The evolution of cinema (especially fictional cinema) has been thoroughly shaped by theatre, especially in terms of performance and the structuring of episodes [stories/narratives]. After all, many of the first film directors and actors came from theatre. The animated film, on the other hand, is mostly rooted in fine arts, illustration and partly in puppet and shadow theatre.Ulo Pikkov, Animasophy
‘In animation, anything is possible. If you can imagine it, you can show it’. LIAF is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and this being pretty much our favourite mantra, it’s probably the 100th or 200th time we’ve said it. It’s true though. Animation, even the ‘orthodox’ animation as defined by animation scholar Paul Wells is often conceived of as a highly visual medium with the ‘look’ of the film, the characters and the props being designed primarily through that prism. That’s a good start…. in fact, that’s a GREAT start.
Writing in his 1966 book The Savage Mind, French cultural philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss said that “the ultimate goal of human science [is] not to constitute, but to dissolve man.” In his astonishing book Modern Times, Modern Places: Life & Art in the 20th Century Australian born, British based art and social commentator extraordinaire Peter Conrad responded to Levi-Strauss’ comment saying that it amounted to the “betrayal of his own species” (1999). Conrad might be right in almost every context except animation. Just what Levi-Strauss meant by the somewhat curious phrase ‘human science’ remains unconfirmed, although much commented upon. Perhaps he was talking about something that impacts upon the enduringly interpretable human soul rather than the more rigidly defined and concisely described human body…. setting aside, for the moment, which side of that line the ‘mind’ might sit.
In animated film after animated film after animated film, the impact of the often hyper-imagined characters is diminished by a near inexplicable reluctance on the part of the artist(s) to embrace the awesome capacity of animation to dynamically introduce their character into the fabric of their film and into the consciousness of the audience at the very moment the audience is settling into the film, and in the process lowering all their cognitive barriers to try and attune themselves to the little universe being unfurled before them. This is not just a lost opportunity, and with apologies to Conrad, it amounts to a betrayal of our artform.
There’s an old saying…. you only get one chance to make a first impression. We all curate certain elements of our own character (be those elements real, imagined, manufactured or contrived) to fit important moments in our lives. The job interview or meeting a new partner’s parent(s) for the first time spring readily to mind as moments that most of us put some thought into bringing forth the best versions of ourselves, or at least a version that we think will make the impression we want to make. The version of you that sits down in front of the sceptical interviewer or the jaded new in-law-to-be isn’t (hopefully) false per se but consists of a certain mix of the key ingredients of you that you think will best get the job done. Pull off a great first impression and you are stockpiling a little bit of grace in the event of a stumble a bit further down the path. Burn or even waste that same moment and you have just set yourself a mountain to climb no matter how much charm, joie-de-vie and sartorial elegance you roll out.
The lead character in any given animated film carries this burden. They are the product of lots of thought, amazing design and arrive ready (or not) for the adventure their film is throwing them into.
Upon their shoulders rests a disproportionate obligation to help the audience navigate the imaginative narrative highways and byways of the film. That character has arrived on set ready to give their all for the sake of the story. There’s a lot to getting this dead right though.
To make the very best first impression the animator has to know what their main character’s job is; sometimes harder to fathom than many might think. Any live theatre actor will tell you that ‘the entrance’ is everything and, as often as not, a great deal of thought and effort is put into making the best, grandest, scariest, most mysterious, evocative, craziest, loudest, colourful, beguiling, attention grabbing entrance possible.
An animator looking to truly nail this moment will ask themselves what is the first impression they want their character to make, and they’ll ask hard!! What should that character be looking to achieve? How can the limitless fluidity of a character’s visuality and emotionality be sculpted to make the audience sit up and take notice, fast-tracking their still-searching imaginations into the crucible of the film and preparing their perception receptors for the extraordinary breath of the imaginative universe depicted in the film is going to hit them with.
There are as many ways to do this as there are animated films that have been made and this programme has some truly astonishing examples. In a programme named ‘Being Human’ that’s hardly a surprise.
The opening film – Rosemary A.D (After Dad) by American animator Ethan Barrett – immediately jumps into the deepest of deep ends. A deceptively simply styled portrait of the main character fills the screen staring back at us, almost asking to be judged or displaying an invisible emotional carapace anticipating, even inviting, inevitable rejection. In some ways this channels the simple, conniving genius of Andy Warhol’s famous Screen Tests in which Warhol pointed a movie camera at his subjects until they could handle the stare of the lens no longer and in their attempts to release themselves from its intangible grip eventually revealed something of their inner selves to the very film that was recording their silent interrogation.
Barrett’s lead character here – Dad – is not having a good day, a good week or a good life. One side of his brain has a straightforward, if outlandish, plan to resolve it all. But the other side has a powerful and compelling counter argument to this most personal of armageddons. Or so it seems. The counter arguments pile up upon each other. Interestingly, the power introduction we receive to this character is at odds with how much screen time he gets once we have been delivered the full tent-pole impact of his state of mind on the story and the other characters inhabiting it. His presence and dominance is mostly represented through a sinewy evocative narration that might just draw some of its best ideas from flecks of thoughts that have ricocheted uninvited around our own minds at least once or twice on those days when the sunshine on our faces should have been more than enough to thwart their forming – but wasn’t. It’s a film that is, among other things, a masterclass in character introduction.
Shira Avni’s Two One Two navigates a not dissimilar terrain but transmits an entirely different pathway to survival and success. There is an ambiguity about just who is driving the narrative here and, right on cue, the first few frames of the film deliver that ambiguity up to us in the form of a character that shows us these different faces, lives these different lives and speaks with the oscillating realities of emotional journey Avni’s film draws from. Again, we are given an abundance of time to simply look upon the visual manifestation of this duellist character so that we may begin building that connection based on the elements of that all important first impression that the filmmaker has so far afforded us. Two One Two and its lead character plots a more positive path towards the light though. It’s a deliberate choice and one Avni was not always sure she would make as the film developed.
“Initially it began as a film about perinatal trauma after the unexpectedly violent birth of my son,” explains Avni.
“He was born prematurely and often stopped breathing at night in his first years of life; the only way he slept safely was upright as I walked endlessly through the fog of love, fear and exhaustion. I see parenting very much as a feminist issue, and wanted to document both the joys and intense struggles of being a neurodivergent two-headed monster while working, caretaking and surviving with my easily-overwhelmed autistic sensory system.”
As the film evolved it became less explicitly about trauma and more about the uniquely symbiotic journey.
Let’s see if we can stretch the definition of character a bit….. annnnnd since it’s animation we’re talking about here that’s not necessarily that big a stretch. Love Bubbles by Marcel Hobi is, pretty much as it says on the tin, a film about ….. love bubbles. The film itself is ultimately populated by a large and diverse cast of characters but the main ‘device’ that Hobi uses are the always moving, endlessly adaptable bubbles that give the film its name, provide the whimsical fuel that propels it along and present as something akin to ephemeral lead characters in their own right.
Hobi wastes no time getting the bubbles front and centre and demonstrating their culpable malleability. We are not even into the film proper before the first bubble floats into view encasing and carrying its quarry past our gaze. From here their multiple roles as transporters, highlighters and imprisoners only revs up in style, speed and complexity in a gently relentless commentary on the little quirks, passive/aggressive interactions and everyday mini Machiavellianisms that amalgamate to showcase the stuff of everyday pan-human behaviour.
Short, Sharp, Simple & To The Point. Madeleine Homan nails the perfect SSS&TTP intro when her lead character arrives for work, ready to get down to business in her new film The Creators. There is more to pulling off these no-nonsense, micro-burst moments of essential action than meets the eye. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment of virtuosity comprising a single sound effect, five lines and a sublimely executed piece of minimalist animation. It’s a three second masterclass in the art of character intro which should be taught to all animation students.
Aude David and Mikael Gaudin deploy a hefty dollop of cinematic complexity to establish the apparently physical and psychological bona fides of their lead character. It takes a little more time and an interconnected collection of shots until we really feel like we are walking beside (or looking down upon) the ‘little’ fellow in their new film A Tiny Man.
David and Gaudin put the concept of ‘tiny’ through a blender in their film. The film opens displaying the raw ingredients of that introduction. The camera looks down at a pair of very large feet, thus emphasising, if not overstating, their size and physicality. The camera cuts to looking up at the head and part torso of the apparently substantial person who owns those feet, again emphasising, if not overstating her size and physicality. Her very method of motion and movement fills the screen, consuming what little spare air there was in the frame. A bloated shadow gets a moment to sway through our field of view, with a smaller imminently lesser one trailing it. Then and only then do we get our first glimpse of our ‘tiny man’. Although his face all but fills the frame, he just seems little in every way. The camera is looking down on him, pushing his smallness on to us in the process. He himself is looking down, emanating a sadness and slightness of soul that somehow we subconsciously register. It’s not until the next shot – literally the fifth shot of the sequence – that we get any real confirmation of his smallness as, finally, we see him side by side with his companion, a woman close to twice his size. Combined with the immensely artful black, white and grey palette deployed by the filmmakers there is almost something Hitchcockian about the way this has all been constructed and presented.
As A Tiny Man progresses it only delves deeper into the de-sizing, miss-sizing and resizing of a human soul and how that manifests in that soul’s perception of his own physical humanity. The power of that struggle and its burgeoning sense of tiny man’s freedom is wonderful filmmaking in and of itself but is turbo charged by the weight of the lead character’s stature that was cemented in those opening shots.
The programme powers on with a masterpiece of cut-out animation. The work involved in creating Mom Is Always Right by Marie Urbánková must have been monumental. Any given frame of this colourful, stop-motion opus contains any number of characters and scenery elements, most of them moving in one way or another. Eyes blink, limbs move, even the contents of stomachs get a few cameos. Most of the sets are standalone works of sculptural art in their own right. It’s a film about ‘Mom’ rather than ‘a’ Mom and centres more around a collective concept of ‘Mom’ and the crazy myths some of them spin – with the best of intentions – as they run through the long marathon that raising children becomes.
As such, we never really meet ‘Mom’. Instead, what comes to represent the film’s main character is a man that is facing something of a marathon of his own – and perhaps of his own making. We meet him in the midst of a moment in which his biggest challenge is on show for us to see (and perhaps judge?). It’s a moment of guileless clarity and nicely juxtaposes the pseudo reality of what is supposed to be the ‘main’ story here. The fact that, as time goes by, our challenged lead character finds as many ways to live with his imperfections as he does to address them perhaps stands as a metaphor for the notion that most of us do our best, live with our imperfections and find ways to bring happiness into our lives and those closest to us utilising whatever we have on hand.
Ahhh, the “inverse cone of effort” that is the world of auteur animation! You’re lucky, you get to watch animation in ‘real time’. Not counting the amount of time you spent on the tube getting here and the happy moments hanging out at the bar waiting for us to open the doors, any given five minute film takes you five minutes to watch. We like to think we work pretty hard here at LIAF HQ (we don’t though, we just sit around peeling each other’s grapes and having high level stream of consciousness debates about who the next Yuri Norstein will be) but it does take us a bit of time to pull any given LIAF together. In our defence, any given film that makes it into LIAF will have been watched several times before being given the big tick to go ahead and get lodged in the line-up. So maybe we spent 20 or 30 minutes watching that five minute film…. oh the humanity.
But what am I forgetting here??? Whaaaaat am I forgetting??? Oh, yeah, the animators!!! That five minute film could have taken a couple of years to make. A couple of years of doubt, neck-crunching, eye bulging concentration. Days turn to nights, nights turn to days and they pass and pass and pass. That brilliant ‘hero’ scene that took a month to plan and execute turns out to be a hammy misfire and is cast aside – a month that will never be repaid. And it’s seldom clear when the film is actually finished…. there is always stuff that can be done, a bit more shading on this character, a change of light in that background, a tweaking of the sound in the closing shot. But life is short and at some point the film must leave home and go out into the world to fend for itself, regardless of its little imperfections. And so, 94.75% done, the animator sends their film off to every festival they can identify and they sit back and wait for the rejections to fly in, unbroken only by the occasional invitation and the even more occasional award. Audience feedback might vary a bit but usually it’ll be fairly positive so, ya’ know, life is good and all the effort was worth it; indeed, most of the audience in some land far far away loved your film and were happy to have spent their five minutes watching it.
The slow-burn, lo-fi, deep-rumble turmoil that this whole process must induce in more than one animator is beautifully captured in the brilliantly realised film that closes this programme This Will Not Be A Festival Film by Polish animator Julia Orlik. Given the number of festivals it has screened at, the title might turn out to be as ironic as it is inaccurate. But whatever the final tally of invitations might wind up being, however many awards might go up on the shelf and however resonant the dry humour contained in the film might be, the kernel of human truth that sits – somewhere – in the soul of the film makes it a perfect one to finish a programme titled Being Human.
Hey – hats off to animators one and all……. sooooooooooo much work!!!
by Malcolm Turner
Being Human screens at The Garden Cinema and online Sun 26 Nov find out more