Cartoon diagnosis 

On the couch with The Animation Show 3

Claymation-obsessive Bruce Bickford says it best in the 2003 documentary Monster Road: Animation is stored energy. While Bickford himself sits atop about a trillion megawatts of obsessive energy, all of it sequestered in tens of thousands of plasticine figures stored in his Tacoma-area home, all animators are afflicted to some extent with personality disorders stemming from making movies the slowest way imaginable. If you know the traits and foibles to look for, traveling festivals like The Animation Show 3, curated by Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt, can be circuses of diagnosis.

Exhibit A: Animators sometimes have trouble seeing the big picture. Those drawn to aesthetics over stories tend to have the opposite problem of other types of filmmakers, who often have stories they want to tell but can’t decide how to realize. So in any animation festival there’s going to be at least one short that looks fabulous but doesn’t have much beyond a charming aesthetic. A good example is Gaelle Denis’ City Paradise: on its face a surrealistic exploration of culture shock, but actually just a collection of whimsical effects mixed with Hello Kitty-cutesy live footage and grafted onto a little fart-wisp of a story about a transplanted Japanese student in London. Not that it isn’t charming, but it’s way more style than substance—and seems all the more so for the totally irrelevant inclusion of a Joanna Newsom song over the brief closing credits. Ergo, animators like to reward themselves for their hard work by indulging little whims of additional music.

Animated characters tend to be stand-ins for their animator(s). Which makes perfect sense, since in small-time animation it’s usually one person or a few people who share a brain creating characters from scratch. Ideally, these stand-ins are universal enough to allow viewers to see a bit of themselves as well. In Daniel Nocke’s No Room for Gerold, it’s a delight to see a typical roommate drama acted out by a rhino, a hippo and a demure female water buffalo intent on forcing the ouster of an alligator. And in German, no less.

Animators are terrific rationalizers. They have a hard time letting go of footage, even when it doesn’t fit with the rest of the footage. Corollary to this is that animators are easily persuaded to follow their muses out of particularly monotonous or tedious tasks and into ones that are more freewheeling and improvisational. One successful strategy for folding in these flights of fancy is to make them surreal dream sequences and fugue states, a la the fish growing out of the stick-figure man’s head in Don Hertzfeldt’s Everything Will Be OK.

Hertzfeldt’s animation is a real highlight, incidentally: It looks very 1920s, and in ’20s terms it’s like a cross between the improvisational pen-and-ink animations of Emil Cohl and the multiple-projection Polyvision of Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Still, at 17 not-entirely-essential minutes it’s almost twice as long as the second-longest film in the festival. For some animators, maximum screen time is an end in itself.

Animators can sometimes cancel out their own small miracles by reaching for too much. Take, for example, Shane Acker’s Nine, a technically astounding piece about tiny bionic critters dodging big bionic predators in a post-apocalyptic city. Parts of it are treated with scratch filters to simulate film wear and tear. What’s the point of antiquing an ultra-digital piece of filmmaking? CGI mavens can’t—or anyway shouldn’t—have their cake and eat it, too. They need to concede this point to animators who still shoot on film.

Animators are creatures of habit. And why not? It takes them long enough to find their own style, and if it ain’t broke why fix it? Bill Plympton is getting farther away from the jittery stasis of his earlier work with innovations like simulated Dutch tilts and forced perspective, but the colored-pencil style itself has been the same for 20 years. Guide Dog also looks like Plympton is shooting on twos, which is to say shooting each image on two sequential frames instead of one to save time and energy, and animators who shoot on twos are ultimately cheating themselves.

Finally, animators are basically grown-up kids. Who but a grown-up kid would think of re-creating the iconic graphics of vintage arcade games like Centipede and Frogger with cupcakes and pretzel sticks? Some of the best animators are simply energetic appropriators and reconfigurers, and Game Over is the shortest, sweetest proof of the potential energy in everyday objects on view in The Animation Show 3.

The Animation Show 3 screens Thursday, April 26, through Sunday, April 29, at 8 PM at the Crystal Theatre. $5.
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