Monday, June 26, 2017

Annecy 2017 Impressions

Annecy always reminds me how thriving the animation community is and this year's edition was no exception. In the end, I may not have seen as many films as I would have liked but the combination of wonderful people, sunshine and two pedalo rides more than outweighed that, especially looking back eight days later.

As always, I also discovered bandes dessinées I have never heard of and was introduced to the works of inventive animation directors that had previously slipped under my radar. For example, I wouldn't have chosen to go to a screening of Crystal winner LU OVER THE WALL (Yoake tsugeru Rû no uta) if my friends did not already have tickets and knew what they were in for with Masaaki Yuasa.
Overwhelming water animation in LU OVER THE WALL.

Some 2017 Favorites

My favorite film was certainly MIN BÖRDA (Niki Landroth von Bahr, 2017) from Sweden in which a couple of lonely animals "sing" about their isolation. If you're not sold after seeing the singing fish in the trailer below (how could anyone not be), then surely the prospect of an animated Roy Andersson short film will get you interested.

The Burden (Min Börda) - trailer from Niki Lindroth von Bahr on Vimeo.

MIN BÖRDA was one of several stop motion films that included a long shot showing the whole set from an outside perspective. In contrast to the more meta-level versions (akin to Fellini's E LA NAVE VA, 1983) in several other puppet films, in MIN BÖRDA it actually was a diegetic shot, though.

NEGATIVE SPACE (Ru Kuwahata/Max Porter), another stop motion short, stood out to me not only because the tone of the storytelling was just perfect but also because I really admired the careful animation, especially the make-believe wave on the beach.

Negative Space - Trailer from Tiny Inventions on Vimeo.

With the advent of digital cinema, the once extravagant cinemascope (1:2.39) aspect ratio is available to even the most underfunded film maker and therefore increasingly popular. What does not automatically come with a wider frame are the skills it takes to make such compositions work (as has been already proven during the 1950s in live-action cinema). Thankfully, Michelle and Uri Kranot mastered the format in NOTHING HAPPENS, a film "about watching and being watched". And as I have learned on vimeo, the film that looks so non-digital on the big screen is also a virtual reality experience:

Nothing happens- an animated virtual reality experience from Michelle & Uri Kranot on Vimeo.

Being always alert to color trends, I noticed how many of the films I liked made heavy use of blue either in conventional terms of cold v warm, orange - teal or more boldly like in MATERIAL WORLD (Anna Ginsburg) that won the Annecy Crystal for best commissioned film.
The beauty of instructional videos: MATERIAL WORLD
In that light, it certainly fitted perfectly well that in the very same commissioned film program a CNN explainer addressed the very color:

Blue - CNN from Moth on Vimeo.

The commissioned films program was a real delight because it provides a nice usually give you a nice overview of current styles popular in the more inventive sections of advertising. And for me, getting an overview is one of the things that also draws me to internationally renowned annual short film competitions like Annecy.

Some concerns about short film compilations

The programming of this section, however, is highly problematic. If you saw only one or two screenings instead of all six, you would come to an extremely distorted conclusion about current trends in animation. Because:
A) not only are many of the more experimental films lumped together into one single "off-limits" program (which both makes it harder to process them all and turns away many a viewer who normally would not mind a challenging experiment in between more easily accessible films), but also
B) the films in the five "normal" competition compilations seem to be increasingly segregated as well by style/technique and even content (I wasn't alone with the impression that I saw a program full of meta-stop motion films and one full of either handpainted or pixilation/live-action-animation combinations). It may make sense from a critic's point of view to compare three similarly themed stop motion films that feature invisible imaginary walls, but to the audience the effect is more like "oh, another one of those" which does not do the individual films justice.

Brush strokes and the power of voice acting

But to close on a more positive note: a packed Bonlieu, Grande Salle is still the most exciting place to see a film on the big screen simply because it produces the most enthusiastic audience I have ever seen. And this, of course, was the case on my first day, when I thoroughly enjoyed the first "public" screening of LOVING VINCENT and contributed to a ten minute standing ovation that made it into Variety.

Writer-director Dorota Kobiela had the crowd on her side right from the beginning when she emotionally dedicated it to her grandmother. What most surprised me - and ultimately convinced me despite the film's many flaws - was the fact that the concocted mystery plot worked so smoothly. Maybe a bit too smoothly and certainly too rushed at times when everything that vaguely resembled a reflective moment was plastered with Clint Mansell's far too obtrusive score before I had time to catch a breath.

But - and that is a much more serious problem - the film, well-acted as it is by the likes of Chris O'Dowd and Soairse Ronan, would easily work as an Irish radio play which literally means that apart from a few imaginative scene transitions the filmmakers failed to make use of the visual potential of a feature film consisting exclusively of oil paintings and simply illustrate talking heads. For sure, the paintings are expertly executed, the flow is a lot better than in almost any rotoscoped feature I have seen and the colors alone are a fantastic treat. But narratively, there is nothing gained from the brush strokes, no new insight into the characters that is not already in the dialogue. Stylistically, despite the unifying rotoscoping, the well-proportioned actors walking through off-perspective backdrops often reminded me of the Dali dream sequence in Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND where Gregory Peck stumbles through deliberately unbalancing expressionist/surrealist sets.
LOVING VINCENT: live-action v rotoscoped in oil.
But still I enjoyed it and I warmly recommend seeing it. Even if mostly for pulling this feat off and hopefully making people all around the world re-discover an artist who is so popular today that we take him for granted. And if that comes through a combination of eye candy and tv style murder mystery, so be it. I'd rather see that one again over yet another superhero origin story.

Speaking of origin stories: the basic parent - child relationship inherent to any origin story seems to have replaced the love story as the primary emotional trajectory of mainstream films from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Condon, 2017) to LOGAN (Mangold, 2017) or ROGUE ONE (Edwards, 2016). Thus, it came as no surprise that many films in the shorts competition dealt with remembering a recently deceased parent. A special treat was PÉPÉ LE MORSE (Lucrèce Andreae): a prime example of fluid, atmospheric storytelling - at 15 minutes it never dragged - and strong voice acting which I am very partial to yet which is not so easily found in animated short films.

Pépé le morse - Teaser from Lucrece Andreae on Vimeo.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


It has been quite some time since I posted some of my own work on this blog. But in the last few months, there have been a few illustration assignments that I really enjoyed doing.

Recently, a good friend commissioned a large format (digital) painting from one of his holiday photographs. At first, I was not sure if that was a good idea and if I was able to make it look good at a size of about 2.7m wide, but then I really enjoyed to slightly tweak the composition of the well-known Lofoten vista. Since I knew where it would eventually be displayed, I even managed to change the lighting situation so that now the light comes from where the window (and the lamp at night) is located in the room.
Lofoten in summer - Click on the image to see a slightly larger version.

Besides, I always like to paint mountains as can be seen in this color/lighting study below.

Mount Hahnen - Click on the image to see a slightly larger version.

I have also had the opportunity to illustrate Robert Jakob's well written children's book "Max, die Kletterschildkröte" about a Hermann's tortoise who travels to Kasachstan. It was probably the first children's book where I had complete freedom with the color scheme which meant that I could narrow it down to basically two colors (plus earthly grays and browns). The publisher's only input was that they did not want another green tortoise character (we agreed upon the warm orange skin tone shortly before I saw the first image of Michael Dudok de Wit's THE RED TURTLE).

Click on the image to see a slightly larger version.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Color Poster Triptych 07: Space Balls

For larger version click on the image.
Most of us have probably encountered that design a few years ago when Sam Rockwell made an unsettling discovery in MOON. Spheres against a dark background as symbols for planets, the moon or other objects in outer space are quite common, though. What strikes me about these three posters is how similar they are in the use of composition and especially the black and white illustration style not uncommon in Eastern European movie posters during the 1960s and 70s.

The initial enigma of MOON did in fact remind me of Tarkovsky's SOLYARIS (which I wasn't really able to appreciate at the time I saw it). But seeing the poster next to COLOSSUS: THE FORBIDDEN PROJECT, it is hard not to see that as a major influence on the graphic design even though that sci-fi-thriller does take place on earth.

The uniformly distributed white lines look like outward radiation in COLOSSUS, self-contained circles in MOON and combined like the grid on a spherical map in SOLYARIS. Apart from the faint blue in MOON, the only major color to balance the black and white is red. I could add one of the fan posters with the reddish eye of HAL from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Kubrick, 1968) which probably served as an inspiration for the SOLYARIS poster. I do not believe, however, that there was a HAL's-eye poster during the initial theatrical release.

Note: the moiree effect is due to resizing the pixel images and did not appear in the original printed artwork.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Color Poster Triptychs 06: The Persona Image

for larger version click on the image.
The composition of a profile shot partly obscuring another character's near-frontal view is usually associated with Ingmar Bergman's black and white masterpiece PERSONA (1966). The iconic setup that was referenced or spoofed in countless films about split or merged personalities was not new and only one among many compositions built on half, overlapping and merging faces (now is as good a time to watch this groundbreaking film as any).
It also appears in Agnes Varda's LA POINTE-COURTE (1955) many years before, however, and Bergman also used it in earlier films.

Referenced famously in Woody Allen's LOVE AND DEATH (1975) and obviously in Kon's PERFECT BLUE (1997).
In the artworks above for three really great films, the black and white aspect is retained. While FRANTZ is, in fact, a black and white film with only a few hints of color, the sepia tone of the DEAD MAN WALKING poster not suggests skin tones but also matches the emotionally dreary tone of the movie. The stylized colorisation in the HABLE CON ELLA ("talk to her") poster combines the monochrome nature of the original image with the strong primary colors associated with the works of Spanish auteur Pablo Almodovar.

In contrast, the three posters below discard the monochrome aspect by keeping more or less natural skin tones. However, the overlapping aspect is much stronger here: unlike the characters that face the viewer in the posters above, one eye of those below is obscured. That way, we only see one half of each face.
for larger version click on the image.
Why are the men always in front of the women?
There is something in all six posters, though, that I was initially wondering about: why are the men (present in four of the six including the young Kevin in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN) always the ones in front obscuring part of the women's faces? It certainly is more equally distributed in LA POINTE-COURTE.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is really a coincidence. First of all, a poster has to prime us for a story by telling us already part of that story. The setup in question basically tells us that character A is looking at (or at least in the direction of) character B who is staring into space and is not returning the look. So there is at least a visual disconnect between them. Because of the profile shot, we also do not have a direct visual connection between B and the viewer, we see him from outside, while we are looking directly into A's eyes. In the Almodovar example, character A (the blue woman) is unconscious for much of the film while other characters look at her, "talk to her" and even behave unethically towards her.

So let us look closer at those four posters that place men closer to us than the women: Three of the four men are slightly out of focus and thus draw our attention to the woman's face. But in GIFTED and FRANTZ the women's gazes only lead us back to the male face, whereas in all the other images everyone is staring into the distance.

In the case of DEAD MAN WALKING the male profile makes sense to me: Sister Helen is by nature a much more open and well-rounded character (hence we see her face more fully) than the arrogant murderer she visits. Actually, the same is true for FRANTZ: protagonist Anna is trying to discover the truth about the mysterious Adrien, who is depicted with closed eyes so that we subconsciously accept Anna as the active, more important character.

In WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, the boy does actively ignore and metaphorically obscure his mother who increasingly seems to lose focus and the connection to her son. Kevin is indeed dominant and manipulative. I haven't seen GIFTED yet, so I can't say anything about that.

There is, in fact, a contemporary poster (left) that shows the man in the back and blurred even though he is much more well-known than the woman. Considering RETURN TO MONTAUK is based on the semi-autobiographical novel "Montauk" by famous Swiss author Max Frisch, this is even more interesting. I am probably going to use this later in a "beach scene with heads in the clouds" triptych.

Note: I do not think the artwork for THE TOURIST (below) falls into this category, by the way, because both characters look actively away from each other.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Color Poster Triptych 05: Warriors

Click on the image for a larger version.

It has become a bit of a cliché to stage nonhierarchical groups flatly walking towards the viewer. As can be seen above, the lack of a strong focal point is often compensated for by a washed out, receding or even non-existent white background. Considering the equality concept, this staging makes perfect sense in the case of the two 1970s stories DIE GÖTTLICHE ORDNUNG ("the divine order" about the fight for women's vote in Switzerland) and KOLLEKTIVET ("the commune" about a married couple inviting their "friends" to live with them). That also dictates the muddy costume colors.

In contrast to the Swiss poster, the others two look much more color coordinated and restricted to two or three basic colors (this is even more obvious in the original Danish version of the poster in the middle). In my opinion, the blandest one also primes us for the blandest concept which seems to be GOING IN STYLE. Like seemingly 40% of all movie poster (even beyond Hollywood), it entirely draws on the old blue v yellow contrast.

When I see a poster like this, especially the one about fighting for equality, I am usually reminded of THE WARRIORS. As you can see below, this has a lot more going for, in fact: a more interesting angle, the blue background, the reflections and a less in your face attitude. Besides the typeface is much more interesting.
Click on the image for a larger version.