find caged releases through exercise, alcohol, drugs or art. These are spaces where we uninhibitedly articulate the beasts within, where we let them out to play in a confined area to examine, confront and understand. Some do it in a bar. Some do it on a hockey rink. Don Hertzfeldt does it on a piece of paper. Thank Christ, because to paraphrase the words of that same Christ, "If you don't shit, you're gonna blow."

Bermuda by Ülo Pikkov. © 1998 Eesti Joonisfilm.

Ülo Pikkov (Estonia)

Twenty-five year old Ülo Pikkov never intended to make animation films. He only became interested in animation after he started his studies at Turku Arts Academy in 1994. "I first applied for some live-action film schools, but didn't get accepted." Grasping that final straw, Pikkov applied at an animation school, just to stay close to the world of film. He was accepted and since then, Pikkov's work has received wide acclaim from voices that matter. His student film, Cappuccino (1997), played in Zagreb and won a Best Design award at SAFO '97, while Bermuda (1998) was accepted at numerous international festivals, won prizes at Ottawa '98 and SAFO '99, and was recently purchased by AtomFilms.

Cappuccino is a tale of broken love. A man sits at a desk with a torn photo of the woman who ditched him. At the same time, a nearby mosquito sees his life smashed as the man's hand slams down on Mrs. Mosquito. The two 'men' confront their losses with drastic measures. Given that Pikkov was 19 when he made the film, it contains surprising maturity, a sharp wit and smooth timing.

His graduation film, Bermuda showed further promise while breaking away (just a bit) from his mentor, Priit Pärn. In the middle of a dried up ocean, a sailor (with a wooden leg of course) lives with a mermaid. She relies on the sailor to bring her water everyday. The sailor, relishing this domineering position, screams daily at the threatening clouds to keep the rain away. Life proceeds until a flute playing centaur arrives and shifts the power balance. Within this simple love triangle (Bermuda Triangle), Pikkov suggests that the deafening reverberations of the past engulf people as they attempt to make changes and move forward with their lives.

Pikkov's most recent film, The Headless Horseman (2001), is his first film for Estonia's Joonisfilm studio. Taking the Headless Horseman myth and the Western genre as its starting point, this frenetic film (featuring a soundtrack by Sven Grunberg) is loaded with a mouthful of absurd eye candy as Pikkov explores the relationship between the individual and society. A typical Western town is calm and ordered. Sure, a shark flies by with a balloon wrapped around his body and cows perform a pyramid, but other than that, it's a pretty normal Western town. Unfortunately, the Headless Horseman just doesn't fit in. Feeling unloved, the Horseman and his nose-picking horse wreck havoc on the town. Finally, after virtually destroying the town, the Horseman finds the moon and uses it as a head. He's smiling. He's calm. He's still alone. Sometimes things just are.

Graphically it is impossible to isolate Pikkov's style, yet one does immediately recognize the simple, but strong drawing style that is undoubtedly Estonian. There is also that recognizable Estonian thread of the absurd and comic. Pikkov's films deal with individuals finding their place in society without being assimilated. His characters fear alienation and loneliness, yet reject the sweeping sameness of society. The search for a balance between the individual and community squirms at the core of Pikkov's work.

Pikkov still yearns to make feature films, but until he can get feature money, will stick to short films. Meanwhile, he hopes that despite his artistic shortcomings, he has the opportunity to meet as many women (preferably tall) as possible. His next project, Year of the Monkey draws again on the theme of the individual and society. The film is about a monkey who shaves his fur off in order to become human. He finds domestic and material bliss until one day he decides to escape from it all and move back to the jungle. "It's actually a little bit autobiographical," says Pikkov. Ummok.

The bizarre sexual world of Ring of Fire. © Gambit.

Andreas Hykade (Germany)

Andreas Hykade learned to draw in a Bavarian pub. His father was a frequent visitor and little Hykade was dragged along so Mother could have time to herself. The men wanted to plays cards. To keep the boy quiet they gave him some pencils and paper. He stayed quiet. The men played. He kept drawing. Life was good.

Since the bar days, Hykade has emerged as one of the most important animators around. His epic films, We Lived in Grass (1995) and Ring of Fire (2000) have received awards and acclaim around the world for their startling, uncompromising insights into the deep, dark recesses lurking beneath the flesh.

Brought up in the countryside of Bavaria, Hykade had no formal contact with art until he studied animation at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart, Germany. "It was the only thing to do. I couldn't stay in the village because I would have become a freak. I had this artist myth in my mind that you go to art school and smoke, drink and have discussions about deep things, but it was nothing like that. It was just bored kids hanging around." Any hope Hykade had that art would save his life drifted away in the smoke that he lazily blew from his stale cigarette.

Between puffs Hykade made little drawings based on his life in the village. "We had this neighbour who was a complete alcoholic. He had six or seven children and he had testicular cancer. He died in 1974, when I was six years old. Our doors were always open and you could see their life." Soon Hykade found that there was a thread connecting the images, a vocabulary from within which he could create a portrait of his childhood village. This became the basis for the film We Lived in Grass.

We Lived in Grass. © Gambit, Filmakademie Baden-Wurttemberg and Film Bilder.

We Lived in Grass is told from a young boy's point of view as he describes his life in a small village. This fifteen-minute film is superbly animated and drawn in an almost child like style; a drawing style that reflects the frenzied, fragmentary nature of the young boy's mind. Hykade talks about his regret that he never had the chance to scribble like other kids. His drawings were mostly copies of The Flintstones or whatever photos or comic books were around. We Lived in Grass gave him a chance to explore the child scribble he missed out on.

Ring of Fire catches a few moments in the life of two cowboys who've arrived at a bazaar in search of sex. They are ignorant boys who view the world as a playground for their dicks. However, after the protagonist violently beats and rapes one of the women, his sidekick aids the woman and soon discovers that there is a vibrant soul beneath the flesh he once so desired.

As might be expected, Hykade's Felliniesque neo-noir Western, Ring of Fire, has many interesting stories behind it. The root of the film derived from a real life love triangle. "I had a very good friend and we went out to get pissed every night. And then I fell in love with his wife." The love was lost. The friendship was redeemed. A film was found. Hykade spent 1 1/2 years on the script and knew that the setting would be a bazaar with all sorts of sexual figures. In order to create original images, Hykade placed ads asking people to draw figures of their sexual desires. "I sent it to prisons, art magazines, schools and friends." Together with colleague, Sabine Huber, Hykade sorted through the 350 drawings they received and created thirty figures for the film.

Hykade's work has not been without controversy. A few voices have whispered the words 'sexism' in relation to Hykade's work and especially Ring of Fire. "Sexist comments are nothing new," says Hykade, "but it's obvious that they get it wrong." Sexism generally means to be against something and it's clear to those who wish to see that Ring of Fire is a portrait of sexuality from a male point of view. "They are kids," says Hykade, "who have a desire for flesh and learn that there is a soul behind the flesh. That's it. It's nothing more." When people are given the choice between beauty and honesty, most will take beauty. Beauty is simple. Honesty is complex, frustrating and often ugly.

Hykade is currently working on an animated feature called, Jesus. I asked Hykade to describe it in one sentence: "It's about the kingdom being amongst us all the timebut people just don't see it."

People see what they want to see and it's apparent with Hykade's work, as it was with many of Christ's interpreters, that those with eyes are often the most blind.

Gravitation by Priit Tender. © 1996 Eesti Joonisfilm.

Priit Tender (Estonia)

Until the day he found animation, Priit Tender was seduced and swallowed by the lure of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. His entire life changed 99 years after the birth of cinema when he discovered animation. Sex was not sex anymore, drugs were not drugs and rock and roll merely white man blues. Five years have passed. Little has changed.

Viola by Priit Tender. © 1999 Eesti Joonisfilm.

He graduated as an art teacher from the Tallinn Polytecnical College in 1995 and his first job was as an animator on Priit Pärn and Janno Poldma's masterpiece, 1895 (1995). Since then, Tender has made three drawn films (Gravitation, Viola and Mont Blanc) all engraved with those Estonian traditions of a strong graphic style, absurd actions and symbolism.

Gravitation confronts the arrogance and naivete of youth as a young man decides he will fly no matter what the laws say. Viola echoes the triangle themes of Bermuda and Priit Pärn's Triangle. Set on an island, a composer, dancer and one-handed chair-man come to grips with their respective prisons. Tender's most recent film, Mont Blanc is his strongest work to date. A man wakes up, packs his bags, leaves his family and heads for a mountain. Using a strong graphic design loaded with symbolism and the comforting sounds of the narrator from Pärn's 1895, Tender gives us a portrait of those many everymen who flee the domestic for higher aspirations only to find that they destroy themselves along the way. In this fleeting world, the human heart and all that it carries stands as the last remaining flower of stability. Mont Blanc is truly one of the most magnificent and poetic films of 2001.

Twenty-eight year old Tender's aims are modest and he remains a humble creator: "You can never be too confident because I never know the result of the film that I'm starting. It's always a surprise to see what comes out of your original idea. It seems that from a certain point the film starts to live its own life. Maybe when the film starts to be completely under your control, it's time to quit. But maybe I'm wrong."

Animation, as Tender explains tongue-in-cheek, is less about artistic creation and more about basic survival. "Animation is a job. I have seven children and I earn my living through filmmaking. I don't have any artistic aims, it's all about food and money." Hearing that there is an abundance of both food and money in America, Tender hopes that one day his Hollywood tinged films will carry him to the shores of California. "So far I have had to make short films because of the lack of money but in Hollywood I would make full-length movies. I already have several scripts waiting. They are about a cat and a dog. But with these short films I have made, I just want to say 'Hello everybody!' or 'C'mon everybody!'"

Joking aside (?), Tender is currently in pre-production on a film tentatively titled, Boogie Woogie. Based on Stravinsky's music, this 45-minute comedy will use a wood engraving technique and feature a fox and many rabbits. Tender hopes to complete this musical comedy by 2016.

These are by no means the only fresh faces on the circuit. There are others I've overlooked (e.g. Daniel Suljic, Marie Paccou) and there are also a number of other masters-in-waiting on the horizon including Fran Krause ( Mister Smile), Lorelei Pepi ( Grace), Sonia Bridge ( The Day Stashi Ran Out of Honey) and Sandra Gibson ( Edgeways).

These voices of youth sing songs of the ancient Ionian philosophers. Each asks what is the Stuff that makes us?

Hertzfeldt's characters are rejected, punished or attacked without cause. They exist in a world of randomness in a constant state of flux. They respond with the wisdom of violence. Pikkov explores the breezes of the past and the manner in which his characters allow it to control the present. Tender's characters ignore the voices of the possible so that they can crash test into the wall for themselves. Hykade's boys discover Stuff they were never told and only learn too late. "All woman is whore. All man is soldier," the father teaches the boy. What father didn't tell him was that there were other possibilities. He did not tell him about the dandelion girl and the love, tranquility, and the soul that lives within her, and within him.

Each artist steps into different waters, yet reaches the same conclusions: the fight we wage is against themselves. "I am as I am not," said Heraclitus. It is only here that we can really find the strains of harmony.

Chris Robinson is a writer and programmer. He is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. His frank and often iconoclastic opinions on animation (notably his monthly column, The Animation Pimp, on Animation World Network) have met with some controversy and recently he was deemed the "enfant terrible of animation" by Take One magazine (he thinks it's a compliment).

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.