I’m kickin’ myself! Whilst on the grand tour recently I’d run out of English language stuff to read (the hardcopy variant at least) and wound up purloining a glossy mag at the only café in Tallinn, Estonia that was open at the early hour my jetlagged senses were pointing me out the door to for caffeine.
I can’t remember the mag’s title but there was some pretty wild stuff in it. I skipped past the ten page puff piece on a Spanish language singer running under the name Bad Bunny (each to their own and it’s clearly working big time for him) and I knew the huge article about the billionaire who throws an annual massive shindig of oozing excess for A-Listers who must all come in white attire (really!!) would just wind me up. But there was an amazing article about how US troop training was being quietly retuned to deal with the apparently rising likelihood of actual nuclear war, a simply superb Carl Hiaasen piece on just how rotten Ron DeSantis is and a chillingly prescient article about AI packed with stats and quotes outlining the looming chances that AI will rise up and strike down humanity – told ya! It turns out that one half of the Brains Trust that gave us Google thinks this isn’t just inevitable but a desirable continuum of the on-going evolutionary process. Indeed, Larry Page accuses anybody who pushes back on the mere desirability of this theory as being “speciest”. Scary but true – google it if you don’t believe me.
Anyway, I saved the last few pages of this fine publication to consume during the inevitable time lapse period in the departure lounge. Reading tends to help divert the mind from the alternative reality coffee and food offer. The plan was – and transpired to be – to leave the fancy mag behind; pass it on, as it were, as a gesture to the next stranger who happened along and as an instrument to assuage my guilt for having swiped it in the first place.
It turned out the last article in it worth reading included some slightly acerbic commentary on the apparently increasing length of mainstream movies. It was full of statistical and anecdotal gems and I wished I’d kept it coz now I could really use it but here’s a few highlights that have somehow clung on to the otherwise echoey innards of my mind.
Back in 2002 the average length of a feature film was a little under two hours. Even 10 years later it had not gone up that much. But in the last decade it has expanded like foam pouring out of a cheap shaken beer bottle. What’s more, these leviathans are increasingly achieving major award success. Look at the acclaim Oppenheimer (181 minutes) has achieved. It was directed by Christopher Nolan who took the Batman franchise into overtime. Martin Scorcese’s latest, Killers Of The Flower Moon, runs for over 200 minutes and it’s bound to clean up the awards as it tumbles along.
The article made the point that no studio wants films of this length, they cost more and their decreased number of screening slots makes it harder to earn back the investment. But the writer offered a couple of theories about why this phenomena has evolved. One was that top rate producers are getting thinner on the ground for a variety of reasons and it is – or was – often producers that played the leading role in bringing scissors to the gig. Remember the fearsome reputation that Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein had for keeping feature run times in check regardless of the wishes of the filmmaker. How’s the food these days Harvey?
Also, the arrival of streamers into the feature production space has eased the pressure to shorten films because, to a streamer, a long film does not pose the same risks as it does to a cinema distributor. The audience can watch when they want, pause when they feel like and even spread the viewing over a longer period.
Maybe so, but the underlying theme was that longer films were bad news. And that is probably the case – all things being equal – in mainstream, live action cinema. But here in the world of independent animation there are different criteria to contemplate.
LIAF – along with its sister festival in Melbourne – is one of the few international animation festivals to lock in a programming opportunity specifically for films with a longer run time – in fact it’s the only one we know of. We’ve discussed the reasons for doing this in previous introductions but it boils down to ensuring that the inevitable crunch that always comes into play during selection doesn’t see one 20 minute film pushed out simply to make way for four 5 minute films. So this safe, free range reservation for the long players, known as Long Shorts, means that the only focus during programming is squarely on whether or not the filmmakers have made the very best use of all that extra lovely screen time.
And have we got good news for you!!
This years’ Long Shorts programme opens in full Estonian mode. Eeva by Lucija Mrzljak and Morten Tsinakov is in so many ways a grand example of a film, a story, a cast of characters and a method of development that is just quintessentially Estonian. Tsinakov originally hails from a gorgeous little village in the middle of Estonia and studied at EKA (Estonian Academy of Arts) before going on to work at the legendary Joonisfilm studio which has long been home to generations of Estonians who created some of the greatest drawn animated films produced in the country. That’s where he met Mrzljak who is originally Croatian but shifted to Estonia to study directly under Priit and Olga Parn.
All of those influences and all of that history has seeped into the veins of Eeva although the look of the film (particularly the characters) was refined after the duo saw an Igor Kovalyov retrospective at a festival in Poland not long after they had started making the film.
The retrospective was amazing
Tsinakov recalls in an interview with Cartoon Brew.
We decided that the visuals we had developed so far for Eeva were not good enough. We binned them and started from scratch. We put much more effort into this film than our previous ones. It was exhausting but completely worth it; we like this one a lot more
The inspirational stepping off point for Eeva turned out to be a very specific dream that Tsinakov had in which a woodpecker began tapping out a message on a coffin in morse code. The film contains that sequence but almost all of the rest of it was created in a kind of narrative reverse-engineering process that would strike fear into the heart of any scriptwriting lecturer or producer who wants to understand the developmental pathway and enduring themes any given script and film are pursuing.
I try not to think about concepts or themes when writing a film because I’ve discovered that working that way does more harm than good.
For me, it’s more productive to start with some details and then try to connect them in some way. So, instead of a compelling concept, I liked some small details, connected them, and at some point thought ‘Okay, I guess that’s a story now.
It’s not a process that would work for everybody!
The programme changes direction radically in tone and style with Wild Summon by London based, Israeli ex-patriot husband and wife team Saul Freed and Karni Arieli. It is so vividly rendered, so brimming with the visceral reality of its location and its characters that it takes some effort to remind oneself that much of it is animated. In so many ways it is less of a surprise to learn that it is the product of the separate skill sets that each of them have brought to the project. They originally met at Tel Aviv’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design; Freed emerging to take on the world of early CG animation mostly as a freelancer while Arieli spent much of her earlier career as a high-end fashion photographer, having come from a family that already had an earlier history in the field.
In watching much of Wild Summon it becomes increasingly obvious how this blend of skills and passions have co-mingled to produce a film that looks like this. But beyond the incredible technical expertise on display and even beyond the baked-in pathos emanating from the creature(s) in the film, Freed and Arieli have cleverly used the extra time their film rolls to weave together a number of different but related strands. That’s what makes it an obvious choice for Long Shorts. It is, at once, a highly affecting ‘personal’ tale of struggle and survival, a cautionary look at the interconnectedness that all inhabitants of earth have with the environment and a reminder that nature, so many times a thing of awe and beauty, is also harsh and offers no quarter.
On a recent walk-through of the Nukufilm Studio in Tallinn, the sudden appearance of a giant, shaggy head with bulging lips and weird, blazing eyes was a bit of shock when it suddenly revealed itself behind a door I had just closed. It took (only) a second to recognise it as one of the main characters in Kaspar Jancis’ latest epic Antipolis. Larger than life and possessed of an utterly unique way of interacting with the world Jancis, as many LIAF regulars will well know, doesn’t tend to do things by halves. Except in Antipolis he kind of did. Originally the film was written and intended as a full length hybrid feature blending animation and live-action. Just how that would have manifested itself is almost too much for the lesser minds most of us are shackled with to ponder. But in the end it was the animation and the animated scripting that felt right and the project was recalibrated to become a purely animated film, albeit one running at 25 minutes.
It’s wonderfully, crazily, bewilderingly, brain-bendingly relentless in a truly animated way. Made at Nukufilm Studio, the place that has been launching some of the very finest puppet animation onto an unsuspecting world for nearly 70 years it has all of that history and tradition to draw on. And it does. But it also has a kind of ‘world-making’ and ‘inner logic building’ that could only spring from the mind of Jancis. Few filmmakers can take a given certainty and turn it inside out in the way the he does and with all that time to play with Jancis just takes everything to a whole new level. Impossible to synopsise (sensibly) with words, it never-the-less makes a kind of complete sense once you surrender your imagination to its construction. Goodness knows what they’re going to do with the giant head though – I wouldn’t want to be the one given the job of throwing it out; I doubt that would end well. It’ll probably live in the studio forever.
Temporarily Removed by Yoav Brill returns us to a more familiar, somewhat ‘real world’ setting. Brill is another Bezalel candidate but one with an increasingly diverse professional personal practice. Sound and music composition along with stage and exhibition design sit beside a growing catalogue of film and animation projects. Temporarily Removed is one of the more ambitious examples of the latter though and takes a deep dive into the arcane world of gallery attendants. Absolutely essential to the smooth and safe operation of any credible art gallery, these attendants must have interesting strategies for dealing with some of the more mundane realities of their vocation and some of the unusual, unpredictable things that wobble into their days.
This seems to be the spark that lit the fire under this film and Brill brings a masterful hand to harnessing the pace that these lives are lived at and bringing it into the fibre of the film with an understated but unwavering intensity. Perhaps overlooked here too is the sheer volume of ‘art’ that Brill has had to create to populate the various interiors of the film with. Added up, there are a LOT of pieces on display and they all had to be individually designed and realised. That had to be fun to come up with.
The Family Portrait by Croatian animator and installation artist Lea Vidakovic is a lot to try and take in – and making that proposition more complicated is the fact that there are two more or less opposite versions of the ‘film’ out there to ponder.
Says Vanja Babic, Croatian animator and academic, of Vidakovic;
Lea is a master of creating specific narratives, whose predominantly dark moods are sometimes imbued with restrained humour or irony. The protagonists of Family Portrait do not express their existentially intonated anxiety in an overtly pathetic or dramatic way; they primarily emanate apathy, the cause of which lies in mostly suppressed but fatally persistent tensions.
Indeed, the film we are seeing on screen has a virtually ‘opposite twin’ in the large scale, seven screen installation that ran in the Mestrovic Pavilion of the Croatian Society of Fine Artists earlier this year. Vidakovic tended to treat the installation iteration as more of an on-going ‘work in progress’, a kind of living work that let her wander and explore the central themes of the piece depending on her feelings at the time. The film however was ‘locked in’, a permanent, unchangeable record of those investigations, thoughts and experiments. Central to it all was a focus on the teachings of the Japanese Buddhist thinker Daisaku Ikeda who taught that “every family has its own specific circumstances and problems that only it can truly understand.”
The film was screened as part of the installation and that was the only opportunity to view them side by side but in the film we have a level of clarity and ‘declaration’ – perhaps even hints of personal insight – that were not necessarily elemental parts of the installation presentation. And in the film there are also hints at how this could be cut into its individual pieces and be repurposed as multiple projections in a large, open gallery space. It’s worth keeping all of those potentialities in the back of the mind as the film plays.
Could it be, fellow travellers, that the Academy is getting a bit frisky? A little risqué? Unlikely as it sounds, it can’t be denied that one of the nominees in the short animation category this year was My Year Of Dicks by Sara Gunnarsdottir. And this is no double entendre piece, there’s hardly a Richard in sight; it is a 25-minute excoriation of the abysmal scale of sexual potential on offer as experienced by the American writer Pamela Ribon in a pivotal year earlier in her life. It is precisely what it says on the tin. So, yeah, in the end it didn’t win but it was on the list and it had to be called out on the big night to all assembled. Wonders never cease.
Gunnarsdottir originally came from Iceland but these days lives and works in New York. She was sent a copy of Ribon’s book and a treatment for turning it into an animated film. She immediately fell in love with it, warming instantly to the candour and humour in Ribon’s work. In Gunnarsdottir’s telling of it, the treatment called for a number of different visual styles and approaches to animating the various ‘episodes’ that chronicle the year and, in turn, that provoked her to approach a number of different animators to contribute to the film. According to Gunnarsdottir everybody she asked said yes and so, in due course, we have a year of dicks in glorious, magnificently varied technocolour.
What is there left to say? Well…. “we’ve all had a year of dicks – unfortunately” was one quote of Ribon’s that emerged during the pre-award publicity rounds but there were many, many more. But perhaps it’s time to let the film do the talking.
by Malcolm Turner
Long Shorts screens at The Garden Cinema and online Thu 30 Nov find out more