RESFEST '99 REVIEW: Shorts Range from Imaginative to Overkill, "Snack and Drink" Stands Out
by Andy Bailey
With the advent of cheaper, more readily available computer technology comes the predictable onslaught of digital short films, which remain suitable calling cards for younger or more experimental filmmakers to forge or enhance their reputations in festivals like RESFEST. This year RESFEST showcases sixteen more or less winning short films that push the boundaries of the digital film medium through triumphs in computer animation, collage technique and character modeling.
The leader of the pack, is Bob Sabiston and Tommy Palotta's beautifully rendered "Snack and Drink," which documents a thirteen-year-old autistic boy's junk food expedition to a suburban Texas convenience store. The pair shot live footage on a Sony VX1000, then hired six animators, mostly digital novices, to paint over the footage with animation software including electronic palettes. The result is a feverish jolt of color and movement that pays sensitive tribute to the subject's eclectic, unpredictable thought process. "Snack and Drink" shows more imagination that any other short in the fest because it takes the technology one step further. Yet it remains unflinchingly human, a tough achievement in most experimental animation.
Equally heartwarming is Chris Wedge's CGI-animated "Bunny," a seven-minute meditation on growing old stubbornly set to a melancholy Tom Waits composition. Lead animators Nina Bafaro and Doug Dooley's startlingly realistic CGI modelings of an elderly, widowed rabbit and her quaint kitchen suffered slightly from the herky-jerky movements that still hinder most digital animation. But "Bunny" is blessed with such a touching story -- involving the rabbit widow's sudden, transcendent acceptance of death -- that the medium's limitations seem of little importance.
Syd Garon and Eric Henry's frenetic "Inner Space Dental Commander," a four-minute sneak peek at DJ Q-Bert's full-length turntablist epic "Wavetwisters," is set in the clever milieu of a futuristic dentist's office where a parade of funky aliens receive oral surgery. Head animator Trisha Golubev is a name to watch; she combines the antic stylings of "Ren & Stimpy" creator Jon Krickfalusi with classic anime touches, never once seeming derivative.
Mark Osborne's sobering, dystopian moralistic "More," filmed in 70mm stop-motion claymation, tells the story of an aging inventor who creates a product he thinks will transform the world -- in the end it just makes things more complicated. Set to New Order's evocative "Elegia," "More" is a moving feat of music and motion that eventually explodes, Peter Max-like, in a riot of color. It speaks volumes about the soullessness of technological advance, yet its use of Adobe's Premiere and After Effects programs shows what visual marvels third-party software can bring to the DV party.
The most rousing applause went to Lee Lanier's witty, minute-plus "Millennium Bug," another clever riff on technological overkill featuring 35mm black-and-white scanned archive photographs of urban decay that Lanier dropped into Photoshop, then enhanced with Alias PowerAnimator to use as backdrops for his 3D models of giant cockroaches, living billboards and marauding girder monsters. Lanier inserts clever made-up terms like "vaudvert" (a singing and dancing billboard) to suggest that even language has been subverted by rampant technology. Best of all, "Millennium Bug" demonstrates the collage-like effect of mixing old media with new digital tools to create a whole new visual language.
On a less inspired note, too many RESFEST shorts fumbled in their use of collage and cut-up effects to create brave new digital worlds out of found and reconstituted imagery. Films like Emre & Lev Yilmaz's "Bad Night" was an amusing yet jarring use of collage technique that served up marionette-like human cut-ups recalling live-action versions of Mr. Jenkins in those tedious Tanqueray gin ads. Rick Morris and Rebecca Mendez's pretentious, abstract "Orpheus Revisited" was a mind-numbingly dull meditation on classical Greek myth that drowned in its overuse of digital tools.
One of the more sobering themes emerging from this year's RESFEST programs was overkill -- how Photoshop and other proprietary editing software tools, combined with the use of too many disparate hand-held cameras, could well prove to be the bane of digital filmmaking in the long run by muddying the broth, so to speak. There is such a thing as having more tools than necessary at one's disposal, which is fine in the music video medium, for example. But when basic storytelling suffers in the face of sheer sensory overload and masturbatory pretension, the medium needs to reconsider its mission.