Paramount Home Video
Extras: Interviews, Animatic, Preview
It may be the greatest lost art of contemporary mainstream cinema. In the 1920s and 1930s, the short-form animated film was an integral part of the movie-going experience. With Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, and Mickey Mouse, movie studios created memorable animated characters that became as much of an attraction as the major stars of the period. Some animators experimented with the blending of live action and animation, as in Walt Disney's "Alice" comedies. After the 1930s, however, short subjects became less frequent as double features rose in popularity and theater owners became less interested in renting one- or two-reelers. With the advent of television programming, short subjects virtually disappeared from theaters and in the contemporary film era were relegated to film festival exhibition and, more recently, Internet streaming. Yet, while the animated short film has fallen far from American moviegoers' attention, animators used the freedom of the short film's independent and art-house status to their advantage by exploring themes and subjects not typically addressed in mainstream cinema and experimenting with style and technique, effectively building the animated short film into its own unique art form.
In 2003, animators Mike Judge ("Beavis and Butt-head," "King of the Hill") and Don Hertzfeldt created "The Animation Show," a touring festival intended to provide theatrical exhibition for animated short films across the country. For three successful seasons, the festival has helped to bring the work of some of the world's finest animators to wide audiences and provides the filmmakers with an outlet through which they can explore the full capacities of the cinematic medium by producing films for the big screen. Each theatrical tour has been followed by a DVD release of some of the exhibited films, although Judge and Hertzfeldt have made a point of changing the program for the DVD, leaving out some of the theatrically released films and including some that were not part of the theatrical release, ensuring that each is a different but cohesive experience.
The third volume of "The Animation Show" is certainly a dark group of films, perfectly demonstrating the ways in which animators are able to use the freedom of the medium to take on difficult and controversial subject matter. The program begins with a brief introduction by none other than Judge's most famous characters, Beavis and Butt-head. The real treasures of this collection, however, are the work of award-winning filmmakers such as Bill Plympton, Joanna Quinn, and PES. Plympton, whose work has had some minor mainstream success, including on MTV in the 1980s, contributes two films: "Guide Dog," a sequel to his 2004 Oscar-nominated "Guard Dog," and "Shuteye Hotel," a clever mystery spoof. "Game Over," by PES, utilizes stop-motion animation to recreate a "Pac-Man" style video game out of actual objects, including a pizza Pac-Man! Quinn's short film, "Dreams and Desires: Family Ties," is one of the very best of this collection. The short follows the beloved character Beryl, an overweight, middle-aged woman, as she uses her new digital camera to film a friend's wedding with disastrous results. The stop-motion work of PES and the distinct hand-drawn animation of Plympton and Quinn reveal the power that traditional forms of animation still hold and demonstrate that with good stories, characters, and concepts, the simplest techniques can produce truly extraordinary films.
Nowhere is this truth more apparent than in Don Hertzfeldt's contribution, "Everything Will Be OK," which for my money is the best film in this program and one of the most powerful works of animation I have ever seen. Following Bill, the fedora-wearing stick-figure protagonist of Hertzfeldt's old comic strip, the short is an alternately funny, sorrowful, and frightening examination of an utterly lonely character who fears he may be dying. Hertzfeldt utilizes traditional hand-drawn animation as well as experimental photography, but it is all used to simple, unpretentious effect, laying bare the emotional turmoil of the protagonist. This film alone is reason enough to seek out this collection.
Other memorable shorts include: "Rabbit," Run Wrake's intriguingly twisted story of greed done in the style of a children's storybook; Gaëlle Denis' "City Paradise," a visually arresting piece combining live action with 3-D and 2-D animation that becomes a bit too convoluted for its own good; Max Hattler's "Collision," an intricate sequence of kaleidoscopic patterns made up of Islamic and American symbols; "Versus," a hilarious computer-animated film about two samurai armies battling for a small, insignificant island; Chris Harding's "Learn Self Defense," a satirical jab at the current Administration's war on terror; and "Abigail," a troubling work by Tony Comely set on a burning airplane. In total, there are 17 short films in this program, and while some are more successful than others, everything in this collection is worth seeing and worthy of being included.
Paramount Home Video's release of this collection is something of a mixed bag. Most of the films utilize the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, although others were filmed in widescreen. However, Paramount has provided a non-anamorphic release, meaning the widescreen shorts have been letterboxed. Image quality is good on all of them, especially "City Paradise," which exhibits deeply vibrant colors. Some of the films have a deliberately rough or grainy appearance, and their transfers look appropriate.
Audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that adequately does the job. There is nothing particularly dynamic here, but dialogue is always clear and balanced well with the music.
Special features for this collection are limited mainly to a series of interviews, both video and text. The video interviews include discussions with Gaëlle Denis (6 min.), Max Hattler (4 min.), and Joanna Quinn (8 min.). Viewers can also access a DVD-ROM feature containing PDF files with text interviews with several animators as well as Ryan Heshka, who designed the posters for the three festivals. These interviews are quite informative, providing some background information on the animators and some insight into their ideas behind the featured shorts.
A six-minute animatic presentation for "Abigail" is also included, showing the live action footage that was shot and later digitally manipulated to create the animated film, as well as storyboard drawings and a roughly animated version. The three stages of filming are shown in a four-screen split screen with the final film in its entirety. Finally, there is an eight-minute introduction to MTV's animated series "The Maxx."
Although unfairly pushed to the margins of American cinema exhibition, animated short films contain some of the most innovative and creative filmmaking happening today. Because of Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt's efforts, these shorts are being introduced to wider audiences than ever before with "The Animation Show" and can be seen on theater screens as they were meant to be. The visual ingenuity and provocative subject matter on display in these shorts is proof that the art of short filmmaking is not dead at all but thriving well. Hopefully, the release of these films on DVD will open people's eyes to the artistry of short-form animation, as there is so much to be admired and appreciated by all viewers.