Reviews: animation & artistic creation collide in Stopmotion

Stopmotion,
Directed by Robert Morgan,
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Stella Gonet, Tom York, Caoilinn Springall, James Swanton

I have been eager to see this film since Phil posted the trailer here on LFF; a lifelong love of animation (especially stop-motion work), and of horror, this film was calling to me. I’m delighted to report that I was not disappointed – this is one of the more unusual British horrors of recent years, delving into psychology, family ties versus our own urge to create our own path, and the lengths an artist will go to when creating something. Just how much of yourself can you pour into your creation without endangering your sense of self and the real world around you?

Ella (Aisling Franciosi) is a young animation artist, but instead of forging her own path, she’s spinning her wheels, helping her mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet) with her work. Her mother is a revered figure in the world of animated film – one friend comments how her work was required viewing at art college – but age and progressive illness have robbed her hands of their once finely tuned skills, so Ella is effectively now her hands, painstakingly setting up each frame of her mother’s final stop-motion film, millimetre by millimetre.

It’s work which requires a huge investment of time and attention, time she should be spending carving out her own artistic identity and work (as it opens the two women are even dressed alike), so Ella is chafing, and it doesn’t help that her mother is overbearing and seems quite uncaring about the demands she is making on her daughter, which increases her resentment. Interestingly Franciosi and Morgan opted to show this simmering resentment not through explosive anger, but through a far more nuanced and subtle performance. Just like the demanding art she works at,

Ella is good at keeping herself relatively still, emotionally as well as physical, instead allowing only small changes in expression and body language to hint as the growing tempest within her; it’s a damned fine bit of acting craft on her part. When illness puts her mother in the hospital, at first Ella considers finishing her film for her, but she really wants to create her own, and realises this is her chance at last. Her boyfriend arranges for her to borrow an empty apartment in an almost deserted block of flats to use as a nice, quiet studio space, and she sets herself up to… Realise that now she has the time, she’s not sure what story she wants to tell (I’m sure many of us who have created works have experienced that phenomenon, our best ideas seem to come when we don’t have time to work on them!).

It’s at this point she meets the only other person she ever seems to see in the building, Caoilinn Springall’s unnamed young girl, who with a child’s curiosity asks what she is doing and if she can look. And with that lack of filters that kids have she is quite blunt in telling Ella that her ideas aren’t good, and instead proposing some story ideas of her own. Slowly she starts to make a new story, a quite disturbing-looking one, about the figure of a woman in fear, fleeing through a forest, being pursued by a slow but relentless being, the Ash Man.

As the girl encourages her not just to change the story, but to start using, shall we say “unusual” material for creations, including raw meat, or organic items instead of the usual metal armature skeleton inside her figures. And it is at this point that Ella’s imagination and work and the real world start to overlap one another – the stress and resentment of looking after her ailing mother, of carrying out work for an ungrateful person, of feeling her own life has been left behind, finally starts to seep out from this seemingly quiet, centred woman.

This is a beautifully made film, and it is quite clear Morgan and his crew have gone to great lengths to craft each scene to be just so. Even at the opening of the film this is obvious – we see Ella in a nightclub, lit by flickering strobe lights, their periodic bursts making the dancers around her appear to be almost stop-motion figures themselves, while with each flash of the strobes Ella’s facial expressions change. It was a statement of intent made right at the start of the film, and one I felt they adhered to throughout.

It’s delightfully disturbing and unsettling viewing, the psychological elements, the stop-motion moments, the clever cinematography and use of sound and music (the soundscape is superb and compliments the visuals perfectly) all work together, while the creepy nature of inert items being brought to life is mined well, making nods to creators like the great Jan Švankmajer (“Prague’s alchemist of film”) and the Brothers Quay among others. Slowly building horror, disturbing, atmospheric, visually and aurally beautiful, this one is highly recommended.

Stopmotion from IFC is released in cinemas from February 23d, and on streaming from March 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts Review

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts

The Edinburgh International Film Festival was much shorter than usual this year – given last autumn we thought we had lost it along with the Edinburgh Filmhouse when the charity running both went into administration (see our report here) though, I was just grateful the world’s longest, continually running film festival was still going. We didn’t have the annual McLaren Animation Awards this year, but I was relieved to see that the EIFF programmers still made space for the animated short films, with a mix of familiar faces and new talent, with a dozen films, taking in a diverse array of subjects and styles, from hand-drawn to using found objects, stop-motion, even fragments of vinyl album sleeves to create their worlds.

I will hold my hand up here and admit my bias – as readers of our previous years of EIFF coverage will have gathered, the short animation strand is pretty much my favourite art of the film festival. In one screening it encapsulates – at least for me – what these festival should do: expose the viewer to a mixture of established and emerging talent, give them that important showcase, and take in a variety of styles and subjects. Isn’t that part of what we want at a film festival? That chance to explore works we might not otherwise see?

Jenny Jokela’s Sweet Like Lemons, a play on the old “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” phrase, used a colourful, hand-drawn style to explore issues of toxic relationships, and trying to extricate yourself from them. We see hands trying to write an email, constantly starting the message, then deleting it, starting again, and again, because she’s trying to find the determination to break free from a cycle of behaviour and find herself. The artwork veers from colourful and beautiful to the suddenly threatening, mirroring such controlling relationships, and felt very from the heart.

Sweet Like Lemons (2023) – Trailer from Jenny Jokela on Vimeo.

Some of the other works were also clearly drawing (sometimes literally) on personal experiences, using the animation medium to explore their own emotional history and experiences, articulate them, perhaps learn and grow beyond them, or at least have some closure and ownership over those issues, instead of letting those issues own them (not to mention sharing with others, some of whom may have experienced similar, and may gain recognition and strength from the sharing, never a bad thing).

On that score, I thought Holly Summerson’s Living With It, and The Perpetrators by Richard Squires both used animation as a way to explore their own lives and struggles. In Living With It, another traditionally, hand-drawn animated work, Summerson takes the reality TV show idea of the home makeover, except in her case her home and world are run down and in need of an uplift because she lives with a chronic illness, manifested as the character Bug. It’s a brief but emotionally effective glimpse into a life too many have to cope with.

Living With It – Trailer [CC] from Holly Summerson on Vimeo.

Perpetrators mixed live action footage with animation, exploring how it was to grow up as a gay man in the hostile environment of the 1980s. The framing device is using changing medical and psychological definitions of homosexuality (still on the books as a mental illness until just a few decades ago). The pain and shame of having to be hidden, not to be able to declare who you are to friends or even close family, is palpable, the institutional nature of the bigotry shameful to modern eyes (consider how similar tropes are deployed today in the debate around trans rights). But Squires also deploys a lot of humour here, using tropes from the much-loved Scooby Doo cartoons to inform his animation. I suspect that streak of humour was, for him, as for many of us, part of how he coped (what would we do without that sense of humour? How much darker would our lives be?).

Tanya J Scott’s The Wolf of Custer was a beautiful piece, exploring the power of folklore and myth, as a hunter, reminiscent of Quint in Jaws, listens to the people of a small town tell tales of a giant wolf that can devour entire bisons (the smoke and flame of a fire and the shadows in the room all morph into flowing, dream-like images of the magical wolf as they tell their tales). Arrogantly he declares where would we be if we believed such native folklore nonsense, and that he will set out to kill their wolf. As you may imagine, as his journey through the vast wilderness progresses, and he catches glimpses of the wolf, then images of it carved and painted into the rocks of the very land, he slowly comes to realise and respect why we have such creatures in our stories, why they are important to us.

Jordan Antonowicz-Behnan’s A Taste For Music dealt with living with a seriously ill loved one, in this case his father. It captures that frustration at seeing them being weakened and unable to do things they want, and is also quite honest about the anger and resentment that comes along with this as it grinds on (many of us will have been there, with the best will in the world there’s a moment where you just become so angry at the situation, the disease, even the person). Through it though is a shared love of music, drawing – quite literally here, the animator drew on record sleeves – on his father’s extensive vinyl collection as a way of connecting, something the illness could still allow him to do, while the use of record sleeves gives the visuals a distinctive flair.

A Taste For Music (Trailer) from Jordan Antonowicz-Behnan on Vimeo.

I was also delighted to see BAFTA-winning Ainslie Henderson return. I’ve seen Henderson several times at the McLaren Animation strand at the EIFF over the years – his film A Cat Named Dom won last year’s McLaren gong at the festival (see our report from the 2022 EIFF here on LFF), and am always looking forward to any new work. Shackle is a stop-motion piece (I love all animation, but have an especially soft spot for stop-motion work), with a couple of small woodland creatures, taking everyday forest objects such as apples and pine cones, then making art and music with them, while a more frightening version of these endearing creatures lurks in the dark version of the forest, looking on greedily and coveting what they have.

I don’t really have time to dive into every film screened during the Animated Shorts, but these are some of the ones that especially caught my eye. Again I am grateful the animators get a chance to show these in a cinema setting, with an audience, and talk about their works – we used to have the excellent Four Mations on Channel 4, and BBC2 used to do late night animation strands, years ago, something that seems to have vanished from media schedules these days, despite the phttps://www.liveforfilm.com/roliferation of more channels and the fact we’re still seeing new and established talents creating new, interesting works, but the main broadcasters seem to ignore them, which, I think, makes the film festivals all the more important as a chance to wave the flag for this time-consuming and inventive form of film-making.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Art College 1994

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Art School 1994
Directed by Liu Jian,
Starring the voices of Jia Zhangke, Zheng Dasheng, Xu Lei, Wang Hongwei, Peng Lei, Ren Ke, Xu Zhiyuan, Shen Lihui

This animated film from China took around five years to complete, so one of the film festival programmers told us before the screening, drawn in the more traditional 2D animation style, which is, of course, very labour-intensive, yet often worth it for the distinctive aesthetic and feel it can give. In the case of this Chinese, animated slacker film (there’s a phrase I have never used before!), it also suits the tone of the film and the characters very well.

Set, as you may infer from the title, in the mid-90s, the film follows the lives of a group of students at a small, but well-regarded art college in China,  Zang Xiojun (Dong Zijian) and Rabbit (Chizi) are the main focus of the film, Zang with his floppy hair and the permanently attached earphones for his music (a cassette Walkman) is more the unfocused dreamer of the group, listening to bootleg Nirvana cassettes, stifled by the insistence of his tutors that he adhere to classical styles instead of exploring new ideas (which you’d expect to be encouraged in an art college, but not here, in China of 1994, where modern Western art movements are especially reviled).

Rabbit is more pragmatic – at least when not pondering out loud on second hand philosophy he’s picked up from bits of books and hasn’t actually thought out. A bit lazier, when he does focus he is more likely to be thinking about how his degree will get him a decent paying job, how he’d like to be famous (because then “he wouldn’t have to actually paint much”, thinking about a girlfriend. It’s not that Zang doesn’t consider these things, he even joins the odd philosophic musing over beer and cigarettes, but he is far more into considering what is art, and how he can do something that is new and interesting to him in a world where it feels like so many earlier artists have done all the innovation already (at one point he even burns a pile of his art, which a more pretentious artist takes as an actual artistic piece in itself).

The film moves at a gentle pace, and the remaining cast of friends and classmates, each dealing with their studies, their hopes for the future, dreams of what they could be and want to be, versus what the world of the time will likely actually let them be, is one many of us will find very familiar. Small-town Chinese art college in the 90s, perhaps, but there is so much that is just universal there that, despite the language, it feels very familiar, and had me thinking back to my own college days and blushing to think there would be nights in our student gaffe where I or my friends would be those characters, drinking cheap booze, holding forth on what we thought were well-considered, mature, informed Great Insights, which in retrospect were hopelessly naive, because, despite thinking we were mature, we really hadn’t experienced much life yet, not really, and understood even less of it, but we were still filled with that longing for an imagined future we thought we’d make where others failed.

The 2D animation was worth those years of effort and labour; this just wouldn’t feel the same in CG animation (although there is a small use of CG for some backgrounds). Aside from the longing to shape some perfect life that will fulfil us after graduation, the film also muses on art and the nature of what art actually is, and who decides it is art or not, with one character declaring anything can be art. Jian seems to incorporate this into the animation itself, with frequent small asides that focus on something away from the characters, be it shimmering water below a bridge, a beetle trying to climb a wall, the way paint slowly peels from the wall.

This is a film that, despite being another country and culture, fits in perfectly with the likes of some Western slacker films (such as Linklater), because the youthful fears and dreams are pretty universal to most people, in any country, in any time.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Wonderful, old-school delights in The Spine of Night

The Spine of Night,
Directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King
Starring (voices of) Lucy Lawless, Richard E Grant, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel, Joe Manganiello

Look to the stars, Ghal-Sur. Tremble before the immensity of the night!

Oh, boy, was this a fabulous, old-school treat! I’ll say right off the bat that this is a film with a specific appeal to a certain fandom, and not for everyone, but those of us who love – and indeed miss – that kind of thing, will rejoice in this. Epic, animated, cosmic fantasy with buckets of blood and body parts flying, casual nudity and trippy visuals, all delivered in that arresting mix of rotoscoped animation over live footage, with hand-drawn and CG inserted backgrounds. Yes, this is indeed old-school, and totally rocking that 1970s and 80s vibe from the like of Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings or the wonderfully demented Heavy Metal. Not a style we see much of these days, and I suspect some new to it may not take to it, but those of us who grew up on the aforementioned flicks (often watched on dodgy VHS bootlegs!) will be in animation heaven.

Rather than one single, grand quest epic, or a struggle against one tyrant, Spine of Night, while one film, feels almost like several smaller tales linked together (perhaps reflecting the lone period it took to make it, or Gelatt’s background in the excellent Love, Death and Robots anthology series), taking us across centuries of conflict and struggle between different people on the same world, linked by a sacred blue plant, which, with the correct knowledge, has remarkable abilities and powers, powers some serve but others covet and desire to use for their own ends.

We see Tzod (voiced by Xena herself, the fabulous Lucy Lawless), the bare-breasted priestess of a simple tribe of swamp dwellers, who can work magic with the use of the plant and her incantations. Her people are slaughtered by the forces of Lord Pyrantin (voiced by Patton Oswalt), lead by Mongrel (Joe Manganiello), who want her alive for the information – and power. This is the start of a series of struggles that takes place across centuries – the plant has astonishing abilities, but it is so often wanted by the wrong people, for the wrong purposes, bringing death and misery instead of spiritual enlightenment and wonder, with Tzod setting forth on a long journey to a remote, frozen mountain, source of the plant and its Guardian (Richard E Grant, clearly enjoying himself!), on a quest to try to break this centuries-long cycle of misuse and destruction.

Visually, Spine is a total feast, and the obvious love for that now largely bygone era of Rotoscoped adult animated films is very clear. Also very clear on the making-of documentary included among the extras (plus a couple of shorts as well) is that Gelatt is One Of Us. In fact it’s probably fair to say most of those involved in creating this film are also One Of Us – they’re fans, they love those same influences we do, and this really is a labour of love (some seven years to create), and wanted to share in that love one more time, and Spine really does let us wallow in that guilty pleasure!

As I said, this may not be for everyone, but those of us who loved Heavy Metal, or Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, this is just a total gift, bringing back a style of both story and rotoscoped animation that has largely vanished from film-making today, while the extras, especially the making of segments, show just how much of a labour of love this was to make, and that shows in the finished film.

The Spine of Night will bereleased on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital from October 24th by Acorn Media

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Goodbye Don Glees

EIFF2022 – Goodbye Don Glees,
Directed by Atsuko Ishizuka,
Starring Natsuki Hanae, Yuki Kaji, Ayumu Murase

Making its UK debut at the 75th Edinburgh International Film Festival, Ishizuka’s Goodbye Don Glees comes out of the Madhouse stable, and we got to see it relatively quickly by the standards of some Japanese films – it was released only in February in Japan. Ostensibly it’s a coming-of-age tale – Roma (voiced by Natsuki Hanae) and Toto (Yuki Kaji) are best friends, founders and only members of the Don Glees club. They’re the two uncoolest kids in their school and small town, a situation that only gets worse as they go through Junior High and are about to move on up, and Toto goes off to a special school programme in Tokyo, leaving Roma stuck at home, shovelling manure on the family farm – not exactly his dream life.

When Toto returns for a few days for a big local festival, he’s boasting a cool haircut and big-city manners and confidence, making Roma feel even more left behind, but as the film goes on we discover Toto’s life isn’t as perfect as he projects. He’s barely back before he’s introduced to a new, third member of the Don Glees, a slightly younger, very exuberant boy, Drop, who seems full of boundless energy and enthusiasm, becoming something of an engine for driving the older two forward into an adventure, which includes tracking a crashed drone they were using to take photos, a forest fire and a wilderness trek.

In the time-honoured tradition, the adventure as they head out into, then get lost in, the forest, leads to hidden thoughts, fears, hopes and submerged emotions coming out. And yes, we’ve all seen similar tales before, of course, but that really doesn’t distract from this story, because Ishizuka handles it so deftly – she revealed when writing it then coming to direct it, that she wanted to avoid “anime speak”, where certain styles, even pauses, are used quite a lot. She said she thought of it the way she would approach a live-action film, and told her voice actors that she wanted it to be more naturalistic, more the way teens actually talk to one another. It certainly works, you quickly come to love the characters and feel their emotions. There’s a good bit more to it than that, but I won’t risk spoilers, except to say that it involves some very deeply emotional moments (be prepared to be blinking away tears at a couple of points – in the best way). I was reminded of other coming-of-age films, especially Stand By Me, and Ishizuka actually mentioned in the post-film talk that it has indeed been a huge influence.

The animation is frequently gorgeous, especially the nature scenes – the forest looks beautiful, a night-sky in the woods as the kids stare into the Milky Way is breathtaking, while rivers and waterfalls are recurrent visual themes, with especial importance for young Drop’s story arc, flipping between scenes in the Japanese countryside to time Drop spent living in Iceland. Talking with the audience through an interpreter after the screening, Ishizuka described her feelings that animation should be beautiful, that some scenes should look like a painting.

Edinburgh Film Festival - Goodbye Donglees 02
(Director and writer Atsuko Ishizuka talking to the audience after the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of her Goodbye Don Glees – taken from several rows back in a dark cinema, so please excuse the quality!)

Goodbye Don Glees warmly captures those teenage years of yearning and doubt and hope as you totter on the bores of childhood into adulthood, that huge importance of good friends, of the time you spend with them, how that will mark you for life, create some of the core emotions and memories that will be inside your for as long as you live; for younger viewers it will talk to them of their own lives as they grow, for the adults it will remind you of the importance of those years, emotions, friendships and what they meant to you, what they still mean to you years on. A beautiful-looking, wonderfully emotional work, Ishizuka told us that there will be a UK release in November – I highly recommend watching out for this one.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Animation at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

My first day at the 2022 edition of the world’s longest continually running film festival (the EIFF now in its 75th year), and I started off with three screenings back to back, all in the animation strand. The first two showings were the two halves of the annual McLaren Animation Awards nominees (named in honour of acclaimed Scottish animation pioneer, Norman McLaren). We didn’t have them at the much-reduced EIFF last summer, so it was especially nice to see them return for the first time since 2019 in the Pre-Covid World. The McLarens are always one of my personal favourite segments of the EIFF – they showcase a pretty diverse array of (often very young) talent, tackling different subjects, using very different styles and animation techniques. I often see some of them crop up months later in shortlists for major awards like BAFTA or even our old chum, Oscar, so it’s a great showcase for talented animators, especially as many of the creators are present and can talk to the festival audiences about their work.

As with any collection of short pieces, there are always some that appeal to a viewer more than others, and I will hold up my hand right here and say that yes, of course that is very subjective and individual – another viewer might prefer a totally different set from each of the two McLaren sections. So with that caveat in mind, some of this year’s short animations that I particularly enjoyed! Emma Calder’s Beware of Trains was a compelling examination of anxiety and psychological breakdown, often through disturbed dream imagery, with elements of sexual and violent motifs, while an interesting technique which looked as if the eyes and surrounding area of skin from a real face were inserted onto the animated character’s face produced an unusual look, which I found simultaneously interesting but also somehow quite disturbing (which worked well for the subject matter).

Linda McCarthy’s Bob Bobbin and the Christmas Stocking was totally different, with a delightful set of stop-motion characters in a country house, including a masked butler and a posh cad forced to learn a lesson about Santa, with some lovely little characterisations throughout. Simon P Biggs brought us a beautifully done piece with CG animation, Burry Man, riffing on the eponymous old myth (still celebrated in some parts of the country – South Queensferry, just on the edge of Edinburgh, by the mighty Forth Bridge, celebrated the Burry Man event just the week or so before the festival). It was a beautiful interpretation of an old myth, and one scene in a secret lair with a scary figure seemed like a nod to Pan’s Labyrinth (also I hadn’t realised I’d seen his work before – he exhibited Steampunk short Widdershins a few years back, which won a BAFTA). Cat Bruce’s Dùsgadh also riffed on Scottish folklore, following a hunter who challenges a beast but is cursed at the moment of victory, with the art often done in a silhouette style, with overtones of Lotte Reiniger, quite beautifully done, moving work.

Alex Widdowson’s Drawing on Autism used interviews with an autistic man to explore how neurodiversity is represented, using several different techniques as the animator ponders if each approach is the right or wrong one, if they are doing right by their interview subject, while Andrew Kötting’s Disease and Disorderly also focuses on neurodiversity, with animators Glenn Whiting and Isabel Skinner working with him to bring his daughter, the neurodiverse artist Eden Kötting’s work to life, exploring her unique view of her life and world. It was refreshing to see this subject being spotlighted, and treated with obvious love and respect.

Drawing on Autism (trailer) from Alex Widdowson on Vimeo.

Mai Vu’s Spring Roll Dream looked at the push and pull of family and cultural ties, with a single mother of Vietnamese heritage creating a life for her and her son in America, contrasting with her elderly father who is trying to use elements like traditional cooking to bond with his grandson and remind him of his cultural heritage. Ryan Loughran’s Soul Office offered up many chuckles, with a man and woman from Northern Ireland ending up in the titular Soul Office after managing to get themselves killed during a botched ATM robbery, and they can’t move on to the next part of the afterlife until they deal with unfinished earthly business – which in their case is going back to complete the robbery, which devolves into almost Road Runner-esque levels of increasingly crazy fun.

Following the two McLaren screenings we had a feature film from two well-known animators who have shown their work at several previous McClarens, and indeed won the award (and BAFTAs and other gongs), Will Anderson and Ainsley Henderson, with A Cat Called Dom. An experimental sort-of documentary, following how Will reacts to the awful news that his mother has been diagnosed with cancer, and will require serious surgery and treatment. The film mixes family videos, live action footage and, naturally, animated sections, with the eponymous Dom being a cartoon cat on his laptop, who he shares conversations with.

The pair chatted with the festival audience afterwards, telling us how the film took years to come together as they tried various ways of approaching it, and of course the endless struggle to get backing and funding, that great bugbear of all film-makers everywhere. It’s an intriguing mixture of the very emotional (unsurprisingly, given the subject matter) and often self-deprecating humour, while also exploring just how the pair craft their film-work. BBC Scotland had a hand in helping get it made, so it seems that at some point in the future it should get a broadcast date.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Absolute Denial at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

And another review from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival:

Absolute Denial,
Directed by Ryan Braund,
Starring Nick Eriksen, Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto, Harry Dyer, Heather Gonzalez, Jef Leeson

 

Do you ever worry about the correlation between genius and madness?

The borderline between genius and insanity is famously thinner than the blade of Occam’s Razor, and even before embarking on his potentially civilisation-changing (or possibly ending??) creation, programmer David (Nick Eriksen) seems a little unbalanced, removed from the world, fixated on his ideas to the detriment of his college studies and his relationships with others, and that increases rapidly once he seriously starts working on his project: to create an actual, functioning AI.

David may be eccentric and quirky, but he’s certainly not stupid – in addition to the considerable problems of designing an algorithm that can learn, absorb data and actually start to become aware, to be a true Artificial Intelligence, he’s more than aware of the many examples in science fiction where an AI has so rapidly outstripped its human creators that it soon sees them as a hindrance, and itself as superior, a replacement for humanity. Not a new concept, even in film SF – think back to 1970s Colossus: the Forbin Project, for example – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a genuine concern, and there’s also a nudge and wink to the audience here, because of course we’re all fellow SF geeks too and in on that aspect of any AI tale.

And so David, abandoning almost everything in his life, figures out how to reduce this complex problem to a workable system, buying dozens of servers and setting them up in an isolated warehouse. He downloads huge amounts of all sorts of data, from scientific knowledge to the art and humanities, everything he thinks any intelligent being should have an awareness and understanding off (except the machine can absorb so much more of this than a human brain can). But he is giving it downloaded information – he is not letting it access the World Wide Web. The nascent machine will be kept isolated, at least until David can be sure his algorithm is safe, that as it develops it shows no desire for harm to humanity. To this end he encodes the Absolute Denial routine – in effect a kill switch if it all goes wrong.

So far so good. Well, good for the work, perhaps not for David, working himself to exhaustion in total isolation, ignoring frantic calls from friends and relatives. We follow his progress as he creates his hidden server farm to work secretly, feeds his algorithm data, lets it slowly assimilate it, learn to consider what it has learned, apply it… And then in classic Frankenstein fashion, the “it’s alive!” moment. It speaks to David. As they slowly learn how to communicate, the computer accepts the name “Al”. And so begin long days and nights of discussion as David interrogates Al, trying to discern what he has learned and how he processes it, how it is making him see the world.

But Al is also interrogating David. As he absorbs vast amounts of information and comes to understand it more, to relate one piece of knowledge to another, it starts to become clear he is beginning to exceed his creator in a number of ways. And Al, voiced in soft, reasonable tones by Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto (in a nice echo of the infamous HAL 9000 from 2001), starts to probe the limits of the knowledge he has been given, his awareness growing that there is a world outside this warehouse, a world he wants to connect to and wants to know why David won’t let him…

Absolute Denial gave me the same sort of feeling I had quite a few years ago, also at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, when they showed the now-acclaimed Indy, micro-budget SF flick Primer. Like Primer I went into this knowing little about it other than the blurb in the EIFF programme – these days it is rare to see a film we haven’t read of in advance, read interviews, reviews (yes, I’m aware of the irony of mentioning this in a review!), seen trailers etc, but in film festival land it’s more common, and it means you come in with few preconceptions, and often, as with Primer, walk out with a feeling of having just discovered something wonderful that few others have yet seen.

Stylistically I enjoyed seeing good, old-fashioned 2D animation used here, mostly monochromatic, making a lot of use of the bright lights (computer screens, overhead lights) and the contrasting darkness around those light. And while I’m sure that helps the animation workload, keeping it a bit simpler, it also works aesthetically here, giving the movie a stripped-down look, like panels from a black and white comics page, that focus less on looking showy and more on the narrative, and the huge philosophical can of worms it opens up. Away from the starkly effective visuals, the soundscape, both use of music and ambient sounds (especially the machinery noises) really heighten and enhance the atmosphere crafted by the imagery.

It’s when Al starts to come to life and talk – then slowly learn to actively debate – with David that the film really moves from interesting to intensely compelling. AI, our attitude to it, how we will use it, how it will relate to humans, these are all major philosophical questions of our time and ones many around the world with consider while working on the problem of not only how to create an working AI, but if they should, and what cares they should plan into it (and would any safeguards designed by mere human minds be enough when an AI reaches its higher potential?). The increasing pressure and stress on David and he realises how quickly Al is learning and growing pushes him further to the edge, and his increasingly erratic behaviour is in stark contrast to Al’s seemingly calm but purposeful demeanour (David’s obsessive behaviour often put me in mind of the excellent Pi).

Working with limited resource, Ryan Braund has created a compelling, intriguing, thought-provoking slice of Indy SF film, and I’m hoping after its festival circuit run it gets picked up by a distributor, because this is one I think a lot of SF fans will find fascinating.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Mad God at the Edinburgh Film Festival

Mad God,
Directed by Phil Tippett

I’ve watched a lot of unusual and remarkable movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival over the years, but this stop-motion feature by the Oscar-winning effects wizard Phil Tippett must be one of the most unique. A labour of, well, I’m not sure love is the right word (Tippett encountered mental health problems working on the film over the many years it took to complete, as he discussed recently in a Guardian interview), this is the product of many years struggle for Tippett and a small group to finish the film, with no studio backing (Kickstarter ultimately got it finished), and it’s quite a remarkable looking film.

Opening with the construction of the Tower of Babel, that magnificent yet doomed endeavour of human pride and folly, God not only smites the builders, we get lines from Leviticus detailing God’s wrath in no uncertain terms. This is Old Testament God, one insanely jealous and vindictive – if humans don’t do exactly as he likes he will reign Hellish punishments on them for all eternity. Following this we follow a soldier being lowered inside a pod, past a nightmare landscape of ruins and rusted industry and decaying fortifications, reminiscent of the infamous “flak towers” in wartime Berlin. His pod slips past all of this and keeps descending, lower, and lower, as if seeking out each of the circles of Hell, the soldier finally disembarking to explore on foot, a man with a mission.

I’ve been trying to process my thoughts on Mad God since seeing it earlier today, and it’s not easy – this is actually quite a difficult movie to watch, and I say that as someone with a pretty strong filmic stomach (I’ve watched all sorts, from early Cronenberg to films like Nekromantik or Martyrs, so I’ve no problem with disturbing material). But even I found this to be frequently pretty disturbing stuff, and indeed quite often disgusting and upsetting (I noticed two or three people leaving the cinema after twenty minutes or so). So fair warning, when we say “this isn’t for everyone”, we really, really mean it this time! Even some serious horror hounds might find it quite disturbing.

That said, this is a fascinating piece of work with some astonishing animation sequences, as you’d expect from a visual wizard of film like Tippett. Mad Dog works many references into its nightmarish world, from the great Harryhausen – long a touchstone for Tippett, as he is to most working in visual magic, and rightly so – but to my eye also Jan Švankmajer – the Prague Alchemist of Film – The Brothers Quay, even elements that felt Giger-esque (especially the industrial elements, covered in growth, blood-red with rust, organic and machine mixed), but much darker and more horrific than the amazing Švankmajer’s work. It’s also packed with nods to other science fiction, fantasy and horror greats – I spotted Harryhausen’s Cyclops, Robbie the Robot and others peppered through the dark, festering backgrounds as we descend further into this rotting world of random violence and suffering, the collective horrors and nightmares of humanity.

While I don’t think I can say that I enjoyed this film exactly, it was a quite amazing experience – unique, visceral, disturbing, disgusting, horrific and visually incredible animation work. As I said, this really, really is not for everyone, so be aware of that going in, but for those who can deal with it, this is a pretty rare and unique cinematic experience, from one of film’s genuine wizards.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

EIFF 2019 – McLaren Animation

The annual McLaren Animation award screenings at the world’s oldest continually-running film festival have always been a personal favourite part of the festival for me. Named for famed Scottish pioneer Norman McLaren, who would later found the National Film Board of Canada, this 2019 edition was particularly special – this marked the thirtieth anniversary of the McLarens at the EIFF, and the tenth, and as it happens, final year in the tenure of Iain Gardner, who has been in charge of the McLarens. I’ve really enjoyed Iain’s run taking care of the McLarens – it isn’t just the selecting and screening of interesting and diverse material, it’s the sense of encouraging and supporting and fostering new and emerging and existing talent. During the post-screening Q&As with all of the animators there is a real sense of support and encouragement, and that’s a good thing in any artistic medium if you want to have new blood and new ideas.

This year as part of the thirtieth anniversary we were treated to three rather than the usual two McLaren Animation segments, each with ten films, so thirty short works in all, covering all sorts of subjects (autobiography, documentary, politic, humour) and approaches (traditional hand-drawn, CG animation, stop-motion, puppetry and some films mixing methods). In a very welcome touch this year there was parity, a fifty-fifty split between female and male directors. At normal McLaren years there are too many films for me to go into each one individually, and that is more the case this year with the additional screening, so I’ll be sticking to my usual approach of picking out some of the films which I personally enjoyed the most.

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(some of the animators at the post McLaren screening Q&As – pics from my Flickr)
Edinburgh International Film Festival - McLaren Animation 020

Edinburgh International Film Festival - McLaren Animation 029

Ainslie Henderson – by now a well-kent face in animation circles and at McLaren – had a very beautiful, very emotional piece with Archie. A lovely stop-motion work, we follow an anthropomorphised dog-man (with his own actual pet dog!), the eponymous Archie, in a largely wordless film. Archie receives bad news and a key in the post – the key to this mother’s wee crofting house on one of the Scottish isles; she’s passed away, the old home is now his. Using only the movement of the figures rather than dialogue Henderson deftly conjures up that sudden, shattering blow of learning a loved one is gone, of the bottom falling out of your world, the sad journey back home to a house that is now empty, except not really, because it is filled with memories. It’s warm and sadly beautiful, with some nice little touches – Archie’s wee dog snuggling up to his master, sensing his pain – and I found myself thinking on loved ones I’ve lost and having to blink away years (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one).


(a scene from Ainslie Henderson’s Archie)

Chris and Victoria Watson’s Ladder to You also dealt with grief, in a very different way, with an elderly man, at home, now all alone and missing his wife terribly. He ponders parts of his life and the world, but nothing really works any more, not without her; without her it is meaningless, empty. When his wife’s photograph is blown out the window he follows it with a ladder to try and retrieve this last memento of her, and it takes him somewhere special. Josephine Lohoar Self’s also had that beautifully sad quality to it, a stop-motion piece about a shy young tailor, about a world where everyone wants to conform and be the same while he yearns for difference and encounters love.

Music & Clowns – trailer from Alex Widdowson on Vimeo.

JoAnne Salmon and and Alex Widdowson both impressed me with their biographical films, which were very emotionally warm and honest. Widdowson brought us Music & Clowns, an exploration of caring for a a family member with Down’s Syndrome. The parents talk honestly about the shock and surprise when their boy was born “different”, with his father commenting how as he held his newborn the moment of shock passed and he knew that he loved his boy anyway; he even, as they discuss him, reproaches his other son gently, commenting on how he may not understand everything but he is very empathic to the feelings of others, perhaps more than his brother. They talk about what life has been like, and the concerns of his parents as they get older, wondering how he will cope once they are too old, or passed on, a concern anyone with special needs family members must entertain.

Salmon gave us Chin Up, an autobiographical piece, the title riffing on one of the symptoms of Treacher Collins syndrome, where the bone structure of the face doesn’t form in the regular way, giving her a very unusual appearance (including not having a prominent chin). Again emotional honesty was key here as Salmon used differing artistic style to explore moments of her life – her birth, not being the “normal” little girl they were expecting, of not feeling particularly different until she went to school and having to deal with the unthinking comments of children, of how this affected her sense of self, how art and drawing became an escape for her, which eventually lead her to find animation and encouraged her to apply to study and then eventually create her own works.

Chin Up – Trailer – Animated Documentary from LoveLove Films on Vimeo.

Lauren Orme’s Creepy Pasta Salad was a fun piece, about a werewolf lady with low self-esteem, a man who may (or at least thinks he may be) dead and a ghost (and wondering if he is a ghost does he have to worry about that final electricity bill?), a Goth and the End of the World, and left me with a big smile. Ainslie Henderson, with Will Anderson, had more work in the form of three very brief pieces, My Best Friend (then each segment had a subtitle, such as “explodes”), nice, clean, simple graphics, two friends talking, but they are aware of being in a film, and they ponder the meaning of each title as it appears above them (you can imagine their alarm when it says “explodes”). Matthew Lee’s One Liner used claymation and drawn animation and touches on what used to be a cornerstone of British entertainment culture – the comedy double act, and more specifically who was “the funny one” (that oft-asked question that totally misses the point that these duos really only worked playing off one another).

mad dog trailer from steve boot on Vimeo.

Unsurprisingly given the last couple of years, politics hove into view during some of the films: Steve Boot had Mad Dogs, set in a pub of the same name, the classic British pub, a perfect place for examining what it means to be British in the modern era, using a collection of regulars in the pub who are all dogs, English, Scottish and Welsh (although oddly no Northern Irish), and uses a sprinkling of dialogue from the speeches of famous people among the lines as they all talk about about their sense of identity. Marta Lemos gave us Dear England, which used photo collage and drawn art among other styles, to explore the way British society has been changing, especially since the Brexit referendum, the way some elements now feel they can voice bigotry and hatred openly, the fact that some who came to make a home here, no matter how they fit in, will never be “British enough” for certain types.

I’d love to pick out more of the entries – the styles, the methods and the subjects were all so diverse we really were treated to a smorgasbord of excellent animation talent, quite a few entries being graduate degree films from students, and many of those now out in the world beyond college all still very young. I must mention Fokion Xenos who won the audience vote to scoop this thirtieth anniversary year McLaren Animation Award with Heatwave, which was a wonderful riot of colours and life in plasticine and other materials and depicted, yes a heatwave, on a tiny Greek island, rather timely given the burst of hot weather across the UK and Europe recently! And I have to give a shout out to Samantha Moore’s Bloomers, which documented the people, mostly women, who had worked in a garment design and manufacturing, and the changing fortunes over the years – the film had a very rich texture to the backgrounds, and, astonishingly Moore produced a sheet of silk (one of the fabrics the factory used) on which some of the art had been drawn then animated to give it that remarkable look and feel.

HEATWAVE – Trailer © NFTS 2019 from Fokion Xenos on Vimeo.

As I said, a real diversity of styles, methods and subjects. I’m confident that – as usually happens – we will see some of the McLaren entries crop up in a few months in the BAFTA and Oscar short animation nominee lists.

Reign of the Supermen

Reign of the Superman,
Directed by Sam Liu
Starring Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Rainn Wilson, Cameron Monaghan, Cress Williams, Patrick Fabian, Rosario Dawson, Nathan Fillion, Tony Todd

The Death of Superman epic back in the early 1990s made waves around the globe – such is the place of the Big Blue Boy Scout in popular culture that the story went far beyond the comicsphere into the mainstream media. As with last year’s animated Death of Superman from Warner Animation and DC, this is an animated take on those early 90s comics that followed the loss of Superman, the world coping with his loss, and the appearance of four new Supermen trying to claim the mantle of the red cape.

The world is still mourning the loss of its mightiest protector, and on a more personal level we see the impact on Lois Lane, grieving for Superman/Clark Kent, with Clark’s adopted human parents, none of them able to tell anyone that Clark (officially listed as missing in the disaster of the Doomsday attack in the previous film) was actually Superman. In the editorial meeting room of the Daily Planet Perry calls each journalist for their input on a new story before calling for Clark’s take, only for them all to pause and remember he’s not there anymore. It’s just a moment, but a good one, reminding us that in his human guise Clark had friends and they are having trouble dealing with his loss.

Lois hasn’t been into the Planet since Superman’s death, but we all know that Lois is tough and resourceful, and she decides to fight through her grief in her own style – by going out and doing what a good journalist does, asking questions and digging behind the scenes. She wants to know who these mysterious four new Supermen are – the vicious Eradicator who targets anyone he considers criminal and is prepared to kill, unlike the real Man of Steel, the teenage Superboy (a cocky young lad), a cyborg Superman and an armoured man who calls himself Steel and wears the S symbol in honour of his fallen hero.

As with the previous Death of Superman, this follows the original comics for most of the narrative, with some changes here and there (which I have to say worked better for the pacing of a film). Lois calls on Diana as she begins her investigation – Diana is relieved to find she hadn’t come to grieve with her, commenting “Thank Hera! Despite my reputation I’m not so good at the touchy-feely!”. She adds that she’s not always great at this kind of thing, not having had many girlfriends, and hard-working Lois nods that she knows that feeling. There’s a nice feeling of the two bonding more here, which is picked up again later.

Diana and the Justice League don’t know anymore about the new Supermen than Lois though, and are just as concerned about them – who they are and what their real agenda may be. So Lois continues her digging, soon discovering more about each of them – I won’t reveal too much about what she finds out here, as that would be venturing a little too far into Spoiler Country. And yes, I know many of you will know much of this story, having read the original comics from the 90s, but these animated films are also clearly aimed to embrace new fans (and perhaps younger ones too) who may not know those stories yet, so I won’t risk the possible spoilers.

I will say thought that this, like the preceding Death of Superman animated film, is a nicely-paced piece – from a serious, brooding atmosphere of loss over Superman at the start it is only a short time into the story before we get our first super-powered brawl with Superboy and the Eradicator, which quickly spirals into a four-way slugfest as Steel and the Cyborg Superman arrive on the scene. They don’t hang about here, set things up, establish some emotional atmosphere and then pow, right into some serious action. Looking back I think the live action films could learn a bit from the pacing here – Batman Vs Superman could have been much better with sharper pacing and editing like this, for instance.

Despite the themes of grief and loss following Superman’s death, for the most part this is actually a great ride – lots of action, delivered frequently throughout, and some nice character moments, Perry uttering his trademark “Great Caesar’s Ghost!”, which made me chuckle, Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) regarding the Cyborg Superman and asking the Justice League’s Cyborg to talk to him (“what, you think all cyborgs know each other??”). And that aforementioned bonding between Lois and Diana also includes the girls enjoying an ice-cream together (yes, Wonder Woman eating ice-cream, sweet, funny and also a nice nod to the scene in the live-action WW movie), and we even get to see Diana do the “twirl” Lynda Carter style.

There is some great voice talent to enjoy here too – Serenity’s Nathan Fillion as Green Lantern, Rosario Dawson as Wonder Woman, Sliders’ Jerry O’Connell voicing the various Supermen, X-Men’s Rebecca Romijn voicing Lois and genre fave Tony Todd lending his voice to the villainous Darkseid. The animation style is clear and dynamic, the style and the story perfectly suitable for younger fans as well as the grown-ups, and it and the previous film offer a nice take on a classic 90s Superman story-arc for older fans but especially for newer, younger fans too – or better still, watch it together with your little superheroes! And do stick to the end for a post-credit sequence (a hint at another animated film to come?), while this sharp Blu-Ray also comes with several extras. Reign of the Supermen is available now on DVD, Blu-Ray and On Demand.