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LIAF 2021 Article: Long Shorts by Malcolm Turner

International Competition Programme 8 - Long Shorts, LIAF, London International Animation Festival

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The reason this programme exists is because the LIAF Audience are smarter than the average bears.

We’ve talked in the past about the relative risks that longer films face when they go out into the big wide world of animation festivals and awards selection. In an animation festival setting, once the real programming crunch hits and the first list inevitably has to be whittled down, the slippery temptation to decline one 15-minute film so as to make space for five 3-minute films can sit like an invisible dark angel on the shoulder of the selector.

Did you ever wonder how they trim the list of coulda-beens down to the final nominees for the Academy Awards? They screen all the films back-to-back, everybody in the theatre has a laser pointer, when you have seen enough of the film on screen you point your laser pointer at the screen and, like some silent machine gun, when the screen has enough laser dots on it the film is cut and the next one kicks in.

Long films just spend more time running through those fires.

At LIAF we spotted that problem years ago and our Long Shorts programme was the solution to specifically address it. It’s one of those “everyone’s-a-winner” type deals. More filmmakers get their films screened, audiences are given clearer indications of the kind of work they are going to see and the breadth of the festival programming is expanded in multiple directions. In many cases, only a longer film offers the opportunities for work of a certain tone, style and sophistication to be developed and made in the first place.

The problem, though, is that in some other settings where this approach has been pursued the audience response has been that they aren’t getting their money’s worth because there’s fewer films. Bless ‘em….. life must be so much simpler to comprehend in those lands far, far away.

It’s doubly ironic because often the Long Shorts programme can be a little bit longer due to the fact that the smaller number of films in the line-up means that the fatigue level created by bouncing in and out of brand new worlds every few minutes isn’t nearly as pronounced.

Nope, here at LIAF the audience has embraced the Long Shorts programme and that means you get to see some outstanding films that don’t get anything like the number of screenings in other places they should.

Take a bow – smarter than the average bears!!

The programme opens in the best way imaginable – a triumphant back-to-the-future tour de force film by British animator Joanna Quinn. Affairs Of The Art is not just a wonderfully sustained piece of animation drawn in that way that only Quinn can, it also reunites us with Beryl, the one-of-a-kind yet everyday heroine of her brilliant debut 1987 film Girl’s Night Out.

Made with the National Film Board of Canada and created in conjunction with collaborator Les Mills (who wrote, produced and coloured the film), Quinn has used every second of the film’s 16-plus minutes to delve a lot more deeply into Beryl, a character she created all those years ago and probably had no idea would be accompanying her throughout her career.

The ‘ordinariness’ of Beryl is no façade and yet, in so many ways she isn’t (and never was) plain ordinary. The make-up of her family is a kind of sociological tetris that hides – full volume – in plain sight and gets trickier to keep track of the further down the pieces fall. Obsession is the playing card rattling against the spokes of this bicycle wheel, creating a constant rhythm and backbeat that just simply powers the film along. It’s akin to chucking a rock in a pond – the ripples go out and out and out and the bigger the pond (or the longer the film) the more ripples.

Sometimes the tiniest motions possess – and communicate – the most power. Of course, somebody has to be watching for them and that’s not always the way the world works. I’m Here by Julia Orlik is a film with a dense and weighty ‘emotional mass’. Its protagonist – the “I” of “I’m Here” – barely moves and never speaks but yet communicates so much. The people who come in and out of her orbit do all of the talking and most of the moving but have virtually nothing to say for themselves and are never really seen. We learn many details of the central character’s life in an almost third person way and at the same time her near silence and her muted, constrained physicality are so compelling and almost hypnotic. The dramatic core beating unsteadily at its centre is simultaneously universal and almost uniquely personal depending on how our lives have exposed that existential drama to us – or how we live in fear that it will in the future. How Orlik manages to not just sustain but build this quiet power for the duration of the film is remarkable.

The rise, fall, stumble and sideways glances of 2D/3D hybrid animation is an on-going carnival of creative acrobatics we’ve had a front row seat to witness for some time. It sounds like a great idea, right? And it sounds pretty easy as well. The tools to make it got test driven years (arguably decades) ago. But just as cars have become safer while drivers remain as randomly, lethally useless as they’ve always been, the hybridising of 2D/3D animation hasn’t always produced the results that its potential has suggested we might expect on a more regular basis. The most egregious crimes result in films in which characters never feel connected to any part of the environment they inhabit, sometimes even dreamily floating a few centimetres above the floor they should be walking on. Films can look ‘layered’ like a piece of cellophane held above a glass painting or have shadows and shading of such independent spirit that we look for their names in the credits. The list goes (or could go) on…. and on.

A better idea is to sit back and take in the technical splendour of Shell In Love by Svilen Dimitrov. This is a masterclass in integrated 2D/3D animation. Every frame the two worlds co-habit is a perfect example of how it should be done. The perfect ratios of every single element of the 2D and 3D characters and artwork are flawlessly balanced. The consistency of the ways the two styles are lit equally so. The cuts between the wholly 2D and the wholly 3D… perfectly designed and executed. The ways all the water integrates the 2D and 3D animated elements. This is maestro-level work!!

It wouldn’t be LIAF without an intriguing new film by Michelle and Uri Kranot. LIAF audiences will be no stranger to their films, we have shown pretty much all of them. Theirs is one of the more interesting, compelling and thoughtful bodies of work being created in the first half of the 21st century. It will stand the test of time. They have had much to say about the behaviour of the Israeli government and the legacy they believe that is provoking. Other films have explored the refugee experience and built bridges between the worlds of VR and 2D cinematic renditions of characters and stories.

Their latest film The Hangman At Home sees them continue to incorporate much of these aesthetic ambitions. It took out the Grand Jury Prize for Best VR Immersive Work at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year. Characters in VR worlds act differently, interact with their environments differently and often seek to move our gaze as audience members differently. Much of this is what gives The Hangman At Home its slightly different, maybe even a little off-kilter feel. It alters the way a story unfolds, it changes the character’s purpose within the narrative of the world depicted in the film. In turn, maybe that affects the pacing of the film or at least its rhythm. The Kranots are animators doing more than most to find the unique properties of these two approaches to animation and the results are fascinating to experience here. Time is the magic ingredient for getting the most out of it and time is what Long Shorts is all about.

Arko by Croatian based animator, special effects artist and sound designer Natko Stipanicev shimmers throughout with a sheen that is so consistent that your eye rapidly becomes happily accustomed to the sheer excess of it all. It has to be one of the more unusual films submitted to LIAF this year.

The creative juice that underpins the entire look of the film, the core of the characters and the unique dynamic of the world they inhabit could best be described as a kind stately elegant grotesqueness. It resonates, for all the world, with the creative vibrations of the work of the legendary French director Jacques Tati whose films were populated with odd and often confounded characters who seem either oblivious to or strangely incapable of logically reacting to their environment. Tati’s films also served as peerless masterclasses for anybody interested in how to harness the tiniest nuances of expression and movement. They stitch together an unceasing parade of exquisitely timed little moments that oscillate an audience between raw comedy and a sort of fractured, wondering curiosity about the continually evolving parameters of the narrative universe on display.

Tati’s films also tended to serve as parables for a variety of themes that he pursued throughout his career. Arko similarly shares this trait, offering up a vision of a world that is steadily, relentlessly sinking in plain view of all those who will be pulled down with it. They stand in the rising water, apparently insensible to the water creeping up their legs as they applaud their leader, the person with the best view of it all. He simultaneously soaks in the adulation and appears to momentarily contemplate his responsibility for not acting to prevent it all. Sound familiar?

Estonian animation is in fine form. New names and new faces emerge, they bring their own ideas and their own edges to a world of animating that has already given the world so much wildly varied work. Jonas Taul brings us a new film he made at Estonia’s home of puppet animation, Nukufilm. A Most Exquisite Man has an elegant – dare we say exquisite – glaze across it and it is full of inventive ‘blink-and-you-miss-them’ moments of innovation. It is, essentially, an animated adaptation of an illustrated book that he published six years ago and some of the moments in the film perhaps channel those ‘turn-a-page’ snap changes that made the book so much fun. That type of hyper-precise visuality isn’t always the hallmark of puppet animation and Taul found trying to communicate the intricacy of some of these ideas to those who worked with him on the film as one of the biggest challenges in getting it made. But Nukufilm is a studio that loves directors and prioritises bringing to screen the vision they bring to each project and in that sense Taul could not have found a better place to make his first studio film. Remember the name.

Think like an animator! It’s a great mantra to drill into the minds of animation students. Think like an animator BEFORE you start animating is even better. Sure, it’s arguably brainwashing but it’s for the greater good. It moulds a mind that is animatedly firing on all cylinders long before a pencil (or a stylus) is picked up. It builds an imagination that is subconsciously crafting multiple options before the ideas are really forming enough to pitch at a funder, a producer or a collaborator.

We talk about this a lot at LIAF and we always have our radar on to pick up the contrails these types of artists leave in their wake. Leonid Shmelkov is an absolutely grand example of this. His latest film has an equally grand pedigree. Cucumbers is his longest and most energetic film to date and it simply abounds with the kind of creative jet fuel that could only be pumped in by somebody completely steeped in this way of thinking. The crazy-brave raw energy that bursts out of Cucumbers is the perfect thing to put into all your heads as we send you out into the night…..thinking like animators and smarter than average bears.

Malcolm Turner – LIAF Co-Director