I did this for the first time back in 2006, and I see no reason not to do it again. To recap: the British Animation Awards are held once every two years, celebrating the best work in the artform across the gamut of films, music videos and commercials. And as part of that celebration, they hold a Public Choice award: screening fifty or sixty of the best short works in cinemas across the country, and getting the audience to vote on their favourites.
I believe that this is the only place which will attempt to review all 57 of the films on the Public Choice shortlist, even if some of those reviews are insultingly brief. Plus, thanks to some heavy work on Google, I've been able to get links for pretty much every film on that shortlist, allowing you to make up your own mind. Some of these are links to the whole film, others to clips, others to sites related to the animators: in only one case have I had to fall back on the irritating alternative of a corporate site featuring pictures of incontinent robots. (You'll know it when you see it.)
They'll have announced the winner of the Public Choice by the time I get around to publishing this, but I'm not going to let that stop me.
Music videos first. And having done one of these two years ago, not to mention lots of Mirrorball programmes at the Edinburgh Film Festival, it's interesting to see that certain bands out there are definitely committed to the idea of animated videos. Psapp appear to be one of those bands, happily putting their songs out there for anyone to have a go at visualising. Of their two entries in this year's BAA, Side Dish (Leigh Hodgkinson) is a slightly meh variation on the cliches of 1970s children's television: but Hi (Trunk) has a lot more fun with its dancing electrical equipment, the Busby Berkeley crocodile clips being a particular highlight. Gravenhurst's I Turn My Face To The Forest Floor was one of the more intriguing entries two years ago, and The Velvet Cell reunites them with animator Thomas Hicks, but unlike the earlier film this doesn’t really add much to the song other than a slightly dull environment. Also familiar from 2006 is the work of Greasy Fluff merchants SSSR, and Subtle: The Mercury Craze shows that their style - distinctive as it is - hasn't really developed that much in two years. (Although their film for Bell x1: Rocky Took a Lover has them leavening the gloom of their look with some whimsical character work.)
All of this is very much on the experimental and indie side: but animation also plays its part in the videos of more obviously commercial artists. However, the videos tend to be less visually interesting as a result. Robbie Williams: Skiving (Madeleine Duba & Alex Scott) isn't terribly exciting to look at, and reminds you that Robbie really needs to start working again with someone who can write tunes. Puppini Sisters: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (Laurie J Proud) fares a bit better, fitting the song quite nicely with its knowing sense of fake nostalgia.
For the most part, a lot of the videos I've mentioned so far have been lacking a sense of humour. A few jokes can go a long way, even making The Fratellis socially acceptable in Ole' Black + Blue Eyes (John Sunter and Jon Yeo), which is an interesting exercise in taking lines of a song out of context and building an alternative narrative around them. Windmill: Tokyo Moon (Mark Nute) is another sweet little anecdote, which possibly has nothing to do with the song apart from the vague geographical link with Tokyo, but is entertaining to watch. Similarly, but more so, One Eskimo: Hometime (Matt Latchford/Lucy Sullivan) elevates an okayish song with charming funny-animal work, a curiously uplifting ending, and a genuinely surprising coda.
If I had to pick a favourite out of this year's music videos - and I guess that's why I'm here - then Lightspeed Champion: Dry Lips (Stephen Irwin) comes very close to the top, using picture-in-picture techniques to depict the lead character’s memories and how he’s trapped by them. But my pick would have to be Fujiya Miyaki: Ankle Injury (Wade Shotter), for the pure simplicity of its central concept – using coloured dice to generate the imagery, with the different numbers of dots to represent the fine detail. As such, it falls exactly between the Lego blockiness of Fell In Love With A Girl and the Kaywa dottiness of Integral, carefully providing the best of both approaches as the accompaniment to a curiously hypnotic little tune. I don't know how faked this is, or if the makers now never want to see another die again – but it's terrific work however it was done.
The largest part of the BAA Public Choice programme is dedicated to general non-commercial short films. As such, there's a lot of overlap with the various animation programmes I've seen at film festivals over the last two years. Dreams and Desires: Family Ties (Joanna Quinn) has been mentioned here before in the context of LFF 2006: as much as I enjoyed it back then, I'd suggest that even though Quinn’s visual sense is as terrific as ever, this particular example is maybe a little too over-extended to be truly great. Milk Teeth (Tibor Banoczki) played at the LFF one year later, and again its interesting technique is bogged down by unneccessary overlength. But Tongue of the Hidden (David Anderson), which was at the same festival, appears to be even more splendid second time round. First time, I was concentrating on the use of calligraphy: but this time it was more the lush overall design (helped by the image not being cropped at this screening). Maybe next time I'll finally get to listen to the poem that's being illustrated by this overwhelming imagery, which shows you what densely layered stuff this is.
Most of the more cutting edge stuff in this year's entries has come from the Animate commissioning board - they appear to have a house style now, all ultra-stylised visuals and bombastic sound. Purple Grey (Sebastian Buerkner) is a typical example, and though I liked the intensity of it – the hugely stylized and vectored graphics, the heavily processed sound, the flash cut editing, all adding up to a vivid portrayal of an artist’s mental block - it doesn't really build up to anything. End of the Street (Andy Martin) certainly can't be accused of that: Ian Macmillan’s prologue promises ‘language that builds’, and the visuals provide a suitable accompaniment to his poem. Of the non-Animate headfucks, Tidy Monster (Tim Marchant) flirts with similarly apocalyptic imagery, yet runs out of steam far too quickly. But Cowboys (Damian Jordan) is virtually all steam – a visual style so in-your-face that it has a health warning at the start of the film, two simultaneous whispering narrators, and a blisteringly fragmented story of revenge and headshots. It's impressive as hell on first viewing, and never gives you time to consider if it's all just surface flash. By comparison, Herzog and the Monsters (Lesley Barnes) isn't anything like as experimental, but it really annoyed the tedious little kids sitting behind me at its screening, and I love it just for that.
With all this big-budget hi-tech stuff flying around, it's sometimes easy to forget that the roots of animation are one person in a small room making drawings or models move on film. Sometimes it takes something like The Great Hat Heist (Lewi Firth Bolton) to remind you of that: it's very, very rough edged, but with a definite charm that keeps you watching through all the various dead spots (there’s a great 5 minute film in here). I didn't find out till after the screening that Bolton is 15 years old: I’m sure Aardman are sorting out the work placement contracts already. Other rough 'n' ready delights (or otherwise) include Guts (Nagisa Kinoshita), which has a couple of ideas about the stuff going on inside us that we try not to think about, but fails to do anything of interest with them: Yarn...Good Light is Essential (Reka Gacs), an okayish line-drawn anecdote rescued by an interestingly assembled soundtrack: Crow Moon (Selina Cobley), a charmingly constructed animal fable: Throwaway (Sandra Ensby), a nicely observed argument that doesn't really stay in the memory afterwards: and The Imperfectionist (Asa Lucander/Victoria Kitchingman), which shows that doodles coming to life are always a fun thing.
But if we're talking about award winners, there's a certain sort of film that usually picks up the gongs: as with the Oscars, that normally means a serious narrative, a certain level of technical craft, and an above-average length (i.e. something closer to ten minutes than five). Like The Pearce Sisters, which picked up a Best Animation BAFTA in the month of the BAA screenings. Luis Cook's film is possibly the bleakest thing ever to go out with the Aardman stamp on it – it's a rare excursion into line-drawn art for the studio, but a beautifully atmospheric one, and it helps that you never quite know where it’s heading. For the Love of God (Joe Tucker) is similarly epic, with a stellar voice cast for a student production (including Steve Coogan and Ian Mackellen): but surprisingly, manages to make its central blasphemous conceit into a rather dull film. Life Size Zoetrope (Mark Simon Hewis) deserves a mention just for its sheer bloody ambition - it's an entire human life depicted by a single-take shot of a human zoetrope - although the technique is hard to sustain interest for a full six and a half minutes. Other films in the large-scale epic category include Pecatum Parvum (Asya Lukin), an over-indulgent adaptation of the poetry of Daniil Kharms with some breathtakingly detailed character moments: and Yours Truly (Osbert Parker), a followup to his 2006 entry Film Noir, this time managing to hook his astonishing collage visuals to a gripping noir-style story.
Screw all this serious stuff, where are the funnies? Well, we have Pushkin (Trevor Hardy), done in an entirely madeup language like our childhood favourites: lots of gags, clever use of pathos, evil punchline. t.o.m. (Tom Brown/Daniel Gray) is a perfectly crafted surreal bit of fun – from the moment Tom robotically spells out his name we know something's not quite right with him, and the slow reveal is beautifully done. One of the Family (Lucy Izzard) is like a funkier Creature Comforts, taking interviews with pet owners and depicting the pets acting up around them as they talk: nicely rough-edged, with the bonus of a Mr Scruff score. X&Y (Steve May) is a fun idea nicely executed: The Belated Birthday Girl didn’t care for the punchline, but she’s somehow under the impression that all cats are not evil. A-Z (Sally Arthur) wittily tells the true story of the definitive London street atlas with high velocity and a lot of interesting looking collage work. Finally, Ujbaz Izbeneki Has Lost His Soul (Neil Jack) shows a lot of promise with some of the subtleties in its storytelling technique.
I'd have to single out three films from this section. (Or perhaps I mean triple out.) John and Karen (Matthew Walker) gets a huge laugh from the word go with its character design – John's a huge polar bear, Karen's a tiny penguin – and as they try to make up following an argument, the carefully observed body language and voice work make it a fabulous watch. Cat Man Do (Simon Tofield) is ninety seconds of line-drawn perfection: in an ideal world, stuff like this would get the award rather than the more self-consciously epic films. But if I had to pick one of those self-consciously epic films for the ultimate prize, it'd be another one that I've already written about here. Adjustment (Ian Mackinnon) was impressive enough at LFF 2006, but in this company it starts to look more and more like a masterpiece. It's technically astonishing, and all the more fascinating for using the techniques of animation - specifically, the concept of persistence of vision - as an integral part of the story.
Finally, the adverts: the section of the programme that always gets the shitty end of the stick, because they're films we've probably already seen several times over, and because they're adverts. Interesting to see that some of the names from the 2006 shortlist are back again. Vesicare: Zoo (David Anderson) is a sequel to their ad from two years ago, and happily this time they haven’t gone for shots of the main character peeing in vision. The 20 seconds or so of medical disclaimers (in a 60 second commercial) are, once again, the funniest bits. Daniel Greaves contributes two pieces this time round: Ribena: Migration is another one of those ads that's a little too familiar to be able to judge properly, while Weight Watchers: Gorgeous wouldn't give you pause for thought when it turned up in the middle of an ad break. Meanwhile, Chips Ahoy: Convertible is Ken 'Pepperami' Lidster anthropomorphising foodstuffs as only he can, and Zune: Endless Cookie has SSSR doing their Greasy Fluff thing again while forgetting to give you any hint as to what a Zune actually is.
Who will be the big names of advert animation in the future? Well, Mark Craste has three entries in this year's BAA, so he's got to be worth a look. Of those, National Lottery: The Big Win manages to make the Government's Cretin Tax look like something appealing: Guinness: Seconds From Greatness lacks the wow factor of the best Guinness ads, and may have had more impact when they were trying to persuade us that the 2007 Rugby World Cup was the Superbowl or something: and Lloyds: For The Journey is the most charming, though the large scale birth-to-death scope of the narrative makes you wonder if Lloyds' brief was specifically ‘do us one that’ll win awards’.
Meanwhile, big name directors from other fields have been busy making ads too. Cravendale: Last Glass has Pic Pic Andre shamelessly ripping off his own A Town Called Panic series, sadly without the time to build up a full head of steam like the shorts do. The ‘making of’ documentary is possibly more fun, particularly for establishing its location as ‘Belgium, the capital of France’. From elsewhere in France, Winterthur: A Town Called Tomorrow has Sylvain Chomet of Belleville Rendezvous fame providing a sneaky fable which never tells you exactly what Winterthur do, but gives you a warm fuzzy feeling about them doing it. And the Aardman people cleverly reference their own back catalogue with Leonard Cheshire Disability: Stick Insect (Steve Harding-Hill) in a neat way that gets the message across.
In the 'running out of categories to put films in' category: S1 Jobs: Doodle (Gili Dolev) has some fans on YouTube, judging from the remixes out there – it’s okay, nothing special. Sky Carbon Neutral: Cool Cat (Richard Bazley) is so fizzily animated, it makes you wonder just how many trees they had to plant to offset all the CGI processing cycles. Measles (Sweetworld/Lisle Turner) is an Amnesty International promo with some big comedy names working on the script (Josie Long and Robin Ince to name but two): the result is slightly rambling and shows the danger of too many cooks, but it’s a nice idea. And one of the highlights of the advert section is Olay: Line (Suzanne Deakin), showing a man drawn from a single line trying to run away from its fast-approaching end. You don't see the punchline coming till it's too late, which seems curiously appropriate.
Before revealing the best advert, we need to look at Sure: Go Wild (Noam Murro). Like the Vodafone Mayfly ad in the 2006 programme, its appeal comes from the fact that your casual punter might not even realise that animation was involved in its making, such is the pixel-perfection of its CGI. That Vodafone ad was the work of Darren Walsh, and it's amusing to see that two years on, he and co-director Frank Budgen have gone to the other technical extreme with Sony Bravia: Play-Doh, a film whose appeal comes from the way it simply screams 'look at me, I'm animated'. Like my choices for best music video and best short, it's a film that's happy to wear its nature on its sleeve rather than try to use animation as a substitute for something else. The inevitable making-of documentary is worth watching for two reasons: firstly to see just how little fakery was involved, and secondly for the moment when a passer-by just stops short of suggesting that a giant pink Play-Doh rabbit is an abomination in the eyes of God.
At the time of writing it's 10.30pm on March 13th: the winner of the Public Choice should have been announced this evening, but I haven't heard the result yet. I'm plumping for Adjustment for the win, so keep an eye on the comments below in the next couple of days to see how right or otherwise I was. I promise I won't rewrite the entire article if it turns out something else wins. Being a monkey, and all.