December 7, 2005

The best thing about short animated films is that they're where the true innovations in storytelling and technique emerge. The second best thing is that when they're compiled on DVD, you can pretty much stop and start them at will.

I have here the first five volumes of The Best of the British Animation Awards, a collection of UK animated shorts from 1994 to 2003, which I've been patiently watching for the past four or five months—a few minutes here, a few minutes there, as time permits. (The DVDs are PAL but region-free, which means you either need to own a multiformat DVD player, or be willing to watch these in front of your computer screen.)

Because the discs were released to coincide with the Awards themselves (the next will be held in March), the films are roughly chronological, so I kept an eye open for trends. The only one I could find was the inevitable one: technological progression. The very first short on the very first disc, the cartoony Scat, the Stringalong Cat (1995), is just low-res enough that jaggy pixels are visible throughout, and the background is a particular shade of purplish blue that almost screams "digitally made." You can tell that director Ian Sachs has got more than his share of animation chops, but there's a sort of uncertainty about how the computer is melded into it. On disc 3, Tim Hope is using 3D animation software to replicate a flat, cutout world in 1999's The Wolfman, working in concert with a delirious spoken-word narrative to provide a bizarre, hallucinatory experience. On disc 5, where all the films are from 2002 to 2003, digital fingerprints are all over everything. None of the films sport jaggies, but they're every bit as funny, poignant or surreal as anything hand-made on disc 1. From novelty to just another tool in eight years.

Other than that, each disc is what it should be: an approximately 90-minute collection of shorts with a wide variety of styles and subject matter that mostly happen to be, well, the best. And British, which is a key point. Film festival regulars are used to seeing an international cross-section of films (disc 1 alone includes fest favourites Ah Pook Is Here, Hilary and Triangle, all from 1994), but many of these are less well known outside of the circuit, such as the aforementioned Wolfman and award winners like Flatworld, Silence, Father and Daughter. Where else are you going to see these deservedly acclaimed films?

That's not to say there aren't misfires—aside from its colour scheme, How Mermaids Breed (2002) utterly failed to capture me, largely due to its uninspiring CGI, for instance—but overall, this is a fantastic collection of the cream of animation's crop over a span of eight years, and as such this is essential viewing.

The Best of the British Animation Awards, Vols. 1-5
The British Animation Awards
92 minutes per disc
Buy The Best of the British Animation Awards from the BAA website

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