The British Animation Awards started in 1996. Every two years since then, there's been a ceremony dishing out gongs to the finest animated films, short and long, that have been produced in this country. For me, the most interesting part of the awards is the Public Choice. A set of three programmes of animated shorts is sent around the cinemas of this nation, audiences vote on them, and the ones with the most votes take away prizes. As huge-budget commercials rub shoulders with zero-budget student films, the Public Choice is a great way for casual punters like myself to get a crash course in the current state of the art.
My first Public Choice was back in 2006, where the perfect storm of a period of unemployment and the installation of home broadband made it a good time to rekindle my interest in animated shorts. I provided a full-page report about it here, and did the same in 2008 and 2010, by which time the ubiquity of YouTube made it much easier to provide links to all the films. The decadent years of my BAA reporting were 2012 (three pages) and 2014 (also three), after which an awkward thing happened: the London screenings dropped from two at BFI Southbank to one at the Regent Street Cinema. Basically, if you couldn't make the specific date for a programme, you missed it. As a result, I only saw one of the Public Choice programmes in 2016, and none whatsoever in 2018.
But now it's 2020, and we're back, baby! Don't worry, the decadent years are over, and I'm going back to the review format I've described in a previous bi-year as 'insultingly brief'. It's the only way to go when you've got 58 short films to write about, which you originally saw back in February, and have left it so late to expand your notes that the awards have already been decided and handed out. (Not to mention how all the cinemas have since been closed down.) It's easiest to organise this by focussing on each of the three Public Choice programmes in turn, so let's do that. As it's taken most of the last four months to look up all the film and animator links, maybe you should click on some of those while you're here.
Let's start with Programme 1, and kick off with some music videos. There seems to be a trend right now for pretty videos giving a modicum of visual interest to very dull songs, and we get a few examples of that here. Metecandriu: Waders' Lullaby (Fiona McAndrew) is escalated above the rest by its rough-edged cutout style. Sigrid: Focus (Moth Studio) is made up of a collection of pretty abstractions which, till they resolve themselves in the final shot, could be part of an advert for absolutely anything. Ceri and the Blind Harpist: Aderyn (Lleucu Non) is a whole pile of scenes of sketchily-drawn nature that don't add up to much: at the other extreme, the sheer level of detail in the sub-Alan Aldridge landscape of Daniel O'Sullivan: Honour Wave (Greg McLeod) just becomes tiring before the end. It's a relief after that to dive into the bold, sweary energy of Bishop Briggs: Baby (Seed), with its terrific contrasts between colour and monochrome graphics. I also quite enjoyed Benjamin Scheuer: Hello Jemima (Peter Baynton), which takes a slightly twee song and makes it enjoyable with a story about the singer mailing himself across the Atlantic. But given that it's a promotional film for a record, why the hell can't you watch it anywhere on the internet?
Of the more traditionally narrative shorts in this collection, Billie (Maki Yoshikura) and its cutesy tale of a turning point in a dog's life is a little too sentimental for my liking, and again feels more like an advert. Ada (Dane Winn) has an impressive widescreen charcoal style, telling the elliptical story of a couple's Arctic adventure. Playgrounds (Antonio Milo and Fabrizio Fioretti) neatly buries a dark family drama inside a collection of beautifully rendered geek references, as a child retreats from a domestic argument into the safety of his toys and games. The Fabric Of You (Josephine Lohoar Self) is, for me, the most interesting story here: some people may balk at the mere idea of watching gay mice shagging, but the realistic model work and artful fragmentation of the narrative lift this way above the simple melodrama it could have been.
When we get to the more experimental and non-narrative films in this programme, we hit the first example of another disappointing trend: pretentious poetry visualised through overly abstracted imagery. Yes, Tummy (Tony Comley), I'm looking at you here. I much prefer the pure artistic exercise of Synchronicity (Michelle Brand) , a series of sequences of sketched crowds of people coming together and splitting apart again - loosely drawn, but tightly observed. And for pure abstraction, it's hard to beat 4:3 (Ross Hogg), which takes techniques that go back as far as Len Lye's work in the 1930s - painting and scratching directly onto film - and launches them into dubstep territory. It makes for a head-expanding ride, and even more so in the online 360 degree version I've linked to here.
Interestingly, the BAA Public Choice doesn't have anything like as many adverts in its programmes as it used to - and the adverts that are included are heavily disguised. A good example is Anatomy Of A Stabbing (Scott Coello): an impressionistic illustration of a woman's reaction to her son's murder, starkly shot in black and white Scope, that only reveals in its final seconds that you'll need to listen to Radio 4 to hear more about the story. There's also good old-fashioned sponsorship to consider: The Mystical Journey of Jimmy Page's '59 Telecaster (Smith and Foulkes) has wild psychedelic visuals that are more than a match for Page's narrated story of his favourite guitar, but you slowly realise that the manufacturer of the guitar paid him to tell it. On a public service tip, What It Feels Like (Steven Fraser) is specifically about what it feels like to hear voices in your head, using an ingenious mixture of low and high tech with a series of flipbooks drawn onto automated rolodexes. And I'm not sure how much say underwear manufacturers Headen & Quarmby had in the content of Bloomers (Samantha Moore), but this verbatim account of the company's rise, fall and rise has a uniquely tactile visual style, with the images of its interviewees drawn onto knicker fabric (or rough paper for the flashbacks).
I always say that in a public vote on animated shorts, the funny ones are inevitably going to have an unfair advantage: and that goes double with the brand recognition factor of Morph: Fireworks (Merlin Crossingham). I hadn't realised until this screening that Morph was sucking on the Murdoch teat these days, but his adventures are still being told with the usual high levels of craft and charm. The Spaghetti Police (Tim Wheatley) is a much rougher-edged bit of silliness, cleverly putting 2D cutout animation inside a 3D popup book set. But going by audience reaction alone, Grandad Was A Romantic (Maryam Mohajer) is the comedy favourite in this programme, with its childhood memories of the director's Iranian grandparents capped off with an explosively cheeky punchline.
Moving on to Programme 2, and - coincidentally - another tale of a young girl reminiscing about her grandparents, this time Indian rather than Iranian, and with the added complication of Parkinsons. I wish that The Peacock In The Room (Sanjana Chandrasekhar) had had more of an impact on me than it did, as someone involved with it was sitting behind us at the screening, and sounded rather chuffed to be there. In a programme that's more heavy on storytelling than the other two, Chin Up (Joanne Salmon) stands out, as the animator's description of her Treacher Collins syndrome (and how it inspired her to animate) is told without any sentimentality and quite a bit of visual imagination. We also get a couple of shorts that could be classed in the funny animal genre, though that would be wildly unfair in both cases. A Whale's Tale (Robin Celebi and Giovanna Utichi) could easily have been aggressively worthy, but its ecological message is handled with a light touch and a colourful style. Fox Fires (Keilidh Bradley) has a similarly cutesy feel that's a little at odds with the sweeping, mythic nature of its story: it's incredibly impressive for a student film.
On the more experimental side, The Thing I Left Behind (Chiara Sgatti) has an injured female baseball player trapped in her apartment with a robot: her story is smartly fragmented and has all sorts of interesting science-fiction undertones tantalisingly out of reach. Desire Line (Ruini Shi) is obviously aiming for a similar feel with its distinctive mixture of digital styles, but its story is never quite strong enough to make you want to decode its puzzles. The Flounder (Elizabeth Hobbs) takes an old Grimm tale and electrifies it with stroboscopic paintings that just hovering on the edge of incomprehensibility. The most intriguing attempt at confusing an audience here comes from //_sleeper (Jordan Buckner), steeped in Lynchian menace - all monochrome visuals and rumbly sound - as a man goes in search of a rather nicely coloured anomaly.
Back in the realm of the pure art film, Turning (Linnea Haviland) is another mix of images and blah poetry, this time about the pressures of discrimination. Getting Started (William Crook) at least has fun with its silly pixilated image of the animator himself (presumably), moving around the screen in a stylised version of his morning activities. If you're looking for a film that's just out to deliberately annoy an audience, you could do a lot worse than Nod. Wink. Horse. (Ollie Magee), which takes a short dramatic scene and literally puts a horse in front of it so you can't see what's going on. I didn't make that up. Meanwhile, over in the carefully disguised advert corner, The Wind In The Willows: The Wildlife Trust (Thomas Harnett O'Meara, Matthew Day) is another ecomessage short, this time pretending to be a trailer for the new adventures of Mr Toad and company with an all-star voice cast. You could, if you were cynical, see Love Is Love (Mina Song) as pitched being at a similar level of propaganda, with its cheesy song aimed at preschoolers about how it's okay to have a non-traditional family.
The music videos in Programme 2 work along similar lines as the ones in Programme 1. Irritatingly worthy protest song? Piroshka: What's Next (Bunny Schendler) covers that department, drawing hamfistedly on every British protest from the suffragettes onwards. Pretty video for dull song? Coldplay: Daddy (Asa Lucander) comes from a band who are past masters at that sort of thing. (Coldplay have extensive previous form using animation and puppets in videos, maybe because they can't be arsed turning up personally to video shoots.) Add to that list Parker Bossley: Chemicals (Joseph Wallace), whose so-so cutout animation reminds you of Sledgehammer but not as good, and you're left wondering if any new bands can get the balance of visuals and music right. Which makes it all the more amusing that one of the best videos here is The Beatles: Glass Onion (Alasdair Brotherston, Jock Mooney): an ingenious depiction of the making of the White Album's collage poster, which (according to The BBG) isn't as impressive if you don't already know the poster. But we should highlight Declan McKenna: British Bombs (Ed Bulmer) here, whose video actually sold the song to me, with its nicely escalating scream of rage in both audio and visual form.
We get a few funny shorts as well, two of which come in at around the two minute mark. Speed (Ben Mitchell) is a simple daft gag, played with perfect timing, and knowing exactly when to stop: while You Died (Sam Shaw) uses its black and white retro style to cover up the bleakness of its speculation on the nature of the afterlife. Still, that bleakness is nothing compared to that of Post Mortem (James Todd), which shows the Grim Reaper himself rounding up the last few creatures in a post-apocalyptic landscape. When I last looked on YouTube this only had ten views, which is insane. Go and watch it, you won't have seen anything quite like it.
Finally, Programme 3, commencing with the inevitable short film about Brexit. Though it has to be said that Brexicuted (Chris Shepherd) puts forward a point of view that's rarely expressed in the mainstream media, which is this: everyone who voted for it is stupid and deserves to die. Its sheer lack of politeness and balance makes it an absolute hoot. Also in the funny section is You Foe (Paul Hill), a one-shot enjoyable gag about an irritating alien: it's perfectly tuned to being an online sharable meme, so inevitably it's one of the few I've not been able to get a link for. As for Simon's Cat: Crow (Simon Tofield), the (it says here) 79th film in the series is the usual collection of sight gags arranged with the precision of a Swiss watch, to the extent that it hardly seems fair to include it in a competition.
Heading towards the end now, so this is where we really start getting 'insultingly brief' with the music videos. The too-right-on-for-its-own good slot in the programme is filled this time by the bombastic and dated War Is Bad nonsense of Methods: Mankind (Dan Crew): the dull-but-pretty slot goes to Sivan Talmor: Sad Heart (Karni and Saul), though it has to be said that the video is incredibly pretty. (And the song is... well, it's not too bad, I guess.) Davina And The Vagabonds: Devil Horns (Gordon Howie) matches its old fashioned swinging tune with some retro visuals touched up with the odd modern curlicue. The best video in this set is Scouting For Girls: Let's Not Go Away (Katie Gascoyne), an enjoyable anti-Christmas anthem (or anti-in-laws-at-Christmas, to be more precise) whose cutesy animation smooths off some of the harder edges of the song, while still allowing you to enjoy the line "your great uncle's kind of racist".
The illustrated poetry example this time turns out to be fine: The Mushroom Hunters (Caroline Rudge) is a ravishingly illustrated Neil Gaiman poem that's a hair's breadth away from being a hack comic routine ("men's brains are like this, but women's brains are like this"), but redeems itself with the quality of its argument. The poem's read here by Amanda Palmer, which has possibly become a little more awkward a pairing in the time since I first watched this film. The other non-narrative films here include Handmade (Phoebe Morrison) - a series of drawings of hands interacting with the pages of a biography of Hitler, which doesn't have much interest beyond a demonstration of technique: and Black Earth Rising (Steve Small) - a beautiful-looking series of impressionistic fragments of animation from the live-action TV drama, although that very fragmentation makes it harder to view them as works in their own right. Our one advert in this programme is Group Work Works (Hend Esmat, Lamiaa Diab), whose images of women hanging out together are so tastefully done, you don't realise till the final caption that you've been watching an ad for a sexual abuse support centre. And our one documentary is Stitch (Siobhan Smith), which ingeniously balances cuddly knitted puppetry against its sense of anger at the hoops people have to jump through to claim disability benefit.
Into the home stretch with the last few narrative shorts. Hide And Seek (Qunxiang Lin) is the most disappointing entry here, using clunky animal symbolism to show its lead character's search for his own identity. Archie (Ainslie Henderson) is the slightly mawkish tale of a bereaved dog (and, awkwardly, his pet dog): it's more of a sentimental poem than an actual story. I'm OK (Elizabeth Hobbs) is the one time this bi-year that an animator has two films in the Public Choice list: like Hobbs' The Flounder in Programme 2, this is an energetic explosion of painted imagery, capturing the chaos inside the head of artist Oskar Kokoschka following his injury in WWI. Wood Child And Hidden Forest Mother (Stephen Irwin) is one of my absolute favourites in the whole collection this year, an utter berserk modern folk tale reminiscent of the late Run Wrake at his wildest: it sets up a fantastical world with its own rules, and then remorselessly works them through to a bleak conclusion. This is the one film where it frustrates me the most that I can only show you a trailer and not the whole thing. Nevertheless, I'll finish here with Roughhouse (Jonathan Hodgson), the most solidly constructed narrative short of the whole set. A tale of three Brummie lads in a Liverpool house share falling in and out with each other, it won the best animated short BAFTA in 2019, and the sheer craft of its storytelling explains why. (For what it's worth, the winner of the best animated short BAFTA in 2020 was Grandad Was A Romantic.)
There you go: 58 short film reviews, as promised. Which one was your favourite? As I mentioned at the start, the BAA Award Winners were announced back in March, just before the lockdown kicked in. The Public Choice winners were Grandad Was A Romantic for Best Short Film (again!), and The Beatles: Glass Onion for Best Music Video. Meanwhile, some of the jury awards went to films mentioned here, notably A Whale's Tale (Best Original Short Form Content), Coldplay: Daddy (Best Music Video), Roughhouse (Best Short Film (again!)) and The Wind In The Willows (Best Animation In A Commercial). Whether you agree or disagree with those choices, it's been another fine collection of animations. Hopefully we can do this all again in 2022, assuming that cinemas are still a thing by then.