How do you solve a problem like making innovative art without starving? Living from independent animation seems like an utopian idea, especially if we’re talking short films that have little to no chance of getting into cinemas, outside of film festivals. I’m a creator myself and I fully support creators of independent, out-of-the-box art, so I thought I’d have a thorough look at the Animation section in Vimeo’s On Demand. This service, launched in 2013, is advertised as a way of getting money directly to creators of independent films and series, including shorts. But what kind of animation is on offer, exactly?
I decided to start with some famous, mainstream players- well, as famous as mainstream as you can get in independent animation, really- and I bought myself a very nice evening of indie cartoons for about 7 UK pounds.
The World of Tomorrow (2015) by Don Hertzfeldt, 16 minutes
Available worldwide for 30 days rental
Synopsis: A little girl receives a message from the future.
Why I paid for it: I wouldn’t say I’m exactly Don Hertzfeldt’s biggest fan. I saw the last of his “It’s Beautiful Day” shorts at a film festival, I thought it was incredibly touching and left the cinema in tears. Then I stumbled upon the whole feature film on Netflix and I was not able to watch it to the end because the dull visuals and flat narration were getting on my nerves something awful. A little bit goes a long way, perhaps?
I rented this one because I was curious. Don’s latest film (and first digital production) comes with a lot of buzz, awards, including the top prize for short films at Sundance, and rave reviews (which I found to be about 73% justified).
If you go past the absurd humor and the multitude of sci-fi ideas being served one after the other, „The World of Tomorrow” is almost unbearably sad, full of existential angst about death, the human condition and the passage of time. Its philosophy is a bit stale and faux-profound („Seize the moment!”, „Live well!” and other inspirational-sounding quotes that have appeared fifty times in your Facebook feed in the minute it took you to read this paragraph)- but somehow it feels honest and genuine, a point of view that truly seems to reflect an artistic vision rather than aiming for cheap tear-jearking. Any actual tears will be earned.
As far as Hertzfeldt’s depiction of the future goes, I appreciated that it touched on poverty and inequality- futuristic stories often wrongly assume that technological progress happens at the same pace all throughout society, or simply concern themselves only with the upper classes as if nobody else existed. Any SF fan in general, or Phillip K Dick fan in particular, can tell you that most of the sci-fi concepts in „The World of Tomorrow” are not exactly new or original: cloning, mind uploading, paradoxes caused by time travel, social isolation caused by staring at too many screens. Still, the final concoction felt unique, and the simple visuals are very fitting. I also loved the use of a real child’s nonsensical remarks within the story. The more I thought about „The World of Tomorrow”, the more I liked it. Its world of stick figures is more alive than a lot of live-action films with elaborate sets and costumes.
Was it worth the money? It’s a very nice little film, funny and melancholic. Buy it if you’re also prone to funny-sad existentialism, you’re likely to end up re-watching it many times during your 30 days of rental.
Cheatin’ (2015) by Bill Plympton, 76 minutes
Available to buy or for 3 days rental, everywhere except Belgium, Switzerland and France, for some reason.
Synopsis: A couple bound by True Love is torn apart when He is tricked into thinking that She is cheatin’ on him.
Why I paid for it: I like Bill Plympton’s visual gags, and I loved his previous feature „Idiots and Angels”.
The main selling point of Plympton’s work are, as mentioned above, his visual gags, of which there are plenty in this film as well. The freshly married protagonists profess their undying love to each other amongst an orchestra of violinists that pop out of toasters and potatoes, a fluffy slipper morphs into an opera-singing bumper car, white laundry flies in organised flocks when a lusty housewife eyes our hero, I shouldn’t even go on, this kind of thing is best enjoyed in the moment. „Cheatin” is a treat for the eyes- not to mention that Plympton’s caricature-like drawings work very well with the caricaturised stereotypes he’s playing with in this story.
Unfortunately, the story in itself is not very compelling, and melts into complete chaos towards the finish line. While Plympton’s shorts are pretty great, a feature film should have a tighter script to keep viewers engaged- in that sense „Cheatin'” is weaker than „Idiots and Angels” simply because it doesn’t have a strong concept to lean on. „Jerk grows angel wings, literally” is an idea you can sell even to people who don’t know Plymptoons. „Married couple and cheating and jealousy and stuff” is kind of mundane and repetitive, to be honest, and (while this may sound strange, considering we’re talking Bill Plympton here) I don’t think it is being taken quite as far as it could go. The soundtrack by Nicole Renaud is lovely and romantic, but the look and style of the film have the effect of keeping the viewer at arm’s length when it comes to emotions. So, if going for „touching” isn’t an option, perhaps „Cheatin'” should have gone for „(even) sillier”.
Still, I continue to be amazed by Plympton’s ability to draw full animated features virtually by himself (although in this case he did have a small staff to help him with compositing and colouring), and to stay true to his aesthetic and voice for so many years. He is probably the most well-known success story in independent animation, and his work is enjoyable even when it’s not excellent.
Was it worth the money? It’s a fun enough film, and for a full feature that you can watch and re-watch at any time, very cheap!