Film Review: The Ottawa Animation Shorts Festival

I recommend keeping an eye out for this and other animation shows at local, independent theaters and museums. You will be dazzled and amazed.

The Ottawa Animation Shorts Festival. At the ICA, Boston, MA, January 27 and 28.

By Tim Jackson

The Renter -- its fluid style captures childhood memory in thick, rich textures.

The recent Ottawa Animation Shorts Festival demonstrates why animation continues to create some of the most openly imaginative and visually stunning visions on screen.

Animation allows for an artist to imagine a vision untethered by any correlation to reality or conformity of style. The evolution of the art form continues to be remarkable.You can go from Winsor McCay through Warner Brothers and Chuck Jones, to classic Disney and Hanna Barbara, and on to The Simpsons, South Park, and soar into the computer achievements of Pixar and Dreamworks and the stunning visuals of cinema CG and computer games.

Claymation and stop motion have moved from Gumby to Ardmann claymations and Tim Burton’s features. There are underground stars like Bill Plympton and Don Hertzfeldt (who will be touring and at the Coolidge this spring). Some of the greatest and most influential animators are international including Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, England’s Quay Brothers, and Czech motion animator Jan Švankmajer.

The shorts in this festival ran the gamut of narrative possibilities from bizarre and abstract to beautiful and mythic. The range of techniques is broad—stop motion, simple line drawing, pastel watercolor, Flash, motion capture and drawing hybrids, and drawing done straight to computer.

What is common to the new generation of animators is that history is in their DNA. They both honor and riff off of the achievements of their forerunners. None of these short films were generated by committee or were created by a studio. These are single artists drawing and animating with generally small support teams creating short work that might take up to two years or more to complete. There seems to be a golden age of animation in the works. The festival features some of the visionaries of tomorrow.

Several of the works in the festival were created by an international sample of art school students or graduates. The grand prize for best student animation was The Renter by Jason Carpenter from Greensboro, NC, who followed his study at the College of Design at NC State with a degree in Experimental Animation from CalArts. The Renter is his first film. Its fluid style captures childhood memory in thick, rich textures. He cites his visual influences as Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud, and German Expressionism, which shows in his rough, uncertain lines, spatters and drips, and expressive sets. Amazingly, it is an “all-digital paperless production.”

The Last Norwegian Troll -- a story that centers on the last, lonely survivor of his kind, a troll who manages to adapt to modern life.

In an interview on the Cartoon Brew website, Carpenter explains that “before I started the animation, I blocked out rough layouts and animatics in Flash. With some basic brushes and a couple of paper textures . . . I start working on the backgrounds in Photoshop. The ‘texture’ of the film results more from how I worked with the tools I had and not so much what tools they were.” Drawing on a remarkable recreation of childhood imagination to the riff of his memories “of day care,” he created a story that reflects his southern roots and the book he was reading at the time, The Grapes of Wrath.

I’m Fine Thanks by Eamonn O’Neill, winner of Best Graduate Film from the Royal College of Art, is a brilliantly manic short animation. Using, as he says, “all of the colors known to man,” it begins as a primitive looking flash animation of a boy on a bicycle whose story of childhood rejection and loneliness devolves into hideous, hallucinatory madness. The cruelty this happy, simple cartoon figure experiences in his life eventually transforms his head into a churning, twisting nightmare of continually morphing, gargoyle-like blobs. O’Neill, an award-winning artist of natural forms, makes this primal, color-saturated journey into cartoon derangement a complex triumph of the imagination.

The Honorary winner of the Festival was Det Siste Norske Trollet (The Last Norwegian Troll) by Pjotr Sapegin, a former Russian set designer. Now living in Norway, the director has created a number of award-winning stop motion animations. For this film, he says “the usual heroes of the tale are the three young goats, but I get very irritable when I’m hungry so I have a lot more sympathy for the Troll.” The result is a story that centers on the last, lonely survivor of his kind, a troll who manages to adapt to modern life. It’s a bawdy tale replete with fantastical creatures from a mythical Norway centuries ago, a naked maiden who freezes for 100 years (in a wonderfully composed, overhead shot done in some sort of time lapse), three goats of varying sizes complete with quite visible testicles, and a narration delivered with great earnestness by no less than Max Von Sydow. The story is inspired by The Three Billy Goats Gruff, but veers off into a fantastical history of Norway, ending in a surprisingly sweet faux myth about the origins of the country.

Ottawa also saw the premiere of Stephen Irwin’s Moxie, which was the Grand Prize Winner. The story is described in the Sundance catalog as “a pyromaniac bear misses his mother.” Irwin makes striking use of his trademark animation style — smudgy, high-contrast black and white. This film is truly beyond description. It feels as though it is destroying itself as you watch it. The smudged edges creep in. The bear lights a match, and suddenly the frame is in flames. The narrative advances though daily lessons, one for each day of the week. The calm narration doesn’t clarify much — in fact, it ends up throwing the story into greater abstraction. The plot, if indeed there is one, turns eerie then cute, then nightmarish, then adorable. You must experience this celebrated animator’s style to understand the memorizing impact of his vision. The closest analogy is that you are tossed into, and then out of, a strange dream.

Moxie -- this film is truly beyond description. It feels as though it is destroying itself as you watch it.

There are five more beautiful shorts in the The Ottawa Animation Festival: 12 Sketches on the Impossibility of Being Still, The Mechanism of Spring, Joyz ‘Electropia’, Blanche Fraise, and The Goat and The Well. This is one of the most important festivals for new animators, and I recommend keeping an eye out for these films when they are available on DVD or online. You will be dazzled and amazed.

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