Moving Pictures & Top of the Class – Encounters Festival Animation Programme 2 & 3

Encounters, the Bristol based UK animation and short film festival, continues with an excellent array of animated shorts in their second and third animation programmes.

Animation 2 – Moving Pictures was a collection of shorts that explored complex emotive narratives. Of the fiction work in the programme, ‘My Home (Chez Moi)‘ directed by Phuong Mai Nguyen, shone through as a truly touching and sophisticated exploration of a young boy coming to grips with his mother’s new romantic partner.

Two films from programme 2 that hit the animated documentary remit, both of which take place during the Second World War.

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Zoltan Aprily, director of ‘Ungvár’, explores his grandfather’s memories of working on a Hungarian commercial ship which was leased to the German navy and appropriated for war.

The central moral dilemma of working alongside the historical villains of the 20th century is illuminated through crystal clear symbolism: the Nazi soldiers are quite literally depicted as faceless or monstrous henchmen, while the civilian crew are shown as a hapless bunch of normal-looking lads struggling through a precarious situation.

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Michael Brookes was commissioned by the Bletchley Park Trust to reconstruct a key moment in British military history. Notes rescued from a captured German U-boat led to the British code-breaking teams cracking the German Enigma encryption. This 3D animation is rendered in a soft colour palette, with intricate textures reminiscent of the early 20th century printing of posters used during the Allied war effort.

‘The Petard Pinch’ is essentially a tale of duty and sacrifice. The stiff-upper-lip stoicism of the film serves only to sharpen the emotional response in the audience.  This informative and moving short film clearly deserves the success it has already received from D&AD, Shorts of the Week and as a Vimeo Staff Pick.

Animation 3 – Top of the Class draws attention to animated films selected for their craftsmanship. Three of the films were identifiable as animated documentaries, but the of fiction and non-narrative work my attention was grabbed by the French-Hungarian co-production ‘Love‘, directed by Réka Bucsi.  This fantasy nature documentary tracks the impact solar movement have on a weird and complex ecosystem.

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Volker Schlecht & Alexander Lahl co-directed ‘Broken – The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck (Kaputt)’. This beautifully crafted film is narrated by Gabriele Stötzer and Brigit Willschütz, political prisoners from Hoheneck Castle in East Germany. These unfortunate women were forced to make garments which were sold for great profit across the border in West Germany.

The animation is classically drawn frame by frame. After scanning one step, the drawing was erased, changed or completely re-drawn on the same sheet of paper and re-scanned (a technique used by William Kentridge). The attention to detail in this film is truly astonishing. It seemed somehow telling that the directors chose to integrate the subtitles, perfectly matching the aesthetic of this powerful animated documentary.

‘Stems’, directed by Ainslie Henderson, is a straightforward documentary about creating stop-motion puppets. The director narrates as his characters are assembled is if through the magic of stop-motion. It’s all very meta.  Henderson laments, “they are like actors who are destined to play just one role”.

‘Mamie’ is a touching portrait of director’s grandmother. Janice Nadeau tries to decipher her personal memories of this aloof and unforgiving matriarch. Although not explicitly stated, it seems clear that this is based on first hand recollection. If ‘Mamie’ is entirely invented character I must apologise for suggesting this is an animated documentary and commend Janice Nadeau for the realism in her writing!

Encounters short film and animation festival runs from the 20th -25th September across a number of venues in Bristol, UK.

 

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The Weight of Humanity – Encounters Festival Animation Programme 1

The first Encounters Festival animation programme focused on politics, conflict and cultural identity. Amongst the short animations were a number of works of fiction which directly satirise world affairs and political systems. Others made unambiguous references to hot topics like North Korea. In terms of documentary approaches, four films stood out for me:

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Having completed the AniDox:Lab under Uri and Michelle Kranot’s tutorage, I feel compelled to support the notion that their experimental film, ‘How Long, Too Long’, is a documentary. The animation conveys a loosely structured message of tolerance through appropriated historical footage and symbolic imagery. Each live action scene is manipulated though their highly distinctive paint on paper rotoscoping technique. The scenes are contextualised by the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose voice has come to symbolise tolerance. This film developed out of a collaboration with live action director Erik Gandini. His film ‘Cosmopolitanism’ (2015) on Vimeo is a more conventional documentary short which addresses similar subject matter and shares some of the animated scenes.

Click here to watch the ‘How Long, Too Long‘ trailer

While thinking about how to categorise this film I was reminded that Uri had said animators often dismiss his and Michelle’s recent films as not real animation; while the structure and form of their films are lyrical enough for documentarians question their authority as a documentaries. However you might choose to define this short, Michelle and Uri’s contribution to animated documentary as educators is invaluable.

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‘City of Roses’, directed by Andrew Kavanagh, mixes live action and animation to distinguish between recent history in Ireland and 1930’s USA. A young boy discovers an abandoned suitcase filled with letters home, written by an Irish emigrant.

These written documents both form both the basis of the narrative, and litter the aesthetic of the film. While the animated sequences are clearly an earnest attempt to represent historical documents, it is hard to know how literally one should read the live action scenes.

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‘A Terrible Hullabaloo’ was commissioned to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Easter Uprising. In 1916, while the United Kingdom was distracted by war in Europe, Irish republicans rose up in an attempt to end British sovereignty.  This film depicts a first hand account given by a fourteen-year-old patriot who found himself garrisoned in a biscuit factory during one of the most deadly weeks in Irish history.

Director, Ben O’Connor, initially conceived a stop motion animation but the sensitive historical deadline forced his production team to adopt live action puppetry. One of the more distinctive aesthetic choices was to composite human eyes onto the puppets. The uncanny effect some how makes the film both more and less realistic. O’Connor remarked in a Q&A session after the screening, that he considers the film a documentary because he made every attempt to remain faithful to the historic subject matter. Vinny Byrne’s testimony was recorded in 1980 for the documentary ‘Ireland: a television history’. While this is most certainly a documentary, it is fair to argue that this should not be considered an animated film. The vast majority of the footage is not created frame-by-frame or interpolated; instead puppets are filmed moving in real time, as are the digitally imposed eyes.

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The final film on the Weight of Humanity programme was ‘Tough’, directed by Jennifer Zheng. This student film, from Kingston University’s Illustration and Animation undergraduate degree, explores the film-maker’s relationship with her mother and her own dual national identity. Zheng adopts a bold colour palette and traditional Chinese imagery while confronting difficult personal and political truths.

In the same Q&A session Jennifer declared her own problematic feelings about categorising this film as a documentary.  She considers her audio interview as authentic documentation, but the animated action was entirely invented and features unrealistic or devised scenes.  I would argue an artist’s interpretation of a conversation is just as valid and perhaps more meaningful than a ‘talking heads’ shot. Zheng, however, prefers the term “docu-fiction”.

Encounters is an international animation and short film festival basted in Bristol, UK. It is running from the 20th to 25th September 2016.

‘Seeking Refuge’ series for television by Andy Glynne

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A series of animated shorts illustrating young people’s perspectives of living as refugees and asylum seekers. Part of the BBC Two Learning Zone, this series won a Children’s BAFTA in 2012.

Produced by Mosaic Films in London, UK.
Director: Andy Glynne
Animation Directors: Salvador Maldonado, Karl Hammond, Tom Senior and Jonathan Topf

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00vdxrk

Video essay on ‘Waltz with Bashir’ by Digging Deeper


[edit 16th May – this video’s been taken down due to a copyright issue but we’ll let you know if it comes back online.]

“Waltz With Bashir is a documentary film that exists in a rare category (along with films like Close-Up and The House Is Black) in that it bends the generic conventions of its format, ultimately creating an experience that is truly unique. Its idiosyncratic blend of animation, music, and recorded interviews makes it a documentary that is both a sensory spectacle and an emotional journey. In our essay “Echoes of a Forgotten Past” we explore how director Ari Folman uses the seemingly contradictory elements of the animated documentary format to comment on the ethics of filmic representation and the cycle of historical trauma.”

More info here about Digging Deeper “a two man team that likes looking at a film and trying to see if something else is lying beneath its surface.”
https://www.patreon.com/diggingdeeper?ty=h

‘The gift that keeps on giving’ by Jeff Lassahn

download

http://theclusterproject.com/bombs/the-gift-that-keeps-giving/

A short, thought-provoking animation about the effects of cluster bombs. This film is part of a larger project called the Cluster Project, an online gallery of art works and space for dialogue on the ethics of warfare.

http://theclusterproject.com/

Tess Martin’s new film ‘Mario’ – film-maker interview

Mario from Tess Martin on Vimeo.

“In Italian playgrounds a song is sung that dates back to World War I. This paint on glass animation tells the dark tale of a soldier who returns home from war to find his girlfriend has left him.”

Tess Martin is a film-maker whose work ‘The Whale Story’ we featured last summer. We are thrilled to have not only an online exclusive of Tess’s new film ‘Mario’ which premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival on 24th May, but also an interview with the film-maker herself.

Alys Scott Hawkins: So, Tess, tell us about your new film…

Tess Martin: My new short is called ‘Mario’, and it’s based on an Italian children’s song which translates as ‘Everybody Calls Me Mario’. As far as I can tell, it’s a song that started out as a folk song in either in WWI or WWII. People don’t really know how far back it stretches. It references war and a specific battle, but there are several different versions of the song with different lyrics so the origins are kind of mysterious, but it comes from the northern part of Italy, either near Torino or near Venice. It kind of mutated into a song that children sing in elementary schools, and when they sing it they also play a hand clapping game.

That song and that game is something that I played because I grew up in Florence. We were living in Italy because of my dad’s job and I was at an Italian elementary school, and this was one of those playground games, but I remember even at the time thinking that this is kind of a weird song for kids to be singing, because it is quite dark. Kids relish dark things, I think, which is probably why it was popular. For whatever reason it stuck with me, and I always remembered it even after years had passed. At a certain point I started doing research into the song, to see if I could find anyone else who remembered singing the song, and where it came from.

Then I got a grant from 4Culture, an arts organisation in Seattle, so that’s when everything really started. The research I tried every which way, and there’s not a lot of information out there about this song. But it definitely exists – it wasn’t a figment of my imagination! There is one recording of some people in a village, that an ethnomusicologist recorded in 1960, and this is held in an archive in Rome, but it’s not accessible unless you go there in person. There is also a version on YouTube, but it actually has quite a different tune from the melody that I remember. But you can find people on the internet talking about the song and discussing the different lyrics they remember from their childhoods. Clearly its one of those things that’s mutated so much that there are now different lyrics, and different melodies, and no-one really knows where it came from.

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It’s a really haunting story of a soldier who becomes enraged with jealousy at his ex-girlfriend. It has a lot of connotations, like was he just a jealous person, or did it have to do with the fact that he’s been at war? And the girl is clearly the subject of his obsession but we never hear her side of the story. It’s just from his point of view, so she remains a mysterious figure. We don’t really know did she actually do something wrong to him or is he just really over-protective?

And at the end there’s this last stanza where he addresses his mother [laughs] which is just such an Italian element to it! And he asks for forgiveness from his mother for having committed this crime. I don’t remember that stanza, that wasn’t in my version, but I found it in most of the other versions and I decided to include it because it seemed like an appropriate conclusion that he ends up repenting in some manner.

I had been working with some techniques that were modified base techniques, mostly marker-on-glass and ink-on-glass, but I hadn’t tried proper paint-on-glass before. There was something about the old fashioned tone of the song that made me feel that paint-on-glass would be appropriate. I worked on it over about six months, and I found the technique quite challenging and so I had to do a lot of experimentation, and in the end I combined it with marker-on-glass technique, so you’ll see some scenes that have both a paint fill, but also a clear marker drawing outline of the characters.

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I ended up finishing the film here in the Netherlands, just because I moved here in between [to begin a Masters course in Animation at St. Joost, Breda], and I finally got it finished a few months ago because I’ve been juggling my course and the film.

ASH: Could you tell us anything more about the production process?

TM: Well, the first stop was doing the storyboard and testing the paint technique, but at the same time I spent a lot of time on the audio, because I knew that was going to be a very important part of the film. So I started scouring Seattle for Italian speaking children, and I finally found a few and taught them the song and recorded them. It was super fun, but I realised I needed a strong voice to be the main voice, because it was such a singular point of view, from his perspective and I felt that one strong singer would be really appropriate.

And then I moved to the Netherlands. Luckily I have an Italian friend here, and I was at his house in Torino for new year and his mother agreed to sing for me. I had sung the song as the temp track, to get the rhythm down and start storyboarding and planning the animation. But I am not a talented singer, so I was really looking forward to being able to switch out my temp track for an actual singer. I had Anna listen to my version on headphones as she was singing, so that she could know exactly what the tune was and the tempo. It was pretty easy! We just did four takes, and the fourth one is the one you hear, and then I added in the kids’ voices where I felt it would be good. And then I worked with a very talented composer who I’ve worked with before in Seattle, called Jason Staczek and he took the audio recordings and cleaned them up and added his own really simple score, because he said this thing was so powerful that it didn’t need a lot of elaborate instruments. That was a really important part of the process. I feel like the film didn’t really come together until I got that singing on tape.

ASH: Can you talk us through the rest of the process?

TM: The whole process was me singing the song to myself on the temp track, just to get it down in an MP3, just to figure out how long the different sections were. Then I make really basic storyboards: brainstorming, just figuring out images that might be appropriate for that part of the story. I had to figure out how to visualise the different elements. How could one moment transition into the next and how could I make it a cohesive story? I hit upon the metaphor of the birds because one of the lyrics is ‘I had a girlfriend, she left me like a swallow in the spring’. That’s right at the beginning of the song, so we see the girl but then she turns into a bird and flies away but then the bird comes back in various forms throughout the song. Once I hit upon that it was a good thing to hang the rest of the visuals on to.

After the storyboard then I started testing with the paint, asking ‘what can the paint do? Is the paint better for detailed close ups or rough smudgy imprecise drawings?’ You also see a lot of texture, so there are a couple of scenes where the paint fills the screen or the paint is being erased, and that’s just fun to do. Then I started animating and I completed about half of it before I moved to the Netherlands, but I didn’t have my same multi-plane stand here, so I had to figure out how to deal with that.

'Mario' soldiers_bomb

At first I was a little bit worried about it, but I liked the layering of the paint and marker together, and I had just recently, finally, properly learned how to use After Effects, so then I realised I could just composite the two together. The scenes where that appears towards the end were animated twice, once in paint and once in marker, so instead of doing them both at the same time on a multi-plane I animated them by themselves and composited them together.

I definitely used post-production more on this film than I have in the past. Most of my previous films were pretty straightforward frame-by-frame techniques. There’s really not much post-production needed – it’s just ‘straight ahead’ animation. For this one, because I was trying to solve various problems, it was actually really fun, it was liberating. There were a lot more possibilities, I found, if I opened myself up to this filter or that layering technique, for example.

ASH: It sounds like you’ve learnt a lot in the making of this film?

TM: I always like it when it turns out that way otherwise it’s boring! It’s true that whenever I start a film I do think about new ways to animate that I haven’t tried before; and I know some people disagree with that approach because it means you’re learning on the job. But I love it because to me that’s the most fun and exciting part about animation: figuring out how to do something and what can this technique do and that another technique can’t, and how to take advantage of that. And those are the types of animations that I most enjoy watching – the ones that really are exploring and stretching what animation can do. It’s true that it is a gamble, if you happen to suck at that particular technique, then it’s a challenge to make it work.

ASH: At the storyboard stage everything is potential, but sometimes the production stage can be like just carrying out a set of instructions if there’s nothing new to discover along the way.

TM: That’s an excellent point, and I know that a lot of people don’t have that flexibility, like maybe you’ve got funders or producers breathing down your neck, who are worried about your creative choices, or you’re working with other people and you need to make all those decisions earlier so that they need to know what’s going to happen. And, to be honest, part of the reason why I’ve never worked that way is that I don’t like being tied down so much. I’ve always been super-open to collaboration and I’ve always collaborated with sound designers and musicians and post-production people to a certain extent, but in terms of true collaboration with a capital C, that hasn’t really happened for me yet. Partly you need to meet the right people but also for that reason: I really like being able to change my mind when I want to!

ASH: So how much did the funding you got for this film tie you down to what you’d proposed? To what degree did you have to specify what the film would be like?

TM: I was quite lucky that while I was living in Seattle, I was just applying for artist’s grants, which painters and sculptors and poets are applying for, and these are very open. You have to show a sample of your previous work, and you have to describe the film that you want to make, but then after that they pretty much leave you alone, you just have to finish it. That’s something that I have come to realise, since moving back to Europe, that is quite special. Here in the Netherlands there are the film funds, but it’s more like a live-action granting organisation where you have to have a producer, and a budget, and prove that you’re going to be employing so many local film-makers and contributing to the local economy and so on. And I’d love to get a Dutch film funds grant, so I’m happy to learn how to do it that way, but there’s definitely a little more planning involved.

'Mario' feather_lightbox

ASH: It’s really interesting to hear this behind-the-scenes part of the process which is not usually visible. Funding and the limitations it imposes always make an impact on the work produced. It sounds as though the loose nature of the funding allowed you to develop the film in a fluid and flexible way?

TM: I think I didn’t know how lucky I was! Of course there might be downsides to it as well. If you were to try to fund a film the more traditional way, and have a producer who is applying for grants and perhaps a co-producer from another country, and then you can apply for their country’s grants; it all takes forever and a lot of people are involved. I find the main advantage of that system is not actually the funding but the distribution part of it. With all the funding advantages also come the distribution advantages, so you will actually have someone who will try to get your film seen, and try sell it to the various TV markets and actually submit to the correct festivals in the correct order. And that of course doesn’t come with the loosey-goosey art grants. They just give you a pot of money and then you’re on your own! Unless you’re really smart and you use that money to hire in a producer to do that for you…

It would of course be great to have the best of both worlds, but there is no magic solution. Each route has pluses and minuses, and you have to figure out what’s best for you. I’d still love to work with a producer properly, but once I do that, perhaps I’ll find out that that experience wasn’t as amazing as I expected!

ASH: I know a lot of film-makers – myself included – who dream of finding that Holy Grail of a producer, the person who understands and champions your work, finds the funding, can identify where you work will be well-received and so on…

TM: It’s a nice dream to keep an eye out for that person. Something that I admire about live action film makers is that they’re generally bumping into those sorts of people more, because their structure is already set up for that; that they are more used to finding producers and trying out different relationships. Doing what I do, I don’t really need a producer, so it makes it more something that you have figure out, and then find people who are actually interested in this brand of weird independent animated shorts which aren’t going to make any money! I do sometimes envy live action film-makers because I feel like they have more of a support network around them.

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ASH: Do you describe your films as animated documentaries?

TM: I don’t think I’ve ever called them that. If someone asks I say they’re documentary-style films, because that makes it a little clearer to people what I mean. So for example, ‘They Look Right Through You’ which is a film about people and their pets; I went and interviewed people, and I used the interviews as a basis for the audio, and in that respect it’s quite documentary – it’s real people with real pets. But it’s very much a philosophical meditation on the topic. It’s still quite non-narrative, not like I’m following one person and their relationship with their pet.

Most of my work is I would say is more ‘documentary in style’. Not because I don’t want to be considered in that category – I am honoured if people think they are animated documentaries – but because I don’t want people to expect an actual documentary! I’m not a journalist, I don’t have the same ethical constraints that a ‘proper documentarian’ might have to deal with.

ASH: So can you tell us what’s next? What lies ahead for you?

TM: I’m finishing up my masters degree, and my graduation film is using a cut-out technique. I’d call them photo cut-outs, so it’s using real actors but cut out of paper. It’s based on a medical case of a man who had a neurological disorder which meant he couldn’t form new memories, and had also lost 30 years of his memory, so he thought he was 19 years old when really he was 45. Every few minutes he would reset and say “Where am I? Who are you?”. It’s a film exploring what it must be like to live in that way and how it affects the people around him. It’s based on a true story, but at the same time I’m taking some creative liberties with it and using actors and animation, so it’s definitely not a ‘proper documentary’, but I hope that it retains that ‘true’ feel to it. And then I’ll probably end up hanging around Netherlands or Europe for at least another year after I graduate, just because I can with my visa. After that, we’ll see!

ASH: Is Seattle the place you call home?

TM: I think it is now but I only moved there about six years ago. Seattle is great, it’s a beautiful place and there’s a community of independent animators there. In fact I have been touring with a programme of their films while I’ve been here [in Europe]. I’ve showed films in Brussels last weekend, and before that Amsterdam and Budapest, and Prague and Vienna. It’s been really great to show people what is being made in Seattle. But home is such a tricky question for someone who grew up living around the world. I love Europe and being so close to everything. That is the struggle when you’re living in the north-west of the States. Everything is so far away and so expensive. Trying to make films anywhere is a challenge, and learning how to make films in different countries and systems and communities and funding bodies and criteria is definitely a learning experience!