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: December 2008

Saturday, December 27, 2008

06:59:18 pm , 291 words, 2910 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Candas Sisman

I just saw a video entitled edicisuM by a 23-year-old Turkish artist named Candas Sisman on nofatclips, and it immediately made me want to see more from the artist. It was a non-narrative abstract piece, but it stood out from all the other non-narrative abstract pieces out there perhaps due to its distinctive mesmerizing, dazzling visuals and smooth audiovisual rhythm. You can find ten of his videos on his Vimeo page, and he is also a prolific artist of compelling digital imagery. After you watch the video, read Candas's comments on how it came about.

His video works all boast the same perfect integration of alternately noisy and ambient soundscapes that, amazingly, seem to emanate directly from the images. He is an expert manipulator of digital means, creating a dense cascade of forms, colors and movement that doesn't grow tiring, but seems to evolve organically by some hidden inner logic. He has an instinct for beautiful images that extends into the third dimension - he creates beautiful evolving images. Sometimes the images seem purely digital, evolving subtly, moving in and out of focus, like bacteria under a microscope, while at other times the images are clearly photographs of the real world, but blended, shaken and stirred in a way that turns the shapes into abstract forms, only to actually segue into digitally-created abstract forms. He blends the real and the created in a seamless whole that is always delightful. And like Oskar Fischinger did, he has the good sense to keep each of his films short, just two or three minutes. This is among the best digital animation work I've seen in quite a while - a superb example of engaging, exciting, flawlessly executed abstract animation.

Oh, and merry xmas everyone.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

10:47:17 pm , 790 words, 2450 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Jonathan Hodgson

Some of the most compelling animation I've seen in the last few years has been documentary animation. People have been using animation more and more to look at and illuminate real life. Animation offers innumerable ways of doing so, and the approaches that I've seen have been multifaceted and rich with personality.

Jonathan Hodgson is a British animator who's been active for more than two decades. I only discovered his work just recently, but it's all magnificent stuff and he's instantly one of my favorites. He's done a number of pieces with a documentary bent to them that are very rewarding viewing. In fact, almost all of his work seems tinged by a more realistic bent, in the sense that there isn't so much a narrative and characters in his work, as the eye of the creator looking out on the world around him. Animation in his hands is used as a means of conveying lived experience, you might say.

The first film I saw of his was Feeling My Way, and it's the film that made me want to learn more about someone who could create such a conceptually simple but tremendously exciting film, a film that empowers the viewer by showing how rich and valid each and every one of our viewpoints is. He brings to life the act of walking to work by first filming the walk, and then later in the studio embellishing the work with animation that illuminates the psychology of the walker in response to the various stimuli he encounters. In an interview I read with him, he avers that he's never really been interested in the animation scene. I can see why he would want to distance himself from the connotations of the term, as animation does carry a whole baggage of associations with form, style and substance that seem constricting and suffocating of true artistic freedom. He looks to other media for inspiration, he says, and I think that clearly shows up in this film in particular. I felt that this film showed a great way of breaking free of the shackles of animation, and taking back control to make way for a more personally meaningful approach that arises from the creator's expressive needs, whatever means those needs might require. True animation, I believe, is animation that exploits the possibilities of the medium to the fullest extent possible by seeking new formal and expressive means in harmony with the goals of the artist.

Hodgson's drawings aren't even that great, but his animation is great. His stance as a creator was already evident in his earlier films like Dogs and Nightclub, which fall closer to the typical conception of animated shorts in that the animation is quite richly executed and rewarding in itself. Yet these films deliberately avoid conventional animated narrative or characters, and retain a sort of deliberate crudeness that refuses to fall into the trap of mimesis, of attempting to create the illusion of life. Which is ironic, since what he's conveying through this approach is life itself, but mediated by the gaze of the viewer, like a pen trac(k)ing the image projected on the retina. You're watching shards of reality, but as if sketched quickly, like trying to sketch someone walking past you as you sit on a park bench.

His more recent films like Camouflage and The Man with the Beautiful Eyes are more sophisticated creations that adopt a realistic narration or format more closely resembling the documentary, using the imaginative means offered by animation to embellish and narrate the reality being spoken with a rich flow of transforming ideas. These are powerful creations that have great emotional impact, because these are real stories of humanity and frailty and life being told, and the wistful whimsy of the animation only makes them more heartbreaking. They combine the immediacy of a person telling you their story, with the imaginative embellishment of an animator's interpretation. The approach reminds me of that of the Fierlingers in the one film of theirs I've seen, A Room Nearby, in which the animation acts as a free-flowing, free-associating exegesis of the narrator's reminiscence. I think these films represent one of the most exciting discoveries in animation of the last decade or so - the conundrum of animation being uncannily well-suited to documenting real life.

I find Hodgson's films inspirational because for one they point a way out of the box of conventional approaches to animation, and for two they feel empowering for asserting the importance of the small histories we all represent, and affirming the capacity of each individual to come up with means of structuring those narratives in a way that extends beyond the merely personal to communicate something meaningful to others.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

04:19:58 pm , 558 words, 2531 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Way Home

Erick Oh's Way Home wasn't viewable on the net back when I wrote about a Beijing screening of Asianimation a few months back. It is now. I just noticed that it was uploaded to Aniboom two weeks ago. Watching it again today confirmed that I quite like Erick Oh's sensibility as a director, in addition to his obvious skills as an animator and designer. The designs are subtle but interesting and always communicate their personalities via the animation, and the simplicity of the story belies the film's richness. Each shot communicates through the nuanced acting animation and pared-down design scheme. Even though what's going on is mostly just the character rolling his ball, it's always interesting and fun to watch, because the character feels alive, and you share the character's emotional journey. Each shot is beautiful in itself, and the film overall has a unified, elegant, tasteful visual scheme. The compositions are painted with a few lines and a minimalistic color palette that is visually pleasing and efficiently sets off the movement of the characters. The music comes in at just the right moment, and brings just the right tone to the journey. The ending doesn't overemphasize or overplay, which shows good judgment. Most of all, the film has its own unique sensibility that feels honed and complete. I just feel good watching this film. I hope to see more from Erick Oh.

(EDIT: I'd just like to add that you can purchase the film on DVD directly from Erick via his web site.)

While I was there, I sampled a few of the top ranked films, but though some are technically accomplished and entertaining, I came away with the usual feeling of emptiness. None of them were affecting and genuinely interesting at every moment the way Way Home was. In the urge to cram in detail, more important priorities seem to get lost in the process. More than that, though, they didn't seem to exploit the possibilities of the medium of CGI, instead turning off their brains and opting as if by default for the same old hackneyed path of clumsy cartoon vaudeville, which I find somewhat maddening considering how much possibility the medium offers. In that sense, Christoph Grosse Hovest's Die.Art struck me as one of the only CGI films on there that seemed to use CGI in an original, effective and compelling way. Without any tangible narrative or characters in the conventional sense, we're instead thrust into a world of rusting industrial hulks on which alien creatures perch, flagellate, undulate, float and otherwise go about their daily lives. The creatures are lifelike, but very mechanical at the same time, as if they had evolved from their environment many millennia after humans had disappeared from the planet, leaving behind the rusting debris of civilization. First and foremost, it's a beautiful audiovisual piece, the CGI visuals dazzling and inventive, and the directing combined with the music to create a pleasant but provocative viewing experience that tickles the mind like an optical illusion. It's an extremely sophisticated piece with great technical skill in every aspect (I'm still not sure whether the backgrounds are real or CGI) but it's also very appealing visually and intellectually and shows us something that we've never seen before, and thus in my mind work great as a piece of audiovisual art/animation.

Friday, December 12, 2008

06:59:48 pm , 187 words, 3031 views     Categories: Animation, Misc

Looking for gif animators

Ever been curious to try your hand at animation? Well there's no time like the present, and gif animation offers a quick and easy way to give it a shot. Regular reader and forum poster Huw Millar just started a thread in the forum inviting people to use the freeware program Easytoon to create their own animation, posting a few loops he made for fun by way of example.

If you've ever had the itch to create some movement, give it a shot. Even if you don't have great drawing skills, it can be quite fun to see your drawing come alive, not to mention give you a little hands-on insight into how animation is made.

Remember the action scene in Noein 12? Well, it was animated by a guy going by the name Ryo-timo whose main formal training in animation prior to busting out that extravaganza was making animated gifs in his free time. All big things started little.

(There's actually a small community of gif animators like him on the web. Huw pointed out a few before on the forum. Have a look for some inspiration.)

1 commentPermalink

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

10:34:46 am , 128 words, 1453 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Tadanari Okamoto 3-DVD set

After many years of waiting, a DVD set of the complete works of Tadanari Okamoto is at last slated for release in Japan. Okamoto is undoubtedly one of the most important Japanese independent animators, so the absence of a DVD set of his works has been conspicuous. Koji Yamamura, who admits to being deeply influenced by the great independent, confirmed in his latest blog post (about the Tadanari Okamoto exhibit on display at the Hida International Animation Festival of Folktales and Fables) that the DVD set is scheduled for release next March. I don't know who will be releasing it, as I haven't been able to find any other information. For anyone unfamiliar with Tadanari Okamoto's work, a few of his best films can be viewed on Crunchyroll.

1 commentPermalink

Saturday, December 6, 2008

01:54:08 am , 1022 words, 6482 views     Categories: Animation

Kenji Matsumoto: Background artist of Casshern Sins #9

I remember quite liking the art in episode 7 of Casshern Sins, and the basic feeling of the art in the series overall, but the art in episode 9 truly stood out to me as among the most pleasing and compelling I'd seen in recent memory. Usually the background doesn't jump out at me, but here it stood out as among the most memorable part of an otherwise fine episode. You could feel there was real love put into the work.

I was surprised to find that the backgrounds in the episode were all drawn by a single person - Kenji Matsumoto. I've talked about solo-animator episodes in the past, but I didn't know there were actually solo-background episodes. I'm used to seeing quite a number of people credited with the backgrounds of any given episode, including other studios, which usually makes it hard to identify background artists I like, so this time around it really stood out to see only one name credited with background here. And it was great, because for once I can say with certainty exactly whose work it was I liked.

The most obvious thing that I liked about it is the way he mixes bright oranges, yellows and reds to create this dense texture that, surprisingly despite the associations with gaiety of the colors he's using, create a convincing feeling of death and decay. In the ultimate phase of the death of a boat's hull after it has sunk to its grave on the ocean floor, I imagine, it takes on just the sort of almost fleshy mix of reds and oranges that Matsumoto uses here to depict the texture of decomposition of the plague-afflicted robots. The texture is beautiful to look at, densely scarred and pocked and blotched. It's not naturalistic, either. He leaves each stroke of color quite obvious. But it has a marvelous impact.

I also found the compositions to also be very strong, downright gripping to look at, which rarely happens to me. It doesn't quite go to the lengths of something like Kemonozume, but there is more freedom here than usual. It achieves something of a fine balance between the artist being able to indulge his passions a little more than usual, while still delivering a product that works within the usual framework of nominal realism. The passion he puts into the images in fact benefits the film greatly. The shot of the robot with the flower by his side pictured above is absolutely gorgeous to look at, fit for framing, and seems to emanate a rare passion for the material that I don't know how to account for, but that helps to gives the scene and the episode its power. This is the power that backgrounds can have in the best hands.

I actually think that having had one person do it all might account for why there is a feeling of more passion there. Instead of people scattered all around the place geographically doing a shot here and there on contract, with no real stake in the production, the artist here was there throughout the entire episode. He had to understand what the episode was about, what needed to be conveyed, and he was able to think through what would best serve each particular shot of the episode, and render all the little details himself. It's the same as when you have a solo animator episode like Mihara's. You feel that the artist has more of a personal stake in the issue, and the passion is obvious.

Kenji Matsumoto was actually one of the background artists of episode 7, so I have to wonder if he wasn't the one responsible for the shots of the tower that I so liked in that episode. Also, episode 8 also happened to be a solo-background episode, by another artist named Shinzo Yuki.

This is where it becomes clear how this came about. Shinzo Yuki and his wife, Yukie Yuki, have worked as art directors/background artists on Toei Animation productions for years, as has Kenji Matsumoto. Shigeyasu Yamauchi's Toei lineage at work. I've been able to find a credit for Kenji Matsumoto as background artist dating as far back as 1972's Puss 'n Boots II, so he is not only a veteran Toei artist, but a veteran of the industry with the same amount of experience as his more well-known contemporaries like Shichiro Kobayashi, Nizo Yamamoto and Isamu Tsuchida. I thought that perhaps I was witnessing something new, a young face trying new things, but what I was seeing was in fact a the assured hand of a master.

It's rare that I write about background artists for one because it's animators who usually catch my eye, and it's animation and directing that usually interest me, but also for two because I don't know nearly enough about art to pretend to be able to talk about it. But mostly the latter. I've seen lots of great background artists in the past whose work I love. One of my all-time favorite series, Isao Takahata's Marco, would be unthinkable without Takamura Mukuo's brilliant, spot-on depictions of the vertiginous, mazelike alleyways and chalk-white seaside facade of Genoa, or later the beautiful desolation of the Argentinian pampas. His work is an indispensable part of Gauche the Cellist. The Red Shoes episode Osamu Dezaki did for the old Sekai Mukashibanashi series would not have the amazing impact and storybook beauty it does without Shichiro Kobayashi's distinctively bold approach to form, line and color. The latter is a great case of perfect symbiosis between director, animator and background artist, with each standing out for their personal style yet everything fitting together as a perfect whole.

I can't find that much info, but Kenji Matsumoto seems to have been involved in a large number of mostly Toei Animation TV productions since 1972. It seems like if you've watched a Toei production, you've probably seen his backgrounds. He seems to have been involved in a 'studio' named Atelier Robin alongside another Toei mainstay, Kazuo Ebisawa, who is regularly credited beside him, so he has presumably worked for Toei from his own studio all these years.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

01:27:13 am , 1145 words, 2250 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie, Music Video

Music vids & Animation Show 2008

I discovered the music of the Fleet Foxes recently, and found that they've got a stop-motion video set to one of their songs, White Winter Hymnal, directed by Sean Pecknold. Gorgeous music accompanied by a nice slow and simple concept for the visuals that winds out and then winds back in. Very pleasing. The calm, complentative puppet animation kind of reminds me of Tomoyasu Murata. There seem to be many people using animation for music videos these days... from Sarah Fimm to Chad VanGaalen to Omodaka to The Blue Seeds to Quantic... to say nothing of ones I've mentioned in the past like Cornelius. The rhythmic chiptune wickedness of Kokiriko Bushi in particular slays me, and the animation is rich and imaginative. The animation in a lot of other videos is honestly pretty crude and not interesting in itself, but when it matches the style of a song, the images come alive and the video works, as a number of the other vids attest, which is perhaps what makes music videos such a rich form. There's plenty of leeway for a more individual, analog, handmade approach that might not work elsewhere. I'm sure this is nothing and there are lots of other great animated music videos. Please feel free to share your own favorites.

Animated music videos almost seem to be enjoying a creative renaissance these days. A lot of bands seem to find the expressive playfulness and freedom of animation appealing, if the bounty of videos and things like the Radiohead competition are anything to go by. It's like they find the handcrafted, lo-fi appeal of indie animation a fit for their songs. Not to mention that it must be a lot cheaper, easier and quicker to just get an animator to make the visuals. Even not in animation, it's possible to create videos with visuals that make us see things in a new way with very little means and just an interesting approach, like Tone Twilight Zone, which has an Eames-like childlike wonder at the little things around us. Cornelius' videos are all pretty amazing in this sense, such as Point of View Point, which is very simple in execution and concept but creates a fantastic visual experience, and even is quite interesting conceptually, as an exploration of light, motion, perspective, how points becomes lines in motion, etc, and ties in to the very rich (but catchy and pulsing) sonic exploration of the music. There seems to be a music video for almost every song on Cornelius' masterpiece of an album Point, so they're all worth exploring. Smoke is interesting to note among these, as it's an obvious homage to two of the fathers (and as of yet unsurpassed masters) of all this music video business: Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren.

The video for Venetian Snares' Szamar Madar was a favorite of mine for a long time until a few years later I discovered it to be the work of a brilliant animator, David O'Reilly, whose Please Say Something was a shock to the system when I first ran across it a year or so ago - easily one of the most thrilling recent discoveries for me in animation. Szamar was the first time I'd seen visuals do justice to IDM (putting aside Rubber Johnny). I thought it was one of the crowning achievements in representing this kind of music in animation. O'Reilly's devious playfulness comes through in the film, too. Watch it in full screen to get the intended effect. There's nothing that quite matches the thrill and ecstasy when a piece of animation and a piece of music sync into a pure and unseparable unit of perfection like they do here.

Not really a music video per se, but more like an animated short in the form of a music video that really bowled me over and remains one of my favorite animated shorts of the last few years is Massive Swerve by Robert Valley, set to Massive Attack's Mezzanine. Robert is a brilliant illustrator in his own right, but as proven by the animation he did for Peter Chung's Riddick, he's also capable of putting those drawings together in the dimension of time to create some superb movement. The film's combination of smart and edgy design appeal with loose linework and spare but craftily applied animation creates a texture and tone unlike anything else out there. The dance scene is one of my favorite of its kind, using the strobe effect to depict the girl's wild gyrations with the rhythmic flashing of just a few stylishly exaggerated drawings. The pulsing, hypnotic downtempo anthem helps transform a film about a wild night at a rave party in Ibiza into something that feels like an epic descent into the bowels of a mythological netherworld.

I saw Animation Show 4 the other day. My first question was: Where's Don Hertzfeldt?? I'm sure it's been explained somewhere, but I didn't realize he wouldn't be there this time around. I wanted to see his new film. Without him, honestly, the selection was pretty thin and gimmicky, supported by almost no animation of any intrinsic worth as animation and falling dangerously close to a Spike & Mike's style fest of audience condescension with lowest-common-denominator outrage-appeal. I love Usavitch an all, and so did the audience, and I think it's great to get it seen by people. But some of the pieces on there... yeesh. Schwizgebel's Jeu was the only genuinely inventive and awe-inspiring piece there, which is ironically why it felt out of place. It's great to get audiences interested in animation. I know of a few people who saw the show who aren't into animation and who loved it. But it would also be nice to be able to do so by showing them a little more of the genuinely good work being done out there. This was a fun show for laughs, which is obviously all that Mike Judge was aiming for, so it seems kind of anal to pick on it for not trying to be something it's not. I was happy to see another piece by Luis Nieto, and again, that Schwizgebel piece reminded me why it is I love animation. Pure genius. Pes is also a really inventive animator. I like how he creates these really simple one-note punchline pieces but uses an odd new substrate to do the telling of the piece each time. What I really like about him is that he's doing inventive things with actual things, the way animators used to. I don't doubt that this selection represents US humor pretty well, but I refuse to believe that all US animators today think the only thing animation should do is gags, despite what some people seem to assert. I think audiences would have been far more satisfied with a little injection of depth and beauty here and there.