Review
Avoid Eye Contact Vol. 2
© Nina Paley
Emru Townsend · July 30, 2005 | For years, I've been reading and writing about the promise of digital technology for the independent filmmaker. Cheaper, more accessible equipment makes it easier to shoot films; cheaper, more accessible computer technology makes it easier to edit films; and cheaper, more accessible DVD mastering makes it easier to distribute films.

So far, the first two points have been generally true, as countless online short-film sites attest. But strangely enough, shorts haven't done as well on DVD. It's understandable in the case of individual shorts, as few people have the wherewithal to produce a DVD and get it out to the world—and those that do rarely do it twice. After all, not many people want to spend $20 or more on a disc that tops out at 15 minutes of movie content and maybe a smattering of extras.

Oddly enough, the short-film compilation—a format made for DVD—hasn't fared all that well, either. While there have been admirable efforts over the years (the Short Cinema Journal series was my favourite), no one has managed to put together a long-running series of compilations like the Expanded Entertainment tapes and laserdiscs of old.

Which is why I'm delighted to see that Square Footage Films, a loose coalition of New York-based independent animators, has released a second collection of shorts under the Avoid Eye Contact banner, a little over a year after the first.

Avoid Eye Contact Vol. 2
Square Footage Films, 2005
32 minutes

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Like the best compilations, there's a wide variety of styles here, from pencil on paper to object animation to photo manipulation. Aside from the Gotham connection, nothing ties the shorts together, except for a distinctly hand-made feel that seems largely absent from the many Flash-based cartoons floating around the Web.

This is especially true in the case of Space War and Bar Fight, both by Christy Karacas. Violent, bizarre and bizarrely violent, Space War is rendered with pencil and paper using a simplistic drawing style and isn't so much a narrative as an adolescent stream of consciousness. It's utterly pointless, but it's also utterly seductive. With its strange blending of science fiction and fantasy imagery and a soundtrack made of nothing but human-generated noises, it reminds me of the many comics my friends and I used to draw, where we just made things up as we went along. Bar Fight is a bit more sophisticated in technique—colour instead of black and white, cel instead of paper, a more polished soundtrack—but every bit as puerile, if not more so. It also has something resembling plot points, but that doesn't hurt it in the least.

Others make some use of digital tools. Chris Conforti's Frog and Patrick Smith's Handshake, for example, both clearly make use of computer colouring, but their use of sketchy lines and the latter's painted backgrounds keep them from feeling antiseptic.

In some cases, the solid-colour digital touch is exactly what's needed. Nina Paley's Fetch is largely made up of four elements: a yellow man, a blue dog, a red ball, and a single frame-bisecting black line that defines the horizon—at first, anyway. As the various players move around, the line's purpose shifts as Paley plays with perspective and perception. It's reminiscent of Raimund Krumme's Passage and other visual-play films, but its liveliness, colour and humour make it all Paley's.

Some nice extras come with the disc, such as director commentaries, pencil tests, and, in the case of Handshake, a video of the recording session of the orchestral soundtrack. Any insight into the mind of the independent animator is welcome, but it's actually a bit scant, and I found myself wanting more. I wanted to know about the genesis of Space War and Bar Fight, and especially would have liked to hear a reflection from Bill Plympton on how his work has evolved in the ten years between Push Comes to Shove and Eat, both of which are on the disc.

But this quibble is minor. The second volume of Avoid Eye Contact spends over half an hour making the viewer laugh (or at least smile), and reaffirms that the New York independent animation scene is as vibrant as ever. Given its rich history, I'm looking forward to many more volumes in the future.

DVD Features: Fullscreen (4:3); English dialogue track; Region 1.

DVD Extras: Director commentaries; stills gallery; pencil tests; recording session video.
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