On January 6, short films become the capital’s main attraction as the London Short Film Festival returns to the city’s cinemas and some more inventive settings like the University Tent at the Occupy London Stock Exchange Camp. Now in its ninth edition, LSFF continues to offer an ambitious and winningly broad programme with DIY work by emerging talents providing the perfect counterpoint to its industry events and comprehensive retrospectives of more acclaimed and established filmmakers.
The ICA’s Lo-Budget Mayhem screening promises to be an anarchic assortment with an eccentric hand-drawn animation of Hulk Hogan (Peter Millard’s Hogan), an excruciatingly awkward tale of public transport (Naren Wilks’s Journey on a Bus) and a very strange story of motherhood (Matilda Myszka’s Baby Meat). LSFF’s delight in such offbeat offerings will also be in evidence at the Midnight Movies Nightcap event and Salon des Refusés, a specially curated selection of films that did not make it into this year’s LSFF programme. It’s a fun and original idea that should raise interesting questions about what makes a ‘successful’ festival film.
As with previous editions of LSFF, this year’s programme emphasises the sensory experience of watching films. There are several events dedicated to the interaction between music and cinema and various festival strands that present films selected solely on the strength of their cinematography. Leftfield and Luscious, in particular, promises strong work, such as Jordan Baseman’s The Last Walk, which sets a compelling spoken narrative to meditative abstract visuals. The medium of analogue film is also to be celebrated with showcases of work on 16mm and 35mm film. At the Hackney Picturehouse Attic, Suitcase Cinema will present a selection of Cold War archive footage and Screen Bandita will gather together junkshop and attic finds of discarded, forgotten reels.
London itself is another focus of the 2012 festival with two screenings organised in association with the Museum of London in the Docklands: My Community will present a selection of shorts by young urban filmmakers; and London Lives will explore life in the capital through a varied programme of new works. In the documentary strand, another view of urban life is expressed through Hackney Lullabies, an award-winning short by Japanese filmmaker Kyoko Miyake. The film explores the shared experience of immigrant mothers living in Hackney and keeping their original cultures alive by singing lullabies to their young children. The diversity of voices presented in this warm and thoughtful film is mirrored in the programming of the festival itself. Looking through this year’s calendar of events, it is clear that LSFF aims to present a broad social spectrum as well as a wide aesthetic range. The Amnesty Human Rights Action Centre has organised an event to discuss disability in film while the Not the Skin I Live In strand celebrates Black and Asian stories on film. Female filmmakers are honoured with a dedicated festival strand (which includes an excellent, serious, yet witty call to arms about Nigerian women, Radio Amina) and the special event Dirty Diaries, a showcase of feminist porn films from Swedish filmmakers. This attempt to explore and represent all sorts of subjects and filmmakers makes for a lively and exciting programme of events. LSFF looks set to continue the success of previous years, keeping London audiences engaged and entertained.
Visiting the Barbican for a special screening of Lipsett Diaries (2010), Theodore Ushev’s much-praised 15-minute film about experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett, it was easy to forget the iconic concrete labyrinth was playing host – for the first time – to the London International Animation Festival. The monthly programme had a lonely, rather perfunctory, paragraph of blurb while the majority of the milling crowd seemed to be there for a new production of South Pacific. As I waited patiently outside Screen 1, I saw with some relief that word had clearly spread about LIAF as a large, high-spirited crowd streamed out of the festival’s British Showcase screening. Perhaps the throng was all showcased filmmakers with friends in tow; still, the lively festival-goers created a welcome buzz and, while many did not stick around for Lipsett Diaries, those who did attend (and the number was respectable) were rewarded for their attendance; the event was another example of thoughtful programming from the LIAF organisers.
Lipsett Diaries could easily have slotted into one of the festival’s regular screenings, lost amid the roster of impressive shorts; instead, it was used as a catalyst to introduce Lipsett’s work and as an ending to a comprehensive retrospective of Ushev’s work to date. It is certainly Ushev’s best film, although his animations have displayed technical virtuosity from the beginning. His first work – The Man Who Waited (2006) – re-tells a Kafka short story through a rapid, claustrophobic edit of images, hand-drawn in the style of German expressionist woodcuts. The fast pacing of Ushev’s filmmaking – something shared with Lipsett’s – is a real strength, and the retrospective included several shorts influenced by 20th-century art movements obsessed with mechanism and speed: constructivism, futurism and vorticism. Tower Bawher (2006) followed this pattern and re-trod a path pioneered in Russia at the start of last century. There was nothing new about the montages of newsprint, geometric blocks, architectural towers and saluting hands but the computer-generated speed did add a certain freshness to the images.
That Soviet typography and striking images appeal to Ushev should come as no surprise, given his background as a graphic artist. I saw a continuation of this profession in his filmmaking: not only in his use of striking aesthetics but also in the way he fits images to his films’ subjects, almost as if working to a brief. In the Q&A following the screening, he spoke of serving a concept; the key was making ‘a film, not my film’, he said. While commendable in many ways, this approach creates a certain passivity in his filmmaking; the image is applied to, and therefore at the mercy of, the text or idea. For me, the overly cutesy narration of Tzaritza (2006) made a sweet tale about families separated by emigration more throwaway and saccharine than it needed to be. It seems that Ushev creates his best films when working with rich personalities that provide a strong voice. As a case in point, Yannick Nézet-Séguin: No Intermission took an interview and performance by the eponymous conductor and created beautiful glowing visuals: lively flashes of Nézet-Séguin’s animated face and hands appear from extreme blackness to tame and direct an invisible orchestra.
Lipsett Diaries provided another strong voice and portrait of the creative spirit. The film was born out of discussions with fellow filmmakers, a series of talisman coincidences – including the discovery that Lipsett had previously lived in Ushev’s first apartment block in Montreal – and a script by writer Chris Robinson. Divided into three separate segments, the narrative tells Lipsett’s story, from a difficult childhood to his death. An exceptionally talented filmmaker, Lipsett created several astonishing shorts in the early 60s and committed suicide just before his 50th birthday. Composed of hundreds of acrylic paintings, the film’s animation is intense and extremely delicate, borrowing from the visceral style of Francis Bacon and Goya’s later paintings and occasionally nodding to Pop Art. These images play out as filmmaker Xavier Dolan narrates snatches of text and builds up an insight into Lipsett’s inner turmoil. It is only at the end of the film that the audience is told that Lipsett’s diaries were never found and that the film is a fictionalised account, using narrative texts from Lipsett’s shorts.
The non-linear approach of assembling text and images mirrors Lipsett’s own filmmaking technique, which cut up dialogue – often passages of cultural criticism – and playfully juxtaposed the words with images of everyday life, either shot by himself or his contemporary filmmakers at the National Film Board in Canada. The editing skills displayed in his debut film, Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), brought Lipsett to the attention of the Academy and also that of filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrik (who asked him – unsuccessfully – to work as his editor). Lipsett was a master of editing but, more than that, he offered a delightfully skewed way of looking at the world, which cuts through the noise and commercialisation of our normal existence. His work goes beyond surrealism’s random juxtaposition of images and, while it uses the everyday, it is not quite Pop Art either. Lipsett’s work does not propel commonplace objects to the position of High Art in such a straightforward composition; instead, it uses everyday experience to comment upon cultural criticism, political theory, religious belief and social observation. The strange juxtapositions of images are sometimes used to directly contradict the rhetoric being espoused and, at other times, to point out the futility of trying to contain and define the human experience in words. The grand theories are interrupted by phone calls, cut off in mid-stream and shown disintegrating into unintelligible burbles and nonsensical noises. The films create a collage of competing voices, snippets of text straining to make sense of the world.
There is despair in Lipsett’s shorts but there is also warmth and humour; traits that were slightly lost in the script for Lipsett Diaries, which preferred to emphasise a darker, more straightforward narrative of the artist as tortured soul. Lipsett’s work is full of humanity – laid bare for the audience in his every choice of image – and it was wonderful to sit in the Barbican watching his early shorts unfold on the big screen. For bringing Arthur Lipsett to new audiences, to the organisers of LIAF and the makers of Lipsett Diaries: bravo, very nice, very nice.
The London International Animation Festival (LIAF) may take place in the English capital but its gaze reaches far beyond its home country. Based at the Barbican this year, it includes a special British showcase and a spotlight on films produced by London’s Royal College of Art but, as usual, the focus of its 2011 schedule is its international programme, a series of screenings that present a happily eclectic snapshot of independent animation from around the globe. Brilliantly broad in terms of technique and subject matter, the films jostle for a place in the final day’s ‘best of the fest’ screening and the honour of the festival competition prize. A preview compilation of shorts reveals a promising selection. Sjaak Rood’s Fast Forward Little Riding Hood (2010) is a charming re-telling of the classic fairy tale in a lightning minute-and-a-half of scribbles and doodles. Big Bang, Big Boom (2010) is the latest, very brilliant, offering from Italian street artist Blu. A riot of colourful murals and inanimate rubbish springing to life, the stop-motion film stages the story of the earth’s evolution against the dull grey of city pavements and urban buildings. Finishing with a Darwinian whirligig, man evolves from ape to a machine gun-toting soldier who shoots at his ancestors around the circumference of a gasworks wall.
Blu uses the age-old animation process of stop motion to create a fresh visual style. Another traditional animation method is celebrated in this year’s technique focus screening, which will showcase the use of paper cut-outs on film. A mainstay of animation dating back to early 20th-century cinematic pioneers such as Lotte Reiniger, cut-outs continue to produce visually arresting results as evidenced by Maya Erdelyi’s Phosphena (2010), a kaleidoscope of intricate paper creations and abstract confetti. If Erdelyi’s film is an indicator of the selection, the screening should provide a very stimulating survey of shorts.
At the other end of the spectrum, cutting-edge 3D mastery promises to be strong with a showcase of Siggraph works and animations like David OReilly’s The External World (2010) and Damian Nenow’s Paths of Hate (2010). Mimicking a twisting, throbbing video game, Paths of Hate demonstrates magnificent technical achievements as it follows two warrior pilots fighting to their death, vapour trails of blood exploding across the sky. Nenow’s film not only appears in the international programme but also in the festival’s Focus on Poland strand, which brings together animations from a country with a long history in the medium and a potent narrative tradition. As a supplement to the strand, award-winning Polish filmmaker Wojtek Wawszczyk will be hosting a masterclass and introducing his acclaimed feature George and the Hedgehog (2011).
The organisers of LIAF are adept at drawing engaging talents to the festival and another special guest at this year’s festival will be filmmaker Theodore Ushev. Ushev will be answering questions about his new film, Lipsett Diaries (2010), which explores the life and work of experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett, who was plagued with mental illness before committing suicide aged 49. Lipsett Diaries is one of the most applauded shorts of the past 12 months and the event will provide a compelling opportunity to view Lipsett’s and Ushev’s works side by side. LIAF’s programmers have always shown a comprehensive yet inventive approach. They aim to introduce London audiences to extensive views of specific filmmaking cultures (in addition to the Focus on Poland, there’s also a New York Who’s Who, which will showcase indie animation currently being produced in the Big Apple), but they also take pleasure in not being too prescriptive. The Panorama series of screenings and Late Night Bizarre event bring together oddities that are neither included in the competition nor fall into neat categories of filmmaking. With programming dedicated to searching out thought-provoking and technically impressive works, LIAF looks to have some very promising events taking place across London.
American artist Al Jarnow started out as something of an accidental animator. Obsessed with capturing light, Jarnow initially created paintings. Like David Hockney’s photographic collages, Jarnow’s works laid out their subjects through squares of colour. Painted street scenes, architectural structures and landscapes were used to illustrate the motion of time, the changing of light and its transformative powers. Buildings were chosen as vessels; it was light that was the subject. Film, with its flickering frames of light and intrinsically temporal nature, was a natural progression. There was more potential for recording and exploring transience. He was also led towards the medium by his acquaintances and the environment of his city: the artistically free and exciting New York of the 1970s. Film Forum, Anthology and the Collective of Living Cinema provided unique platforms for experimentation. And Jarnow was a natural experimenter.
His first attempt at filmmaking – a psychedelic animation of Edward Lear’s poem ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’ – was for a NYU student film, produced by friend Dan Weiss, with drawings by his wife, Jill Jarnow. By necessity he learnt on the project; and by not knowing the medium, he was able to reinvent, challenge and improvise. Over the course of his career, he has played around with Xerox machines, he has produced stop-motion animations with filing cards and, in recent times, he has ‘fallen head over heels into the computer screen’, investigating the possibility of software-generated sequences without beginnings, middles and ends.
There is an elegant precision to Jarnow’s films. His 70s filing-card films stylishly play with geometric patterns. Piles of paper leap up and down mail-slots or shuffle like packs of cards, all the time revealing rotating architectural hand-drawn cubes. As the numbered sheets of paper flip before your eyes, your mind races to discover how it is done before duly giving in to the hypnotic rhythm, counted out on Mozart-written harpsichord beats. Autosong (1976), inspired by his wife’s blue Volkswagen car, is a labyrinthine journey of bends, bridges and hills knotting into abstract tubes and pipes set to field recordings of revving engines. Jarnow looked to the background scenery of old cartoons, rather than the racing hero.
Indeed, Jarnow presents humans as small specks, insignificant in the lifespan of the earth. In the two-minute short Cosmic Clock (1979), an impassive young male figure watches from a hillside as one billion years flash before his eyes. A strange time-lapse masterpiece unfolds as successive space-age cities rise and fall, water levels surge and plummet and ice ages sweep over the land. Architecture (1980) takes a different approach, using brightly painted toy blocks to create a stop-motion representation of urbanisation. Model animals weave in and out as buildings emerge, disintegrate and rocket up skywards. The elaborate city landscape sees the animals disappear as cars move in.
As well as charting the progression of human beings against the backdrop of the natural world, Jarnow also displays a desire to record time as it relates to an individual’s life. Jesse: The First Year (1979) is a playful sequence of photographs showing Jarnow’s new-born son over the course of 12 months, charting changes and growth during a period when the passage of time is sharply apparent. Similar in its personal approach, Celestial Navigation (1984) is one of Jarnow’s most fulfilled experiments. The 15-minute film records light passing through Jarnow’s Long Island studio from 20 March 1982 until 20 March 1983. As blocks of sunlight fall from the windows against whitewashed walls, Jarnow obsessively traces their movement across mornings, afternoons, days, weeks, months. He creates grids, photographic prints and a model of the studio, surrounded by a shining light bulb. He travels to Stonehenge for the summer equinox and produces a map of the landmark. There is a wonderful zoetrope-like sequence as the camera swirls around the stones, sun shining through and shadows cast. The effect of Celestial Navigation is like a fantastically talented jazz trumpeter stepping up to improvise, surrounded by silence as the rest of the band dies away. It is Jarnow’s personal philosophical riff on time and light.
Given the cerebral aspect of his works, it comes as a surprise that Jarnow also worked on many television commissions, including sequences for the mighty children’s television series Sesame Street. Generations of children remember his film, Yak (1970), an educational short about the letter ‘Y’. This commercial work paid for experimentations in the studio while Jarnow has described his personal work as acting like a laboratory for his commissions. And what a fantastic laboratory his Long Island attic became. Self-effacing in interview, Jarnow depicts his filmmaking as starting off on a very personal basis (‘my wife was an audience, my friends were an audience’). The uniqueness of Jarnow’s work rests heavily on its personal quality. Jarnow is an artist driven by an enviable desire to endlessly chase ideas, taking new perspectives and trying out all approaches.
The Al Jarnow programme ‘Celestial Navigations’ screened on Sunday 27 March at Ikon Eastside, Birmingham, as part of the Flatpack Festival.
The LFF Experimenta strand provided the first opportunity for UK audiences to see collage artist Lewis Klahr’s Prolix Satori series. Composed of mid-century American imagery such as advertising and comic books, Prolix Satori is loosely structured around a repetition of visual motifs and thematic threads: melodramatic cartoon couples, post-war interiors and pop songs are woven into variations on love, loss and death. Prolix Satori is an ongoing series, and the films presented at the LFF ranged from 8 to 23 minutes, the shorter ones being part of a sub-series, ‘The Couplets’. The Couplets explore the interaction of image and sound through the repetition of imagery paired with different soundtracks, creating surprising shifts in mood and feeling. Klahr was present at the screening, and the Q&A that followed the films offered fascinating insights into his elaborately constructed work.
As Klahr explained, the starting point for Prolix Satori was False Aging, a film he made in response to the suicide of his friend and fellow experimental filmmaker Mark LaPore (there were other works dedicated to LaPore in the Experimenta programme, by David Gatten and Phil Solomon). The film starts with a quote from Valley of the Dolls, as a woman’s voice talks about the climb up Mount Everest to reach the Valley and the feeling of loneliness during the journey, followed by her desire for new experiences. This segues into the ‘Theme from the Valley of the Dolls’, whose unusual lyrics imbue the first part of the film with feelings of longing, confusion and loss of certainties about one’s self and the world. The song colours our perception of the imagery, which includes quaint, flowery wallpaper patterns, a yellow bird cut from another wallpaper and coins – maybe small mementoes of home – as well as intimations of a journey: a cut-up globe, markings on a road, a suitcase and a car.
The next section, introduced by the label ‘Poison’, sees a cartoon couple, a bike, locks, doors, a medical diagram of a human torso and a chart for endowments at age 30 accompanied by Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Lather’, the lyrics of which revolve around ageing – more specifically turning 30.
The final section is constructed around a number of substitutions, using extracts from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, in which Cale quotes from Andy Warhol’s diary, voicing what Warhol once said about him: ‘What does it mean when you give up drinking and you’re still so mean?’ The recounting of a nightmare on a snowy night and quotes such as ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I died in this dream?’, ‘I’m so scared today’ and the final ‘Nobody called’ transpose the poignant sense of anxiety, bitterness and loneliness of Warhol’s diaries on to a cartoon blond man looking at an American cityscape. That character is Illya Kuryakin, from the Man from U.N.C.L.E comic, and this is another substitution: Kuryakin stands in for LaPore, as Klahr explained during the Q&A, ‘because he was a handsome man’ (the comic representation of the character is also a substitute for the actor David McCallum).
Klahr commented that False Aging initiated a new way of working with lyrics and images, with motifs that recur throughout Prolix Sartori; for instance, a caterpillar seen crawling in some of the earlier films finally turns into a butterfly before getting captured and killed in Lethe.
Lethe stood out from the selection not only for being longer at 23 minutes, but also for being more narrative than Klahr’s other films. Evoking the feel of classic Hollywood melodramas, this tale of doomed love in a sci-fi setting was fashioned out of 1960s Doctor Solar comics. The original comic centres on the impossible love story between the radioactive Doctor Solar and his blonde assistant. They also work with an older scientist, and the physical similarity between him and Doctor Solar prompted Klahr to twist the story line so that in Lethe, Doctor Solar becomes younger through the experiments they conduct. Doctor Solar’s transformation continues until he becomes pure energy and his lover has to shoot him, a scene that segues into her shooting at an eclipse, in one of the most poetic moments of the film.
The cold modernist décor and the recurrence of a strange clock throughout the film, with odd symbols indicating time, create an otherworldly atmosphere and the impression that we are in some sort of parallel world. After another scene replays the traumatic moment when the blonde woman shoots Solar (this time he has turned into a hairy monster) and then puts the gun to her head, she is seen driving around, lost. A police officer asks her, ‘Where did you cross over?’ reminding us of the underworld river evoked in the title. She then crashes the car and the strange clock goes backwards. Both she and Doctor Solar go through several deaths, as if the moment of death was constantly replayed, maybe to make sense of it, so that they finally realise they have been dead all along.
Lethe is set to a Gustav Mahler symphony, which guided the composition of the narrative through its dramatic moments; Klahr called these ‘peak moments’, to which he felt he had to respond. The filmmaker chose Mahler because the symphony reminded him of the score to Vincente Minelli’s melodrama’s The Bad and the Beautiful. This is another instance of the substitution process that seems so central to the construction of Klahr’s work, as well as of the use of music as a structuring device.
The Couplets use substitution in a different way. Nimbus Smile, loosely centred around the thematic motif introduced by the speech balloon, ‘I haven’t been sleeping too well lately’ (which recurs in Lethe), sets imagery of comic characters, a man and a woman, to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’. Interestingly, the film didn’t seem to work initially, because all the emotion just came from the song, rather than the imagery. This was followed by Nimbus Seeds, which sets the same imagery to rain fall and other sound effects. This completely changed the perception of the images, removing the pop video aspect of the previous film and making the visuals more mysterious and evocative. The third Couplet, Cumulonimbus, uses the same soundtrack as Nimbus Seeds, but with different imagery. Wednesday Morning Two A.M. uses this substitution device within the same film, the Shangri-Las’ ‘I’ll Never Learn’ initially accompanying cut-ups of 60s comic images of a couple, before it is repeated to score images of pure colour and abstract patterns. Across the Couplets, the variations of visual and aural motifs wove a remarkably evocative, intricate fabric that suggested a complicated web of thematic, formal and romantic interconnections.
Prolix Satori was one of the highlights of LFF, not just in the Experimenta section, but across the whole festival. It was great to see the NFT cinema packed with curious film-goers with appetites for unconventional, adventurous, poetic filmmaking. They were rewarded with a particularly rich and memorable experience that was augmented by Klahr’s engaging presence.
The Belgian stop-motion animated film A Town called Panic is out on DVD this month after a theatrical run in October. Unusually for a European film, a pair of British filmmakers have taken on the responsibility of promoting the film here even though they had no involvement in making the film. To find out why, Alex Fitch spoke to Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith (a.k.a. ‘Hammer and Tongs’) about their love of simple animation and marketing a film during the demise of the UK Film Council.
Alex Fitch: Would I be right in thinking that you guys are the British executive producers of A Town called Panic, or is that too posh a title?
Garth Jennings: It sounds fantastic!
Nick Goldsmith: It sounds bizarre…
GJ: I like it!
NG: Yes we are. We’re helping support the film as we love it so much, that’s the main thing.
American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese have been known to promote a classic world cinema title for a DVD or cinema release, but I think this is the first time I’ve come across directors from one country picking up a film that they have no involvement in but felt so passionate about it that they’ve taken over the PR…
GJ: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. We just really loved it that much. It was odd when we were first asked to consider it, because we’ve always made our own things, but when we saw it, we thought it would be worth doing to try and get as many people to see it as possible.
So you basically came to the film cold, you hadn’t seen any of the shorts beforehand?
NG: I hadn’t, Garth had.
GJ: I’d seen the shorts – I hadn’t seen all of them, I think there were three seasons of the TV series; I’d only seen one and I don’t think I’d even seen the whole season but I liked it. I’ve always loved that style of animation. We’d followed the progress of the film being made and always thought it would be great – seeing it premiered at Cannes, it looked so interesting. I don’t know about you, are you one of those people who looks up trailers all the time?
I used to, but I’ve grown out of it…
GJ: I used to be addicted! I’m probably the same as you now, but went through several years of always wanting to know what was going on and watching all the clips of new films, and that one was so different and unique.
It seems like a film that’s tailor-made for your appreciation. Having seen Son of Rambow, about an amateur filmmaker who’s using the tools available to him, and then seeing some of your more recent pop promos such as the video you made for Hot Chip, which was like an extended episode of Art Attack where the band were making things, it seems exactly like your kind of thing.
GJ: Yeah, we’ve done our fair share of in-camera effects and stuff. We’ve always messed about with things like that and it appeals to us. I think it’s not so much the aesthetic as the sense of humour that appealed to us the most, but then I suppose that is tied in to the aesthetic. It’s the way that they’re animated that’s often the funniest thing about the scene. It’s just so clever and endearing, imaginative and funny, but very different to the work we do, obviously because it’s animated. I think there’s maybe a match in sensibilities, an appreciation of silliness.
Well, when I interviewed you last about Son of Rambow, we spoke about how that film was very much about the zeitgeist then, the fascination there was at the time with a version of Raiders of the Lost Ark that was remade by kids and people putting that kind of footage on YouTube. The release of A Town Called Panic seems to be coinciding with the increase in makers’ fairs and an interest in craft.
GJ: I like the idea of being part of a zeitgeist but let’s not go into the fact that we have no idea! We’re just going with our gut on all of this! (laughs) I don’t know what to say to that…
NG: In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy we had that section where the crew become knitted and that was stop-frame animation… I think there’s just something more fun in it being in front of you and it being tactile and your being able to touch it and move it. It’s there and you can see the craft of how it’s being made right in front of you. With A Town called Panic, even though they’re very simple characters, the craft is in how well they’ve animated them and how they’ve animated them in a way that’s still in keeping with the structures that they are, for instance a plastic toy whose feet are stuck to the ground together, and that’s how it can then run. I think there’s a charm in that.
It’s like the lo-fi version of Toy Story… I imagine that if a kid watches Toy Story, they might think it’s amazing, but with A Town called Panic, they might think: ‘I just need a video camera and I can make it.’
GJ: It’s true. Even though it’s incredibly clever and complex – there’s 200 models per character – you’re right, it’s something tangible; it’s in the room. There is something nice about knowing that something exists as well, certainly as things become more virtual, it balances it out. It’s like knowing the radio is live – there is something engaging about knowing it’s happening right there and then, rather than it being on the iPlayer. I’m not against all that – it’s great, we’ve used all that technology – but it’s about trying to find the most engaging way to tell a story. The filmmakers have invented their own world over there – loads of their own rules about everything: colour schemes, sounds and voices, everything. It’s very concentrated.
Is the version that’s being released in this country dubbed or subtitled?
NG: Subtitled. They asked us about that when we got involved and it feels like there’s so much in those voices that are shouting all the way through the film, and the fact that it’s in French actually adds to it. So it was a discussion that we all had but Optimum and everyone thought it should stay the same.
Also, by encouraging subtitled kids’ films, you might actually help to get children into foreign languages more…
NG: They’ll all know how to say ‘horse’ in French!
GJ: My kids have all seen it six times! They don’t understand what the words mean in French but they understand what’s going on – they absolutely love it.
I think your passion for the film is something that’s quite unusual in this day and age. When I went to the preview screening a month ago you were there to introduce it, and they gave away Cowboy hats and Indian head dresses to everyone in the audience…
GJ: Yes, that was lovely, I wish we could have stayed longer, it was really good fun. There were quite a lot of ways to promote the film that we came up with, with Optimum. In the past I’ve been used to it being the opposite, you have grand ideas and it’s like: ‘well, that guy wasn’t available, so we’re going to do this instead’ or ‘we didn’t have the money for that, so we’ve scaled it all down to this’… It hasn’t been like that at all – not that it needs a tremendous budget or anything, but we had inventive and funny ideas. It’s got an ambition that film, even though it’s got tiny figures, it’s got a bombastic approach: ‘Right! Now we’re going to go to the Arctic! Now we’re underwater and they’ve stolen the walls!’ We thought that somehow that spirit should be in the ideas we have for marketing the film. So, they range from daft things like making 2D glasses – so that people feel like they’re getting their money’s worth after all this 3D business – through to all sorts of other things that felt like they would have been made by the characters in the film.
Did you have many discussions with the filmmakers?
GJ: No, the main thing was just to discuss with them that they were OK with us coming on board and it turns out we were both fans of each other, so that worked out!
NG: We showed the film at Somerset House on a double bill with Team America – we introduced it there also, videoed it and sent it to the filmmakers so they got an idea of what the screening was like.
Was the crowd suitably uproarious?
NG: We got them to give a big cheer! It was great…
Isn’t what you’re doing with this film – British filmmakers promoting European cinema – part of the remit of the UK Film Council?
NG: We are the UK Film Council! (laughs)
GJ: …all that’s left!
As the UK Film Council is being curtailed, do you think it’s now going to be…
NG: Tongs Council?
…not necessarily just you guys, but maybe any successful British filmmakers who are keen about certain subjects, like Guy Ritchie or Michael Winterbottom. Without a government-supported scheme anymore, is it going to be down to British filmmakers to promote films similar to theirs?
GJ: I’d never even thought of that. Seriously, I don’t know…
It does almost feel like you’re starting that process off with this film, however unintentionally.
GJ: This film is a bit of a one-off though, it doesn’t feel like this could catch on because it’s such an odd and unique film. You know how Quentin Tarantino helped with all the fighting films from the Far East, you can see him bringing all those films to everyone’s attention. This is the only one of its kind. It’s not like there are lots of stop-frame toy movies, but our ambitions…
NG: …have just changed! (laughs)
GJ: It is interesting how you get films out there and how people come on board to help. I suppose there are no rules really. I hadn’t thought of it past this, though.
You don’t think then that after this film, you might watch other obscure movies and want to help them get released in the UK?
GJ: The Horse Whispers of film? That doesn’t appeal to me at all really.
NG: Supporting films is brilliant and promoting this one is a joy but what we want to be doing is making films and hopefully having everyone support us.
GJ: Hopefully we’ll be getting support in Belgium!
How’s the animated project that you’re working on going?
GJ: It’s early days and it’s not confirmed yet, but we are putting it all together and it’s very interesting. It’s a new area, even though we’ve worked with animation in commercials, music videos and that sort of stuff. To do a full feature film’s a new thing for us, and also trying to find the language and the style. This is where we’re at, at the moment. It’s experiment time, but it’s going well.
A podcast of Alex Fitch’s interview with Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith is available at Panel Borders.
With most screenings just a couple of Bloomsbury streets apart, there was a friendly, community atmosphere at the seventh edition of the London International Animation Festival (LIAF): a rarity among such a frenetic, sprawling city. Over the course of 10 days, audience members began to assume familiar faces, and collective interest in the festival competition became palpable, as festival-goers scribbled down their thoughts on questionnaires, filing them into voting boxes. The last say might have gone to the professional judging panel but the audience vote was an important and lively part of the festival, as revealed by the final night’s packed-out Best of the Fest screenings. The announcement of the best film in the competition – Anita Killi’s Angry Man – was greeted with an ardent ‘Yes!’ from one festival-goer. Such a strong reaction is not surprising since choosing the winning film apparently caused some contention between the official judges. A recipient of various international awards, Angry Man portrays domestic abuse through the confused and scared eyes of a young boy. This ethereal, fairy tale work with beautiful paper cut-outs presented an interesting contrast between subject matter and form but was not necessarily a clear winner. The quality of the films at this year’s LIAF was so high and the content and form of work so varied that the selection of the Best of the Fest in some ways felt rather arbitrary.
Still, these final screenings did provide a nice snapshot of what the festival has to offer: from a dark tale of death in the audience’s choice – Zbigniev’s Cupboard – to witty physical comedy in the Chomet-like Runaway; from works that take human dialogue as their starting point – David Shrigley’s Pringle of Scotland and Joseph Pierce’s A Family Portrait – to films that rejoiced in purely abstract imagery. My personal favourite from Best of the Fest, Mathieu Labaye’s Orgesticulanismus, combined both aspects. Opening with a selection of family photographs as a narrator discusses his paralysis, the film used animation to explore the idea of movement and what it means to human beings when physical capability is removed. Small, lonely computer-animated figures repeated the same minute movements over and over again, trapped in an overwhelming black space: a woman swept leaves; a man started up a lawn mower; a lady tossed a pancake. Then the movement suddenly expanded. A single figure became a mass of different dancing, jerky, gyrating bodies before altering into organic, bacteria-like shapes. The film provided a visually absorbing meditation on the difference between human beings’ experiences and interactions between their minds and physical bodies.
Purely abstract work was strong throughout the competition categories and, in addition to its own very fine showcase, this year’s ‘technique focus’ screening presented some lovely examples. All the films used ‘direct to film’ techniques, from scratching and painting on celluloid to the application of objects onto film – fake tattoo transfers in Mike Maryniuk’s Tattoo Step and an eerie selection of moth wings in a soundtrack-less screening of Stan Brakhage’s seminal 1963 film, Mothlight. The screening was attended by special guest filmmaker Steven Woloshen, who presented a selection of his films: spectacularly paced painted and scratched compositions, following in the tradition of Norman McLaren and Len Lye, set to the plink plonk of uplifting jazz and, in one case, the throbbing pulse of Hendrix guitar.
The Woloshen retrospective was one of several special events organised in addition to the competition screenings. Many of these took place in the Horse Hospital, an independent, progressive arts venue and apt setting for more offbeat offerings, like the Late Night Bizarre programme of unclassifiable oddities and the special studio focus on the cutting-edge work of Parisian animation studio Autour de minuit. Daring in their animation style and subject matter, Autour de minuit animators have produced some extraordinarily breathtaking animation (even if on occasion the content did not feel quite as rigorously considered). Hendrick Dusollier’s Obras took the viewer through the process of urbanisation – a continual cycle of destroying and reconstructing – exploring city structures and landscapes through head-scratching angles and flight-simulator swerves. Most of the works were entirely computer-generated but Guilherme Marondes’s Tyger, inspired by William Blake’s poem, combined techniques by following a hand-operated puppet tiger through a night-time city, lighting up its path with illuminated foliage. It was great to see a cohesive portfolio from a single production house presented together. In a similarly concentrated focus, over the festival’s final weekend, a whole afternoon was devoted to rare 1920s Felix the Cat films. Presented by enthusiast and walking Felix encyclopedia Colin Cowes, the screening provided a fantastic immersion into the world of this immensely characterful, plucky black and white cat. The perfect slapstick rhythm and pre-occupations of jazz-era America played out beautifully and audience members could not help but leave with smiles on their faces.
That LIAF can move so seamlessly from ground-breaking, uncompromising CGI to 9.5mm home-entertainment Felix the Cat films is testament to its strength as a festival. It brings attention to unique and unusual animation, regardless of categorisation. Its breadth can make choosing between competition films feel almost impossible but it makes for a far more interesting festival experience. LIAF revels in the innovative possibilities of animation and, from all the lively debate in evidence, it clearly attracts an audience that strongly analyses and cares passionately about the art form.
Piney Gir was born in a Thunderstorm in the middle of May in Kansas City, Kansas. It was tornado season, the sky was green and angry; in a bath of blood out she popped.
Piney grew up in isolation in the American Midwest; this isolation was reinforced by her strict religious upbringing. She went to a special Christian school (no Darwin, no sex education) and attended church four times a week; no sinful TV, no secular music… This left a lot to young Piney’s imagination, which flourished to fill in all the gaps.
Piney always used to say, ‘You can take the girl out of Kansas, but you can’t take the Kansas out of the girl… because country music is just in you when you come from the American Midwest. It’s not ‘cool’ to like country, teenagers wouldn’t be caught dead listening to it, but it’s everywhere in every gas station and grocery store. When I left Kansas I realised I missed the country twang. It reminds me of home and when I feel homesick I write a country song.’
I must sound like the twee-est person in the world but I genuinely love uplifting films that are colourful and hopeful. I guess that’s why a lot of my picks are cartoons and musicals. I could probably make a list of 10 Disney films and be done with it, but I’m going to give it a little more thought… I hope you like my choices!
1. Funny Face (1957)
This film is brilliant on so many levels, first of all the clothes are amazing… it makes a girl wonder why they don’t make clothes that look like this anymore, so elegant yet playful, fashion was fun. It’s a musical (I love musicals)! Audrey Hepburn is a beatnik in it (I love beatniks)! And it’s romantic, set in Paris. I watch this film again and again.
2. The Little Mermaid (1989)
I am a big fan of this film, I love the fact that half the film is set underwater and the fish are colourful and the sea witch really is frightening. I love to sing and find the fact the whole film is about Ariel’s voice really poignant personally. Imagine, having to trade your voice for the boy you love, what a conundrum!
3. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
I must have seen this film 30 times; it’s a Tim Burton film and has his whimsical sense of humour with that dark twisted edge to it. I think this film has greatly influenced me as a person. I can’t help but wonder if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I think good.
4. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
OK, I have a lot in common with Dorothy (namely a matching pair of shoes) but also the fact we’re from Kansas, we have both had little black dogs and wear a lot of gingham. This film is also really frightening with the flying monkeys and trees that throw things, but what really strikes a chord with me is her sense of self. She discovers she has everything she needs within her. That’s a good message. I watch this when I’m feeling a little homesick.
5. Up (2009)
This movie is brilliant and heartbreaking but also a great adventure, following this fellow on a quest to South America with a misfit boy scout and talking dog. I loved it. See it. You will cry though.
6. Amelie (2001)
I love this playful film and the sense of colour and texture in the way it looks. Amelie seems like someone I’d hang out with if I lived in Paris and I love the way she helps people, her practical jokes and the elaborate scavenger hunt she stages. Jean-Pierre Jeunet highlights the beauty in mundane things, which I try to remember to do every day.
7. Fantastic Mister Fox (2009)
I adore every Wes Anderson film I’ve ever seen, but this one is my favourite. The animation is incredible, but also I can relate to Mr Fox’s conundrum, it’s as if he doesn’t really want to grow up and if he just does ‘one more raid’ he can capture the thrill of adventure again, instead of having to relinquish his sense of fun to feel like a responsible adult. I’m always seizing the moment even when maybe I shouldn’t, it’s as if this film was made for me.
8. O Brother Where Art Thou (2000)
The Coen Brothers make films I love, and this reworking of Homer’s Odyssey is fantastic. The acting is brilliant but also the soundtrack changed the way that people thought of bluegrass and country music. I actually think this film is responsible for opening people’s mind to that new folk kind of sound.
9. Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)
This film is dazzling, for a start it doesn’t look like any other film I’ve seen, it treads the line between what you see and what you imagine when you read the comic books (yes, I’m one of those rare girls who read comics). The whole concept of battling the exes is not just tongue-in-cheek but metaphorically true. See it (but I’d say read it first!)
10. Pecker (1998)
I love John Waters’s oddball humour and I like how this story is set in Baltimore of all places. I want to be in Pecker’s family, it’s such a cast of eccentrics from Mee Maw who talks to the Virgin Mary to his dad who despises the town strippers. I find this a really cute, feel-good kind of film. Christina Ricci is adorable in it too.
* Can 9-5 get honourable mention? I am such a huge fan of Dolly Parton and I have my own day job conundrums (sadly being a Piney doesn’t pay all the bills). This film lives out all kinds of boss-killing fantasies and is a hopeful film for anyone trapped in a job they don’t want to be doing.
** OH and Party Girl, starring Parker Posey as a wild librarian? I loved that film; it inspired me to wear orange platform sneakers.
We are looking forward to the London International Animation Festival (LIAF), which returns for the 7th time with an exciting, intriguing, inspiring, sometimes controversial, thoroughly comprehensive collection of animation from 27 August to 5 September. This is the UK’s largest festival of its kind in the UK, screening the best, new animation from every corner of the world to London audiences with 250 films, most of them British premieres, represented in a series of amazing programmes and satellite events.
With films from 30 countries LIAF will proudly showcase the whole spectrum of creative animation, showing that animation is so much more than slick blockbusters and special effects. As well as 9 competitive programmes of the best, recently released animated shorts from every corner of the globe there are many especially curated sessions such as the technique focus (scratch animation), Felix the Cat, the Autour de Minuit (France) showcase, the British panorama, the best of Siggraph Festival, animated documentaries, guests, Q and A’s and seminars.
The whole week wraps up with the Best of the Festival on Sunday night with a collection of films chosen by panels of judges and audience votes.
The full programme is available online at the LIAF website. Tickets available from the Renoir box-office in early August.
Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is based on a script written by Jacques Tati, which he had kept in a drawer until his death in 1982. It tells the story of a past-his-prime stage performer, who is forced to accept questionable engagements in dubious venues in order to make a living. When he performs in a remote Scottish village, he meets little girl Alice, who is convinced that his tricks are truly the result of magic, and she follows him to Edinburgh. Delighted by her enthusiasm for his art, he rewards her by ‘conjuring up’ ever more generous presents, ultimately allowing himself to be bankrupted by the constant giving. But while The Illusionist is stunning to look at, it is a little more unkempt when it comes to the story it wants to tell and the story that’s behind this quite remarkable pairing of Tati and Chomet.
Pamela Jahn took part in a round table interview with Sylvain Chomet at the Berlin Film Festival in February, where the film had its world premiere before opening the Edinburgh Film Festival in June.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got hold of the script, because there seems to be some controversy over it.
Sylvain Chomet: No, there has been no controversy at all, but some very bad journalism was done in the UK. When I was working on Belleville Rendezvous I contacted Jacques Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatisheff, to seek permission to use a segment of Jour de Fête in the film. To get her authorisation we showed her the material, small clips we had ready at the time and the script of Belleville Rendez-Vous, and she really liked it. All this rang a bell, and she remembered she had this script from her father. She knew that it was connected to her, because it is obvious that it is a letter from a father to his daughter. Tati wrote the script over quite a long period, three or four years, and Sophie was 13 when he started working on it, so he saw her change into a woman. She gave us permission to use the clip from Jour de Fête and she mentioned the script, but that was it. She died shortly after our conversation and so, unfortunately, we never met her. One day I contacted the estate of Jacques Tati, Jerome Deschamps and Mikall Micheff at Les Films de Mon Oncle, and they passed me the script – and I fell in love with it. I really loved the simplicity of the story and this very strong, beautiful relationship between father and daughter. It also felt very close to my relationship with my own daughter, who was five years old when we started the film and who is now 17. We bought the rights to make the film and Deschamps and Micheff were both very happy with it, so there is no controversy.
But as you mentioned before, there has been some discussion in the media about the script and your film.
I received a letter from a man called Richard MacDonald, who said he was the grandson of Jacques Tati. He told me the story that Tati had met someone at the Lido in Paris during the war and she became pregnant with a little girl. But Tati was married at the time, and he didn’t want to take responsibility. After I received this letter I decided to meet with this man, because I was interested in the details of this story. But when we met he became very aggressive and accused me of provocation and all that, and I said: ‘Look, if you are telling such a strong, emotional story about a father and a daughter you have to live with your daughter, you have to experience that. And that’s why I don’t see any reason why this script should have been dedicated to this girl he never lived with and who he didn’t see growing up.’ So I told him that if he had any problem with that, he should go speak to the estate of Jacques Tati. And he went off and I never saw him again. Then one day, there was this article in The Guardian saying all these terrible things about the film by a person who had never actually seen it.
[Note from the editors: Vanessa Thorpe at The Guardian quotes Tati’s grandson, Richard McDonald, as saying: ‘The sabotaging of Tati’s original L’illusionniste script, without recognising his troubled intentions, so that it resembles little more than a grotesque, eclectic, nostalgic homage to its author is the most disrespectful act.’]
Was there a moment when you worried about adapting this script because of the pressure of using the work of a distinguished director like Tati to make your own film?
There were two driving forces for me. One was Sophie, his daughter, but not because the script was all about her, rather because the story is about this father figure who is seeing this girl growing up like his daughter and who is trying to tell her something about life. When I read the script for the first time, I thought I should do something with it because otherwise it would have not gone anywhere, because Sophie Taticheff didn’t want this to be filmed in live action. She didn’t want somebody else to play her dad’s role in the film. And the other thing that was very important to me was that it was a very different film compared to Jacques Tati’s other work. I think if he had made the film at the time his career would have taken a completely different direction. The film takes place over a long period of time and in many different locations, and there’s a lot of travelling, which is all very unusual for Tati. So for that reason, because it wasn’t another Monsieur Hulot, I thought it would be really nice to do it. And the challenge for me was to make the script and all the emotion that’s in it work in animation.
Do you think Tati would have approved of an animated film?
I don’t know. I knew he was fascinated by drawings, and I think he was quite frustrated that he couldn’t draw himself. And in his films there is always a strong connection to childhood. If you look at the end of Play Time, for example, the world he describes in the film is very ugly. It’s sad, it’s grey, it’s uniform, almost robot-like. But at the end, you have this beautiful scene with the carousel of cars and it all becomes very childish. I think that is a beautiful way of looking at life. He’s got a lot of this in his films, like the relationship with the little boy in Mon Oncle. That’s why for me the ending in The Illusionist is not sad. It’s an evolution, I’d say. Father and daughter are both going their separate ways. She’s young, from a different generation, so she’s going to live her own life within her own culture. And he is an old man, but he’s also going to carry on and do something else. And I think it’s actually very redemptive when they meet in the end. But to answer your question, I don’t even know if I would have wanted to meet Tati to get his approval. Because most of the time when you have heroes like that it’s actually better not to meet them!
Why did you decide to include a live action scene with Tati in the film again, as you did in Belleville Rendezvous?
I felt I needed to put it in there so he could have a little look into the film. So you have the animated Tati and then you have the real Tati, like a mirror, and they look at each other and say ‘Do you want to stay?’, but they say ‘no, no, no’ and they leave. I think he needed to be there, if only for a moment.
The film is very different to your previous work.
Yes, exactly. Belleville Rendezvous went extremely well and a lot of people came to me and said: ‘Oh, are you going to make another one like this, this was really nice’, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something completely different. And here was the challenge, because this script wasn’t made for animation, it was made for live action, but I was convinced that it could work. I read the script when I was on the train to Cannes. The film is a voyage also, and I felt that it had something to do with the gentle balance of the train. I think I needed Jacques Tati to help me be a bit simpler in the way I use the camera and things like this. But that said, it was amazingly difficult, because nothing is more complicated than trying to do things very simply, and to make them look simple.
Was it also a challenge, or rather an attraction, for you to do something in 2D at a time when everything is going 3D?
Yes, but this was also a problem for us, because most of the really good animators are into 3D at the moment. And a 2D animator needs to know so many more things than 3D animators, because 3D basically means you have puppets without the strings, it’s a virtual world, so you have to be good in volumes and sketches and make them move. But a 2D animator is someone who can draw ‘classically’, who can draw fast, and someone who knows anatomy. You need to know the motion of animals and humans to make it work, and you need to know how to act as well.
How do you think children see your films?
I’ve never aimed my films at children as the main audience. I think you restrict yourself when you do that. But on the other hand, I was very surprised that a lot of kids actually watched Belleville Rendezvous, and they all loved it. My own daughter, for example, was never forced to watch the film. She actually has a lot of Pixar movies at home. But one day she saw the DVD and asked if she could watch it and she loved it too. For kids, I think, it’s all real… A lot of people are still fascinated when they see animation. It’s magic.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews