September 8, 2007
One of SIGGRAPH's (many) hidden gems is the collection of digitally animated shorts from the previous Japan Media Arts Festival. Hidden because in the middle of the constantly repeating Animation Theater, the 90 minutes or so of selected Japan Media Arts Festival shorts are each shown exactly once, across three half-hour programs. However, those screenings represent just a slice of all the films shown during the nine days of the festival. (For that matter, films are just one part of the fest, which includes manga, artwork and installations.)

A case in point is that the two films lodged most firmly in my brain were in the festival's Entertainment Division, and both are rooted in live action. In Tadashi Tsukagoshi's Arrow, a man notices that the cigarette butts he's extinguished under his shoe form an arrow, which points straight to a procession of ants marching... in the shape of an arrow. Digital trickery (as well as creative prop placement and hair gel) creates the procession of pointers that the man follows first out of curiosity, then out of dark compulsion.

Koichiro Tsujikawa's dreamy music video to Cornelius's "Fit Song" spends its entire time in the confines of a house, where CGI brings everyday items to a strange sort of life. Strange because aside from a few objects (most amusingly, a discus-throwing action figure and a top-heavy, ambulatory magnifying glass), almost none are anthropomorphized—and many replicate themselves with more of an eye to what looks good and, above all, what works with the music, rather than any strict adherence to physics. I'm a lifelong puzzler, so I was delighted to see a ball of matches explode into a floating array of early 20th-century Japanese matchstick puzzles, some of which solved themselves as the camera floated by. And is it just me, or is the rolling (and, yes, self-reproducing) sugar cubes' initial dance a nod to Norman McLaren's 1964 film, Canon?

The Entertainment Division did have some fully animated works, however. Satoshi Tomioka's Exit online ads for Taito are frantic and deliriously absurd, both involving noisy and chaotic chase scenes with characters looking for a way out of predicaments they've brought on themselves. (A naked man with a bored, negligée-clad girl in tow flees a woman—her mother? his wife?—down a hotel corridor; a cat tries to liberate a fish from the dinner table of an elderly couple. Oddly enough, in both cases the pursuers have glowing laser eyes and preternatural abilities.) Every time I watch these one-minute ads I think about the buckets of money companies like Dreamworks spend trying to make 3D CGI more cartoony, while smaller studios just sit down and do it—sometimes with better results.

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