Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/03/2006.
The British Animation Awards are biennial affairs, so we're due another round of them very soon - expect a report on here, eventually. In the meantime, the shortlisted candidates for the Public Choice award are touring the UK throughout February 2008, and if you're lucky they'll be appearing soon at a cinema near you.
(Is it really two years since I got broadband installed? Funny to see how the idea of watching short films online seemed moderately exotic back then, in those early YouTube days...)
If you've spent any time looking at the festival reviews from London and Edinburgh, you'll know that we love a good bit of animation round these parts. Still, I have to admit I've never done anything like this before. Normally, I'll use a programme of animation shorts as a palate cleanser in the middle of a festival - a bit of bite-sized light relief to contrast with the longer, heavier stuff. But three animation programmes on consecutive nights is uncharted territory even for me. To explain: the British Animation Awards, aside from the official gongs they hand out every two years, also do a Public Choice award. Throughout January and February 2006, a programme of 63 animated shorts toured the arthouse cinemas of Britain, giving audiences the opportunity to vote for their favourites. I suspect this may well be the only site where you can find reviews of all 63 (though some of those reviews will be insultingly brief, I'll warn you now).
Three categories of animated shorts are included in the Public Choice (which is handy for a website with a tripartite page structure, it's true): non-commercial short films, adverts, and music videos. You'd have thought the music videos would provide the most extraordinary sights of this collection: they're made on a substantial budget, to play to an audience that is generally looking for the unusual. In practice, that doesn't stop some of these videos looking rather ordinary. Camera: Out On The Water (Frater Films), for example, unashamedly pushes all the cutesy and jolly buttons in its story of a maggot who escapes the fishhook and goes off exploring. But by the end it's won you over, despite a couple of dull spots. Emiliana Torrini: Heartstopper (David Lea) is less successful, with Torrini acting out the song's lyrics in a puppet show which gradually takes on a life of its own. It's not a particularly new idea: and besides, there seems to be more puppet work than animation here, unless it's really subtle.
Generally, as you'd expect, we have to turn to the indie sector to find the more experimental videos, two of which played in the Mirrorball programme at Edinburgh last year. Gravenhurst: I Turn My Face To The Forest Floor (Thomas Hicks) is one of them, and after two viewings the quiet drone of the song and the dreamlike imagery of a hellish cinema are stuck in my head - I guess that means it did the job, then. Subtle: Swan Meat (SSSR) was also at Edinburgh, and still fails to convince me, as you spend so much time analysing the technique you barely notice Subtle's glitchy groove. When the same black and white CG cliches turn up in Mum: Will The Summer Make Good For Our Sins (Marc Craste), only with a much less interesting song, you start to wonder: does Adobe Premiere have a special plugin for generating that Floating Greasy Fluff effect that's so popular now?
For all their faults, all three of those videos have a coherent visual scheme that they rigidly stick to. As does the more successful 080 (Dave Watson), which builds with the music from simple flashing lights to a crazed CG music generation machine: the image breaking up as the instrumentation goes into overload, then drops away again. The other option, of course, is to just throw everything at the screen and see what sticks. The Charlatans: Try Again Today (Run Wrake) has lots of ideas, the best of which is having the band members' heads used as bouncing balls over the song lyrics: but it's lost in the clutter alongside the seven or eight other visual riffs the video plays with. Similarly, Audio Bullys: Shot Me Down (Jonas Odell) is a complete mess of treated Nancy Sinatra footage and Dadaist collage work, which is at least justified by the song being a similarly confused collision of styles - that may be the point, but it doesn't make it any easier to look at.
Having said that, the director takes exactly the same approach on Franz Ferdinand: Take Me Out (Jonas Odell), and this time the throbby sledgehammer collages work perfectly, because it's a throbby sledgehammer of a song to begin with. Also, as the first Franz Ferdinand single, it defined them perfectly from the off: you knew these were art school boys straight away. Although if you're talking about a band being defined by the look of their videos, there's nobody doing that better than Gorillaz right now. When I was reading Tank Girl comics nearly two decades ago, I don't think I could have predicted that their creator Jamie Hewlett would be up for a Designer Of The Year award for his work with a made-up band. Gorillaz: Feel Good Inc (Jamie Hewlett and Pete Candeland), like all the best music videos, can be watched again and again without palling - the contrast between the grimy interiors and fluffy exteriors matches the bipolar mood of the song beautifully. For my money, it's the best music video in this collection.
As I mentioned earlier, the British Animation Awards cover work done over the last two years. So as we move into the section of this review dedicated to what The Belated Birthday Girl would doubtless call Proper Films, it's no surprise that I've covered a few of them already in their previous festival appearances - and generally favourably, too. Who I Am And What I Want (David Shrigley & Chris Shepherd) popped up at last year's LFF: Beginning Middle And End (Daniel Greaves) and City Paradise (Gaelle Denis) appeared at LFF 2004: while Kamiya's Correspondence (Sumito Sakakibara), Bus Stop (Matthew Abbiss) and Play (Matthew Abbiss again) go back as far as Edinburgh 2004. (For Your Blossom (Gaku Kinoshita) also turned up at Edinburgh 2004, but it looks like its clumsily allegorical story wasn't deemed worthy of mention by me at the time.)
Remember those 'insultingly brief' reviews I told you about earlier? Well, this is where they happen, as I dismiss the hard work of a dozen or so animators in one line each because it didn't particularly grab me. Sorry. Puleng (Ali Taylor) - not much happens in this tale of Africa, and it's not visually interesting enough to work as a technical exercise. For A Tango (Gabriele Zucchelli) - nice looking animation of two guys in a rigorously choreographed knife fight, though the historical context stuff doesn't quite work. Lloyd In The Corner (Nicholas Losse) - hohum story about man in office looking to get out. Perfect (Sally Arthur) - interesting collage effects in tale of couple growing apart over the years because of technology - her in the kitchen, him in his shed. Beach Buoy (Natalie Ann Hinchley) - charming but thin depiction of a buoy's day out playing with people on the beach. Beasty (Susi Wilkinson) - the opening image of cutesy creatures being picked off by a gun-toting bear in a helicopter makes for a good start, but it's downhill from there. Film Noir (Osbert Parker) - impressionistic collage of film noir imagery, but doesn't really do anything special with it other than just use it. Little Angel (David Ledsam & Stuart Barnecutt) - looks nice, but timing of gags is way off - too many slow fades, not enough fast cuts. Summer Sunday 1960 (Derek Hayes) - passable recreation of childhood memory that tries to push all the right buttons for nostalgia but never actually generates any. The Eel (Dominic Hailstone) - like a Happy Shopper version of a Chris Cunningham/Aphex Twin collaboration. Watermelon Love (Joji Koyama) - incomprehensible stuff about Chinese women, sex and square watermelons. Hairy Driving (Jem Roberts) - car chase which has the velocity that Little Angel was missing, along with amusing abuse of cats, but not much else.
Director Tim Hope has three films in this year's award shortlist, all part of a series called Minema Cinema. The basic idea is this: three 13-year-olds were asked to write and storyboard a short film, and Hope animated the results without making any editorial changes to their ideas. It sounds patronising as hell written down like that, particularly as it sets you up to lower your expectations of the stories - which turns out not to be necessary. But the three films all have a suspiciously similar structure, and you find yourself trying to work out the ground rules Hope initially set the kids - introduce two contrasting characters, set up a conflict between them, have some sort of moral at the end, and feel free to keep it silly. So, Revenge Is Cold (written by Kevin Pinto) depicts a bird-hating cactus moving in with the igloo he loves, while being pursued by his enemy, a box of matches who really wants to be a lighter. It's probably the best-constructed story of the three, while Keep Going (written by Acai Duang Arop) is the most outrageously surreal one - in a couple of years, Acai will find herself self-censoring ideas like 'an egg goes in search of Michael Jackson and teams up with a gorilla looking for his family', so she should relish the moment while she can. By comparison, Love Then First Fight (written by Thomas Gwyther) relies a little too much on its zany characters (a mixed-fibre shirt who suffers the fabric equivalent of racial abuse, and a recovering criminal crowbar) and not enough on a story that does anything interesting with them. But on the whole, Minema Cinema's a worthwhile experiment.
Sometimes good writing takes precedence over the visuals. The narrator of Guy 101 (Ian Gouldstone) tells the story of his mysterious gay online pal. It's animated in a patchwork of styles covering the visual breadth of the internet experience - popup windows, text boxes and so on - but it's the subtle geeky gags that most appeal, like a pre-coital beer bottle labelled 'chmod 777'. His Passionate Bride (Monica Forsberg) is a speedily paced bit of roughly-drawn filth, its torrid tale of love and death given an added kick by Frances Barber's lascivious narration. Sleep With The Fishes (Belle Mellor) is a music video in all but name, taking its inspiration from a Tiger Lillies song - and I'm sure the band would approve of the film apparently being set inside a stream of Neptune's piss, where several aquatic vignettes take place. The quirky style plays off Martin Jacques' mournful song to splendid effect.
Sometimes good visuals take precedence over the writing. Careful (Damian Gascoigne) features childlike drawings with tons of computer manipulation, telling the story of a small child who slips away from her overprotective mother while on an errand. There are all sorts of emotional responses this could have played with - the fear of the mother, the cautious joy of the child's exploration - but it doesn't really come close to them until right at the end. While Darwin Sleeps (Paul Bush) hurls over 3000 mounted insects into your face until they come at the rate of one per frame, looking like they're evolving before your eyes. There's a nicely paced rise and fall to the piece, and a great end titles disclaimer: 'no animals were harmed in the making of this film... not by me.' The programme synopsis for Perpetual Motion In The Land Of Milk And Honey (Al + Al) mentions a perpetual motion machine, free power, phone calls to the Lamb of God and a sabotage attempt led by Britney Spears. None of that is the slightest bit obvious from the visuals, but at least it works well enough as eye candy. Heavy Pockets (Sarah Cox) tells the story of a schoolgirl who, shortly after a lesson on Newton, loses touch with gravity for reasons I could possibly explain if I spoke Welsh. There's excellent use of heavily treated live action, stripping out backgrounds and key elements in an exercise to see how little you actually need to see on screen.
But in the end, this section is bound to fall prey to the traditional curse of animation programmes - everyone's going to like the funny narrative ones best. Moving (Jon Evans) follows an old lady who finds her house suddenly surrounded by a city: her solution is to carry the house off on her back in search of a better place. There are some breathtaking images - her final escape is genuinely edge-of-the-seat stuff - and the film has the technical chops to pull them off. Astronauts (Matthew Walker) has a lovely tactile feel to its CG, like the characters and all their surroundings are made out of foam rubber. Beautifully timed visual and verbal gags, and a neatly understated punchline: it's the sort of comedy short that should get Pixar taking notice. But the best of all - and my vote for the film that should pick up the Public Choice award - is Rabbit (Run Wrake). Made from old 1950s children's book illustrations (labelled in big type throughout), it's a fable about two children who discover a guru that can turn flies into valuables. Like all the best fairy tales, when retribution for their sin comes, it's utterly horrible. Which, of course, makes it even funnier.
And so we come to the adverts. But whereas my favourites in the music video section are the ones I'm most familiar with (Feel Good Inc and Take Me Out), with the ads it's easy to find familiarity breeding contempt. Pepperami: Swimmer (Ken Lidster) features a bit of processed meat yelling in Ade Edmondson's voice and getting itself hurt. Jammie Dodgers: Shopping (Jerry Hibbert) has sentient jam causing chaos in a kitchen. Apple Jacks: Costumes (Ken Lidster) looks like every other CG cereal ad. It's all stuff we've seen hundreds of times over, and no matter how well it's done it's all a bit boring. Having said that, Ribena: Liquidator (Daniel Greaves) is an entertaining variation on the campaign theme of blackcurrants failing to escape a squishy Final Destination-style fate. It's a definite step up from the drink's previous campaign, which featured blackcurrants having a party at which Ribena was served in some sort of cannibalistic blood orgy.
Maybe it's a different discipline trying to rate 30 second films whose main purpose is to sell you something, but there appears to be a lot of dull stuff in this section even when you rule out the ones you've seen countless times before. Bullring: Launch (Mario Cavalli & Alon Ziv) uses the tagline 'isn't it funny how things get more interesting the closer they get?', and yet I can remember the tagline but not a single bit of imagery used: which is surprising given the involvement of Cavalli, who we'll return to later. Pringles: Ladybird (Grigoris Leontiades) is an okay bit of traditional cartoon art featuring angry ladybirds complaining about the size of Mini Pringles. Urban Art: Red Square Reloaded (Joe King) has Banksy-style graffiti figures running riot around the walls of a city centre, before the final packshot reveals that they're all pissed up on alcopops. MSN: Adventures (Tokyoplastics) is content to just have the MSN Search box morph into the sorts of things you could search for, because 'it's like Google, only by one of the most hated companies in the world' doesn't really work as a slogan.
And even the films with some visual interest suffer once subjected to any real critical scrutiny. Carte Noire (Rebecca Manley) uses all the stereotypical French images in Gauloisey tones to sell French coffee. Quantum: Sketch (Iain Gardner) is a standard to-camera pitch only enlivened by being hand-drawn, although there's probably a Premiere plug-in that can simulate that as well (next to the Floating Greasy Fluff). Thorntons: Save My Bacon (Ruairi Robinson) is an amusing enough tale of a Christmas turkey escaping the chop by buying the farmer chocolates, which dies as soon as you remember Chicken Run.
Whereas music videos can suffer if you mix and match too many styles and ideas, ads seem to be able to get away with it as long as you get the pack shot at the end right. Johnny Walker: Paintings (Bobby Proctor & Pat Gavin) has a character running through a series of art pastiches in search of booze: the contrasts in the various art styles are interesting, but not really spectacular enough to wow you like they should. Motorola: Classics (Smith & Foulkes) does a similar thing with movies rather than paintings, and is much more successful thanks to its high joke rate. Ditto for the wee delight that is Observer Music Monthly: From Abba To Zappa (Smith & Foulkes), built on the Flip Flop Flyin' caricatures of pop stars that were used to advertise the mag in the press. In one minute you get 26 alphabetically sorted popstars in pixel art, done so fast it takes a couple of viewings before you can identify them all.
Sometimes the problem is a mismatch between the style and the message. Your average man in the street wouldn't even consider Vodafone: Mayfly (Darren Walsh) to be animation, so slick is its CG depiction of a mayfly's life - but the undeniable technical skill is undone by its conclusion that to live our lives to the same hectic degree, we should spend more time getting head cancer from our mobiles. (Or perhaps that's how we end up with the same lifespan as a mayfly in the first place.) Red Cross: Seed Of Hate (Bird Studios) wants to be a hard-hitting depiction of how tyranny flourishes in the world, but sadly it hasn't really got the guts to go all the way. The distancing effect of animation could have allowed them to make this a lot darker, but they chose not to. Vesicare: Pipe People (David Anderson) is probably the ad that's most likely to baffle a British audience: it's selling an anti-incontinence drug, and does so using characters made out of metal piping who struggle to keep their gaping metal urethras from pissing directly into the camera. I'm not making this up. To confirm it's been made for Americans, the ad contains 30 seconds of visual dead time to cover the reading of disclaimers and side effects, which just amuses us Brits even more. It makes you yearn for the simplicity of United Airlines: Legs (Sarah Roper), in which characters with enormous legs happily queue for United Economy seats: a basic idea that does the job.
Another ad for the same company - United Airlines: A Life (Michael Dudok de Wit) - goes shamelessly for a pure emotional pull, with its surprisingly touching depiction of a man's life from childhood to old age spent looking at planes in the sky. There's probably a thesis to be written about how the ad industry goes about generating sympathy for the most morally suspect and un-green products. Such a thesis would probably have a field day with Honda: GRRR (Smith & Foulkes), which explicitly goes for an ecological theme: how Honda's hate for diesel engines has led them to produce better, cleaner ones. The relentlessly perky images and Garrison Keilor's zany song push this almost to the verge of being intensely irritating, but not quite. As perky as those images are, though, they've got to go a long way to rival those of VW: Summer Morning (Mario Cavalli), although the digital projection used at the BAA screenings loses out in comparison to the 35mm version that played British cinemas last year. You don't want to love this one - it's an advert for a car, it isn't even trying to persuade you it's eco-friendly, and yet it's using images of nature to do it - but the hyper-psychedelia of the pictures, combined with Minnie Ripperton's ecstatic Les Fleur on the soundtrack, makes it the best ad in this year's programme. Bastards.
Well, I make that 63. The BAA Public Choice Award is announced on March 9th 2006, along with the other awards they won't let the public near. For what it's worth, my vote goes for Rabbit: although I'm prepared to accept that the idea of children being hideously tortured for their greed might not be as popular with the rest of the public as it is with me. Being a monkey, and all.
The British Animation Awards inevitably has its own site - visit it after March 9th 2006 to see who's won. It lists the finalists for the main awards as well as the candidates for the Public Choice. If you live in Birmingham [dead link], Bradford, Brighton, Brighton again [dead link], Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Dartington, Dundee, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Ipswich, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Sheffield, Tyneside or Wolverhampton, you may have already seen these films when they played there early in 2006. If you missed them, you can always wait for the DVD later this year.
animate! is a commissioning body for new animation, and they were responsible for seven of the films seen here: Careful, the Minema Cinema trilogy, Perpetual Motion In The Land Of Milk And Honey, Rabbit and Who I Am And What I Want. Their Death To Animation editorial makes for interesting reading.
Broadband! Suze has been hassling me for years to upgrade my dialup link, and my need for daytime internet access while unemployed has finally driven me to getting it installed this week. So, to celebrate, this is the biggest collection of bandwidth-busting links published on this site to date: online versions of 25 of the short films reviewed here. They're in a variety of formats - Windows Media Player, Real Player, QuickTime, Shockwave - and you'll have to work out for yourself which is which. Ready? Here we go: 080, Apple Jacks: Costume, Astronauts, Audio Bullys: Shot Me Down, Beginning Middle And End, Bullring: Launch, Bus Stop [dead link], Camera: Out On The Water, City Paradise, The Eel, For Your Blossom [dead link], Franz Ferdinand: Take Me Out, Gorillaz: Feel Good Inc, Heavy Pockets, Honda: Grrr, I Turn My Face To The Forest Floor, Johnny Walker: Paintings, OMM: From Abba To Zappa, Play [dead link], Rabbit, Ribena Liquidator, Sleep With The Fishes, Thornton's: Save My Bacon [now requires registration to view], VW: Summer Morning, Watermelon Love.
P.S. - BBC News report on the award winners here. I love that "unconnected to the Wallace and Gromit production" aside.