Part 2: The Shorts
Among the plethora of films that screened during the five shorts programs at the Ottawa Int’l Animation Festival, a few really stood out for pushing the boundaries of animation and showing audiences something they’ve never seen before. However, technical achievement definitely won out over story as several of the winning entries seemed to struggle a bit with narrative structure. Overall, though, the quality of the selections was truly inspiring and made for a nice way to spend a few afternoons and evenings. I’ll first run down the big winners, then discuss some other noteworthy films in a later entry.
Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor (Franz Kafka’s Inaka Isha)
Japanese filmmaker Koji Yamamura, who took the top prize at Annecy and earned an Oscar nomination for his 2003 short film Mt. Head, returns with his hand-drawn take on Kafka’s tale of a village doctor who is called out in the middle of a bitter cold night to see to a terribly ill boy. The film won the award for Best Independent Animation at Ottawa, and for good reason. While the story isn’t exactly accessible (that’s Kafka for you), the visuals are hypnotizing. The characters are constantly in a state of flux, expanding, contracting and wobbling in unnatural ways that evoke the feeling of feverish hallucination. During A Q&A, Yamamura said he saw the story as a narrative taking place inside the doctor’s head, hence the trippy visual style. ‘When I read the book, the imagination of stretching characters just jumped out,’ he remarked. Yamamura did most of the animation himself, with some help from his wife and another assistant. All the images were drawn on paper and scanned into a computer for digital compositing and camera moves, but no special digital effects were used to augment the animation and create the warping style. Yamamura is a visionary filmmaker and this latest work of his is obviously a labor of love that requires a bit more patience on the part of the audience than Mt. Head did, but should serve as inspiration to animators everywhere.
Sleeping Betty (Isabelle au bois dormant)
Produced with the aid of the National Film Board of Canada, Claude Cloutier’s crowd-pleasing 2D fairytale spoof won the NFB Public Prize and the award for Best Canadian Animation. When the royal court has tried everything to wake a sleeping princess, a call is made to a prince-for-hire service, and Prince Charles himself is dispatched to deliver the rousing kiss. However, getting there proves to be quite the ordeal. There’s a scene where Charles’ horse mugs for the camera and starts show-boating, and that captures the entire spirit of this film. Cloutier tells a simple story that allows him to show off his talent for absurd humor, non-sequitors, extreme poses and expertly timed gags. The film is reminiscent of Monty Python with touches of Bill Plympton and early Warner Bros. cartoons, but still manages to be fresh. Cloutier noted that storyboarding was key, and it took him the better part of a year to complete the process. ‘I storyboarded a long feature film because I didn’t know where to cut,’ he said. ‘That left me free to find the gags and jokes.’ The labor-intensive film took five years to complete with Cloutier doing all the drawing on paper. An assistant added color in the computer. The result a really fun movie that leaves me hoping that somebody gives this guy a chance to make a feature real soon.
Also working under the wing of the National Film Board of Canada, Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski pulled off quite a feat with their very first animated short film. Madame Tutli-Putli, winner of Best Narrative Short at Ottawa, features some of the most brilliant stop-motion animation I’ve seen in a long time. What really makes it stand out is the fact that they and artist Jason Walker photographed actors’ real eyes and composited them onto the puppets in post production, a process that took a year to finish. It’s amazing how much that makes the characters come to life. Combined with smooth animation and detailed sets that don’t look at all like miniatures, the effect is nothing short of revolutionary. You know you’re looking at animation, but it feels so real. Based on their comments, Lavis and Szczerbowski probably won’t attempt it again because it was so labor intensive, but I’m sure someone will devise an easier way to do it and perhaps incorporate it into a feature since it solves the problem of the dead-eye phenomenon at the heart of the ‘uncanny valley’ concept. I can’t say that the ending of Madame Tutli-Putli is particularly satisfying, but perhaps there’s something I’m missing. I’ve seen it twice and noticed new things the second time around, so maybe a third viewing will make things clearer. I’ll also be talking with Lavis and Szczerbowski for the next issue of Animation Magazine, so perhaps they shed some light on the matter.