Sunday, September 19, 2010

Animated Gems

Murder on the Orient Express

Big Wednesday
Jane Eyre
The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari

Animator, writer, ASIFA-East executive board member, and teacher Rich Gorey and I have been close friends for over ten years. When we meet up for lunch, Rich never fails to ask me what animated films I've recently seen that knocked my socks off. Much to his dismay, I don't always wear socks, nor do I usually have a ready answer for this question. As I've recently posted, these days I'm getting my kicks from a whole host of film. In the last two weeks I've watched the breathtaking German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari (1920), the under-appreciated surfer epic Big Wednesday (1978), Sidney Lumet's lush Murder on the Orient Express (1974), with a performance by Albert Finney that was simply sublime, and the gothic wonder of Robert Stevenson's Jane Eyre (1943). In light of such stimulating viewing, I can't say that I always have animation as my go-to source for creative inspiration.

But with teaching season starting up again I'm reminded of a whole host of animated gems that I keep returning to in hopes to inspire my students. Of course, the result of which is always that I'm inspired anew. I remember Howard Beckerman telling me that he's played Yellow Submarine so many times that he'll often train his eyes on one corner of the screen, which can reveal new delights in a film you already know inside-out.

I haven't been teaching any where nearly as long as Howard, so I can't say I'm up to corner-viewing yet, but I have very much enjoyed revisiting certain films again and again through in-class screenings. A cornerstone of my film selection is anything by Paul Fierlinger. The artistry, storytelling, and honesty in such Fierlinger films such as Still Life With Animated Dogs and A Room Nearby (pictured below) cannot be topped. There's something so personal about his work. It's as if the animation is unspooling in real time, keeping pace with his feelings and thoughts.

Another short that I always play is the more recent John and Karen by Matthew Walker. I can't think of a short animated film in recent memory that has charmed me more. The animation acting is as subtle as it is hilarious. The little Penguin can cut down the giant Polar Bear with a squint of her eye, and the Polar Bear (in turn) can barely make eye contact with her.

As animation professors we die a little inside every time a student wants to animate a space battle or a dragon fight instead of trying to tackle an intimate character study such as John and Karen. Some of us take a while to realize that everyday life is full of meaty stories and moments that could inspire powerful animations. I'm 36 years old and hopefully I've finally learned that lesson myself.

Finally, there's John R. Dilworth's 2002 short The Mousochist, which I think is among his greatest works. The whole animation takes place in one scene, with only one camera move save for the climatic end. Yet, you're never bored with the simplicity (which even extends to the nearly stark-white backdrop), because the character animation is so engaging. Dilworth is such a talent that he can draw a difficult angle of a character screwing on its nose in back view, and make the action read as clear as if it was staged in a more obvious position facing camera. Along with Dilworth's economy of art is his "needle-drop" approach to music, which perfectly suits the changing moods of his character.
Time spent with such masterful animated shorts helps spotlight what amazing work can be done with so little, proving that effective animation is about a lot more than just fancy drawings. So, Rich Gorey, I suppose I can answer your question after all.


roconnor said...

I always tell students the story that Fierlinger told about animating "Still Life..."

There's a scene in which he walks across a landing and down a staircase.

When he looked at the animation is was off. The character did this strange sort of twist and kind of hobbled before descending.

Instead of re-doing the scene (pain in the neck), he simply added a pile of debris to the background. Now it looks like he's walking around something and gives great personality to the scene.

His "Drawn From Memory" is still the apex for me. The sequence with the mile marker painter is one of the greatest pieces of film you will ever see.

I think it's also important to show students work with newer tools that are up there with the classic drawn pieces. David OReilly's cat and mouse are good for that.

Elliot Cowan said...

That mouse film of Johns would be terrific at half the length, I think.

David B. Levy said...

I respectfully disagree, Elliot. I think the build up is half the point of John's film. You need that time to add up to build to the conclusion.

I think you pulled off a similar time-based plot in your film The Thing in the Distance, no? The dread builds up in that film and you need a certain length of time to give it that power. I don't think you would have had the nice result you achieved at half that length.

Michael Sporn said...

Boy, do I disagree with you, Eliot. I thnik John's timing in that film is impeccable. But, then I love a slower pace to my films. Everything seems so rushed in movies today. You kids!

David B. Levy said...

Another example I can think of is Richard Condie's Getting Started. That's a film about procrastination. Another idea that requires a nice build up of time to execute properly. I wouldn't say that Getting Started should be half its length. I think each film needs the time it needs, you know...

Daniel said...

Great films. Hadn't seen any of them. Boy do I have some catching up to do. There's not enough time in the day! Maybe that's why us kids like faster pacing eh Michael, nudge nudge, wink, wink.

Elliot Cowan said...

Well I tell you what.
I've just watched it again (coincidentally, I'd had a couple of my students watch it earlier in the day).
I'm going to slightly revise my comment.
The gags are timed beautifully, as you would expect, but I don't feel there's any urgency to the mouses desire to eat the cheese or any tension in trying to conquer the mousetrap.

I also think it should have been a parakeet trying to eat a rhinos cheese danish.