I'm Morgan McGuire (@CasualEffects). I've been working on computer graphics and games for 20 years at great places including NVIDIA, Williams College, Brown University, and Activision.

See my home page for a full index of my blog posts, books, research, and projects.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Annecy Animation Festival 2015

Pixar's Inside Out, screened at the Cannes and Annecy festivals
before US release, is a return to the quality of the studio's
greatest hits such as Up and Toy Story 3.
For 55 years, the the Festival International du Film d'Animation d'Annecy (Annecy Animation Festival, @annecyfestival) has been the premiere international venue for animated films, with emphasis on short films. A majority of the work is intended for adult audiences, although children's and general audience films are represented.

I've attended the festival for over a decade and find it essential to my work on computer graphics for video games and film. The shorts in particular are packed with innovative techniques, visuals, and storytelling that continue to inspire my research and product development.

I usually teach from several films seen each year at Annecy (and from those seen in the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival, which is the best venue for CG films). This article describes some of my favorite films from Annecy 2015. You can also read about my favorite shorts from Annecy 2013 and Annecy 2014.

This year Annecy presented a strong field, exemplified by the Shorts in Competition 4 session in which every film was worth watching. Here are my favorite short films from the festival in decreasing order, followed by some notes about long films:


The Five Minute Museum

by Paul Bush, United Kingdom and Switzerland (6m, 2015)

Paul Bush is an accomplished stop-motion filmmaker who works predominantly on existing objects, actors, and props. His latest short summarizes human history by showing hundreds of objects for a single frame each, matching between them to create continuity. This film is great for many reasons. It is a fresh concept in animation, and the sequence of an animated battle created by cutting between different Greek pottery is the climax of this concept. The film confidently focuses on the breadth of human culture and its similarities across time and region by revealing how similar chairs, weapons, coins, and other artifacts are, while also allowing the differences between them to flicker and flash. Although an abstract film, it has a clear story arc and scenes of humor, violence, awe, and artistry. The effort to create the film is obvious, and contrasted with how smoothly it plays--everything is clearly in place and cleanly animated.


The Race

by Michaël Le Meur, France (15m, 2015)

The Race opens with the visual language and music of a slick Fortune-500 commercial. It then gradually dawns on the viewer that this fifteen-minute film is a tour de force of computer animation and cinematography. Following the same theme as Bush's short, Le Meur's work surveys the history of the human race through match cuts. Every shot is (I believe) 100% CGI, with a circular composition that perfectly aligns throughout the entire film.

When a film opens with an ape-man and later cuts to a space station, it has just thrown down the gauntlet of aspiring to the company of 2001's iconic opening sequence and I find that this film earns the right to explore that theme.

I can't understand how so many complex CGI shots were executed by only six animators. Unless nearly everything was a stock 3D model, Le Meur either had a huge budget or super-human modelers (although the character animation and skin rendering are underwhelming, the buildings, machines, and physical simulation are nearly perfect).


Mi Ne Mozhem Zhit Bez Kosmosa

Bronzit, Russia (15m, 2014)

Mi Ne Mozhem Zhit Bez Kosmosa ("We Can't Live Without Cosmos") won the Annecy Cristal for best short film and the Junior Jury award this year. I agree that it was the best narrative film (by a hair over World of Tomorrow), and place it third only because I weigh technique and novelty a bit more.

The film tells a magical realist story of two best friends in the Russian space program. The animation is excellent and feels entirely hand drawn, although after examining stills and considering certain scenes, I suspect there was a lot of 3D modeling.

The arc from serious to humorous to mysterious to sublime is beautiful and satisfying. The form is well used--it would be much harder to hit this tone with live action, and this works as an almost purely visual film (there is no dialogue and very little text).


World of Tomorrow

Don Hertzfeldt, United States (17m, 2015)

World of Tomorrow won the Jury Distinction and Audience awards this year. I think it could easily have won the Cristal. This humorous, dystopian science fiction short is executed perfectly and enjoyable throughout.

I think that this film is at a disadvantage on the awards circuit. It lies so squarely within Don Hertzfeldt's oeuvre and leverages relatively traditional techniques, so it feels comfortable and professional rather than fresh. I don't know whether Randal Munroe and Hertzfeldt are aware of each other, but although Munroe had no involvement, this film felt like the ideal collaboration between them.


Amélia & Duarte

Alice Guimarães and Mónica Santos, Germany and Portugal (8m, 2015)

This is a mostly live-action stop motion film about the end of a love story. The camp of exaggerated gestures, colors, and costumes is at first irritating and cloying, but quickly becomes endearing as the mature narrative unfolds. I thought I'd hate this film and instead it became one of my favorites.


Guida

Rosana Urbes, Brazil (12m, 2014)


Guida is a refreshing, beautiful film that explores a character and a moment. It asks how a middle-aged woman came to be a life model and (beyond presumably, the income) what enjoyment she receives from it. Animation naturally tends to caricature, but Guida subverts that by leading us to view a natural and aging female body as beautiful and confident.

In an environment where many ambitious shorts are undone by targeting too vast of a scope, this instead choses to deeply explore at an appropriately modest and human scale. It deservedly won the Jean-Luc Xiberras award for best first film and the Fipresci Special Distinction awards this year.

An explicit theme of the festival this year was Women in Animation. I note that Amelia & Duarte and Guida are each from female directors, and that both succeed because of their subtlety, sophistication, and narrative maturity.


Autos Portraits

Claude Cloutier, Canada (5m, 2015)

The hand-drawn animation in this musical short is breathtaking--I originally thought it was a paintover of CGI because of the complex 3D motions of the cars. The music is well done and imagery is strong. I wish that it was cut a bit shorter. I could watch the film for hours, but the global warming/peak oil message is obvious and making it so explicit at the end is predictable melodramatic, and the imagery deserves better.


Dissonance

Till Nowak, Germany (17m, 2015)


Nowak has made several successful films that, like Dissonance, blend live action and CGI in a seamless fashion. This is his most aggressive yet, with a highly-stylized look and emotionally-challenging story. The terrific score won the Best Original Music award this year.

This film tackles the relationship between a mentally ill musician and his daughter and ex-wife, largely from the perspective of his delusions. I appreciate that it presents this, as with many real-life stories, as one in which there is no clean or satisfying solution.

I do not entirely appreciate the symbolism of the human character ending or understand the disconcertingly humorous closing scene with the stuffed animal.


A Portrait

Maragkos, Greece (2m, 2014)

A great exercise: animate a complete life story using a single, continuous line for each frame. Each image is a wonderful still.


Dimitria à Ubuyu

Agnès Lecreux, France (26m, 2014)

A Pixar-like story of a lost child who conquers his insecurity through strange adventures. I preferred this to Finding Nemo and other international releases on the same theme. The necessary heart-breaking setbacks are well done, as is avoiding a single-note characterization for the baboon, who becomes the antagonist.

Love in the Time of March Madness

Zambrano and Johnson, Australia and United States (9m, 2014)

A strong film about a female athlete from female directors. The varied animation styles meshed well in a film ultimately driven by a good vocal performance in the narration. 

The opening scenes are a red herring that a short film can't afford--they present a theme of sexual awakening and experience that is not at all the focus of the remainder of the film. I also suspect that this relied too much on American sports, jargon, and cultural baggage to screen well in Europe.


Aubade

Mauro Carraro, Switzerland (6m, 2014)

A pretty meditation on morning at the seaside.


Rhizome

Boris Labbe, France (12m, 2015)

A looping, abstract film that combines 2D and 3D elements that won the Andre Martin Award for French short film this year. The soundtrack was grating, but the animation was worth watching closely--the hand-drawn figures interact in complex ways for which you'll appreciate the repetition while you to try and untangle them.


Pandemonio

Valerio Spinelli, Italy (3m, 2015)

I loved the breadth of shapes constructed solely from stitched disks in this upbeat, short-and-sweet film. The score rocked perhaps a little too hard for the content.


Suleima

Maghout, Syria (15m, 2014)

We know that Syria is currently a terrible place due to civil war, and especially so for women and the resistance. This film wisely focuses on one woman's story and relation with her family rather than rehashing government oppression--the latter remains horrible, but is hard to present in a fresh way in film. It emphasizes the craziness that life continues even during war and strife, which I know is true but find impossible to comprehend.


Ernie Biscuit

Adam Elliot, Australia (20m, 2015)

The title sequence from Ernie Biscuit is a great short film in its own right, and that only opens the door. This film demonstrates that using barely any on-screen motion, no color, and minimal dialogue (the voiceover is good, but mostly unnecessary) one can still present a story with significant action.

The middle section runs a bit long and thus starts to telegraph the ending. I enjoyed the whiplash twists and gags as well as the excellent claymation characters and strong composition and lighting.


Yul et le Serpent

Gabriel Harel, France (2015)

A story of two brothers on the wrong side of the tracks. Won the Andre Martin Distinction Award for French short film this year. The art style, pacing, and subject matter somehow feel like a short from the previous decade of single-punch narrative focus and fewer visual flourishes.


In addition to the widely-known great new release of Inside Out, I recommend these three animated feature films:

Dragon Nest: Warrior's Dawn

Yuefeng Song, China (2014)

Over-sexualized preteen elves, a gruff avuncular warrior, homoerotic anime men caressing each other, lion-dragons, a goofball hero, obligatory skateboarding on shields, bickering mages in oversized leather turtlenecks--Dragon Nest embraces every Asian animation genre cliche without irony or awareness of offense, and then cranks them up to 11 without apology. 

The first five minutes of video-game prologue are excruciating. If you survive them, I suspect you'll find yourself enjoying the rest of the film. In my screening, the audience was cheering and laughing from the point where the two David Bowie-like androgynous male warriors stroked each other's long straight hair and shoulder pads straight through the massive set piece battles at the end.



The Book of Life

Jorge Gutierrez, USA (2014)

This children's adventure set in Mexico combines a claymation look with unusually rich textures and colors for an animated film. The compositions are excellent and inspiring and the story is fun.


Avril et le Monde Truqué

Franck Ekinci and Christian Desmares, France (2015)

Avril et le Monde Truqué ("April and the Extraordinary World") is a steampunk adventure. I haven't seen the full film yet, but what I heard from others and the clips that I saw were exciting.


I'd like to thank my companions from the US this year for their insights and discussion of these films: Chris Perry (Bit Films and Hampshire College), Viveca Greene (Hampshire College), Shawn Rosenheim (Williams College), Mick McGuire (MC Creative Media), and Mary McGuire (Mary McGuire Design).


Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor at Williams College, a researcher at NVIDIA, and a professional game developer. His most recent games are Project Rocket Golfing for iOS and Skylanders: Superchargers for consoles. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.