Thursday, 31 July 2008

Jan Svankmajer "Darkness Light Darkness"

Darkness Light Darkness by Jan Svankmajer is one of the most imaginative uses of clay in animation I have ever seen. Almost all Jan’s work would be ranked as a classic in any definition of the word but this one indisputably is. It should be required viewing for any student commencing a claymation course. Set in a minuscule room a hand gradually assimilates all the missing parts of its body, commencing with a pair of eyes that roll into the room, quickly seizing a second hand and catching a fluttering "moth" that is shaped to form a nose. With an ability to shape the clay in exact detail, introduce the different elements of the body to arresting visual effect and at all times retain a sense of humour, the Czech master’s 1989 piece is just perfect. Sometimes, if I have a criticism of his work in the round, it is that the animator’s vision is a bleak one, of necessity one might add, his home country living under an iron regime. Here everything is tempered by wit and considerable ingenuity. When the room is flooded by oozing clay to the point one might believe the end is nigh, the sheer mass of material is squashed and flattened into place and ..... we have the guy’s buttocks and torso. Watch the eyes attached to the fingers or the tongue seized, fixed in place and then exercised, or the dripping genitalia pinched in the right places and operational, I guess. If I might remind you of my Christmas present to myself: Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Piotr Dumała "Little Black Riding Hood"

Although considered one of the brightest of international animators, Piotr Dumała's Little Black Riding Hood (1983) has not received exactly rave reviews from his own countrymen. Judge this rebuke from Soren A. Gauger in the Krakow Post in July last year: "Piotr Dumala's travesty of a fairy tale ("Little Black Riding Hood") is the sort of thing that English-speaking audiences have by now seen done a hundred times, and better." (The article was written to welcome a 3 DVD collection, The Anthology of Polish Animated Films.) The plot is speedily dealt with. Little Riding Hood is kitted up for her journey into the forest, stops to pick some wild flowers, destroys the flowers, is attacked by the wolf and devours the wolf. Well, it's something like that. Given that Piotr has glorious drawing skills as will be shown in another post shortly, the choice of a child's style for the artwork is but one of the comic elements in a tale of mayhem as a succession of killings leads to one of several eventual meetings with the grandmother, the final act of copulation rendering it unsuitable for children. Meaning eludes me other than a fairly dark view of life within a jungle. But I'm not so uncharitable as the columnist and I found it fun. I shall write more on his work shortly, providing biographical detail. Now in animated form the short is fun, in screenshot mode it is not, therefore the image below is not that of Piotr but taken from the blog of Italian mathematics student and digital painter, Francesca Resta, whose work is very impressive, has a little more colour and the same title. Postcript: I received the following from Francesca: "I'm sorry my blog is in Italian only, so you couldn't understand this easily, but it was a team-work done for a team contest on, so I'm not the only author of this painting.Would you please add the credits to my dear friends Katerina Konstantinoudi and Meghann Beardsley, who painted this with me?"

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Yasmine Penniman "Lollipop" - Mika

Google the name Yasmine Penniman and you'll get the phrase "sister Yasmine, who works as an artist under the nom de plume Dawack, painted the cartoon art for his album ..." The internet is like that: copy and paste and as it's in Wikipedia anyway it must be true. So in introducing the official video of Lollipop for Mika I'm not entirely sure of the authenticity of the animator. I leave the music to the music blogs but I must say that the singer has a voice and range quality akin to Freddie Mercury so he's no slouch. Yasmine has used every colour in the palette in this psychedelic experience. Imagine walking into a set painted for My Little Pony, Sindy, Barbie and all the other tasteless commercially led extravaganzas that little girls purportedly like. Well somewhere over the rainbow a little blonde haired girl in a pink dress does just that and the result is, and I can't believe I'm going to say this - fabulous. The video, surprise surprise, is assisted in no small part by the catchy nature of the song which I'm sure I could live without though it's lodged in my head. Whatever, our girl meets an absolute host of characters on her journey, and everything is just ticketyboo. Just maybe, for variety's sake, the black wolf who follows her every move might just attempt to remove her sweet head from her slim shoulders or at least steal a few of the countless lollipops that pop up all over the place. And it never rains despite all the rainbows. Little girls could also learn to read using the pop-up words that are illuminated in bright flurescent colours. Nicely animated despite a note of amusement in my review, but certainly not derision, the video suiting the song. No brotherly patronage here either, it's full of content, simply fizzing along, artwork expertly rendered and animated in a multi-layed approach. Summer's here in the UK and it's a summer song, despite being released last year. Thanks Del for the recommendation - carnival time at Anima Mundi I guess - and also for the higher resolution link to Dailymotion . Tomorrow's movie has been decided by today's (in which the wolf does get to bite not one but two, three ... heads off.) Meanwhile I can't get the darned tune out of my head.

Monday, 28 July 2008

John Godwin & Stephen Payne "A Tale of Rock"

I'm a little late in posting this - discovered when sorting out my files. A bad mistake but if you haven't seen A Tale of Rock yet, it's a treat. Wizened old stager and a dinosaur of rock battle it out in a fabulous guitar in mouth duel to the death. Who will emerge triumphant in a loud, shuddering 3D duet of rock. The smallest Tyrannosaurus Rex you will ever see is a charming fellow, quite disconcerted to roll into the lair for his audition and be confronted by the guy with the green hair, skeletal figure and iron tan. The movie is funny, acts as a contrast to tomorrow's pop video, and is a great advertisement for the University of Hertfordshire where John Goodwin and Steve Payne learned their trade. John is the concept artist, (see image below) whilst the animation is primarily Stephen's province. The movie was their graduation film completed in June 2007. Ollie Balman played the riffs on his Fender (well, it might be) and Josh Jameson produced the score for the movie. I'd better do my bit for the UK music industry (all those illegal downloads) and link to Ollie's band, London's Total Movement: a great sound and not so hard rock as in the animation.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Kate Steed & Aaron Wood "The Best Day We Ever Had" - Sam Roman

It is 70 years ago that Orson Welles caused nationwide panic in the USA when his broadcast of H. G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" was aired on CBS Radio. In the febrile atmosphere leading up to the Second World War, the broadcast account of a meteorite landing and subsequent successful occupation of the planet by Martians sent some people at least scampering to their phones and gazing into the sky. The Best Day We Ever Had is directed by Kate Steed and Slurpy Studios partner Aaron Wood and features the voice (and appearance) of British soul singer, Sam Roman, whose second EP, entitled Singer/ Storyteller, has just been released. In the official video, Sam sings a song with a narrative and the animators must have leapt at the chance to depict the story of meteorites, panicking cinema goers, a macho president of the USA, and some aliens who really don't deserve their fate. Wells' version had the poor humans sheltering from poisonous gas; this enfeebled green alien is zapped with an M16 bullet before he can say "Take me to you leader". Aaron and Kate's animation is adventurous to say the least, though telling the story in a predominantly literal style as befits the song, mixing live action (woman screaming, Sam reading the news) with a bold and vivid animation style. There are references to an earlier age with the black and white television image, the "Colonial" cinema, Sci-Fi feature film, even the flat cap and grey of the newspaper vendor though with its satellite controlled missiles and the like, a more cynical, hi-tech age awaits the invaders from space. The best day we ever had is gained by not taking chances with little green men, women and babies: no interstellar migration here, Mr President. Kate's previous movie, Death By Scrabble, was a joy. So is this. If I were Sam I'd be counting my lucky asteroids that I'd chosen the studio for my launch of the new EP. The studio blog as well as highlighting some intelligent concerns for the would-be presenter at festivals, reveals a busy schedule though the pair have had the advantage of attending this year's Annecy, something that eluded me. On a personal note, it's nice to see them linking to my blog, an inspired decision, reciprocated! Today's post is the first of three reviewing music videos.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Rene Castillo "Hasta Los Huesos" (Down to the Bone)

A rather sombre funeral set against an orange sky is the dramatic opening to Hasta Los Huesos, an eleven minute short made by the Mexican director, Rene Castillo. A white rose is thrown down by a mourner onto the coffin. The moment it rests on the face of the corpse his eyes open and he discovers himself trapped in the coffin as the attendants continue to heap earth on his grave and his family mourns. With an impressive set and skilled use of clay animation we follow the recently deceased to a land of decadence where memories of his wife and family are dismembered with copious tequila, the carousing of skeletal reprobates and the voice of a nightclub singer. Should the afterlife consist of such bacchanalian festivities perhaps we need not worry after all. The movie certainly makes an interesting comparison with Tim Burton’s quite wonderful The Corpse Bride made four years later. It is a film full of beautifully (de)composed scenes with a distinctly Mexican flavour, almost of carnival at times. The transition from padded coffin to hell is cleverly handled and the gradual dissolution of his ties to earth is woven together with flair. The appearance of the worm with big teeth and its links with tequila gives a Mexican twist - consider the worm's traditional link to all-conquering Death and that in this narrative the worm loses. The singer’s voice (all red lipstick, white face and black hollow eyes) is provided by the remarkable Eugenia Leon singing the traditional La Llorona (The Crying Woman) and the music for the film as a whole from the Mexican band, Café Tacuba, a delight. I must finally mention Sergio Ulloa's cinematography which is outstanding, providing spectacle to a movie that deals with its potentially dismal subject with intelligence and conspicuous wit. I intend to review Rene's earlier movie, Sin Sosten, shortly.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Recommend an animation for review

You may or may not have noticed the link on the right seeking recommendations for a review. Suggestions gratefully received and acted on! Today I received a cheery video that will act as a counter to a couple of darker ones I've ready for posting. Thanks, Del, for the confectionery. You'll see, reader, what the reference is when we sing the song together!

John and Faith Hubley "The Tender Game"

The Tender Game is a love story set in a park where the attendant is distracted from raking leaves by a young woman. In a golden, translucent hue of autumn and delicately drawn park landscape, the pair meet, embrace, are separated and reunite in a simply blissful film. The shapes of the man and woman are mostly abstract though they change: one moment simple flourishes of the brush, or an almost ghost-like shape gliding through the park as the "camera" pans around, the next rather in more detailed form, though never realistic. As the pair become more confident of each other their forms become more fleshed out though they end in an impressionistic swirl. The animation too is distinctive, not Disney but with smooth movement of frames and little flourishes like the guy cavorting with his rake or the girl distributing her flowers. In fact the film takes time to settle to the storyline as we luxuriate in the glow of an autumn day. The romance is never lush. Humour plays its part, particularly in the couple's courtship. Half a century on and time judges John and Faith Hubley as two of the most important animators of the 20th century. The Tender Game will be enjoyed by all fans of animation - and jazz also, as Ella Fitzgerald's lush rendition of the Jack Lawrence and Walter Gross classic ballad "Tenderly" is used as the soundtrack, the singer being accompanied by the Oscar Peterson Trio. I had it in mind some time ago to do a sequence of reviews on the Hubleys but sort of got side-tracked. So, fifty years and so modern in character, even the music is in vogue. Today's movie is not some right of passage for budding animators needing to get immersed in the classics: it is a genuinely lovable movie; I can't think of one that wears it years so well. For an intelligent and informative biography of John Hubley that is so good it's almost akin to buying the book click the preceding link.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Selina Wagner "A Knotty Escapade", "Feeling Ropy" & "Hair of the Dog"

Selina Wagner (née Cobley following her marriage to Jason Wagner) is one of the UK’s most talented young animators. I reviewed her exquisite Crow Moon in November. Her latest three part animation is a commercial movie commissioned by Ardbeg, ("the Ultimate Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky") a distillery on Islay, off the West Coast of Scotland. A Knotty Escapade is the first of three chapters of the stirring adventure of Breckan, an Viking prince - and Shortie the Jack Russell - who brave the savage Corryvreckan whirlpool in a mission to woo a princess whose father has decreed that he spend three days in the whirlpool. Anchored to the sea by three cables, one of hemp, one of wool and one from a maiden's hair, the pair survive the first two days. To a stirring and onomatopoeic narration we discover in three chapters whether or not the voyagers will triumph against adversity. Legend goes that Prince Breckan was condemned to a watery grave beneath the whirlpool. Surely not. Surely the plaited cable of hair, a symbol of purity and innocence for the Norwegian maiden who supplied it, will withstand the surges of the ocean in the world's third largest whirlpool. The screenshots reveal the style, not dissimilar to yesterday's offering in truth, bold white on a black canvas with a decidely 3D sea. Selina was working in association with Greenroom Films although she freelances for a number of international companies. Originally from a small holding in the islands of Orkney, Selina is a comparatively recent graduate (2002) of the Edinburgh College of Art. There is a YouTube version of Selina's film and her website has other links to her varied work. A thriving community of animators exist in Scotland. Judge from this trailer for a collaborative venture between Duncan of Jordanstone College of Arts and Design and Abertay University, under the leadership of writer/director Gili Dolev, who have created an animated pop-up book: The Happy Duckling. Jason meanwhile deserves a post all of his own and I shall endeavour to do that shortly.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Chanya Hetayothin "Aqualibrae"

26 year old Chanya Hetayothin uses soft pastel on paper for Aqualibrae (2006) a short but sensitively drawn story of the ebbs and flows of life. Simple life forms evolve into more complex creatures and are harvested by man in the cycle of life. Whether on a black or white canvas the artwork is of the highest order. Chanya has been fortunate in securing the services of a very professional Phiboon Phihakendr whose musical score and sound effects delicately and dramatically underpin the action superbly. A third year student in Los Angeles at UCLA's Animation Workshop, Chanya worked on 3D animation for the studio Imagine Design in Thailand. The movie I feature today is in a rather spare style though the line drawings are bold and have a textured shading. I delight in seeing work of this artistic integrity. Her latest work, still to be completed, On The Bus, is in a different style altogether as is evident from the screenshot. Chanya has an informative blog and rather slick website with some spectacular design and paintings from which, almost at random, I have selected the example below. She certainly has an eye for colour to add to her other extravagant talents.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Slobodan Tomić "Rakurs", "White Noise" & "Dead Poets Society" (plus Isamu Noguchi)

I went to see the new Isamu Noguchi exhibition at the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Nothing to do with animation though his work is an atmospheric experience and I was sorely tempted, and still might be, to purchase a rocking stool made faithfully to his 1950s design. Working with much larger and often colossal metal or granite structures the mood he managed to create in his sculptures is remarkable. This leads me naturally I think to the Croatian animator, Slobodan Tomić , whose work also creates an oasis of reflection, occasionally unsettling, in an abstract way. His Rakurs piece is a case in point. To the sound of people assembled in an art galley (or similar) using the mouse one can transport the figure around the squares and gaze at the subtle changes in design and colour in this flash exhibition of shifting projections. Slobodan entered this year's Nontzeflash. His White Noise is an intriguing blend of tempo changes and flickering grey shapes, including a pressed face, to a background soundtrack of, yes, white noise and from somewhere deeper within a voice which may or not be making a speech. It is intended to explore the saturation of sound. Slobodan's web package Dead Poets Society has rotating faces that keep appearing, symbols on an arcade slot machine as he explores the nature of reality. Do explore the piece for it has interactivity built in. The tiny faces can be enlarged in a quite disconcerting way as they peer out changing all the while. You had better be warned that they are in fact death masks. They are not all poets. His cast is the most impressive of any animation I have seen ranging from Napoleon to Queen Elizabeth. Slobodan graduated from the Art Academy in Sarajevo in 1984. As well as making his distinctive animations, Slobodan lectures at the Art School and Art Academy in Split. I shall, by the way, be taking a look at the award winners in Nontzeflash 2008 later in the week.

Monday, 21 July 2008

"The Beano", "Today" & Nick Park

The Beano was a comic of my childhood. The adventures of Dennis the Menace, The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Billy Whizz, Lord Snooty and Ivy the Terrible occupy exclusively 2D space on paper and a 3D world in my memories. I was reminded of them this morning on my way to work listening to BBC radio's flagship news programme, Today, in which a long time Beano fan, Nick Park, extolled the virtues of the comic. The comic has reached its 70th birthday. As readers go through a long life, the characters are immortal. A four page strip has been specially created for the news team with their caricatures set alongside more traditional inhabitants of the publication. The link above is to the story. What I had not recognised was that the official site, Beanotown, has animated pranks of the gang. Beano TV has several clips to advertise their DVD collection. A series of shorter, more basic, flash toons are available, of which Bus Stop Bust Up provides the two screenshots below. No pretensions as to classics (and even as a huge advocate of animation I can't claim these toons rival the crispy paper version that adorned our hall floor as it was dropped through the letter box once a week as a kid) but it is still fun and good to know some things remain. My newspaper, The Guardian, not coincidentally carries an interview with Nick Park in which he muses on the state of British animation. Two short paragraphs caught my eye in relation to The Beano:
"It was Dennis the Menace, The Bash Street Kids and Lord Snooty that inspired him to pick up a pen, as he lovingly copied out their adventures. And there are clear parallels between the world inhabited by Wallace and Gromit - warmly nostalgic and located somewhere between the 1940s and the present, yet somehow timeless - and that contained between the covers of his beloved Beano.
"It's a bit like the way Ealing comedies have influenced our work here. The surburbness of it and the Britishness of it," he muses. "There's a certain quirkiness. The way Dandy set a cowboy in a strange northern town. There's a slightly bizarre incongruity to it. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was a Universal horror movie set in the north of England."
The final paragraph from the paper is also worth a read:
"There is nothing like it. It's a one-off quirky thing that has come out of a certain culture. There's a lot of quirkiness, creativity and imagination." He is talking about the comic but he could, of course, be describing himself."

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Most watched animations on YouTube: Muto, Hitchhikers Choice & Kiwi

I wondered what the most popular animations featured on YouTube are at present. I make no claim as to the following being the absolute tops for viewing as I simply did not make that search but they are certainly interesting. Made by Blu, the link being to my featured article almost a year ago, Muto is a combined animated wall painting from Buenos Aires and Baden. The music, or rather sound effects, by Andrea Martignoni is synchronised to the comings and goings of a figure whose party piece is to regurgitate little copies of himself and move along walls and pavements that are whitewashed to provide a canvas for him. There's more to it than this and it is quite fascinating to watch. I find myself constantly wondering how much was painted in situ and how much superimposed afterwards. Clever. And since May 9th 2,441,000 or so have watched the video. Remarkable. In the past six months or so Blu has done several international projects including vandalising the facade of the Tate Modern Gallery in London. I saw it two weeks ago and despite my daughter's protestations did not believe it was graffiti. What do I know. Visit the site for Blu and be amazed. I would say not on my front wall but it would probably be worth more than the house. It has taken longer but Hitchhikers Choice, a freehand and rather fluid series of sketches to the techno music of Minilogue, has beaten Blu by amassing 2,842,000 viewers for the Swedish artist and musician Kristofer Ström. Visit his website. I don't know why I have not thought about it before but he created the piece on a whiteboard. All my gems in class are rubbed off and I should have attached a camera all along. Nearly 3 million viewers. Amazing. But not so amazing as my final piece. 26 year old Doni Permedi graduated from New York's School of Visual Arts in 2006 with a MFA in Computer Art. Everything must be downhill or uphill since, depending how one views it but his second year master's thesis created in Maya and After Effects, Kiwi, has gained no less than 18,150,076 viewers since being added two years ago. Impressive or what. It's a cheery tale of the attempts at flight by a Kiwi, a flightless bird. Using a rope, high cliff, tree and a lot of energy, it attempts to launch itself into the blue stuff. Utterly charming and so many cannot, indisputably, be wrong. A bird with passion and commitment deserves to win every award for viewing figures going. Download a high resolution copy of the movie from Doni's website. And, yes, the plucky thing gets to fly. It would, wouldn't it, with this much support.