On my first full day at Sundance, I was able to wiggle my way into three screenings: Animation Spotlight, The Ambassador, and 1/2 Revolution. While the snow continued to blanket the streets and peaks of Park City, I waited in a heated white tent at the Yarrow Hotel Theater with Annilese and Katie. The three of us were early enough to snag wait-list numbers 20-23, which is pretty good. (To put that in perspective, I have had some tickets numbered upwards of 75, and did not get to see those films…)
Animation Spotlight was up first, and I went in with no expectations, mostly because I hadn’t read nor heard anything about any of the short films being featured. First up was director Stephen P. Neary’s Dr Breakfast, a hilarious, colorful and loud short in 2D. Thank goodness 3D hasn’t seemed to invade Sundance as it has my local multiplex. The sound editing and mixing, as well as the animation itself, was visually stunning and quite funny. The story is focused on a young man who wakes up in his cottage in the woods to a table full of food. Pancakes, juices, cereals- the list goes on and on. Perhaps that wasn’t the best choice to watch first thing in my morning on a nearly empty stomach. At the sight of this feat, his eyes literally become engorged and the right one pops out of its socket, dangling there. A zipper run the length of his eye, and a long, yellow, floating being springs out and proceeds to eat all of the food. Well, it doesn’t so much eat the food as it does suck it up like a vacuum. While this yellow being flies around the world and under the ocean to search for all the food it can possibly ingest, the young fellow is still seated at the kitchen table wearing his pajamas. A deer from the surrounding forrest peaks into the kitchen window, trying to get the guy’s attention. (This being animation, the deer can speak. Duh…) Another deer joins in the effort, and the pair join forces to give the guy a shower/sponge bath. Eventually, the yellow aura that began its food fiend journey around the globe in an eyeball returns to said eyeball, and the dude, who remains unnamed throughout the short, comes alive again. In his haste, he screams at the deer and kicks them out of his home. A moment later, surrounded by his empty home and consumed by his loneliness, he invites the animals back in for dinner. He lays in his bed when it’s all said and done, and falls asleep. His alarm goes off. It’s the morning again, and Breakfast is served.
Following such a bright, fun little flick, I was unprepared for the darker, more twisted and lengthier Night Hunter. Directed by Stacey Steers, this short explored much deeper themes of feminism and the dark nature of humanity. The story takes place, once again, in a small cottage in a wooded area. Only this time, gone are the vibrant landscapes and cartoon-like figures. The main character, a young girl no more than 15, is alone. As the time passes, the cottage become filled with eggs. A lot of eggs. She is nurturing them and watching over the fragile shells. In the background, a creeping snake emerges from the desk drawer. The story dragged on a bit too long; these same themes could have been successfully explored and the same story told on a shorter scale, in my opinion. What kept me interested during this short film, and kept my eyes open, were the animations and the soundtrack. The music was creeping and haunting, and served as a vehicle to move the story forward as there was no dialogue whatsoever. Never in my life have I seen animation of this kind. Most of it seemed hand drawn, though it was presented as a layered effort. The young female character was based on a famed actress of the early 20th century, though her image was altered a bit so that it fit in more with the rest of the animated animals and the cottage. The snake, which represents darkness and evil in the world, is always there in the background, plotting. Several times during the short film, the snake appears as it slithers out of the drawer, tempting and torturing the young girl, and always threatening the eggs, which are perhaps a symbol of humanity and its future. At its conclusion, I found Night Hunter to be too long, and too dark. Maybe it was just my mood after Dr Breakfast, but I was glad when the eggs hatched, the doves flew free, and the snake was dead, with blood pouring out of the desk drawer. Again, beautifully animated through the very end.
Up next was Avocado, which I don’t have terribly much to say about. The characters sat in an apartment, rode a subway, spoke in French, and nothing really happened. I didn’t get this one, but the animation was fun and quirky. I got a good laugh, though I’m not entirely sure it was meant to be funny.
One of my favorites of the bunch was a Japanese entry, 663114, by director Isamu Hirabayashi. The film was a simple one, both visually and thematically. Its focus was a cikada making its way, slowly, up a tree. The narration was all in Japanese with English subtitles built into the animation. As the cikada rises up the tree trunk, it tells the story of cikada’s everywhere: every 66 years, they come out of the ground, find somewhere to settle, shed their skin, lay their eggs, and die. That is simply their circle of life, and this particular cikada seems perfectly content with that. Toward the end of its slow rise, it pauses, and so begins the difficult process of squeezing itself out of its own shell. Suddenly, the screen begins to shake, and the cikada struggles to hold on. After the shaking comes the tidal wave. All of this is a metaphor for the terrible catastrophe that occurred in Japan, and off its coast, in 2011. The tsunami washes everything away, and the credits roll. It seems that the story is over, and all is lost. But the waters recede, and we can see the tree once again. The cikada is gone, now. But a new voice emerges, a new storyteller. This cikada reminisces about the terrible accident that occurred 66 years ago, and the consequences are immediately obvious. This cikada, a descendent of our original storyteller, is deformed, with a shell that is far from normal looking. Its legs and wings have also been affected, seemingly by the radiation in the aftermath of the nuclear power plant meltdown. In the end, though, the cikada lives a happy life, and we see him perform the same duty as his father did 66 years earlier. He struggles to shed his deformed shell and presumably lays his eggs. It’s a story of the perseverance of the human, and animal, spirit. It’s a story of hope; after a disaster, there is always another morning, a new dawn, and a new beginning.
And finally, the only animated short that topped 663114 was It’s Such a Beautiful Day by director Don Hertzfeldt. With stick figure characters and a heartbreaking, sweet story about a man who has a stroke, this simply animated short was my favorite. I loved the message as well as the narration. Although the man was damaged and lost the ability to recognize certain familiar places and people, he was still living his life and every moment to its fullest. I think that one of the most powerful moments came when the main character walks out onto the street, closes the door behind him, and revels in the beauty of the day. “It’s such a beautiful day,” he says. “I think I’ll take a walk around the block.” This action becomes a pattern, as he goes around the block and forgets about his walk. When he gets back to the door, he repeats himself, and this continues 3 or 4 times. While it was sad due to his condition, it also made me smile; I don’t think enough people take time out of their busy schedules to admire the beauty of each day, each moment. Each day since I have seen this short film, I have made an effort to take a walk just to walk. Not because I have to go anywhere, or need to rush to catch a bus or a train, but just to enjoy that moment or fresh air. Try it some time: just go for a walk, clear your head, and take note of the beauty around you.