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Fresh from the Festivals:
December 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:
(1998), 5.5 min., directed by Bärbel Neubauer, Germany. Info: Bärbel Neubauer Productions, Lindwurmstrasse 207, 90337 Munich, Germany. Tel/fax: 49 89 74 70 701. E-mail: baerbelneubauer@csi.com.
The Albatross (1998), 14.5 min., directed by Paul Bush, England. Info: Ancient Mariner Productions Ltd., 93 Lausanne Road, London, England. Tel: 44 171 635 7533.
My Father's Story (1998), 10.5 min., directed by Mary Kocol, USA. Info: Mary Kocol, PO Box 441467, Sommerville MA 02144, USA. URL: www.ne-arts.net/mkocol.
The End of the Earth (1998), 7 min., directed by Konstantin Bronzit, France. Info: Folimage Valence Production, 6 rue Jean Bertin, 26000 Valence, France. Tel: 33 04 75 78 48 68. E-mail: folimage@wanadoo.fr.
The Indescribable Nth (1999), 9 min., directed by Oscar Moore, USA. Info: Character Builders, 1476 Manning Parkway, Powell, OH 43065, USA. Tel: 614-885-2211. E-mail: cbuilders@cbuilders.com. URL: www.cbuilders.com.

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

Firehouse. © Bärbel Neubauer.

In May 1999, Animation World Magazine asked me, "If you were stranded on a desert island, which ten films would you take with you?" One of my choices was Roots (1996), a direct-on-film animation by sound and image composer Bärbel Neubauer. It is not much of a surprise, then, that I also enjoyed one of Neubauer's other works, Firehouse (Feuerhaus); in fact, I might sneak it onto that island along with Roots. To my mind, Firehouse is one of Neubauer's most fully-realized films, in part because of the lively, intriguing score she has composed for it and the way in which this soundtrack works with her images.

Like all of Neubauer's direct-on-film animations, images in Firehouse are primarily abstract in nature, though recognizable forms appear from time to time. In this case, she has exposed 35 mm film stock with a flashlight, using bits of natural matter (such as grasses) to create forms on the film stock. Neubauer has been consistently productive, creating eleven short direct-on-film animations since 1993, most of which have been screened in festivals and some of which have been commissioned for advertising purposes. Worldwide, she is the most productive and innovative artist specializing in the direct-on-film technique (though she also has directed live-action films). Firehouse has no dialogue, only an electronic score.

The Albatross. © Ancient Mariner
Productions Ltd.

The Albatross
A completely different use of direct-on-film animation can be found in Paul Bush's scratched-on-film, The Albatross, inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." This work is extremely realistic in its reproduction of human forms, churning waves and rocking vessels on the sea, which clearly have been created with the use of live-action reference footage. The English-language voice track, sometimes motivated by characters on-screen and at other times functioning as voice-over narration, results in a tale that is told verbally as much as visually.

Bush's work has been described as crossing boundaries between fiction, documentary, and animation. In terms of The Albatross' imagery, the intersection of documentary and fiction is quite strong, with the underlying live-action footage evoking a sense of the real while the etched images are themselves quite stylized. Achieving a level of stability approaching that of Norman McLaren in his "Lines" films (Lines Horizontal and Lines Vertical, plus Mosaic), Bush employs a diverse range of line qualities with great precision. It is no easy matter to steady the naturally kinetic lines of direct-on-film animation, but Bush comes close; the "wood cut" quality of his images allows for some wavering, while still demonstrating the artist's ability to maintain control.

My Father's Story. © Mary Kocol.

My Father's Story
In this film, animator/director Mary Kocol relates the story of her father, who was one of over two million Polish citizens placed in forced labor camps by the Nazis. It is told through an interview technique, with Kocol asking questions and her father, Romuald Kocol, telling his story. Visually, the film is created with photo collage (one of the best known examples of that technique being Frank Mouris' Frank Film). Images from the past are combined with recent photos showing her father today, long after his emigration to the United States. It is not surprising that still photographs play a significant role in the film, since Kocol is an accomplished photographer with work in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among other places.

Given the compelling nature of the subject matter and the natural way in which her father imparts his story, the film has quite a strong affect on the viewer. Personally, I feel that Mary Kocol's narration, which is used to launch the interview/storytelling and combine various aspects of his story, is a bit too overpowering; her father's thickly accented, deeply meaningful recollections could stand on their own. Still, I think the film as a whole has an impact that would make it useful in many contexts: as a document about WWII, as an example of oral history, or in terms of the photo collage animation technique. The film's production was supported by grants from the LEF Foundation and the Somerville Arts Council, through the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The narration is in English.

The End of the Earth. © Folimage Valence Production.

The End of the Earth
Russian animator Konstantin Bronzit has created another crowd-pleasing comedy with his production of The End of the Earth (Au bout du monde). The premise of this drawn-on-cel film is deceptively simple: a house, perched at the very peak of a mountain, rocks back and forth as inhabitants and visitors walk in a door on one side of the home and out the other. Its humor is quite understated, with gags based on timing, perspective, and sound, all used sparingly. Quirky characters -- a woman and man who live in the house; their dog, cat and cow; a passer-by who arrives first with sheep and later a jazzy sports car; and even a flying bird -- add to this unstable world. Through various gesticulations and unintelligible verbal exchanges, these small characters are imbued with a lot of personality.

Bronzit, the film's director, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he attended art school, graduating in the early 1980s. He has made several other short works that have appeared at festivals worldwide, including Switchcraft (1994), about a man who is continually disturbed by a mysterious creature which refuses to be trapped. The End of the Earth was produced by the French firm, Folimage Valence Production.

The Indescribable Nth. © Character Builders.

The Indescribable Nth
It is the characters' visual design which highlights The Indescribable Nth, a children's story about a boy whose most treasured possession is a snow globe containing a heart -- his own heart and the love that it embodies. This precious item is guarded by the boy's father, treated roughly by his first girlfriend, and finally treasured by a young woman who seems to be his perfect match. The story is based on Stephen D. Moore's book of the same title, published in 1991, and uses English-language narration.

Black line drawings on a white background create a strong graphic look and capitalize on the studio's specialization: hand drawn animation. Stylized and expressive, the film's characters and their environments lend visual interest to the simple tale. The Indescribable Nth was directed by Oscar Moore and produced by Character Builders, a commercial animation studio which has contributed artwork to a number of animated features, television series and commercials. The studio was co-founded by Jim Kammerud, Jeff Smith (creator of the Bone comic books), and Martin Fuller in 1986.

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.