‘Table d’Hôte’ by Alexandra Levasseur

A Vimeo user named Surreal Magicalism needed just two sentences to effectively sum up this unconventionally abstract approach to animated documentary. “Simultaneously subtle & brutal indictment of meat production/consumption; brilliant! The animation style, pace & sound design are all incredibly strong.”

Somewhat subtler than Morrissey’s declaration that eating meat is worse than pedophilia, Alexandra Levasseur  represents her anti-meat message through metamorphic visual poetry, semiabstract narrative and masterful sound design.

A fly functions as a discordant device; it evokes a creeping notion of disgust while the viewer is presented with clinical images of meat preparation and consumption. This, I assume, is the central goal of the film.

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The title ‘Table d’Hôte’ refers to a ‘set menu’ in restaurant terminology. A situation with little choice may refer to the decadence of a society that insists on consuming meat as a norm, despite the agricultural inefficiency, environmental costs and ethical ambiguity.

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I am intrigued by the inclusion of a horse. Levasseur, a Montreal based student, may not be aware of the recent meat adulteration scandals in Britain. Maybe she references an animal that is normally revered and rarely consumed to highlight the perceived absurdity of accepting the industrial scale slaughter of some animals over others. Hopefully this isn’t simply explained by my ignorance of French Canadian livestock practices.

The illustrative style is confidently minimal, aided by a consciously fleshy colour palette. I observed a few careless animation glitches; the flickering line above the cow’s eye distracts from what is otherwise a powerful image.

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The sound design, despite being very simple is genuinely intriguing. The glimmering digital base track acts as a bed for all manner of thoughtfully selected sound effects. We are struck by silence in the final scene as the horse collapses into a pile of meat. Only an invisible fly is audible, reengaging the viewer’s disgust instinct once again.

Awarded the Vimeo Staff Pick, ‘Table d’Hôte’ is the second student film made at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema to grab my attention in so many months.

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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.

‘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.

‘No-One is Illegal’ by George Sander-Jackson

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Unfortunately we cannot embed the film ‘No-One is Illegal’.  It can however be watched via George Sander-Jackson’s blog.

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Inspired by a performance of the ‘Asylum Monologues’, Sander-Jackson approached the writers for permission to adapt the play into a shot animated film. The narrative addresses mental anguish, firstly in regards to the atrocities that motivated the narrator to flee their homeland and secondly in regards to their experience of detention while seeking asylum in the UK. Forward Maisokwadzo, a Zimbabwean resident of Bristol, provided the voiceover while Sander-Jackson constructed the animated visuals through an ink-on-board technique.

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Possibly due to similarities in their process, parallels can be drawn between this film and the charcoal animations of William Kentridge. In addition to the dank grey-scale palette that both artists adopt, the style of visual storytelling is metamorphic; a stream of pictorial references merging from one to the next. The sequential blurring of nightmarish scenes evokes the haunting and intangible nature of traumatic memory.

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The film seems to exist in two forms; three minutes (available on George’s blog) and a one-minute-thirty version which can be found in DepicT!’s 2008 archive. This is the Watershed’s super-short filmmaking competition that operates as a part of Bristol’s Encounters Short Film & Animation Festival.

Sander-Jackson continued to develop the technique he used in ‘No-One is Illegal’ for a section of the feature film ‘A Liar’s Autobiography’, which I reviewed for this blog back in March 2013. George Sander-Jackson works as a director at Arthur Cox and teaches part time at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

Iki – See you soon (Iki – Bis bald) by Florian Maubach

Florian Maubach documents his bicycle journey from Kassel, Germany, to the coast of Lithuania. In one minute twenty Maubach convinces us of his reverence for landscape, passion for adventure and artistic dynamism.

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The viewer adopts a satellite perspective while the surroundings immediately visible to the cyclist distort into a miniature globe. This frenetically changing sphere helps communicate the joy associated with propelling ones self across great distances.

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Further definition is added to his activities and various modes of transport through clear and simple sound design, avoiding the use of a narrator. For instance, his passage through the town of Palanga is punctuated by both the name appearing briefly across the skyline and a ringing of his bell. The visual emphasis placed on the movement of the sun and the moon helps abbreviate the passage of time in this very short film.

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In the final moments Maubach breaches the realism of his constructed universe by having the character jump up from the sea, cling on to the sun, plunging the world into darkness. It might be fair for one to assume this is a playful metaphor gesturing the traveller’s triumph over nature.  While this decision reduces the film’s authority as a descriptive document, its location at the very end minimises such an effect. As credits are bound to break all cinematic illusions, this filmmaker seems to have recognised an opportunity for conceptual freedom in the seconds beforehand.

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The 2012 student film, made at Kunsthochschule in Kassel, has screened at 14 festivals across Germany and the rest of Europe. I found the cheerful simplicity of concept and execution in this film resonant and refreshing.

‘A Brief History of the Internet’ by Melih Bilgil

Melih Bilgil’s ‘A Brief History of the Internet’ employs a distinctly simple visual language to depict a series of complex communication and technology developments. We are hurtled through the historical contexts of various breakthroughs that collectively lead to the invention of the World Wide Web.

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This animation project was conceived as a vehicle for showcasing Bilgil’s graphic design concept, PICOL. Short for ‘PIctorial COmmunication Language’, the project consists of a set of standardized signs developed to represent various features of electronic communication. The designer hoped that these icons would join existing examples, such as play/pause, creating a richer vocabulary of universally understood symbols.

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The director’s desire to cover the subject comprehensively is at times in conflict with the need to engage the audience, which creates a consistent element of discord. A feature common to many educational films is the interference created when entirely forgettable technical or historical referencing distracts from interesting learning points. The result of this is that the viewer’s short term memory is preoccupied by frivolous detail rather than the core subject; for example, the numerous acronyms that litter the script.

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In this film, a number of concepts, such as the decentralized network architecture, are enhanced by graphic visualizations. These reduced models communicate the dilemma and solution elegantly. However, occasionally the imagery does not expand upon or condense the verbal explanation. Instead it repeats the narrator’s script and the feeling of tautology creeps in.

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‘A Brief History of the Internet’ is comprehensive and stimulating. Occasionally it loses stride but ultimately one is left with the feeling they have learnt something useful.  Melih Bilgil lives in Munich where he works as a freelance multidisciplinary designer.

‘Backseat Bingo’ by Liz Blazer

Liz Blazer – Backseat Bingo – Animated Documentary from Liz Blazer on Vimeo.

Liz Blazer’s ‘Backseat Bingo’ is a joyful exploration of sexuality in the lives of senior citizens. The talking head format is brought to life by Blazer’s illustrative style and eye for caricature. As viewers we are granted extraordinary access to the interviewees personal lives, the results are often comical and touching but above all the experience is intimate.

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Urbandictionalry.com indicates that the title of this film is a 1950’s term for kissing in the back of a car. We live in a highly sexualised society, which also places huge emphasis on youth. I have great respect for Liz Blazer for challenging age prejudice by highlighting the importance of sex throughout adulthood. The liberal attitude amongst some of the female interviewees also challenges conservative gender stereotypes.

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The choice to include a photograph of each participant at the end of the film makes it clear that the use of animated documentary in this case was not a device for protecting identity. Instead animation is used to inject vibrancy and illustrative flair. Although the likeness is often striking, it is a little strange that the caricatures make each participant look younger than their photographs. I wonder whether this design choice was to protect vanity or maybe it was simply a product of the simplified drawing style.

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Occasionally the stiffness of the animation becomes evident; a background figure that dives into a swimming pool does so without bending a limb. Ultimately this is not the emphasis of the film. Blazer is concerned with distilling personality into these simply constructed 2D puppets, and I feel she does so conscientiously and to great effect.

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Backseat Bingo’ was a student film made in 2004 at the School of Cinema – Television, University of Southern California.  The film travelled internationally to over 180 film festivals and won 25 awards. The source of this film’s resonance is emphasised when in the final credits Liz Blazer declares her thanks to each of the participants for sharing their ‘wisdom and humour’.