Encounters Short Film Festival 2016: Animation, animation, and more animation

Since I only had a few days to spend at Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival, I had to make the most of it: as soon as I got out of Loving Vincent on Friday afternoon, I hurried to a showcase of Chopin-themed animated shorts produced by Breakthru Films, the studio responsible for Suzie Templeton’s Oscar winner Peter and the Wolf. All shorts in this selection included etudes by the Polish composer on the soundtrack, and some variation on a flying piano in the story. The star of the show was The Magic Piano (dir: Martin Clapp), a half-hour film in which Chopin’s music works as a very effective mood enhancer to a simple tale told with incredibly expressive puppets: a little girl longs to be reunited with her father, gone to work in a faraway country. Other unexpected uses for Chopin music included a romantic story featuring hamsters (Hamster Heaven, dir: Paul Bolger) and one about a Chinese boy suffering from constant involuntary movement (Fantasia of Duo Suo, dir: Skin 3). Some ideas worked better than others (I think Chopin is better suited for classical storytelling than surrealism), but it was very interesting to see such a variety of visual styles and concepts united by a single common starting point.

I was able to catch only one all-animation screening of competition shorts, Animation 6: Art and Design. I must admit that abstract/experimental animation (of which this selection largely consisted) is wasted on me, as I am a hopeless philistine when it comes to non-narrative films. I may have actually dozed off for a bit during a film called Passing through the membrane, the space beneath fills out, engorged (which sounds like an album title for a particularly underground band). As a result, the shorts I enjoyed the most were those closest to having some semblance of a traditional plot. My pick for strongest of the batch would be Ruben Leaves (dir: Frederic Siegel), a vivid and surreal take on obsessive-compulsive thoughts. Animation is a great choice for conveying fear and anxiety, visualising experiences that are difficult to put into words. I also liked Eagle Blue (dir: Will Rose), the simple tale of an eagle searching for food, told with beautiful music and a great sense of colour and shape. Mirror (dir: Anna Lytton) was an appealing visual experiment: animated images are projected directly onto the body of a performance artist. Wednesday with Goddard (dir: Nicolas Menard), an absurd, deadpan little comedy about a man who seeks God and finds an attractive woman, provided some levity to the programme.

By 9 pm on Friday I was running on fumes, but I still couldn’t miss Late Lounge XXtra, a mixed programme of live-action and animated shorts in competition; I assumed, quite correctly, that it would be a lot of fun. You simply can’t go wrong with a late screening focused on the bizarre and outrageous. Sadly there was some technical problem halfway through Private parts (dir: Anna Ginsburg), a funny cartoon where interviewees talking about sex are depicted as, well, private parts, but the full film is available on Vimeo. I was also quite amused by The Wrong End of the Stick (dir: Terri Matthews), the surprisingly good-natured story of a middle-age husband and his newly discovered furry fetish. Several animations made ironic use of iconic children’s characters by placing them in an adult context, adding extra blood and naughtiness but also functioning as a critique of the values said characters embody. In Kai Stanicke’s B, Barbie stars in an erotic thriller of many plot twists, all triggered by her reluctance to admit she’s in love with another woman(-doll) and not Ken. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but also very entertaining, and the shiny plastic aesthetic fits well with the campy nature of the story. Also, let’s be honest, haven’t we always known that Ken wasn’t good enough for Barbie? Meanwhile, in Battlefield Casualties (dir: Price James), Action Man returns from battle disabled and traumatised, in a series of mock commercials questioning the exciting images of war being promoted to children by Army recruitment campaigns.

Every year, Encounters shines a spotlight on filmmakers from a particular country; for 2016, it was Lithuania. On Saturday, I popped into a screening of recent, award-winning Lithuanian shorts, two of which were animations. Both Non-Euclidean Geometry (Dir: Skirmanta Jakaitė, Solveiga Masteikaitė) and Guilt (Dir: Reda Tomingas) were mood pieces turning complex emotions into visual textures, but I do believe they were completely overshadowed by the much stronger live-action films in the selection. As a fellow Eastern European, I was particularly inclined to like The Noisemaker (Dir: Karolis Kaupinis), in which the staff of a provincial school go to absurd lengths to manipulate state bureaucracy; something about its atmosphere felt very familiar.

Other things worth mentioning from my weekend at Encounters festival: I went to an Aardman workshop on building a Gromit model out of plasticine (it’s not as easy as it sounds, and no, I was not the only adult there without kids, OK?); I got to try out a Virtual Reality headset and hang out with a Chinese singer in a forest full of magical butterflies (the festival included a showcase of VR shorts); and, of course, I had a few drinks in the friendly café-bar at the Watershed after the screenings. By the way, I was there right after my birthday- I can hardly think of a better way to celebrate getting older than watching a ton of cartoons.

Coming up: I’ll be talking about the festival’s Award winners, as well as my own picks from what I got to see at screenings and via the festival’s Digital Viewing Library.