July 20, 2009

Imagine if your TV was hijacked by aliens with a sense of humour who wanted to give you a taste of the completely bat-shit weird-o things that they saw while conducting experiments in channel surfing to better observe our planet’s strange idiosyncrasies. Rather than ask for the remote from their spiney green hands, you sit back and enjoy the show. The Razzle Dazzle Zappin’ Party show curated by Quebec-based multimedia artist DJ XL5.

Consisting of short films, music videos and animated snippets, DJ XL5's shows always entertain and never disappoint. I still have visions of the KISS video he played flashing through my head and I can’t take a shower without expecting Gene Simmons head to pop his head past my shower curtain.

As for the animation clips featured in this year’s show, they were plentiful and wild and included such treats as Canadian David Baas’ Skylight which presented the perils of global warming using a very Aardman Studios vs. Gary Larson’s Far Side approach. (Spoiler alert – global warming results in everything becoming a cooked turkey.) Lone Sausage Productions (creators of the infamous Dr. Tran) returned to this year’s festival with two new shorts: 100% Ice and The Furious Little Cinnamon Bun. Completely bonkers material folks. Watch at your own discretion!

Simon Tofield’s mischievous cat came back in the adorable TV Dinner:

Aussie Dave Carter had several of his randy and wickedly bizarre stop-motion clips from the Psychotown series featured and won many snickers and guffaws from the crowd. Other laughs were generated by Éric Lavoie’s repurposing of the printed comic book pages of Batman’s Wedding accompanied by the backdrop of the 1960’s French version of the record of the same name. (Spoiler alert #2 - Robin is very disappointed by these nuptials.)

Patrick Boivin had several stop motion clips added to the repertoire including Condoms Are Bad?

Like many of the 700 others that packed the theatre, I was shocked, amused and amazed by the hallucinatory clips that the renowned DJ XL5 mixed together and tossed out for us to enjoy. It takes true talent to evoke a wide range of feelings en masse and DJ XL5 consistently gets it right. Bravo!

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July 18, 2009
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to see Tokyo OnlyPic 2008 at the Fantasia Film festival.

Tokyo OnlyPic 2008 comprises a selection of the series of both live-action and animation segments of fictional sports events, and I'm using "sports" in the loosest sense of the word. This film is strange, at times awkward, and always funny. I highly recommend it.

Some of the animated events include the CG-animated Men's Independence, in which men hurl their mothers in a discus-like throw (trust me, it works, you'll be laughing as you think, "This is soooo wrong"), and Bill Plympton's Love Race, in which female celebrity of Paris Hilton proportions is chased around the stadium track by runners who happen to also be world-class at winning a material girl's heart.

That was a trailer for 1000-character SMS Texting, but here's one for the Home Athlon short, which doesn't appear in the selection shown at Fantasia, in case you don't want a spoiler.

Tokyo OnlyPic 2008 shows again on Sunday, July 19th at 2:15 p.m., right after Evangelion 1.0.

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July 6, 2009
In addition to the opening film and animation highlights revealed by the 2009 Fantasia festival, the rest of the films do not merely round out the animation portion of programming. These selections reflect some of the more interesting selections of on the cinematic edge.

The features, in addition to Genius Party Beyond, Hells, and Les Lascars:
  • Edison and Leo, the first Canadian stop-motion feature, is described as a "surprising chunk of steampunk fun, a revisionist, retro science-fiction thriller with a zesty dash of decidedly adult gags." OK, I'm in.
  • anime features Eureka Seven and Evangelion 1.0
The shorts, in addition to those in Tokyo OnlyPic 2008, Celluloid Experiments 2009, DJ XL5's Razzle Dazzle Zappin' Party:
Also of note:
Bon festival!

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July 2, 2009

The full Fantasia 2009 lineup will be announced soon, but here are some of the animation highlights of North American's largest cult film festival, right in fps's home base of Montreal.

I'm excited about Genius Party Beyond, Studio 4C's companion to Genius Party, shown last year at the festival.

Hells Angels is a Madhouse production with a star crew behind this manga adaptation. Cencoroll is a shorter take that seems quite intriguing. Seems equally intriguing, but with a more sedate, less over-the-top storytelling style.

The feature Les Lascars is based on the French cult show of the same name and should go over well with the boisterous festival crowd (if you've not yet made it to a Fantasia festival screening, the involvement of the audience is worth the price of the ticket alone).

Tokyo Onlypic 2008 looks like it will be a side-splitter. It's an anthology of animated and live-action shorts describing outrageous Olympic-style events. Check out Bill Plympton's Race For Love in the trailer.

DJ XL5's Razzle Dazzle Zappin' Party promises another year or crazily juxtaposed shorts (many animated) simulating the channel-changing experience... to the power of ten.

Celluloid Experiments always features edgy animation selections in its roster. I doubt this year will be any different.

You'll be able to view the full schedule online and procure a printed festival program with a DVD full of trailers on Friday. Hope you can survive the wait!

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June 22, 2009
The Snowman, Street of Crocodiles, Girls Night Out, Creature Comforts, Screen Play, Bob’s Birthday, The Man With the Beautiful Eyes, City Paradise, Rabbit: A truncated litany of some of the brilliant shorts that since the mid-1980’s have defined British animation the world over, and are jaw-droppingly impressive. What they, and the unlisted others, share apart from their creative potency is, perversely enough, an institution. A government mandated, uniquely funded institution that luckily for all of us was peopled by passionate souls who cared about art and diversity (writ large), and who actively contrived to put money and resources into the hands of the most talented, fecund creators they could uncover. No, not the NFB (but thanks for thinking of us) Britain’s Channel 4 – or Channel Four, more correctly – television network.

In British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor, Clare Kitson, Channel 4’s commissioning editor for animation throughout the 1990s, has written a humane and intimate history of the ups and downs of animation at the Channel, leavening it with just the right amount of dry wit, personal insight and anecdote. The book is a deft balance between an academic tome offering historical context and background and an eye-opening guide to anyone interested in the many behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings that go on to actually get these kinds of films made and-most importantly in Channel 4’s case-on to air.

As an NFB producer, the themes that resonated for me (both for the echoes and the dissonances) are Kitson’s perspective as a commissioning editor rather than a producer, and the Channel’s intrinsic ability (and sometimes inability) to get things onto TV screens around the UK. While these are not mass audiences by most standards, they are certainly much larger audiences than short animation otherwise gets on broadcast television – if our films get onto television at all. Such a luxury, but as Kitson points out also such a curse, was each season’s scheduling matrix even for a broadcaster so committed to diversities of topic, technique and running length.

The Channel 4 Factor is valuable history. But as memoir about what Kitson likes and why, it’s revealing and fun, and already well exceeds the price of admission. The middle section, in particular, reveals the makings of several of the Channel’s most famous films from her own unique vantage point along with the filmmakers’ own tellings of the tale. It’s as a sociological dissection of how such an organization came about, almost from whole cloth, where Clare hits her stride. As a case study, Kitson offers up much of the recipe for success that created and sustained both Channel 4 and the NFB. Indeed, parallels to the NFB regularly caused me pleasant surprise. Compressed in active years, Channel 4’s animation history is like the NFB’s but accordioned into itself three times over.

I suspect many producers see commissioning editors as mercurial demagogues, unaware of real work of filmmaking and blithely changing objectives and mandates from season to season. Kitson quite effectively put that myth to rest. She reveals the very passionate people who created an ethos committed to being background players. Producers boosted artists by giving them money to make films, but more importantly by creating a culture that was willing to take big risks on small films. Here’s the original job posting for Channel 4 commissioning editors:

Television production experience may be an advantage but is not essential. Whether your passion is angling or cooking, fringe theatre, rock, politics, philosophy or religion, if you believe you can spot a good idea and help others realise it on the screen, we are lo
oking for commissioning editors and would like to hear from you.

Clearly, the early, passionate years of Channel 4 were driven by both by its unique mission and by strength of personality and will of its editors and executives. What kind of society is predisposed to permitting such a creature to be born, and more importantly, to live and thrive? Is it peculiar to Anglo-Saxon socialism, which would also explain the NFB?

Kitson writes about diversity and minority remits (but not just about skin colour or ethnicity or orientation) and cultural big thinkers who believed in social change and art as the change tool. She admires a 1980s UK society and a handful of faithful who were ready to lift and be lifted to a new plateau of humanity and criticality, of engagement and responsibility. While not of the same soaring oratory and historic portent of Barack Obama’s presidency, Channel 4 changed the game. I wonder if Mr. Obama might see PBS and the NEA anew were he to read The Channel 4 Factor. I suspect he already carries those convictions or ones quite similar, but I’m quite certain he’d enjoy the animation education he’d get from Kitson's caring and insightful writing.

Of course, there’s no telling what the success-to-fail ratio was for Channel 4’s roster, much as it’s hard to know for the NFB
unless one is dogged and inclined to statistics. There’s a chance many animators are like me and prone to apocrypha rather than evidence. Although I do think it’s absolutely true that reputations are built on equal parts evidence and belief, and it’s only when belief has no tangible, recent success to riff on that paper lions are revealed and fairly scrutinized. The ratios may have dipped a bit in recent years, but Kitson leaves us with hope for British animation by the book’s end, and it’s a hope I share in all my various capacities within the animation shorts world.

We always need a secular, art-centric “city upon a hill” that challenges and binds us. There are precious few such institutions left, but Clare Kitson has given valuable clues and insights in how to go forth and multiply.

Michael Fukushima is a producer in the National Film Board of Canada’s Animation Studio, apparently with a bit of closeted anglophilia.

Where To Get It

British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor, by Clare Kitson published by University of Indiana Press (North America) and Parliament Hill Publishing (UK).

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April 29, 2009
To pay homage the generous donation of former Cinematheque quebecoise director Robert Daudelin's exceptional collection of Jazz vinyl records and periodicals to the Phonotheque quebecoise, the Cinematheque will be screening some musical animation gems.

Some of the shorts, notably Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs and Tin Pan Alley Cats are controversial for what many (including myself) consider racist imagery, which was the norm for the dominant popular culture of the day. What many of these shorts also have is unparalleled animation with an incredible sountrack and unparalelled timing.

This screening also features a new 35mm print of The Greatest Man in Siam, newly acquired by the Cinematheque.

Catch it on Thursday, April 30 at 6:30 p.m., but if you miss it, you get a second chance on May 14.

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February 27, 2009

Spring break is here and it is time for Festival international de films pour enfants de Montreal (FIFEM) once again. The opening film from France, Mia et le Migou is far from the only animated selection this year, but it is definitely an interesting one. The film's director is Jacques-Remy Girerd, the producer of Tragic Story with Happy Ending and Hungu (recently featured in the NFB Screening Room) and director of delightful La prophétie des grenouilles (Raining Cats and Frogs). Mia was released in France last year, and is proving to be a hit with families.

Another animated feature that recently received accolades, Nocturna, a 2007 feature from Spain, is also screening. In all there are five animated features to keep the kids and their animation-friendly parents interested.

fps favourites Komaneko and Ludovic are back in the Mini-cinephiles program track, geared toward animation for children as young as 2 or 3. Komaneko is a stop-motion cat, who likes to make stop-motion films. Ludovic is a little teddy bear whose educational and inventive tales are also told using stop-motion animation, directed by Co Hoedeman, Oscar winner for the short, Sand Castle. The Ludovic television series is a follow-up to the Four Seasons in the Life of Ludovic shorts.

Even more shorts will screen before feature films, including Konstantin Bronzit's Oscar-nominated short, A Lavatory Lovestory.

Do it for the kids... er, les enfants... all fillms will be screening in French or with French subtitles.

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January 28, 2009

For those who missed last year's Ottawa International Animation Festival or who simply can't wait for this year's edition, the Best of the Ottawa 2008 is coming soon to Montreal's Cinema du Parc as well as other selected venues.

Films included in the program include A Letter to Colleen and the Mixy Tapes, The Comic that Frenches your Mind, Run Wrake's The Control Master and OIAF Grand Prize winner Chainsaw.

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December 10, 2008
Today is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

An animated declaration from Human Rights Action Center:

As evidenced by recent films like Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir, animation does not shy away from issues of politics and personhood. This more abstract embodiment of the declaration is from Amnesty International and, like the first short, has a hypnotic soundtrack and an important message:


December 4, 2008
Whoa! Christmas shows up early for Montreal animation lovers. This year's Sommets du cinema d'animation de Montreal (Montreal Animation Summit) literally explodes this year, with an expanded lineup, including exhibits and great guests.

As in recent years, Marco de Blois, animation curator at the Cinematheque quebecoise, has gathered some of the year's best animated shorts in two programs screening on Friday and Saturday. This year, the audience gets to vote on their favourite and award a public prize to the best director.

This is just the beginning. This weekend includes a program of the notable international student films from 2006, 2007, and 2008; the best recent Canadian animation; and a free screening of Acme Filmworks and Animation World Network's The Show of Shows, presented by Ron Diamond.

I'm not done yet: A major restrospective, Du praxinoscope au cellulo (From Praxinoscope to Cel), is divided into three programs, two of them specifically targeted to include younger viewers. This film series focuses on the evolution of French moving images, and touches on drawings, marionettes, and pin, cell, cut-out, mixed media, and computer animation. This is an extraordinary chance to see shorts by Emile Cohl, Ladislaw Starevich, and Paul Grimault, among others.

Now get a load of these prices.
Free 0–5 years accompanied by an adult
Free Show of Shows
$4 6–15 years
$6 students and seniors
$7 adults
$50 CinéSommets passport, all-access pass

For the full schedule, including parties and concurrent exhibits, download the PDF program.

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November 1, 2008

I first saw The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in 2005 during the short film competition on Saturday night. I remember that particular program was exceptional, but this short was the most remarkable of the lot for me. It appeals to several biases: it has both a steampunk and a gothic horror motif; the story has excellent pacing and takes it time, but ropes you in; and it looks gorgeous, using a silhouette animation style reminiscent of Lotte Reiniger, but refined for our times with motion graphics and digital compositing.

This short, directed by Anthony Lucas, is supposed to be the first of a trilogy. Last week, the distributor Monster Distributes put the entire short up on Youtube and quite deservedly, it is one of the featured shorts in the Youtube Screening Room. Perhaps the short will gain new fans, hastening the next installment.

As if this weekend wasn't creepy enough. Check this out.

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The Animation Show wraps up at the end of the month. If you checked the tour's website, you may think you missed the Montreal leg, but it actually began yesterday and runs until November 6th. Use the Cinema du Parc's schedule for the correct showtimes. If you missed it in your city, or saw it and liked it, stay tuned to the official website or console yourself with The Animation Show Vol. 3 DVD.

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October 22, 2008
FlutterChez Madame Poule

The National Film Board is getting an early start on World Animation Day festivities and is turning the party out well after. From October 24 to November 12, Canadians in 13 cities will be able to enjoy free screenings of the Get Animated! series to celebrate World Animation Day (October 28).

Get Animated! features one program of ten new works (including Theodor Ushev's Drux Flux and George Schwizgebel's Retouches) and a second of ten children's animation shorts (including Claude Cloutier's Sleeping Betty, and shorts from Hothouse 4 participants Carla Coma and Jody Kramer). Many of the cities will include complementary screenings and workshops in addition to these programs.

Two short are available at the event site. Just click a graphic above to view Howie Shia's Flutter (top) or Tali's At Home With Mrs. Hen.

Thanks, Matt and Jody!

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October 16, 2008

Independent animator Bill Plympton's feature Idiots and Angels will be screened this Saturday at the 2008 Toronto After Dark genre film festival, running from October 17th to 24th.

Plympton's 2007 short, Shut-Eye Hotel, will also be shown on Sunday as a part of the Shorts After Dark program, which also features Michael Langan's Doxology, and includes an even split of live-action and animation shorts.

Previously on fps
Bill Plympton

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October 14, 2008

The Cinematheque Quebecoise will be screening a retrospective of George Schwizgebel's shorts on Wednesday, October 15th at 6:30 p.m with the animator present. You can also catch an exhibition of his paintings there, which runs until November 9th.

I've included a clip of Jeu, one of the films those in attendance will get to see in addition to Schwizgebel's latest film Retouches, which is among one of my favourite shorts viewed at this year's Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Previously on fps
Jeu: George Schwizgebel's Games Without Frontiers

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September 24, 2008
Hot on the heels of the Ottawa International Animation Festival, the Cinematheque quebecoise is offering a festival highlight in Montreal. Jonas Odell's retrospective, Revolver Bang! Bang! will be shown on September 24th, and it repeats on September 26.

I've provided a loose translation of Marco de Blois's description on the CQ website.

In 1981 in Stockholm, three students who loved illustration and animation formed a studio they named Filmtecknarna. Initially, Jonas Odell, Lars Ohlson and Stig Bergqvist dedicated their activities to production and direction of short auteur films. But a few years later, a new opportunity presented itself for the directors. Private television stations in Sweden had a demand for content that the studio worked to satisfy. Therefore, the founders threw themselves into the direction of television animation, commercials and music videos, as well as returning periodically to short films.

Imprinting an incomparable stylistic cohesiveness to their productions, Filmtecknarna attained international reknown. When one has clients, for example, like Ikea, BMW, U2 and Franz Ferdinand, one can meaningfully consider one's notoriety.

Another key moment in Filmtecknarna's history occurred in 1993 when festivals the world over attacked by an unidentified object, Revolver, which brought together the three founders and Martti Ekstrand. Even today it exerts a fascination the holds the spectator: this strange black and white film, made with looped movements and evoking the aesthetic of Muybridge and the Fleischer brothers, reveals a story of the world with nothing left but a few mysterious fragments.

Odell went on to follow a fruitful career in music videos, without abandoning short auteur films, deepening his approach in which the desire to seize the real applied itself on his sense of design that, paradoxically, has little to do with realism. In Family & Friends, he dives into his memory to create the coloured portrait of jaded people he has met in which the memory haunts him still. For the acclaimed Never Like the First Time!, winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006, he provides a graphic counterpoint to real interviews with people who recount a defining moment of their existence: their first sexual encounter.

The programme, curated by the filmmaker himself, is composed of Revolver, My Best Friend Plank, Family & Friends, Never Like the First Time! and a series of music videos created for Franz Ferdinand, U2, Goldfrapp, The Hours, Audio Bullys, Erasure, Feeder et Mad Action. The Cinémathèque acquired a new 35mm copy of Revolver in 2006 thanks to the five generous donors. In addition, the filmmaker has a special surprise, his most recent film, Lies, which just had its world premiere at the Mostra de Venise.

Here's another video directed by Odell: Smile, by The Cobbs.

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September 17, 2008

It's been a crazy year, but I have been looking forward to the Ottawa International Animation Festival, well.. since the last one ended. This is always the case.

Emru will miss his first festival since 1988, but Brenden Fletcher, Rene Walling and I will be taking in the fest, and we'll try to bring some of it back to you, too.

As usual, there lineup is exceptional. I don't know how I am going to make to all of the special screenings and retrospectives. Just a few of my must-see list items include the Michael Sporn and Jonas Odell retrospectives, Brainwashed! Cartoons That Tell Us What To Think, and The New Wave of Japanese Animation.

Richard Williams' presentation (in interview with John Canemaker) would be in my list, but it's sold already out, which is altogether unsurprising considering the circumstances. If there are any seats left 15 minutes before the event, rush tickets will be sold, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I will have to satisfy myself with a special screening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? instead. I'm also looking forward to the Yo Gabba Gabba! presentation on Saturday.

I haven't even gotten into the masterclasses, workshops and panels. Honestly, it's like trying to bail out the ocean with a bucket. I'm going to enjoy trying!

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September 4, 2008

The Montreal chapter of ACM SIGGRAPH is holding its season opener with an open-air screening in the park next to their usual haunt, the Society for Arts and Technology. Selections from the 2008 Computer Animation Festival will be shown, and while the event is free, you can pick up your annual membership to help support the chapter.

"Doors open" on Saturday, September 6, at 9:30 at Parc de la Paix. There's more info on the SAT website.

2008 SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival trailer

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September 3, 2008

La cinematheque quebecoise
is screening recent Chinese animated shorts on Thursday, September 4th.

Marcel Jean is the guest programmer. I've provided a loose English translation of what he wrote on the CQ website.

Faced with feeding it numerous television stations, China has recently become, on a quantitative scale, one of the most important producers of animation in the world. Seeking to limit imported productions from Japan and Korea, Chinese officials are basically encouraging local production by creating high production quotas and encouraging the creation of major schools, equipped with cutting-edge technology, which trains thousands of animators on a yearly basis.

In comparison to this rapid development, auteur animation film are still marginalized. As a result, the Chinese presence in large-scale international animation festivals (Annecy, Zagreb, Ottawa, Hiroshima, etc.) remains weak and, seemingly, purely diplomatic. In Annecy, this summer, for example, just one Chinese film was featured in the short competition and it was... a commercial. At this point the festival organizers can claim to have presented a Chinese film...

This situation is explained by the abscence of a framework that is able to support auteur animation in China. Cette situation s’explique par l’absence de structures permettant de soutenir le cinéma d’animation d’auteur en Chine. The free market economy is effectively, the fundamental motivator governing every production, and there is no place for pure research in a cinema where creation is driven solely by a specific demand. If there is no specific demand, nothing is offered.

The sole exception to this: the schools. In this economic context, schools remain the only space where production is not totally regulated by an imperative for economic growth. Not all schools: some essentially train technicians destines to increase the industry ranks, but there are some privileged spaces where creativity has a real place: Beijing Academy, Chinese Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, Nanjing Institue of the Arts, are examples.

The program of recent animated films I have devised reflect this reality. Most of the films were directed by students, others by instructors. Pan Tian Shou, for example, is the work of Joe Chang, a Canadian national that used to live in Vancouver, who now oversees animated cinema at the academy in Hangzhou. Inspired by a famous painter, Pan Tian Shou is representative of a strong undercurrent of films inspired by traditional Chinese paintaings. Two other films — Season and Butterfly et White Snake — also belong to this prolific body of films. At the same time, I tried to limit the films of this genre to provide a good amount of space to atypical films that offered a closer look at the realm of possibilities in today's Chinese schools. Save, by Anli Liu, and Tree, by Jie Lin, which include an ecoloical message that is undoubtedly stunning. Directed in 2002, Daily Diary, by Han Bo, is reminiscent of Flux, by Chris Hinton, also directed in 2002 at the NFB. Directed in 2007, The Emerald Jar, by Xi Chen, evokes that yle of Russian Igor Kovalyov. Fantasia festival fans will delight at She is Automatic, the ingenious Star Wars puppet animation parody with music from the Chinese rock group, New Pants.

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August 17, 2008

Every year there's something in the Japan Media Arts Festival's Entertainment Division which also happens to be animated, and worth a mention. (The categories are porous like that.) This year that honour goes to the music video for Ryukyudisko's "Nice Day."

The entire video is a progression of still photographs starting somewhere in the 1970s, with a couple getting busy under the covers and producing a young boy. We watch him get older, get a job, and then he hits the clubs and meets a girl–and the whole starts going into reverse, as we go back into the girl's history. However, we find ourselves going back even farther than her parents, for reasons that eventually become apparent—and the eventual trip forward again carries its own surprises.

There's a lot of whimsy in this video, and the pity of the Flash-based video above is that you lose some of the detail in the historical photos, as well as the deliberate colour choices to replicate older film (up to a point—director Junji Kojima skimps a little when he starts getting into the 1930s and earlier).

By the way, if you think the tune is catchy you can drop a couple of sawbucks for an import of the single at Amazon.

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Veterans of animation festivals know that the term "short film" is pretty elastic, from Malcolm Bennett's 30-second Rocky to Yuri Norstein's 29-minute Tale of Tales. They also know that the longer films are usually programmed at the tail end of a given screening, and that prior to the end of the Cold War many of those films were from Eastern Bloc countries—often gorgeous, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes dark.

What's surprising about the 2007 Japan Media Arts Festival's award-winning works is that there are four films that pass the twenty-minute mark. The longest, Love Rollercoaster, is the most straightforward. The remaining three are reminiscent of those old Eastern Bloc films.

I'll start off with the 21-minute Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor because (a) director Koji Yamamura pretty much roped me in with his Mt. Head and The Old Crocodile a few years back; (b) it's actually based on the work of the Jewish-Czech Kafka, which gives it that weirdness that can be supplied only by Eastern European creators in general, and Kafka in particular; and (c) I can't help re-watching it whenever I can. Like any Kafka story, A Country Doctor starts with a seemingly normal premise combined (a country doctor is summoned at night to take care of a young patient) with some bizarre aspect ("unearthly horses" transport him there instantly). As in Kafka's better-known The Metamorphosis, the introduction of the preternatural element marks the moment the protagonist can never go back to the way things were. As in Yamamura's Mt. Head, the pace, sketchy images, and hand-drawn transformations complement the story nicely. At the rate A Country Doctor has been racking up awards, I think Yamamura's going to have to put serious thought into new shelving.

Ryu Kato's The Clockwork City also mines the surreal with traditional tools. The film is pretty much wordless, and you should expect to have to work at sorting some aspects of it out. A young visitor comes to a new city, and it's quickly apparent she doesn't quite fit in—every person, every bird, and even a few buildings have these wind-up mechanisms stuck in them, and she doesn't. After exploring the city for a little while she meets with the town's honcho (who wears a wind-up crown) and exchanges fruits and other goods. Soon after the city goes to war with an unknown enemy, its soldiers identically featureless and wearing blue ties and white shirts. In the aftermath, our protagonist confronts the top man and his flunkies over the discovery of a giant wind-up key; what mysteries does it hold? This is definitely on my "must rewatch" list.

Yusuke Sakamoto's The Dandelion Sister takes us into the realm of stop-motion animation, where a young girl has to contend with her older, sick sister—who happens to be a giant dandelion. There's a lot going on here: There's the younger sister missing out on social activities because of her responsibilities; her resentment of how much attention is heaped on her sick sister; her inability to draw, and express her feelings; and her fear of her sister's death. Like The Clockwork City, The Dandelion Sister is wordless, but as its concerns are more grounded in reality it's open to a number of interpretations about adolescence, caring for sick relatives, and acceptance.

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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 13, 2008

Gallery Nucleus in Los Angeles will be hosting The Great Great Grand Show, beginning August 16th and continuing until September 1st.

Saturday's opening reception runs from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and you're encouraged to show up in historical garb if you have it (ninjas and pirates welcome).

Two of the artists exhibiting are Scott Campbell and Graham Annable, both Hickee comics anthology contributors. Scott C has also contributed work to I Am 8-Bit and Totoro Forest Project, and Graham's known for his comic foray, Grickle, whose misadventures continue in animated form. He is also a story artist on Coraline, Laika's much anticipated feature. Here's The Last Duet On Earth, a little future history until you get to see Graham's latest, From Whence Before Times, which debuts at the show.

The show is rounded out by Flight regular Israel Sanchez, and Jon Klaasen, who animated the super-sweet Eye for Annai. Several of us fps-side are huge fans of this short.

So if you're in LA on Saturday, you know where you need to be.

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August 12, 2008

Christmas has come early over at Disneyanimation.com! The official website of the Walt Disney Animation Studios is previewing their new projects in a variety of ways: including some new artwork highlighting the visual development of the upcoming 2-D animated feature, The Princess and the Frog.

More images after the jump:

Click over to Disneyanimation.com and explore the site fully to view more development work from The Princess and the Frog as well as info and images from the films Bolt, Rapunzel, King of the Elves and a variety of upcoming shorts.

Read more: The Princess and the Frog Blu-ray Disc Review

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August 11, 2008

Radiohead is reaching into their own pockets to award $10,000 each to the 4 first place winners of their video contest. The band had been meant to pick a single victor, who would then be furnished the prize money by sponsor, Aniboom to complete a video project. Upon witnessing the astonishing quality of the eventual winners, Radiohead has decided to once again break the rules and spread the cash-love around to Kota Totori of Japan (aka Hideyuki Kota), Wolfgang Jaiser and Claus Winter of Germany (aka 16tracks), Clement Picon of France, and Tobias Stretch of the United States.

More videos after the jump...

Watch more cool animation and creative cartoons at aniBoom

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August 4, 2008

Ian Fenton's brilliant little one-minute dissertation on locomotive grannies is in the running for the Virgin Media Shorts 2008 title to be judged by a panel headed by Lex "Keyser Söze" Luthor himself, Kevin Spacey. If The Big Push happens to win, Ian will net a cool £30,000 and the opportunity to work with Virgin Media and the UK Film Council on his next 60 second opus.

Via The Northern Echo.co.uk

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August 3, 2008

A lot of animation is inherently mechanistic—one look at your average dope sheet will tell you that. That's why I'm always interested in shorts where a director makes the interlocking structure of the animation an integral part of the film. While I was catching up on my Directors Notes podcasts late last night, I listened to an interview about a great little short called Duelity.

Duelity is an ambitious student film project by Vancouver Film School motion graphics students Marcos "Boca" Ceravolo and Ryan Uhrich, in which they playfully compare the creationist and the scientific theories of the origins of the universe. Duelity is actually three shorts in one: one film expresses the creationist view using the language and imagery of the scientific view, and the other does the reverse. Each has its own narration and soundtrack.

The third film comes from playing both films side by side simultaneously, and the result is stunning. Every element interlocks perfectly (right down to the credits), creating a third, unified piece. The Duelity website has all three versions of the film available for your viewing amazement and pleasure.

I can't even begin to imagine what the planning charts for this looked like, which is why I intend to take some time to visit the Directors Notes page that includes pre-production materials along with an interview with both directors.

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July 30, 2008

Neil Gaiman posted an article from the Guardian about Jamie Hewlett. I was in high school when I came across his work in the pages of Deadline, the UK alternative music and comic magazine. Since then he has blown up, as band member/creator of The Gorillaz, the best animated studio band EVER, among many other projects. The article makes clear how much he has been influenced by a wide variety of SF, comic and animated pop culture, included Warner Bros., Hayao Miyazaki and Rene Laloux.

He and band-mate Damon Albarn have created the opening titles for the BBC's Beijing Olympics coverage and its a stunner.

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July 21, 2008

I'm all for do-it-yourself projects. Self-starters can take part in Montreal's newest film festival, M60. Participants will make a 60-second film, animated or live-action, which must be completed by August 24th, to be screened for 2 days in September.

Register at the launch party on Thursday, July 24th from 9:oo pm to midnight. The theme will be revealed during the launch. While you're there, enjoy the short sets from several bands, one of which is Ragni (including fps's newest blogger, Brenden Fletcher).

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The 2008 Animation Block Party begins on Friday, July 25 and continues until Sunday, July 27. If you're near Brooklyn you can catch three different programs of animated shorts. Friday's program will be screened outdoors at Rooftop Films and the remaining programs, played twice each day, can be seen at the BAMcinematek. Not only do you get to see tons of shorts, the event lives up to its name with beer and live music every night. Party on!

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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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July 8, 2008

The audience of the Monday screening of Fear(s) of the Dark was treated to a bonus before things got rolling: Hot Dog, the third in a series of shorts by independent New York animator, Bill Plympton. Many know Bill Plympton's name, but those who don't will immediately recognize his trademark style in the clip shown here. Only a portion of the short is in the clip, and gets much funnier as it moves from one stage to the next.

His current feature, Idiots and Angels, seems distinctly different in tone. In Plympton's words:

The look of the film is very Eastern European - something like what Jan Svankmayer might make, or David Lynch if he made animation - very dark and surreal.

Fear(s) of the Dark will replay again tomorrow at the Fantasia festival, but without Hot Dog preceding it. Later in the day, Plympton will present the Canadian premiere of Idiots and Angels, and continuing the festival's spotlight on Animated Auteur Visions.

Previously on fps
2008 Fantasia Festival Animation
Review: Plymptoons: The Complete Early Works of Bill Plympton

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July 7, 2008

Now this kind of advertising I can get behind. Run Wrake (who we already love—and maybe fear a little—thanks to Rabbit) has applied his quirky collage technique to The Control Master, a pseudo–1950s-sci-fi film in which an evil genius and two heroes battle. The commercial angle here is that all the elements of the film come from CSA Images, a stock art company. Not that that gets in the way of the enjoying the film for even one second.

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In this space I've mentioned National Film Board shorts like Black Soul (above), Street Musique and Blackfly. But have you ever seen any of these shorts? Probably not if you don't live near an NFB viewing centre like Toronto's Mediatheque or Montreal's Cinérobothèque or don't catch short film festivals. Well, now you can, thanks to a new NFB initiative. Beta.nfb.ca is where they're making digitized films from their archive available online, for free.

There are over 300 films up so far, with over half of them from the animation collection. The earliest animated film there at the moment is Norman McLaren's Boogie-Doodle (1941, the year the animation studio was founded), and the most recent are both from this year: Michael Wray and David Seitz's The Mixy Tapes and Sandde, in which Munro Ferguson explains how the NFB's very cool stereoscopic animation system works.

As the name implies, the site is still in beta, so there are rough edges. But the NFB is asking for feedback, so you should get out there, watch, and let them know what you think.

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July 6, 2008
The Canadian premiere of Peur(s) du Noir on Monday is a part of Fantasia's 2008 spotlight, Animated Auteur Visions. Not all of the six shorts are horror films, but each features a black and white animated exploration of fear. Contributors include comic artists Charles Burns and Blutch.

The screening will also be a benefit for fps editor, Emru Townsend. A portion of the profits from each ticket sold will go toward Emru and his immediate family as he prepares for his upcoming bone marrow transplant.

(Earlier this year, Emru wrote a message letting people know that they could help to save his life or that of another person waiting for a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. In June, a potential match was found in the system where there previously were none among over 12 million people registered as potential donors. You can read more about his experience on the Heal Emru blog.)

Previously on fps:
2008 Fantasia Festival Animation

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July 5, 2008
One of the first films that ever screened at Fantasia was the animated adaptation of Katsuhiro's Otomo's Memories, produced by Studio 4°C. Over the years, the studio has produced some notable feature-length narratives and shorts in omnibus films, including but not limited to Cat Soup, The Animatrix, Mind Game, Tekkon Kinkreet, and Batman: Gotham Knight. They have a powerhouse of talent that has allowed them to create some of the most interesting animation anywhere.

In Kenji Ishimaru's 2007 interview with studio CEO Eiko Tanaka, she mentions that all of this hard work was to get to one point: to be profitable enough to create what became Genius Party.

These seven stories are as distinct as they are breathtaking. Shanghai Dragon, Dethtic4, Limit Cycle and the opening sequence Genius Party (also a self-contained short) are the shorts that are seared into my brain. Almost every short has perfect pacing, a great aesthetic, and an interesting story.

The project grew large enough that this is the first of two omnibus films, the other being Genius Party Beyond. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Genius Party plays again on Sunday, July 6th at 1:00pm at Montreal's Fantasia film festival.

Previously on fps:
2008 Fantasia Festival Animation
Studio 4°C
Genius Party
Interview: Eiko Tanaka
Interview: Masaki Yuasa

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July 2, 2008
There is a reason Batman has his own label on fps. Besides many of us being big comic fans, many of us are huge fans of the Bat specifically. He has numerous animated interpretations and the notable incarnations in the 90s and 00s have definitely left their mark on (what was) Saturday morning television, cable television, comic book adaptations, and Warner Bros. television animation.

So people are a little nervous about an anime version of Batman since Batman: Gotham Knight was announced. I am a huge Batman fan and a huge anime fan, but I won't champion one at the expense of the other. After hearing about the talent behind the series of interrelated shorts, both American and Asian, I was somewhat relieved, but I was also willing to wait for a final verdict once I'd actually seen the shorts. After getting a peek at the soon-to-be released DVD in a theatrical setting gearing up for the 2008 edition of Fantasia, I think people's fears are largely unfounded.

Disliking the stories because they use the visual style of anime is just as bad as only liking it because it is anime. What you need to know is the stories are told well. What you need to know is these stories all embody something about the Legend of the Bat and are consistent with the characters that have already been established. It does look great!

And the same people that dismiss the anthology because it is anime will probably be the ones who refuse to notice that there are six very distinct visual styles that are employed to tell each story. The level of interestingness does vary depending on the style you are drawn to, but this is also the case of a decades long comic-collector who has some artists they prefer over others. Like these artists, Batman's look changes at the whim of the artists involved. The two stories with styles I found the most recognizable and distinct from the others were produced by Studio 4°C. They were even distinct from each other. Selecting one of these as the first story in the set was a great choice as it breaks conventions of what people consider the "anime style."

There are no spoilers in this entire post. I am not interested in ruining it for anybody, especially the die-hard Batman fans. However, if you are told or read spoilers elsewhere, you will not find out anything new about Batman if you already know his character. You will feel comforted by the way the stories fit easily into the mythos that has already been created from past stories. Just go and watch the stories unfold, and enjoy another glimpse of Batman's early days as he tries to learn the ropes of crimefighting.

You can catch a theatrical screening of Batman: Gotham Knight at Montreal's Fantasia festival on Saturday at noon, before it is released on DVD next Tuesday.

Previously on fps
2008 Fantasia Festival Animation
Batman: Gotham Knight Promo Video Online
DC Comics OAVs
Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo
The End of Justice League

Previously on The Critical Eye
Batman Animated
Batman & Batman Beyond
Paul Dini
Bruce Timm & Glen Murakami

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