Saturday, February 16, 2008

Weekend Toon Up


Inspired by MICA's Suzan Pitt retrospective Thursday night, I spent all day Saturday watching animated films at area theatres.


First up was the the "The 2007 Academy Award Nominated Animated Short Films" program at the Landmark Theatre, where I saw all five short films nominated for Best Animated Short at the 2007 Academy Awards (a separate program addressed the live action short film nominees). One of those films was the amazing Madame Tutli-Putli, which I had seen previously and was sure would be the pick of the litter and a shoo-in for this year's Oscar. But after seeing the full line-up, I wasn't so sure. In other words, this is a great program of immensely talented animators, one in which everyone's a contender! In fact, I was so impressed by the impressionist watercolor technique employed in the Russian short My Love (Moya Lyubov) , I have to give it the Oscar nod (though I Am the Walrus was easily the most enjoyable short).

The 90-minute program was perfectly paced and included (in order of appearance):

(directed by Samuel Tourneux and Simon Vanesse, France, 9 minutes, French w/ English subtitles, CGI)

A priest tries to sell an old man a machine that he promises will transport him to Paradise. This funny short was a great opener, managing to entertain while also showing the hypocrisy of Catholic theological excess in a way only Europeans raised under Church ideology can.


MEMES LES PIGEONS at Internet Movie Database

(directed by Alexander Petrov, Russia, 27 minutes, Russian w/English subtitles)

Alexander Petrov has been nominated for four Oscars for Best Animated Short Film, winning previously for THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1999). Inspired by Ivan Turgenev's novella First Love, this long short set in 19th-century Russia tells the story of a teenage boy in search of love who is drawn to two very different women from two very different social classes. Da, da...typical Russian epic novel fare with a typically tragic Turgenev twist (readers of my Lazy Eye post take note - it involves strabismus!). But it's handled with great imagination and amazing technical skill - Petrov employs the time-consuming technique of painting pastel oils on glass, giving his film the look of one of Monet's impressionist paintings come to life. The effect is visual poetry at its finest.

MY LOVE - PART 1 (extract from You Tube)

(directed by Chris Lavin and Maciek Szczerbowski, Canada, 17 minutes, Claymation/CGI)
Official Madame Tutli-Putli Website

Jeepers, creepers, where'd you get those peepers?

A timid woman boards a mysterious night train and has a series of frightening experiences. That's the non-narrative plot of this stop-motion puppet animation film, but its real story lies in Madame Tutli-Putli's expressive eyes. Those emotive orbs were the creation of Jason Walker, who crafted a production process in which he seamlessly added live action human eyes to stop-motion animation. The process is explained in detail on Jason Walker's official web site (
Jason developed a system of separating and analyzing the previously shot stop-motion puppet moves, choreographing, rehearsing and shooting a human actor's corresponding "eye performance" to match each puppet move, at the same time recreating as closely as possible all light and shadow passes original to the stop-motion. Once the human eyes were shot, each eye was individually positioned, scaled, re-timed and digitally composited onto the puppet scenes. As different actors were cast for almost all the characters, the requirement was not only to integrate the human eyes onto each puppet, but on a frame by frame basis, match the subtle movement of the puppets, the camera, and the train – all the while retaining the flow of the acting. "This required every trick in the book and more!" exclaims Mr. Walker. The creation of the film and this extraordinarily painstaking process took 4 years from concept to completion.

Beyond its technical aspects, the film is also a thought-provoking psychological exercise, for Mademe Tutli-Putli certainly carries more than just Samsonite luggage aboard the train. Like the characters in Suzan Pitt's Asparagus and Joy Street, the protagonist is clearly taking a trip to the center of her mind.


(directed by Josh Raskin, Canada, 5 minutes, English, 2D Animation)
Official Web Site:

Animators looking for ideas, take heart: this is a prime example of how to make something out of nothing. In 1969, 14-year-old Jerry Levitan (pictured left) snuck into John Lennon's hotel room in Toronto with his tape recorder and persuaded him to do an interview. This was during John and Yoko's "Bed-In" to promote world peace phase. Levitan got 5 minutes worth of conversation about various topics, including war and peace, music and, unfortunately, his dislike of George Harrison (what's his problem? George was my fave of the Fab Four!). It all wouldn't have amounted to much, except for Josh Raskin's imagination and skill as an animator and director 38 years later. He uses a stream-of-consciousness technique to illustrate basically every word that comes out of Lennon's mouth. More specifically, he employs James Braithwaite's pen sketches and Alex Kurina's digital illustrations to create what the film's official web site quite rightly calls "a spell-binding vessel for Lennon’s boundless wit, and timeless message." That message is illustrated below:

The look of the animation reminded me of both Terry Gilliam's Monty Python work (which of course harkens back to the cut-up collage techniques of Stan Vanderbeek) and Frank and Caroline Mouris' FRANK FILM (1973), especially in regards to the latter's pacing and thematic synching of images with narration.

Check out the trailer below:
"I Met the Walrus" trailer

(directed by Suzie Templeton, UK & Poland, 27 minutes, stop-motion Claymation)
Official Web Site

The kids in the crowd loved this one the best, and why not? It's a familiar story to them, but this version of Prokofiev's classical music drama of a young boy and his animal friends who face a hungry wolf is told with a different slant. The director nixes all that "cry wolf" foreplay and gets right to the matter at hand, the action and Prokofiev's music propelling the narration-free story forward until it reaches a new, "re-imagined" non-violent ending. There are also ample bits of humor, thanks to Templeton's amusing animal models.

Suzie Templeton is best known for her award-winning film DOG (2002), which told the story of a boy coming to terms with the death of his mother. This film has won many prizes, including a British Animation Award and a BAFTA.

Watch Official Trailer

The short was also featured on PBS' GREAT PERFORMANCES. Check out the clip below to see director Suzie Templeton talking about the maing of her film:
The Making of PETER & THE WOLF


Then it was up to the Charles Theatre to finally catch Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2007, France/USA, 95 min), which I had been hearing about since my animator friend saw it at the Annecy Animation Festival in France. First-time director Marjane Satrapi did a marvelous job adapting her graphic novel of the same name to the big screen (after all, who else knows the material as well as its author?), and I like the way she used black-and-white to depict her life under an oppressive regime in Iran and color for her life in the West.

Satrapi's story of her coming-of-age, from a 9-year-old during Iran's Islamic Revolution, a teenager during the long war of attrition with Iraq and as a young woman eventually escaping to the West is both a history lesson and the story of one woman's independent spirit and quest for artistic and creative freedom. Particularly amusing is the appeal of "decadent" Western culture in the form of punk, ABBA, Iron Maiden and Michael Jackson for Satrapi while in her homeland, as contrasted with her contempt for its excesses in the West. For example, when she is Vienna hanging out a middle-class group of friends made up of mohawked nihilists and punk rock-listening anarchists, she can't figure out exactly what they're rebelling against, other than boredom. They seem to have it all too easy while in her country listening to something even as innocuous as the Bee Gees was enough to get one imprisoned.

As has been pointed out by other reviewers, the emotional highlight of Satrapi's film is the unironic use of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" to represent her resolve to change her plight and strike out for personal and artistic freedom. Westerners may snicker at the cheesiness of the song's sentiments, but irony is a luxury for oppressed people whose main concern is survival.

It would be easy after watching Persepolis to smugly assume that the West has religious freedom and that that Iran's religious regime is an all-too-obvious form of fascism. But religious fanaticism of all every stripe came off pretty poorly in the films I saw today, from the mean-spirited imans and nuns in Persepolis to the conniving priest in the animated short Meme les Pigeons vont au Paridis (Even Pigeons Go To Heaven).

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