Sunday, April 09, 2017

My Life as a Courgette

For me, the most interesting animated features being made today are not from North America.  Europe has come on strong, both in terms of subject matter and technique.  Drawn animation is still alive there and now there is an excellent stop motion film called My Life as a Courgette (the French word for zucchini).

This film has racked up awards, including an Oscar nomination, and fully deserves whatever praise it's received.  The story is about a group of children who are victims of neglect or tragedy living in a state-run institution.  While the subject matter sounds depressing, the film avoids being dreary or maudlin.  This is not a story by Charles Dickens.  The institution is a haven from their former lives, and while the children are marked by their experiences, they don't dwell on them.  They go on being children who laugh, play, learn, fight, question and who are eager to experience new things.

The script, based on a novel by Gilles Paris with the screenplay by Celine Sciammo, Germano Zullo, Claude Barras and Morgan Navarro, and the direction by Barras are perfect, maintaining a balance between the emotions of the children's pasts and their present.  The stop motion puppets are not as flexible as those made by Mackinnon and Saunders for films like The Corpse Bride, but the animators evoke a wide range of emotions with them, helped enormously by the tasteful script and direction.  The film successfully develops the characters and their relationships.  The events grow out of the dynamics of the group and are never less than believable.

There are no big set pieces as there typically are in North American films.  It is not anywhere near as elaborate as Laika's work, but I found it to be far more satisfying.  The characters simply try to live their lives and it is surprisingly interesting to watch.

I caught the film at the TIFF Kids International Film Festival.  So far, the film has not received a release in Canada, though it opened in the U.S. in February.  I don't know where Canadians will next have an opportunity to see this film, but don't miss it when it becomes available. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Toronto Screening of The Animation Show of Shows

The 18th Annual Animation Show of Shows Trailer - Coming Soon from Acme Filmworks on Vimeo.

The 18th annual Animation Show of Shows will be screening at the Carlton Cinema, 20 Carlton Street, from March 31 to April 6.  The films are:
Stems - Ainslie Hendersen (Scotland)
Shift - Cecilia Puglesi & Yijun Liu (U.S.)
Pearl - Patrick Osborne (U.S.)
Crin-crin - Iris Alexandre (Belgium)
Mirror - Chris Ware, John Kuramoto, Ira Glass (U.S.)
Last summer in the garden - bekky O¹Neil (Canada)
Waiting for the New Year - Vladimir Leschiov (Latvia)
Piper - Alan Barillaro (U.S.)
Bøygen - Kristian Pedersen (Norway)
Afternoon Class - Seoro Oh (Korea)
About a Mother - Dina Velikovskaya (Russia)
Exploozy - Joshua Gunn, Trevor Piecham, & John McGowan (U.S.)
Inner Workings - Leo Matsuda (U.S.)
CORPUS - Marc Héricher (France)
BLUE - Daniela Sherer (Israel)
MANOMAN - Simon Cartwright (England)
ALL THEIR SHADES - Chloé Alliez (Belgium)

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Toronto Screenings of My Life as a Courgette

My Life as a Courgette (aka My Life as a Zucchini) is a Swiss-French stop motion feature that was nominated for an Oscar and has won prizes at festivals all over the world.

While it is playing in theatres in the U.S. and Canada, it has no release date for a run in Toronto.  However, it will screen twice at the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, once on April 9 at 10:45 a.m. and once on April 17 at 3:45 p.m.

Information about the film can be found here and information about the festival is here.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Laika Speculation

I am thousands of miles from Laika's studio and have no inside information.  However, I've been interested in following the company's fortunes as it is one of the few companies making stop motion features.

Travis Knight, CEO, animator and director, is going to direct a Transformers spinoff for Paramount.

This is unexpected and raises many questions about the future of Laika.  It's clear from the budgets and grosses of Laika's films that the company is not self-supporting.  I've always thought that it has survived because Travis Knight wanted it to, and because his father, Phil Knight of Nike, was willing to financially support the company on his son's behalf.

What does Travis Knight's latest move mean?  Is he just looking for a change of pace with the intention of returning to Laika?  Was there an understanding between father and son that Laika had to become profitable after some amount of time or number of films, and if it didn't the subsidy would end?

Travis Knight is the reason that Laika exists.  Without him, there is no reason for Phil Knight to finance a money-losing company.  Perhaps this is nothing more than an opportunity that popped up and was hard to resist, but Travis Knight's plans and the box office success of the Transformer's spinoff could have a major impact on the continued existence of Laika.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Floyd Norman: An Animated Life Screening in Toronto

Floyd Norman, animator and story artist, was one of the first African-Americans to work at Disney and in the animation industry.  A documentary on his life is showing at the Hot Docs cinema on Bloor Street on Sunday, February 19 at 11 a.m.  It's a one-time screening.

Floyd will be present via Skype after the film.

For more information, go here.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

John Canemaker's New Blog

John Canemaker (left) with Jules Feiffer

Animation historian and Academy Award winning filmmaker John Canemaker has started a blog.  His first entry features an event last November with the multi-talented cartoonist, playwright, screenwriter and author Jules Feiffer.  Anyone familiar with Canemaker's work knows that anything he writes is worth reading.  Included is a letter Feiffer wrote to his daughters, providing political perspective on today's world.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Michael Dudok de Wit and The Red Turtle

Michael Dudok de Wit's film The Red Turtle is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto as of January 27.  Some Sheridan animation students and I had the pleasure of spending an hour with Michael Dudok de Wit when he was in Toronto to publicize the film last September as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

After the success of his Oscar winning short Father and Daughter, Dudok de Wit was approached by Studio Ghibli and asked if he had a feature idea that they could produce for him.  He told us that when he was a student, just getting laughs was enough but as he's gotten older, he wants his films to be built on more substantial emotions.

Creating the story reel was a case of  two steps forward and one step backwards.  His feeling is that without a good storyboard, it's impossible to make a good film.  He sought out feedback from the Ghibli producers and praised Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata for their input.  Their goal was to be as ego-free as possible and just look for the best idea.

In creating the story reel, he felt he benefited from working with an editor.  He said that rhythms and flow are far more important in a feature than in a short and the editor, who regularly cuts live action, was able to help.

For the production, done entirely in Europe with TV Paint software, live action reference was shot.  There was no rotoscoping, but as Dudok de Wit was interested in realistic motion, various gestures from the live action were used.

Dudok de Wit's preference for long shots has to do with his interest in the environment the characters live in.  He also prefers to communicate using a character's whole body.  He talked about how subtle human expressions are and how difficult it is to duplicate that subtlety in animation, especially when you're trying to communicate to a crew.  Therefore, long shots work best.

He worked 80-100 hour weeks because he wanted the film to be as good as possible.  He's too close to the film to know if he wants to make another feature or if he will return to shorts.

(There are spoilers below.)

I have mixed feelings about the film.  In some ways, it reminds me of Pete Docter's work at Pixar in that Dudok de Wit is excellent at evoking emotions, particularly those that come from familial relationships, but like Docter he seems to have problems with story logic.

Fantasies are delicate things.  The audience must understand what is possible and what's isn't in a story in order to believe the film's events.  The opening of The Red Turtle is brutally realistic.  A man is lost at sea, being battered by stormy waves with nothing to hold onto.  Once he reaches an island, the film maintains the realism.  The flora and fauna are real and the man's struggle to leave the island is completely believable.  He tries several times and each time his raft is destroyed by a red turtle.  There is no hint at the turtle's motivation for this.  As the film shows baby turtles hatching on the beach, it makes more sense that the turtle would be glad to get the man off the island as his presence might threaten the turtle's spawn.  When the turtle comes to the beach to lay eggs, the man is justifiably angry at the creature who has foiled his escape. He flips the turtle onto its back and it appears to die.

Earlier in the film, the man dreamed or hallucinated the presence of a string quartet on the island.  It's clear to the audience that this is not real.  The man himself realizes it.  So when the dead turtle turns into a woman, the audience has not been prepared for the possibility that the transformation could be real.  The earlier dreams led me to believe that the man was once again hallucinating.  But within the film, it most certainly is real.

The lack of preparation for this moment took me out of the film.  I kept waiting for some sort of explanation after the fact, but there was none.  The turtle's destruction of the rafts and the man's murder of the turtle in no way suggest the eventual transformation or relationship.  For me, the film never recovered from this.

Visually, the film is lovely.  There are bravura sequences of the storm at sea and a later tsunami.  The environment of the island is portrayed in great detail.  There are moments of powerful suspense and there is comedy provided by a population of crabs.  The musical score is lovely and emotionally evocative.  The bulk of the film is about the loving relationship between the man and the woman, the birth of their child, and their life as a family on the island as they deal with the unpredictable natural world.  But the flaws in the first act are never addressed.

Another issue is the lack of dialogue.  I have no problem with a film that doesn't have talking, but the characters do yell.  The director has given them voices, yet they say nothing intelligible to each other.  At the TIFF screening, Dudok de Wit said that they tried writing dialogue for key moments but couldn't find words that seemed to fit the style of the film.  As the film relies heavily on sound effects, he could not have natural sound and keep his characters completely mute.  But by allowing them to make sounds yet not talk, he's created an artificial constraint that doesn't work in my view.

There are other inconsistencies that are minor, but still forced me out of the story.  The man builds a small shelter to protect the woman from the sun before she wakes for the first time.  Yet when they have a child later, the family builds no shelter.  There are sudden, heavy downpours on the island, yet the family seems to have no problem being constantly exposed to the elements.

After the tsunami, the family burns all the uprooted trees.  This is the only time fire is present in the film.  The family never builds a fire for light, warmth or to cook with.  As shelter and fire are not present except for these two occasions, it is every bit as odd as the characters yelling but not talking.  They have the knowledge, but don't use it.

Feature scripts are difficult.  There's no shortage of films whose scripts don't work.  For a director who is moving from shorts to features, there are many new challenges in terms of story, characterization and pacing.  Dudok de Wit spoke a great deal about using intuition to find what worked for him.  And while his intuition has created a film with excellent parts, it failed him in constructing the whole.

While Dudok de Wit was undecided about future films, I hope that he makes more features as he has much to contribute.  The film has great sequences and strong emotional moments.  It broadens animated features' range and nudges the medium a bit more towards adult content.  I'm glad the film received an Oscar nomination and hope that it makes the film profitable and motivates Dudok de Wit to continue.