All posts by metatim

Annecy festival 2020 – My Best of the Fest

Going to a short-film festival in a new city is one of my favourite things: it’s the most efficient mind-broadening experience I’ve found. (I previously wrote about that in the context of the Anilogue film festival in Budapest).

With the world in lockdown, the annual festival of animation at Annecy pivoted to take place entirely online. On the one hand, this removes the joy of travel-based adventures – staying in a new place, eating different food, navigating a new public transport system and so on. On the other hand, free from the constraints of scheduling, the scope to consume an incredible range of animations in a short space of time is huge!

One part of the full Annecy online offering

The offer of €15 for access to all of this content from 15th-30th June 2020 is a great deal. Writing this on the 20th, I’ve already consumed over 24+ hours of it. Here’s the highlights of what I’ve seen so far, split into three categories for the shorts (Story, Personal, and Abstract) and then the features.

But first, a sublime highlight from the ‘best of 2019’ selection: Maestro, also known more prosaically as “Opera sung by animals”. Two minutes of exactly that; perfection.

Story

Undone: The Hospital

Computer-assisted rotoscoping could be viewed as a form of ‘cheating’ in animation, but what really matters is what you do with it. In Undone things start out fairly simple, but once the mind-bending segues and loops start up, the medium really comes into its own. We got to see the first episode, which ended as many such shorts do with a tantalising choice. Unlike other shorts, Undone has 7 more episodes to explore that choice, although it unfortunately requires Amazon Prime to view.

If you like films about the nature of reality but don’t like supporting a monopolistic digital behemoth, this leaves you in a tough spot. I’m adding it to my list of such content to attempt to binge in the course of a free trial at some point in the future!

Trailer:

L’Odyssée de Choum

Superficially similar to rotoscoping, I’ve seen ever-more impressive animations that appear to take CG as a base, and then through a combination of textures, filters, and techniques beyond my understanding, render each frame as if it were lovingly painted for a picture-book of some sort.

This seems to be the method in L’Odyssée de Choum, possibly hybridised with more traditional 2D animation – it’s delightfully hard to be sure. Perfect if you like nice stories about animals with a beautiful aesthetic.

Trailer:

The Zillas have a picnic

At the shorter end of the spectrum, Christian Schmidt gets some excellent mileage out of the image of cute roaring kaiju with a translation in a speech bubble. Would be perfect without the uncomfortable moment of horribly-suffering-animal-as-humour near the end.

Rebooted

“Rebooted” by Michael Shanks is a fun and affectionate homage to the techniques of animation in film through the decades. Although it mostly revels in putting stop-motion in a live-action setting, it’s fun (and much rarer) to see cel animation in that context! Happily you can watch the whole thing right here:

Personal

A category for animations that are the singular idiosyncratic vision of one person, or at least feel that way to me.

Genius Loci

My favourite kind of short film to discover – really beautiful painterly animation, sliding between representation, abstraction and metaphor, with an empathetic core that leaves a lasting impression. I felt like the entry price of the festival was worth it for this 16-minute film alone.

Trailer:

Sweet Night

Lia Bertel’s Sweet Night is a beautifully transportive animation: a cerulean, warm-feeling night, the howls of a yeti(?) in the distance, and animal companionship on a dream-like journey. The animation is not as showy as some others in this list, but it excels in that essential aspect of the form: the perfect combination of pictures and sound to create a strong, fascinating impression.

Trailer:

Something to Remember

An animation by Niki Lindroth von Bahr that feels like a strange, vaguely disturbing dream: animals in slightly disconcerting settings sing some sort of lullaby (presumably in Swedish?). Reminds me of the kind of strange thing I might happen upon on Channel 4 late at night in the 90’s.

Trailer:

My Galactic Twin Galaction

One of the ways a personal animation can convey a distinctive ‘voice’ is with a… distinctive voice. That’s what works for My Galactic Twin Galaction by Sasha Svirsky, starring Sasha Svirsky. Rather than tell a story, it’s more like an animated stream-of-consciousness thought-process on how an animation might go. The (I guess) naïve animation style would usually be off-putting, but actually fits well with the idea. The trailer just shows the part in which Svirsky suddenly gets excited about being called upon to fight evil forces and starts singing about it:

Midnight Gospel: Mouse of Silver

It turns out this is a whole 8-episode series available on Netflix right now, and it makes me very disappointed that their algorithm only seems interested in repeatedly putting the same anime and genre B-movies in front of me every time I browse it, when there must be all sorts of amazing stuff like this hidden in their catalogue.

Pendleton Ward (creator of Adventure Time) teams up with Duncan Trussell (who I only knew as the guy who told the story of Tesla vs. Edison while drunk) to produce a… er… very hard to describe, amazing thing.

The format of the series seems to be that they take one of Trussell’s podcast interviews from the past decade, then with some deft editing and in some cases bringing back the interviewee for some scripted lines, weave it into a sort of trippy universe-hopping animation filled with ideas.

The festival showed the episode “Mouse of Silver”, which from what I’ve seen so far is probably the most affecting, concerning as it does an incredibly personal interview of Trussell’s mother Deneen Fendig, when they both know she is close to death after a long battle with cancer. Perhaps that sounds depressing, but it is deeply moving to hear Fendig and Trussell discussing her mindful approach to life, while facing death with clarity, lightness and humour – all while a surreal range of (I assume) Ward’s animation ideas take place as part of the discussion in their own right.

You can get a slight flavour of the thing from this teaser, but it doesn’t really do it justice:

Abstract

4:3 by Ross Hogg

I do enjoy a nice synaesthetic abstract animation; 4:3 by Ross Hogg gets there with treated film and a playful approach, and you can watch it in full here:

A similar technique (I suspect), but a looser connection to the music, was used in Jodie Mack’s 2008 animation to Four Tet’s “A Joy”:

Dune

The excellently curated Black Box strand at the Edinburgh Film Festival was my introduction to purely abstract film. The Annecy equivalent is the ‘off limits’ selection, and Gábor Ulrich’s Dune is a great example of this kind of thing – a top-down view of what appears to be animated white-on-black dune grass, blowing in strange hypnotic patterns in the wind, with a slightly unnerving soundtrack.

This does not appear to be viewable anywhere even in part. However, many of the animators made videos introducing/discussing their work for the festival, and Ulrich’s version perfectly matched the tone of the work:

A Mind Sang / A Mãe De Sangue

The optical illusion of an ambigious image is a very old idea; I haven’t seen a serious attempt to explore that idea in an animated form before though. Vier Nev tries out all sorts of ideas in this short film, and while not all are successful, some are really impressive. You can get a taste of it from the trailer:

Feature-length animations

True North

Animation can be used to cover some very difficult topics, portraying uncomfortable scenes with the slight remove from reality that the animated form affords.

Using a form of CG that appears to be inspired by stop-motion models, True North tells a story inspired by testimonies from survivors of North Korea’s political prison camps, and would be a very hard watch indeed were it told using live action. Nonetheless it conveys the harsh reality, taking place right now, in a way that the occasionally glimpsed newspaper headline can barely begin to evoke.

More information: https://www.truenorth.watch/

Ginger’s Tale

Traditional 2D animation is now very rarely seen at feature length, so it’s always lovely to see something pop up. A Russian production, Ginger’s Tale has some fun and distinctive character designs animated beautifully. That said, the storytelling is rather flawed, and feels like it needed a few more drafts: some (important) characters are rather too thinly drawn, and the plot takes some fairly abrupt turns that aren’t really driven by believable character choices.

It’s also a musical! In the Annecy ‘masterclass’ session, John Clements and Ron Musker (directors of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Moana among others) shared something they were taught: if you can take a song out of the movie and the story still makes sense, then the song isn’t doing what it should. Unfortunately, that is rather the case with the songs in Ginger’s Tale.

I can’t be too down on it though – as a fan of 2D animation, it was genuinely a joy to watch, and has a memorably plucky and energetic female protagonist in the form of Ginger.

More information: https://ogonekfilm.ru/en/

Trailer:

Lava

Like the shorts listed in the ‘personal’ section above, Lava is the singular vision of Argentinian Ayar Blasco. A sub-genre I have a soft-spot for is “specific and unusual profession saves the world” (made famous by the Dan Brown’s novels in which the world is saved and/or mysteries solved by a professor of history and art); in the case of Lava, it falls to Tattoo artists to save the world from a fascinatingly off-kilter global threat.

A consistently engaging watch, it is only really undermined by a (mercifully somewhat brief) crass racial caricature.

Trailer:

Wrapping up

One thread that came through in several of the masterclasses and discussions was that this is actually a kind of new golden age for animation:

  • Through the internet and digital tools, animation has never been so accessible
  • The content wars in streaming services are leading to all sorts of new animation being commissioned – especially now Disney has taken their huge archive over to their own platform
  • With the world in lockdown, animation seems to be the best-placed form of video that can carry on being produced almost unhindered!

I’m very excited to be able to follow up on the work of some of the artists listed above, and am very grateful to the Annecy festival organisers for the remarkably fast and effective work involved in putting a festival online.

Anilogue in Budapest 2018 – my Best of the Fest and the City

How do you holiday?

The possibilities, if you really think about it, are overwhelming. You could visit every village in Yorkshire that has a funny name and interview strangers about nomenclature. You could systematically visit every city in the world with a population greater than one million in alphabetical order, consuming only media in that city that begin with the same letter. You could stage a murder mystery party with friends on the actual Orient Express.

The problem with any of these ideas is that they only make you (or me at least) feel more strongly that there’s an even better idea out there that you’re missing out on. Obviously if you also have children, things are further complicated.

So, here’s my generic quite-interesting-holiday generator that feels fairly optimal:

  • Pick something you love (animation, juggling, poker, murder mysteries)
  • Find a list of places in the world where that thing is being celebrated in the next year (a festival, convention, tournament or whatever)
  • Pick a date and destination from that list, and do sightseeing in the day and the thing you love in the evening

Clare and I love animation, and needed a holiday before Christmas; consultation of festival listing websites like this one meant we ended up in Budapest in late November 2018, to attend the Anilogue animation festival.

Also: European Train Travel

If you’re travelling within Europe, I maximally endorse The Man In Seat 61, a website by Mark Smith, who uses his extensive rail experience and appetite for railway-based research to maintain this incredible resource, covering the best routes in Europe and how to buy tickets. Including getting from London to Budapest via Eurostar and sleeper train:

Budapest crash course

As a moderately well-travelled UK resident, I am embarrassingly ignorant of Eastern Europe. Visiting Budapest was a great way to start putting that right. Here’s an extremely terse list of the things I found most insightful:

  • Budapest occupies a strategic position on the Danube in the middle of the Pannonian/Carpathian Basin, a useful geographical feature to reference when making sense of Eastern Europe on a map
  • For purely frivolous reasons I enjoy the fact that Budapest was formed by joining the two historic towns of Buda and Pest (on the West and East banks of the Danube respectively)
  • Buda was built on the Vár, a distinctive steep and lozenge-shaped hill. It appears much more strategically advantageous than it actually is, as throughout history it was taken and re-taken, “ ravaged and rebuilt 86 times over seven centuries”, according to the Rough Guide.

  • Hungarian (or Magyar) is a Finno-Ugric language, which places it amazingly far from the Indo-European languages most Europeans (or indeed most people in the world) would be familiar with. Don’t expect to figure thing out by similarity to any French, German, Latin or Greek you may know!
  • Hungary entered WWII as an Axis power in 1941, sought peace with the allies in 1943, leading to a Nazi coup to install a puppet fascist government, which then transitioned directly and tragically to a brutal Stalinist regime after the war. A revolution in 1956 was brutally suppressed, and the first free elections were in 1990. The scars of this recent history were palpable in much of the art, the beautiful-but-battle-damaged architecture and the museums that we visited.
  • Lots of mysterious staircases:

If you’re planning to go, I would recommend the following two things slightly off the beaten tourist track.

The Flippermuseum / Pinball museum

Everything you would hope it could be: 140+ pinball and other arcade machines from all eras, all playable for free for as long as you want, covered by one very reasonable entrance fee.

An interesting trend you can experience here is that over decades pinball machine design tended towards faster movement but also greater player agency.

The Labyrinth

Two kilometers of poorly lit and unsupervised tunnels, with an optional detour you can take entirely in pitch blackness; warm, damp, and with some creepy mannequins to encounter. You can tell from that if you’ll love it or hate it. Also, surprise cinema screening sub-cave:

Anilogue Animation Film Festival

We caught four of the feature-length animations shown as part of the festival’s competition:

Dilili in Paris (2018) 1h 35m, trailer

Director Michel Ocelot’s series of African folk-tale Kirikou films saw him graduate from a traditional 2D animation style to a sort of 3D cell-shaded version that surprisingly maintained their idiosyncratic charm. Dilili transposes the action to Paris, maintains the precocious child protagonist, and adds real-world photography to the backgrounds, which some might regard as cheating and others as efficient, but most importantly is aesthetically interesting.

The story requires a certain amount of suspension-of-disbelief as it takes in just about everyone who was anyone in Belle Epoque Paris, and like the best children’s stories gets surprisingly dark at times. While I’d sooner re-watch a Kirikou, I’m nonetheless extremely interested to see what Ocelot does next.

Seder-Masochism (2018) 1h 18m, not-very-representative trailer

Nina Paley’s debut feature Sita Sings the Blues entwined a personal story of love and loss with the Ramayana as told and discussed by several Indian storytellers, accompanied by some brilliantly-chosen out-of-copyright songs by Annette Hanshaw. The nature of copyright was something Paley studied and wrote about extensively, and that’s at least partly why the film is available for free.

Her long-awaited (by us at least) follow-up Seder-Masochism takes a somewhat similar approach by juxtaposing the story of Moses with her childhood experience of the traditional Jewish Seder, as recounted by interviews with her father – again with some extremely well-chosen songs, this time from a range of more recent artists, in a direct challenge to the restrictions of copyright law as it stands.

Overall though the result seemed less successful, assuming quite a lot of knowledge by the viewer, and ending up somewhat unevenly weighted. It doesn’t help that there are ten plagues to get through, each animated with amazingly ridiculous aplomb to a range of surprising music choices.

The film tacitly addresses the fascinating topic of how an ancient history of goddess-worship was supplanted by more patriarchal religions in multiple cultures. The musical format elevates this to a visceral feeling of an ancient and epic tragedy, but begs many more questions – fortunately there’s a bibliography at the end.

Similarly, the topic of Paley’s own upbringing and relationship with her parents doesn’t dig too deep, and one senses that she is limited by the range of the (now 7-year old) recordings of her father she had available.

If you haven’t already, you should at minimum watch This Land is Mine to see the kind of effect Paley is so great at creating.

Virus Tropical (2017) 1h 37m, trailer

Instantly recognisable in style and tone as an autobiographical coming-of-age story that started life as a graphic novel, Virus Tropical finds a way to breathe animated life into the idiosyncratic caricatures of Power Paola’s original comic, retaining the charm without merely puppeteering cutouts. Being based on real life, the story is strangely meandering, but told with a judicious economy that holds the attention throughout and leaves a strangely lasting impression of life growing up in South America.

Funan (2018), 1h 24min, trailer

Denis Do’s directorial debut Funan draws from the harrowing real-life experience of his own mother, trying to survive and keep her family together through the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime. It was particularly haunting to see in Budapest, having read and seen so much about Hungary’s double occupation. Most importantly, I think a film like this paints a vivid picture of day-to-day life in such a regime that history exhibits barely begin to evoke.

Another Day of Life (2018) 1h 25min, trailer


The ultimate winner of the festival’s feature-length competition, and another film on regime change, this time covering one reporter’s experience of the outbreak of civil war in Angola (1975-2002), which quickly became (another) proxy battle in the Cold War. The film joins the dots all the way from geopolitics to ground-level reality, and also powerfully intercuts live-action interviews with some of the participants in these events. Where Waltz With Bashir cut in live action at the very end to bring the message home, Another Day of Life does well to round out some of these characters and ground the story by intercutting more regularly.

The film is rendered with a fascinating take on the cell-shaded 3D style, backed up with motion captured performances. The result is visually arresting, especially on some of the dreamlike interludes, but has one major shortcoming: in a simpler animation we easily accept that the voices are emitted by the characters you see, but in some sort of uncanny valley effect, Another Day Of Life fails to achieve this, and the combined effect is a little less than the sum of the parts.

Short Animations

Art in general and animation in particular is fascinating for the range of creative possibility, but also frequently disappointing: faced with the possibility of creating anything, the average human (or typical artist) is seemingly interested in visualising just one thing: naked people.

Having seen a lot of short animations over a fair few festivals, there are also a few standard tropes that now rarely evoke much interest:

  1. The protagonist suffers through a series of nightmarish scenes
  2. Cute creatures struggle and suffer, procreating only to pass on the suffering
  3. Sexual objectification with a male gaze

Skipping over those (although some amount of (3) is depressingly hard to avoid entirely), a few highlights stood out:

Łukasz Rusinek’s music video, Ohoho (Vimeo) was my overall favourite. From the perfectly musical gait through to judiciously timed glitching, it’s a synaesthetic joy, even if a little (3) sneaks in there:

Vojtěch Domlátil’s Waves experiments with the idea of combining time-lapse photography from rolling fields with the sounds of water, to increasingly fascinating effect:

Something of a reversal of trope (1):  SOLAR WALK by Réka Bucsi. Available in full on Vimeo; trailer on YouTube:

Directed by Lucia Bulgheroni, Inanimate gets very meta with the stop-motion ouvre, and is well worth seeking out for an epic and exquisitely planned wide shot at the climax, which the trailer only begins to hint at:

In Jon Frickey’s Neko No Hi (Cat Days), a young boy is surprisingly diagnosed with cat flu, compellingly conveyed by the doctor using an outline drawing of a cat with a molecule in it. Here’s a trailer:

Georges Schwitzgebel’s The Battle Of San Romano brings Paolo Uccello’s 15th Century painting to life in a mind-boggling loop, which you can glimpse for a tantalising moment about 19s into the Anilogue 2018 trailer:

I’ve seen semi-abstract rotoscoping used to beautiful effect a few times, most notably in Ralf Hildenbeutel’s 2-minute Disco, but never before at the scale of Zbigniew Czapla’s Strange Case, which you can glimpse from this trailer:

In conclusion

Anilogue was a lovely animation festival, although the weekday afternoon shorts screenings were surprisingly poorly attended. Perhaps this was due to the programme being published only a few days in advance, or possibly being in conflict with the simultaneously held Israeli film festival. On the plus side this did mean we got to have some interesting conversations with two of the jurors (Piotr Kardasz and Veljko Popović).

Through the history and art explicitly on show and implicitly embedded in the battle-damaged city, Budapest reads as a plea to humanity: to learn from history, and to strive for peaceful, democratic power transitions. Those lessons are just as urgent now, especially in Hungary, to the point that I would specifically recommend checking the gov.uk travel advice before planning a trip there, as the current political trajectory is looking depressingly familiar.

– Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim and also wrote about IDFA 2016 and Tricky Women 2011.

IDFA (Amsterdam) 2016 – My Best of the Fest

In our ongoing plan to watch interesting films and visit interesting cities, Clare and I attended IDFA,a documentary film festival in Amsterdam in November 2016. I’ve picked out my top 3 favourites below.

The War Show

The War Show (2016) on IMDb
Release dates: No major releases planned

I suspect most people following the news from Syria over the last few years have found it confusing and depressing. That’s why I highly recommend this film – it’s still depressing, but at least it’s also enlightening.

Through judiciously chosen on-the-ground footage and some light contextualising commentary, the film delivers penetrating insights into how peaceful protest escalated to civil war, and the terrible cost the civilian population has borne as a result.

This film changed how I look at politics and history, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

National Bird

National Bird (2016) on IMDb
Release dates: US 11th Nov 2016, UK no major release

As far as I can figure out, this film got released in the US and doesn’t seem to have gained anywhere near the attention it should have. It very clearly lays out the enormity of the US drone programme: how it is far more secret than is healthy, massively more likely to escalate conflict than resolve it, and on a significantly larger scale than most people assume.

The experiences of three whistleblowers are woven together, taking great care to avoid falling foul of the 1917 Espionage act with what they can reveal. I initially worried that this hamstrung the film from being as powerful as it needed to be. That changed when the film focussed on one particular incident from 2010: a drone strike that mistakenly targetted a convoy of unarmed civilian families, killing 23. The drone footage of the strike (and, crucially, the build-up to it) is accompanied by an acted reading of the transcript from the strike crew, and then intercut with interviews with actual survivors of that strike.

This by itself was incredibly powerful, but that power increased tenfold when they ask one of the whistleblowers, Heather (an ex-visual analyst herself) to comment on that incident. She drew attention to the fact that the visual analysts identified that children were present and that no weapons could be seen, but the strike crew effectively overruled both judgements. But most damningly of all, she says that this was typical of what her work as a visual analyst had been like every day: trying, and failing, to convince strike teams not to kill civilians.

Perhaps the documentary itself doesn’t make a sharp enough point of it, but putting everything together it seems clear (especially after having seen The War Show) that the drone programme is certain to escalate violence rather than to solve it.

Machines

Machines (2016) on IMDb
Release dates: Not yet shown anywhere else

The trailer above is an accurate summary of the film: mesmerising shots of a vast, semi-automated textile factory, interspersed with brief interviews.

It may not seem likely, but this remains enthralling and thought-provoking over the full 75-minute run time. By dedicating so much of the film to simple observation of the work itself, I think it makes a more compelling case for the workers than a more traditional approach might have yielded.

All the interviews touch either implicitly or explicitly on worker’s rights, and astonishingly frank comments from every level of the hierarchy paint a very vivid picture of the situation. The interviews are one-sided: we never hear the questions and no retort is offered, but again this ends up giving a more powerful effect than something more confrontational. This is especially true when we finally reach the top of the hierarchy, and after everything else we’ve seen, the big boss’s comments on worker pay (delivered off-hand while checking his email) are all the more incredible.

– Tim Mannveille tweets as metatim and previously highlighted some of the best short films from Dresden FilmFest 2016