Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012 – My Best of the Fest

I went to the Edinburgh International Film Festival for the third consecutive year, and although the general consensus seems to be that new artistic director Chris Fujiwara steered it back in the right direction after 2011’s low-budget-no-carpet-no-deals worries, it wasn’t quite as exciting for me (see my overview of EIFF 2011).

That said, there were still some great films, so here’s my personal Best of the Fest.

IMDb 7.2 / RT (not enough reviews yet)

Pro: Cats everywhere, all the time.
Con: More like a series of short films.
Overall: Funny, charming, enjoyable in the ways it defies convention, and did I mention, cats everywhere.

Wu Xia / Dragon / Swordsmen
IMDb 7.0 / RT (not enough reviews yet)

Pro: A brilliantly conceived and executed combined crime-scene-investigation/fight scene.
Con: Seems a bit like an imperfectly edited adaptation of a more complicated novel, but apparently it isn’t.
Overall: Although it peaks early (see ‘Pro’), it remains a consistently surprising and entertaining take on some of the tropes of the genre.

IMDb 6.1 / RT 77%

Pro: A delightfully varied horror anthology, creepy in some places, ghost-pigeon insane in others.
Con: The misogynistic tone and slow build of the opening half-hour.
Overall: Worth sitting through the irritating opening for the goodness inside, particularly at the very end. Don’t watch the trailer more than once.

Berberian Sound Studio
IMDb 7.0 (27 votes) / RT 100% (from 15 reviews)

Pro: Does some extraordinarily powerful things with sounds and silence.
Con: Could have gone in a number of directions, ultimately opts for perhaps the least interesting of those.
Overall: If you like the trailer, you’ll love the film.

The Making of Longbird
The winner of the animation category, as well as my personal favourite. Despite seeing a lot of impressive different animation styles across the whole animation strand, the simple joy of a silly-looking character speaking with a weirdly fitting voice was just impossible to beat:

Every year we’ve attended some or all of the ‘Black Box’ experimental short film screenings curated by Kim Knowles, and these are always fascinating and memorable. For me, this year’s most most powerful selection was the 28.5-minute long ‘Vexed’ by Telcosystems. Unusually, Kim warned the audience in advance that this would be a particularly intense experience, which heightened our expectations, and we were not disappointed.

As the film progressed, I formed the impression that I was pushing through the edge of the universe, passing through layers of quantum foam, tuning my way systematically through 10 dimensions, uncertain if I would find anything on the other side, knowing that every minute spent pressing further added years to the return journey should I choose to make it, and at every moment I felt imbued with purpose and fulfillment. And there’s not many films you can say that about.

You can see some of it in this video, in between the interview segments that I can’t understand:

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011 – My Best of the Fest

I went to the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) in 2010, and discovered that film festivals are exactly the kind of thing I should be doing. Earlier this year I therefore went to the Tricky Women animation film festival in Vienna, which was intense and wonderful, and then attended EIFF again this year, and enjoyed it again, but in a different way.

Wait, wasn’t the film festival terrible this year?

It was different, that’s for sure. Here’s my understanding:

i) A 3-year Film Council grant came to an end in 2010; by one account the grant had been conditional on the film festival taking place in June instead of August (when all the other festival craziness is going on), by another account the grant was to support a move to a June slot. In any case, with less money, something had to give.

ii) Festival director Hannah McGill stood down after 2010’s festival, and it seems they struggled to find a suitable replacement.

This produced some major changes:

  • No red carpet events
  • No competition
  • Much fewer new films

From the perspective of the industry, this was something of a disaster.

As a regular punter that just wants a fun film holiday, I was more bothered by some of the minor changes:

  • No ticket deals
  • Difficulties finding out what was on

Last year you could get tickets to 4 films for £24. This year there was no such deal (although some events cost only £6 anyway), but more worryingly there were a number of late-announced special offers like 2-for-1 on documentaries, perhaps in response to poor ticket sales. Naturally this makes me think that next year I should buy fewer tickets in advance and wait for the last-minute deals, and others may do the same, so creating a vicious circle.

In practice we ended up going to about the same number of events, it cost about 20% more, and the events were actually better than last year. Meanwhile I was able to keep up with what was going on through the Twitter hashtag #EdFilmFest, so that solved the problem of finding out about when and where things were happening. Net result: for me, EIFF 2011 was just as enjoyable as 2010, if not more so.

My Top 5 Events

5. Polyester, presented in Odorama
There are some experiences in life in which one can derive satisfaction from the feeling that you are experiencing it in the ideal way (like drinking Afternoon Tea in the afternoon). This was just such an event.

I was only familiar with John Waters from his stand-up / autobiography This Filthy World (2006), but was very interested to see some of his notorious back catalogue. Midnight Movies put on Polyester (1981) at the Filmhouse, at midnight on a Friday, with a pre-recorded bespoke introduction from Waters himself, and superbly reproduced Odorama cards, matching the original design and array of 10 novelty scratch-and-sniff experiences which the film cues you to interact with at certain points.

The film was deleriously over-the-top with a rich undercurrent of satire (as I had expected); the smells were amazing, far more than a token effort; and the screening was packed with exactly the right kind of crowd for the movie, all of which created a sublime cinematic experience.

4. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema
Not related to Jon Waters, this is a 2006 TV documentary that ended up exceeding its originally planned run-time to become a 3-part 2.5 hour epic, and consists almost entirely of a strange man with a beard talking about how Freudian a lot of cinema is.

On the face of it, this does not sound like a very good idea, which may be why it was shown in the smallest of the screens. In practice, though, it was the most consistently entertaining showing of all the films I saw at the festival.

The strange man with a beard is Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, who has a wide knowledge of film and also of Freudian and Lacanian thought, and he evidently finds it tremendous fun to view one through the lens of the other. His ideas are just the kind of thing I occasionally read and find ridiculous (the floors of the hotel in Psycho represent the Ego, Superego and Id; David Lynch’s recurring nightmare figures are all ultimately oedipal in nature; the blank screen of the cinema represents the mysterious ur-space our minds imagine toilets flush into) – but when these theories are delivered with such brio, and intercut with perfectly selected moments as his cinematic references, it all makes sense.

The film is directed and perhaps more importantly edited by Sophie Fiennes, who was present for a Q&A and is clearly a great admirer of Žižek’s ideas. It turns out that almost everything he says in the film was delivered off-the-cuff, through rambling 15-minute takes, conducted with the DVDs of the relevant movies close to hand for immediate reference where necessary. I got the impression that few others would have the patience and enthusiasm to do the painstaking work of connecting these individually cogent but collectively disparate ramblings together to form a coherent structure – indeed, the process of doing so apparently took 9 months.

Interest is also maintained with some artful reconstruction work in which Žižek delivers his monologues while apparently standing within the very sets or locations of the moments he is referring to, a technique which apparently served to stimulate his ideas significantly, and also just makes the whole thing more fun.

The film fully exploits Fair Use making liberal use of other works to illustrate points. Unfortunately it seems distributors are afraid that this won’t hold up in court (although it should), so if you like the sound of it you’ll need to order it from their own microsite.

3. Troll Hunter
It’s often hard to identify films you’d be interested in at a festival. In many instances no trailer yet exists, and reviews are scarce or non-existent.

Troll Hunter was rather easier to spot. A strikingly honest and informative title is backed up by a trailer that shows you that even though this is a low-budget independent film, it certainly delivers some excellent Troll action:

As the director pointed out afterwards, the ‘mockumentary’ style has tremendous benefits for those on a limited budget: you only have to render your effects from one angle, and you don’t need to do any when the cameraman is running away from something, as he must inevitably do from time to time. (Of course, this takes for granted the comparatively recent ability to composite CG effects seamlessly into hand-held footage even with a low budget, as was also demonstrated last year at EIFF with Gareth Edwards’s Monsters)

Even more than I had hoped, the film turns out to sit squarely in the small subgenre of movies in which fantastical events are treated as normal or even boring by the protagonists, other examples being Ghostbusters, Mystery Men, Galaxy Quest, Shaun of the Dead, and Skeletons. Troll Hunter, while primarily played for laughs, is filled with the kind of small details that ground it in reality, dozens of little ideas which collectively give the film the ring of truth.

Sadly, the script was not too concerned with making sure that all actions were driven by plausible decisions on the part of the characters (particularly once the dangerous nature of trolls becomes apparent), but there’s so much else to enjoy about it that I’m happy to forgive that failing in this case.

The film will be on general release in the UK as of 9th September.


2. The Lion King in 3D
I blogged about this in more detail earlier; the short version is that, amazingly, pushing 2D animation into 3D actually works.


1. Bike-powered Belleville Rendez-Vous
This event was mentioned on the EIFF blog, and later on Twitter (which is how I caught wind of it), but seemingly nowhere else. This was a great shame, because the concept was so brilliant I’d have attended a version of it every day of the festival if it was possible.

Four bikes power a battery that runs the projector, four other bikes power the sound, and the audience is invited to join in the effort (all courtesy of the Guerilla Cinema Project). In this way it pairs something I want (film) with something I need (exercise). Brilliant.

Due to the lack of promotion, the audience was actually very small, and although the event was staffed with some incredibly fit volunteers to keep things ticking over, when we decided to step up with about half an hour of the movie to go, there really wasn’t any immediate prospect of relief should we tire. This was also brilliant, as it added a sense of danger while demanding more than I realised I had to give.

The choice of the film could surely not have been more apt: The Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003).

A key scene in the film sees characters doing almost exactly the same thing: pedalling on bikes that power a film screening in front of them (although for very different reasons). Naturally I made sure I was on the bike at that point of the film (having seen it once before many years ago) for maximum weirdness.

Some observations of the emergent behaviour:

If the event had had a strong turnout, I’m not sure how they could have solved the participation problem in a way that kept everybody happy. You can’t be sure how many people in the audience want to step up, or for how long they are prepared to cycle. In that context, I’m not sure what simple allocation system would ensure the film keeps playing and that everyone that wants to gets to participate. As it was, it was more like a game of survival; with so few people it felt as if everyone had to give their all just to keep the lights on. Which was actually awesome.

I would love to have seen the cycling effort data across all the screenings tracked against the events of the film. Keeping an eye on the battery meter, the other cyclists, and my own feelings, it does seem that some interesting feedback loops are at work. For example, at one point the protagonists are cycling with great effort up a hill, prompting an empathic response of extra effort from us, and a notable drop in our effort when they finally made it to the top.

Achievement Stickers
Finally, as has become customary, I made myself some stickers as incentives to do different things on the holiday. Notable non-film events were a visit to Rosslyn Chapel (made insanely famous by the Da Vinci Code), which is fully fascinating in its own right:

… and the Falkirk Wheel, which is self-evidently stupendous:

… with the following results in my sticker book:

So it turns out that even when EIFF is very different, it’s still great. Unfortunately the response to this year’s problems may well be to reschedule it to August, at which point Edinburgh becomes ridiculously overcrowded, which doesn’t appeal to me at all. Oh well.

– metatim

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:

Maintaining a Genial Epoch