The best indie animation of 2015

Beyond Inside Out, Song of the Sea et al, innovation in animation continued to take place at the shorts end of the scale. Our three critics round up their international highlights of the year.

Alex Dudok de Wit , Chris Robinson , Jez Stewart
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World of Tomorrow (2015)

World of Tomorrow (2015)

 

Alex Dudok de Wit

Critic, UK

The shortlist may have raised a few eyebrows, but the nominees for the upcoming Oscar for Best Animated Short Film came as little surprise. This was a year, more so than others in recent memory, when a handful of shorts by established auteurs took the lion’s share of the plaudits. They account for three nominees, the others being Pixar’s likeable Sanjay’s Super Team and Gabriel Osorio’s Bear Story (a first for Chile, which speaks to South America’s burgeoning animation scene).

Foremost comes Prologue, Richard Williams’s pencil-and-paper animation of a gory battle between Spartans and Greeks. The film is technically perfect and has only buttressed Williams’s divine status, yet it left me cold. But then emotional resonance isn’t its game – after all, it is just a teaser for a far bigger project, jokingly titled Will I Live to Finish This? (Let’s hope so.)Then there is We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, a tragicomic portrait of two astronaut friends by the Russian Konstantin Bronzit. It is sweet but slight, a bit meandering, and wouldn’t have been my first choice for any of the shedload of prizes it has won.

Its rival for the title of crowd-pleaser of the year, Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, was more fun: a delirious 17-minute sci-fi odyssey, finely pitched between parody and sincerity, which updates the animator’s stick-man style with sumptuous digital graphics. This is Hertzfeldt’s first Oscar nod since 2000, when his Rejected was ultimately rejected (to the public’s dismay). Surely the award is his to lose.

Two other old hands served up two of my biggest pleasures of 2015: Georges Schwizgebel’s magisterial Erlking, and Sylvain Chomet’s video for Stromae’s Carmen, which had me in stitches. The French animator’s grotesque caricatures are an ideal match for the song’s skewering of the hysterical Twitterati:

Festival programmes, dominated as ever by the fruits of the heavyweight animation courses, threw up a few breakout hits. Dutch filmmaker Nina Gantz drew on the NFTS’s considerable resources to make Edmond, a brilliantly crafted tomb-to-womb profile of a man with big mummy issues, which everyone seemed to love. Loop Ring Chop Drink and the sui generis Small People with Hats, two darkly funny films from 2014, both made a splash.

An honourable mention for the Estonians, who were out in full force. Riho Unt’s divisive The Master notched a win for legendary stop-motion studio Nukufilm, while Ulo Pikkov and Priit Tender continued to channel the irreverent surrealism of their mentor Priit Pärn.

On first viewing I couldn’t make heads nor tails of Tender’s House of Unconsciousness, a freewheeling journey through the Freudian id, complete with naked jazz singers and waltzing walruses. But when I met Tender some weeks later, his deadpan humour cast it all in a new light. A film can only benefit from meeting its creators. Thanks to Tender for reminding me of that. But my top five:

 

My Dad

Marcus Armitage, UK  |  Full film:

Armitage’s RCA graduation film, an impressionistic portrait of English fascists, blindsided me at Encounters Festival. Coming after countless student films that overreached themselves with grandiose pronouncements on death and depression, its political sting was all the sharper. The rough-and-ready style, combining crayon and cutout, was apparently the result of time constraints – but its rawness is a perfect fit for the subject.

 

The Tie

An Vrombaut, Belgium  |  Trailer:

I was raised on Vrombaut’s 64 Zoo Lane series, whose colourful cast of talking animals occupy some of my earliest memories. But the Belgian animator’s latest short offered more than just a nostalgia kick. Channelling The Little Prince, this winsome tale of two giraffes on a small planet is as smart as it is sweet. Vrombaut riffs on the animals’ shape, deftly incorporating their straight lines into the storyline.

 

Maku

Yoriko Mizushiri, Japan  |  Trailer:

Having missed Mizushiri’s earlier shorts, including the acclaimed Futon, I came to Maku with an open mind. But this film isn’t made for the mind: it appeals directly to the sense of touch. Over five voluptuous minutes, legs fondle one another, fingers caress pieces of sushi, and a boy in a monkey onesie nuzzles a banana – all in dreamy slow motion. On further reading, I learned that the film is inspired by a medieval Japanese play. Weird and very wonderful.

 

What I Forgot to Say

Patrick Buhr, Germany  |  Trailer:

It looks crude, but that’s the point: this whip-smart parody of navel-gazing desktop documentaries was the most original student film I saw in 2015. Narrated in a heavy whisper by an Eckhart Tolle soundalike, the film sends up everything from cat videos to pop philosophy, while somehow sticking to a thematic through line about a flâneur mulling over his solitude. Watch it – you’ll see what I mean.

 

Edmond

Nina Gantz, UK  |  Trailer

I’ve written about Edmond elsewhere on this website. Suffice to say here that it doesn’t deserve the constant comparisons with 2012’s Oh Willy…, with which it shares the technique of wool animation. It is its own film, a triumph of editing and cinematography, but sad and sympathetic too. Big things are in store for Nina Gantz.

 

Chris Robinson

Artistic director, Ottawa International Animation Festival; critic and author

If the animation short films of 2015 are a reflection of contemporary society, we are living in some dark times. You know that whole presumption that animation is this lighthearted gag fest designed to generate chuckles and crocodile tears out of audiences? If there was ever a year to puncture that horse-shit myth it was this one.

Mortality, corruption, grief, racism, madness, addiction, greed, murder and a whole lot of tragedy dominated the storylines. That’s not to say there were no laughs, but as usual with the indie short scene, the comedies were dark, absurd and often uncomfortable. Just the way it should be. If you can’t laugh at the chaos, there’s no hope for us.

It was a year that also featured welcome reappearances from animation masters. The Polish animator Jerzy Kucia came around the hauntingly beautiful piece of musical poetry Fugue, his first film in almost 15 years. Russia’s Konstantin Bronzit made a triumphant return with the audience favourite and now Oscar-nominated We Can’t Live without Cosmos (though admittedly I squeezed this into my round-up last year). Canadian experimental animator Pierre Hébert returned to character-driven work with the moving You Look Like Me (more here).

Two of the most popular and successful indie animators, Adam Ellliot (Mary and Max) and Don Herzfeldt (It’s a Beautiful Day) followed up successful features with new shorts. While Eliot’s latest, Ernie Biscuit, stumbled (how long can he continue to use mentally and emotionally unstable protagonists for pathos?), Herzfeldt’s trippy sci-fi short World of Tomorrow, a clever musing on identity and existence, was one of the most acclaimed films of the year. It’s another Oscar nominee.

Other highlights included Andreas Hykade’s clever, interactive Beckettian miniatures featuring a character simply called Myself who tries, earnestly and humorously (and with the help of the audience) to discover the meaning of life (Myself: Universe) and give up smoking (Myself: Smoking). After the likes of Nuggets and Love and Theft, Hykade continues to demonstrate his mastery of eloquent minimalism.

On the student front, the usual colleges (Royal College of Art, National Film and Television School, Rhode Island School of Design) continued to lead the charge into animation’s future, producing a slew of inspired works (Marcus Armitage’s My Dad, Nina Gantz’s Edmond, Ryan Ines’s Violet). Leading the charge though was RCA graduate Sarina Nihei, whose student film Small People with Hats (more here) surprised many by grabbing Grand Prize awards in Ottawa and Holland.

That said, here are a handful of films that I found repeatedly enjoyable in 2015:

 

The Master

Riho Unt, Estonia  |  Trailer:

An unexpected thrill ride that gives me goose bumps each time I watch it, The Master (based on a short story by Estonian writer Friedebert Tuglas) focuses on the short, chaotic and violent existence of a domesticated monkey and dog after they realise their master will not be returning home. Ultra-realistic character design and sets, along with Unt’s precise, patient pacing, create a tense, clenched-fist viewing experience. The ending (and subsequent dedication) will leave you in tears, shock – and, somehow, laughter.

 

Teeth

Tom Brown & Daniel Gray, UK  |  Trailer:

This slithery, grinding, haunting and insane tale ingeniously conveys the story of a man’s life through the history of his teeth. Combining the pacing of Robert Bresson with the lunatic first-person narrative of Poe, Teeth takes us inside the mouth of a deeply troubled individual – voiced to perfection by Richard E. Grant.

 

Anatomy of a Spider

Vojtěch Kiss, Czech Republic  |  Trailer:

A disenchanted guy goes on a hell of a booze bender as he struggles to figure out his place in a society that’s become alien to him. Imagine Aki Kaurismäki characters starring in Dante’s Divine Comedy as directed by 2001-era Kubrick using puppets.

 

Unhappy Happy

Peter Millard, UK  |  Excerpt:

Is Millard’s non-linear, post-abstract, experimentally retro-post-structuralist work taking the piss out of the existential musings of Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Life trilogy, animation in general, or all of us? I’m not sure. I’m not sure I even care because the dynamic sound, silence and timing and delicious bright colours in this mumbling absurdist chaos is spectacular and unlike anything else today in animation.

 

Sonámbulo (The Sleepwalker)

Théodore Ushev, Canada/Croatia  |  Trailer:

Finally… a little lightness from an unexpected source. Known for his heavy, graphic-dominated critiques of human nature and their systems (Gloria Victoria, Drux Flux), the Bulgarian-Canadian Ushev takes it down a notch with this beautiful Lorca-inspired ode to summer and love. Just sit back, let go, tap your toes and drink it in. This is about as life-affirming as animation gets.

 

Special mentions

Creation Myth by Angela Stempel (Read more)

Pig by Steven Subotnick (Read more)

The Five-Minute Museum by Paul Bush

Mynarski Death Plummet by Matthew Rankin

House of Unconsciousness by Priit Tender

 

Jez Stewart

Curator, BFI National Archive

Obvious British highlights of 2015 include the three films nominated for this year’s British Short Animation BAFTA: Edmond by Nina Gantz, Manoman by Simon Cartwright (both graduate films from the animation course at the National Film and Television School) and Prologue by Richard Williams… but since I already wrote about all three in my report from the Encounters festival, let’s find some more fish in the barrel.

On the evidence of the first edition of the Manchester Animation Festival in November, the recent tax break for animation production is starting to bear real fruit. It is primarily being used for kids’ TV and has little direct impact on independent animation, but it has removed the financial hobble that UK production companies were working under that saw so much work go overseas. It is underwriting part of the investment and growth that is required for risk to take place, and is providing work and support for animators associated industries who are then more likely to have the confidence and energy to venture into the unknown. It’s not a panacea for the industries ills but it can certainly be a catalyst for growth and change that will hopefully have a more direct impact on this exercise in the coming years.

In the meantime I can see that, as last year, three of my picks are student films from just two courses at the National Film and Television School and Royal College of Art. And back to the BAFTA nominations, two-thirds of those were student films last year too. For filmmakers to continue to realise and develop their potential, and most importantly to ensure real diversity in British animation, there needs to be a real alternative to post-graduate education to underwrite quality film production in the UK.

 

Fulfilament

Rhiannon Evans, UK  |  Trailer:

An overlooked NFTS film that follows the complex path of an unorthodox thought as its struggles to manifest into a truly great, unique idea. Like good cartoon shorthand, the thought is represented as a lightbulb, shuffling through labyrinthine industrial pathways and rooms with other lights whizzing past with a surer sense of a predetermined path.

Evans’ 2009 film Heart Strings removed all backgrounds to focus on two woollen characters, their bond represented through a red thread that bound them together. Also filmed in stop motion, Fulfilament is a much more complex production. The bulb characters were hand-blown in glass and each contained a smaller, real bulb which had to be connected to a wire as the lighting effects were almost all done in camera. Creating expression and emotion in a limbless, featureless bulb is an enormous challenge, but Rhiannon succeeds, mostly through the eyes — again produced in camera rather than painted on in post-production. Well worth seeking out at festivals or when it comes online, and in the meantime most film fans will enjoy her previous NFTS short The Fly Who Loved Me (2013) [https://vimeo.com/79668821].

 

Mr Madila

Rory Waudby-Tolley, UK  |  Trailer:

One of the most individual and enjoyable films of the year, and one that never quite lets you settle as an audience. Imagine a cross between Jon Ronson and Don Hertzfeld. It affects itself as animated investigation into a small ads soothsayer, the irascible Mr Madila — “from birth a gifted spiritual healer and advisor”. He is a character perhaps too good to be true, but Rory’s pursuit of him nonetheless is a funny but far from whimsical enquiry. In his first year at the RCA Rory produced the excellent Tusk (2014) [https://vimeo.com/134560750], about a mammoth who is thawed out in an advanced elephant future that proves colder than the permafrost. With Tusk in his back pocket and Mr Madila as a calling card, it is exciting to think about what might come next.

 

The River

Heeseon Kim, UK  |  Trailer:

Another RCA film, The River is the story of a disputed border, and the lives of those affected by their unchosen proximity to it — particularly children. The border is deliberately unnamed so as to not pin the emotional weight of the film to the specificity of any particular conflict. But the motivation behind the story came from a number of interviews that Heeseon recorded in towns in close proximity to the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. It was initially planned as more documentary piece, but morphed into a fiction that is all the more powerful for its carefully researched underpinning.

The form and content of the film are skilfully paired. The design makes clever use of a red/blue palette to distinguish the opposite sides of the border stretched out into a wide scope ratio, and the soundtrack is equally thoughtful.

 

Teeth

Tom Brown & Daniel Gray, UK  |  Trailer:

One of the most visceral experiences on the cinema screen this year. Teeth are strangely alien things when looked at in isolation, and this film cleverly delves into one man’s attitude to these curious canines, incisors and molars (they even sound malevolent) that take root in our mouths. Tom and Daniel met at the University of Wales, Newport and their 2006 graduate film t.o.m. deservedly won buckets of awards at festivals around the international festival circuit. Now geographically divided with one in New York and one in Budapest, they continue to produce acclaimed work together through their company Holbrooks Films. Richard E. Grant enjoys delivering the voiceover.

 

HeCTA – The Concept

Chris Shepherd, UK  |  Full film:

Of the many animated music videos this year, something keeps bringing me back to this one. The music is definitely part of it, provided by Kurt Wagner’s electronic offshoot HeCTA, but Chris Shepherd’s neat play with the tropes of Fleischer Brothers cartoons of the 20s and 30s is a perfect pairing. Apartment blocks bop along to the beat as the samples of Buddy Hackett in the song are morphed into the tale of a portly gent whose pill popping weight loss backfires and leads him on a rampage. The early cartoon style is a framework, but not a hang-up that gets in the way of the piece. Chris is equally interested in the rawness, anarchism and surreal logic of such cartoons (think pre-code) Betty Boop — that neatly ties with his own spirit. Enjoy.

  • 2015 in review

    2015 in review

    Our roundups and overviews of the year’s highlights in cinema, covering new features and DVDs, documentary and animation.

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