May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
June 10, 2009
For nearly seven decades now, the National Film Board, Canada’s public film production office, has been quietly pushing the boundaries of the animated shorts. It is largely the legacy of pioneer Norman McLaren, who was known for scratching animation directly on to film, using human beings as stop-motion puppets, and other unique production methods. This diversity of technique has allowed the artists working for the board to explore subjects not generally the domain of animated filmmaking, and over the years it has produced a number of award-winning, incisive and occasionally even transcendent shorts, most of them rarely-watched outside of film school classrooms. Much of the NFB’s library is online, but it can be intimidating to search through, so Filmwell presents a look at three of its finest short films.
Ryan Larkin’s “Walking” is built on the premise that the human body is evocative all on its own, this gloriously idiosyncratic thing, all dangling limbs and aimless movement. After introducing the short’s recurring image, a silhouette of a man walking just below the camera with unseen hands thrust in unseen pockets, Larkin devotes much of the first minute to bystanders looking off the screen with great intent. If they move at all, it is to turn their heads to follow their offscreen subject, who is, it’s hard not to assume, that single walking figure with which the film began. It all serves to ramp up suspense for a payoff seemingly no more remarkable than a morning stroll: for the next four minutes, characters walk, scamper, run and dance across a mostly-white screen, some intricately detailed and some no more than patches of ink loosely held together from frame to frame. Nonetheless, the opening says, watch. Pay attention. This is important.
I admit I was already sold on the premise: it is for love of human movement that I came to animation in the first place, and I share the unfettered adoration for all of its peculiarities that Larkin displays here. Every animation student has done a walk cycle — it is one of the basic units of animated time. But rarely has the walk cycle seemed like such challenging material. As the short progresses, the character designs become simpler and simpler until each character is no more than a loosely-contained silhouette, more motion than form. The animation is masterfully done, and each character is unique, one blue shape walking with poise another with abandon.
Like much of the abstracted motion that prevails only on the shorts circuits, it is an attempt to reduce character animation to its barest essentials; my first reaction to this kind of animation was to scoff at the deliberate obfuscation of it all, until I realized it impeded nothing. We are so attuned to the scope of human motion that depriving us of our primary inputs only makes us aware of how much we glean from the gestures and motion we have not explicitly catalogued and caricatured. In the middle of “Walking,” a couple silhouetted in purple and brown comes across the screen, and they positively sway as they walk, looking at one another and taking hands with a shy grace. If we could see their eyes there would be such love in them it would put any meet cute to shame. I adored these two from the first moment I saw them, though they lack names or words or even faces.
Much of the film’s tone it owes to its soundtrack, a rapturous city park jazz, a tangle of Beatles guitars and shuffling percussion over which the soloist’s oboe-like notes — introduced only when the actual walking begins — dance ecstatically. Under the sway of that winsome reed everything seems like music — nuns hurrying across the street and children turning cartwheels. It makes such revelry of the mundane.
That revelry is the reason that “Walking” matters, that it is more than merely a fascinating exercise. There are many noble aspirations in cinema, but one of its purest is the revelation of the mundane, drawing us out of our daydreams and making us notice all over again those things which have long since faded into periphery. Some days I get off the train and it is a great effort not to stand awestruck by the vast and beautiful array of faces and bodies crowding past me to the open doors — how have I gone so long without noticing? “Walking” is that feeling distilled.
“Hunger,” Peter Foldès’ early experiment in computer animation, is an unusually disturbing piece of work, not as much for its imagery — although that is not for the faint of heart — as for its slow, relentless descent into madness. The plot of the short, if it has one, is simple: a man goes from work to dinner to his home and eats more and more along the way. But with each passing moment, the film’s title becomes more and more sinister, until by the end of the film the main character has passed beyond a glutton’s cavalier hunger and into a deep and insatiable addiction.
Foldès goes to great lengths to make the generally innocuous act of eating seem repulsive: the man does not eat clean, well-presented cuts of meat, but entire animals, pigs and birds laying whole on the table. At one point he devours a pig, and the creature seems to wriggle and scream in his hands. Eventually the man’s body turns into a horrifying mess of mouths and hands relentless clawing away at the table. Then he becomes no more than a machine, scooping up the entire table in one movement of his metal maw.
But the film makes it clear this is not simply about food. Midway through the short, the main character sits down at a restaurant for dinner and a scantily-clad waitress takes his order, and the relationship of sex and food, gluttony and lust, is hard to ignore. Later it is more explicit: the man, suddenly obese, takes her in his arms, and she morphs into an ice cream cone — given how grotesquely he’s just eaten dinner, it’s nauseating to think he’ll treat the woman with the same voracious appetite. Later, before descending into his final nightmare, he downs a handful of prescription drugs to ease his midnight pains, and it’s clear Foldès is indicting a consumerist world, the way we see everything and everyone as a thing to be selected, consumed and tossed aside. That way, the short suggests, lies addiction.
The whole short, in fact, feels like addiction: instead of rendering three dimensional objects in a computerized environment, Foldès produces several key drawings and uses the computer to move the lines in the drawing from one place to another. It’s a dysfunctional process, and the lines become jumbled and confused, an eye moving out of a face between a profile and a frontal drawing or hands passing through the object they reach out to grab before hitting the final composition. It’s both chaotic and methodical, these lines moving through their mad compositions with steady, mathematical precision: it’s wrong, but it feels inevitable.
But the time it reaches its excruciating end, “Hunger” reads like sin writ large, a scathing indictment of gluttony and depiction of its eternal rewards worthy of Dante. Its final nightmare would not be out of place in his Inferno, as gaunt and starved children feast on the main character’s now-corpulent body. It never indulges these urges, never takes perverse pleasure in depicting them — its disjointed art is too disorienting for that — and I suppose in this it doesn’t have the subtlety of a film that at least understands the sin’s appeal and nonetheless repudiates it. But “Hunger” turns a sin generally laughed off as an indulgence into a horrifying tableau, and it’s enough to leave complacent consumers like myself shaken.
When the Day Breaks
It is a common ironic twist to depict urban life as prone to isolation. In the great cities of the world, we worry, millions of people crowd together to live lives utterly unconnected. And certainly it is true that no population statistics offer a cure for loneliness. But “When the Day Breaks”, a short by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, takes as its thesis that all that proximity breeds interaction and consequence, for better and sometimes for worse.
The short begins in static and darkness as the camera pans out from a wall outlet, up an electrical cord and to a toaster, where a smartly-dressed rooster is making toast. The silliness of the image on display — and cartoon animals in general — is wisely belied by the short’s moody texture: The short was filmed in live action, resequenced, printed and photocopied; the animators then used pencil and paint to color over the photocopies. A similar method, I believe, was used several years later in the opening credits of Juno. The idea is not so different from rotoscoping, but the look it produces is not eerily perfect — as rotoscoping tends to be — but grey, mottled and scratchy. The rooster himself looks positively harried, the sort of aged middle-manager who passes like a ghost through city streets. He makes a grocery list; we cut to his dripping faucet. These may not seem important, but they are.
It is only later that we meet to the short’s real protagonist, an effusive pig named Ruby, who lets loose the window shade and sings and dances her way through morning breakfast. But the brightness of the sequence is again tempered by that moody texture. When Ruby eventually heads to the store she and the rooster finally meet — she bumps into him on his way out and dislodges a few lemons from his bag, one of which falls to the sewer below. The rooster grumpily stares at her; he is not an overly sympathetic figure. Ruby, chastised, precedes to go about her shopping, when suddenly there is honking and a crash. We don’t actually see the rooster, but when the grocery store crowd gathers around the intersection, Ruby in front, we recognize his groceries — the telltale lemons, the contents of the earlier noted grocery list. Ruby looks stricken — if she had not carelessly crashed into the rooster, he would not have been delayed, and he would have gone on unharmed, which makes her not culpable but still somehow responsible. Here the narrative slips into abstraction, which the surreal look of the film permits, and we see images of the life of the rooster intercut with the physical detritus left behind — bone fragments laid out on a table, a hat, letters and postcards — and diagrams of blood cells, arteries, organs and other elements of life. It’s a life flashing before not his eyes but perhaps Ruby’s, whose face we return to, panicked, her fervent imagination getting away from her. The juxtaposition of cruel physical fact with the abstract qualities that make a life — all the possibilities of one life reduced now to dogs chasing an ambulance, another feasting on scattered groceries — overwhelm her. Ruby runs home and locks herself inside.
As the panic passes, she becomes suddenly aware of the sound of the electric coffeepot, and we follow her gaze through to the wall outlet, and then the camera follows — as it can only in animation — the electrical pulses running through to a neighbor’s iron, across the phone lines to friends gathered on a couch, a tour of the city through the elements that pass constantly through it, until it lingers on a single lemon in the sewer system, then on to the dripping faucet of the rooster’s apartment, where his life lies interrupted. We return to Ruby’s apartment via the toaster that began the film, and she looks thoughtful.
The connections she makes gazing into the outlet comfort her somehow. She begins to eat and raises the window shade, which she had closed upon returning home. The short does not say why. It must have seemed cruel to her that her only connection to be had between herself and this rooster was a step leading to his horrible death. Does she realize staring at the outlet that common sources have fed them all this time, that for years she has affected his life in small but countless ways — fluctuations in power, water pressure, reception? Life on the grid is never without connections. Some are simply more obvious than others. This does not make her glad, exactly, but it releases her from petrification, allows her to open herself to the world once more. It is a strange comfort, but somehow moving.
(A very welcome guest review from N. K. Carter.)