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Fresh from the Festivals:
November 1999's Film Reviews

by Maureen Furniss

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

This month:
Bird Becomes Bird
(1997), 6 min., directed by Lucy Lee, Russia/England. Info: National Film and Television School, Beaconsfield Studios, Station Road, Beaconsfield, Bucks HP9 1LG, United Kingdom. Tel: 01494 671234.
Peaches (1997), 11 min., directed by Charmaine Choo, England. Info: National Film and Television School, Beaconsfield Studios, Station Road, Beaconsfield, Bucks HP9 1LG, United Kingdom. Tel: 01494 671234.
Sandland (1999), 12 min, directed by Heiko Lueg, Germany. Info: Dr.Lueg@t-online.de.
Transfigured (1999), 5.5 min., directed by Stephen Arthur, Canada. Info: National Film Board of Canada. Tel: 514 283 9439. URL: www.nfb.ca.
Shikato (1993), 14 min., directed by Uruma and Delvi, Japan. Info: UrumaDelvi Productions, Inc., Kimura Bldg. 1F, 58-2 Sasazuka 3, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan 1510073. E-mail: info@urumadelvi.co.jp. URL: www.urumadelvi.co.jp/

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.

Bird Becomes Bird. © National Film and Television School.

Bird Becomes Bird
The imagination and possibilities of childhood are captured quite well in this short film, which depicts a child's perspective on the wonder of a bird. Mostly monochromatic shades of blue effectively depict the icy environment in which the child lives, broken occasionally by the light of the warm sun shining through clouds. Imaginative framing and editing create a sense of dream, allowing viewers to half-imagine the action, as one senses the young boy does. Although it contains a story of sorts, I would classify this film as more of a poem or meditation -- really a non-narrative, thematic film that strongly imparts a feeling or sense of being.

Both the painterly images and effective lighting choices contribute toward a visually creative production. Painted images metamorphose to suggest the transformation of which the child dreams: he murmurs, "Ah, I can do anything" after witnessing an earthly bird plunge deep in the water to play with fishes and sail high in the sky on light wings. Only a criticizing mother, who buttons his coat again before a proposed swim, and calls to the boy as he runs after the soaring bird, keeps the child anchored to earth, at least in a physical sense. A student graduation production from the National Film and Television School in England, this film feels more like a mature work by an established artist. Its director, Lucy Lee, graduated in 1997, after making two films at the School, as well as a few other short works during her earlier studies at the Newport Film School. Bird Becomes Bird's dialogue is in English.

Peaches. © National Film and Television School.

Also from the National Film and Television School is a puppet animation by Charmaine Choo. Another contemplative work, this film focuses on a woman who reflects on her own sexual identity and attempts to alter it, only to meet with ostracism from those around her. Lying on a bank somewhere, the woman's form is captured in a series of tightly framed shots, accentuating elements of her face and body. She later moves to a movie theater whose interior seems strongly influenced by the Brothers Quay in Street of Crocodiles, with its oddly constructed, most shadowy, spaces. On the theater's screen is a beautiful woman much like herself, who is also depicted in shots of her fragmented face and body, and particularly in close shots of her bare breasts. An audience of anonymous viewers watch the film silently. At her home, the woman tosses restlessly on her bed, then moves to a mirror and begins to reshape her body by scratching at her breasts and lower body. When she returns to the public and her desexualized body is `discovered' by another woman and a group of loitering men, she is shunned.

This quite literal description of the film really does not do justice to the beauty of its images, which tell the story without dialog. Visually, the film is quite elaborate, with fabrics draped lightly throughout the sets, and lighting creating an introspective feeling appropriate to an analysis of one's own identity. Also effective is a choice to use jointed wooden puppets for the figures of the women, creating a great contrast between their relatively soft, lovely clothed exteriors and the hard `reality' of their underlying forms, which are beautiful in a hard, functional way. Like the film of her classmate, Lucy Lee, Choo's Peaches has appeared and won awards in festivals around the world. And, like the other film, it is an impressive example of the work students are producing at the college level.

Sandland. © Heiko Lueg.

Heiko Lueg's 3D animation, created with computer-generated images, is more cartoonish in nature. It tells the story of a mouse-like lighthouse keeper, Nils, and his assistant, Crock, a weathercock who can control the wind. Nils is happily surprised to have a visitor, a toad-like creature called an Onk, whose boat has sunk. However, trouble comes when an evil `beast' in the form of a witch, who seems intent on destroying everyone she meets, follows the Onk to the lighthouse post. As one might expect, the film's story involves efforts to get rid of this nasty being before she can complete her evil business. Dialogue is in German, though English subtitles over the letterbox area are available.

Here again is an accomplished student production, this time a diploma film from the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg. Lueg's background as a puppeteer and graphic design student seem to have influenced his work. Aesthetically, the film is typical of many CGI films in employing round, puffy characters who tend to float through space. However, there are several points where the aesthetics become much more interesting. Silhouettes and the use of powdery or cloud-like wisps of matter add a nice touch, as do relatively opaque images of the ocean. Also interesting are several effects in the film, such as the reflection of the Onk as it pounds desperately on the lighthouse door. The film also excels in terms of the development of its story, which is not forgotten in the pursuit of technical accomplishments. The film's color design, mostly warm tones, and lighting create an interesting environment for the action. The end title sequence is also particularly well designed, with images from the film appearing throughout.

© National Film Board of Canada.

CG images are used very differently in Stephen Arthur's painterly 2D film, Transfigured, which was made as an homage to Canadian artist Jack Shadbolt. Arthur metamorphoses among eighty-two of Shadbolt's paintings, slightly reminiscent of Joan Gratz's Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase. However, the effect is entirely different, as the camera seems to follow a butterfly from place to place. At times the butterfly seems crushed and destroyed by the matter around him, but ultimately it flies into the distance with a multitude of others. Other dominant visuals are suggestive of aboriginal art and nature in a broader sense, two major influences on the painter.

Transfigured seems interesting both from the standpoint of an art historical study of Shadbolt's work and as an example of the adaptation of painting to film, in general. Vancouver artist Stephen Arthur created the film at the Pacific Centre of the National Film Board of Canada. Arthur describes his technique as being similar to a combination of traditional cut-outs, painting-on-glass, and cel animation; it was all completed on a PC computer over a five-year period. The film contains no dialogue.

Shikato. © UrumaDelvi Productions.

"The Shikato don't think they just walk." That is how the film is described in the 1999 Annecy Animation Festival catalog, and that pretty much sums it up. For fourteen minutes, the viewer is shown ten to twenty second sequences in which tiny Shikato (reindeer-like animals) walk across the screen accompanied by enthusiastic yodeling. Still haven't hooked you on this one? Well, as the saying goes, "Fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong" . . . the Annecy audience loved it and I am betting that you will too. I think the film is destined for cult classic-dom.

This animated short, starring the epitome of cute Japanese characters, is a masterpiece of gag humor. Subtle, yet surprising, this film is one you will love to hate to watch -- or maybe just love. Between every sequence of walking Shikato is a close shot of one of the creatures; over the visual, Japanese children shout "Shi-ka-to!" That's a lot of cute. Yet something about the film compels you to watch. Ideas are repeated and built upon, so that the audience builds expectations that sometimes are fulfilled but often are subverted. Shikato develops its humor through repetition, without being loud or particularly violent (unless you count a few smashed noses). It is also an incredible example of the effectiveness of limited animation. The characters were created by two artists, Uruma and Delvi, for a children's television program in Japan. Aside from yodeling, there is no dialogue.

Maureen Furniss, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Film Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California. She is the Founding Editor of Animation Journal and the author of Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (John Libbey, 1998).

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.