From Wes Anderson to David Lynch: a brief history of indie directors working in animation

Richard Linklater, Michel Gondry and Lars von Trier have all in their time tried their hand at animation, and with typically inventive results – including that one about the whale-riding sausage.

5 April 2018

By Oliver Lunn

Isle of Dogs (2018)

For some indie filmmakers, ditching real flesh and bone on screen may be a one-off experiment destined to be the anomaly in their IMDb credits. For others – like Wes Anderson, who has now unleashed his second full-length animation, Isle of Dogs – it may prove to be an ongoing interest. With Anderson in mind, we’ve been thinking about other instances of indie filmmakers allured by animation, whether one-time flirters or faithful partners. From the weird and wonderful to the slick and seductive, here’s a rundown of your favourite indie directors working in animation.

Lars von Trier – The Trip to Squash Land (1967)

The Trip to Squash Land (1967)

Written and directed by von Trier when he was just 11 years old (credited as ‘Lars Trier’), The Trip to Squash Land is a trippy tale of a whale-riding sausage. Yes, that’s right: a whale-riding sausage. There’s a smiley sausage, a not-so-smiley group of bunnies, and a strange land called Squash.

Subtitled A Super-Sausage Adventure, von Trier’s film uses paper cutouts and crudely coloured-in drawings in stop-motion. It’s quite impressive for an 11-year-old, if not sometimes sinister (headless bunnies!) and trippy (smiley sausages!). His sense of humour has clearly always been a little bit twisted.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet – Le Manège (1980)

Le Manège (1980)

Eleven years before his groundbreaking debut, Delicatessen (1991), Jeunet and his co-director Marc Caro released this animated short following a group of bald men with distorted faces who descend on a mysterious carousel. The creepy 10-minute short is deeply atmospheric: cobbled streets at night, relentless rain, dramatically lit models. You never know what will emerge from the dark corners of the frame.

It bagged the César Award for best animated short that year, which isn’t surprising given the Amélie director’s background in animation; he studied at Cinémation Studios, and later befriended Caro, his longtime collaborator, at the animation festival in Annecy. What followed was a string of award-winning animations and an illustrious career.

Richard Linklater – Waking Life (2001)

Waking Life (2001)

Waking Life follows in the tradition of Linklater’s great walk-and-talk films (Slacker, the Before trilogy), in which many scenes feature long takes of characters simply walking and talking. The set-up here is simple enough. The main character (Wiley Wiggins) randomly meets professors and opinionated individuals who talk about everything from misconceptions about existentialism to the nature of reality itself.

The main difference with Waking Life and the other films, of course, is that it’s animated. Linklater shot it using digital video of live actors, and then had a team of artists drawing stylised lines and colours over each frame with computers. In both this movie and A Scanner Darkly – in which he used the same technique – you often forget you’re watching an animation. It’s as thought-provoking as his best work.

David Lynch – Dumbland (2002)

Dumbland (2002)

Lynch has been making animations since the 1960s, when he made the four-minute short Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) (1966). Some four decades later, you can see that same childlike wonder and play in Dumbland, a series of animated shorts written, directed and voiced by the director.

Originally released on Lynch’s website, the series features crudely drawn stick figures in black and white. In ‘The Neighbor’, a man compliments his neighbour’s shed before letting off an almighty fart. Then, out of nowhere, the neighbour’s arm pops off and talk turns to duck sex. With its wry sense of humour, it feels like a cult cartoon you might discover on late-night TV.

Wes Anderson – Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Anderson’s first animation, about a tweed-clad fox who steals from “three of the meanest, nastiest, ugliest farmers” in his valley, was made in London using an old-school stop-motion technique. Of the production design, Anderson said at the time: “We want to use real trees and real sand, but it’s all miniature.” It was also heavily inspired by the village where Roald Dahl (who wrote the book of the same name) originally lived.

The result is as charming as the fox himself, with his trademark click-and-whistle and his shimmering coat of fur. Other key ingredients were Anderson’s meticulous framing and famous friends, such as – take a breath – George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe and Jarvis Cocker.

Spike Jonze (with Simon Cahn) – To Die by Your Side (2011)

To Die by Your Side (2011)

Spike Jonze’s stop-motion romance is one for book lovers. Set in a Parisian bookstore, the handmade six-minute short sees illustrations on book covers come alive after the proprietor closes for the night. On the cover of Macbeth a skeleton begins to move (voiced by Jonze). On the cover of Dracula a beautiful woman blinks her eyes. The skeleton goes to meet the girl but gets swallowed by the whale from Moby-Dick.

So goes this offbeat romance whose dramatic title is a nod to the Smiths song, ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’. It’s a brilliantly imaginative love story that suggests Jonze has a feature-length animation in him yet. Fingers crossed.

Michel Gondry – Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (2013)

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (2013)

Subtitled ‘An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky’, Gondry’s feature-length doc is made up of a series of interviews with linguist/philosopher/legend Noam Chomsky. What you see is Gondry’s hand-drawn illustrations, all bright colours and charmingly squiggly lines, that make the prospect of two guys talking in a room a whole lot more enticing. Sometimes he draws Chomsky, sometimes he illustrates Chomsky’s complex thoughts.

The animation style, dynamic and wildly inventive, is what makes the doc so watchable. It’s also a reminder of Gondry’s tactile ingenuity, and Noam Chomsky’s soothing late-night radio voice.

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