July 2, 2009
The entire lineup looks promising at the Fantasia film festival this year, running from July 9 to 29. While fps focuses on animation, Fantasia (the largest event of its kind in North America) is a combination of the best cult film worldwide, and has an impressive lineup of film of all types, including live-action and animated horror, action, fantasy, science fiction, weird and edgy films.

As I said, we like to stick with animation around here, but I have to mention this year's opening film, even though it's got (gasp) real people in it.

This year's opening film is the live-action feature Yatterman that began life as a manga in the 70s, which shortly after became an anime series (that was recently updated in 2008).
This is the part where we usually begin a lament (but not always). Definitely not this time!

The director is the irreverent Takashi Miike who made films such as Audition and Sukiyaki Western Django. To me this is more reason to see it. However, if viewers are worried about how he would do an all-ages film, I point to the fantastic film The Great Yokai War, which featured his signature style, but also was a wonderful film for younger viewers.

I think this film will be the type of fare which is best watched with an enthusiastic audience, in the same way that the live-action version of Cutey Honey (directed by animator Hideako Anno) wowed audiences just a few years ago.

The full Fantasia lineup will be available on Friday, July 3.

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August 5, 2008

Yoshitaka Amano completists will want to hit Right Stuf or Amazon to preorder Yume Juma, aka Ten Nights of Dreams, an anthology of strange and wonderful shorts based on the short-story collection by Soseki Natsume. Amano's short is, of course, dreamy, with his signature elfin characters flowing through some borderline-gaudy CGI.

(Though the rest of the movie isn't animated, it's certainly worth watching. One of my top picks from last year's Fantasia festival, I consider it a perfect example of why I love movies in the first place.)

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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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April 15, 2008

Just 15 months after Kodansha and Production I.G. kissed and made up over optioning Ghost in the Shell, they've found a taker: DreamWorks, who released Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence in North American cinemas under their GoFish banner in 2005, has acquired the rights to make a live-action, 3D version of the property.

While I think Ghost in the Shell is a great selection for a 3D film, I can't say I'm particularly enthusiastic about the news. I'm generally not a fan of live-action remakes of animated shows or comics; overall, there have been more misses than hits. More to the point, the recent spate of rights acquisitions for anime (or anime-like)-to-Hollywood live-action adaptations (Robotech, Akira, Avatar: The Last Airbender—have I missed anything?) reminds me of the old maxim that in Hollywood no one wants to be first, but everyone wants to be second. Speed Racer is due to hit cinemas in just a few weeks, and I've long had the sense that these acquisitions are a means of lining things up to ride an anticipated wave of anime-inspired movies, in the same way Spider-Man and X-Men helped launch a wave of comic-inspired movies.

One thing I won't do, however, is claim that Spielberg (or any of the other directors/producers working on adapted anime works) will somehow "ruin" the original. Gimme a break—that's like saying a bad date will ruin your memory of your first kiss.

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October 12, 2007
Le Festival du Nouveau Cinéma is known for its wolf that adorns its publicity materials. The fest has a track called Les P'tits Loups or, in English, Little Wolves, with programming geared towards children, and only two shorts in that entire track are live-action. The selections will definitely be of interest to parents and guardians, and honestly, I think if you left the kids at home you might not notice.

The track begins on the morning of Saturday, October 13 with U, a feature from France that appears to be a fairy tale on the outside and is a coming of age story underneath it all, despite the unicorn and the castle. It deals with concepts of love and adolescence in a very disarming fashion.

Sunday, October 14 features an hour's worth of Komaneko: The Curious Cat shorts. I can't recommend this highly enough. Our heroine is the ultimate do-it-yourselfer and amateur auteur. This little stop-mo cat creates her own stop-motion shorts, makes her own props, sets and puppets, and can be found outside filming her surroundings. One of her partners in crime is a little cat who builds robots and fixes mechanical objects.
Kids take away a great lesson, and the shorts, although suitable for children as young as 3, can entertain someone in their 50s just as easily. The shorts are well-crafted, include engaging characters and they have a simple, but coherent story. In Japan, it is distributed by Geneon Entertainment. It's too bad that they'll no longer be distributing DVDs in North America. I hope that someone else distributes them here. For now, you can get them at Yesasia.

For a more diverse selection, Sunday, October 21 features the various shorts, mostly animated, including the hilarious Isabelle au Bois Dormant/Sleeping Betty from Claude Cloutier at the NFB. If the festival's selection doesn't get local kids interested in film and animation, I'm not sure what will.

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October 8, 2007
For any new filmmaker, getting that first movie in the can is a monumental task. Add a demanding script and a predilection for toggling between animation and live action and you’re really talking about a challenging debut effort. With his recently premiered film Imagination, Eric Leiser has assembled a surprisingly ambitious project that complements his animation skills, but he’s generally let down by his actors, who are desiccant to the film’s sea of imagery.

Imagination steps into the surreal world of twin sisters Anna and Sarah Woodruff (Nikki and Jessi Haddad) who have confronted their disabilities by turning inward to their own imaginations and shared alternate reality. One girl has been rendered blind; the other has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism characterized by difficulty interacting and socializing with others. The girls’ well intentioned but ill-equipped parents (Travis Poelle and Courtney Sanford) seek the aid of neuropsychologist Dr. Reineger (Edmund Gildersleeve) to chart a path to normalcy through the twins’ mental shroud.

The girls’ behavior becomes increasingly difficult for their parents to comprehend. Their food transcends the dinner plate to become living sculpture, and the girls play games in intricate, frenetic patterns that only minds in lockstep could achieve. Faced with the twins’ increasingly apparent and unexplainable abilities to defy accepted science and medical knowledge, Dr. Reineger is consumed with a profound professional crisis. He cannot effectively treat the girls, nor can he decode the bewildering world they have built for themselves within their minds.

The film’s real strength lies in its animation. Leiser’s whimsical but intricate method recalls Czech surrealism and charts a brave experimental path, though he’s not quite ready to stand on the podium with Jan Svankmajer. Nonetheless, Leiser’s multifaceted abilities are put to great use in Imagination’s engaging animated segments. His stop motion and puppetry work is spellbinding at times. Leiser also has some raw ability as a filmmaker beyond his wheelhouse of animation and sculpture, but Imagination’s live action portions are less appealing.

With the exception of a solid effort by Gildersleeve, the cast sleepwalks through its lines, nearly negating Leiser’s efforts to move Imagination’s narrative forward through force of artistic will. The effect makes an already challenging film even less forgiving of its audience. While acting is the primary offender, there are other weak points as well. Prominent plot devices (like the earthquake) come off as contrived, with camera work to match, but you have to admire the pluck Leiser shows in taking on thorny cinematic tricks with a $110,000 budget and limited experience. A lovely musical score by Leiser’s brother Jeffrey, who also co-wrote the script, helps mask the lapses and seals the duo’s status as a formidable creative pair. Imagination’s animation and ambitious script are enough to carry it through a successful run on the festival circuit, which will hopefully lead to more projects from this promising duo.

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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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January 21, 2007
According to the Anime News Network, Ghost in the Shell may be coming live and in three dimensions to a theater near you in the next few years. Kodansha and Production I.G. have come to a new understanding, and their fresh contractual agreement allows Production I.G. to stand up for Kodansha's interests when optioning the licence for a Hollywood film.

With the success of Death Note: The Last Name in Japan, more licence holders may be wanting to adapt their anime and manga titles for live-action media. There has certainly been buzz to that effect in the past: Evangelion was once the subject of live-action musing by WETA, James Cameron once wanted to do Battle Angel Alita, and the American Sci-Fi Channel once had plans to adapt Witch Hunter Robin for the small screen. None of these projects ever made it to fruition, and fans may be smart to take a moment and breathe before wondering if a live-action GITS will be tomorrow's Aeon Flux.

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January 9, 2007
This article states that M. Night Shyamalan, most famous for his direction of The Sixth Sense, will be bringing Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender to the big screen in a live-action adaptation.

Shyamalan will write, direct and produce the live-action adaptation for Paramount Pictures' MTV Films and Nick Movies. They hope it will turn into a three-picture series with Shyamalan's continuing involvement.

There is no mention of when we can expect said adaptation, but the buzz on AMRC-L is already negative.


September 13, 2006
The first in a series of six presentations on Thursday launches the new season of animation programming at le Cinémathèque québécoise. Producer and critic Marcel Jean has programmed selections to promote the discussion surrounding those moments captured on film when the wall between animation and live action erode.

The retrospective "Quand le cinema d'animation rencontre le vivant" (translated as "When Animation Meets the Living") was presented earlier this year at Annecy by Jean, who will be present at all of this fall's screenings, and the companion book of the same name is now available as well. The official launch occurs this Thursday, too.

Event details (in French)

September 14: Vanités et nature mortes (Vanity and Still Lives)
September 21: La tentation surréelle (The Surreal Temptation)
September 27: Hybrides et mutants (Hybrids and Mutants)
September 28: Les Soubresauts du temps (Marks in Time)
October 5: De l'humain et de la technologie (The Human and Technological Element)
October 12: L'insoutenable étrangeté (Unbearable Strangeness)

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September 10, 2006
For the longest time, I've felt that animation's relationship to live action has not been a healthy one. Which is why the French-language Quand le cinéma d'animation rencontre le vivant, which looks at this relationship in a new light, is so vital. Edited and mostly written by writer and National Film Board of Canada producer Marcel Jean, the book serves as a companion to his series of retrospectives bearing the same name.

Read the entire review

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August 11, 2006
I haven't seen A Scanner Darkly yet and I wasn't as keen on Monster House as most, but I appreciate both movies for one thing: they've once again reopened the debate on rotoscoping and motion capture ("Satan's rotoscope," according to some) and their relationship to animation. There were several spirited discussions on the subject during SIGGRAPH this year, including one during a lunch with two PC World editors who weren't animation fans.

I've often thought that the debate—among animators, at any rate—is spurred by the notion that rotoscoping and motion capture are a kind of cheating, since the animation performance isn't created from whole cloth. But after a week of discussion, I've come to the conclusion that the real crux of the matter is that rotoscoping offends our notion of animation's unreality. It goes hand in hand with the question, "If you can film it in live-action, why animate it?" as well as the seeming paradox of animated documentaries.

Little did I know that Marcel Jean has been giving this debate, in a more comprehensive form, serious thought. In fact, he curated a six-part retrospective called "Quand le cinéma d'animation rencontre le vivant" ("When Animation Meets the Living") at the Annecy festival earlier this year. Each part was organized around a particular theme, featuring shorts from as far back as 1907 (James Stuart Blackton's The Haunted Hotel) to as recent as last year (Rosto's Jona/Tomberry and Chris Cunningham's Rubber Johnny)—illustrating how many of these "new" issues in animation that test the boundaries of real and unreal have been around since the medium's inception.

If you weren't able to make it to Annecy, you've got a second chance at catching this fascinating retrospective; the Cinémathèque québécoise will be running the retrospective from September 14 to October 12. The six programs are "Vanités et natures mortes" ("Vanity and Still Lives"; September 14), "La Tentation surréelle" ("The Surreal Temptation"; September 21), "Hybrides et mutants" ("Hybrids and Mutants"; September 27), "Les Soubresauts du temps" ("Marks in Time"; September 28), "De l'humain et de la technologie" ("The Human and Technological Element"; October 5) and "L'insoutenable étrangeté" ("Unbearable Strangeness"; October 12). For a complete program listing, check out the Cinémathèque's website; you can search the listings of upcoming programs here.

The retrospective will also be the occasion of a book launch: Marcel Jean's Quand le cinéma d'animation rencontre le vivant, a collection of twelve essays and interviews exploring the same themes as the retrospective. More details on that later.

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February 19, 2006

Unless you get around on the festival circuit or live somewhere neat like New York or LA, it can be kind of difficult to see the five animation shorts that are nominated for an Oscar in the same year as they come out. If something you're interested in doesn't win, then it might be even harder to finally see that film you heard is a "must-see."

That's why Magnolia Pictures successfully brokering a distribution deal for this year's live action and animated nomations for Oscar shorts is welcome news.

You'll be able to see it on the big screen if you live in New York (in addition to the other screening we mentioned), San Francisco, Detroit, Berkeley, Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, Austin and Portland. More screens will be added, so if you live in these cities, do the rest of us a favour and go see it! That will increase the chances for the rest of us to get it in our cities, if not this year, then maybe the next.

The other corporate name in the deal is Shorts International, owners of the largest short film catalogue. The Magnolia/Shorts International lovefest means that viewers will soon be able to see these films on the UK short film channel ShortsTV, also available on the Three and Orange wireless phone networks, Mark Cuban's HDNet and on DVD.

There's no release date yet for the DVD, but I can't wait.


February 8, 2006
If you're in New York City near the end of the month and want to properly handicap your office Oscar betting pool, then you'll want to stop by Academy Theater at Lighthouse International (111 East 59th Street, between Park and Lexington avenues) on Saturday, February 25. At noon and at 4:00 p.m., they'll be screening all ten Oscar-nominated short films in the Animated and Live Action categories. Admission is $3 for Academy members, $5 for the rest of us poor slobs. You can reserve tickets by calling 888-778-7575.

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June 29, 2005
Hmmm. According to an article in today's (well, tomorrow's) Mainichi Daily News, former Montreal Expos player Warren Cromartie is suing the Japanese distributor of the live-action adaptation of Cromartie High School. The name isn't a coincidence; all the schools in the series are named after Major League ball players who have since come to Japan).

Cromartie says the film slurs his name. I guess he hasn't seen the manga or its other adaptation, the Cromartie High School anime.

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February 15, 2005
I've always been wary of live-action adaptations of animated shows, because it's so easy to misfire. So when I was recently shown the trailer for a live-action Tetsujin 28 (aka Gigantor) I was less than enthused. Besides, after seeing the live-action Cutey Honey last year, it's clear the bar has been set higher.

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October 10, 2004
Catching up on the news, I just discovered that Rene Laloux's Fantastic Planet is slated to be remade as a live-action movie. Um, why?


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