Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1992

We have finally gotten to the 20th set of nominated shorts! That means there's another 60 more to go! That's not too exciting, actually. What is more exciting is that it's the 20th anniversary of all things 1992. Fasten your seat belts. We're going to take a trip down memory lane.

1992 was a whirlwind year in my life. It was the year that I turned seven. I was at the stage where I was able to have some pretty vivid memories, but very few that withstands the effects of 20 years of neuronal reconstruction. More importantly, it was the year that I moved from California to Kansas. I've lived in five states in my life. Michigan was where I was born, and where I lived until 1989. We still go there frequently because of family. Virginia is where I lived the longest - I've lived there since 1999 - and it's where my family still lives. I've been in Texas since 2009 for school. Kansas was where I spent the majority of my childhood (1992-1999), and it is where I have the fondest memories. That leaves California as kind my forgotten home. I lived in Pleasanton from 1989-1992: I was too young and it was too distant to have any lasting memories. Or so I thought.

A few weeks ago I took a day trip to San Francisco to attend a Tristar Productions Collectors Show. It was mostly to get a chance to meet Steve Carlton, the 329-game winner who pitched primarily for the Phillies in a 24-year career from 1965-1988. It was part of my crazy efforts to get to get the autograph of every living 300-win club in person. I flew into San Francisco early in the morning of April 14 and rented a car. Even though I missed my first flight, I landed four hours before Carlton was due to appear. I began running through my head as to what to do. I considered going straight to the card show, or driving to Chinatown for lunch. And then it hit me. I was only 40 minutes out from my old California house. It's been almost 20 years since I've been to the area, so why not pay it a visit. I couldn't remember my old address, but I remembered what street it was on, so I entered it into the GPS, and saw that I could make it with plenty of time to spare.

So I set out to retrace my past. I was disappointed to know that other than the drive across the Bay, I don't remember much of the area, even as I got closer to my destination. I didn't even recognize the old street where I used to live. I have memories of vast lawns and a vast road, but the laws I saw were cramped and the roads narrow. Either everything just seemed larger since I was so small, or I am too used to the suburbs where I've lived most of the past 20 years. I spent so much time looking around that I drove past my old house, since I still didn't remember the house number and couldn't make my GPS tell me where exactly it is.. I ended up at my first elementary school, which looks completely different. I made a U-turn and drove back down the street, trying to think of the house number. It finally hit me right when I saw it. And it looked mostly as I remembered it, down to the 1970s-style brown and white color scheme. I got out to take a closer look, but my reminiscing was cut short since the people across the street were giving me funny looks. I wasn't sure if they had been living there since 1992, and even if they did they probably wouldn't recognize me. I just went over and gave an awkward explanation that I used to live in that house. Then I vamoosed before they could call the cops on me. I progressed through the rest of the day as planned, and flew back to Texas the next morning after spending the night in the airport.

My visit to the house sparked a few memories at the time, but over the next several weeks my memories of California began flooding back. I began remembering isolated incidents of friends, of school, and of my old house. The content of the memories were in poor shape after lying mostly untouched for 20 years, but the feel of memories were intact for the same reason. I remembered the one time I left the bathroom after locking the door, and managed to bang it open without breaking the lock. I remembered sitting in the TV room watching Tiny Toons Adventures with my sister. I remembered all of the times our new dog Molly ran away because she was homesick. I remembered the times my sister and I used to fill empty Sunny Delight containers with water and pretended we were drinking "Sunny Delight Wine." I remembered the wacky hijinks I had with friends in playroom converted from a garage. I even remembered our old rental house which I didn't go see, looking at a turtle that lived in our backyard, and living through the earthquake of 1989. I also retrieved some memories from my early days in Kansas.

Seven years ago, when I celebrated my 20th birthday, I wrote a piece on the NSider forms reminiscing about my life, since it felt mind-blowing to think that it had been 20 years since 1985. But it wasn't quite the same as having 20 years worth of memories, as I didn't remember anything from my first two or three years. My earliest memory wasn't until 1987 or 1988. But I've gotten to the point where I do have memories that are over 20. In a few months all of my memories from California will be over 20. That is even more mind-blowing.

These Oscar-nominated films I am about to review are all around the same age as my California to Kansas move: 20.
In the beginning, there was nothing. Well, there was a planet, but there was nothing on the planet. And then God created man. Well, God in this case is an animator, and he put a clay model of a man on the planet. The model comes to life, and he must adjust to life on the empty planet. Of course, this is harder than it looks, especially since he has no idea what to do to fulfill his destiny. Thankfully, the animator is around to help. And when the man model gets lonely, the animator's got a special surprise for him! This claymation film from Aardman co-founder (and director of Wat's Pig) Peter Lord is part of the "creator interacts with creation" sub-genre that was a big hit in the late 1980s and early 1990s, although films like this has been made for years, the most famous being Chuck Jones's Duck Amuck from 1953. Adam is an interesting entry for two reasons. One is the use of claymation, which appears to allow for a smoother interaction between animator and creation than with 2D film. Or it could be also that the integration is done much better in this case. Either way, the animator moves freely and naturally unlike the pixilation seen in some of the other works. Another interesting thing about Adam is the presence of the planet as another entity with whom the clay man can interact. This way the film can be about more than just between the man and the animator. And Lord found a lot of creative uses for the planet and its gravity, such as filming the man standing and jumping while upside down on screen in a moment reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy, or having the man throw a piece of clay in frustration and having it orbit the planet and hitting him in the head. Unfortunately, not all of the jokes in the film work out. In fact, I think half of the jokes in the film fall flat. It uses the same formula of slapstick, visual gags and toying with audiences' expectations as Wallace and Gromit, but don't think they are as well developed as in Nick Park's classic series. The man is also kind of an annoying character. This is a decent film that's worth watching, but I wouldn't put it among the upper echelons of Aardman films.
Where Can I Watch It?

Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase
Join Leonardo da Vinci's most famous artistic creation as she takes you into a journey to see some of her friends, who are some of the most famous artworks from the Renaissance through modern times. Some of the art may be charming, even funny, while others are disturbing and downright grotesque. However, they are all great works of art. Even though I'm writing a blog about animation, which is a style of art, I don't pretend to know anything about art. I'm certainly not very good at producing it, as I still draw the same shoddy stick figures that I've been drawing since I was like seven years old. I'm not much better at art history. I've seen this film about a dozen times and I am still unable to recognize 90% of the artworks that was represented. I can't tell you whether or not filmmaker Joan C. Gratz put the artworks in any particular order or not. However, even if I know almost nothing about these works of art, I still find this to be a compelling and mesmerizing film. The title is a mix between Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, a piece of art I first heard about in Calvin and Hobbes. It is essentially a showcase of great works of art. I may not know who made these paintings, but they are still interesting to look at. Gratz even throws in an extra twist by having the artworks transition to another in interesting ways. For example, one scene features Roy Lichtenstein's artwork of a gun which appeared on the cover of Time in 1968. Then gun fires with the word "Whaam" (apparently a reference to another Lichtenstein piece), and the sparks settle to form the 15 Marilyn Monroe portraits from an Andy Warhol work. Gratz also features animation in some instances. Figures wink, talk, and the lines in the hair of two women in a Fernand Leger painting flow like water. I wish somebody would come out with an exhaustive list of all of the artworks featured in this short, but it would be very difficult, as Gratz would combine artwork, as in the Lichtenstein images, or modify them, as the Leger art doesn't appear to match with any one particular painting by Leger. Still, it's inspired me to learn more, which is good. The animation is also very interesting. All of these paintings are lovingly recreated using clay, which is modifed in a way similar to how Alexander Petrov modifies paint on glass. You end up with art that is quite faithful to the original, but also with the power to change. The music also helps to establish the mood. Overall, Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase is a terrific showcase of the best of art history.
Where Can I Watch It?

Reci Reci Reci..... (Words Words Words)
A lone waitor stands amongst a group of empty tables and chairs. It is a busy cafe, and it's just before opening time. A few hours later the place is bustling with customers: gossiping ladies, old men trying to shoot the breeze, dining couples etc. An attractive young lady sits alone that the waitor takes a fancy to, but she's already set her sights for somebody else. And what's up with that crazy dog trying to steal everybody's drink? It's a bunch of craziness, but it's just another day in the cafe. This short film is from Czechoslovakia, completed halfway betwen the end of communist rule and the dissolution into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Czechoslovakia has had some tremendous animation history. Back in 1960 a Czechoslovakian film, O Misto na Slunci (A Place in the Sun), became the first foreign film nominated for Best Animated Short. Czechoslovakia was also home to two of the greatest stop motion animators on the other side of Aardman: Jiri Trnka and Jan Svankmajer. Reci Reci Reci holds its own against the master works that came before. It features many snippets of people holding conversations, while the words they say are presented as visually tangible items that interact with their surroundings. For example, the speech of one woman talking to her husband is presented as a cloud that goes in his ear and out the other. He gets concerned only when the flow stops. It's an interesting representation of communication and dialogue, and allows the film to be universal even though it was made in eastern Europe. The snippets themselves are creative and keep the viewers engrossed to the end. There is also a recurring storyline involving the waitor, the woman he finds attractive, and her romantic interest that serves to tie the entire film together. I'm not exactly sure what the meaning of the drunk dog is, but it's kind of funny to watch it at work. The animation is coarse, made up of scratches and lines. It kind of reminds me of the art found in Peter Foldes's Oscar nominated masterpiece Hunger. There is no audible dialogue, as the dialogue is all presented on screen, but there are a lot of vocal effects. The soundtrack is also decent. Reci Reci Reci is a good film that fits well in the annals of Czechoslovakian animation history.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Sandman
It is nighttime in a certain European town. A young boy walks around banging on his toy drums while his mother sews. To the child's dismay, the clock strikes 8. The mother trades his drums for a candle, and sends him off to bed. The boy undergoes a perilous journey up the dark and spooky staircase with the strange feeling that he is being followed. He makes it to his bedroom, but all is not well. For the Sandman is out there, and he is looking for naughty little boys who are not asleep. The Sandman is a popular legend of a Sandman that visits little children and hurls sand in their eyes to help them sleep. The Sandman in this particular short from the late British stop-motion animator Paul Berry is more akin to the Sandman character from the ETA Hoffman story of the same title, one with more sinister intentions. This feel is palpable from the very beginning of the short, as it opens with a contiuous deep cello chord as the camera pans to a mysterious nest. The title itself then appears as lines that are scratched out a la Alien. For the next eight minutes Berry uses a combination of visuals and music to create a terrifying creation. The atmosphere is communicated visually through the sets, filmmaking, and character design, all of which were influenced by the German Expressionist movement (I got that from Wikipedia! Yey!) The movement set out to elicit an emotion using these visual styles, which is what Berry set out to do with The Sandman. The sets, from the staircase to the bedroom set, are designed with the bizarre angles that are found in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caliguri. The use of shadows and light also serve to heighten the effects from the sets. The character design is very good, especially the design of the titular character, a man-bird covered with feathers, long spindly fingers, and a head that resembles a crescent moon. He moves around with pirouettes and externally rotates his arms like a bird. He is menacing, yet also has a sense of playfulness that is even more unnerving. The music by famed British film and TV composer Colin Towns adds to the mood with its use of stringed chords as well as effective use of silence. The climax is also well done. It's kind of predictable, but the shock still remains. Overall, The Sandman is a great film and one that you won't forget anytime soon.
Where Can I Watch It?

Screen Play
A man dressed in Japanese clothing narrates a story about "young hearts in love." He proceeds to tell the story of Takako and Naoki, which is shown behind him. Takako is the daughter of a rich but arrogant noble. She is attracted to Naoki, her father's gardener, who reciprocates her love. She is engaged to be married to a powerful samurai, yet she finds ways to be with Naoki. Things go awry when Takako's maid finds out about their relationship and tells her father. Naoki is exiled, but love cannot keep them apart. Will a happy ending await them? So when I first saw this film, I found it a bit odd that a British film would be telling a Japanese romance tale. Later I would learn that the tale was not Japanese at all but completely British. It is a re-telling of the legend attached to the Willow Pattern, a British ceramic pattern that evokes the feel of East Asia. The film itself references the source by including the Willow Pattern at the end, but it went way over my head as I had never seen the pattern before. Anyways, the pattern was apparently designed in Britain in the late 18th century when England was still enthralled by Qing China, who was in her golden age during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. A romantic story purportedly from China was created, evidently to drum up sales. The ploy was a success and the Willow Pattern is still popular in Britain 200 years later. For Screen Play, director Barry Purves moved the story to Japan so that he can take advantage of their Kabuki tradition as well as their use of screens for filmmaking and storytelling effect. And what a great decision that was. Most of the film plays out like a stage show, with a rotating circular center and screens that are used as setting, to progress the story or to represent or introduce characters. Ninja characters dressed in black come in to display scenery as is common in works set in Japan (like The Mikado), and common items such as umbrellas or cloth is used to represent everything from water to passage of time. However, they aren't needed to move the scenery, as Purves makes full use of the stop motion medium for some incredibly incredible effects. Objects and entire backgrounds ppear and disappear behind moving screens, and the narrator can transform itself into different characters with just the wave of his hand. I can't fathom the level of storyboarding that must have gone into the production of this film. And the climax is astounding. I'm not going to spoil the content, but it completely cast off the rigid style to a more dynamic feel with close-ups and camera movement. I'm still not completely sold on the story, but the amazing design and style of Screen Play make it a tremendous film.
Where Can I Watch It?

I feel that 1992 had one of the strongest lineups in the history of the awards. All of the films were incredible works. Even Adam, which is my pick for the worst of the lot, is a film from one of the top animation studios and has its own share of supporters. My vote would go to Screen Play, as the bold design and filmmaking continues to dazzle even 20 years later. The Academy went for Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase instead, which is fair. You really can't go wrong with any of these films.

And just for kicks, here's the video of the award that night in 1993. Guess that Rob Lowe debacle five years earlier led to them using an animated Snow White. And man, that music they played with the nominees sure makes me nostalgic. I don't think they use it anymore.

My rankings (by quality)
Screen Play > The Sandman > Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase > Reci Reci Reci > Adam

My rankings (by preference)
Screen Play > The Sandman > Reci Reci Reci > Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase > Adam

Additional note: Now that we're done with our second decade of reviews, I'm going post my rankings of all the animated shorts from 1991-2001 by personal preference on Saturday, just like what I did for 2002-2011. It's going to be epic!

1 comment:

  1. ADAM

    I recall first seeing this short c/o a tape Fox Video released in the late 1990's called "Creature Comforts" The tape itself only had four shorts on it including "Adam", but what made it a bit more infamous (to me anyway) was the comments by one or two viewers weren't too happy with the character's nudeness in the film...

    "I have to admit that I wasn't too jazzed to see that the animator chose to make Adam anatomically correct (though not overtly so). If that had not been the case, I would say that this film is fair game for the younger set. But, as it stands, we chose not to show this one to our kids either."
    -Alan R. Holyoak (7/29/2000)

    Peter Lord had a good explanation for this too as I recall. This came down to how similar Adam was to an earlier work he did in the 1970's called "Morph". Morph pretty much was a Gumby-like series involving non-descript clay figures moving about, having wacky hijinks and all that. The addition of genitals of Adam was a way of distancing Adam from Morph in the end, though I suppose it's not always kosher to us American prudes!

    Although you didn't link to this version of Adam, I see a copy on YouTube that has a behind-the-scenes featurette at the end that might be a tad more informative!

    Guess that Rob Lowe debacle five years earlier led to them using an animated Snow White.

    It was for the best!