Category Archives: observation

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

 

Dresden Filmfest 2016 – My Best of the Fest

In our ongoing plan to watch interesting films and visit interesting cities, Clare and I attended FilmFest Dresden in April 2016. We attended 6 of the showings covering 45 short films, and I’ve picked out my top 10 favourites below.

The trailer sets the tone suitably:

 

A note on context

While the festival is primarily about the international and national short film competitions, we’re most interested in animation, so we focussed on the (non-competition) animation strands. Since these are curated out of some of the best animation over the past decades, this has the fortunate side-effect that almost all of the films I found interesting are available to view online!

Do also note, however, that the viewing context here is almost completely opposite to the festival experience. On the internet, you can skip through a video or stop at any time; when attending a short-film selection, you are far more obliged to take in everything put in front of you. You also know very little about what is to come – in fact I can’t think of any other media experience that has a wider gap between how little you know about the work, and how strongly you are compelled to consume all of it!

(An emergent result of this is the applause behaviour of the crowd. It seems an audience for short films will usually applaud at the end of each one, but if the first film is over-long, distasteful or otherwise displeasing no applause will start, and the crowd will remain silent after each film! However, if they are then shown a particularly delightful film, applause will break out, and is then likely to continue after each subsequent film regardless of quality).

Consequently, I recommend using your internet browsing power to get a taste of the highlights below, and then set aside the time and find a good screen to watch the ones you like the look of most in the best way, back to back.

Film highlights

The more accessible:

Photograph of Jesus (2008) is a whimsical animated documentary on the subject of less reasonable requests received at the Getty photographic archive:

Jain: Come (2015) isn’t really an animation, but combines a number of nifty visual effects throughout and achieves a few particularly striking moments:

Dahlia (2008) is the most abstract of the films I’m calling ‘accessible’, being a montage of stop motion-style animation generated seemingly off-the-cuff by looking for interesting things in San Francisco. Nevertheless it achieves that thing I’m always looking for: a kind of animated beauty unlike anything I’ve seen before.

We caught Wider Horizons (2015) by at one of the festival’s award-winner roundups (in this case the Minister of Fine Arts Promotion Prize), and I’m glad we did. It’s a fascinating animated documentary on what a holiday by the sea was like in East Germany in the 80’s. Being more recent you can’t view it online yet, but here’s a trailer:

Less accessible:

Some animations displayed were significantly more abstract. This is where the festival format really shines, because if it were easy to turn away or fast forward, most people would, but when you don’t have that choice you must simply allow yourself to fall under the spell being cast. Well, that or perhaps fall asleep.

Recycled (2013) was my favourite of the whole festival. As the film usefully declares near the start, French “collector” Thomas Sauvin salvaged over half a million photos (!!) from a recycling plant; over three years, the Chinese artist Lei Lei picked out 3000 (!!!) and, presumably with some amount of computer assistance, assembled the following montage/animation. It starts out quite abstract, but soon you realise hundreds of images are being carefully strung together to produce a kind of emergent stop-motion:

Imagine yourself in a screening of short films, and the next one begins with a caption informing you that “All animals photographed were found as roadkill”. I felt a silent wave of apprehension ripple across the crowd as Yield (2013) began in this way. Fortunately the film was about the most promising thing one could make from that alarming preamble, achieving similar effects as Recycled by stringing unrelated photos together to generate animated effects. Fascinating, but still very disturbing, so I won’t embed it. (link)

Continuing the theme of achieving artistic results through ridiculous amounts of effort (as animators are fond of doing), Liquid paper (2010) generated animated figures by flicking through catalogues with pages cut in precise shapes:

An alternative demonstration of prowess is to produce a work that implicitly asks the audience to wonder: how on earth did they do that? This was demonstrated in Kaizer (2006), in which a steadily rotating camera taking in a crowd continues to pan while people move forwards and backwards with hypnotic effect:

(This reminded me of State of Flux, which appeared to show a continuous traversing shot over a water barrage while the water itself flowed impossibly backwards and forwards, although I suspect was achieved by a very different method).

Finally some more experimental works each elaborated on a simple idea with perhaps too much thoroughness, testing the patience of the casual viewer (and perhaps being more pleasurable online where you are free to take as much or little from it as you like).

Atman (1975), makes extravagant use of a sequence of possibly just 12 photos of a figure sitting in a field in some sort of Noh mask:

Spacy (1981) makes portals out of photos within photos to dizzying effect:

 

Q&A / discussion

When it comes to the Q&A section of an event, I think Kate Beaton summarised it best:

(I can’t find the original link for that but it’s referenced here)

At the animation events, a new layer of entertainment was added to the proceedings thanks to the need to support two languages. The host (Carola Queitsch I think) began to translate as necessary. Unfortunately for her, much of the questioning and discussion was conducted by the academic curators of the films, who would tend to elaborate on an idea with run-on sentences for about two minutes, after which she was expected to provide a summary in English; possibly one of the hardest translation tasks going.

To add to the fun, everyone concerned actually knew a reasonable amount of English as well as German. As a result, primed by hearing the host’s English translation, the speaker would then resume their line of thought or questioning in English – which obliged Carola to then translate into German, provoking a response in German, and so the language cycle could begin again.

Over the course of several showings the translation approach was tweaked, finally settling upon having a film-maker more fluent in English, Gusztav Hamos, translate the high-brow musings of academic curator Thomas Tode. This seemed reasonable, but it gradually became clear that the words did not correlate: Thomas offered his opinion in German, and then Gusztav would make some alternative point in English, to which Thomas might respond in German, and so on. This proved more entertaining and satisfying than any other alternative and so became the main approach.

A more surreal form of Q&A arose when Japanese animator Maki Satake was brought on stage to answer questions about her work. It proved difficult for her to understand the questions posed by the German-spoken English, even when they repeated just the nouns in the sentence with more emphasis and waved their arms for effect; the curators asking the questions also already knew the answers they were hoping to evoke, so ended up spelling out the point completely, enabling Maki to, when understanding was reached, finally answer ‘yes’. A translator from the audience volunteered to smooth things over, but, perhaps on the basis that this would have been too easy, was only called upon to help out with one question.

Finally, in one of the most entertaining Q&As I’ve seen, the children attending the special selection of child-friendly animations were invited to ask particular animators about their work. In a revealing clue to a child’s understanding of culture through the lens of gender, the animator behind a work starring an animated reindeer and a live-action young girl was first asked point blank by a boy: “Why was it a girl and not a boy?”. The animator shrugged, but this line of enquiry provoked a stir among the young crowd, who then demanded to know: “Is the deer a boy or a girl?”. (While neither implied within nor important to the film, the animator responded that the deer was a boy, perhaps because he had provided the animal’s wordless vocalisations).

This raised another important question from a child in the audience: “Does the deer like dancing?”. It should be noted that the film did not involve dancing in any way. Vaguely intimating the rules of improv, the animator got over his initial confusion at the question to answer in the affirmative.

Finally one child stumped the animator by asking “Do you know what reindeer eat?”, to which he could only hazard “Grass… and cocoa?” (the deer was depicted drinking hot chocolate). The host was about to move on when he realised that this had been a rhetorical question, and the child wished instead to impress his own knowledge of the matter upon the audience, demonstrating a precocious understanding of how adults usually interpret their part in a Q&A: “Chestnuts… carrots… and grass. And cocoa.”

- Tim Mannveille tweets as metatim and previously highlighted lovely short animations from Tricky Women 2011

The Lion King versus The Third Dimension

Take any movie studio with a strong back-catalogue and an aversion to risk. Put it in a world where virtually every multiplex can screen 3D movies. Now mix in the ability to create some kind of post-production 3D effect.

The inveitable result is post-production 3D releases of our favourite movies (or at least the highest-grossing ones).

So far, so predictable. But what about Disney? They have arguably the biggest collection of movies that are both well-loved and timeless, so they stand to gain the most in this new world. But while live action movies have an underlying 3D reality, 2D animation doesn’t.

So can they make it work?

I saw The Lion King in 3D at the Edinburgh Film Festival, mainly because I wanted to know the answer to that very question. But before I get to that, a little bit of context.

I’m a fan of Disney 2D animation.

At university I got into Japanese anime. Animation is hard work, so when they want to produce 8 hours or so for a full-length TV anime series, corners are understandably cut. Animation sequences get re-used (the classic being transformation sequences), characters can have extended dialogue scenes without even moving their chins, and dynamism is often achieved through ingenious use of cuts, pans, and background streaking. So when something really serious happens, and the camera moves in three dimensions, or the characters move (usually fight) with sudden grace, the effect is profound.

After years of enjoying that kind of thing, I picked up some Disney DVDs, and was immediately blown away. Characters are moving in three dimensional space all the time! The use of body language is downright extravagant, and faces actually contort to produce expressions! It was like the climactic high-quality animation I enjoyed the most in anime, but throughout the full run-time of the movie. I’ve been strategically waiting for Buy One Get One Free Disney Blu-ray offers ever since.

3D Works For Me

A lot of people are down on 3D, saying it must be a fad, just as it proved to be before.

I once went to a screening of Creature from the Black Lagoon in red/green anaglyphic 3D, and while it was enjoyable as a novelty experience, it was certainly not something you’d want applied to more regular films. The information from the eyes is actively in conflict: one sees red, one green, and the result is some kind of confusing non-colour that conveys information against a background of constant visual dissonance.

In comparison, modern 3D is a wonder. Doubtless there is much to learn: new restrictions on panning and editing, optimal methods of production, best-practice depth ranges to use relative to the screen, or new kinds of shot that never worked before. But it turns out that 3D, no matter how good, just doesn’t work for a sizable chunk of the population. I’ve not seen data, but it seems like at least 10%. I suspect this is why Nintendo moved away from 3D being a functional part of games for the 3DS.

So when someone opens a review of a 3D film by saying “I’m not a fan of 3D”, my first suspicion is that 3D just doesn’t work that well for them.

But it works for me.

All of which brings me to the Lion King, now with an extra D.

Given the above, when the preview was announced at Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011, which I was already attending, I naturally had to check it out. I could see what was at stake: if this method of re-selling classic material was deemed by the public to be worthless, it could fatally damage a potentially lucrative new stream of rerelease revenue for Disney. With so much on the line, and with all their collective talent, you could be sure that if it was possible to wring 3D goodness out of 2D animation, Disney would do it.

The screening took place in the Festival Theatre, using active-shutter 3D glasses. Recalling that the screen there is rather small (especially given the size of the venue) I booked seats close enough to the screen that it would subtend to my eyes at a satisfyingly immersive 30 degrees (or thereabouts). In this position, with The Lion King my favourite and most re-watched Disney VHS as a child, I felt an exaggerated sense of self-importance: this screening was a test for Disney, and I was the best-placed person to judge. (Clearly this is ridiculous – the real judgement will be measured in the box office when it is released on September 16th).

Here’s the short version:

It actually works, most of the time, and when it doesn’t really work, it isn’t actively bad. It’s frequently amazing, and worth paying for.

If all the above has made me seem too biased towards 3D, here’s my overall feeling about 3D films I’ve watched so far, in terms of quality of 3D vs whether it adds or detracts from the overall experience:

It doesn’t always work, and it’s not always a good idea. In Thor, Pirates 4, and especially Alice in Wonderland, the 3D was so poor, or unnecessary, or badly integrated into the direction, that it actively detracted from the experience (I note that the last two of those are Disney productions). Tron Legacy (again, Disney!) tried to use 3D like Wizard of Oz used colour – but Tron’s digital world uses such a sparse aesthetic that there’s hardly anything to actually perceive at different degrees of depth, making the whole carefully-created illusion almost imperceptible (excepting all the scenes featuring physical-trail-leaving vehicles, which worked beautifully).

The biggest question for three-dimensionalising 2D animation is a similar one: with just lines and blocks of colour, how can 3D do much more than make paper-cut-outs of the characters? Indeed, in Kung Fu Panda 2, flashbacks were conveyed in 2D animation, becoming 3D in exactly that limited way.

It turns out there are two answers to this. First, and somewhat obviously in retrospect, the lines defining the characters and their features can be pulled through the z-axis as appropriate, and where sufficient definition of a character exists (as it does for all of the main characters in The Lion King), the brain happily assumes that the areas of colour bounded by these lines must also exist at the appropriate depth.

Second, Disney animation frequently (but not always) goes beyond simple ‘cell shading’. A gentle highlight or shadow accentuates the figures, blending in to the main blocks of colour smoothly. While this improves the overall impression of the original animation (at presumably non-trivial cost in terms of additional effort), it really comes into its own when rendered three-dimensional. The impression of depth and physical presence of characters under these circumstances is truly incredible, with results unlike any kind of animation technique I’ve seen before.

This naturally raises the other big question: the production was not storyboarded with a 3D version in mind, so surely altering it in this way, while sometimes effective by luck, is very likely to be pointless for the majority of the film?

Recall my observation from the start – something that puts Disney animation a cut above the rest is that characters are moving in three-dimensional space much of the time. If someone that hadn’t seen the Lion King saw it for the first time in 3D, they might well assume that a large number of shots or angles must have been specifically added for the 3D version, so great is their use of depth.

The opening sequence of The Lion King is uncannily ideal for adaptation in this way, which leads me to suspect that this was precisely why this particular part of the Disney canon was chosen to forge the path. Indeed, that sequence is being used as a trailer for the forthcoming rerelease at 3D screenings right now.

But then, as I said, it isn’t always perfect. It couldn’t be. Some scenes just happen to have a lot of mid-ground action, or the lighting means the shadows/highlights aren’t used, and in these scenes the 3D becomes almost unnoticeable. A few scenes (particularly the James Earl Jones In The Sky scene) would almost certainly have been designed differently if 3D had been planned all along. But unlike some of the worst offenders I mentioned above, the 3D is not actively bad in these conditions, it’s simply not noticeable. Just as an escalator can never truly break down, but only become temporarily stairs, 3D-ised 2D animation, at worst, becomes temporarily 2D animation.

So when it’s 3D, it’s great. Some of the time it’s as if it was 2D, and then it’s as good as it ever was. If I had to put an average on it, I’d say the film is about 2.85D. And it certainly sits in the right quadrant in my chart: