Festival Watch
SIGGRAPH 2003: July 28
Photo credit: Wojtek Wawszczyk

Emru Townsend · July 28
| I started my day with my second-to-last Animation Theater screening, the one I was most looking forward to: "It Takes Character." As the name implies, this compilation is all about acting in computer animation, and the efforts shown here were almost uniformly stellar.

One distressing feature of the "Realities Challenged" program I saw yesterday was the number of commercials and effects demo reels from established studios: ten out of nineteen. It's an inevitable aspect of SIGGRAPH because the larger houses put out more work, but at times there's an almost depressing corporate aspect to the work shown—sort of like watching three Hollywood blockbusters in the middle of a collection of an independent film festival. Yeah, they've got polish, but where's the personal touch?

"It Takes Character" was refreshingly free of that for the most part, though it's bookended by a best-bits look at the Tippett Studio's "Carl & Ray" Blockbuster ads and a clip from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. There were also Aardman Animation's "Blobs" IDs for BBC3, but six pairs of those are sprinkled throughout all four programs, in each case roughly fitting the theme. They also run the usual Aardman gamut from wry humour to drop-dead funny. And there was one UK ad for Sprite. But the remaining ten shorts were by and large exemplary.

It's hard to pick a favourite. Except for the ads, dialogue played no part in any of these, with animators expressing themselves the old-fashioned way—through imagery. Veterans of animation festivals would find Wojtek Wawszczyk's Pingwin an interesting evolutionary step. It has an admittedly predictable story but translates the sketchy Eastern European illustrative style to great effect.

Most faithful to the theme of character animation is Moonsung Lee's Bert, which uses such simplistic models and rendering that it could have been made years ago—but thanks to clearly communicated acting and smart timing, it doesn't matter in the least. The characters are little vegetable people, with a mother who plucks her freshly-grown green offspring out of the earth—along with one orange misfit. It's an ugly duckling story that you can see coming a mile off, but it's so well told you don't care. Unsurprisingly, this was one of the three films that drew the most laughter.

Photo credit: The Soulcage Department
One of the other three films was On the Sunny Side of the Street, The Soulcage Department's ode to silent-film comedy duos. Just on Sunday I'd been chatting with some other attendees about how almost no one ever fakes the old-film look very well; Soulcage has it pretty much dead on. The nice thing about the film is that it really is a heartfelt tribute, but makes use of its medium. The timing and the gags would have worked for silent-film–era audiences, but some of the visual bits of business, with perfectly-timed sandwich fixings bouncing in rhythm as a manic gourmand tenderizes his meat before barbecuing and the like, would have simply been impossible in live-action.

The third film that had us rolling in the aisles was Ritterschlag (Knight Games), from the Institut of Animation, Visual Effects & Digital Postproduction at Filmakademie Baden-Wüerttemberg. Here, we see a damsel in distress being used as bait by an adult dragon and its offspring so that the elder can pass on its knowledge of how to dispatch knights—with panache. Even though it's the longest film at six and a half minutes, it never feels drawn out; the gags always come up with something just unexpected enough to keep the laughs coming, and the final payoff caps things off perfectly. It's especially heartening to note that Ritterschlag was one of four productions to come out of schools, and all of them were exceptional in one way or another. The future's in good hands.

After lunch I paid a visit to the Japanese presentation at the International Resources area. I was only able to attend the first half, which was a presentation of the winning shorts from last year's Digital Content Grand Prix. Like Bert, the film that drew the most applause was the one that had the best story and timing, even though the rendering and modelling wasn't state of the art. Looking like something from an old videogame console, Riichiro Mashima's Ski Jumping Pairs imagines a new paired ski-jumping Olympic event in 2007, in which the ski jump is performed by two skiers—and one pair of skis. The concept is funny, and the five or six different jumps are wonderfully absurd, but what carries the whole thing are the staging—it's shot exactly like an Olympic event, down to the changing camera views and replays—as well as the two unseen commentators' running dialogue. Ski Jumping Pairs is currently touring festivals, but as of yet there are no North American festivals on the list. At the very least, you can visit the Ski Jumping Pairs web site, which expands the joke even further.
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