The 18th Annual Animation Show of Shows

One of my favorite annual cinematic events is happening right now across the country and around the world, and it will continue happening city to city through the first week of January – The Animation Show of Shows. This feature-length animated shorts program showcases the most astounding animation of all kinds from around the world. Find out when it is playing at a theater near you here.

When I attend festivals, I try to work as many of the short programs as I can into my schedule, and I entertain those shorts programs as a respite from the constant grind of watching and reviewing feature-length films. I don’t review them. It’s not that the shorts aren’t worth critical attention. The animated and live-action shorts at any festival often include the festival’s most innovative and exciting cinematic offerings. This is why they are my respite. Seeing the creativity exhibited in the shorts revives my love of movies when I am most weary. Short filmmakers are often at the beginning of their careers or stalwart holdouts on the edge of the commercial filmmaking industry. They are beholden more to an emotional and/or formal idea than they are to profit (or, perhaps relatedly, story), and their short films become like powerful, distilled spirits, the single malt Scotch to the rest of commercial cinema’s twenty-four pack of light beer. This is especially true in animation, a cinematic form that has always represented the furthest reach of cinematic technique due to the animator’s ability to control every aspect of the image.

Most short programs at festivals feature five to seven films, depending on the length of the shorts. The Animation Show of Shows features sixteen if you see the “mature audiences” version that typically screens after 8 PM. The “family friendly” version includes twelve films, screens before 8 PM, and it is equally worth your time. All my favorite of the sixteen shorts but one are in the “family friendly” version. So The Animation Show of Shows is like a mega-flight of the best spirits in the world, representing a broad range of human experiences, from the dramatic to the comedic, from the sentimental to the macabre, decidedly physical (this is animation, after all), and brushing up bravely against the places where we encounter the limitations of our physical capacities and our spiritual capacities necessarily begin.

And now, the films.

Stems by Ainslie Hendersen (Scotland)

Stems is a stop motion animated film about stop motion animation and what practicing the art has revealed to its practicer, animator Ainslie Henderson, about life. Henderson narrates as he collects materials, builds, and positions and repositions a band of stop motion animated characters. As the short unspools, the band and their music takes over the narration, though you hardly realize it while it’s happening. I’ve rarely seen such a concise portrayal of an artist’s process. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one that so involves the audience.

In the end, Stems becomes a meditation on life and death, believe it or not, and I cried watching it. I also began thinking about God’s perspective on us, his creations. We have free will, unlike Henderson’s puppets, though as the short continues, you would be forgiven for thinking the puppets are moving of their own accord, especially as the short ends and they reach out for each other futilely, their time being up. Oops. There I go again. I better wipe that tear from my eye before I continue writing. 

Shift by Cecilia Puglesi & Yijun Liu (U.S.)

Shift is a computer generated animated film about a dowdy woman who encounters a more “natural” neighbor and finds her life altered as a result. I particularly liked the way this film used subtle shifts in light and color to communicate character changes. As the film begins, the young woman follows the sunlight so she can keep cross stitching. Notice where it leads her. Later in the film, notice the way her clothing changes as she becomes more familiar with the natural world.

Shift is about a return to innocence, and it’s ending is Edenic. I appreciated how the film has its protagonist welcoming the innocence into her life for a while before she enters into the realm of innocence entirely. Isn’t that how we do? We “try on” changes in familiar contexts before we allow ourselves to accept the changes completely. I like that what’s pure “infects” what’s not in this film instead of the other way around as is most common in stories of this ilk.

Pearl by Patrick Osborne (U.S.)

Pearl is about a father and daughter who bond over music, being on the road, and being in a particular automobile. It’s a fun, touching tale about  the things parents give up for their kids and the chance that the kids will pick those things back up and take them further than the parents ever could. And it’s all set to a rather catchy tune.

Pearl was originally conceived and produced as a 360 degree, virtual reality experience. It was later made into the film featured as part of The Show of Shows. As such, the cinematography in Pearl is immersive still, swinging around within the cab of a car at almost every moment of its brief running time. Personally, for emotional stories like this, I prefer the directed perspective of a traditionally shot film rather than the free perspective of virtual reality. However, I do recognize that this sort of VR film is uncharted formal territory, and Pearl certainly experiments admirably within the form. Cinema is big enough to include all sorts of films. Free perspective films will be among them. I hope they’re all as interesting as Pearl.

Crin-crin by Iris Alexandre (Belgium)

Crin-crin is another stop-motion animated film, though instead of puppets the filmmakers chose to use paper cut-outs as their actors. The story is a simple one about a rabbit and raccoon that make off with a vain horse’s tail. A chase ensues in the Warner Bros. tradition.

The music takes center stage in this film. Interspersed with the cartoon action are live-action shots of a band playing the song that animates the animals’ actions. The first shot we see of this band is of a horse hair tied to a violin string which the violinist pulls in a particular way to make a peculiar musical sound. “Crin-crin,” the press kit tells me, is a French term that refers to playing a violin rough, as the two violinists do here. The sound is unique and a little grating by design. It proves an apt accompaniment to the animals’ hijinks.

Mirror by Chris Ware, John Kuramoto, Ira Glass (U.S.)

Mirror is a short co-produced by The New Yorker and This American Life and animated in a storybook style by John Kuramoto. The story concerns a mother who says something she shouldn’t have said to her thirteen-year-old daughter. The short is narrated by Ira Glass interviewing the mother and the daughter about their recollections of the incident and how they feel about it now.

These kind of slice of life stories are so intriguing to me. They are meant to represent common foibles and our feelings about them, but they really exhibit the fears and feelings of a particular, urban, educated, liberal-leaning segment of society. It irks me that The New Yorker and This American Life often imply that we all feel this way about things like this. We don’t, and in many cases, we ought not.

Mirror solves this conundrum via its animation style though, whether Kuramoto meant to do this or not. It’s a storybook – an idealized, simplified version of a particular experience of particular people in a particular place, one story among many, unthreatening, light, fun, even if the events depicted are fraught with neuroses for the people involved. Not universal. Particular, and more palatable as a result.

Last Summer in the Garden by bekky O’Neil (Canada)

Last Summer in the Garden is a poetic recollection about life, death, and gardening. The gardening motif informs the narrator/animator, bekky O’Neil’s feelings about the sicknesses and death her family members are facing, reminding her of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth that abounds in nature.

The animation in Last Summer in the Garden is similarly impressionistic. Composed mostly of shifting watercolors, one scene bleeds into another just as our memories and emotions mix. This leaves each subsequent scene with an impression of the former. Once again, the gardening metaphor is appropriate – new growth comes upon the remains of last year’s growth. Last Summer in the Garden is a lovely film.

Waiting for the New Year by Vladimir Leschiov (Latvia)

Waiting for the New Year is the most patient and implicit short in the Show. The story follows a woman as she tends the grounds of her apartment complex through all four seasons of the year. She shovels, sweeps, mows, and rakes and shovels again. She watches her neighbors, tourists, and other people on the grounds as she works. We watch her. Something nice and surprising (to us) happens in the end.

Waiting for the New Year is kind of like a Paul Simon song in that it sketches characters and scenes and interactions without ever explaining them. It is composed of details without context, so a feeling is communicated more than a message. That feeling is loneliness. Animator Vladimir Leschiov’s style—hand-drawn, distinct watercolors, small movements, details without context—works perfectly to communicate that feeling of loneliness, because presented with absolute images in ambiguous situations, the audience is isolated in each moment as well.

Piper by Alan Barillaro (U.S.)

If you saw Finding Dory earlier this year, you’ve already seen Piper, Pixar animator Alan Barillaro’s remarkably rendered short about a young sand piper learning to overcome his fear of the ocean. The short is worth watching again though and on the big screen so as to marvel at the way the sand moves around the little bird’s feet, the way the bubbles pop above the buried mollusks, the perfect wet gleam on the crab’s shell.

It’s also informative to see Piper in concert with the rest of these films, because doing so illustrates that Pixar’s very popular style is only one type of animation, and other forms are perhaps more suitable for communicating complex emotions artfully. Maybe that’s why Pixar doubles-down on story – in reaching for realism in their images, they prohibit themselves from employing the techniques exhibited in the rest of this shorts program.

Bøygen by Kristian Pedersen (Norway)

Bøygen is one of two shorts in the Show of Shows accompanied by a interview with the filmmaker. Bøygen’s interview precedes the short so that the audience better understands the abstract imagery of the short including the particular Norwegian idea that motivates it. A “bøyg” is an entity that, by virtue of its very existence, prohibits the advancement of another entity. Bøygen seeks to represent that idea via animation.

Whether or not Bøygen succeeds in that endeavor is not up to us. Abstract art tends to be concerned primarily with the artist’s experience of making the artwork rather than with the audience’s comprehension of that same experience. So the question really is, “Does Bøygen adequately express Kristian Pederson’s experience of making it?” I understand that’s a bit circular. So’s the bøyg. This was my second favorite film in the Show this year.

Afternoon Class by Seoro Oh (Korea)

Afternoon Class features a boy trying to stay awake during a boring lesson in school. He’s the last hold-out. All the rest of his fellow students have yielded to drowsiness. The short humorously imagines the boy’s struggle.

Then, the film takes a turn, and the boy’s struggle to stay engaged becomes a larger exploration of the boredom inherent in life. Startlingly, I found myself asking existential questions as I watched this very short, funny film about what any of this life means and if I’m wasting my life watching these films!?! writing this review!?! DOES ANY OF THIS REALLY MATTER AT ALL!?!?!?!?!?

And then the short film becomes funny again, and I felt okay about everything. Afternoon Class is a trip.

About a Mother by Dina Velikovskaya (Russia)

About a Mother is a Russian short about a woman in Africa who loves and supports her children throughout their lives. Imagine The Giving Tree meets Rapunzel and you’ll be close. About a Mother’s very simple, black and white, almost-stick-figure drawings contribute well to the universal appeal of the film – mothers are giving cross-culturally, right? It’s a charming film.

About a Mother also made me aware that while The Animation Show of Shows features animation from around the world—that’s one of the things I love about the program—it doesn’t feature any films from Africa or South America. I don’t know if that’s been true of every annual. Maybe animation isn’t common on those continents. Maybe what does exist isn’t up to the same quality standards of these excellent films. In any case, now I’m curious and have some more research to do. Like attending film festivals, The Animation Show of Shows gives me new cinema-related things to think about and study.

Exploozy by Joshua Gunn, Trevor Piecham, & John McGowan (U.S.)

Exploozy is a wry computer animated short in the vein of the product launch explainers you’ve seen on crowdfunding platforms. Exploozy is clever because it’s an ad for a program that makes product launch videos for you. Exploozy is an animated product launch video for a product that makes animated product launch videos. It’s the animated short film equivalent of a ship-shipping ship shipping shipping ships. It’s hilarious.

The following films are only included in the post-8 PM screenings of The Animation Show of Shows.

Corpus by Marc Héricher (France)

Corpus looks like a stop-motion animated film that uses actual human body parts as key components in a Rube Goldberg-esque cause-and-effect chain of events. I hesitate to reveal whether or not it is actually human body parts on screen, because the uncomfortable grey area between reality and virtual reality is essential to the effect of this macabre film. If they are real body parts, should they be used in this manner? What does their obvious mechanical qualities suggest about the nature of the human being? Why do we, or why don’t we, want to believe these lungs and limbs are real? What are they? What are we?

This is, I think, the essential power of a short film. A short is just long enough to confront us with questions without unnecessarily or accidentally answering those questions in an extended run time. Corpus is just short enough and just hectic enough and just skillful enough to keep us on edge, and the edge is the place where we are forced to consider truths about ourselves we might not otherwise be willing to consider. Corpus is masterful.

Blue by Daniela Sherer (Israel)

Blue is the most free-associative of the animated shorts in this year’s program. I’m not sure entirely what it’s about. Love? Death? Fragility? Resilience? The relationship between danger and beauty? Movement? The frequently false simplicity of complicated things? I don’t really know.

In any case, Blue is beautiful, and it expertly communicates the fleeting nature of memory and contemplation. Animation of any kind is a deliberative process. That animator Daniela Sherer was able to encapsulate the fluid process of memory and emotion in such a plodding-to-produce medium is remarkable.

Manoman by Simon Cartwright (England)

Corpus, Blue, Manoman, and All Their Shades include material that might be difficult for children to understand, and so they are included in this “mature audiences only” version of the Show of Shows’ program this year. I’m glad the program includes this section, by the way, because animation is an art form ideal for expressing complicated—quote—“adult” material. Animators are free in animation to express anything they can conceptualize, freer than even live-action filmmakers are. And since, The Animation Show of Shows is about the most innovative animation from around the world, it ought to include this kind of mature animation.

I say all that because Manoman is, for me, absolutely the most disturbing film in this year’s program. It’s one of the most disturbing animated films I’ve ever seen, right up there at the top of the list with The Itching, a short I saw at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Manoman should be disturbing, because it is about the masculine impulse run amok. These little figurines are all aggression. It’s Fight Club filtered through Jim Henson’s Workshop, and the juxtaposition of unchecked aggression and plasticine innocence is profoundly unsettling. It’s fitting, because a zoomed out perspective on humanity would reveal a similarly revolting closeness between what is childlike and what is monstrous. In that, Manoman is like The Tree of Life with puppets, and I guess that makes animator Simon Cartwright Terrence Malick’s punk rock cousin.

All Their Shades by Chloé Alliez (Belgium)

If Manoman is a qualified celebration of masculinity, All Their Shades is its mate – a stop-motion celebration of the Female. Narrated and directed by French animator Chloé Alliez, All Their Shades consists of all the things Alliez loves about women. These things are contradictory at times—“How French!” “How womanlike!” the film suggests—and the ironic interplay between stereotypes and their antithesis is partly the point of the film. Women are not any one thing. They are all things, and reducing them to anything is, to use the politically-correct side of the internet’s favorite word, problematic. All Their Shades displays a wonderful sense of humor about it all, and that humor is in both the narration as well as the visuals. The short is a delight.

All Their Shades’ pairing with Manoman highlights for me one of the chief strengths of The Animation Show of Shows – it is expertly curated. Each film tells its own story, of course, but the program tells a story too about the intricacies of what it means to be human. The Animation Show of Shows is more than a celebration of animation. It is a celebration of what it is to be alive. Curation is a creative act akin to collage, and Ron Diamond is an expert curator. Don’t miss your chance to see these films when this program plays near you. Once again, you can find out when that is happening here.