The Erlking

As the 2003 Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF)’s trailer started rolling on opening night, I experienced a wave of nostalgia for the Festival’s previous venue, Melbourne’s now defunct Treasury Theatre. The Treasury seemed to retain a certain coziness and humble character that is lacking from the Festival’s new venue, the more ostentatious Australian Centre for the Moving Image located at Melbourne’s new Federation Square. But that said, MIAF’s new venue turned out to be a greater success than either the Festival’s organisers or punters could possibly have imagined. Maybe it’s a little ambitious to suggest that a festival program overwhelmingly based on computer generated (and facilitated) animations might have some greater affinity with a space also designed using 3D computer modelling software, but whatever the difference, both Festival and venue proved great successes with local audiences, almost every Festival session selling out.

Notable exceptions to the Festival’s pattern of sellouts were some of the most interesting sessions of the program: its retrospectives of Czech animation and the work of Paul Driessen, the Art and Animation program, and the Festival’s sole adult feature presentation, Annecy award-winner My Beautiful Girl Mari by Lee Sung-Gang (2002). Audiences seemed most interested in investigating contemporary local productions and the latest on offer in computer animation. However, despite this apparent valorization of the new and technologically current over the work of acknowledged masters, the most popular films at the Festival (as indicated by the awards of both audience and jury) remained true to some of the elements which animation has always treated most successfully, such as surreal humour, radical transformations in perspective, and nightmarish, fairytale-like storytelling.

The first film that screened at the Festival, French 3D computer animation Turn Right On Entering (J. Castillan, F. Lacroix, F. Le Gal and M. Pallet, 2002), set the scene for many of the other computer animated entrants. The film begins with a POV shot of the entrance to a house. The camera/screen explores the three dimensional space of a corridor and room in a manner which instantly recalls 3D computer games. The quest for photo-realistic computer generated imagery is subsumed by an interest in exploring three-dimensional space and architecture in a slightly distorted, exaggerated way that draws attention to itself and that does not exist in ordinary live-action cinematography. Extreme examples of films which explored 3D computer animation in this way at the Festival include French Supinfocom student productions such as Gravité (F. Gesquiere, T. Bassement and A. Perard, 2002) and Akryls (Y. Cauderc, X. Henry and B. Hajmal, 2002), which played with plane and scale respectively in imaginative science fiction worlds, and Italian production Shame’s Photo (Daniele Luighini and Diego Zuelli, 2002), which travel back in time through frozen moments, animating camera movement rather than figures, to reveal the story behind a mystery photograph. There were also animations which worked directly with architectural modeling, such as Archi Sensuelle by Virginie Stolz (2002), and The Amateur Developer’s Handbook by Antonia Fredman (2002).

Supra-Natural Naturalism

A number of films in this year’s MIAF program used computer animation to create new perspectives on the natural world, providing some of the most intriguing experiences at the Festival. Recognition of natural movement and the natural world within the completely artificial context of computer-animated cinema created an unsettling effect in Mantis by Jordi Moragues (2002). Mantis uses what seems to be a rotoscoping effect, rendering backgrounds white and objects fluorescent green, to tell the story of the life-cycle of a praying mantis. With leaves swaying in the wind and ripples forming on a pond in a far more realistic way than normally seems possible in animated cinema, Mantis created the impression of being an hallucinatory nature documentary.

Loon Dreaming

One of the revelations of the Festival, Loon Dreaming by Iriz Pääbo (2002), took a completely different and far more expressionist approach to representation of the natural world. Loon Dreaming uses two and three-dimensional animation to recreate the physical and spiritual life of the Loon, the aquatic bird found mostly in North America. The pulsing rhythm of the images and music (also composed by the animator) work to create a trance-like effect; other birds are seen as feather-like networks of veins and pulsating energies, static fireworks explode from the tops of the fir trees. Loon Dreaming was one of the hidden gems of this year’s Festival, easily lost amongst more humorous or fantastic works, but entirely unique and worth repeated viewing.

Not all computer animations were successful solely on the level of extending the medium of animated cinema – some also represented interesting developments of other creative media. The Way (Qing Huang, 2003), one of the more original Australian animations in this year’s program, took Chinese painting and Taoist thought as its base, animating various ‘painted’ images of nature in 3D. The film creates new spatial perspectives of its subjects, mostly natural objects, and lends natural movement to brush-stroke leaves and stalks which sway in the virtual wind. While not as sophisticated as the effect achieved in Mantis, The Way offered a novel approach to Chinese painting.

Representation of Animation Techniques

Despite the predominance of computer-animation in the program, MIAF screened animation from as wide a variety of techniques as could be expected. Alongside and among the computer animations were animations using more traditional techniques, such as puppet, hand-drawn, painted and sand animations. Nowhere was this more evident than in the opening night’s program in which Polish production The Cathedral (Tomek Baginski, 2002), a 3D computer animated science-fiction short of the highest possible technical accomplishment, and Pixar-styled Academy-Award® winner The ChubbChubbs (Eric Armstrong, 2002), screened alongside films such as The Tortoise and the Hare (2002), a puppet animation by master animator Ray Harryhausen, and Italian pencil and chalk-drawn animation Getting In Position (Simone Massi, 2000).

Extn 21

The Festival included two haunting sand animations, the most accomplished of which was The Erlking, by Ben Zelkowicz (2002), based on Goethe’s poem of the same name. The gothic dread of the poem was successfully brought to life in murky tones and facial expressions of surprising intensity. Puppet animation was also well-represented with three puppet animations, The Cat With Hands by Robert Morgan (2001), Extn 21 by Lizzie Oxby (2002) and The Toll Collector by Rachel Johnson (2002), winning best of session awards. Two of these films incorporated live action imagery and animation, and all three worked with nightmarish themes: Extn 21 grafted a live-action human head to a puppet body to tell the story of a figure lost in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare involving office telephones; The Cat With Hands brought animation to the world of live-action cinema to recount the tale of a cat which devours humans to assimilate their body parts; and The Toll Collector told the slightly ridiculous story of a toll collector with enormous stilt-like legs who decides to chase her dream of becoming a ballet-dancer. Two other puppet animations, Aria by Pjoter Sapegin (2001) and The Butterfly Woman (2002), by Virginie Bourdin, won Commendation for Craft awards.

Retrospectives and Panoramas

Of this year’s retrospectives and special panoramas the most popular session at the box office proved to be one of the more problematic for spectators. The Betty Boop Collection provided a fascinating historical counterpoint to early Disney cartoons, the earlier films in particular displaying a surprising level of political and sexual verve. However problems with tape titles, and the repetitive nature of some of the films shown later in the program made the screening difficult viewing, especially late on a Saturday night.

The Paul Driessen retrospective was a treat, giving Melbourne audiences rare access to a range of shorts spanning the early 1970s to 2000. The selection emphasised Driessen’s experimentation with animation and the film medium, ranging from experiments with lines (Air, 1972) to more recent experiments with split-screen animation (The End of the World in Four Seasons, 1995, and The Boy Who Saw the Iceberg, 2000). The session of shorts was followed by the screening of an interesting, but awkward documentary about Driessen and his work, Paul Driessen – Inside Out by Guus van Waveren (2002), which tried to utilize some of the split-screen and narrative devices found in Driessen’s animations. The documentary did, however, open with a very funny animation, created by Driessen himself, of the artist’s body falling to pieces and then literally turning itself inside out.

The Hand

This year’s retrospective of a national animated cinema focused on the animation of the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia, countries with such a rich tradition of animated filmmaking that the task of selecting a handful of films for a single session must have been unenviable. Still the Festival’s programmers managed to pull together a program with representative works from some of the most highly-regarded Czech animators, providing one and a half hours of joy for those in attendance. The Czech Panorama included works by Jiri Trnka (The Hand, 1965, and Passion, 1961), Jan Svankmajer (A Quiet Week in the House, 1969), Michaela Pavlatova (Repeat, 1994, and Words, Words, Words, 1991), Jiri Barta (Disk Jockey, 1980) and Pavel Koutsky (Media 2000).

The highlight of the Art and Animation screening was another Eastern European classic, Breakfast on the Grass (1987), by Estonian master Priit Parn. The premise of this program, which has already done the rounds of some other festivals internationally, was the exploration of the relationship between the visual arts and animated film. Nearly all of the animations selected for the screening took well-known paintings or painters as their starting point, and while the art/animation relationship could also have been explored from many other interesting angles, such as animation’s use of the other mediums, the films selected were all interesting in their own right and worked well together as a group. Jan Svankmajer made a repeat appearance with his classic Dimensions of Dialogue (1982).

Australian Animation

For a year in which Adam Elliot’s new film Harvey Crumpet won three major awards at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival (including the Jury’s Special Award, the Audience Award and a FIPRESCI award), and Mark Gravas’ Show and Tell won best short film award at the inaugural 3D Animation Awards in Denmark (competing against the likes of Academy Award nominees The ChubbChubbs and Mike’s New Car), the selection of Australian animations represented at MIAF this year wasn’t very strong.

The Australian Panorama screening was dominated by student films, the majority of which were 3D computer animations. Of these 3D animations Cane-Toad by Andrew Silke and David Clayton (2002) (also nominated for the best short film at the 3D Animation Awards) stood out for its technical virtuosity. Bin Can Can by Steve Angland (2001), in which a range of bins perform the Can-Can in a suburban street, also stood out, but for its silliness. The sight of an aluminium trash-can dancing joyously between a supporting cast of roller-bins went down especially well with the audience at the Under-18s screening, who voted Bin Can Can best film of that session.

Two of the more original animations in the Australian program were the previously mentioned The Way by Qing Huang, and S-Crash by Lindsay Cox and Victor Holder (2001). S-Crash is an inventive pixillation which uses silhouettes to tell the story of a conflict between a DJ and his neighbours. In contrast to many of the other animations in the program, S-Crash took a more ironic approach to both technology and techno-music, using shadows instead of computer-generated imagery, and music made solely by voice (as opposed to the electronica somewhat overused by many of the other Australian entries). S-Crash made a refreshing, superficially ‘low-tech’ alternative to some of the less successful experiments with 3D animation and science fiction themes.

And to conclude…

Family and Friends

The words ‘Computer Animation’ are a perennial drawcard at MIAF. Audiences have traditionally flocked to the computer animation programs, and there seems to be a great deal of curiosity about advancements in 3D and other computer-animated cinema. However, the question of application became the more interesting one in the context of the Festival this year, with the continued search for original applications for computer animation providing fertile ground for experimentation. Some of the Festival’s more inventive computer animated entries worked with combinations of computer generated and traditional elements. Family and Friends by Jonas Odell (2002), for example, combined a variety of hand-drawn, 2D and 3D animation techniques to animate a series of stories about imaginary relations, each in a different style. Home Road Movies by Robert Bradbrook (2002) also combined a variety of techniques, mixing stills and live-action with 3D animation to recreate in full kitsch effect the story of a father who overvalues the power of a family car to keep his family together.

Some computer-generated animations revealed the tension between what animation has been, is at present, and might become. Tim Tom (R. Segaud and C. Pougeoise, 2002), winner of an audience Best of Session award, makes an interesting case study. A clever 3D computer animation about two characters with notebook heads who are constantly being separated by the giant hand of the animator, Tim Tom makes use of slap-stick humour which has been around since the silent era, references Jiri Trnka’s The Hand and makes a number of jokes about the medium of film itself, while simultaneously making use of technology which has already effectively superceded film in many ways. In one scene, for example, one of the characters jumps in and out of frames on a strip of film, in an attempt to avoid the ominous hand. This strip of film is no longer entirely relevant to the animation process being utilized, perhaps now more of an afterthought. This doesn’t demonstrate that animation techniques which have traditionally relied on a more direct relationship with celluloid have become irrelevant, but it does point to the tension which still exists between a type of cinema which has evolved through a great deal of manual labour with film, and the tool of the computer which has already revolutionized its practice.

I would finally like to mention a Korean student animation which was probably forgotten by many Festival-goers. The majority of the film elapses with sequences of a normal office worker waking up and passing through the crossroads in a park, at which there are subtle changes in scenery and in the characters who inhabit the space, with each crossing. One day the situation just blows up: the office worker suddenly meets a girl, the bus crashes, a local body-builder begins beating up a jogger who has been antagonising him daily in the park and a policeman chases after an arsonist who has just set fire to the town. This all comes to a festive finale as colourful flowers and balloons erupt across the frame in the film’s final image. The name of this animation was Crossroads (2002, by H. Sohn, C. Kim, H. Kim, S. Min, D. Jang and S. Jang), and while the chaotic finale may or may not humorously point to the place where current technological developments are leading cinema, the name of the film and its setting more usefully describe both the present state of animation and the position in which the MIAF finds itself in this, its third year. As we witness animation at the crossroads, at a point of transformation in its practice, we also witness a turning point for MIAF in its local, if not international, profile. And as to which direction MIAF and animation will take in coming years? With films such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away reacquainting the public with serious animated cinema, I can only imagine that the audience for both will continue to grow.

About The Author

Daniel Yencken is a broadcaster on SBS Radio, a co-curator of the Melbourne Filmoteca and the Manager of Senses of Cinema.

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