Watch: An Animated Journey Through the 2005 London Underground Suicide Bombings

Watch: An Animated Journey Through the 2005 London Underground Suicide Bombings

Whether they choose to accept it or not, inhabitants of large cities are confronted daily with the possibility of bombings like those in the London Underground at King’s Cross on July 7, 2005, grippingly and frighteningly brought to life in Georgina Ferguson’s and Eduarda Lima’s beautiful animation ‘Seven Seven.’ The sad reality, and one which this film works against, is that unless you experience it firsthand, such an event will often have little meaning for you–it registers as a news item, albeit a frightening one, with abstracts: x dead, x injured, x amount of damage. ‘Seven Seven,’ though, marks Ferguson first public description of the event, and how she escaped the wreckage of the train. The piece uses muted colors, perfect to show how the suicide bombings disrupted, indeed shattered an everyday commute, which began like many other commutes–and how the event shaped the lives of the people who survived them. Few details are used for the film’s figures, and yet the events are rendered with unquestionable precision, in a sense. Think, as you watch this piece, how you would feel if this happened to you–without the protection of newsprint, which could make a beheading sound not much more important than a foul in a baseball game, the effect could be devastating, lasting a million times as long as the minute length of the explosion itself. 

Watch: What If RATATOUILLE Met THE WOLF OF WALL STREET? Two Trailers, Merged

Watch: What If RATATOUILLE Met THE WOLF OF WALL STREET? Two Trailers, Merged

So here’s the thing: the most resounding criticism of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was that its rambunctious, excessive, extreme, vulgar manner was not, in fact, satire but an endorsement, and in fact a glorification, of Wall Streeters’ behavior, without filter, without restraint, loud, in your face, and utterly unapologetic. No one made similar accusations of Ratatouille, for a number of reasons. It was a cartoon, so its viewers knew what to expect. Its storyline was not the sort of storyline that attracts such rage. Oh, and of course, lest I forget: Ratatouille was about RATS! In all other respects, though, the two films are quite similar. Could have been by the same director, in fact. And as if to prove it, we have Harrison Allen’s ingenious mix of the two films, right here. Once you watch this, you’ll wonder how you could have ever thought the films were all that different…

All Truffaut Fans Should Watch This French Animated Short About DAY FOR NIGHT

All Truffaut Fans Should Watch This French Animated Short About DAY FOR NIGHT

La nuit américaine d’Angélique, or Angelique’s Day for Night, is, on one level, a story about a young girl’s experience of watching Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night at a young age and fantasizing about being, like Nathalie Baye in the film, a script supervisor. As a child, she romanticized the job, imagining, for instance, how wonderful it would be to place "messages," or revised script pages, under hotel guests’ doors. As she grows up, of course, she realizes that the job is too secondary and would not be nearly as exciting as it might have seemed to her as a child. Adult reflection reveals other things to Angelique that she was not conscious of as a child–most significantly that the act of seeing, when watching a film, is often more important than what you’re seeing. You might watch, as in Day for Night, implied sex on a screen, but the way the sex is represented is more important. Angelique also has significant revelations about the changing nature of her relationship with her father, with whom she saw the movie for the first time, during a period when he was divorcing her mother. As if to highlight the elegance of this small, bittersweet tale, directors Pierre-Emmanuel Lyet and Joris Clerté present it in a simple, cut-out style–in some of the passages that instruct about the nature of film-watching, the short even resembles a puppet show, with heads and other symbols held at the ends of long sticks. Based on a graphic novel by Olivia Rosenthal, this feature, in just over six minutes, manages to impart some hard messages about growing up, albeit ameliorated by snowfall, present from the beginning of the story to the end.

On an Animation of a Sentence by Nathan Englander

On an Animation of a Sentence by Nathan Englander

It seems to me there are several different things going on
in Drew Christie‘s animation of a sentence from the Nathan Englander story “The Reader.”
The sentence itself runs as follows:

And with all these
headlights floating divided in his rearview mirror, Author can never tell which
belong to his reader, which pair is his beacon, a North Star, split, cast back,
guiding him on.

Your first question might be, if you haven’t seen one of
these brilliant animations literary magazine Electric Literature has been posting for years now, where’s the rest of the story? What are we to do with a single sentence?

That is the question the editors want you to ask: in
isolating these sentences in this way, they want to raise the estimation of the
individual sentence, to remind us of its part in making a story, or even a
novel. They have taken sentences from authors ranging from Jim Shepard to Amy
Hempel to Mary Gaitskill to A.M. Homes, paired them with animators, and
produced a remarkable series of small films.

The film built around this sentence is fairly simple on its
surface, a study in white lines against a black background, all vibrating
slightly, partly an effect of the medium, partly an effect of the sentence
itself (I’d like to think, though I’m probably wrong). A polar bear stands on top of a rising and descending moon-like (or maybe Earth-like) orb,
suggesting… what? The mythic importance of the polar bear for certain cultures? The isolation we all
sometimes feel, as if the world were a desert island and we were all standing
on it, waiting for a ship? The sense that we are all, somehow, crushed, that we
think we are free but we are actually stick beneath the paw of some enormous
unseen beast?

The rest of the small film, just under two minutes long, does
little to discourage or answer these sorts of questions, and in fact it expands
on them. As we move onto the open road, with a seldom-seen driver, all kinds of other concerns begin to
crowd in: what is the driver’s destination, or better put, what is the writer’s
destination? Should he be concerned that he is being followed—or, conversely,
should he be happy that he’s being followed, should he consider it part of the
natural way of things? Even the handmade scrawl of the sentence suggests a kind
of desperation, or nakedness—which, interestingly, contrasts with the sentence
itself, loaded with auspiciousness, with the ambiguity of the idea of a Reader,
or a Beacon, or an Author, or the mysteriousness of a light that directs
someone from behind. What the filmmaker has taken his cue from is the motion of
the sentence: the way it starts with a pair of long, establishing phrases and
then slowly breaks apart into smaller phrases which carry more symbolic weight
as the sentence progresses.

So: watch it again.

Max Winter is the Managing Editor of Press Play.

Animating with Live Action Footage

Animating with Live Action Footage


Animating with Live Action Footage

This is the final entry in a series of six essays based on the list of “250 Great Animated Short Films,” recently published here at Press Play.  These six essays are celebrating the inspiration behind some of these films; a complementary series of 20 essays on my cultural history blog, 21 Essays, focuses on common themes.

First, a memory which has been seared into my brain:  It’s 1973 and my cousin and I are alone in the house, obsessively playing and replaying the last minute of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” backwards on a cheap plastic portable turntable. And I’m getting seriously creeped out.

“I Am the Walrus” is weird enough played forward, with that strange background voice muttering “Bury me . . . bury my body” behind the chanting chorus.  But we were on a mission to uncover further secrets. With my index finger, I revolved the record backward on the turntable, attempting to maintain an even speed. Strange sounds issued from the speaker and we eagerly bent forward to decipher any cryptic clues that might emerge, searching for revelation though the noise and murk.

Play it backwards, slow it down, speed it up, bounce the needle, scrape it against the groove. This was Dada-esque work—an accidental premonition of the hip-hop sampling to come, or today’s mashups. But we weren’t in this for light entertainment. We were descending into darkness in a search for truth—and descents into that kind of darkness are memorably scary.

The Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky makes films that revive that decades-old feeling of dread in me.  In 1998, Tscherkassky took a strip of film from the Lumieres’ 1895 L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat into his darkroom to create L’Arrivee.  The following year, he took a strip of footage from Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1981) and created Outer Space.  Tscherkassky treats these films the way I once treated that Beatles album—he uses every darkroom technique at his disposal to plumb their depths.  I like to think that he’s scratching the same itch that drove our obsession with “I Am the Walrus.” His unsettling transformations suggest there may be another primal level of meaning behind film images… and that intimates the possibility of further primal levels of meaning behind all life experiences.  If we could only dare to peer a little deeper into the darkness, the meaning of it all might become clearer.

In his CinemaScope Trilogy (comprising the three shorts L’Arrivée, Outer Space, and Dream Work), Tscherkassky takes strips of found film and photo-chemically pushes their images to their limits… and then a bit further. At first, images appear relatively ordinary and familiar, but then they shift into a dream logic that may unexpectedly repeat or dissolve an action, sometimes overlaying image upon image and spraying them with strobe-like effects. In both Outer Space and Dream Work (2003), the processing reaches heights so extreme that it triggers on-screen cinematic freakouts, in which the films themselves tear loose from their sprockets and the images melt on the screen.

Each of the movies in Tscherkassky’s CinemaScope Trilogy is—in part—a film about film. In Dream Work, we even glimpse the filmmaker’s hands as he arranges the images.  This approach uncomfortably reveals a level of sadistic manipulation present in many standard Hollywood images, even as it ups the ante.  As Press Play editor Kevin B. Lee once commented, there’s not much difference between the aggression shown toward Daffy Duck in Chuck Jones’ classic Duck Amuck (1953) and the claustrophobic menace that envelopes Barbara Hershey’s character in Outer Space.

While Tscherkassky’s films create strange new contexts for conventional movie images, his fellow Austrian filmmaker Virgil Widrich has located his radical film experiments within classically-shaped narratives.  In assembling our list of 250 great animated short films, our panel selected Widrich’s rip-roaring Fast Film for inclusion. In just 14 minutes, Widrich folds, spinkles, and mutilates approximately 400 classic film clips, sending them careening through a generic Hollywood plot at warp speed. In this breathless context, traditional Hollywood filmmaking is simultaneously celebrated and revealed as banal. And, curiously, a new delirious beauty emerges from the cacophony.  It’s a film for move buffs to treasure.

Admittedly, I opened the door to including Tscherkassky’s and Widrich’s films when I ruled early in our selection process that Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (1952) and Pas de deux (1968) were eligible. Widely recognized as one of the great innovative geniuses of 20th century animation, Scottish-born Canadian animator Norman McLaren (1914-1987) forever muddied the waters that separated classic animation from live action film.  After mastering traditional animation in the 1930s and 1940s, McLaren began experimenting with hybrid forms that combined live action with animation and extreme photographic effects including variable speed photography, stop-frame techniques, negative images, and multiple exposures. A consummate artist, he used these techniques to create an astounding range of work, from the savage political satire of Neighbours to the hallucinatory beauty of his short ballet films.

McLaren is represented by three films on our list:  the fully-animated Begone Dull Care (1949) and the hybrids Neighbours and Pas de deux. Created for the National Film Board of Canada (one of the world’s great producers of animated short films), Pas de deux takes the techniques that McLaren used to disturbing effect in Neighbours and employs them instead to explore beauty in motion. Ballet dancers Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren perform a classic pas de deux captured on live action film, with their movements then transformed into something close to abstraction through McLaren’s lyric multiple exposures and stop-frame techniques. The result is a remarkable visual essay on human movement, exquisitely choreographed and vibrantly sensual.

Pas de deux by Norman McLaren, National Film Board of Canada

In creating our list of 250 great animated short films, our definition of animation was stretched near the breaking point by consideration of films like Dream Work, Fast Film, and Pas de deux.  I’m proud that they’re on the list, even as I admit a lingering doubt that the Tscherkassky and McLaren films legitimately qualify.  But even if the latter two films fall outside some definitions of classic animation, they surely reside on an exciting borderline frontier between animation and live action.  I tend to like the borderlines.  No one plays it safe on the frontiers.

Lee Price is the Director of Development at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (Philadelphia, PA). In addition, he writes a popular fundraising column for Public Libraries, writes a tourism/history blog called "Tour America's Treasures," and recently concluded two limited-duration blogs, "June and Art" and "Preserving a Family Collection."

Animating Horror

Animating Horror

This is the fifth of six essays based on the list of “250 Great Animated Short Films,” recently published here at Press Play.  These six essays are celebrating the inspiration behind some of these films; a complementary series of 20 essays on my cultural history blog, 21 Essays, focuses on common themes.

“Still I waited while time slowed… stopped… ebbed out.”
              The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)
              Directed by Ted Parmelee
              Story adaptation by Bill Scott and Fred Grable

It’s the witching hour…


The Sandman (1993), directed by Paul Berry.


The Tell-Tale Heart (1953), directed by Ted Parmelee.


Harpya (1979), directed by Raoul Servais.

The moon is out…


The Tell-Tale Heart (1953), directed by Ted Parmelee.


The Sandman (1993), directed by Paul Berry.

A lonely house at night…


The Tell-Tale Heart (1953), directed by Ted Parmelee.


Harpya (1979), directed by Raoul Servais.


The Sandman (1993), directed by Paul Berry.

Inside, there’s a staircase…


The Tell-Tale Heart (1953), directed by Ted Parmelee.


Harpya (1979), directed by Raoul Servais.


The Sandman (1993), directed by Paul Berry.

Shadows lengthen and fall…


Harpya (1979), directed by Raoul Servais.


The Tell-Tale Heart (1953), directed by Ted Parmelee.


The Sandman (1993), directed by Paul Berry.

There are many remarkable images of nightmarish horror on our list of 250 great animated short films.  The images in this essay are drawn from three particular films that succeed in merging expressionist and surreal nightmare images with a traditional horror narrative—the type of tale that’s told around a campfire as the sun sets and the shadows lengthen.

The Tell-Tale Heart (1953), directed by Ted Parmelee

Harpya (1979), directed by Raoul Servais

The Sandman (1991), directed by Paul Berry

Happy Halloween!

Lee Price is the Director of Development at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (Philadelphia, PA). In addition, he writes a popular fundraising column for Public Libraries, writes a tourism/history blog called "Tour America's Treasures," and recently concluded two limited-duration blogs, "June and Art" and "Preserving a Family Collection."

Animating Without a Narrative: On the Work of Adam Beckett and Lillian Schwartz

Animating Without a Narrative: On the Work of Adam Beckett and Lillian Schwartz

This is the fourth of six essays based on the list of “250 Great Animated Short Films,” recently published here at Press Play.  These six essays are celebrating the inspiration behind some of these films; a complementary series of 20 essays on Lee Price’s cultural history blog, 21 Essays, focuses on common themes.

Adam Beckett was an animator and visual effects artist who attended the California Institute of the Arts during the 1970s, where he learned from and studied alongside important members of the LA experimental animation scene. Lillian Schwartz is a pioneer in the field of computer art who worked out of Bell Labs during the 1970s, then going on to develop tools for computer-aided analysis of art, particularly finding inspiration in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. Each of these relatively unknown animators is represented by one work on the “250 Great Animated Short Films” list: Heavy-Light (1973) for Beckett and Pixillation (1970) for Schwartz.

nullThe first time I saw an Adam Beckett film I was repulsed. What started as a structured sketch, in which quadrilaterals were progressively birthing more quadrilaterals, erupted into blobs of pastels and indiscreetly organic colors stretching and consuming each other in an orgy of what looked like sexy intestines. This was set to some of the most half-assed and unsystematic free jazz ululation I could imagine. It disgusted me at the second screening too; in my recreational pursuits, I was after a more refined sense of personal clarity than Sausage City could provide. This was indiscreet, self-indulgent, and haphazard.

Four years later, I see the films of Adam Beckett as fitting all of these descriptions, but importantly I also find them to be miraculous excursions into a world of sensations nearly separate from our own. As such, each completed work by him is in some ways a major one, unified by a general aesthetic and a keen attention to the minutiae of evolution. Whether he will be considered marginal by the standards of marginal filmmakers is somewhat up in the air. Beckett has a certain notoriety as a historical footnote: he headed the rotoscoping team for Star Wars and died tragically in a house fire at twenty-nine, leaving six completed works and two major unfinished films behind. His films were successfully restored in 2006, and in 2012 a DVD release by the iotaCenter made his films available to a wider audience.

In the end stage of selecting the films for the list mentioned above, each of the seven panelists was asked to fill in one of the remaining slots, so Heavy-Light sits on the “250 Great Animated Shorts” list entirely by my own choice. The film is an outlier among Beckett’s work in terms of surface level aesthetics, resembling an HR Giger spinal motif (a la the creatures from the Alien films) run amok in the world of early computer animation (though accomplished entirely through optical printing), but it is consistent in terms of technique. Beckett largely worked with short animation loops that he altered through advanced optical printing methods. Optical printing involves rephotographing images run directly from a projector to a camera; in this case the technique was used to apply special effects such as changing color, zooming in on a particularly area of the scene, etc. Heavy-Light takes this sort of experimentation to the extreme, being based on numerous optical extrapolations from only thirteen drawings. The result, when coupled with Barry Schrader’s score, is an intensely creepy series of abstract progressions based in novel imagery.

Beckett's work is deceptive: it suggests doodling, but it actually grew out of intense dedication. Anyone who claims chance plays a significant role in a Jackson Pollock painting is dead wrong, but how much more self-evident would this be if Pollack had been an animator dedicated to forming works with the illusion of motion? To draw and redraw the incrementally different images of an animated work takes intense labor and talent. Lillian Schwartz’s Pixillation presents an opportunity to discuss the process of animating without narrative more acutely. As with Heavy-Light the work is not meant to represent real objects, however the systematic nature of the creative process behind it is more readily transparent.

nullThe role of a computer animator could be said to be that of an instructor showing a computer how to handle the material construction of an image. Pixillation juxtaposes painted images with computer-generated images, thus mixing the notion of an artist’s direct involvement with material and indirect rendering. Interestingly the painted images are captured in such a way that the effect is, from the perspective of the artist, seemingly more haphazard. Schwartz, rather than always filming a single image, allows the paint to flow at times, droplets intermingling in a predictable but naturally defined manner. This combination of traditional single-frame captures with jump cuts amounts to a unique effect. In contrast, every pixel of a computer-generated display must be chosen by an artist either manually or algorithmically.

The divide between the two animation techniques isn’t as simple as it might seem. Despite the vast textural difference between the painted and digital animations, they depict similar shapes, compositions and movements. The computer animation is meant to represent something, it just happens that that something is an abstract painting. And in turn the painted images attempt to represent the digitally generated images, forming an ouroboros of edited imagery, or a cycle that feeds into itself. The contrasts are equally exciting: Schwartz’s squares crudely etched into the paint are juxtaposed with the cold precision of the computer, while the free-flowing spontaneity of paint is mathematically reduced to a series of clashing polygons. The film is stunningly vibrant.

In Pixillation as in Heavy-Light, the novel nature of the imagery gives much of the pleasure. Both filmmakers worked with new and somewhat unfamiliar technology, yet in many ways the works were guided by the technology they were using. The strangeness and relative marginality of these filmmakers perhaps increases the understanding of the artistic process, whether the process is figurative or non-figurative, narrative or non-narrative, or even bounded by any rules at all.

Scott Bussey is a Pittsburgh resident and student at Duquesne University.

Animating Real Life

Animating Real Life


This is the third of six essays based on the list of “250 Great Animated Short Films” recently published here at Press Play.  These six essays are celebrating the inspiration behind some of these films; a complementary series of 20 essays on my cultural history blog, 21 Essays, focuses on common themes.

“… but I’m getting off the subject here, I’m afraid. This story is about Ryan.”

The subject of Ryan (2004) is real: animator Ryan Larkin (1943-2007). The story is drawn from real life, as pieced together from recorded interviews. The visual approach is . . . director Chris Landreth’s interpretation of real life.

But isn’t that the way it always works? The subject of James Boswell’s classic Life of Johnson is Samuel Johnson. The story is pieced together from transcripts and remembrances of conversations. The narrative is . . . Boswell’s interpretation of real life.  Granted, Boswell doesn’t show us Johnson and friends with exposed brain matter, bones, and tendons, yet he manages to find his own strategies to artfully shape the narrative of a life.

A 21st century Boswell might show a CGI-animated Johnson with his Tourette's Syndrome exaggerated, confusing and frightening people with his tics and sudden unexpected motions. Animating real life is a challenge—by nature, animation looks fictional, as opposed to, say, still photography or biography writing, art forms that can make claims to objectivity more easily.

With the dawn of live action film, realism preceded fantasy—Auguste and Louis Lumière precede Georges Méliès. But this process was reversed with the dawn of animated film. The history of animation began with fiction, fantasy, and artful exaggeration. While live action cinema took its first cues from still photography, animation looked to fiction, theater, and the paintings on the salon walls for inspiration.

Ten years after Émile Cohl and Segundo de Chomón made their seminal fantasy animations Fantasmagorie (1908) and The Electric Hotel (1908), pioneering animator Winsor McCay created what is widely regarded as the first attempt at animating documentary material, The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). McCay’s film aimed for a high degree of realism, documenting the sinking of the ship with the same technical fascination that James Cameron brought to Titanic (1997) nearly eighty years later. Two years in the making, McCay’s masterful drawing talents proved extraordinarily effective in depicting real-life horror and tragedy.

However, moving and innovative as it was, The Sinking of the Lusitania was in many ways a dead end, the last gasp of the newspaper graphic illustration tradition as it was superseded by the alleged realism of photojournalism. McCay returned to fantasy subjects for his final animated films and the idea of using animation to depict contemporary news stories was abandoned.

Animation became a fallback device that documentary filmmakers used as vignettes in longer films, mainly as a way of illustrating abstract ideas. Max and Dave Fleischer used limited animation in their early science shorts, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and The Einstein Theory of Relativity (both 1923). Disney combined live footage with animation in the feature-length documentary Victory Through Air Power (1943) and the Our Friend the Atom (1957), a TV episode broadcast on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. This approach wasn't exactly a dead end—animation continues to be a wonderful tool for use in educational and marketing films—but it rarely fully capitalized on the power inherent in animation.

Jump cut to 1973. In Frank Film, Frank and Caroline Mouris presented a radically new strategy for using animation to depict real life—or, more precisely, the real life of the mind. Just nine minutes in length, Frank Film playfully weaves three components, all interacting simultaneously. Two of the components are aural: one soundtrack is of Frank Mouris reflecting on his life and a second overlapping soundtrack has Frank Mouris releasing a monotone torrent of free-association (usually words or phrases starting with the letter ‘f’), riffing on ideas and words overheard on the first soundtrack. The visual component is a rapid-fire animated collage of photos loosely suggested by material on both soundtracks.

Bold and unapologetically weird, Frank Film paved new directions for animation to pursue in the quest for realism—but an internal psychological realism rather than the external realism of McCay’s The Sinking of the LusitaniaFrank Film is more like a cinematic equivalent to Molly’s soliloquy at the close of James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Decades before attention-deficit disorder entered the public consciousness, Frank Film presciently depicted modern life as an anxiety-inducing bombardment of images and sounds.

While Frank Film is entirely presented from inside Frank’s consciousness, Ryan (2004) uses animation to find universal themes in a cafeteria and a street in Montreal. The ostensible subject is animator Ryan Larkin but in some ways he’s just the MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s famous phrase for a peripheral plot device needed to launch the narrative). In Ryan, Landreth shows a world where everyone is damaged. Animation enables him to depict inner psychological damage in horrific physical ways. The film opens with Landreth showing the damages that life has wrought upon him, and it closes with allusions to his mother’s alcoholism (and a concluding intertitle dedicating the film to her). Every character that passes across the screen is graphically scarred with damage and pain. The compassion elicited by this vision of the world is nearly unbearable. Landreth’s surreal animation forces us to see the excruciating pain behind the real-life conversations that we hear on the soundtrack.

This unflinching brand of animated realism has got to be hard on the filmmakers. Belgian animator Mathieu Labaye took his father as a subject, resulting in a film that’s every bit as emotionally devastating and compassionate as Ryan. Orgesticulanismus (2008) opens with photos of Benoît Labaye, the director’s father, accompanied by a soundtrack of Benoît explaining his way of viewing the world. He has multiple sclerosis. “So when you are deprived of the ability to move, as I am, as many others are . . . in order to survive, you need to reinvent movement.”  In the animation that follows, the son imagines the mental landscape of his father as he dissects and reinvents movement. It’s an act of great love, by turns nightmarish and liberating.

Films like Frank Film, Ryan, and Orgesticulanismus are enlarging the boundaries of film art, suggesting that the boundaries that appeared to distinguish Émile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie from Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania may have been artificial all along. Animation’s natural strength in depiction of fantasy and abstraction may be precisely the element that can make it a powerful vehicle for animating real life.

Here’s a list of 11 films with intriguing realistic or documentary elements drawn from our list of 250 great animated short films. I’ve broadened my net to include films based on memoirs (Caroline Leaf’s The Street is based on the childhood memories of author Mordecai Richler), personal correspondence (Piotr Dumala’s Franz Kafka is based on the author’s correspondence), and interviews (Never Like the First Time!).

Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom (Ward Kimball & Charles A. Nichols, USA, 1953) 

Frank Film (Caroline & Frank Mouris, USA, 1973) 

Great (Isambard Kingdom Brunel) (Bob Godfrey, UK, 1975) 

The Street (Caroline Leaf, Canada, 1976) 

Powers of Ten (Charles & Ray Eames, USA, 1977) 

Franz Kafka (Piotr Dumala, Poland, 1992)

Black Soul / Âme noire (Martine Chartrand, Canada, 2001) 

Ryan (Chris Landreth, Canada, 2004)

The Danish Poet (Torill Kove, Norway/Canada, 2006) 

Never Like the First Time! / Aldrig som första gången! (Jonas Odell, Sweden, 2006) 

Orgesticulanismus (Mathieu Labaye, Belgium, 2008)

Lee Price is the Director of Development at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (Philadelphia, PA). In addition, he writes a popular fundraising column for Public Libraries, writes a tourism/history blog called "Tour America's Treasures," and recently concluded two limited-duration blogs, "June and Art" and "Preserving a Family Collection."

VIDEO: 100 Masters of Animated Short Films

VIDEO: 100 Masters of Animated Short Films

One of Keyframe’s most popular articles from last year was its illustrated guide to 100 masters of the animated short film. Film animation has thrived for over a century, but has never seen quite the level of recognition afforded to live-action feature filmmakers. And while there are plenty of outstanding animated features to celebrate, a list of those films wouldn’t boast nearly as much eye-popping diversity as those represented by this list. 

Working within the compressed parameters of the short form, some of the most unique talents in the field of animation delivered their inimitable visions with maximum potency in a matter of mere minutes or even seconds. This video attempts to demonstrate that spectrum of brilliance with as much brevity: 100 masters in nine minutes.  Of course such a video can’t possibly do full justice to each of these artists,  but watching this visual roll call of animation heroes proceed, what’s remarkable is how strong a visual impression just a few seconds of each artist can make. 

This video would not be possible without the work of some of my old friends at the IMDb Classic Film Board, who first created this list back in 2008. They have since followed up to produce a list of 250 Great Animated Short Films, which can serve as an excellent guide if you’re looking for specific titles to explore any of the artists featured in this video.

Special thanks to Lee Price, who organized the compilation of both lists, and is currently writing in-depth entries about the 250 Great Animated Short Films on his blog, as well as on Press Play.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Founding Editor and Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Follow him on Twitter.

Animating the Folktale: The Puppet Animation of Ivo Caprino

Animating the Folktale: The Puppet Animation of Ivo Caprino


The classical fairy tales and fables have served as fodder for many film animators, from the pioneer days of Lotte Reiniger and Walt Disney onward. One filmmaker almost exclusively associated with this type of material is Ivo Caprino (1920-2001), Norway’s most famous practitioner of the art of animation.

The closest parallel to Caprino is perhaps George Pal of Puppetoons fame. Like Pal, Caprino patented his own method of animation early in his career, basically replacing the marionette operator’s strings with a remote control device. However, Caprino’s work is very different from Pal’s, both in form and content. His world is more whimsical, like a storybook, with little of the gag-happiness of the classic Hollywood cartoons. This in no way should imply that Caprino was a dull fellow. In fact, he frequently displays a wicked sense of humor, a major factor in his films’ appeal to adults as well as children,

Caprino was also naturally gifted as a pure filmmaker, in this regard bearing comparison with the best of Disney: The choices in shots, blocking and editing (you know, mise en scène) are pretty much faultless. Even more significantly—and again like uncle Walt—Caprino was a master of personality animation, becoming ever more expert at giving his characters clearly individual traits in movement and behavior as well as visual appearance.

The appealing look of Caprino’s characters was originally given to them by his mother Ingeborg, an artist and writer of children’s books. These characters have an instantly recognizable ”Caprino look”: round blue eyes frequently in motion, perhaps together with a lifted eyebrow, conveying either wonder or slyness. To invoke yet another one of the American animators, Caprino’s use of the eyebrow in many ways recalls Chuck Jones’ famous mastery of this subtle ingredient of animation ”acting.”

Of the handful of films Caprino made between 1949 and 1975, only 5 short films were based on folktales, yet these made such an impression that they are instantly associated with his name. In the early 1950’s, Caprino had planned to make a feature film about Asbjørnsen and Moe, the writers and story collectors of the 19th century who were the parallel of the Brothers Grimm for the Germans. This projected feature was to combine live action of the two story collectors at work with puppet animation segments of the tales themselves. When he failed to get funding for the project, the idea had to be scrapped and Caprino made the short films instead. This was probably a blessing in disguise, as the later films certainly benefit from his increasingly sophisticated mastery of the medium.

If the tales of Asbjørnsen and Moe are less well known internationally than those of the Brothers Grimm, they have several characteristics in common. A noticeably Grimmian element recurring in those films is the punishment of bad guys and the rewarding of good guys, according to their behavior towards a mysterious stranger with magical powers. The hero of Veslefrikk med fela (Veslefrikk and His Fiddle, 1952), the first of the folktale shorts, gets three wishes.  The hero of Askeladden og de gode hjelperne (The Ash-Lad and the Good Helpers, 1961) gets a magic ship for use on land, in the sea, and in the air. And so it goes!

Also in common with the Grimms, these tales have their share of unabated cruelty and sadism. In this regard, Caprino is certainly different from Disney; he doesn’t shy away from bizarre dark humor. In Reve-enka (The Fox’s Widow, 1962), a fox encounters a very cute little rabbit who is singing and dancing merrily; the ”that’s good, that’s bad” routine that follows is almost vaudevillian:

”Why are you so happy?” asks the fox.

”I got married today,” replies the rabbit.

”That’s good.”

”Oh, not all that good, for my wife turned out to be a shrew.”

”That’s bad.”

”Oh, not all that bad, for she had a luxurious home.”

”That’s good.”

”Oh, not all that good, for the home burned down, and everything we owned with it.”

”That’s bad.”

”Oh, not all that bad, for the wife was burned as well!”

The rabbit laughs maniacally as he continues singing and dancing happily on his way. This, in a puppet film for children?

For the 150th Anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth, Caprino was commissioned to make a film of the master’s fairy tales. Caprino chose Den standhaftige tinnsoldat (The Steadfast Tin Soldier,1955), surely one of his finest achievements. Unlike what happens in the Disney versions of Andersen (The Little Mermaid and the rendition of the Tin Soldier in Fantasia 2000), there is no happy ending here.

Caprino’s biggest ”cult” favorite, at least in his native country, was Karius og Baktus (1954), from a children’s book intended to impress upon the youngsters the importance of dental hygiene. The two eponymous rascals are tiny trolls living in a boy’s mouth. They protest in vain when the lad, due to the pain they cause, finally sees a dentist who flushes them out in the horrific finale! This truly bizarre classic caused a lot of Norwegian youngsters to actually sympathize with the antagonists, two anarchistic embodiments of dental decay.

Caprino directed two full-length features. The first, Ugler i mosen (1959) was mainly a live-action family feature with puppet animation segments. A mostly innocuous affair, again certain elements have a somewhat more adult appeal, especially a nightmare sequence straight out of 1920s German expressionism. The second, which turned out to be his last film, was Flåklypa Grand Prix (Pinchcliffe Grand Prix, 1975). Caprino’s most ambitious work, this was over four years in the making. The long toil was rewarded; this was the most financially successful of any Norwegian feature film and one of the most critically acclaimed as well.

By that time, Caprino had gradually shifted from filming his puppets in ”live action” with the remote control technique to mostly using good old ”stop action”—one frame at a time. It might at first seem surprising that it wasn’t the other way around, since stop action obviously made the filming process take much longer. Caprino, however, had come to realize that stop action gave him much more control of the characters’ movements, enabling him to make them ”act” all the more subtly.

My favorite, and Caprino’s own fave as well, is his penultimate short, Sjuende far i huset (The Seventh Father of the House, 1966). Also based on on the old folktales, this one is quite different from the others in the series. Until the finale, there is little of the magic of the earlier films, and no boyish, resourceful hero. What we have here is rather a tall tale that makes satuire out of the subject of ”passing the buck.” Our protagonist is a weary traveler who comes to a house and humbly asks for lodging and food. The first man he meets refers him to his father, who refers him to his father, and so on, each one sadly commenting that ”the decision is not for me to make.” By the third or certainly the fourth father, the viewer begins thinking that now, at least, there simply cannot be an even older generation living in the house—but of course there is, and another, and another.

The challenge of this film was to make each succeeding father both believable, memorable and, not least, truly hilarious. Caprino commented later that the film worked for him personally as a sort of catharsis: The endless succession of buck-passers personified for him the bureaucrats he had struggled with through the years in getting funding for his films.

Though not exactly unknown internationally—in fact his cult seems to be growing—the films of Caprino can be difficult to get hold of. For the adventurous collector there is a great 8-disc set (PAL format, region 0), Caprinos eventyrlige verden (See for info, or check out amazon). All his major films are included, with lots of extras such as commercials and TV interviews. The films themselves have optional English soundtracks as well as subtitles.

Waldemar Hepstein is an artist for No Comprendo Press, a publisher of alternative comics. Hepstein's work has appeared in the magazine Fidus and is collected in albums like 'Snork'.