Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Learn Self Defense by Chris Harding, The Old Crocodile (Toshi Wo Totta Wani) by Koji Yamamura, Sheol by Rub Mler, The Tooth by Nathan Stone and Egg by Behn Zeitlin. Includes QuickTime movie clips!
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.
If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.
The Old Crocodile (Toshi Wo Totta Wani) (2005), 12:53, directed by Koji Yamamura, Japan. Contact: Corey Peterson, Apollo Cinema, 1160 Alvira St., Los Angeles, CA 90035 [T] +1.323.939.1122; [F +1.323.939.1133; [E] firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com; [W] www.apollocinema.com
The Tooth (
2004), 5:00, directed by Nathan Stone, Australia. Contact: Nerissa Kavanagh, FSA19, Fox Studios Australia, Driver Ave., Moore Park, NSW 1363, Australia; [T] +61.403.015.823; [E] firstname.lastname@example.org; [W] www.the-tooth.com
Egg (2004) 8:47, directed byBenh Zeitlin U.S. Contact: Benh Zeitlin Court 13 Pictures 950 Hart St. Brooklyn, NY 11237. [T] 860.343.3049; [E] email@example.com; [W] www.geocities.com/court13pictures
Learn Self Defense
Meet George. George is just like you and me he's shaped like a Tylenol, you can see through him when he smiles, and he's wearing a hat. Also, and this is important God is on his side. So when he runs from an escaping dog and hides in an alley, only to be beaten by three thugs who are also shaped like Tylenols, there's only one thing for him to do Learn Self Defense!
Chris Harding is the creator of Make Mine Shoebox, which I may have mentioned earlier as an example of the trend of fluffy bunnies being a guarantor of success in the animation industry. Now stop reading this and go watch it. It's at his website.
As you can see, Mr. Harding is one funny human. Learn Self Defense is the artist's reaction to certain recent geopolitical folderol, and it stars stop me if this sounds familiar a guy who feels threatened by a third party and so decides to take some lessons in preemptive fighting techniques. Taking the advice of a psychotic yet cordial narrator, George puts on shorts and a helmet, gets in the ring with a heavyweight, and starts to pound the canvas and learn some life lessons. In five short drills Diplomacy, Planning, Faith, Technology and Preemption they sort out proper ways and means of settling disputes. Then George shoots the bully in the back.
This could have been very topical and on-the-nose, and like most timely satire destined to fade quickly from memory. Instead Learn Self Defense is one for the ages. In a classic homeroom-style educational film format, he lays out hilariously self-fulfilling arguments for war that would become standard in some alternate-universe, subversive American educational system. Over a graphic of George praying and his devilish tormentor being struck by lightning, the narrator kindly intones Imagine that you are righteous and good, and your opponent is evil and perhaps less than human. Since God is obviously on your side, it's okay if you bend the rules a little. If you don't have the guts to be more hateful, destructive and cruel than your opponent, then evil wins. The punch-line is worthy of Terry Southern, but even better is the on-screen caption, which I want on a bumper sticker:
Learn Self Defense was animated in Flash and Photoshop in a flatter-than-flat UPA style. The backgrounds have the spongy, splotchy texture of Warner shorts of the late 1940s, with outlines and color fills enjoying wonderfully independent lives. The characters are minimalist capsule-shaped creatures, with tacked-on triangle noses and heads that take up half their height. The minimalism is an aesthetic, as well as practical, holdover from Harding's day job, designing e-cards for Hallmark. (Admire his outstanding Son of a Bitch card at his website.)
Harding spent five years in college doing a comic strip called Feet of Clay and good luck finding it and while at college met buddies Chad Strawderman and Jeff Barfoot with whom he has teamed to form the production company Goldhouse Creative. Late at night, in three different cities, they struggle valiantly to make tiny pilot episodes for prospective animated series, and their lovely Robot Family recently made the top ten at the Nicktoons film festival, which is a good sign. Learn Self Defense screens in the shorts program at Annecy this June.
The Old Crocodile (Toshi Wo Totta Wani)
Also at Annecy this June is The Old Crocodile, the latest from Koji Yamamura, who brought us Animation Show fave Atama-Yama (Mt. Head) in 2002. His newest is based on a children's story by French author Leopold Chauveau, a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling.
A rheumatic old crocodile, old enough to remember days before the pyramids, is lounging on the banks of the Nile being an old fussbudget and doing annoying things like eating his great-grandchildren. When his family attempt to banish this arthritic senior from their midst, the ancient crocodile slips away into the river, humiliated, and makes for the Red Sea. Miles away he meets a friendly octopus whom he mistakes for a spider, and the crotchety old reptile gets along famously with the somewhat dotty sea creature (Normally an octopus has eight legs, but I have 12, he claims, though really he can only count as high as one).
The friendly octopus gets the crocodile tasty fish from the sea to eat, but at night the crocodile can't help himself so he helps himself to his friend, eating one of her legs at a time until none are left. The octopus ends up stranded on a rock, baking in the sun and wondering why she can't feel her legs, as the crocodile ponders his conflicting motives of friendship and appetite. When, for better or worse, he resolves his dilemma and returns to the banks of the Nile, he's in for a surprise, as his retreating family members are replaced by advancing natives with worshipful poses and idolatry on their minds.
Leopold Chauveau still has a number of picture books in print in France, including La Poule et le Canard (The Hen and the Duck) and Petit Poisson Devenu Grand, and you may be able to track down a 1959 printing of his storybook Le Petit Cochon de Pain D'Épice (The Little Gingerbread Pig) on interlibrary load. Chauveau wrote and illustrated his sarcastic little fable about a crocodile in 1923, definitely an age of unpleasant racial caricatures, but Yamamura has done a good job of turning what might have been offensive cartoons of native Africans into simple iconic human forms that just happen to be the color of pitch.
Yamamura built his short traditionally, animating and then scanning his drawings for compositing. The background is a lazy shade of ivory that give his short the patina of the now-antique text it's based upon. It's all black ink drawings until we reach the Red Sea, and then red starts to sneak in, in a way that brightens the palette even as it comments on the characters. The acting and camerawork are up to Yamamura's usual fluid standard, and, at 13 minutes, it's much too short.
Sheol is a very peaceful experience. On a rock outcropping with a pool and traces of plant and animal life creeping ivy, slugs, ants the sun beats down in a dappled pattern that seems to be coming from a variety of directions depending on where you look. Craning slowly over this accretion of red shale, some pebbles start to toddle around in the dust, and they gather together in one breathtaking instant to form the fingers of a human hand, which stretches and reaches up to scratch its head. The figure is in the shape of a man, its frame built of ellipsoid and triangular rocks that suggest musculature but don't quite touch.
Over Sheol's 10 minutes, which open and close with a quiet baroque chamber piece but unfold in near silence punctuated by water drops and wind, the figure stretches out in its surroundings, allowing an ant to navigate the back of its hand, watching a slug move to and fro. Meanwhile the ivy is dancing very slowly in the shifting light as its time scale passes by in a flash, creating a sensation of breathless speed even as the central character radiates the stillness of wakeful meditation.
The feeling of grace that washes over this piece comes more than anything from its deliberate imperfection. There's a fuzziness reminiscent of early computer-generated films of the 1980s, the kind that have only survived on grainy film prints; at the same time its convincingly lifelike movements and textures bespeak complex computer modeling and serious render times. What's amazing is that this is only partly CG: the footage of twitching ivy creepers looks like time-lapse photography because it is. Animator Rubén Möller could have gone completely virtual but chose to incorporate CGI models into his own hand-crafted nature set, filled with real plant life and kept alive over nine years thanks to artificial lights.
Its a bold move, suggesting either a grand obsession or a simple love of process. Whether it's a meditation or a myopic exercise in technique for technique's sake, it's exquisite to watch. In Hebrew, sheol means cave, and in metaphysical terms also refers to a hollow underground where spirits abide. It's the latter meaning that Möller says he intended to evoke, but in its open-endedness, his short film invites viewers simply to exist in its presence, free to imbue it with meaning or leave it alone in a qualification-free state of Thisness like a Japanese rock garden.
The Tooth is a CGI explanation in outer space Roadrunner cartoon language of the genesis of one of Australia's most familiar landmarks. On a planet far distant from our solar system, a green-skinned alien is lounging under a tree, his rest undisturbed by the passing of the enormous foot of some giant humanoid creature just behind him. When he does wake it's because the single fruit in the branch of the tree above him has been dislodged, knocking him on the noggin. It looks juicy enough, so Greenie takes a bite. Big mistake. Immediately his meal has resulted in an impacted tooth, and he quickly becomes frantic with pain and worry.
Pulling out his handy cell phone-size universal communicator/reference tool with built-in satellite dish, he inputs a question and gets some advice PULL IT OUT. Now he has to get rid of the offending molar, and with the help of a sturdy length of string he ties it to a series of objects he hopes will dislodge the brute. First, of course, he tries lassoing the tooth to the foot of the giant who strolled by earlier, but he only gets dragged belly-first across the landscape for his efforts. He attaches it to his revolving clothesline stopping only to remove his Y-fronts from the line first but a powerful spin results only in multiple hard knocks as the arms of the clothesline smack him in the head.
Finally it's the old big-rock-plus-fulcrum scheme, and as the deed is finally done the force of the yanking action sends the tooth rocketing up into the stratosphere, out of the planet's orbit and through interstellar space until it approaches Earth, heading for the land Down Under where in a reveal demonstrating its true scale it plops down in front of a startled aborigine and becomes the well-known rock formation that tourists have been crawling over ever since.
The Tooth was directed by Aussie animator Nathan Stone through the production company 100 Monkeys, animated entirely in Maya whenever the director had downtime to spare. Stone names commercial directors like Michael Bay and Tony Scott as his influences, and it shows. I came away from Armageddon with the realization that Bay had just directed cinema's first feature-length Lexus ad, and my excitement level over The Tooth is comparable. The humor is very much of the mug-to-the-camera variety, with appropriate musical cues to prompt laughter when required. Think cute was the director's strategy, and the piece is certainly overflowing with it. In the end the zany antics of the alien creature make less of an impression than the colorful starscapes, which are very impressive.
Filmmaker and recent Wesleyan University graduate Benh Zeitlin began to produce his short film Egg in a perfectly innocent basement. The stop-motion/live-action film, which he finished in 2004, was his senior thesis and was completed by a large crew. One day a housemate left some sausages on the stove too long and the production got a visit from several fire trucks. They found a set for a bizarre and stupefying film featuring pirates on a quest to slay a giant egg yolk, and among the paint thinner and exposed wires was some very carcinogenic insulation in a lovely shade of pink currently being used as a backdrop for a rosy late-evening sky. They were promptly evicted. They did manage to relocate to a squash court, but that court has since been condemned.
Clearly dangerous renegades intent on leaving a trail of destruction behind them, Zeitlin and his Court 13 Pictures collective represent an artistic fire hazard that stands to torch, with prejudice, any parts of your brain that still cling to the concept of normal.
Egg is a hybrid reality/animation combo where the highest and lowest human ambitions are smooshed together into an epic revenge drama that takes a detour through the digestive tract of a giant chicken-girl. This dialogue-free film with Silent-era intertitles opens on a stop-motion ship at sea. On deck is Captain Ahab, complete with telescope eye, hook hand and precious few real body parts left to call his own. The purpose of his voyage is to slay the mighty Yolk, and he has just killed one of his last mutinous crewmembers. Now ye may turn back ye wretched swine, he mutters, as his last remaining dogsbody Pillsworth looks on. Pillsworth is bound and gagged, and has very nearly walked the plank.
The camera pulls back way back through the shell of an egg, inside of which all this action has been taking place. The egg is one of many in a bowl, the bowl is on a conveyor belt, and at the end of the conveyor belt are three chicken-human creatures. As each bowl goes by, filled with grass or fruit or live mice, a hand reaches down from above and places this food in the mouths of the hungry beasts.
The bowl with the eggs is getting closer, and cutting back to Ahab's ship, things are beginning to look up. The yolk is finally in his sights. Secure the line, Pillsworth! Ahab cries, and tied-up Pillsworth does his best as Ahab hurls a harpoon at the yellow beast. Meanwhile the bowl with the egg has reached the chicken-girl, and in a flash the entire revenge scenario has been transported from inside the egg to inside her mouth. Unluckily, that thrown harpoon lodges in the chicken-girl's uvula. Shortly the drama continues in her digestive tract, and, cold or hot, this revenge dish has definitely been served.
As Vivian Stanshall once sang, A child is just a tube/An inner tube you fill with food. Zeitlin got the idea for Egg while on a trip to visit a relative with very new and very hungry mouths to feed. On the way there, of course, he read Melville's classic novel and between Ahab and the kiddies he got hung up on the concept of Ambition. We ascribe epic qualities to adult conflicts, while baby's hunger is dismissed as simple craving. But oh, what a craving!
Ben and his crew have crossbred both passions into a squishy, well-fingered universe inspired by equal parts Carl Dreyer, Emir Kusturica and Terry Gilliam. There are shades of Guy Maddin, too, in the overall look; Zeitlin's vintage equipment delivered frames full of schmutz and dirt that complement the handmade quality of the outrageous set designs. Jan Svankmajer and his predilection for the creative re-use of body parts is another cited influence. In a world of aspirations high and low, Egg is equal parts Moby Dick and chicken shit. And with high drama so well covered in the arts, it's refreshing to see a tribute to naked hunger. Egg won this year's Grand Jury Prize for Best Animated Short at Slamdance.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. Here, look, I found this on the beach.
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