May 26, 2009

The Sky Crawlers (122 mins, 2008 - Blu-ray released May 26, 2009)

I would never count myself among the legion of Mamoru Oshii fans. In fact, I find Ghost in the Shell a hard slog, tough to sit through. Like watching water boil.

All right, I’m exaggerating here. Oshii never fails to deliver beautiful moments and thrilling action in his films but in order to uncover the candy he forces you to suffer the interminable plastic wrapping of verbose philosophical monologues, pretentious classical quotations and ham-fisted expository detail. I’m happy to say that his latest animated film, The Sky Crawlers manages to side step these complications. For the most part.

Read more after the jump:

The Sky Crawlers paints itself as a story about war. It leads you to believe you’re in for one hell of an airplane ride but while director Oshii delivers the occasional immaculately rendered, viscerally engaging dogfight - single and dual propeller CGI vehicles tearing through the computer-rendered sky and each other with dizzying speed and intensity - he’s less interested in action and more keen on theme and concepts. Adapted from Hiroshi Mori’s novels of the same name, The Sky Crawlers follows a group of eternally adolescent pilots into the skies as they struggle to understand the meaning of the corporate war they wage. The mysteries of the other-dimensional Europe of the film are revealed through the eyes of Yuichi, a ‘Kildren’ pilot with a missing past and a deepening relationship with the girl who holds the key to it - his self-destructive young airbase commander, Suito. As is par for the course with Oshii, we come to know the characters less through action or dialogue and more through their expression of the thematic concepts at hand - in this case, broadly, youth and war. But for once, this doesn’t get in the way of the film. Though moving at the pace of fanciful poetry, The Sky Crawlers remains inventive and engaging throughout, punctuating long stretches of haunting silence or ponderous exchanges with breathtaking images, lightning flashes of action and stirring music by Kenji Kawai.

The Blu-ray disc looks and sounds tremendous. I can’t heap enough praise on Sony for their work with animated features. These guys really seem to know what they’re doing. The transfer is immaculate, three-dimensional and electric on the screen, with the 2-D, cell animated scenes on the ground as clean and vibrant as the CGI aerial dogfights. The intense audio work by Skywalker Sound is some of the most realistic and present I’ve ever experienced in an animated film and immaculately represented here in Dolby TrueHD 5.1.

The Sky Crawlers Blu-ray disc includes three documentary shorts, each a candid look at the creation of the film and each worth your time. “Animation Research for The Sky Crawlers” (30:52) follows Oshii and his team all over the world as they photoggraph, sketch and record all the visual details required to build the alternate-universe European setting of the film. “The Sound Design and Animation of the Sky Crawlers” (32:16) takes Oshii to San Francisco and Skywalker Sound, giving insight into the critical nature of the film’s sound effects and music to the overall experience. Exclusive to the Blu-ray disc is the 15 minute featurette, “Sky’s the Limit: An Interview with Director Mamoru Oshii”, a sit-down conversation with the director that reveals his intentions for the film and the thought process that ushered the book to script and finally to screen.

Read more about The Sky Crawlers in Madeline Ashby's excellent review of the film for fps: TIFF 08: The Sky Crawlers

The Sky Crawlers is available for $22.99 on - 34% off the MSRP of $34.95

Via: The Blu-ray Blog

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March 14, 2009

Eric Powell's been working hard to bring his amazing comic book, The Goon to the big screen. Quint over at Ain' was lucky enough to score an early first look at some of the stills from the CGI film from Blur Studio, produced by David Fincher (Seven, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Click on over for more details and high-res images!

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November 21, 2008

Another day, another trailer! This first look at Tezuka's little robot boy in CGI form isn't really filling me with glee. Combine the fact that it all looks somehow wrong (Astro Boy's clothes don't scream manga/anime icon to me) with the lacklustre showing of Imagi's big-screen CGI TMNT debut last year and you can colour me concerned.

If the YouTube version above isn't floating your boat, maybe the HD streams at will satisfy.

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For the first time in a long time, I saw a Disney film and missed the publicity hype preceding it. Except for some of the recent commentary scanned on Cartoon Brew (a testament to my level of Busy; this blog is a pleasure in life that you need to take your time to read), I managed not to see any web banners, marquee posters, or newspaper, radio or television ads.

At a much earlier time, I read of the changes to the stewardship of the Bolt in the wake of restructuring changes at the Walt Disney Animation Studios. I knew from the Brewmasters' reports that the film had changed markedly from its original vision, but I hadn't really thought about it lately.

But time had passed, and Bolt was not really on my mind as the studio was gearing up for the film. I managed to side-step the Disney hype machine this one time. So I'm writing this based entirely on my impressions of what I saw in the cinema on Wednesday.

Bolt is a winner.

There are tons of laughs in the film, but you don't feel like you're having your buttons pushed, and the dialogue is really snappy, but not in the way I find a lot of mainstream animation features tend to do it - lots of pop culture references, "aren't we clever" one-offs that get dated quickly. The lines are truly clever and fit the characters' perfectly.

Also, it's no secret that I'm not a fan of stunt-casting. The celebrity voice talent do their job well and don't get in my way of enjoying the film. They make their characters more believable and serve characters, not the other way around.

I did see the trailer for this film just this morning, and I must say I'm glad I went into without any preconceptions. As a result, the opening scene was more thrilling and taut than I think it would have been if I knew what was coming.

This is a fairly conventional Disney family feature, but I don't mean that in a bad way. Yes, it's safe. But it doesn't draw away from the fact that the film is engaging, the timing and pacing are dead-on, and the character animation is above-average. I can't help but wonder how much further the character animation could have been pushed if it were hand-drawn. Like Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda, there is a point where the animation style changes and I wonder, why does all digital animation that touts the CG label feel it has to be hyper-realistic? However, I don't really spend much time on it because I thought that the animation I was watching was well-done.

Speaking of techniques,
I did watch this film in 3D (as well as trailers for Blue Sky's next Ice Age instalment, and Pixar's Up), and as much as I get annoyed by reading reviews that solely focus on a new technique or "gimmick" I liked the use of 3D in the film (as well as the trailers) because they all finally got something right. Unlike Beowulf, I never felt like the whole point of making Bolt was so we could watch it in 3D. Instead of setting up shots so that the viewer would get the feeling of things being moved toward them, the enhancement was used to convey a feeling of depth. There was very little effort made to break the fourth wall. Instead, the screen was the boundary for the actors on a stage.

The next Disney feature regardless of technique better be good, because a lot of viewers will be disappointed if it doesn't entertain as much as Bolt.

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September 24, 2008

Frequent fps contributor, René Walling and I rolled into Ottawa from Montreal fairly late on Friday night, both disappointed to have missed out on The New Wave Of Japanese Animation that had screened at 7pm that evening. Our options limited, we set ourselves toward the Empire Cinema across the street from our shared Novotel room, where we had quickly shed our luggage. We were just in time to catch a screening of one of the films in the running for best feature of the fest: a little independent CG number called, Terra.

Terra sets itself up as an alien invasion tale turned on its head. Happy little, sentient tadpole people float blissfully through their naive lives in a Miyazaki film/Flight GN inspired world of flying whale-things, gliders and airships until the fateful day when a "god" appears in the sky. The god turns out to be a giant, spinning spaceship carrying an invasion force of humans, desperate to take the planet as their new home. Amidst an explosive torrent of sci-fi action and Planet of the Apes riffing revelation, we follow fishy, doe-eyed Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) through a step-by-step Campbell-style "Hero Journey" to fulfill her destiny and save her people from extinction. To its credit, the film manages to throw enough plot and character curve balls to keep the structure from being too cookie-cutter familiar but rarely ascends beyond anything more than a simple story twist, illustrated with a collection of elements cobbled together from an animation fan's nerd-moist-dreams.

Read more after the jump:

Which leads me to question who the audience is for this film? It lacks the depth that adults require of character pieces like Ghibli's Only Yesterday or the internal consistency of the better sci-fi/fantasies like Ghost in the Shell or Macross (the filmmakers never manage to bridge the gap between the fantasy-science of the tadpole Terrans and the real-worldish science of the humans). We're constantly asked to suspend belief beyond reasonable realms (Mala is able to, within minutes, build an atmospheric containment chamber large enough to house a grown adult spaceman) while being led by the nose from plot point to plot point, all the while suffering a perpetual head-clubbing by the hammer of the films "message". There isn't much subtlety in Terra. Is that because it's made to appeal to children? I can't say for certain that my eight-year-old nephew would care for it either (This review would have been so much easier to write if he'd been with me!) The pseudo-science concepts that much of the plot hinges upon may be too technical for youngsters to grasp, keeping them at arms length from the main thrust of the narrative. Add to that a potentially inappropriate level of violence and death and Terra becomes a film that my sister might not appreciate having screened for her little boy.

For what it's worth, the full-length movie from artist/director Aristomenis Tsirbas is a minor triumph in that the quality of the Maya (character animation), LightWave 3D (modeling, texturing, lighting, rendering) and Modo (additional modeling, bridging) animation is such that it can compete at the box-office with larger studio films. Both design work and animation quality are uneven (humans have a distinct and well designed Pixar style to their faces and a completely flat and formless shape to their body and dress) but not so offensive that children or less discriminating adults will take notice. The combination of the inconsistent writing and animation was certainly distracting enough to pull me out of the feature at times but I felt that I might have been in the minority in the theatre. After all, it won the Grand Prize for Best Animated Feature at the fest.

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August 16, 2008

Another odd little parallel shared by some of the award-winning animation shorts in the Japan Media Arts Festival: three of them had to do with birthdays—after a fashion.

My least favourite of the trio was also the longest: Hiromasa Horie's Love Rollercoaster unfortunately has nothing to do with the Ohio Players song, but is instead about a cutesy young bear cub named John trying to solve the mystery of a mysterious birthday present left behind my his late mother. Involved in the search are his friends, and they soon drag in the creepy Lovegun, an eyeless, sharp-toothed green-skinned critter who lives half in and half out of a rocketship. I like the idea behind some of the characters (especially the pair of mischievous panda siblings), and the overall story idea is a solid one—the ending is particularly sweet. But the whole thing is killed by the execution.

As a clay animation fan it shouldn't bother me that a CGI film tries to emulate a plasticine look for its characters. And I've never had a problem with Japan's cult of kawaii. But whenever the characters talk or scrunch their eyes, their skin wrinkles and folds in an a way that quickly renders them uncute. I'm sure John's initial concept drawings were very cute, but his textured skin, along with the bags under his eyes and all that wrinkliness just made me ill. Throw in excessive camera movement, the same kind of needless bobbing and weaving that bothered me in Skyland, and a half-hour–plus running time, and, well... let's just say that sometimes I watch these things so you don't have to.

(As an aside, I should mention that Love Rollercoaster is one of several projects generated from a Japanese talent incubator called Anime Innovation Tokyo. I'd rather have seen just about anything else their creators have put together.)

The much shorter, lo-fi Ushi-nichi (or, as the English titles say, Happy Birthday) is pretty much Love Rollercoaster's exact opposite. Created with pencil and paper (complete with smudges) by Hiroko Ichinose, the nine-minute short features a motley crew of characters each going through their own machinations. A man stands in the desert waiting to hitch a ride, but turns down almost everyone who stops for him; a man wakes up every morning transformed in some way (extra-long arms, a huge 'fro) and cheerily skips to the employment office to find new work based on his condition; a woman starts eating pieces of her pet giraffe, mindless of the transformations it causes to her own body. Everything comes together in a whimsical denouement. Deep meaning? Who cares? The jittery, rough and utterly charming style makes the whole film a pleasure.

Meanwhile, Toshiaki Hanzaki's Birthday puts another spin on the word, relating the evolution of life on Earth from one-celled organisms to man and, it seems, beyond. Working mostly with silhouetted forms, it's slicker than Ushi-nichi, but it is, if anything, more whimsical, with its portrayal of a giant fanged asteroid killing the dinosaurs and aliens accelerating our evolution. (It's also in the opposite direction of Hanzaki's earlier Birds, my favourite of the Digital Content Association of Japan's 2005 Digital Creators Competition's award-winning works.) Finally, at about a minute and a half, it's more compact. It gets where it needs to go, and then ends. Brevity really is the soul of wit.

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One of the pleasures of film festivals, whether you're watching them or organizing them, is in discovering unintended themes in the films. Sometimes it's inevitable, such as when social or political issues are on everyone's mind, but these are so unsurprising as to almost be banal. It's the small, quirky and sometimes trivial themes that are the most interesting to discover, and this year's award-winning short animation offerings from the Japan Media Arts Festival has a few worth mentioning.

One thing I look forward to in any compilation is when people take a backward step, especially when it comes to CGI. There's such a tendency to lard on the detail, be it photorealistic or natural-media or whatever, that few make the deliberate choice to step back and pare things down.

This year three films made a point of dialing down the detail, each in different ways. Youhei Murakoshi's Blockman goes the furthest. The viewer peers through a telescope to a strange world where everything is made up of identically sized cubes. Some are black, most are white, some make larger blocks, and some of the larger blocks have faces, courtesy of dots or lines on individual blocks. The curious lifeforms walk, fly, float, combine and come apart in a variety of ways, with the telescope lazily floating from one vista to another. The effect is similar to that of the even more minimalist Dice—an earlier Japan Media Arts Festival honoree—but perhaps more mesmerizing.

Sejiro Kubo, Ichiro Tanida and Katsunori Aoki collaborated on Copet, a series of shorts starring a cast of animals that are all straight lines and simple curves, plugged together like deranged Lego. At first glance it's appallingly cute, but little touches like camera shake and nifty bits of business (like a gorilla who repeatedly shivers himself out of a stupor) are at odds with the simplistic motion, and the tension works. But what really kept my attention were the bits that didn't follow the simple-is-better formula, like an erupting volcano, a meteor streaking toward Earth and water that looks, well, watery. The characters' occcasional forays into the live-action world, along with incomprehensible but still amusing storylines were also bonuses. If you can read Japanese you can check out the Copet website, which goes into the shorts' world in considerable depth and pimps Copet merch, including a DVD.

Hiroshi Chida's Boneheads was produced by Polygon Pictures, which I mention because it shares a certain aesthetic sensibility with Polygon's Polygon Family shorts, in which the characters' blockiness is celebrated, rather than smoothed and textured to death. But Polygon Family is mostly monochrome, whereas Boneheads' colour pops with Day-Glo intensity. The latter's characters are also ever so slightly asymmetrical, which just makes them kookier.

Moreover, where Polygon Family's animated used the anime and fighting videogame idioms, Boneheads is pure, non-stop Tex Avery-style mania (it's running time of seven minutes makes it even more reminiscent of a Golden Age cartoon). Roccos and Bone are two primitive creatures fighting over bananas—between themselves, and between other critters who get wind of the tasty fruit (or them). The whole thing is really just an escalating chase scene, but as every Blues Brothers fan knows, that's not really a bad thing. Radar Cartoons reps Polygon in the U.S., and Boneheads was produced for Viacom, so here's hoping that it pops up on our screens soon.

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August 14, 2008
Film festival venues can be overwhelming and conference venues can be overwhelming, but when you combine them... well, the experience hovers somewhat above the horizon. That said, here are some tidbits:

1. Much discussion, several panels, and two full days of screenings of stereoscopic (3D) films, commercials, sports events, games and scientific visualizations on the first day of the conference. 3D is the agenda for 21st-century digital releases. I took in the two-hour screening of 3D clips and then heard fine artist and installation/performance artist Catherine Owens speak about collaborating with Bono on the 3D film of U2's concert in Buenos Aires. She spoke convincingly about "experimental" exploration and commitment to "idea" in relationship to her personal art, as well as in relationship to her directorial debut of the film U2 3D.

2. The Computer Animation Festival is programmed into seven two-hour screenings that most often repeat the commercials, trailers, and synopses of film titles submitted. For example, Rhythm and Hues showcased effects scenes of the polar bears in "The Golden Compass" and that is screened alongside the commercial from Bridgestone Tires many have seen of the squirrel running onto the highway to retrieve a nut as a car swerves to miss killing him. The festival is screening two impressive studio shorts worth mentioning here: Pixar Studios' Presto and Disney Studios' Glago's Guest. If you've seen WALL-E you've seen Presto before the feature screens.

3) A wonderful Tribute To Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas happened today with Tom Sito moderating a panel that included Frank Thomas' son, Theodore Thomas, documentary filmmaker, as well as a group of celebrity animators who had worked with the two of them in a mentor relationship. All of them delightfully shared their experiences with Frank and Ollie and were very well received. More on this later.

A closing note in case you don't want to wait: you may go online to read about all the sessions at SIGGRAPH 08 and can listen to them on DVD. All panels and discussions have been recorded are available for purchase.

I have constantly forgotten the number one rule for attending film festivals and conferences: find a place to sit, eat well and if you do this, thinking might follow! That said, I will return to report more soon, in spite of the L.A. smog my allergies are swimming in...

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August 8, 2008
Normally around this time I'd be gearing up for the annual SIGGRAPH conference; in fact, if things had gone as planned I'd already be in Los Angeles right now. But a number of things about SIGGRAPH and the way we're covering it are different, and I figured I should pass this information on to you.

A little over a year ago, I was selected to be the chair of SIGGRAPH's Computer Animation Festival. My first order of business was to restructure the festival, which was then divided between the theatrically screened Electronic Theater and the constantly running Animation Theater. The idea was to provide a new structure that kept the spirit of SIGGRAPH while more closely resembling a traditional animation festival.

Working out the overall framework and ideology was about as far as I got before the precursors to my leukemia started to hit in November. I'd started working out a few details here and there about the jurying process with my director, but that was about it.

Back during the initial meetings, I was concerned about how Frames Per Second was going to cover SIGGRAPH. After all, we'd been covering the conference since our days as a print magazine (I believe our first report was in 1996), but there was the issue of conflict of interest. I ended up sitting down with the people responsible for SIGGRAPH's media relations, and we worked out a solution that we're going to follow even though I ultimately participated far less in the process than intended.

This year our SIGGRAPH coverage will be handled by Janeann Dill (who wrote up a SIGGRAPH festival report with me back in 2005), but utterly independent of me. That is, nothing she writes about is discussed with me beforehand, and I won't be editing any of her blog posts, even for things like typos. (Any editing will be handled by Kino Kid.) In short, no editorial intereference from the guy who was on the inside. Janeann's posts will be as fresh to me as they are to you, and I anticipate enjoying them just as much as any other reader, as well.

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August 4, 2008

More Clones! More Wars! More Clips from Clone Wars!!! I can't get them to play yet (I'm sure it's not the fault of the site. I need to stop trying to stream video while writing in cafes) but I anxiously await the opportunity to be teased by more animated clone massacre footage. Bring it on!


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July 30, 2008
Amid Amidi of Cartoon Brew and Harry McCracken of Harry-Go-Round have both commented on the San Diego Comic Con preview of footage from Up and Bolt. Take a look at this teaser for Up.

Original Video- More videos at TinyPic

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July 16, 2008

Montreal is home to the world's largest comedy festival, Just For Laughs. The festival's annual live action and animated Eat My Shorts program begins today and continues until July 18. Among the animated offerings are John and Karen and Lapsus (pictured above) two recent shorts I enjoyed.

Space Chimps, a CG feature by the Vanguard in the UK and Starz Animation in Canada, will also be previewed tonight.

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June 27, 2008

I hate it—I mean, really hate it—that whenever an animated feature is reviewed, writers feel compelled to mention whether or not kids would like it. It's a testament to the fact that, regardless of what the individual writers, editors or publishers feel, the public at large still can't process the idea that adults might want to watch animated features for themselves.

Past responses to this prejudice have included making films that are most definitely not for children, making films that are mainly for kids but include nod-and-wink throwaway gags for adults, and making films that kids and adults can enjoy equally. These have worked to varying degrees, but they all carry with them a fairly standard idea of what children will watch and enjoy.

WALL-E is a bit different in this regard, because it expands the idea of what kids will find entertaining. When Cast Away was released eight years ago, a big deal was made of the fact that there was no dialogue for almost half the movie (in the literal sense; Tom Hanks's character did speak, but no one answered). A similar fuss is being made over the lack of dialogue in WALL-E, but the unspoken question is, will kids be able to sit still for a 103-minute film where the main characters rarely speak?

From the reactions of the kids in the audience (especially the ones in the row right behind me) on Wednesday night, the answer is yes. And in the same way that Tom Hanks's acting was credited for making the dialogue-free parts of Cast Away so compelling, the Pixar animators must be given props for the remarkable acting in WALL-E.

With one exception, none of the many robot characters in the movie can truly speak, and the two that do (WALL-E and EVE) pretty much only say their names, each other's names, and the word "directive." That means that every robot character has to rely on rigid bodies and eyes (or eye surrogates) to communicate and express emotion. Interestingly, WALL-E himself is among the least flexible of the movie's robots; he has treads instead of feet, a pair of rigid mechanical viewfinders instead of an eye-mimicking LED display, and unbendable arms with three flat "fingers" at the end.

In sum, the movie has to be carried by characters that can't speak and are all limited compared to human bodies, and the main character is in some ways the most limited. And it works, thanks to Pixar's careful application of animation's twin traditions of pantomime and bringing inanimate objects to life. There are several references in WALL-E to A113, an in-joke that refers to CalArts's old character animation classroom. In few other films is that gag as relevant as it is in WALL-E; the movie is such an accomplished expression of the pre-digital yet universal art of conveying emotion and story purely through movement that when human characters show up and start talking, they seem clumsy and inelegant in comparison.

So, yes, kids will like WALL-E, as will adults. And we have the art of animation to thank for that.

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June 5, 2008

There are a few things I didn't like about Kung Fu Panda.

First, I couldn't take all the fat jokes. Actually, not the fat jokes per se, but one line ("I eat when I'm nervous") adds a subtext to some of them. In the funny-animal world of Kung Fu Panda, it kind of makes sense that everyone would make fun of title character Po, as he's the only rotund character around, while being somewhat graceless and easily tired despite his designation as the prophesied Dragon Warrior. The problem is, that one sentence (and one the end of a later scene) ratifies some of the stereotypes surrounding real-life overweight people by suggesting that he eats so much due to a lack of control (i.e., it's his fault he's fat; weight becomes a character issue). But he's a panda. Of course he's round, and of course he eats a lot. It's like criticizing a frog for eating flies. The movie could have played out the same way without that element.

Second, when Po wistfully looks off in the distance at the film's opening because he dreams of being more than a noodle cook—exactly like in every other animated feature in which our frustrated hero yearns for something more than his or her dreary life—I wanted to scream and throw something at the screen. Enough, already!

And yet, much to my surprise, I enjoyed the rest of the movie. I say "To my surprise" because I'd barely gotten out of the lobby after Bee Movie when I realized I was sick of DreamWorks' apparently endless formula of using wisecracking New York humour. Same with the earlier Madagascar, where they were often joking about New York. It's a bad sign when side characters (the penguins) uspstage everyone else.

Ah, but Kung Fu Panda doesn't do that. It is a period piece, more or less, with all of the characters firmly entrenched in a village in China, much as in any live-action kung fu movie. And while much of the humour is verbal, it's equally physical, sometimes at the same time. In fact, for all of the brouhaha about Madagascar's cartooniness, I'd say Kung Fu Panda comes closest in practice to the Looney Tunes comedy aesthetic; that is, in making the timing and snappiness of the drawings as important as the timing and snappiness of the jokes, balancing quiet with loud, broad with subtle, and seen with unseen. Mix that in with crackling action scenes that can get laughs without sacrificing tension, and you've got—surprise!—an enjoyable animated comedy.

As much as I enjoyed it, though, I'm a little disappointed. The introductory scene, which is a tight bit of stylized hand-drawn animation, was so well done I was let down when we got to the CGI. As much as I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda as it was, I'd really like to see the movie they were hinting at.

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May 9, 2008

I'm generally not a fan of live-action adaptations of animated TV shows, because they almost always disappoint. The problems usually start with the choices the filmmakers make in order to get animated (or animated-looking) characters into a live action universe. The Flintstones had fake-looking rock sets; Alvin and the Chipmunks and Scooby Doo had CGI critters in an otherwise realistic universe; Fat Albert had the TV characters coming to life in the real world.

In Speed Racer, the Wachowskis do what none of the creators of these other films had the will to do: they created a cohesive universe in which all of the elements in any given frame look like they belong together. In the process, they also highlight something that's been missing from mainstream animation for quite some time.

As I was sitting in the cinema watching Speed Racer, it occurred to me that I already knew how most journalists were going to describe the movie's look. Some would say that it looks like a video game, or that it's anime come to life. They're dead wrong. Outside of some race scenes the movie looks nothing like any video game you've actually played, and outside of a few Akira-like shots and a nod to the original series opener, it looks nothing like any anime you've ever seen. Really, these are just phrases that reviewers use when they want to say that there are lots of things moving around very fast, or that have bright-coloured, futuristic-looking elements.

In a strange way, however, they're also right. Speed Racer, like many video games, demands that its viewers process a lot of visual information at once. Like anime, it stylizes motion in a way that isn't entirely realistic but is believable within its own reality.

If anything, Speed Racer's filmic cues come from green-screen/digital-set movies like the most recent Star Wars trilogy and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, along with shorts that feature heavily processed and manipulated live action, like Gaëlle Denis' City Paradise. But the Wachowskis' real inspiration here is manga. This doesn't just apply to the racing scenes, but to just about anything set outside of the Racer family home. Take a look at these images, and pay special attention to how they put the focus on certain foreground objects or characters and use the backgrounds to denote movement, atmosphere and mood. These compositions are pure manga:

Better still are the transitions, in which the camera moves around a foreground character's head and the backgrounds change to show scenes either as a transition or as a flashback to the past. Some of these scenes are multi-layered, including audio from both the current time and place and the location or time being referenced. There's even one scene where one character tells Speed about about something that will happen in the future; as the camera whirls around Speed, the background shifts to show scenes that highlight what the other character is saying—and eventually we discover this isn't speculation, but what actually happens in the future. The whole sequence interleaves the present moment and flash-forwards, kind of like an episode of Lost on, well, speed. (Lazy journalists will look at all this and make references to audience members with short attention spans or ADD; the truth is, you really have to pay attention if you want to follow it all.)

I'm just scratching the surface here. All in all, Speed Racer is a visual effects spectacle that doesn't reserve its inventiveness for eye-candy money shots; rather, it's a carefully constructed, dynamic reality that is unlike anything seen on the big screen. All of which brings me to the question I kept asking myself when I left the cinema: why haven't I seen anything like this in feature animation for so long?

It's a cliché these days to say that effects-heavy summer movies are cartoon-like, and there's some truth to that. But it's also true that live-action movies have, through the heavy use of CGI, taken animation's "anything can happen here" mentality and run with it. Meanwhile, feature animation has largely concerned itself with looking more realistic, obsessing over things like realistic fur and hair. Even those productions that aren't so fixated are, relatively speaking, conservative. I've very much enjoyed Pixar's films, but when you get right down to it they mostly fit into a niche best described as "Talking ____s," with the blank filled in by toys, bugs, fish, rats or what have you. The Incredibles was an exciting departure, but so far the new direction that it signalled appears to be a dead end.

Where's the wow? Where's that moment when you jump up in your seat, excited because you've been shown something you've never seen before? Speed Racer provides that in spades, but in feature animation it's been sorely lacking. I remember seeing Tron in 1983, Akira in 1988 and Mind Game in 2005 and each time feeling like someone had redefined what was possible in animated cinema because I was being shown things I hadn't seen before. I've had that same feeling many times over since then, but when it comes to animation it's generally been in OAVs, shorts and—much to my surprise—television.

I'm all for the blurring of boundaries, but to me movies like Speed Racer indicate that feature animation is ceding ground to live action. Something is very wrong with this picture.

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May 4, 2008
It's not that hard to create a first-person rollercoaster animation using CGI—I knocked off a half-decent one shortly after I first picked up the Softimage|3D user guide. But it is tricky to come up with a good reason to create a first-person rollercoaster animation, and trickier still to pull it off well. I think this ad for the Zürich Chamber Orchestra succeeds on both counts.

[Thanks, Steve Bass.]

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April 10, 2008

You know what the most creative part of Bee Movie was? The animated of the closing credits. Alas, they're not to be found on SubmarineChannel's Forget the Film, Watch the Titles, but they're a perfect fit. The site is a collection of animated title sequences from movies as varied as Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, 3:19, Max Dugan Returns and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Each title sequence comes with commentary from the creators. The categories of Animation (which really means "non-digital"), Motion Graphics, Mixed Media and 3D aren't really necessary, except that they make it easy to follow the evolution of styles and techniques.

[Thanks, Brian Wells.]

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March 16, 2008

It's taken almost half a year, but I finally got the "Dance Off!' episode of the Spanish/British co-production Pocoyo on my PVR. I wasn't always a fan; for months I'd spotted the show on my satellite TV grid, but I never stopped to look at it. Then at last year's Ottawa fest I caught "Dance Off!" during the Kids Competition and—along with much of the rest of the audience—laughed my ass off.

During that half year, I recorded every episode of Pocoyo, hoping to find that episode. Since it repeats pretty frequently, that meant I was recording and skimming through three or four of the ten-minute episodes every day. It wasn't a hardship; Pocoyo is not only one of those rare kids' programs that adults can watch and genuinely enjoy, it's an animator's delight. Those two elements aren't unrelated; although Pocoyo is 3D CGI, it's animated somewhere in between UPA and anime. The character designs are simple and expressive; there's plenty of stylized motion and popping from pose to pose; and the characters have distinct body language. Since the show has minimal character dialogue (which, conveniently, makes it easy to translate to multiple languages), the animation has to carry the story. If you want to see what I mean, check out the trailer for the show's second season:

What kills me is that Dreamworks knocked themselves out to create cartoony CGI with Madagascar, and Disney did the same with Chicken Little, then both patted themselves on the back for all the time and effort and technology and research they poured into it. Meanwhile, a handful of animators working at small studios like Peter Lepeniotis (Surly Squirrel) and David Cantolla, Luis Gallego and Guillermo García (the creators of Pocoyo) just quietly and effectively nailed it.

Buy Pocoyo DVDs and more from
, or

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March 14, 2008
Review by René Walling

Horton Hears a Who!, Dr. Seuss' classic tale of an elephant discovering a town on a speck is a childhood favourite for many people. The sheer inventiveness and magic of his book has been translated to an animated film before, with Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) himself as producer. The question was, could the folks at Blue Sky expand a half-hour story into a feature without losing the magic in it? And could they do it without the author at the helm of the project?

Read the review

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March 13, 2008

The new Wall-E teaser trailer went up yesterday, and it's a good one. Oh, it doesn't tell us any more about the story than the previous teasers, but it does give us a little more about the title character's personality. (I still think the sad-eyes design is a bit of a cheat, but we'll see how it works out.) In fact, about a third of the QuickTime video has Wall-E interacting with Luxo, Jr. in front of the Pixar logo before there are any movie clips.

I haven't loved all of the Pixar trailers in the past, but when they get it right, it's perfect. remember the Toy Story teaser with Buzz "falling with style?" It told you everything you needed to know about the characters and set up Woody's animosity toward Buzz, didn't give away any plot points, and had you wanting to see the movie for reasons beyond the novelty of a feature-length CG film. I've never confirmed if Pixar cuts their own trailers, but I strongly suspect it; if more studios did that, I probably wouldn't spend the first fifteen minutes at the movies figuring out where to put my popcorn.

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December 19, 2007
The latest WALL-E trailer has been posted on MySpace.

Don't forget to visit the Buy N Large website, based on the film's fictional company.

Did I mention I love robots? I love robots.

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November 19, 2007
Review by Noell Wolfgram Evans

The recent release of The Pixar Short Film Collection Vol. 1 shows the studio's utter mastery of the animated form. Watching these pieces must be what it would have been like to watch Babe Ruth in his prime—you understood what he was doing but it was difficult to comprehend how he was doing it so well. All that you could do was sit back and enjoy. And that's really all that you can, and should, do with this short film set.

Read the review

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November 17, 2007
Beowulf is no monster, but animation fandom seems to be welcoming it as if it were Grendel itself.

Robert Zemeckis' latest feature foray into the world of motion-capture moviemaking comes correct, despite any aesthetic predispositions and prejudices. Professor Z and his uncanny CGI-Men have lost all of the "dead eyes", much of the plastic skin, and most of the lanky posturing that infested previous big-budget, Hollywood attempts at motion-captured semi realism (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Polar Express, Monster House).

Viewed in Disney 3-D with the oversized, specialized glasses (they fit over my small glasses), the effect is mixed, but mostly positive. Rapid foreground movement tends to appear blurry, but slower scenes crackle and pop with amazing detail. This isn't some chintzy Viewmaster effect. While humans sometimes appear flat, most objects (from pebbles and surging waves) have infinite depth. Even conventional, low-angle shots suck you in, before galloping horses trample over your head. The experience deserves at least one shot from any jaded moviegoer.

Beyond Beowulf's technical achievements is a far rarer achievement for North American animated features: It's a well-crafted, animated drama. With screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary brandishing their fine ears and pens to complement Zemeckis' cinematic sense, they bring brains and soul to this ancient story. The drama is less clumsy than Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and more coherent than either Paprika or Tekkonkinkreet. It also has sharper wit, meatier dialogue, and stronger performances than all of them.

The storytellers are earnest enough to tell the tale with genuine emotion, but generous enough to play to the back of the room. Gaiman and Avary respect grand pronouncements and bawdy interplay. Zemeckis respects playful camera work, dramatic pauses and silent exchanges. Someone on staff respects blood and buck-nakedness, so the PG-13 rating is bent with glee. Crafty craftsman that he is, Zemeckis ensures that impalings and other impolitic protrusions are artfully obscured. Grendel's brutal assaults in Act 1 are bathed in an otherworldly blue firelight that strobes just enough to blot out the more gruesome deaths. The camera hurtles through spears and arrows instead of the bodies they pierce. Some naughty bits are obscured by foreground objects. Others are obscured by gold trim and dark shadows.

Which leads me to mention that a functionally nude Angelina Jolie facsimile appears in the movie. She may not be a thick-lipped, thick-hipped Ralph Bakshi goddess (like Elenor from Wizards) but she'll do. To wit, Ray Winstone has a gruff, Russell Crowe alpha-maleness mojo going, but I don't think he'll make anyone forget about Gerard Butler's Leonidas from 300. Sorry, these supposedly sensual elements of the story aren't fantastically nebulous enough to be smokin'.

What the performers lack in physical hotness, they make up in emotional presence. Unlike Tom Hanks in Polar Express, the actors don't have to pantomime excessively to get the performance across. With surprising nuance, the best scenes feature tiny smirks, darting eyes, and pained brows. These are not the wax puppets that you see in most video games. (God of War certainly didn't have the patience to tell a story with this much deliberation and visual detail.) Without the brilliantly rendered facial contours, we might miss the visual subtleties of Robin Wright Penn's notable performance, for instance. When her aged queen converses with a young mistress, the subtext in her face could only be captured by the finest character animators. Even the hammier performances of Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich grow on you, leading to incisive interplay late in the film. Don't judge these animated figures based on the motion-captured aesthetic offenses committed by past films. Watch this film and make the distinction.

Think of Zemeckis as a student of the Fleischer school of mimetic action animation, having completed his prerequisite study in Rotscoping 202 and The Animated Short Films of Superman. He's the art major with a computer science concentration, so forgive his literalism and obsessive sense of static detail. If Disney can develop a better multiplane camera to emulate live-action dollies and zooms, then surely the Z-man shouldn't be garroted for employing his own form of hybridization.

Silicon Valley has not yet crossed over into the Uncanny Valley, but it's getting pretty darn close to the down slope with Beowulf.

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October 31, 2007
The best campfire stories are the ones that are meta—you know, the characters in the story talk about some folk legend and then end up living (but probably not living through) the tale themselves. So it is in Kakurenbo (2005), in which children play a late-night game of hide and seek in an old part of the city, specifically to test a legend about kids doing just that.

Wearing their fox masks—a requirement for the game—the kids quickly discover that the rumours of demons pursuing the players are true. Much like in Wicked City, the chase take place in an urban landscape, through buildings that appear to have all been abandoned. Unlike Wicked City, these demons don't wear suits. In fact, they're distinctly old-fashioned creatures out of Japanese folklore, some with accouterments straight out of previous centuries. As the children fall one by one, you get the feeling that this game has been played for a long, long time—so long that the children and the modern buildings they run through are the interlopers, not the monsters.

Kakurenbo is entirely 3D CGI, though all the characters are cel-shaded and the backgrounds are either painted or heavily textured. At the beginning of the movie, it's recommended that you watch it in the dark. This is true for the story's mood—all monster movies should be watched in the dark—but also aesthetically. Kakurenbo's colour palette is extremely dark, and its rich look only really becomes apparent when the lights are out.

As in many good ghost stories, the characters themselves are ciphers. We don't really know much about the eight kids—one is blustery, two are dangerous as hell, one is looking for his sister who disappeared during an earlier game—and we really don't need to. (The fox masks, which conveniently eliminate any need for facial animation, also help to keep us from getting to know the characters.) Even so, we're given just enough so that the end—which, like other meta ghost stories, serves to confirm the story the characters were relating—still sends a shiver down the spine.

Where to find it: On DVD at,, or Right Stuf

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My guests in this podcast are Betsy de Fries and Jerry van de Beek, who form the San Francisco Bay Area studio Little Fluffy Clouds. (And yes, they're named after the Orb song.) Little Fluffy Clouds has been in business since 1996, when the pair left the (Colossal) Pictures studio during its last days. The studio's been busily creating ads for a wide variety of clients since then.

Little Fluffy Clouds
Au Petite Mort
IBM: "Alignment"
Festival Watch: SIGGRAPH 2003
March 2006 issue of fps, featuring Little Fluffy Clouds' Today

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An animated Rorschach test is the backbone of one of three spots that Little Fluffy Clouds produced for Ogilvy's series of IBM commercials.

Little Fluffy Clouds
Trivers Myers Music

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October 29, 2007

A stream, a fisherman, a dragonfly, a fish: In Little Fluffy Clouds' Au Petite Mort (2003), these elements come together to evoke the waning days of summer, the circle of life, and just a little cruel irony.

Little Fluffy Clouds
Festival Watch: SIGGRAPH 2003

Image Credit: © Little Fluffy Clouds LLC

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September 21, 2007
(click to enlarge.)

The single largest digital animation-related event in Montreal this year is the ADAPT conference, which began last year with a bang. The conference (Monday, September 24 to Friday, September 28) focuses on digital art production techniques, including animation and game development. Some highlights this year include keynote speaker Phil Tippett, returning guest Syd Mead, and speakers from Pixar, Sony Imageworks, Dreamworks and Industrial Light and Magic, among others.

Those looking for work in concept design and animation will want to attend the ADAPT job fair and master classes.

If you're in Ottawa this year for the Ottawa International Animation Festival, you can get a reciprocal discount for each event. Check their sites for details.

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September 18, 2007
I've been watching Ben Steele's newly re-edited cut of Fragile Machine and looking forward to seeing how that crisp, eye-popping style will evolve in Steele's upcoming debut feature, Kitaru. Currently in pre-production, episode one of the planned trilogy looks promising. Not only do early images look great (see below), the film's likely to sound good too, with a score composed by Aoineko and performed by the Tiberian Sinfonietta and Choral Society.

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September 16, 2007
Country: Japan
Director: Sori (Fumihiko Sori)
Length: 110 minutes
Rating: 14A
Distributor: FUNimation

Watching Vexille is a lot like going on a date with that hot airhead from high school: five minutes in, you wonder what excited you so much to begin with.

Vexille is the story of Vexille Serra (or Serra Vexille, if you live in the West), a member of a UN Special Forces unit called S.W.O.R.D. that monitors the advance of robotics and cybernetics technologies. The year is 2077, and for ten years Japan has lived behind a veil of electro-magnetic cloaking, building up the Daiwa Corporation robotics empire and refusing to allow real communications or travel in or out. Now the world fears that Japan has developed an android capable of passing as a human being, in violation of the same international treaties that caused Japan to withdraw from the UN years ago. And you guessed it: they have, and only through a chain of explosions, pseudo-scientific explanations, and thunderous Paul Oakenfold club anthems can the world be saved from a Bodysnatchers-like plot of android replacement.

Vexille has serious problems that render it more suitable for a late-night pizza-and-beer DVD rental than a twenty-dollar film festival movie ticket. But it's not all bad: Fumihiko Sori was the visual effects director for Appleseed, and fans of that silken, motion-capture-against-digital-vistas style will not be disappointed. The environments, particularly the slums of Tokyo and the toothy, glittering expanse of Los Angeles, are lovely. Tiny details, like snowflakes hitting a windscreen or grit kicked up by a tire, are well done. And the mechanical designs are fabulous. The aforementioned Oakenfold soundtrack keeps pace with the action. And the actions scenes themselves are good -- Sori knows how to execute a chase scene, if not how to inject one with any tension or suspense.

From frame one, the film plays like a bid to the Bubble-era "Techno-Orientalist" anxieties that Toshiya Ueno attributed to the West. It's all there: the threat of individual humans being replaced by human automatons as a result of Japan's technological superiority, Japan's hubris eventually becoming its downfall, Japanese people nobly sacrificing themselves en masse so that their virus cannot spread... The trouble is that the Bubble popped years ago. America has other fears now in China and Iran. Vexille might be an acknowledgement of those fears, or a parody of them. And if the film were smarter, it could have worked as the latter.

But the film is not smart. Every interesting plot point (the replacement of world leaders with "bio-metal" androids, or the giant, metal-eating desert sandworms borrowed from Dune) gets dropped in favour of yet another chase scene. And the titular character, Vexille, is just plain boring. Although the audience is supposed to believe her as a member of an elite fighting force, she does not behave like a well-trained or functional soldier. Yes, she pilots a mechanized suit very well, but so does everyone else on her squad. She seems to have no special skills to bring to the table, and frequently screams at the camera, bemoaning the fate of androids and humans alike instead of doing something useful to help herself or others. After watching a younger, more capable, smarter heroine in Terra, seeing Vexille Serra scream, cry, and follow secondary characters around causes no small amount of yawns and eye-rolls. It's telling when a titular character's most interesting plot development is learning via flashback that her boyfriend was in love with someone else ten years ago.

I saw only four films this Festival, but the other three audiences were loads more enthusiastic than this one. They laughed. They cheered. They held their breath. At the end of Vexille, the audience stood up and filed out quietly, more inspired by the need to find the night's last subway than the film they'd just seen. If you're an anime fan and you want good news from this year's Toronto International Festival, listen to this: Takeshi Miike and Quentin Tarantino are anime fans, and they've worked together on a live-action film called Sukiyaki Western Django. It's violent, funny, and plays like a lusciously-coloured manga flip-book. And there are anime in-jokes. Do yourself a favour, and wait for it instead.

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September 14, 2007
Country: Canada
Director: Aristomenis Tsirbas
Running Time: 85 minutes
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson, Brian Cox, David Cross, Amanda Peet, Dennis Quaid, Rosanna Arquette, and James Garner

Today I saw Terra at the Toronto International Film Festival. My screening was packed, and I was lucky enough to attend a Q&A with the director. Tsirbas is a Montreal native, and remarked that premiering his first feature film at TIFF was a "moving and rewarding experience." There has been serious buzz about Terra, and after attending the film I learnt why.

Terra is the story of Mala, a young Terrian (a peaceful, art-loving, techno-wary race who resemble cute tadpoles) whose passion for designing and constructing gadgets makes her something of a misfit at school and home. One day, Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) and her friend Sen notice a mysterious alien ship. When it deploys several smaller ships, one of them crashes and Mala finds Lieutenant Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson) of the Earth Forces after he emerges from the wreckage. With the help of his robot Giddy (David Cross), she builds him an oxygen-friendly environment and learns his language. After the Earth Forces take Terra's father as a "test subject," Mala agrees to help Jim repair his ship if he takes her to the human mothership, known as the Ark, so that she can rescue him. Naturally, it all goes terribly wrong, and soon Mala and Jim are embroiled in a struggle for the planet Terra: Earth Forces military want to terraform Terra and render it uninhabitable for the native Terrians, and the Terrians must confront their warlike past in order to defend themselves.

Terra is not for everyone. It is not for neo-conservatives, although they would probably benefit most from seeing it. It is not for viewers who cannot stand violence in their animation. (Terra is very violent, but not graphic -- you'll see very little blood, but experience quite a lot of tension.) It is not for viewers who do not enjoy CGI, although the animation here is anything but the cheery plasticity of Cars. However, it is meant for people who enjoy great music, fast-paced action (including some fantastic aerial dogfights), and the sort of plot that Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks will never, ever create on their own. Although Tsirbas shied away from applying any sort of definitive moral to his story, Terra is already being discussed as an allegory for the Iraq War. Terra presents the sort of difficult moral world that Miyazaki fans will remember from Princess Mononoke. (But Mononoke does it better, thanks in part to a more eloquent script.)

Terra has a few other flaws. The character designs are somewhat at odds with the environmental and mechanical ones. The humans in particular look as though they have all been stamped from the same mould, which is partially a product of military costume: flight suits and shaved heads. One notable exception is the villainous General Hemmer, whose face one audience member called "copied from George W. Bush." In addition, there are the usual scientific errors that populate most film-based science-fiction: Terra is supposed to be a helium atmosphere, and at certain moments Jim's respirator helps him metabolize it into oxygen. And the script is not particularly witty -- instead it evokes feeling mostly through high-pressure situations and the grace of good actors.

That said, Terra is probably leaps and bounds more unique than most animated feature films due out this year, and it has a good shot at distribution. The kids at my screening had a great time, and the popcorn-munching died down quickly. During the final sequences, I could hear every tiny rustle in the seats -- the film held everyone's attention in a tight grip. I hope you all get a chance to see it, and decide for yourselves what the story's message is.

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Ever since I first discovered CG-Arts and the Japan Media Arts Festival, I've been delighted to find that every year the festival features at least one short that looks and feels unlike any film I've ever seen—my criterion for an excellent film fest. This year one of the most striking was Tomonori Hayase's Mix a Miniascape.

Set to music by Jumpei Yamada, Hayase's film uses Adobe Photoshop and After Effects to create a funky, unusual Tokyo travelogue. Hayase took hundreds, if not thousands, of photos of people, places and thing as he passed by them, or they passed him. He then assembled the images into a collage, animating his travels through the city by erasing the image of, say, a building piece by piece at the same time as the next image of the same building is being built piece by piece. The effect is of moving through a fractured urban landscape, propelled by Yamada's breakbeats while navigating periods of both chaos and calm.

While Mix a Miniascape was an example of something new, there were also some nice reprises. Tochka Factory's Pikapika made its Japan Media Arts Festival debut—if you haven't already heard about this literally brilliant short, you should read my earlier praise—and Hikaru Yamakawa followed up last year's Oh Hisse (itself a followup to the previous year's Tope Con Giro) with La Magistral.

In Oh Hisse, Yamakawa presented a surreal world in which hundreds of faceless schoolboys marched in increasingly outlandish geometric processions, to the utter disregard of a man sitting on a bench and three schoolgirls talking among themselves. Oh Hisse's hypnotic appeal lay in its minimalist colour palette (black, white, a few shades of grey and spots of red), the mannequin-like quality of its characters, and its rhythmic and only vaguely natural movement. In La Magistral, Yamakawa explores the same concepts, but opens things up a little bit. The range of colours has expanded to include blues, greens and browns, as seven nearly identical men in grey tracksuits ride unicycles along a slender beam, observed on by swaying figures in coloured tracksuits, all of whom have spheres, cubes and cones for heads, and often casually defying gravity.

Not only does La Magistral have more colour than its predecessor, it also has a more dynamic cameral and yet, it's just as mesmerizing. Another distinction, however, is that Yamakawa decided to give La Magistral an actual ending—one that induces a chuckle, maybe, but otherwise doesn't offer much.

A more compelling film, however, was also perhaps more modest, at least in its tone. Naked Youth is directed by Kojiro Shishido, who coincidentally composed the music for La Magistral. As the film starts, a young man emerges from a school's shower stall. His towel falls, and just as he pulls it back up someone steps out of another stall. The two wordlessly face each other, and the camera cuts away to another scene. We soon see the boys training together and learn that they're members of a boxing team. There's little in the way of linear narrative here; the camera lingers with equal summer laziness on the sunlit trees and blue skies in their Japanese suburb, the mundane scenes of road trips, and the boys' vigorous exercise and practice regimen.

And then there's that shower scene, which appears and disappears like a metronome tick, four times throughout the film. Like the rest of Naked Youth, the scene is wordless and features just the right sounds to establish a sense of place and mood. But that mood is ambiguous, and increasingly charged with tentative eroticism whenever the boys face each other.

Are there clues to their relationship in other scenes? The boys sometimes work out together, sometimes alone; and they look away from each other as often as not. When one of them changes out of his shorts next to the boxing ring—a seemingly common occurrence, as no one really pays him any mind—is the other boy looking at him, or you know, looking at him? The delight of Naked Youth is that it obeys the maxim of "show, don't tell," but it doesn't go out of its way to show everything, either. Subtlety is king here, and the audience still has to work to figure out what it can.

From the standpoint of technique, Naked Youth presents its story in a way that seems very traditional, and yet unconventional. It's hand-drawn in what we consider the anime style, though its characters are perhaps a little less streamlined and a little more detailed—closer, one might say, to more of a manga style. The animation direction also favours a look and feel that's less flat than most commercial anime. Athletic scenes feature a moving, "handheld" camera, with figures looking more as if they're moving through three-dimensional space, with little of the exaggeration that's common in anime. Much of this look is a result of strikingly stylized integration of 3D computer animation, hand-drawn animation and beautiful lighting and texturing effects.

Shishido gives Naked Youth space to breathe by providing many moments of figurative, if not literal, silence, in which nothing more happens than, say, the team waiting out a summer downpour or sunlight filtering through the trees as crickets chirp. Of course, these kinds of moments aren't new to anime; for decades, this appreciation of stillness has been part of the medium's appeal. But in Naked Youth these scenes are even more engaging, as Shishido uses light CGI touches and careful audio work to effectively place the viewer in the scene. That downpour, for example, is pretty convincing, and while one nightttime scene is a just a little CGI-flashy—since when do moths flitting around a street light cast such stark shadows?—it beautifully conveys that feeling of being out alone on a quiet summer night.

It's films like Naked Youth that put the lie to the sentiment that animation must necessarily be simple, childish, or fantastic in subject matter; the complicated yet simple Naked Youth's exploration of a slice of adolescent life could well have been told in live action, but it would have been all the poorer for it.

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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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August 28, 2007
Whenever I go to SIGGRAPH, I juggle my professional obligations with my personal interests and some sort of committee activity. This year was no different (and neither is next year); as a juror for the Sketches & Posters committee, I chaired one of the Sketches sessions on the last day of the conference—a session called "Looking Good," which featured two presentations related to anime.

For the uninitiated, a quick primer: Sketches & Posters are two ways of presenting innovative ideas in a quicker and less formal way than academic papers or full-blown exhibits. A typical Sketch presentation is about 15 to 20 minutes, including audience Q&A.

Shigeo Morishima and Shigeru Kuriyama, of Waseda University and Toyohashi University of Technology, respectively, presented "Data-Driven Efficient Production of Cartoon Character Animation," which sounds a lot drier than it is. Their presentation focused mostly on a motion capture system they've developed called MoCaToon; secondarily, they spoke about AniFace, a lip-sync application that detects phonemes and automatically assigns mouth shapes at the right frames.

Like I said, it sounds dry. But here's the thing: The key difference between MoCaToon and other motion capture systems is that the team—Morishima and Kuriyama are part of a ground of five—are working not to make anime more realistic, but to take real-world motion data and make it more anime-like. The question they're asking is, how can they figure out what data to throw out or simplify in order to preserve the anime aesthetic, while meeting their ultimate goal of making anime production more efficient?

As a test, the team reshot a sequence from the hand-drawn Galaxy Railways in cel-shaded CG, using the original soundtrack. In so doing, they cut the original production time of 32 days down to 28.

The results were mixed, which is to be expected as the system is still in its early stages. There were, however, more than a few glimpses of the potential it holds. While I thought the tight and medium shots of the distraught lovers didn't gain a thing from MoCaToon, I appreciated how a complicated action scene was easier to put together. In both cases, though, there was obviously work to be done in streamlining the motion further.

(There is some irony here. Despite their stated goal to try to keep the anime flavour, using AniFace—that is, giving anime characters accurate lip sync—is actually pretty jarring.)

The other presentation was by OLM Digital's Yosuke Katsura, who along with Ken Anjyo has developed a lens shader (i.e., a means of modifying the camera view in 3D software) that skews real-world perspective in order to make it more anime-like. Think of the forced perspectives that you see in action or panoramic shots and you'll get the idea; Katsura demonstrated one aspect of the shader with a car racing down a road away from the camera, but vanishing into infinity at the horizon for a less realistic but more dramatic effect. He also spent time on the more subtle perspective tweaks that are used in background and overhead shots that aren't technically accurate, but better reinforce a sense of scale or place. It's the same way that an artist might "cheat" a drawing to make it less physically accurate but more emotionally resonant.

While watching these presentations (and—full disclaimer—while jurying the submissions) I found myself thinking of the CGI Appleseed, which for all of its shininess lacked the visual snap that hand-drawn anime offers precisely because it stuck too close to a literal model of its 3D world. It's ironic that these three scientists are working so hard at preserving the artistic unreality that makes anime—heck, all animation—so appealing.

Update (10/15): I forgot to mention that I got in touch with Shigeru Kuriyama, who has generously created a Web page for MoCaToon, including Flash animation demos. You can see examples of his work here.

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