Chris Robinson: on international indie animation in 2016
When you’ve watched over 2,000 animation shorts and features annually for almost 25 years, wonders are harder to come by. So for me, for the most part, 2016’s indie animation didn’t look all that different from that of 2015. Once again, the shorts scene was dominated by provocative, stimulating and dark works that dealt with failed loves, successful loves, shattered identities, domestic slavery, animal and breast fetishes, war games, death, alcoholism, dead children (both real and imagined) and other weighty subjects.
Two things did stand out: an increase in women’s voices at animation festivals, and the quality of independent animated features.
Now there’s a lot of justified debate about gender and ethnic balance in all aspects of life. Indie animation, though by no means flawless, has generally been far more progressive than many other areas of art and culture. There has always been a relatively strong, steady female presence in the indie animation world. That said, festival screens have consistently been dominated by men. This year that changed a bit as a number of outstanding films by women were screened and awarded at international animation festivals.
Equally impressive was the diversity of the voices. From Germany, Canada, the USA, UK, Poland, Slovenia and Russia emerged striking films in student (99A Frankfurt St, Foreign Body, Shavings, What They Believe), narrative (J’aimes les Filles, An Ordinary Blue Monday, Nighthawk, Impossible Figures and Other Stories II), experimental (Tracheal Shave, G-AAAH, 4min 15 in the Developer) and feature animation (Window Horses, Nuts!).
And speaking of indie-animation features, it was a pretty glorious year. After years of plugging along with a stream of less-than-mediocre crap that suggested animators were making features more to get attention from ‘real’ cinema than because they actually had anything to say, we’re now starting to see a real maturity. In 2016, there was a solid, diverse crop of films including Louise en Hiver, Window Horses, Psiconauts, The Forgotten Children, Cafard, and the quirky documentary Nuts!
Here are my top picks of the year:
Igor Kovalyov, Russia
There are the good, bad and ugly animators and then there’s Kovalyov. Even after an 11-year absence Kovalyov showed why he’s the Messi, the Lebron James, the Sydney Crosby (hockey reference) of animation. The editing, camera, design and, oh lord, the soundtrack are all individual works of art. Together they take this Bressonian tale of love, jealousy and loneliness and mold it into a masterwork.
Impossible Figures and Other Stories II
Marta Pajek, Poland
This film was the talk of the 2016 Ottawa International Animation Festival. I’ve never encountered a work that was beloved by such a diverse group of people: animators, staff, general public. The only people who didn’t seem to agree were the jury members. How this work hasn’t gone more acclaim is beyond me. It’s an absolutely original, mesmerising work about a woman who has been sleepwalking through existence; a painful, awkward but ultimately hopeful work about self-awareness and self-control. Pajek’s economic, often bleached-like drawings (not to forget the deliciously haunting Michelle Gurevich song I’ll Be Your Woman) capture this fragile battle between consciousness and obliviousness.
Ryo Orikasa, Japan
This calm, Zen-inspired clay animation beauty captures the serenity of the sea, the soothing rush of the waves, the Heraclitian reminder that all is in motion, never the same. This is a work of art that you feel rather than analyse. It’s like having a meditation session in the cinema.
Špela Čadež, Slovenia
If Charles Bukowski scripted Bullit with a badger, the result might look something like Nighthawk, a blistering, squirming tragedy trailing an alcoholic whizzing blurrily through bending roads in the black of night. If you’re thinking about ditching booze, watching this blunt depiction of an alcohol abuser might hasten the process.
Louise en Hiver
Jean-François Laguionie, France
Poetic and daring (how many animation films have an elderly woman as the main/sole protagonist?), Laguionie’s portrait of a forgotten woman shifting through the past as she meanders through an empty vacation town is, in part, an allegory about the alienating aches and pains of ageing. But it’s also about clearing away the noise, debris and distraction around us every minute of every day so that we can discover, understand and embrace solitude and self – because, let’s face it, we’re all going out the exit door the way we arrived, alone.
Pscionauts, The Forgotten Children
Pedro Rivero & Alberto Vázquez, Spain
Despite its cuddly looking anthropomorphic characters, this striking, complex, terrifying dystopian fable about an island unhinged by addiction, paranoia, ego, environmental ruin and violence is not for the kiddies. (Though maybe today’s screen saturated me-me-me runts might benefit from a good scare.) A prescient and uncomfortable vision of a place not all that far from here.
Happy End Jan Sasek, Czech Republic
Blind Vaysha Theodore Ushev, Canada
Loss Yi Zhao, The Netherlands
Planemo Veljko Popovic, Croatia
G-AAAH Elizabeth Hobbs, UK
Alex Dudok de Wit: bring out the shorts!
If I say that animated shorts were in eclipse this year, I mean it as a compliment to features. By any measure, this was a staggering year for long-form animation. Globally, it registered its highest ever box-office total. More than ever, live-action blockbusters – The Jungle Book, The BFG – incorporated sophisticated motion-capture animation. At specialist festivals, which tend to focus on shorts, the biggest hype was often for new technologies and the latest indie features.
Yet even as the medium diversified and audiences grew, a formula was reinforced. At awards ceremonies and the box office alike, a crowded field was dominated by the big American studios: Pixar (Finding Dory), Disney (Zootropolis, Moana), Illumination Entertainment (The Secret Life of Pets). These films are all decent, but they tread much the same ground – bright colours, loud songs, hyper-kinetic CGI – and fail to reflect animation’s full gene pool.
Which is where shorts come in. Protected from the strictures of the marketplace, they allow for genuine artistic experiment. For the same reason, however, they rarely find a wide audience. I’ve written elsewhere about the inadequacy of support for independent-minded animators in Britain; notwithstanding art-film hotspots like France and Japan, this is more or less true everywhere.
Is the industry missing a trick? Back in May, my local Picturehouse played Richard Williams’s Prologue – one of my favourite shorts of last year – before mainstream features. An alliance of distributors, cinemas and animation studios could take this format much further. This year’s crop of animated shorts was rich and dizzyingly inventive; they hint at the full potential of a medium that has never been more popular.
My five picks are somewhat arbitrary. They are unusual films, but by no means inaccessible. If they can be screened before 2017’s Disney or Illumination hits, I’ll be even happier this time next year.
Theodor Ushev, Canada
Theodor Ushev is on quite a run. The Bulgarian-born avant-gardist tore up last year’s festival circuit with two hit shorts, one of which was sketched in his own blood.
His latest is more conventional: an adaptation of a short story by fellow Bulgarian Georgi Gospodinov about a girl who sees the past with one eye and the future with the other. The same can be said of Ushev, who blends a traditional linocut print design with cutting-edge 3D. A daring coda draws a direct parallel between Vaysha’s vision and the 3D trickery being played on us, the viewers. My short of the year.
David Coquard-Dassault, France
A pack of black hounds wanders through a deserted apartment block in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The dogs, animated digitally by hand, are utterly convincing (no mean feat), but the glaringly eerie backdrops play just as big a role in the story, such as it is. I wanted to screen-grab every frame and put it as my desktop background. The twist at the end, though not misjudged, is almost unnecessary: this film is powered by atmosphere, not plot. My runner-up.
Céline Devaux, France
This sharp observational comedy passed me by on its release in 2015 – though not the juries, who gave it a slew of awards. Recounting an awkward meal between a gay man and his stuffy family, Sunday Lunch is delicately scripted and boldly animated in an expressionist printmaking style. Given the film’s focus on social dynamics, there’s a nice contrast between the original French version (brashly argumentative) and the British dub (painfully withdrawn).
Kangmin Kim, South Korea/United States
A young boy is taken to the zoo by his parents, where he is force-fed deer blood and promptly starts tripping out. Bizarrely, this actually happened to Kim as a child. Deer Flower feels personal in every way: the idiosyncratic plot, the delicate craft of the stop-motion puppets, the frequent cutaways to insects that speak of a nature-loving artist. Though based in Los Angeles, Kim often mines his childhood in South Korea for themes – see his utterly weird 38-39°C for another example.
De Staat – Witch Doctor
Studio Smack, Netherlands
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In a mid-afternoon programme of otherwise anodyne shorts in Manchester, this music video came like a shot of tabasco in a cup of tea. The concept is simple: singer Torre Florim sings to a crowd of shirtless white skinheads, whipping them up into a foot-stomping frenzy. What first comes across as a Trump rally on steroids turns out to be an ingenious deployment of an Adobe After Effects plug-in. Simple, original and high-concept: everything a music video should be.
A special mention for Parallel Studio’s Unsatisfying, a deeply discomfiting experience that nevertheless became my most-watched film of 2016.
Best of British animation – Jez Stewart
2016. A year of more shits than giggles. But British animation-wise it saw the welcome return of very rare bird indeed – a feature-length animated film that was not specifically targeted at children, in the shape of Ethel & Ernest.
In terms of shorts, there was another slate of diverse and often high-quality films released from the big national post-graduate animation courses, but for me there was no personal highlight from those often so reliable stables this year.
Honourable mention should definitely go to Animate Projects’ Silent Signal project which came to fruition this year with six experimental animations produced by collaboration between artists and scientists, immaculately documented on the project’s website. My guilty pleasure – entirely because of my own guilt in missing it in 2015 – was Ainslie Henderson’s stunning documentary of his immaculately conceived stop-motion puppets Stems (2015; trailer here). I only caught up with the film a year after its release; otherwise it would have rocketed to the top of my charts.
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I have been a big fan of independent CGI artist and self-confessed “non-aspirational content provider” Alan Warburton since his Animate Projects commissioned Z (2012). Soft Crash came out of a commission for the Southbank Centre Power of Power season, to which Alan responded with this kaleidoscopic piece principally about the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath, but also delving into cane toads, the influence of game theory on neoliberalism, simulation and the markup rate on popcorn. His work is enjoyable on its surface, but offers profound layers of meaning and depth for those who wish to delve in – which you most certainly should. There are even viewing notes.
Roger Ballen’s Theatre of Apparitions
Emma Calder and Ged Haney
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Emma Calder and Ged Haney first met in 1977 at the London College of Printing. After nearly 40 years of separate and collaborative projects, many for Pearly Oyster Productions the company they co-founded in 1989, they joined forces again to produce this commission by South African photographer Roger Ballen. In bringing his Theatre of Apparitions photographs to life the collaborators combine to make something that is as delightful as it is rude.
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One of the most pleasant 75 seconds of the year was spent on my first viewing of this mini-marvel. And the many subsequent repeat viewings haven’t been bad either. The film is an animated tribute to Amy Johnson’s record-breaking solo flight from Croydon to Australia in 1930 in Jason the Gypsy Moth aircraft. The plane’s registration letters of G-AAAH give the film its title, but also point to the use of a kind of emoticon animation achieved with little more than an Underwood 315 typewriter. Even the sound of the engine is a clever aural tie with the sound of the typewriter.
The Last Job on Earth
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Since deciding to join forces after studying animation at the Royal College of Art, David Prosser, Marie-Margaux Tsakiri-Scanatovits and Daniel Chester have created one of the most impressive creative studios around. Moth Animation Studio (formerly the Moth Collective) seem almost custom-made for the digital media landscape of the 21st century. Of the many impressive projects they have brought forth in the past months, this Guardian-commissioned vision of a future in which computer automation has put employment on the endangered list was my favourite. It is slick and yet humane, with intelligent and inspired design work.
At the first private screening of Chris’ sequel to his modern animation classic Dad’s Dead (2003) at a West End hotel the audience’s appetite was wetted by a screening of the original. As one of the lucky folks in that cinema who had just been given a pressing reminder of the power, invention, dangerous humour and brutality of the first film, I’ll admit I was concerned that the follow up would fall short of such high standards.
What do I know? Chris has clearly carried the incandescent spirit of the Ian Hart’s narrator character burning with him in the 13-year hiatus, and has unleashed it with his unique blend of nostalgia, violence and wit. Financed by Arte France through the Parisian production company Autour de Minuit, it has been screened on television in France and Germany, but only appeared on the festival circuit in the UK.
Chris has announced that he is working on a film about post-referendum Britain. Fingers crossed for Brexit’s Dead in 2017.