The 17th Annual Animation Show of Shows

The Animation Show of Shows is aptly named. The eleven animated shorts comprising the ninety-seven minute theatrical program are among the most entertaining and emotionally affecting films I’ve seen all year. The feature-length program will premiere at the Hollywood Arclight this weekend and continue to appear in other cities throughout the fall. You can find more information about when the program is playing in your area here. I’ve not yet traveled (again) to a galaxy far, far away or wintered with eight hateful outlaws, but I can’t imagine seeing a more creative slate of films than the ones featured in The Animation Show of Shows.

This is the 17th year the Show of Shows has been distributed by animation producer Ron Diamond, though this is the first year the program has been released in theaters. In previous years, Diamond simply screened his curated collection of shorts at major animation studios (Dreamworks, Pixar, Disney, etc.) in hopes of exposing the industry’s top professional animators to the innovations being made by the world’s amateur animators. This year, we all get to see what only the elite had access to in years past.

Diamond’s curatorial eye is excellent. Twenty-nine of the animated shorts his program has featured went on to be nominated for the Animated Short Oscar. Nine have won the award. Growing up watching the Oscars, I was always annoyed that the award show featured the briefest of clips from the animated nominees, fascinating looking films I’d never get to see. Yearly, my parents and I lamented the lack of distribution of animated shorts. “Why not feature them before feature-length films?” we’d ask each other. “Like they used to do,” my parents would add.

Now, with The Animation Show of Shows, we all get the chance to see these films properly presented in a theater as a feature-length program unto themselves. I imagine there is more than one eventual nominee in this bunch of films and one winner, given how many festival awards Don Hertzfeld’s bleakly sublime World of Tomorrow has already amassed. (Additionally, the program features short documentaries about four of the animation teams behind four of the films. These short documentaries are also well done and accomplish Diamond’s goal of introducing the world to extremely talented animators we would otherwise never know.)

The slate of films is as follows. I’ll cover each in turn, as I did in 2013, 2014, and 2015 for the Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts as distributed by ShortsHD. As I’ve written before, in capable hands, animation is the most cinematic of filmmaking methods, because absolutely everything you see and hear in an animated film represents a decision made by a filmmaker, and anything is possible. The animation method gives filmmakers the opportunity to craft the most powerful cinematic art you’ll ever see. The 17th Annual Animation Show of Shows demonstrates this eleven times over. 

The Story of Percival Pilts, created by Janette Goodey & John Lewis

The Story of Percival Pilts is a rhyming tale about a man who decides to spend his entire life living on stilts because of a vow he made to his brother when they were children. This quirk causes particular problems and affords particular grace in his life and in the lives of the people around him. The Story of Percival Pilts is the only stop-motion animated film in the bunch, and the animation is flawless. The film’s perspective shots from above and below as Percival stilts around town are especially effective and humorous.

The story is funny, sad, aspirational, cautionary, and touching all at once. The film explores what happens when someone carries out a childhood promise no matter the consequences. Percival’s story also makes for a fine allegory about ambition and ability too big for one’s context. My favorite moment in the film is when Percival’s family discovers his stilting-aims have surpassed the ability of their house to be his home. He leaves to explore the world (from above) at that point, and I couldn’t help but think of the day I moved away from home to explore the world for myself, albeit at ground level. That’s just one resonant moment in the short story. Others will no doubt affect you.

Tant de Forets, created by Geoffrey Godet & Burcu Sankur

What Tant de Forets lacks in subtlety it makes up for in visual inventiveness. This shortest of the shorts juxtaposes the irony of forests turned to pulp to create paper that is used to tell people to stop cutting down forest to make paper. The film begins by showing brightly-colored trees, flowers, bushes, other plants, and the bugs, birds, and small animals that live in them on the outside of a globe. Then, all of the above is mechanically sucked up, process, and converted into subterranean city structures. It is fun to watch, though sad, and brief enough that the heavy-handed message doesn’t land too heavily for too long.

Snowfall, directed by Conor Whelan

Snowfall is one of the more emotionally complicated films in the program. Irish animator Conor Whelan’s film is 2D computer animated, but the style looks like paper cuts mixed with rich colors and nuanced lighting. “Floating” is an essential part of the visual scheme. It’s as if a wind comes through at key moments and sends the characters and object flittering around the animator’s table.

This swirling serves the story well. Snowfall shows a young gay man navigating the currents of attraction and love over the course of a single evening. He falls, briefly, for another man who cannot return his affections, and then deals with the loss. Snowfall is certainly melancholy, but in the way that Victor Hugo described the temperament as “the happiness of being sad.” The grief over the loss of love is evidence of the desire for and ability to love. There is a pleasure in that sadness that is essential for maintaining hope amidst loneliness.

When Snowfall’s main character stands on top of a bridge contemplating his evening near the film’s end, I recalled many nights I spent walking street-lit streets following failed night trying to find a girl to love. I’m married now, and I don’t miss the loneliness, but I do sometimes miss the consolation of that bright flame of hope that shown through it.

Ballad of Holland Island House, created by Lynn Tomlinson

Ballad of Holland Island House is a musical, animated clay-painting that follows the life of a house from timber to its eventual decomposition at the bottom of a rising sea. There is an “environmental warning” aspect to this film, but it’s very subtle. The story is mainly about the lives that the house leads during it’s time on earth, the various creatures it shelters, and the effect of time on one’s perception of the world. The story, the animation style, and the song that backs them up are all hauntingly beautiful. The song is sung by Anna & Elizabeth, a mountain music duo who specializes in sparse revivals of traditional songs. Theirs is a distinctly American sound that perfectly matches this distinctly American story about a house off the coast of Maryland fated to die told using clay paint that always looks like it’s melting away.

Behind the Trees, created by Amanda Palmer and Avi Ofer

Behind the Trees is the most mischievous of the shorts contained in this program. Punk rocker, TED Talk star, and polymath, Amanda Palmer’s husband, the renowned writer Neil Gaiman, apparently talks in his sleep and—somewhat unsurprisingly if you’ve read his novels—says very strange things. One night, she recorded what he said, forgot she recorded it, found it years later, and turned that narration into this animated short.

The animation was done by Avi Ofer in a shifting, sketchy, pen-line style that compliments the fleeting nature of Gaiman’s dream perfectly. The film is a little bit eerie, a little bit funny, and mostly just oddly endearing – kind of like the artistic outputs of both Amanda Palmer and her husband. Behind the Trees is fun.

We Can’t Live Without the Cosmos, created by Konstantin Bronzit

We Can’t Live Without the Cosmos is the most touching story in this series of films. It follows a pair of cosmonauts as they prepare to be launched into space. The film is at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking portrait of their friendship and how it is tested and proven by their ordeal.

We rarely see testaments to friendship on screen. We spend all our time watching battles between enemies and romances between lovers. Funny, because friendship makes up the lion’s share of our relationships in life. We have one, maybe a few, true lovers, and few, if any, clear enemies. We all have friends. Perhaps if more movies spent time focusing on friendship, we’d be better able to recognize and appreciate the true friends we have. “Greater love has no man than this – that he lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus said. If that’s true, then We Can’t Live Without the Cosmos is perhaps the greatest film in this program.

Messages Dand L’Air, created by Isabel Favez

Messages Dand L’Air is a charming love story told via line drawings about a boxer, his goldfish, their next door neighbor, her cat, and the birds that live in the tree outside her house. Everything in the film is made of paper, and the way the paper unfolds mirrors the unfolding romance between the two human characters in the story. Messages Dand L’Air is very funny and fun.

Stripy, Written and directed by Babak Nekooei & Behnoud Nekooei

Stripy looks like a classic animated film from Disney or Warner Bros., but message about using art to rebel against forced conformity is anything but antiquated given the film’s country of origin – Iran. The animators, brothers Babak and Behnoud Nekooei, are featured in one of the four short documentaries that follow four of the animated shorts. The documentary adds resonance to the short, showing life in Tehran and the ways Stripy’s style mirrors the architectural lines of the city. To the Nekooei brothers’ credit, they are ebullient. It’s easy to see how such a bouncy, fun film came out of a supposedly oppressive place. Tehran may be sprawling and urban, but it is also beautiful. We often only get one picture of a place on the evening news. Stripy and the documentary that follows it gives us another view.

Ascension, written and directed by Thomas Bourdis, Martin de Coudenhove, Caroline Domergue, Colin Laubry, Florian Laubry

Ascension watches two mountain-climbing nuns—at least I think they are nuns; they might not be—as they attempt to place a statue of the Virgin Mary atop a mountain. Complications arise, humorously. The film is 3D computer animation, and it’s so good, I thought I was watching a CGI/live-action hybrid for the first few minutes of the film. Ascension is completely animated, but it’s as astounding to look at as anything in the recently released live-action Everest.

Love in the Time of March Madness, directed by Melissa Johnson and Robertino Zambrano

Love in the Time of March Madness is an animated memoir of sorts written and narrated by director Melissa Johnson about her life as a six-foot-four tall woman and her struggles with romance because of her exceptional height. The short is a mix of hand-drawn and computer generated animation, and the use of both does an excellent job of communicating Johnson’s subjective perspective on the world, both emotionally and physically. I wish I had an animator as skilled as Robertino Zambrano to help me make sense of the idiosyncrasies of my existence. Love in the Time of March Madness’ resolution involving the definitions we allow others to place upon us is well worth reflecting upon, both as we find peace within ourselves and work to make peace with others.

World of Tomorrow, directed by Don Hertzfeldt

Don Hertzfeld has a penchant for dark humor, broad sentimentality, and an inventive, sometimes abrasive visual style. These things have been his stock and trade as an independent animator for over twenty years. World of Tomorrow continues that work, telling the story of a clone who travels through time to impart wisdom to her original self while on a tour of the future.

The future, as imagined by Hertzfeld, is a place overtaken by the worst aspects of digital technology and a humanity given over its most self-focused tendencies. World of Tomorrow is a pessimistic picture of humanity’s future with a heaping does of existential dread on the side. Still, the short shows and applauds our ability to love, and especially so as it takes a shocking turn near the end to test if the audience is capable to caring for a character without many conventionally appealing qualities.

If that sounds vague, it is, because I don’t want to ruin that twist for you, but I do want you to pay attention to the good heart beneath World of Tomorrow’s black humor. There’s a reason World of Tomorrow is as highly praised as it is—and while it will likely win the Oscar this coming year—but you have to focus on what you feel about what you are seeing as much as you focus on what you see if you’re going to appreciate it properly. Hertzfeld’s films are a slap in the face, but they engender sympathy for all life. Every film in the Show of Shows is worth seeing. World of Tomorrow is being called the best film of the year by many outlets. The chance to see it in a theater is worth the price of admission alone.

Once again, you can find more information about when the program is playing in your area here.