Whose bloody stupid idea was it to give the word biannual two completely different meanings? Whoever it was, it's probably best to make things clear: the British Animation Awards take place once every two years, not twice a year. We covered them here in 2006 and 2008, and here we are again.
Specifically, we're here for the Public Choice award, where actual paying punters get to pick their favourites from a selection of 50-60 new short British films made during the preceding two years. These were shown across the UK in a series of screenings during February: the votes have now been tallied, and the winners will be announced at the official awards ceremony at BFI Southbank on April 8th.
For the third BAA running, I believe that this site is the only place where every single one of the 59 shortlisted films will be reviewed, even if some of those reviews are insultingly brief. Most of the one month delay between the London BAA screenings and the publication of this piece results from the amount of time I've spent trying to track down both video clips and animators' homepages for all of the films in question. You might want to have a cup of tea to hand if you intend to follow every single link below.
Let's take the usual approach to the BAA Public Choice programme, and split it into three chunks. We'll start with the music videos: in previous years this has been where some of the most cutting-edge work has appeared, but to be honest pickings are a little thin this year, with nothing that really stands out. In that sort of situation, when you're forced to give marks out of five for a bunch of middling videos, it pushes you into mildly philosophical debate: what exactly are music videos for? Or rather, what combination of elements separates the good ones from the bad ones?
As you ponder these things, you're reminded of how democratic the BAA is: enormous names from the animation world compete on an equal footing against complete unknowns. Global superstars Shynola are a good example of the former, accompanying Coldplay: Strawberry Swing with a hugely ambitious (and apparently unfaked) bit of lifesize chalk animation around Chris Martin lying on a road pretending to be a flying superhero. It's visually stunning, but after two viewings I still couldn't tell you what the hell the song sounds like, and I think that counts as a failure. At the other end of the fame spectrum, you've got people like Thomas Hicks, who's worked on a number of indie videos and has two in this section alone. Gravenhurst: Nightwatchman’s Blues continues his ongoing relationship with the band, in a video constructed from the 1300 hand-made sleeves of a limited edition 7” single sleeves: unfortunately, it's one of those ideas where the story of its making is much more interesting than actually watching it. Animal Kingdom: Chalk Stars shows Hicks on much better form, where the huge buildup in the second half of the song is matched by the miraculous building of a seascape from pins, thread and twinkly lights.
It's that sort of alchemy between the visuals and the music that makes the best videos work, or paradoxically makes the bad ones worse. So Ethav: Sleep (Tibor Banoczki & Sarolta Szabo) provides an irritatingly arhythmic song with irritatingly arty visuals, while Birdy Nam Nam: The Parachute Endings (Steve Scott & Will Sweeney) ensures that both your eyes and ears are battered simultaneously to the same degree. Flogging Molly: Float (Karni + Saul) is a splendid example of character animation giving an emotional flow to the visuals that matches the flow of the song. Tom Fun Orchestra: Bottom of the River (Alasdair + Jock) also ties nicely into its music, although perhaps too much - could you ever hear the song again without imagining it being sung by underwater bin bags?
Midfield General: Teddy Bear (Ste McGregor) takes the sneaky approach of playing off deliberately dated and clunky CG against its big beat remake of the old Red Sorvine tearjerker from the days of CB radio. Sadly, it makes the result much less interesting to watch than to listen to, and you find yourself pondering how these days, the internet chatroom equivalent of this story would result in the driver being locked up for grooming. Rex The Dog: Bubblicious (Geoffroy de Crecy, who's the brother of Etienne, fact fans) uses its low-budget look more effectively. Its main gimmick is to show you the construction of its cheap props seconds before they're used on screen - the accompaniment of the runup to the final chorus with the construction of a tiny mirrorball is pretty much perfect. If there's one flaw to it as a video, it's that it's generic enough to work with potentially any dance track you put on top of it.
That's not the case with Luke Jackson: Goodbye London (Murray John), probably the best of this particular bunch. It works on all possible levels: a cracking song with just the right level of regret behind its 'sod you I'm off' lyric, a fine combination of real London locations and scuzzy linedrawn characters, all coming together to make something much bigger than its individual components. If the key test of a promo is to make you want to hear the song again - rather than make you see the video again - then this one should win out over the rest.
So if we stick to the traditional format, then the middle section is where we hurtle through the - count 'em - 32 narrative shorts in the programme. We can save a bit of time here, because quite a few of these have been seen here before as part of the London Film Festival's animation programmes. What Light (Through Yonder Window Breaks) (Sarah Wickens), Sam's Hot Dogs (David Lopez Retamero) and Wolves (Rafael Sommerhalder) were the trio from the Royal College of Art that played at LFF 2009, and all of them still hold up: maybe not quite as well as Speechless by the veteran Daniel Greaves, but still showing considerable promise for the future. Meanwhile, from LFF 2008, we have the dark fable of Rabbit Punch (Kristian Andrews) and the subsequently Oscar-nominated fun of This Way Up (Smith & Foulkes). Meanwhile, Simon's Cat: TV Dinners (Simon Tofield) is technically a new one to me, but is actually a sequel to one of the award-winners of BAA 2008: in the intervening two years, that hungry cat has spawned several internet virals and even a spin-off book.
In a comparative vote such as this, inevitably the more abstract and arty animations will lose out to the funny ones. So let's make some room for weirder stuff like Aanaatt (Max Hattler), a fascinating 3D collage affair where you spend most of the time trying to work out what possible angle it was filmed from. (Once you find out, it's painfully obvious. I won't spoil it for you.) The Black Dog’s Progress (Stephen Irwin) is typical of the sort of audiovisual experimentation we've come to expect from the Animate commissioning board, a dark tale of an out-of-control dog told in a series of obsessively scribbled flipbooks. Unicycle Film (Thomas Hicks) has some thematic overlaps with the director's music video work (see above), but without a song to tie the images together it feels more like a parody of art cinema, especially in the aggressive use of fast-cut pictures and sound. Codswallop (The Brothers McLeod) is a more fun approach to the experimental film, using pairs of Shrigleyesque visual gags scrolling across the screen, but it never quite comes together. Brothers Greg and Myles McLeod also contribute The Moonbird, a minimalist fairy tale that plays like all the scary story beats run together without any connecting tissue. I'd warmed to it by the end of its 15 minute running time, but I know at least one person who didn't.
The format of 'screwed-up fairy tale' is an ideal one for directors wanting to play with our childhood recollections of animation, I guess, and there are quite a few other examples on display here. The Girl with Stories in her Hair (Phoebe Boswell) almost feels like Rapunzel played out in a brothel, but without a prince to rescue her. Junk (Kirk Hendry) has a nice idea at the centre of its omnivore fable, but lacks a certain spark. Tad’s Nest (Petra Freeman) is a pretty lightbox animation, but with an obscure narrative of transformation, partly made obscure by the dozen or so latecomers who noisily arrived at this point in the London screening. Glover (Jo Lawrence) is a lovely little tale from a V&A artist in residence, with a glovemaker entering a beautifully-designed dream world of (literal) glove puppets. Train Of Thought (Leo Bridle and Ben Thomas) is a nice looking mixed-media fantasy combining photo cutouts and drawings in a model world. The Astronomer's Sun (Simon Cartwright & Jessica Cope) takes most of its five minute duration to set up creepy atmosphere rather than tell a coherent story, but pulls it all together wonderfully in its final minute. And Damaged Goods (Barnaby Barford) manages to survive its massively pretentious programme note - "exploring notions of forbidden love, material wealth and class divide using the traditions of value within ceramics" - to reveal itself as an affecting but smart love story, told in a surprisingly straight way for an Animate commission.
At the more real-life end of the spectrum, there are two entries in the Animated Minds series, where Andy Glynne attempts to find visual analogues to accompany first-person descriptions of mental distress. Becoming Invisible takes a slightly predictable journey into the world of eating disorders, but My Blood Is My Tears gives an insight into the psychology of self-harm that beats any other explanation I've heard to date. By comparison, Fields Of Vision (Rob Zywietz) takes a lighter approach to the issue of Sitting Too Close To The Telly And Ruining Your Eyes, but pulls some unexpectedly trippy imagery out of the bag in its second half. Travelling from Norwich To Sheringham (Bali Engel) doesn't really count as a disorder, but this smartly-observed bus journey is notable for the way it strips away almost every superflous line in its telling. But probably the most traumatic mental state depicted in this section is Little Face (Matthew Walker), a live action film featuring Adam Buxton reunited with a curious figure from his childhood. The chemistry between the two makes it ridiculous and utterly sad all at the same time. Funny how this is treated as an animation but, say, Avatar isn't.
Still, who are we kidding: it's a public vote, so one of the funny videos will probably win the prize. It might be one of the one-gag pieces lasting under a minute: the agreeably daft Dog Judo Episode 6 (12Foot6), the not-as-good-as-its-one-line-summary Tail Gunner (Tokyoplastic/Finkbom), the exquisitely constructed cat vs. birds tale mi'au, myau (Vida Vega), or the cat vs. dog tale Touché (Trevor Hardy) which makes the fatal mistake of letting the dog win. It might be the cheesy relationship metaphor of Heartstrings (Rhiannon Evans), which still manages to be charming regardless. It might be the music video/art film hybrid of Ain’t Got Nobody (12Foot6), which uses a song to give its imagery structure rather than being the primary focus of the film. It might be the quietly surreal Yellow Belly End (Philip Bacon), where an entire world is constructed around the premise of people in animal costumes leaping off a cliff to their deaths. But, hopefully, it'll actually be TXT ISLAND (Chris Gavin), an eco fable told in letters on a pinboard of the sort you find displaying the menu in cheap cafes. Part of the joy is seeing how the letters are turned into scenery, characters and props, while the rest comes from the story that's being told by them: and an OTT action movie soundtrack by Russell Pay is the icing on the cake.
I''ve attended nine of these Public Choice screenings now (three for each award), and I still haven't quite worked out the etiquette yet. Are you supposed to mark your voting form during the three seconds of blank screen between each film, or all in one lump at the end? And if the latter, is it good form to discuss your vote with your companions? A guy sitting near me was perfectly happy with the latter idea, and said to his friend “I gave all the adverts three out of five, because… they’re all adverts.” Which is all well and good, but how are the BAA supposed to give an award for most popular commercial if everyone thinks like that?
As I noted back in 2008, the familiarity of some of the ads appearing in this final section makes it difficult to rate them objectively: none more so than Comparethemarket.com: Jingle. Sure, it's made with the usual photorealistic brilliance of Darren Walsh, but I'd have to side with Linda Nolan out of the Nolan Sisters, who recently reported in her Viz media news column that "that fucking meerkat advert is now officially the world's most favourite thing." Similarly, having seen the CG eye candy of Nokia: Lips vs. Mindreader (Tokyoplastic/Finkbom) in countless cinema programmes, and the increasingly inventive variations of Cadbury's Creme Egg: Newton’s Cradle / Pedal Bin / Balloon / Mousetrap (Chris Cairns) on telly, it's hard to give them a mark out of five. Vesicare: Shopping (David Anderson), on the other hand, has different problems, as this is the third BAA screening in a row where I've watched an audience laugh hysterically at a serious American advert for an anti-incontinence treatment. Maybe it's a cultural thing: certainly us Brits never seem to be able to take the disclaimers in American pharma ads seriously. “Take Vesicare and stop yourself from weeing! Caution: may stop you from pooing.”
Still, at least Vesicare have moved away from the cliche of using sensitive line-drawn art to cover tough issues: unlike the treatment of alcoholism in Alko: Father & Son (Jonathan Hodgson), or cancer care in CTCA Travel (Suzanne Deakin). But this is advertising, so cliches will inevitably abound. Chocolate will always swirl around and form into character shapes, like it does in Hershey's: Swing and Drive (Bobby Proctor). Germs will always be hyped up into the villains of a CGI monster movie, like they are in Domestos: Germblaster (Uli Meyer). And big science corporations will always blind you with 'hello clouds hello sky' fluffiness while they indulge in evil, like in Dupont: Open Science (Gaelle Denis, which is a pity because she's usually much more visually inventive than this).
With the huge budgets available for a TV ad shoot, I'd imagine it's very easy to fall into the trap of just throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. A couple of the weaker shorts in this section do just that. Comcast: Anthem 60 (Smith & Foulkes) at least manages to back up its derivative worldbuilding with an irritatingly catchy tune: Nike: Cortez Brothers (Tokyoplastic/Finkbom) might well think it's doing the same thing, but it'd be wrong. The worst offender on that score - ironically, given my choice of best ad in the next paragraph - is Coke Zero: Happy Kingdom (Pete Candeland), a Shrek ripoff so overloaded with detail that nothing in it really registers at all.
Reducing the complexity seems to be a much more effective approach. National Debtline (Alan MacEachern) uses a very simple visual image (debt gets bigger if ignored), but uses it to maximum impact. Bridgestone Tyres: Taters (Daniel Kleinman) demonstrates the power of familiar characters and one precisely timed misogynist gag. (But what else would you expect from the director of five sets of Bond credits?) Audi Q5: Unboxed (Russell Brooke & Aaron Duffy) is a similarly basic idea but perfectly executed: it's just a shame that, at least at the London screening, it was cut off before the car shot at the end. By comparison, Coca Cola Olympics: Birdsnest Stadium (Eric Lerner & Thomas Hilland) is a much bigger production, but unlike Happy Kingdom it knows not to throw too much at the screen at once, giving its simple but charming story time to breathe. You can see the final shot coming from a mile off, but the satisfaction when it actually hits is enough to make it my pick of the ads from this programme.
As stated above, the results of the BAA 2010 Public Choice award will be announced on April 8th, so come back after that date and I'll let you know in the comments how out of touch I am with the rest of the voting public. To summarise my personal preferences: Goodbye London for music video, TXT ISLAND for narrative short, Birdsnest Stadium for commercial. You don't need huge budgets and massive arrays of computers for great animation - as at least two of those choices suggest, it's better to take the advice of another member of the animal kingdom and just keep it simples. Although that isn't advice I'd necessarily agree with. Being a monkey, and all.