Monday, 30 November 2009

Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker "Le Nez" (The Nose) (1963)

Le Nez (The Nose) directed by husband and wife team Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker is a film cited as a brilliant example of the pinscreen technique, a shadow animation in effect whereby Alexander works on the positive side of a large black canvas full of pins and Claire on the negative side; the more the flat headed pins are pushed in the lighter is the effect, creating the look of mezzotint with its textured shades of grey. I can scarcely conceive of a more labour intensive form of animation particularly given that pins numbered in their hundreds of thousands are used, albeit the pair used a variety of instruments to more quickly achieve different effects. The surreal tale itself is from the 19th century Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, commencing with a barber discovering a nose in a freshly baked loaf of bread. The nose promptly takes a life of its own, much to the chagrin of the young man who is lost and bereft without it. The man hides the empty space with a hat and pleads for the nose to return. As Nose is dressed rather more elegantly that its erstwhile owner, the plea is rejected. Reference to the nose as a metaphor for losing another more masculine part of the anatomy is obvious given the character's loss of confidence around the ladies. I personally am not persuaded by the charms of the accompanying musical soundtrack with its mix of traditional Chinese and rather discordant percussion. It takes the short even more into the territory of art film whereas some of the images of the nose in costume or the man frantically attempting to affix a constantly falling nose are high comedy. The directors in fact considered their work as high art and would not be concerned with my more base requirements. (I much prefer the couple's earlier A Night on Bald Mountain with its lovely music by Moussorgsky.) There are few animators around who use pinscreen, Jacques Drouin being a notable exception, his Mindscape a beautiful animation.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Alexis Van der Haeghe "Stilt Walkers" (2006)

A young boy soars through the clouds revelling in the blueness and magic of it all. Below him two giant comedia-del-arte figures on stilts attract his attention and they take more than a passing interest in him. One strikes out as the boy flies too low but their attentions are soon elsewhere in a quarrel over a mysterious box. In the confusion it falls to earth, proving compulsive if unwise viewing for the young aviator. A second gondola in two days, this time an airborne one as the sheer exhilaration of animation as well as a youthful sense of wonder is communicated. Stilt Walkers, a 3D short from Alexis Van der Haeghe, is a graduation project from Belgium’s Haute Ecole Albert Jacquard in Namur. Seven months' work and an altogether classy contribution from Portuguese composer Pedro Camacho have created a dreamy landscape and fantasy action. The flying contraption is Jules Verne, action courtesy 3D Max. Why limit oneself to earth? A lover of Science Fiction throughout my life, I love these alternative worlds that resonate after the event, or when one wakes up.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Max Crow "The Tourist Trap" (2001)

The UK used to have the essentially publicly owned Channel 4 commissioning animation and the genre blossomed in a ten year period up to the mid 1990s to include such talents as the Quay Brothers, Alison Snowden, David Fine and Candy Guard. Here is The Tourist Trap, a short directed by the talented Max Crow made, somewhat amazingly, eight years ago as part of the MESH programme scheme. North of England's Dwight Trash and Trez-le-Park visit Mars on a holiday vacation where their brash earthiness is brought into conflict with an ancient monument. Trez voiced by Christine McSween and Dwight by Mark Devenport are dressed for the occasion, she with chest silicon to spare, he with a little too much sand in the nether regions. With characters to match the unobtrusive colour scheme Trez flirts with the robot steering the sand gondola whilst her hubby obtains the holiday snapshot of his life. Poor voiced dialogue can spoil many a good animated short. Here professionals are in the box seat and the result is iridescent. Channel 4 has been forced to relinquish some of its commissioning of animation in the teeth of commercial competition though they still offer what they call a "nursery slope" for young animators in their Three Minute Wonder and (A.I.R.) animate!, alongside their Christmas Specials following in the revered footsteps of Raymond Brigg's classic, The Snowman. I believe the number of commissions is down to thirteen shorts a year. Plenty of television channels now offer the deliberate vulgarity of The Tourist Trap without the compensating art. It's cheaper to follow real life couples with a single live action camera interspersed with ads for lager.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Andy Hall (Elastic) Honda Accord Crosstour "Instruments" (2009)

There are not enough hours in the day for me to feature all the things I’m asked to do or wish to do. I do feature ads that appeal. Such is this darling for the Honda Accord Crosstour made by RPA advertising agency, the car that may well replace my aging Honda Tourer. Sadly no money exchanged hands to encourage me to feature the advert Instruments (17mb HQ download via Advertolog or streamed by Santa Monica studio Elastic.) It features a jazz band doing their thing on a strikingly lit stage before their gear fits oh so smoothly into the car. Director Andy Hall uses intense colours, moody shadows and ultra modern angular figures, introducing a retro look with the jazz band themselves together with a remake of that great Peggy Lee classic, Fever.

Jake Armstrong "The Terrible Thing of Alpha-9!" (2009)

Jake Armstrong is a recent graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts. His Flash animation The Terrible Thing of Alpha-9! has attracted a lot of favourable comment for a student film, notably in a June edition of Cartoon Brew. Flash is definitively 2D with a decidedly flat feel to it. Where the software works best, as here, is when it revels in a comic book flatness that suits its theme. Terrible Thing is a comic take on the science fiction genre as interstellar bounty hunter goes out in search of a killer alien. They don't see eye to eyes. As to story, I’ll let the viewer judge but words of Lennie Small (Of Mice and Men) come to mind in relation to the beast: "I done a bad thing. I done another bad thing." There is well structured plot fastening one to the drama with an engaging characterisation of the alien, bounding after the jettisoned gun, tipping the big gun over the cliff, clambering to the top of its cache of past playmates. Add to this bright, bold, artfully composed images together with an innovative presentation of credits.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Robert Cannon "Gerald McBoing-Boing" (1950)

Writing about The Cat Piano I had something at the back of my mind that just failed to come out. It was the narrative poems of Dr Seuss and in particular, Gerald McBoing-Boing, the winner of the 1950 Academy Award for Best Animated Short. A remarkably good film, it is the story of young Gerald McCloy who only speaks in sound effects. Baffling doctors, school and parents alike the young lad seems well adjusted, peculiarity not withstanding, until renamed by teasing children as Gerald McBoing-Boing. In desperation he decides to leave home but there is always a place for someone of such talents. For the age, the pared down backgrounds and caricature rather than fulsome characters (so called "limited animation" - there is an excellent Wikipedia article on the subject) were novel though judging it today the design is most eye-catching. Personally I find some of the rapid fire rhyming narration a tad cloying and the humour is of the persistent kind rather than the whole-hearted laugh. However, watching the boy read his radio script, a stream of sound effects emanating from his lips, discarded sheets mounting beneath the microphone, is to marvel at director Robert Cannon’s skill in leaving well alone, allowing the situation to develop. Marvin Miller narrates with a briskness and assured delivery that is the so typical of the time, a feeling intensified by Gail Kubik's often urgent soundtrack. (He also composed a longer, concert version of the piece to accompany Dr Seuss' narrated text.) United Productions of America (UPA) made three other shorts in the series and there was a television series. I note that John Hubley was producer and supervising director.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Tom Schroeder "The Mexican Cloud-Swing Disaster" (2006)

Way back in September 2007 I promised to review Tom Schroeder’s The Mexican Cloud-Swing Disaster. I never break a promise: I'm just extraordinarily late. Tom works at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and he enlisted some very talented students and recent graduates on his project. Three circus clowns perform their routines accompanied by an acrobat who falls to the ground. There does appear concern but little action from her fellow performers though life outside the ring, skyscrapers looming large, seems intimidating enough for them all to get back quickly despite some gyrations from the ring itself, suddenly itself metamorphosing into a dancing creature. Clearly Tom allowed his team to create different aspects of the whole, Andrew for example drawing and animating the flowered clown. Synchronised dancing and neat figure animation of the clowns are features here, the action going surreal to coincide with the more discordant music towards the close (an excellent soundtrack from Erik Fratzke). The colour scheme is extremely striking with the animated figures showcasing the collaborators' talents well. Andrew Chesworth, Victor Courtright, Julia Vickerman co-animate, the talented Ke Jiang and Sara Pocock also involved. There are shades of darkness as well as big top colour, particularly as chaos lurks just outside the tent. I featured Tom's Yellow Bird some time back. His work really impresses me.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Eddie White & Ari Gibson "The Cat Piano" (2009)

Thanks to Michael Sporn I have been able to examine the list of films nominated for this year’s Academy Award in the Best Animated Short category. On the list is The Cat Piano, directed by Eddie White and Ari Gibson from The People’s Republic of Animation. They animate an atmospheric, narrative poem recounting the story of cats disappearing from a cat city. When the narrator’s girl is abducted he sets out to save her, a journey that takes him to a dark tower to confront the presence who steals cats for his giant cat piano, a device that stabs the trapped felines causing them to shriek in controlled unison. Remarkably I understand the piano (Katzenklavier) was a real invention by a German Jesuit , Athanasius Kircher, in the 17th century. Narrated with a singular sense of mystery by Nick Cave and possessing an essentially jazz soundtrack from Benjamin Speed, the film is heavily stylised with blue, red, purple colour scheme, steamy nightclubs, dark alleyways, characters bathed in shadow, focus thrown on faces with white eyes wide open – often in horror in a mix of comic book, film noir and Gothic. The rhymed couplets are delivered with relish in a theatrical, parodied form that doesn’t take itself too seriously though the classy artwork does. Visit the production website and blog for more information.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Fyodor Khitruk "Icarus And The Wise Men" (1976)

Icarus And The Wise Men takes a well aired tale and squeezes wit and significance out. Icarus dared to challenge the Gods. Well, not exactly Gods here but wise fatheads who lie back amidst the tombstones and regurgitate fatuous sayings that prove man is unable to fly: “What Jupiter may the oxen may not.” They reckoned without Icarus’ determination. Time and again he launches himself from his cliff, plummeting to earth, buried by tombstone after tombstone, only to rise for more. When, lo and behold, he flies, the wise men decree that man cannot, nay, must not, fly. Generations of children have it drilled into them. Teacher says, "Jump" they chant, "How high?" They don’t all listen though. Guess from the screenshot below the bright spark who dares to challenge truth? Soyuzmultfilm’s Fyodor Khitruk wrote and directed the sparingly drawn piece. “The higher you rise the deeper you fall” says the third wise man. Peter Klassen has provided the sub-titles for a subtle piece of work I much enjoyed. A talented man, Fyodor, and I bet many readers of the blog will not have heard of him. In his nineties now, one of the greats of Soviet animation, Fyodor published The Profession of Animation in 2008 and has several great films to his name including an excellent Winnie the Pooh (1969). I have written about another of his films for later in the week.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Sheldon Cohen " I Want a Dog" (2003)

Yesterday I featured a movie the music from which transports one back to a different era. I Want A Dog is an animated short that wants to be a musical. Featuring a well scrubbed, suburban Canada sometime in 1957, Sheldon Cohen’s infectious movie features a young girl whose desperation to have her own dog knows no bounds. Endlessly inventive, totally dedicated to the cause, May sets out to persuade reluctant parents of the need for a pooch. “Lassie Come Home" plays at the Late Night Cinema, hedges are manicured, a roller skate boot is polished up with real wax from a tin and children play securely on the streets with not a predator in sight. The film’s bright, appealing images are a recreation of Dayal Kaur Khalsa’s “I Want a Dog” (1994 Tundra Books) whilst the soundtrack is one to savour - Zander Ary‘s score and doo-wop vocals, Neko Case's stand-out closing song and a doggie chorus for Johann Strauss’s “Waltz of the Blue Danube”. Marnie McPhail narrates a charmer of a short for children of all ages. The National Film Board of Canada commissions some rare movies. Be warned, the Neko Case song lingers in the head.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Peter Kay - Children In Need Official Music Video Single

Children In Need Official Music Video Single

In the UK it is the annual Children in Need appeal and a huge night on television and in the country. Comedian Peter Kay has got a collection of the nation's television favourite animated personalities together for a medley of popular songs. Presenter Terry Wogan has raised half a billion pounds so far in his career for children's charities all over the world.
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Faith and John Hubley "Voyage To Next "

I have the highest regard for the work of husband and wife team, Faith and John Hubley. Sponsored by the Institute for World Order, Voyage To Next epitomises the 1970’s challenge to the establishment, attacking war and the greed of mankind as seen through the eyes of Mother Earth and Father Time, their voices provided in naturalistic fashion by Maureen Stapleton and Dizzy Gillespie, the latter’s music miraculously conveying an altogether different era. The pair look down from above amazed at the fall from grace of we humans. Whilst Father Time treads the wheel that keeps everything in motion they marvel at what they see. On the ocean is a huge floating box from which emanates a giant hand plundering the contents of the smaller boxes, the Lilliputian inhabitants vainly firing their weapons at the aggressor triggering a further intervention as a lid is firmly slammed shut on the smaller box. Thus Faith and John deal with the richer nations' exploitation of the less rich. Dizzy's historical account of man's decline gets to the root of the problem as the simple illustrations have early man sharing food, hoarding food, building castles, sailing off to far off lands (in boxes) to plunder more goodies from foreign lands. Mother Earth is generous: "Maybe if you give them more time." Dizzy laughs: "Give ’em more brains." Today's commentators in all sorts of media are harsher: cynicism reigns. Voyage To Next reflects a gentler, more idealistic age, seeing the faults, but possessing an elegance and grace in its depiction of man's abundant inadequacies.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

"Le Nouveau" Fanny Dagoumel, Axel Graux, Antony Lacordaire & Gaelle Lefebure (ESMA 2007)

Eugene, the supervisor of Les Joyeux Pinçons, a retirement home for senior citizens, receives a call from his director instructing him to welcome a potential new young employee, Christian. The sting in the tale is that the young man is being earmarked for Eugene’s position seeing as he is himself nearing retirement. Eugene has already seen off a number of applicants and gleefully welcomes the intruder with a series of devilish, cunning plans including taking lunch to Hannibal Lecter, doctoring the cleaning machine and introducing his seemingly naive underling to a killing machine that wants to cuddle him. Le Nouveau (80mb) or via YouTube is a most enjoyable 3D movie with a plot full of surprises and high comedy. It also has a fiendishly clever conclusion in which, in the best detective traditions, the action is unravelled for the public. Nice to see, by the way, a senior citizen so conversant with modern technology, however deviant the usage. Impressive work then from Fanny Dagoumel, Axel Graux, Antony Lacordaire and Gaelle Lefebure. Visit their website for more details and download possibilities. Ecole Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques (or ESMA) is an institution I have neglected of late.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Alexei Alexeev "KJFG No5" (2007)

I know it's short but I promise you I have taught lessons like this and there's one absolute belly laugh in Alexei Alexeev's forest rehearsal as three of the woodland creatures do a gig. KJFG No5 is not one for the high volume control unless it's to tone it down. (My wife thought I was in distress.) When the hunter ventures onto the scene, of course, the music has to stop, though you can't keep a good wolf down. There are several more shorts featuring the trio and hunter if you follow the YouTube links.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Johannes Nyholm “The Tale of Little Puppetboy” (2007)

If you do not already know of Johannes Nyholm's extremely funny The Tale of Little Puppetboy you are in for a treat. Preparing for the arrival of a female visitor our boy scurries around his room transforming chaos into, well, greater chaos. Those crisps placed on a dish for nibbles end up on the floor, dish broken, bits everywhere. So the vacuum is wielded like a lethal weapon, which it very nearly is for someone. Those of us who have ever attempted a quick clean-up will know what all the palaver is about. Everything behind draw fronts or cupboard doors is a mess, visible space is all. Sometimes a comedian takes an audience on a journey that is infectious so that laughter builds up through the act. It is exactly like this here plus a sprinkling of nervous energy as we watch the clock tick away the moments until the visitor arrives with a persistent ring of the bell. Featuring a set that looks improvised right down to its chipboard floor, the plasticine and stop motion works and the puppetboy himself, all sweat and terror, is a triumphant creation. Visit Johannes' website to see more of his films. Today's movie is the first chapter in a Puppetboy series. He has made a longer film version garnering many awards of late. I can see why. You will not see a funnier film all year.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Matthius Hoegg "August" & Sarah Van Den Boom "The Skeleton Woman" (2009 - trailers)

Two trailers today, both of which I have seen in their full form on DVD. August is the work of Royal College of Art student Matthius Hoegg. During the hot, long days of August a group of young people set up camp in a rather well regulated campsite. Well it is until they arrive. The film presents two perspectives. One is that of the ants, following their routines, scavenging between the discarded beer cans that stand like ancient monoliths above their land; then a parallel world of humans, sunbathing, frolicking and drinking. Looking down from above, the designated camping areas look like insect cells. Slickly drawn and animated throughout, the foibles of our world are analysed in a manner I found fascinating; as if one is watching one of those quirky, fly-on-the-wall documentaries that through juxtaposition of material manages to say more about a community than any narrated commentary. Amusing and elucidating, this perspective works in a visual way too: giant cigarette butts or hairy legs seen at ankle height. And alongside, a mystery of the ants, building constructions the purpose for which is unknown to man. A classy, unusual piece of work altogether! Check it out at one of the various international festivals or buy the DVD.
The Skeleton Woman is a movie I have trailed before by that wonderful artist Sarah Van Den Boom. It was premiered at last week’s Leeds Festival and I have now had a chance to see the full movie. As one might imagine it is marvellously drawn thoughout. It tells the story of a young mother whose domestic drudgery and lack of contact with her husband awakens memories and fantasies of a past relationship set against a tragic Inuit legend of a drowned girl. In contrast to Mattias’ film we do have a narrator. The woman’s anguish is laid bare in words with a poetic quality to match the visual depiction. Once again the film is now doing the festival circuit. A haunting treat of a film, the trailer is here.