‘60 Second Adventures in Economics’ (combined) by the Open University

This sequence of 6 episodes provides pithy explanations of economic theories, narrated by the comic actor and frequenter of panel shows, David Mitchell. The script, whilst managing to be digestibly informative, also incorporates a sharp wit that comes so naturally to Mitchell.

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The diagrammatical animation is simplistic.  Some imagery and much of the movement seems reminiscent of comic timing found in Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python cut out animations. While the over all visual style seems influence by the RSA Animate’s wipe board series. The character and set design is fun and doodle like, bringing a pleasantly informal hue to the weighty topics.

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Developed as a promotional tool to attract interest in studying at the Open University, the series seems to have attracted a lot of online attention, particularly from U.S. commentators who seem to eat up the ‘British sense of humour’.

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The films are unaccredited but as far as I can work out Angel Eye Media were commissioned to create the 60-second adventure series.  This isn’t certain however, as the production company’s website seems to declare involvement with only the ‘60 Second Adventures in Thought’. Either way the ‘…Thought’ series is also worth a watch.

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‘Just a Mess’ by Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart, an animation student at Concordia University, recorded her grandmother during the 2012 winter holidays. Of the many stories she heard about life on Prince Edward Island in Eastern Canada, ‘Just a Mess’ stood out.

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Gentle banjo plucking is sprinkled behind this playful and charming claymation. The use of a folding map to tackle a set-design dilemma is an efficient and enjoyable solution.

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Occasionally the animation is a little jerky, the character design a little simplistic and the illusion of life size scale is never quite achieved, however any short comings pale in significance when considering the kind humour and delightful ease of the story telling.

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An extraordinary shot where the grandmother inhales fumes from the rotting skunk snouts stood out. The green wool tears its way up her nostrils as we watch at an uncomfortably close angle.

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Although there is a slight flippancy regarding animal welfare issues, Stewart’s job was to merely represent her grandmother’s story and not drag the historical tale through a complex of contemporary ethics.

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Laura Stewart continues to study Film Animation at Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Concordia University. Her progress is well documented on her blog.

‘What is a Flame?’ by Benjamin Ames

The enthusiasm, charm and simplicity of Benjamin Ames’ approach to explaining combustion to school kids is thoroughly enjoyable.

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Ames, a physics doctorial candidate at the University of Innsbruck, created this cartoon for the 2012 Flame Challenge, a competition set up by the Centre for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Alan Alda, Hollywood actor turned visiting professor, helped set up the competition based on recollections of an unsatisfying answer a teacher gave to his schoolboy question ‘what is a flame?’  Ames’ film won first prize after being judged by thousands of 11-years-olds in schools around the world.

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An aspect of Benjamin’s ability to make learning enjoyable is his humour. For instance the film’s premise gently mocks the protagonist’s plight; a disembodied chipper scientist insists on explaining how flames work to a dead man chained up in the fiery pits of hell, whilst failing to acknowledge the characters suffering.

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Ames’ talents are diverse. Remarkably he managed to write a catchy song for the finale, that summarised all the key points and included an effective chorus that goes: ‘Pyrolysis, Chemiluminesence, Oxidation, Incandescence’.

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It must be mentioned that the standard of animation on this project doesn’t compare with most of the films featured on this blog. Despite the obvious limitations, the ‘my-first-Flash-animation’ feel to the project doesn’t put me off.  The film manages to achieve greatness in spite of the aesthetic flaws.

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It is impressive how many of the Vimeo comments demand that Benjamin quits his day job to make more educational films. According to the Flame Challenge website Benjamin seems to have got the hint and is finishing up his PhD this summer and is busy working on producing a kids’ science show.

‘There’s No Tomorrow’ By Dermot O’Connor

“We’re all doomed!” muttered an internal voice whilst watching this thoroughly bleak yet seemingly rational animation about the fundamental incompatibility of environmentalism and the current fuel based economic paradigm.

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Initially conceived as a lighthearted parody of the pro-capitalist propaganda cartoons of the 1940s and 50s, this Flash animation maintains a commitment to the juxtaposition of serious or complicated concepts with lighthearted and infantile graphic techniques; the characters are cute and inanimate materials are personified. Dermot O’Connor does his best to extend such jollity into the graphic representations of data. However when the flow of imaginative imagery inevitably runs as dry as some of the film’s subject matter, enough distraction is provided by the film’s apocalyptic overtones that criticism is effectively stifled.

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Efforts are made to keep levels of panic at a low simmer. Twinkling classical music soothes the tone of the film as catastrophic statements are churned out. Similarly the female narrator’s soft delivery greatly contrasts the alarming information she imparts.

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Gradually I started to mentally add two dots above each bell shape graph that predicted decline of a resource or living standard, resulting in a stream of crude sad-face emoticons.

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The Frequently Asked Questions on O’Connor’s website made for interesting reading. In this the writer/animator bitterly describes the film ‘consuming’ up to ‘three full years of personal labor’. In response to the question ‘Would you do it again if you knew how long it was going to take?’ O’Connor retorts ‘No. In the intervening years, it’s become clear that people are deeply set in their opinions, and that most of the writing/commentary/movies that are made simply reinforce existing beliefs, rather than change them. In addition, dealing with this subject is likely to have one labeled a Eugenicist/Genocidal-maniac/New World Order puppet/Illuminati/Oil-industry-shill/The AntiChrist, or worse. It would have been wiser to create a cartoon about crime-fighting squirrels with super-powers.’

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Despite being sympathetic and interested in much of O’Connor’s concerns this film has an uncanny pacifying effect. Rather than a call to arms the lasting sentiment is that of inevitable doom. Readers may ask ‘why write about a project that seemed to bring down both creator and audiences.’ In response I suggest it might be a good idea to consider the worst every now and then. The blissful comfort of ignorance can be as inversely distorting as crippling paranoia. We all need a bit of doom in our lives if not just to provide perspective on the triviality of our own day-to-day soap opera or maybe even help us re-think our tangled relationships with non-renewable energy sources.

‘Andersartig’ by Dennis Stein-Schomberg

Dennis Stein-Schomburg’s ‘Andersartig’, the German word for different, is an elderly woman’s account of her isolated youth in a German orphanage during a World War II allied bombing campaign.

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Schomburg captures the visual essence of memory through the use of transparency, a sepia colour palette and floating camera movements that include  slightly conflicting uses of perspective. While much of the composition is left abstracted by splashed ink, these textures provide context for individual details to pop out. Recognition is owed to the director for crafting the feeling that we are experiencing the narrator’s minds eye.

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Two and three dimensional animation components are combined successfully. While the image of a fish constructed out of numbers was designed crudely and moves with an equivalent level of elegance, the dispersion of dandelion seeds give a strong impression of air currents. These airborne symbols of childhood innocence serve as an impeccable introductory device to the impending air raid. Their aimless movement and silence function as a counterpoint to the droning intentionality of the aeroplanes set on civilian devastation.

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Despite being based on a factual account, this film has a distinctly allegorical tone to it.  The first possible interpretation aligns this narrative with the age-old advice that one’s proverbial eggs should not be placed in the same basket. In case of a chance instance of damage this is a recognised method for preventing the destruction of an entire stock.

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The second interpretation I take from this account weighs more on the connection between personality and survival. The title of the film presents a girl’s isolation and separatism as the main theme. Her resistance to following the action of the cohort led to circumstances that left her living while the rest perished. This is an appealing message as there is great value placed on individuality in our society. However, I am not certain it is wise to learn from this little girl’s actions, and by default her anti-social tendencies. If these circumstances were repeated the same results would not necessarily reoccur. This woman’s mere survival grants her decision the illusion of being correct when rationally it is fair to say this chance outcome was the result of numerous arbitrary circumstances. The connection between her personality and survival could be incidental. That said it is important to remember these are simply someone’s memories and any interpretation may say more about us, the viewers, than the narrator.

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I find it intriguing to compare this film with Alex Bland’s ‘I Dreamt of Flying’, an animated documentary I reviewed for this blog back in June. Bland presents the other side of the story, the accounts of British and American bomber pilots that described raids over Germany. While Bland steers away from the civilian casualties associated with these attacks, there is little engagement with the wider context of war in Schomburg’s film.

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‘Andersartig’ was brought to our attention by Florian Maubach, the director of ‘Iki – See you soon’ which I wrote about back in August. Maubach and Schomburg are both students from the University of Art and Design in Kessel. Dennis now works freelance as an animator and graphic designer.

‘Conversing with Aotearoa’ by Corrie Francis Parks

Corrie Francis Parks, a Montana based animator and photographer, took part in the New Zealand based Fulbright academic exchange award.  Her fellowship culminated in the creation of the 14-minute animated documentary ‘Conversing with Aotearoa’. (Aotearoa is the most widely know and accepted Māori name for New Zealand.)

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Francis Parks writes about the film: ‘In an age of technological integration and urban life, people turn to the natural world for a wilderness experience. What draws us to the remote corners of land and sea when we realize something in our lives is missing? Conversing with Aotearoa/New Zealand uses unique visual imagery to take the viewer into the physical and mental wilderness encompassed in the diverse landscapes of New Zealand. In this animated documentary, New Zealanders attempt to fathom their deep, personal connection with their land. Among the interviewees are hunters, fishermen, farmers, trampers, mountaineers, adventurer-racers, conservationists, ecologists, artists, urban and rural dwellers, Pakeha, Māori and tourists, young, old and in between. The thread that ties them all together is a passion and love for the wild places in New Zealand.’

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‘Conversing with Aotearoa’ is mostly compiled from photographic animation techniques interjected with partially fluid hand drawn scenes.  These are characterised by a pastel colour palette and a feathered quality of line.

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The film is speckled with bracing moments and cinematic experimentation. The time-lapse footage of starfish in a rock pool demonstrated the filmmaker’s fascination with the varied and wondrous environment. The title scene where the mountain range appears to breath is similarly striking.

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There are however some less successful moments. A Māori spirit/mask spins around a struggling mountaineer, presumably to symbolise his relative powerlessness when confronted with the overwhelming power of nature.  The crude rotational movement of the Māori design, when combined with a quaint woodwind instrumental score, felt visually disappointing and distracted from the absorbing account of mountainous peril.

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Although only a trailer is available on Vimeo, the full 14-minute version is accessible through SnagFilms, an online documentary streaming service supported by advertising. It is free to sign-up but expect to receive a weekly email unless you unsubscribe.

‘StoryCorps Animated Shorts’ by the Rauch Brothers

StoryCorps is a US independent non-profit oral history project, charged with the task of recording, sharing and preserving personal stories of American lives. Many of the thousands of stories are broadcast weekly on National Public Radio’s ‘Morning Edition’ while a handful have been adapted into short animated documentaries.

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Image from ‘A Family Man’

The Rauch Brothers co-directed all fifteen of the shorts. The series demonstrates a strong influence from the school of American cartoons; Tim Rauch’s distinctly caricatured personalities inhabit beautifully constructed backgrounds designed by Bill Wray. The off-kilter geometry of the architecture and pastel colour palette is reminiscent of the 1960s-era ‘Pink Panther Show’, while the thick outlined digital character animation has a stronger connection to contemporary Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network kids animations.

Image from ‘Eyes on the Stars’

Image from ‘Eyes on the Stars’

Many of the StoryCorps recordings selected for animation deal with themes of mortality. ‘John and Joe’, ‘Always a Family’ and ‘She Was the One’ commemorate individuals lost in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, where family members recall their last conversations with loved ones. Meanwhile ‘Danny and Annie’, ‘Germans in the Woods’, ‘A Family Man’ and ‘No More Questions!’ deal with natural deaths. In some instances recordings were made with an elderly family member not long before their passing. Every reference to mortality is a celebration of that individual’s life, highlighting their idiosyncrasies and honouring memories of them.

Image from ‘She Was the One’

Image from ‘She Was the One’

Films like ‘Eyes on the Stars’, ‘Facundo the Great’ and ‘Icing on the Cake’ refer to the experiences of racial minorities, including stories of inequality and immigration. They are however told with a stereotypical American optimism and sentimentality. The people involved look back from improved circumstances, mocking the absurdity of racism or displaying awe and wonder for the struggles of their parents’ generation.

Image from ‘Facundo the Great’

Image from ‘Facundo the Great’

Eccentric personalities seems to be another theme which pops up in these films. ‘Sundays at Rocco’s’, ‘Q&A’, ‘The Human Voice’, ‘No More Questions!’ and ‘Miss Devine’ all feature domineering or uncongenial characters. These stories celebrate diversity and highlight the importance of individuality.

Image from ‘The Human Voice’

Image from ‘The Human Voice’

While many of the animations make reference to romantic or family love, ‘To RP Salazar, with Love’ concerns an extraordinary circumstance that leads to a digital age fairytale ending.

Image from ‘To RP Salazar, with Love’

Image from ‘To RP Salazar, with Love’

Occasionally the animation is noticeably clunky, in particular lip-synching feels a little rough. However the character designs are marvellous. The Rauch Brothers have sensitively depicted a variety of ethnic groups without leaning on illustrative clichés. Family members are designed with an appropriate level of genetic resemblance while managing to avoid looking identical and the exaggerated use of body language and posture helps bring the individuality of each character to life.

Image from ‘Miss Devine’

Image from ‘Miss Devine’

The StoryCorps project has now been running for ten years. An archive of the recordings is being collected at the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress. Although we couldn’t embed all the ‘StoryCorps Animated Shorts’ here, I recommend taking time to flick through them on the StoryCorp website.