Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Animated Thoughts: Art and the Academy Animated Shorts

It was Spring and time to make a drive down to the Detroit Institute of Arts in order to see the Academy Award Nominated animated short films program. My typical plan for this event is to show up a couple hours early and wander the museum drawing inspiration by the art, then have a nice meal, and finally watch the films. Sometimes my wanderings are to gather information for my History of Animation class. Other times, I'll thinking of a theme (like food) and search for works of art that match the theme. This time though, after looking at a few paintings, I found myself mostly seeking out three-dimensional art like glassware or sculptures.

Kingfisher, Cicada, and Willow Tree, from
the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, 1700
Unknown Artist, China

Vase with carnations, 1886
Vincent van Gogh

Water Pitcher, "Pomona"
Glass, 1885/86
New England Glass Company
East Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pandora, 1864
Chauncey Bradley Ives
American, 1810-94

After some musings about how the artwork was produced--and the tremendous skill it must have taken--I strolled over to the Detroit Film Theater. The films selected for the program were a bit on the longer side, so it was only a five-film screening consisting of only those that were nominated. Usually the program has a couple extra films from those submitted but not nominated in order to pad out the presentation to a full hour-and-a-half (ish). But this time, there wasn't any need for extras. As Zippy Films was kind enough to post a list of all the shortlisted films back in December, I debated the merits of looking up some of those short-listed films (you can view that article here). Wild Summon by Saul Freed and Karni Arieli looked particularly interesting, albeit a tad gruesome. The trailer for Humo (Smoke) by Rita Basulto had some very interesting visuals that left me wondering CGI or stop-motion? And the trailer for Eeva, by Morten Tšinakov and Lucija Mrzljak, had both a visual style and story style that projected those quirky Eastern European sensibilities which would definitely appeal to me. Alas, these films got passed over, so will have to do some digging on the internet in the future to see if the filmmakers have uploaded them after their festival runs.

The films this year had a wide array of techniques and topics, though I suspect all had elements of CGI in their production processes, be it compositing, special effects, or animation.

Our Uniform [Iran]: This film had some interesting visuals--the animated short was made to look like all the characters, models, and backgrounds were made of fabric. But with regards to the story, I kinda felt like I'd already seen this film when I watched Persepolis back in 2007. Not a bad film, per se, but I had repeated feelings of déjà vu and was left wondering if the creator was inspired by Marjane Satrapi's feature (or graphic novels)?

Letter to a Pig [France, Israel] - I found the story in this film a little confusing. On the one hand, it was pretty straightforward: you have an elderly Jewish man telling the story of his experiences during the Holocaust to a classroom of kids who (on the surface at least) don't seem to be grasping the nuances of what he was talking about--they fidgeted, some looked bored, I seem to recall one being expelled from the room for being disruptive. The portion of him telling his story about hiding from the Nazis on a farm was rather engaging. But I wasn't sure about the point of the kids being disruptive. Was this an actual event or did the filmmaker script the kids' behavior for the film? Was the filmmaker trying to make the point that as more and more Holocaust survivors pass away, the younger generations become more and more detached from the horrors of their collective history? Then there was the girl who was visualizing the story she was being told before it drifted into daydreaming... 

Well, over on the Hive Studio's YouTube channel, they have uploaded a pair of videos detailing filmmaker Tal Kantor's story and production process. I highly recommend watching them--especially the one on technique if you're a budding filmmaker. I found some of my questions being answered through this fascinating look into how she designed and constructed her film (videos aptly titled: 'The Story' and 'The Technique'). Others were left unresolved.

Interestingly enough, recently Tal Kantor popped up on my Facebook "Suggested Friends" list. Apparently we have ten mutual friends. After watching Letters to a Pig again, I might reach out to her and ask some questions about her film. This is one of those thought provoking animated shorts that I would really like to watch a couple more times to really let it sink in.

Pachyderm [France] - There were some really good visuals in this film--hauntingly beautiful imagery and solid animation technique--but sometimes the story being told is too abstract. During the screening, I didn't get the fact that it was about abuse. On the bright side, it did plant enough seeds within my consciousness that I looked up the film afterwards in order to get some more context and interpretation on the story. Even if they don't "get it" during the first viewing, I think that inspiring someone to look deeper into your film's premise outside of the screening is a pretty good thing.

Ninety-Five Senses [USA] - This film was a slow burn. An entertaining story told by an old man at the end of his days as he reminisces about his life. It was a very compelling story that drew me in from the start and ended with a startling reveal. Now, I'm not going to say that "this is the film that should've won", I've long since given up on trying to determine how the Academy members will vote. But what I will say is that if you only see one of the films nominated this year, it should definitely be this one.

War is Over [USA] - This was an nice film. A bit overly saccharine for my tastes, but it had a decent story (two soldiers on either sides of the war playing a game of chess with moves relayed by carrier pigeon). I honestly thought that it was more interesting to see how the film was created using Unreal Engine (using a video game engine to create an animated short film). What I think really made this film shine is that the concept was strong enough to stand on its own. I don't think that they needed the John Lennon song. Not saying the song's presence was bad or unnecessary, just that it was a solid concept with good storytelling and competent execution in and of itself.

So, all-in-all, I found this to be a very good program of films which were filled with a wide variety of animation techniques and visual styles. It was well worth the drive down to Detroit. Now, time to see what animated features the Detroit Film Theater will be showing this year so I can start planning return trips.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Animated Thoughts: Art comes in many forms

It was tax time and my accountant works an hour away in Grand Rapids. So it was time for my yearly pilgrimge to see the butterflies at the Frederik Meijer Gardens... oh, I mean drop off my taxes binder to my accountant--then go back and sign documents, submit paperwork, and pick up the binder. Yeah, you won't find any real substance or epiphanies in this post, just a bunch of photographs that I took during a period of the year where it's a lot of busywork and maintenance to keep my LLC going and not much else. Fortunately for me, there are opportunites to appreciate some (natural) art, if you're willing to look for them.

Grape hyacinth muscari

Hey, this isn't sugar water, it's vodka!

Postman (Heliconius melpomene aglaope)

Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius)

Postman (Heliconius melpomene plesseni)

Postman (Heliconius melpomene aglaope)

Was taking a picture and this butterfly stopped by to say 'hi'.

Common Morpho (Morpho peleides)

Blue and White Longwing (Heliconius cydno)

Tropical Ginger (circuma)

Well worth a visit... or two.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Animated Thoughts: My Love Affair with Marriage

Well, I saw My Love Affair With Marriage at the Flint Institute of Art. Having done promotional work on both of Signe's features, it's a real rush to sit in the theater and see the final product--even moreso to see your name in the credits as one of the financial backers of the film. And I have to say it was a very enjoyable movie, but more than that, it was very thought provoking. Given the litany of "advice" family and friends have given me about marriage over my lifetime, I spent more than a little time pondering issues raised by the movie on the drive home. 

Though one initial question that crossed my mind as I walked out of the theater was related to how Signe puts a lot of herself into her films. In her animated short the Dentist, Signe drew upon her experiences having some dental surgery in order to create a spine-tingling film. In Birth, she drew upon her experience of becoming a new mother and how advice given isn't always as helpful as one would hope. In watching My Love Affair With Marriage, I do have to wonder how many of the situations Zelma found herself in were drawn from Signe's own life experiences... or drawn from experiences related to her by family and friends?

For me though, My Love Affair With Marriage raised some very interesting (uncomforable?) situations as it confronted the stories we are told about marriage. For example: how you are not a complete person without someone there to complete you. Or how we over-romanticize marriage and childrearing while ignoring the realities of said experiences. Now I'm not anti-marriage or anti-children, far from it. I'm a big supporter of both if for no other reason than how families can add stability to society and children provide for society's longevity. But oftentimes, being married and having children is portrayed in culture as the be-all and end-all of the human experience and your existence is empty and meaningless if you're single--a concept that I've been striving against for the better part of my life.

The very real question that I've been pondering lately is: is the desire to get married something that you want for yourself or do you only feel that desire because it's "expected" of you?

And that's where I found myself as I watched Zelma's trials and tribulations as she wandered through life as a single woman then life as a married woman. Throughout this film, Signe asked the questions and confronted the sacred cows of marriage and the decision to have a child (or not) in a very entertaining fashion--but without fully answering them, always leaving room for speculation based upon your personal experiences.

As always, Signe does a masterful work of weaving the triumphs and failures of the human experience into very interesting and engaging characters who leave you wanting more. Despite all the difficulties she faced through childhood, adolescence, and finally adulthood, the film struck this hopeful tone as Zelma walked a path towards finding peace in her relationships. As Zelma grew, I wondered if maybe she would realize that she doesn't "have" to be married in order to live a life filled with meaning and purpose--a realization that many of us single people look for: that particular moment of clarity when you really start living and enjoying your life in the moment instead of chasing after some highly-romanticized vision of the future that society says you must have. Or maybe marriage "was" the key to happiness for Zelma after all, once she finds the right person with whom she can share the rollercoaster of life. Maybe her personal happiness could only be found in sharing her life with another person and it would take her a series of failed relationships to finally grow into the person she needed to be in order to share her life with someone else? I'll leave it up to you readers to watch the film for yourselves and see how the story ends for Zelma... or maybe doesn't end as perhaps every apparent end for Zelma is just the beginning of another chapter in her story (including the ones we don't get to see). Regardless, after the movie ended, I did have the feeling that it would be nice to check in with Zelma in about five or ten years and see how life turned out for her. For by the end of the film, Zelma felt like less of a character in a story and more like a friend or a family member who you only saw every couple of years but pick the friendship right back up where you left off. 

As one of the Crowdfunding backers, I'm really looking forward to receiving my copy of the film and watching it again since I not only enjoyed the story but I also really enjoyed the visuals in this movie. I was very drawn to the segments where the neuron narrator "Biology" (expertly voice acted by Michele Pawk) ran us through these mini documentaries detailing how the brain matures and processes emotions through biochemical networks before the film went back to Zelma's external story. Then there were the many examples of Signe's "digital setback camera" process--a digital evolution of Max Fleischer's setback camera setup that I wouldn't mind trying myself someday.

Signe continues to push the bar on her personal work as My Love Affair With Marriage added a large number of musical numbers to the feature. And while this film is drawn in her own signature visual style, you can see Signe pushing her drawing and animating skills forward and improving in both the 2d rendering of her human characters as well as the more abstract figures she presented in the neurological characters and processes seen in the microscopic brain sequences.

All-in-all, Signe has added another interesting and entertaining film to the growing pantheon of adult-oriented animated features and is well worth a look, whether you want to be inspired or if you just want to be entertained. Given how approachable and relatable this film was to my own experiences with interpersonal relationships, I can't wait to see what concepts Signe decides to tackle for her next feature.

If you'd like to know more about Signe's process, I highly recommend watching the following presentation she gave at the University of Michigan/Ann Arbor screening of her film. Additionally, she's got some wonderful  production process pages on her website: https://www.myloveaffairwithmarriagemovie.com/ where she covers the setwork, animation, and also shows some presentation and interview videos--great stuff for the aspiring animator. Embedded below is the Penny Stamps lecture series video from University of Michigan.

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* Images used in this blog post are provided by Signe's website/press/presskit and are copyright Signe Baumane