These days, feature animation is an exorbitantly profitable business, one that keeps major studios racing to assemble the next four-quadrant CG hit—since they seem to have disowned the wonders of 2-D when it comes to theatrical releases—that can appeal to a global market and fit within their brands’ canons.
Of course, originality has a difficult time flourishing under the pressures of projected box-office and ancillary revenue goals. Also, the existing Disney-centric model perpetuates the trite notion that animation only serves the youngest demographic. However, godsend distributors like the eight-time Academy Award-nominated company GKIDS, anime connoisseurs Funimation, and up-and-coming theatrical player Shout! consistently open spaces for feature animated content to be exhibited and appreciated as the product of individual visions and an alternative to star-driven, stylistically homogenous studio fare.
Yet, because of the lower financial stakes and minimal prospects for distribution, short-length animation remains the best way for the medium to convey wild, personal and genre-defying ideas. Most festivals carve out segments within their programs to showcase animated shorts in exciting blocs, which oftentimes surpass the quality of full-length works, live-action or otherwise.
Theatrical distribution does tend to be an unfilled dream for the majority of artists behind this short projects. Online consumption is the preferred avenue to reach audience—but, thanks to people like Ron Diamond, not the only one. In 1990 Diamond, a prominent figure in the world of animation, successfully launched The Animation Show of Shows, a collection of the best animated shorts of that year, through Acme Filmworks.
Last year, the program received a theatrical release across several American cities for the first time, and included two films that were eventually nominated for an Academy Award. To bring The 18th Animation Show of Shows to the big screen this year, Diamond relied on a crowdfunding campaign to continue his passion project, allowing these films to be seen in the broadest possible manner. Through that campaign and recurrent support from numerous companies, the show will reach American art houses once again this fall. The quality of every selected bite-size movie is undeniable, but beyond this, the program is really a wondrous potpourri of techniques, budgets and genres in a limitless medium.
The perfectly chosen, zanily meta opener for the 18th edition, “Stems” by Ainslie Hendersen, conveys the tangible magic of stop-motion. We witness how an animator gives life to characters crafted from everyday objects and transformed into singular creatures. The artist and his puppets, born right in front of our eyes, tell a story about the essence of creativity.
Proving that 3-D animation is as capable of sophisticated storytelling when in the right hands, “Shift,” by Cecilia Puglesi and Yijun Liu, deals with the human need to fit in and the fact that our concept of normalcy is matter of perspective. The film unfolds from the points of view of a woman who enjoys nudity and freedom, and another woman who abides by societal expectations.
One standout film is Academy Award-winner Patrick Osborne’s latest independent work, “Pearl,” a musical-charged tale about a father, a daughter and their beloved vehicle. The short resembles the visual aesthetic of Osborne’s 2014 short “Feast” and continues the filmmaker’s observational approach at looking at families and their unconventional members.
Intercutting between a live-action musical quartet playing the fast-paced and folksy score, Iris Alexandre’s “Crin-crin” is as charming as it is clever in its simple designs. A rabbit and a raccoon cut off a horse’s tail and a chase ensues, building up to hilarious proportions.
In Chris Ware and John Kuramoto’s “Mirror,” a clever 2-D animated version of a cover story produced by The New Yorker and This American Life and narrated by Ira Glass, a mother ponders on how much a comment about her teenaged daughter’s physical appearance can affect her future.
Taking us back to basics, “Last summer in the garden” by bekky O’Neil is an intimate hand-drawn portrait of a couple and their environment, done with watercolors, crayons, markers and other fine arts techniques.
This writer’s personal favorite, the heartwarming Latvian short “Waiting for the New Year” by Vladimir Leschiov, is an exercise in elegance and subtly. With its nostalgic character design and silent narrative, the film follows a woman who remains static as the season pass by in hopes of seeing a loved one once more. Oscar recognition isn’t too farfetched a notion for this gem.
Leschiov’s work is followed by the highest-profile piece in the pack, and the one most readers and casual moviegoers might have already seen. Pixar animator Alan Barillaro’s “Piper” played in front of Finding Dory earlier this year and uses photorealist backgrounds and topnotch CG to depict a charming young bird confronting his fear of the ocean and befriending a pack of equally adorable crabs.
By far the outlier of the pack, and a testament to the variety on display year after year in Show of Shows, is Kristian Pedersen’s “Bøygen,” an abstract succession of moving shapes and lights in the form of a serpent that represents the obstacles one must face throughout life (a concept designated in Norwegian by the film’s title). An interview with the director is also included to add insight into the most intriguing short in the collection.
From South Korea, Seoro Oh’s “Afternoon Class” employs surreal imagery to accurately depict the powerlessness everyone has felt when trying to stay awake during a lecture. Once again traditional animation shines as a beacon of hope for animators looking to experiment with color, design and poignant premises.
Channeling her appreciation for motherhood in “About a Mother,” young Russian moviemaker Dina Velikovskaya takes us to an African village drawn with utter simplicity, as a mother uses her hair as a multipurpose tool to protect and provide for her three children. Black lines on a white canvas are enough to express such gratitude in a humorous fashion.
With the advent of widely available apps that facilitate the creation of high-quality photos, videos and other new media projects, Joshua Gunn, Trevor Piecham and John McGowan’s “Expoozy” is a satirical ad for a fictional application that allows people to inexpensively create animated videos without any effort. This brief but relevant mock commercial pokes fun at the lack of appreciation for the time and dedication animators put into their idiosyncratic creations—more complex that what an algorithm intended to maximize social media appeal can deliver.
A digitally achieved but nonetheless satisfying Rube Goldberg machine explains the chain reactions that fuel the human body and all the processes that this involves in Marc Héricher’s “Corpus.” It’s science class with an animated twist.
On the other hand, Daniela Sherer and her uniquely colorful figures look at the psychological conflicts of our existence in “Blue,” which works as a poetically nuanced preamble to the outrageous final two shorts.
Mixing stop-motion animation in the form of rod figurines, which includes meticulously manufactured backgrounds and miniature props, and digitally animated facial movements, Simon Cartwright’s delightfully grotesque “Manoman” centers on a man seeking to find himself through a primal scream therapy class and, instead, meeting a physical iteration of his most inhibited feelings and desires. The diabolical little guy that emerges from the protagonist insides is at once hilarious and terrifying. This is definitely an adult-oriented film that deals with frustration and repressed needs.
Closing out the 91-minute parade of imagination, “All Their Shades” by Chloé Alliez is a cheeky ode to female beauty in which women of all shapes, sizes and colors are illustrated by light switches.
Only when witnessing such array of storytelling methods both in tone and tools can one fully appreciate animation as a art form unbound by the self-imposed rules of its most commercial iterations, but liberated by those who find in the medium the ideal format to shared their worldviews. MM
The Animation Show of Shows is currently in theaters, courtesy of Acme Filmworks. See screening schedules here.