Oh, thank goodness. Just when George Lucas had shaken my faith in movies and in their ability to make people happy, Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt present The Animation Show to remind me that there’s still creative, interesting work being done in the world.

Here are some brief thoughts on each of the shorts (and not-so-shorts) of the films I saw:


Watching matinees at the Lagoon is often a sketchy experience, as they typically only run a skeleton crew during the day. So the projectionist, undoubtedly in a hurry to get back to working the concession stand, forgot to turn the sound on, meaning that we got to watch this rapid-fire short with no audio. I bet it was pretty awesome with sound.

“Guard Dog”

Bill Plympton is awesome. This is more Plympton awesomeness. Oscar-nominated awesomeness.


I’m rapidly falling in love with animated documentaries. “Ryan” won an Oscar, and now we have this brief, sympathetic look into the lives of the people at the grocery store who attack you with little cups of whatever’s on sale. It’s not a film that pretends to gives us deep insights into a tragic situation or anything — we’re not talking about war refugees here — and the casual, bobbing art style helps us to both sympathize with and laugh at the plight of these harried demonstrators without condescending to them.

“Pan With Us”

A lot of independent animation is overly concerned with process and techniques, with the medium itself; a lot of animators are either showoffs obsessed with the latest technology or contrarians obsessed with preserving old methods and materials. This film presents a Robert Frost poem about Pan as a series of mixed-media images photographed out in the world: the surroundings flicker and flash by, while the pictures themselves remain centered in the frame and resolve into smoothly-moving objects — a tree, a bird — that animate the way we’re used to, but are exposed as being discrete images. It ends up being more than just process for process’s sake, or pretentious po-mo meta-commentary: it ends up being really pretty.

“Ward 13″

In his DVD commentary for The Incredibles, Brad Bird complains about people who refer to animation as a “genre” when it’s actually a medium, capable of expressing a full range of genres. “Ward 13″ is a good example of his point. You look at a still from the film and see a stop-motion model, in the manner of Rankin-Bass or Tim Burton. But you look at how everything actually moves, and it’s clearly more of an action thriller than a whimsical fairy tale. From the camera angles to the fight choreography, the movie has more in common with Die Hard than with Frosty the Snowman. Except that being animated gives “Ward 13″ a freedom to go buck wild with the action that even the most overblown blockbuster can’t quite get away with.


As music media go, cassette tape seems to be the ugly stepchild of the family: it lacks the warmth of vinyl, the clarity of CDs, the mobility of MP3s, or even the kitsch value of 8-track. I mean, I don’t even own a tape player any more. And yet, there’s something about tape that makes me still think fondly of it. The makers of “Hello” seem to feel the same way. The film captures that feeling of making a mix tape for someone you really, really like, of sweating over the choice of songs, of trying to get everything to dub cleanly, of trying to squeeze that one last track in before the end of the side. It’s a good time.


It’s amazing what a small shop can do, even without the massive resources of an ILM or a Pixar. The range of motion on the models, the heavy raytracing, the particle work: all very impressive. It looks like something Lucasfilm would make. That’s not exactly a compliment. But if I ever need an animator to make an SUV commercial for me, these dudes will be the first people I call.

“L’Homme Sans Ombre”

The constantly rotating motion is hypnotic (if a little nauseating), and the flowing, painterly animation draws you in even further. The whole thing is like a weird, surrealist dream.

“Fallen Art”

It’s not fair to compare this piece to “Rockfish” simply because they’re the two fully CG works in the show (see, now I’m the one who’s obsessing over technology, dangit), but “Fallen Art” outdoes the other film in two ways. One is a little thing: “Rockfish” is done in deep focus, while “Fallen Art” is shot in soft focus, making it look in many ways more realistic. The funny thing is that when filmmakers started shooting in deep focus, all the Bazins and Kracauers nearly wet themselves with excitement, and yet now, going back to soft, blurry figures is considered an achievement.

The other reason? It actually offers the audience something more than macho clichés to chew on. In “Rockfish,” the machinery is just your standard heavy-metal fetish, but in “Fallen Art,” the machinery is a twisted assembly line that chews up and spits out the people that fuel it, yet manages to produce something sublime, something that for just a minute takes you out of yourself and drops you into a tiny, transient world of rest.

“When the Day Breaks”

The washed-out colors and rotoscoped motion complement this film’s moody “day in the life” story nicely, and contrast with the barnyard animals drawn onto the screen. As the film progresses, it starts to seem kind of depressing (a young woman’s — er, piglet’s — pleasant morning is spoiled when she sees an older guy — uh, chicken — get hit by a car), but just when you’re really starting to get bummed out, it turns around and takes you through the wires, pipes, and airwaves that wend their way between people, connecting everyone in the city in a network of coincidences and songs. Lovely stuff, possibly my favorite piece in the whole show.


Blink and you’ll miss it — 25 seconds of found-object, stop-motion delight. “Whimsical” pretty much sums it up.

“The Meaning of Life”

Don Hertzfeldt’s magnum opus. It’s interesting to see Hertzfeldt, who started out making darkly silly things like “Ah, L’amour,” to turn his low-fi style into a vehicle for the most pretentious sort of avant-gardism. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just hard to see, for instance, Parker & Stone or the Brothers Chaps making this sort of transition. “The Meaning of Life” doesn’t really want to be compared to the old Spike & Mike school of underground animation, or to Hertzfeldt’s earlier work, or even to the other entries in this show: his demented, linear figures are more Max Ernst than Max Fleischer, his dense collage of voices more John Cage than Mel Blanc. As part of a collection of cartoons — even cartoons as artistically ambitious as the ones in this show — Hertzfeldt’s complex, open-ended work is kind of alienating, but if this were viewed in a gallery at the Walker, it’d probably be hailed as the next Cremaster.