Simian Substitute Site For February 2014: The Brass Monkey
British Animation Awards 2014 (part 2)

British Animation Awards 2014 (part 1)

What will they say, Monday at school?It's astonishing to think that over eight years have elapsed since I was shitcanned from my first job. The three month gap between that and my second job was an interesting one, and there are several experiences that I still recall from that time. One of them, surprisingly, was my first ever attendance of the biennial British Animation Awards Public Choice screenings. I'd just had broadband installed (to help with the job hunting, among other things), and my review of the 2006 BAA programme is notable for how astonished I sound that at least two dozen of the 63 films are available to watch on the internet.

Video streaming became more commonplace as I covered the 2008 and 2010 collections. By 2012, it was so little of a deal that I could get away with only seeing the first two parts of the programme at its BFI Southbank presentation, and review the third part entirely from freely available online content. It wasn't an ideal solution, but it got me round a personal scheduling issue: and as we enter the first part of my three-part analysis of the 2014 Public Choice shortlist, you'll see that I've had to do it again.

First things first: what is this thing I'm reviewing? Well, there's a ceremony called the British Animation Awards, which takes place every even-numbered year. Like any other awards ceremony, it's largely industry-based, with lots of back-slapping amongst the UK's cartoon community. But one of the most interesting parts of the whole shebang is the Public Choice award, voted for by actual punters. Throughout January and February, three programmes of British animated shorts from the last two years are sent on a tour of the UK's arthouse cinemas, and audiences get to vote on which ones they like best in the categories of short films, music videos and adverts.

This year's London screenings are taking place at BFI Southbank over the coming weekend: and unfortunately, I can't make it to the first one. So I've had to trawl the web to see how many of Programme One's shorts are available on YouTube, Vimeo or other sites. Ten out of fourteen, is the short answer: and the other four at least have short trailers available to give us a brief taste of what they may be like. Of the four we can only see trailers of, two of them - On Loop (Christine Hooper) and Left (Eamonn O'Neill) - don't have quite enough of a hook in there to make you concerned about not seeing the whole thing. (O'Neill suffered the same fate when I reviewed BAA 2012, and it's ironic that his entry from that year, I'm Fine Thanks, was only online as a trailer back then but is viewable in full now - so come back in 2016?) Meanwhile, The Dewberry Empire (Christian Schlaeffer) intrigues as its summery idyll drops quiet hints of something more disturbing to come, while Buy Buy Baby (Gervais Merryweather) has a properly attention-grabbing trail, brashly recreating old-style cartoons in its period tale of the Wall Street crash.

All the other films in this programme can be viewed in full online, including (inevitably) the two music videos. Atoms For Peace: Before Your Very Eyes (Andrew Thomas Huang) goes out of its way to make Thom Yorke look peculiar, as if that's really necessary. Setting him as some sort of crumbling statue in the middle of a flowing clay landscape, the textures are breathtaking for the first minute or so, but lose their appeal as you realise they aren't going to develop any more than that. That last sentence applies to the video and the music, by the way. By comparison, Tame Impala: Feels Like We Only Go Backwards (Becky & Joe) gets top marks just for its aggressively retro technique: sometimes after seeing lots of pixel-perfect visualisations, the sheer old-school delight of spotting thumbprints on plasticine just cheers you up.

Adverts always come off poorly by comparison in these presentations: even if they're where the most cutting-edge work is being done, we'll always look down on them because they're adverts. Swedbank: Percent (Steve Harding-Hill) initially horrifies you with how blatantly it steals its plasticine-animals-lipsync-to-casual-dialogue approach from Aardman's Creature Comforts: once you realise that Harding-Hill actually made this for Aardman, it's hard to work out whether that makes things better or worse. Talk Talk: Model Britain (Daniel Kleinman) is a nice idea, as seamlessly executed as you'd expect from the man who's directed the last few James Bond opening title sequences, but its technique isn't quite good enough to stop you remembering how Talk Talk once tried to switch your landline contract over to them without asking, twice in the space of a month. The surprising ad in this programme is A Black Cow Film (Cat Bruce), mainly because with its lo-fi look, quiet voiceover and surreal premise, it doesn't feel like an ad until you finally see the packshot. Sneaky, that.

This leaves us with five short films which can be seen intact online. Imperial Provisor Frombald (Elizabeth Hobbs) is the weakest one of these, but that may just be down to the circumstances of its viewing: its deranged rubber-stamped look may work stretched across a big screen, but just looks painfully cramped on a PC. The Day I Killed My Best Friend (Antonio J Busto Algarin) also appears to have too much visual ambition to fit onto a laptop, combined with a confused approach to the depiction of a young girl's abrupt transition into womanhood. I was happier with the smaller-scale funny animal antics of Schrödinger's Cat (Chavdar Yordanov), a nifty envisioning of the dangers of taking science's most famous gedankenexperiment into the real world.

Which leaves two utterly great films in this programme, both of them very different from each other. Brave New Old (Adam Wells) uses a simple but effective staging device to tell its story of the dangers of becoming Employee Of The Month. Its attempts to use an almost entirely visual language sometimes threaten to obscure the narrative, but the ending feels perfectly satisfying, even when you can't quite explain what's happened in it. You find yourself reassembling its images in your head for hours afterwards. Nevertheless, it's topped by Sandy (Joseph Mann), a straightforward gag short filmed with an enviable combination of genuine warmth and precision comic timing. My one regret at watching this programme online is not seeing Sandy in a room full of people and hearing their reaction to the final shot.

This is just one third of the films being considered for the People's Choice award: let me see the rest of them, then we can talk about it more soon. (Alternatively, see them for yourselves - you may be able to catch them at a venue near you over the next couple of weeks.)

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