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 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

12:03:48 am , 540 words, 3104 views     Categories: Indie, Movie

The Astronomer's Dream

I wrote briefly about Malcolm Sutherland before. He's totally one of my favorite indie animators ever. His latest and longest opus, The Astronomer's Dream, is a mighty fine little trip through the mind and the universe and is worth a gander. Malcolm has self-released the film on a DVD together with 9 of his other films, and it can be bought directly from him here. Malcom's really nice, though, because it and pretty much all of his other films are up for viewing on his Vimeo account. He sets a fine example as a talented indie animator making genuinely interesting films and trying to establish a financial support loop with his audience by self-releasing his films on DVD like this.

The film is at first sight a simple, fun little romp about a cute but strange little square creature with an insatiable hunger floating through the universe on a strange humanoid ship, and the colorful and entertainingly odd contraptions that cover every corner of his habitat. But if you probe a bit under the skin, you'll find a philosophical mediation on the way in which our physical shell colors how we perceive the universe. An imaginative and fun film that leaves you with some meaty food for thought - couldn't ask for more. Also, I heartily recommend getting the DVD. Worth every penny to get to see the wonderful detail Malcolm packed into those delicious backgrounds up close and personal in DVD quality on a nice big flat-screen TV.

I thought the nine other films on the DVD were already accomplishment enough, but turns out the man is far more prolific than I knew. His Vimeo account hosts a ton of other films and tests not on the DVD. I adore all the little odds and ends he's put up on there, especially Shipoids In The Night, which he did last year. Reminds me a bit of the weird microscopic universe of Mirai Mizue, but this is pure Malcolm. This exquisitely odd test animation he did this year for what I presume is an upcoming film is also sheer coolness. A new direction he seems to be exploring these days is these landscapes of the imagination populated by strange creatures and drawn in lush, colorful detail. Malcolm is the type of animator I most like - always shifting about trying this and that technique or style to express what he's got in mind. There's such a range in his films, from photograph animation to hand-drawn animation mixed with live footage to stop motion to figurative to abstract to hand-drawn to flash, etc etc.

My favorite of his films though still remains Birdcalls, with its inventive abstract dance of shapes interpreting the songs of birds. He's really great when he's improvising in animation like this. (Here is another short test animation in this abstract vein) Apparently a more recent film entitled Forming Game that he made for the NFB is based on this kind of more extemporaneous process. It isn't on his Vimeo account but you can see a clip, a making of, and an interview. Malcom's description of his thought process is worth a listen. It's an inspiring and stimulating peek into one of our best animator minds out there today.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

01:03:00 am , 887 words, 3778 views     Categories: Animation, Movie, Foreign

The Secret of Kells

I got to see the wonderful Irish-Belgian-French co-production The Secret of Kells this evening. I'd been impressed by the trailer when I saw it a few months ago, and the film didn't disappoint. Kells stands right up there with the films of Michel Ocelot and The Triplets of Belleville in leading today's animated foreign feature renaissance. So many great animated features have come out of Europe & nearby countries in the last few years. (though I'm thrilled to finally be able to see My Dog Tulip at the VIFF in a few weeks)

It's pretty amazing that they could make a film whose every shot is so unflaggingly inventive and beautiful and stylistically unified. The whole film is pure stylization. The characters are each drawn in their own bold shapes, and are identifiable by silhouette, which was presumably intentional, that being one of the mantras of western animation. I admired how the lines with which each character is drawn cleverly fold into one another in different configurations depending on which way the character is standing or looking. Different characters have different modes of movement, such as the little girl who zips across the screen, popping up in unexpected places, and especially the wolves, whose movement is very interesting and one of the best examples of the uniquely stylized movement matched to the inventively stylized designs in this film.

Kells has that whole hyperstylized retro UPA look that seems so popular today in the west, but it manages to carve out its own place that seems distinct. The film is an animated interpretation of the tribulations surrounding the creation of the Book of Kells, an unfinished 8th century manuscript legendary for its lushly intricate ornamental art. The strong visuals seem to be inspired by the look of the art in the Book of Kells, skilfully adapting the spirit of this ancient stylization into a newer kind of stylization that appeals to today's sensibilities. In spirit, the film kind reminds me of The Golden Bird, with its flat layouts, geometrically stylized characters and colorful byzantine backgrounds.

The compositions are very striking and beautiful at a basic level, with trees in the forest all aligned symmetrically and their branches wound up into Celtic knots and so on. The screen is usually laid out in a flat style reflecting the spirit of the original manuscripts, similar to the look of Kirikou or Azur et Asmar. The choreography of the movement of the characters through these compositions is quite ingenious. It's like they're constantly shifting perspectives on you, coming up with creative new ways for the characters to move through the environs. In that sense it kind of reminded me of The Thief and the Cobbler.

Representative of this is a shot in which a character is climbing a tree. The leaves form a sort of line that divides the screen into two. The character climbs up across the left half, then passes under the line, and in the right half the perspective is suddenly different, as if they were two distinct shots. It's unexpected and subtly done and has a marvelous effect, like a constantly shifting and shimmering optical illusion. So much thought was put into coming up with a variety of ideas to make each shot interesting like this. It's not just the animation and art that are stylized - the directing is too. The 10 years the film was in planning and actual production show up in the film's laboriously conceived and painstakingly executed visual schemes.

I appreciate that the story has multiple levels of meaning in spite of its simplicity. The story of artists in ancient times faced with the spiritual conflict of whether to choose art or survival in the face of an apocalypse-like wave of merciless invaders raining death and destruction on the land and people brings to mind Andrei Roublev. The climax of the film is quite interesting in that there is no victory. There's disaster, and a slow recovery from that disaster, without any sort of catharsis or triumph. The emotional climax doesn't arrive upon a shield bearing a victorious protagonist. The most powerful moment in the film is the very antithesis of bombastic triumph - it's the painfully ironic moment of spiritual capitulation when the abbot realizes that the art he had derided as futile to human well-being would in the long term be more permanent and nourishing than any sustenance of the flesh. I think Kells is admirable for being a family film that presents a complex message about the importance of art to humanity.

The film has strength because it was made by a group of talented artists with something to express, not just churned out by a corporation according to a profit formula. It's not patterned after the 'family feature' template; it carves out its own visual ethos, directing style and narrative vector. The one song there is isn't a Broadway number; it's low key, tastefully handled, even somber. Kells is an example of all-ages animated filmmaking done right.

Kells kicked off the Spark Animation '09 festival here in Vancouver, so it was preceded by an industry mixer. There's nothing more annoying than being in a room where everybody knows everybody else except you. I spent the whole time getting out of people's way. Lesson learned: Misanthropy and mixers don't mix.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

12:03:00 am , 1233 words, 2828 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, post-Akira

Explorer Woman Ray

Another noteworthy OVA relic from the post-Akira period of 1989 to the early 90s is Explorer Woman Ray from 1989, which I just picked up out of curiosity. I'd seen it often on the shelves of video stores 15 years ago when I rented anime regularly, but the package failed to impress me, so I'd never seen it until today.

Like the best OVAs from this period, the range of quality in these two 30-minute OVAs is all over the place. This applies mainly to the first OVA; the second OVA features an admirably even level of execrable quality. It's not worth wasting any further words on. The first OVA, though, is an interesting little companion piece to the best OVAs from this period like Green Legend Ran and Hakkenden, with which it shares its unevenness of tone, overweening ambition, and handful of notable animators. Ran is similarly of interest mainly for its first episode.

The film is actually rather fun to watch. It's got that feeling of expansive adventure that was done so well in the OVAs of this period like 3x3 Eyes, although in this case it's not very successful. And the quality is fairly high overall, although it alternates randomly between very strong work and very weak work, presumably because of shortness of schedule. What's good here is quite good, and it feels like if they'd had more time it might have been better. But the source material is a major problem, so I'm dubious on that point. Overall it's a terrible film, a grab bag of cliches from adventure films like Indiana Jones, each poorly developed and carelessly integrated.

And yet, I actually really enjoyed the film. The opening sequence seems exemplary of why that is. The opening sequence alone is a must-see. The animation is excellent, the drawings are awesome, and the choreography of the action is superb. If the entire film had been made at this level of quality, it would be a masterpiece. I'm guessing it was animated by Tatsuyuki Tanaka, because this would have been the first thing he did after Akira, and being a young animator it wouldn't surprise me that he was still under the influence of the drawings in that film. But influence can't possibly account for how ridiculously Akira-esque the drawings here are. I'm inclined to suspect he was doing it on purpose and having fun with it, drawing everything Otomo-style for laughs. In any case, it's an awesome scene, like the opening gunfight in Green Legend Ran 1, and one of the great action scenes of this period of OVA history.

It's talent like this that accounts for what makes great animation interesting, and I'm guessing it's mostly the presence of talent like him in the production that accounts for why this otherwise irredeemable story and directing work to an extent. Toshiaki Hontani was co-storyboarder along with director Yasuo Hasegawa, and there were actually three dedicated layout men (line director Hiroki Hayashi, Atsushi Okuda and Hideaki Matsuoka) which was more the exception than the rule at this time, and I'm guessing helped with the quality. And there were six sakkans (animation directors).

This is the only thing Toshiaki Hontani ever storyboarded apart from Rojin Z, so it's something of a precious film for a Hontani fan like me. In my post on Crimson Wolf I wondered aloud where else Hontani might have done some good effects work like the dragon climax in that film. Well, that place turns out to be Explorer Woman Ray. There are some spectacular effects sequences in the film, mostly in the second half, involving a hydrofoil skimming across the water outrunning a giant tidal wave crashing behind it, which I'm presuming he storyboarded. I'm not sure who animated the sequences, although I've heard that Mitsuo Iso (who isn't credited) may have been responsible, which wouldn't surprise me. The water here is truly among the best of the period. And it's not just well animated; it's well choreographed. The great animation is the tool that drives the action sequence forward and gives it its impact, for which reason it's among the better I've ever seen.

Kazuyoshi Yaginuma was also involved in the film as an animator, and I suspect he may have done some of the action sequences involving the hovercraft being chased by some of the bad guys due to the highly detailed and fluid animation and very peculiar feeling to the movement. Yaginuma, like Tanaka, had just come from working on Akira, and the influence of that film is palpable in this animation as well as many little elements of Explorer Woman Ray, be it a piece of animation here or a drawing or layout there. In Akira Yaginuma animated the sequence where Tetsuo walks supported by Kaori, right before the arm transformation sequence by Tatsuyuki Tanaka. The latter bit is my favorite shot by him. I love how much work he puts into making the two bodies move in a delicately nuanced manner in this seemingly throwaway shot. He also animated the scene in the kitchen in Shinya Ohira's Antique Shop (again right before the bit by Tanaka - apparently they were close friends), as well as the part where Ran wakes up in the clinic in Ran, so he's one of the key figures of what you might call the 'realistic group' of this period.

Though there are six animation directors, it still feels like you're seeing the animators' work in the raw apart from the close-ups of the main characters. Tanaka's scene is obviously uncorrected, as is presumably Yaginuma's. Even the badly animated scenes don't feel corrected. So it's a representative piece of the trends of this period in that sense, in that it's a film steeped in animator personality.

The designs of the characters are a mixed bag of sharply defined, appealing simplicity on the one hand, and offensive, badly drawn 'westerner' stereotypes on the other. One of the things I like about animation of this period is the character drawn with very few lines like Ran in Ran and the twins here in Explorer Woman Ray. There's the feeling that these designs were made with animation in mind. They're cute, but that's not their entire raison d'etre. It's a good example of the aesthetic appeal of a functional design. There's a certain beauty and elegance borne of simplicity - when it's handled right. Some of the liveliest character drawing and animation I've seen in anime is from OVAs from this period. The character designer and chief animation director is Hiroyuki Ochi, yet another Bebow alumni. A lot of ex-Bebow staff seem to have moved to AIC after leaving Bebow. A number of spots felt like they looked like Naoyuki Onda or Hiroyuki Kitazume, but their names weren't in the credits, so I guess it was my imagination.

Overall, despite logically knowing it's a terrible film in any number of ways, there's still something I find appealing about this OVA's combination of simple designs that move in a lively and inventively choreographed way, and fun and quick-tempo adventure story. Along with the other OVAs from this period that I've mentioned, it's got an atmosphere, animated energy and broadly appealing content that stands apart from that of any other age and that seems to have been lost these days. I would have not only liked to see it done better, but to see more films like this.

Friday, September 11, 2009

11:53:22 pm , 624 words, 2864 views     Categories: Animation, Misc

Yusuke Nagano etc

I don't know much about western animators, but I love effects animators, and the effects in Michel Gagné's Prelude to Eden are pretty nice. I'd like to see more of his FX work. He has apparently been the man behind the effects in a number of features over the last two decades including The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Striking how different the approach to FX is compared to a Takashi Hashimoto or a Soichiro Matsuda. Also, though I'm not a gamer, I like animation-based video games, and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet seems like a great application of animator talent to create a unique gaming look and feel - Dragon's Lair via Lotte Reiniger. Apparently Shinya Ohira animated a lot of the old Blood game. It would be nice to see that work some day.

Yasuhiko Yoshikasu's The Song of Wind and Trees (1987) was one of the quintessential shojo anime movies for me, but Toshio Hirata's earlier adaptation of a manga by the same author Doorway to Summer (1981) looks even better. Hirata's very slow and image-oriented directing style seems a better match with the characteristic atmosphere and look of shojo manga than Yoshikazu's more fluid animation and cinematic pacing. From the few clips in this video, it looks like one of the best anime renditions of a shojo manga I've seen. Maybe it's exaggerating a little, but it seems like an audiovisual equivalent of a shojo manga, rather than simply an anime based on a shojo manga. I'd like to see it in full one day. I'm not particularly a fan of shojo manga/anime, but it's a rare thing to see it adapted in a way that captures its true spirit, and find it admirable when that is done well. Yoshiaki Kawajiri did layout, Kazuo Tomisawa was sakkan, and the art director was the incomparable Yamako Ishikawa (art director of Rintaro's Labyrinth Labyrinthos). Seems like an undeservedly neglected early Madhouse gem.

I've always loved a good animated music video. I think it's the ideal form for animation in many ways - animation at its most operatic and expressive. Digital production seems to be fueling a boom in animated music videos. I've found any number of them made in the just the last year or so. I just started an Animated Music Video blog to collect all the good animated music videos out there in one place. Let me know if you want to post vids on there and I'll set up an account for you. A lot of the official vids I've seen aren't even that good. Some fan made ones, like this one by Charles Huettner for a great Animal Collective song, beat a lot of the official vids, with its perfect match of colorful, richly morphing abstract visuals to a pulsing, driving song. There is a huge range of style and imagination on display in animated music videos, and some have excellent storytelling going on.

Another video that I guess you could call a 'fan made' video is this great video by Yusuke Nagano, the father of the singer of the song in the video. Very nice song and animation, with a simple lo-fi feel that I appreciate. Regular Philip Rogosky tipped me off about this one, and also about Yusuke Nagano's illustrations, which much to my own surprise I wound up poring over for well over an hour after thinking I'd just have a quick look. I couldn't tear my eyes away. His tasteful approach to color, the elegant and creative compositions, the great posing captured in tasty lines - all very appealing. The retro nostalgia for the freer days of his childhood is brilliant stuff, and I also really dig the stylish and sexy drawings of svelte beauties.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

03:54:08 pm , 267 words, 2127 views     Categories: Animation, Misc

Odds and ends

This has probably been reposted on every person and their dog's blog, but this time-lapse footage of the Los Angeles wildfire is quite amazing. Nature's devastating FX animation. OB sakuga nerd comment: Reminds me of Toshiaki Hontani's Akira smoke.

I thought this illustration by awesome Japanese indie animator Kei Oyama was pretty funny. It reminded me of a certain drawing by H Park in the forums.

The Photograph of Jesus short by Laurie Hill is a superb example of animation in a documentary context.

Indie animator Hiroshi Matsumoto has a cool style, using cutout animation to bring alive a lush fantasy world. I just wish the clips on his site were longer. Fun site design, too. Reminds me of Samorost 1.

The next Naruto animation folly has been served up. This time it's episode 1-2-3 of Naruto Shippuden, and strangely enough, I don't see Naruto at all. It's a Hirobumi Suzuki episode, and not an Atsushi Wakabayashi episode, so not as cunningly paced and digitally caressed and kind of sloooow and dragged out as Suzuki's episodes always are. But the animation of the episode is sharp, and there are the good bits of action you'd expect from Norio Matsumoto, who as usual is joined by his progeny Yama and Ryo-timo. Assorted Naruto riff-raff animators who did self-indulgent/show-offy work on the show over the years like Hiroyuki Yamashita and Sesshagoro (presumably somebody's infantile pen name) are here too; all the Naruto movers collected together. I'm not sure whether it's because it's a Suzuki episode or what, but it doesn't really excite me like in the old days.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

12:07:32 pm , 535 words, 4658 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Mirai Mizue

I just found out that indie Japanese animator Mirai Mizue has his own web site and you can see all of his films on there. That's one of the great things about indie animation today - it's quite easy for artists to share their work on their own home page if they want. Many years ago I wrote a bit about Mirai Mizue's debut film, Fantastic Cell (2003), which was shown on Digista, and wanted to see more from him in this style. But I never got around to looking to see if he'd continued to do anything in the intervening years.

I was reminded just now by a post by Amid on Cartoon Brew about his latest film, Jam (2009). Looking at his site, where Jam can be viewed online, I was delighted to discover that he'd not only continued to build on that style over the last few years, but that the films were all viewable on his home page. (Fantastic Cell is here) He's one of my favorite animators in today's indie Japanese animation scene, with a truly unique voice and sensibility.

The Carmen ~In Fantastic Cell~ (2002) is another one of the films in the patented 'cell' style that he's developed. It was actually a study for his debut film, but is quite fun and gets across what makes his films so much fun. He does a great job of bringing alive these organic yet abstract shapes of various cells and strange cellular creatures, and syncs the animation with the music in a way that makes the movement very funny and makes the film really fun and interesting from moment to moment. This particular film reminds me of Oskar Fischinger in the way the semi-abstract forms are zooming around on the screen - an abstract animated ballet set to a famous classical music piece.

Trip!-Trap! (2005) is perhaps the most impressive and broad-ranging of his films. It's a good showcase of the artist's broad range of styles and techniques, all jam-packed into a tremendously dense and fun 5 minutes and set to some great music by his constant collaborator Alice Nakamura. Devour Dinner (2008) does away with the music and goes with only funny sound effects, showcasing his ability to come up with an infinite array of those strange cellular creatures. It feels like Fantastic Planet in the way it consists of a simple sequence of shots depicting this fantastical, bizarre microscopic world in a sort of deadpan way. It's a darkly funny film where these imaginary creatures spend their entire lives eating and being eaten. Some of my favorite animation of the last few years has been work like this that treads the line between figurative and abstract in its depiction of familiar yet fantastic microscopic life, such as Robert Seidel's _grau and Erick Oh's Symphony.

His illustrations are also really cool, full of densely packed but whimsical detail. I love his sensibility and unique style. He thinks fractally, creating macroscopic forms that emerge out of seemingly repeating yet actually infinitely varied microscopic forms. He's carved out a very interesting place for himself as an artist. It's great to know there are a lot of animators in Japan working in such personal and inventive styles.