Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Annecy 2009

This year’s festival didn’t have as many great events as last year’s, but the short film competition, which to me is the heart of such a festival, was quite strong. In other words: despite the lack of fresh air in the auditorium and an overkill of short films, I didn’t fall asleep as often as in previous years during these programs. Overall the shorts were highly entertaining, with some inflated platitudes and even less really thoughtful pieces. Though I liked a lot of the films, I couldn’t name one outstanding favorite. Despite that, I was quite surprised about some of the short film awards as they were predictable but not justified in my opinion (Man in the blue Gordini, Slavar) or simply puzzling (Please Say Something).

As Serge Bromberg, Annecy’s artistic director, said in his introduction speech: the audience is the most important ingredient in any successful festival. Seeing any movie in the packed Grande Salle du Bonlieu is an indescribable experience. The crowd seems to be so willing to embrace whatever is put in front of them that even mediocre films are greeted like major events. The traditional pre-show ritual consisting of throwing paper planes to the screen, a clap-along trailer and a different Gobélin intro for each day never fails to bring down the house already before the main attraction starts.

The most interesting films were clearly in the feature category. There may not have been such a breath of fresh air like Sita sings the Blues, but of the nine features I have seen, my favorite four have been stop motion films, that - with the exception of Coraline - didn’t follow genre conventions even though they succeeded in telling emotionally engaging stories. There seems to be a general assumption that animated features, even so-called daring ones like Wall-E and Up, have to follow the American blockbuster formula, no matter what content or target audience. This may be economically justified because of the high costs of big studio animation and thus the need to appeal to the lowest common denominator of all audience groups. But what bothers me most is that this development isn’t even questioned by top critics like Todd McCarthy. If it’s animation it has to follow the action film pattern. And although most of the big studio features have more in common with live-action blockbuster than cartoons, their problems and inconsistencies are overlooked as long as what is on the screen looks like a labor of love.

Well, Australia of all countries has proven this assumption wrong. Emotional payoff can be gracefully achieved without villains and the mandatory chase/action sequence near the end of the movie. In fact, 9.99$ and Mary and Max demonstrate that animated features can tackle subjects and styles more common to independent art house movies and still make you laugh and cry (in the case of Mary and Max).

9.99$ as most of you already know by now is a “large city film” focused on characters rather than story. Its episodic structure is based on short stories by Etgar Keret with intersecting characters. In short, Tatia Rosenthal’s 9.99$ is a film about real people struggling to break out of their mediocrity. It can be argued that this is something far better suited to live-action and that there are already many films that fit the pattern. It is the kind of film Robert Altman, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and in Australia Ray Lawrence (Lantana, Jindabyne) have become associated with. For the first half hour I wondered why they made a puppet film out of it, even though the moody sets and lighting had a lot going for them. The puppets still looked somehow stilted and awkward at times, but the voice acting carried a lot of the performance (that’s saying a lot, considering that I usually believe that voice actors are terribly overrated). But the more fantastical elements of the story - it does include a recurring angel and talking chairs - blended in more naturally this way than they would have with real actors. After all, I never grow tired of seeing how ordinary people cope with life’s adversities and I can’t recall having seen it in an animated feature recently. (On a side note: why Monsters vs. Aliens was shown in competition but 9.99$ wasn’t, remains a mystery to me).

But for me (and the jury) the real winner was Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max telling the story of unlikely pen pals Mary Daisy Dinkle, an 8 year old Australian, and 44 year old autistic Max Jerry Horovitz from New York. Premise and unappealing character design may look very similar to Elliot’s long short Harvey Krumpet, but execution and storytelling are light years ahead of it. It has everything, gags, brilliant music, smooth animation, zany subtleties and most of all heart. Real heart, never sentimental, but deeply touching, you cannot watch this movie without a lump in your throat. And yes, it cost only about 8 million Australian dollars.
Apart from some small parts by Toni Collette, Philipp Seymour Hoffmann and some others, most of the film is carried by a wonderful narrator. Although the subject matter is clearly adult, it doesn’t have to rely on offensive imagery.

I was a little afraid of the new Wallace and Gromit adventure, because I feared that Nick Park may have lost his touch with those most beloved characters. No need to worry, though. While the formula is showing, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The W&G shorts have always depended on atmospheric tongue-in-cheek storytelling where the spectator and silent Gromit are ahead of Wallace. They may talk a little more this time, but my favourite scenes are still the ones where we see Gromit’s thought process through a minimum of animation. The dog has once again saved the day.

And then there was Lost and Found by Philipp Hunt, a real gem. I had to sit through a heap of unbearable TV episodes and specials just to see this story about friendship, and it was worth every minute. What Mary and Max is to adult animation, Lost and Found is to the family audience. It’s hard to believe that such a heart warming film has been given the green light in a environment. Come to think of it, Lost and Found was the only 3D animation I’ve liked in the whole festival.

And there was the other 3D, a.k.a TruD, RealD, stereoscopic vision etc. There have been stereoscopic projections before in Annecy, but this year, 3D took center stage with four movies released that way. I have managed to see all of those in the Grande Salle except for the Nightmare Before Christmas which I have already seen in 3D. While it worked very well for Coraline, which by the way is the first film I can’t imagine in any other format, Monsters vs. Aliens was less impressive and The Battle for Terra was outright terrible (nice message, bad execution), also due to projection errors. The two computer animated features showcased all the deficiencies of digital projection. It’s a pity that all my prejudices against this projection technology were cemented.

The last screening I attended was the Saturday morning “carte blanche” for Jean-Pierre Jeunet which was in his own words more like a “carte grise” (a grey card rather than a white card), because he chose most of the films from a list the festival suggested to him. As a fan of his films I was curious about his personal favorites. The program was solid (nice to see Harvey Krumpet in the context of Mary and Max) but without surprises: nothing unexpected, mostly evergreens that tended towards the dark and quirky as one could expect from the director of films like La Cité des Enfants Perdus / The City of Lost Children (1995).

I asked myself what films I would select if I had to compile a roadshow reel of shorts from a certain festival. Not all of the following shorts are among the most important, some are just plain fun, because I believe that you have to have those very short, funny films as buffers between the heavier ones.

1. Retouches (5:13)
2. Western Spaghetti (1:45)

3. El Empleo (6:19)

4. Runaway (8:40)
5. The Additional Capabilites of the Snout (5:15)

6. Mei Ling (15:36)
7. Tiny Legs of Fire (1:30)
8. The Cat Piano (8:28)
9. Muto (7:00)
10. Syötti (4:32)
11. Birth (11:45)

12. Codswallop (3:40)
13. The Tale of Little Puppetboy (18:35)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Fleischer Lighting

"I never made love in Technicolor"

Before I take off for Annecy later this afternoon I’d like to do a short post about the use of realistic lighting using examples from two late Fleischer cartoons in Technicolor, both made down in Florida.
A longer article about the “imitation of lighting” in American animation will hopefully follow after the festival later this month.

Aladdin and his wonderful lamp (1939) is not only the last but at 22 minutes also the longest of the three Technicolor Popeye two-reelers. It isn’t the most imaginative though and there’s not a single shot done in the Fleischer’s then trademark “Stereoptical Process”.

I’d like to focus on one single scene that features colored light emitted by gems and diamonds:
First we see princess Olive’s room in natural high key lighting, similar to live-action color epics of the time.

Then Olive opens several boxes each holding a different colored gem inside. To emphasize the glowing effect of the stones, her whole room reflects each stone’s color. This may be unnatural but is a fairly accepted convention.

Let’s have a closer look at Olive in the red and especially the green picture: as expected, there is some modeling (light and shadow areas) on her body. But when in reality the side closer to the gem (her front) would have to be reflecting the stone’s color more strongly, it is exactly the other way round (especially in the green picture). Olive’s shadow side that in reality wouldn’t be green because her body would block out the green light is all green like the rest of the room. Of course, this goes unnoticed because it makes for a more readable image than had it been handled realistically. Not only is there more contrast of value in Olive than in her immediate surroundings, but she’s also the only thing in the picture that contrasts with the room’s overall color, most notably the spots of red, and she’s also wearing different colors. Her skintone is more or less “natural”.

I personally think that this unrealistic lighting effect makes for a far more interesting picture. Note that the white light in the third picture only bleaches out the surroundings and doesn’t affect colors too much. Here the framing bed looks even stronger than Olive. Naturally, seeing the scene in movement, Olive would still be the center of attraction.

Just to prove that unrealistic lighting must have clearly been a conscious artistic decision, let’s look at how the same people handled light sources and modeling in Superman a.k.a. The Mad Scientist (1941):

Right from the beginning, there is modeling on the characters. People working on these Superman shorts have repeatedly talked about how they tried to keep in mind where the principal light sources were located in every shot. And going through this first entry in the series shot by shot, you can see that they stick to it probably to a higher degree than anybody before them.

I will discuss the amazing color work and production design of these short in more detail later, because there really is a lot to admire in these films. But for now, just look at how realistically the lighting is handled in the following screen shots. The low key lighting itself is rather influenced by expressionistic live-action crime films of the time and therefore not realistic in the sense that it resembles the real world, but within the shots everything is totally coherent.

Now here we have the counterpart to the Olive scene from above: in Superman, even skintones are deeply affected by lighting changes, something that was quite uncommon in the early 40s.

Near the end of the short, there are several lightning flashes and explosions. With the characters already lit in colored light and shadow, the flashes had to really stand out. It’s amazing to see how the cel painters obviously painted on top of the cels in what looks like dry-brush or some frosted cel technique.

Of course, in the end the warm evening (or morning) colors take over again.

After managing to reserve most of the desired screenings despite the traditional breakdown of Annecy’s online ticketing system, I’m now really excited about the following week. I hope to see all of the shorts in competition and as many features as possible.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

From Sita to the Fleischers

In my opinion, Sita sings the Blues owes more to the shorts of the Fleischer Studios than to any West Coast animated feature. Not that I think that Nina Paley is more interested in technical innovation than characters - God forbid, no! – but she uses the medium in visually playful ways rather than to present a closed classical narrative. Like the Fleischer Brothers many decades ago, she’s part of the New York animation scene that still seems to be rather different from the one in California.

Of course, when you see Sita sing for the first time, Betty Boop comes to mind immediately. Therefore it’s interesting to compare the two singing ladies in regard to construction.

Thanks to Grim Natwick’s drawing abilities – at least that’s what most people believe – Betty was already breaking out of the 1920s convention of characters built of mere circles and hoses. While the Fleischer animators struggled to give Betty more organic curves, Paley isn’t trying to hide the rigid Flash aesthetics. In fact, she goes in the opposite direction and exposes all the unnaturally perfect circles and ellipses, so that we never feel cheated. She sure knows how to handle cut-out animation.

It’s funny that Betty’s chest is not accentuated by the heavy black lines like all the other basic shapes. Well, times have changed and Sita is allowed to have a chest about as wide as her hips.
I particularly like the stylized eye lashes that correspond to her earrings and look both like miniature suns and cogwheels.

[Regrettably, I don’t have a more accurate Betty model sheet, so if someone has one, please let me know]

There is also a bouncing ball song towards the end of the movie. Although the bouncing ball has become the equivalent of sing along and karaoke videos, it was invented by Max Fleischer for his Song Car-Tunes series (1924-27).

One of my favorite Sita sequences also contains a rotoscoped dance. Both of these widely used devices are dissociated from their standard practice. They are not used for pure parody but help putting story points across.

It may sound a little farfetched to see Sita in the tradition of Max Fleischer only because he invented rotoscoping and the bouncing ball, but for me the whole setting of the Annette Hanshaw scenes makes me think of the Fleischers’ early jazz cartoons, where every now and then cartoon characters mouth the words sung by famous singers (off- or onscreen). There’s also an abundant buoyancy to these scenes where everything and everybody is dancing in rhythm from the palmtrees to the stars above and we often see characters multiplying and playing instruments in the middle of an action. This type of cartooning has been all but erased in the wake of Disney’s success with their rigid illusion-of-life dogma. There’s not too much possibility for morphing and the likes in cut-out, but the spirit of 1920s/30s animation is coming through all the same.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Inbetween VII

All poses from an instructed life drawing class I took about a year ago