Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: September 2005

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

10:01:09 pm , 645 words, 2719 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Lee Sung-Gang: Leading up to Texture of Skin

Since seeing a collection of Lee Sung-Gang's pre-Mari solo animated shorts one year ago I've told myself over and over again that I needed to get the DVD, but never gotten around to it. They're films that you feel like you want to come back to every once in a while. Several I found that I could relate to on a profound level of few animated films I've ever seen. Today I was surprised to discover a short interview with the director on the Japanese site for Mari, which began screening there in theaters last month. Besides the fact that it was nice to see a picture of the man, he made a few interesting comments:

The atmosphere of Mari felt similar in places to Isao Takahata's Omohide Poroporo.
I'm a great admirer of Takahata. The way country life was depicted was very beautiful, so I used it as a reference in the initial production stages of Mari. At one point the heroine travels to the countryside, and in the fields you can see workers sitting and standing doing their work. I was impressed by how detailed the depiction of their actions was.

What do you want Japanese viewers to come away with from this film?
I was at a screening yesterday, and I noticed that people in their thirties and forties seemed to react better to the film than younger people. Maybe because it's a film that makes you think back on your past life, about things you regret, things you wish you'd done differently. Young people in their teens or twenties seemed more concerned about the fact that the film didn't have any shootouts or car chases. What I'd most like would be if viewers in their thirties and forties - people who have experienced a bit of life - could come away from the film looking at love and people around them a little differently, with a little more compassion.

My next surprise was to discover that there's already a web site for his upcoming feature animated film, Yeu Woo Bi, including the 2003 pilot, which I'd been curious to but never expected to see since hearing about it some time ago. The film promises to show Lee expanding his palette again, featuring as it does some mighty fine kung-fu action and a more conventional look than his first film (it will be traditionally animated with CG backgrounds), but undoubtedly it will be full of the aloof poetic feeling of his preceding work.

My final surprise was to discover that most of his early shorts are available for viewing on the site. This took the cake. It's only been a year, but I was starting to forget the details of films, though I remembered the impression vividly. I was happy to find that I still reacted exactly the same way to them as I did last year. These were films that spoke to me so strongly last year. Would that be different? My situation hasn't changed. Beyond a certain age it doesn't in some fundamental way. I still connect with these films just as much as I did last year. It was almost cathartic to be able to experience that feeling again.

As much as I admire the broad appeal of Mari, I can't help but find his personal films more important at some fundamental level, and I hope that over the next few years in some form, be it live action or animation, he continues to address the issues he was mulling over so eloquently in those shorts. In that sense I might be looking forward to Texture of Skin more than to his upcoming animated film. It will probably be picking up the thread where his early films left off, though with a director as unpredictable as Lee I'm sure that many of my expectations are going to be pleasantly betrayed.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

11:38:07 pm , 314 words, 1047 views     Categories: Animation

The new abstract

Is digital. And it's by James Patterson. He does fascinating things with odd little replicated drawings. It feels like I've seen him in Harper's before.

I'm feeling despondent about having finally made my way through the Eames box. I wish I could go on watching their perfectly crafted little diamond-like films on and on forever. There's something literally hypnotizing about the flow of information in their films. It feels like they've been handed a map of the human mind, and know exactly where to place all the right markers to present the clearest possible picture of their subject in the most elegant and succinct fashion possible. Yet every film is always informed of a poetic sensibility. Even a film advertising one of their sofas takes on poetic proportions, with long, lingering shots hovering over a beautiful texture just because it's beautiful. Many of the films are composed entirely of Charles' photographs, which convey his enthusiasm for the beauty and joy to be found in the mundane details all around us. An entire film dedicated to the washing of a school playground forces us to take a close look at an entirely different world of texture and color that we never would have thought to look at otherwise. A whole film on bread, the staple on which civilizations have been built. Tops, culturally universal toys that combine whimsy and science in typical Eamesian fashion. Films with no reason to exist except to chronicle and extoll the beauty of the mundane. Then after these lovingly micro personal films come the collosal macro undertakings like the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, and their encyclopedic proposal film for the National Aquarium in Washington. They seem to follow in the footsteps of the early Americans, best exemplified by Franklin, with their philosophy of putting science, practicality and rationalism to the task of improving the quality of everyday life.

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Monday, September 26, 2005

11:26:18 pm , 433 words, 851 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Animation 80

Hisashi Mori from Samurai Seven #7Browsing through the VIFF schedule today I smugly noted the improbability of there being a Brian Ferneyhough companion piece to the Arvo Pärt documentary on the schedule. (You know... new simplicity versus new complexity...) But it seems I was hasty, as there's something just as good - a doc on Elliot Carter, who, astonishingly, at 95, is still alive and composing. Having seen both WWI and 9/11, he comes across as the embodiment of the American Century in New Music, and I very much look forward to seeing this film.

Last year the festival introduced me to the Korean independent animator Lee Sung-Gang, and this year they're spot on in saying that the last thing in the world I would have been expecting as a next project from him would have been the live-action supernatural erotic thriller being featured at this year's festival. I didn't think I could admire the man more than I did before, but it just happened. (Though I do look forward to his next piece of animation.) Though a far cry from his debut animated feature, the new film actually sounds close in spirit to his early independent animated films. It's refreshing to find an animation figure like this who can effortlessly shift between such extreme poles from one project to the next, much the way Walerian Borowczyk did. I'm reminded of the motto for the Animation 80 "circle" in Japan: Animation isn't a genre of movies - Movies are a genre of animation.

Animation 80 was one of the biggest of the many animation "circles" that appeared on the scene in the 80s. These were groups dedicated to promoting the creation of amateur animation, with the main activity being the screening of animated shorts from around the world and shorts made by members. Animation 80 is still active and holds a screening each year in November. They're currently looking for submissions, and accept submissions from overseas. They also hold a 1-minute animation festival. You can see some of the films from previous editions online (in low quality) on their home page.

I've been under the distinct impression that Hisashi Mori has been doing uncredited work in Speed Grapher lately. Today I had a look over his other work trying to get a grasp of his line to see if I could find conclusive, telltale proof in this hook or that angle (didn't work), when it suddenly occurred to me that his characters looked very Pärn-ish, and that that was probably a subconscious reason why I liked his work so much, besides the obvious main pull of the incredible and unique movement.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

11:47:06 pm , 74 words, 1007 views     Categories: Animation

The lensmen

Link: http://today.reuters.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?type=filmNews&storyID=2005-09-09T174038Z_01_EIC942422_RTRIDST_0_FILM-ARTS-VENICE-JAPAN-DC.XML&archived=False

Sounds like he's alluding to Hashimoto and Ohira in the last sentence. I don't know of anyone else who has done anything like that. If he is, then his statement is a wee bit of an oversimplification of their work, to say the least, but it's kind of touching that he would think of them first when asked such a question. It would be interesting to hear more of his thoughts on their work.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

05:41:46 pm , 667 words, 2944 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Avant-Garde

Lichtspiel Opus I-IV

It's been brought to my attention that Walter Ruttmann's four Lichtspiel films are available for download from Ubuweb. I'd never seen the films, and never expected to see them, so it was a surprise and a delight to be able to see them.

Who is Walter Ruttmann? Even if you've never heard of him, watching the films should at least remind you of someone: Oskar Fischinger, who saw the first film at its premiere in 1921 in Frankfurt and went on carry on the flame of these pioneering films with his own Studien and other abstract films. I first learned about the interaction between these two seminal figures of abstract animation when reading the late William Moritz's Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger, which appeared last year.

Lichtspiel Opus I was "the first abstract film to receive public performances". Ruttmann was trained in painting and music, both of which show up clearly in the Lichtspiel films. A piece of music was written for the films, and Ruttmann played the cello at screenings, but watched even completely silent the films pulse with a hypnotic, almost techno rhythm that's gripping, making music seem almost unnecessary, and making these films the earliest instances of bona-fide "visual music" that I've seen.

My first question when watching the films was: How were they made? It would seem that there was uncertainty about this until Moritz's book appeared, with one source citing Lotte Reininger saying she had seen him painting on small glass plates, which Moritz confirms. Ruttmann was already an abstract painter, so all he had to do was move his painting into the dimension of time. He painted on glass and photographed each drawing one frame at a time before modifying or adding to each drawing and photographing the new drawing, finally hand-coloring the film using various methods.

This is why, when Fischinger wanted to get started making films around the time Lichtspiel Opus II came out in 1922, he didn't go directly to painted/drawn animation, but instead invented a novel method of animation: wax. He chop-shopped a deli slicer into a machine that would cut through a ball of wax containing a molded shape. As the machine sliced through the wax, a photograph was taken one slice at a time, revealing the slowly changing outline of the shapes in the wax. Ruttmann attempted to use the machine, but he wasn't able to because the wax melted on him. Fischinger apparently made several minutes of successful tests with the curious invention.

After putting out the last two of the ever more impressive and technically accomplished Lichtspiel films in 1924 and 1925, Ruttmann went on to create some of the the landmark live-action films of the period, including his great masterpiece Berlin: Symphony of a Big City (1927), which alone would be enough to grant him a secure place in film history. He also worked on Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, notably the opening scene. His early abstract animated films add a dimension to the picture of this impressive artist of the early period of cinema who truly tested the possibilities of the new medium.

What baffles, then, is to hear about the subsequent turn to the extreme right of this artist who up until just prior to that had epitomized the avant-garde of his country. In contrast, Fischinger continued to do everything he could to make his films and get them shown. In his book Moritz describes in delightful detail the wonderful schemes Oskar came up with to get his films shown in theaters in the increasingly difficult atmosphere of Germany before he finally left for the US in 1936. I recommend the book highly.

Note that Lichtspiel Opus I is cited as being 13 minutes long everywhere I've seen, so the thirty seconds in the above clip must be just a small excerpt. The other films appear to be complete.

Related reading:

A short biography of Walter Ruttmann

A short biography of Oskar Fischinger by William Moritz

The William Moritz archive

Friday, September 23, 2005

08:36:59 pm , 430 words, 1251 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Ika Matsuri

Koji Yamamura's blog is called "Shirarezaru Animation", which means animation that should be known. Recently he talked about a piece that fits the bill perfectly: Totally off the radar, and totally great. It's called Ika Matsuri or Squid Festival, and it's by Naoyuki Niiya. Niiya drew lots of comics and stuff as a kid, which you can see on his home page. I take it he was a Garo youth. Never satisfied with the same old limitations, he'd always been interested in mixing media, so for example he hand-crafted dozens of copies of a miniature scroll comic book that he handed out as his unique business card. He eventually got around to animation in his twenties. But he didn't take the quick route. For his virgin piece he spent several years coming up with the story and hammering out the storyboard, and then several years animating the film. As he puts it, "I wasted my 20s on that thing." He did everything entirely on his own, alone in the countryside in Okayama, using a bare minimum of material - "a Fujica Z400 8mm camera, a tripod, a few eyelamps and a stainless steel ruler". A one-man film. And with a happy ending. An MTV person saw the film at a screening, liked it, bought the rights, had a soundtrack made, and the film was seen on MTV Japan for several years. The negative for the film was lost, but he's put up a Quicktime movie of a VHS copy of the original version, which contains additional material (the ending) cut by MTV. And most importantly, the soundtrack as Niiya originally intended it, free of all the extraneous sound effects of the MTV version. Ideally to be watched in a dank room of a run-down apartment at twilight in total quiet on an old projector. Niiya wanted to come up with something that would match the dreamlike feeling of the 8mm stock he was using, and the idea that came to mind was the warm feeling of a sepia-toned naked light bulb, like in an old silent film, an image that serves as the seed from which flows a perfectly balanced and vividly executed dreamscape. It's a buried gem of true indie animation. Afterwards Niiya got involved in films, doing special effects and insert animation for films like Koichiro Ikawa's Nemimi ni Mizu, but the good news is that last year he finally bought a PC and says he's going to start working on a new short soon. I think anybody who sees Ika Matsuri will be looking forward to it.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

10:46:17 pm , 188 words, 1126 views     Categories: Animation

Melty Lancer

Somebody was having fun drawing Kanada Yoshinori style in Melty Lancer 1. It was a very good likeness, so I thought it might be him, but he's not credited. I only realized recently that Norio Matsumoto did work in eps 1 and 6, which is why I sought this thing out in the first place. Matsumoto seems to have done a lot of crowd scenes around this time. His scene in 1 is one such scene, and showcases his knack for establishing realistic detail with just a few lines. The faces are all extremely well differentiated, showing his skill for charicature. It stands out, as suddenly all of the characters look completely different. (It's the only such respite, unfortunately.) Perhaps that's why they blurred the characters a bit. Though it doesn't move much, it's nice to be able to see the great characters he can come up with using his imagination. Coming as a surprise and a real find, there was also an excellent bit of Itano Circus by the man himself in 6 that I wasn't expecting, as well as a bit by one of his sort-of protégés, Masami Goto.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

04:38:13 pm , 795 words, 1000 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Indies at the VIFF again

Kunio Kato - Cell no KoiThe good news from the VIFF is that there's going to be another volley of independent Japanese animation shorts. The bad news is no Mind Game. Looking at the lineup for the former, it's particularly nice to see young names who just appeared on the scene recently like Norihito Iki, who was featured on Digital Stadium some time ago with his enjoyable short A Ghost Story, in addition to all the welcome returners like Nobuhiro Aihara and Naoyuki Tsuji. Kei Oyama's piece being shown here happens to be included on the upcoming Thinking & Drawing DVD. I for one would have been more than happy to have to sit through a two-hour program, but I gather festival organizers are loath to break the 80-minute barrier with shorts programs for fear of... something. A shame. This stuff is so hard to come by that I think they should go hog wild with this particular program, which even they admit is quite popular.

I can feel the dread of the pick setting in already as I load the list of 300+ films and the very first title sounds like a must-see film. As I get older I find that I can predict what kind of films I'm going to jump for, so I'll probably try to break out of my habit with a few films, but 13 Lakes sounds too irresistible to pass up: 13 10-minute long static shots of 13 lakes. Sounds like it could have been inspired by the recent films of Abbas Kiarostami, especially Five, which I'm disappointed to see is not on the lineup.

On the subject of independents, I've heard that Atsuko Ishizuka is working on another music clip for Minna no Uta at Madhouse. I'm not sure how I'm going to manage to see it, though, since the only reason I got to see her first was because it happened its way onto a 'best of' issued around the time it came out. It's certainly an interesting thing she's doing: creating what essentially look and feel like independent shorts at one of Japan's biggest studios. She's directing films alongside the veterans just a few months after having joined the studio. Not bad.

Continuing in the Minna no Uta news, Kunio Kato of Aru Tabibito no Nikki fame has got a vid entitled Cell no Koi (Cell Love) showing right now.

Satoru Utsunomiya made an obligatory appearance in the next-to-last ep of Aquarion, and a headliner at that, but the only movement I could pinpoint definitively was the swing of the sword near the end. He must have been being a good boy after the ruckus of the prank episode. Was he perhaps drawing the (few) animated effects?

A little bird brought to my attention the work of an interesting French independent, Valerie Pirson, whose original and convincing film Pistache can be viewed here along with an interview in French. (lots of other interesting stuff on the site)

Watching Shigeru Tamura's 1993 film Ursa Minor Blue today, I noticed there were several spots that actually felt well animated, and the animation in general seemed to be more present than the CGI, in contrast with his 1998 film Glassy Ocean, which made heavy use of glassy diffracting CG. Though obviously professional-level animation is not the reason you watch these films, I found it helped immensely. Of course, I could just as easily make the opposite argument - that anything more realistic or ornate would be a mismatch with the simplicity of the drawings, dialogue and colors.

Seeing Megumi Kagawa's name in the credits seemed to explain the reason why the animation seemed better. Kagawa has been a key animator in every Ghibli feature since Nausicaa. She forms part of the cabal of female animators that kind of stuck on with Miyazaki after the last two Telecom Lupin episodes, eventually making their way to Ghibli, including Atsuko Tanaka, Makiko Futaki and Masako Shinohara.

I have reservations about Tamura's films, but I think they work if looked at as moving extension of his illustration work - picture books come to life. I think there's room for more animated films like that. I liked the idea of getting as much movement as possible out of Hisaichi Ishii's characters in Yamada-kun, but Tamura's films actually seem to benefit from the more minimalistic look of a smaller animation staff. It didn't feel right to see the mouths of those characters moving. The look of his image boards is very close to the finished product, which shows that he's doing something right. His films aren't about moving characters or telling a story, but about establishing a mood. Or rather, a color, which in turn evokes a mood. Ursa Minor Blue blue; Glassy Ocean green. His films feel like a massage session in a tinted room.

Monday, September 5, 2005

10:00:00 pm , 355 words, 1049 views     Categories: Animation

Yutaka Nakamura in Eureka Seven 20

The mecha animation of Eureka Seven 20 was nice thanks to Ken Otsuka's work as mecha AD and the animators involved, including the small handful of figures other than Mitsuo Iso that come to mind when I think of RahXephon - Takashi Tomioka, Hiroki Kanno, Yoshiyuki Ito. But the cake was taken by the last few shots by Yutaka Nakamura. It's been a while since I've seen anything by him, though most recently he worked on Wolf's Rain. I remember perusing his work on FMA and being impressed by how his work had changed since Bebop. It was so much more polished, condensed, fuller. Otsuka himself mentioned that Nakamura animated this section, but even without that tip it's fairly obvious just from seeing the section. It's in a league of its own. Stylistically one thing I've noticed about his work all the way back to Bebop is that the timing is often very fast. There was one shot in a sequence he did for Bebop where the main character runs onto the screen from the left into the distance. It's a rather amusing shot because the absurd rapidity with which he attains the distance is obviously a little overdone. It all happens in a split second and uses only three or four drawings. Even Nakamura admits he missed that one a bit. But the enthusiasm he put into the sequence is palpable and makes it a catchy piece of fast-footed action. Nowhere else was there that kind of tension. Also Nakamura has a very organic and flowing way of treating form, viz the elastic animation of the robot at the end of his sequence. Nakamura is one of the small handful of active TV animators whose work feels worth following. Other than that I liked the one shot of missiles right at the beginning of part B - Tomioka?

The trailer for Satelight's new show Noein is certainly interesting. The animation looks nice and dynamic, the forest scene particularly. Takahiro Kishida's designs are unusual, as usual. This being a Satelight production, it should come as no surprise that Norio Matsumoto is reported to be heavily involved.