‘The art of the pivot’: RMIT’s 2014 Web Conference

Storey Hall. Photo: courtesy RMIT University.

Originally published on RMIT Blog Central, 7 July 2014.

This year RMIT hosted its second annual web conference at Storey Hall, the University’s iconic lecture theatre/conference centre. It was the perfect venue, with its harmonious blend of 19th-century structural strength and radical postmodern restoration. Remember, that new facade and interior was controversial with the media and public when completed in 1995. Storey Hall, then, reminds us that change can be integrated with tradition, and that, over time, what was once disruptive can become fully accepted.

What better metaphor for RMIT’s Web Transformation Program, which the conference promotes? The Program introduces radical change to RMIT’s web presence, delivering a new content management system (CMS) and distributed content model (DCM). Naturally, this might seem disruptive to people used to a particular way of working, but ultimately it’s a positive addition to the online RMIT universe. RMIT’s web transformation blends the ‘structural strength’ of the main RMIT website – content showcasing the University’s global reputation in technology and design – with a ‘radical restoration’: the CMS and DCM. The result: design and content that reaches the widest possible audience.

In 2013, the conference introduced the new CMS and the changes it would bring – to workflow, content management, cross-channel curation. This year, it was all about digital trends in the wider world and how RMIT might prepare for a projected tsunami of change in the near future.

Jeremy Hodgson, RMIT’s Director of Web Services and Information Policy, opened the event. He spoke about the primacy of platforms, focusing on the YouTube phenomenon and how the aura of the platform frequently surpasses content posted on it. His message: content must be more adaptable than ever before if it is to ride this new power dynamic.

It’s a timely point, especially in light of a recent article by David Hepworth on digital distribution. Hepworth used Beyoncé’s new album as a case study to show how new advances in digital distribution have become far more significant to consumers than the actual content being distributed – even if that content is produced by a megastar like Beyoncé, let alone a higher education providers. The speakers following elaborated various ways of delivering ‘radical’ content that could overcome this type of scenario.

Keynote speaker John Barnes, RMIT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Engagement and Vocational Education, focused on digital marketing strategy and the need for businesses to be in sync with user preferences. Metrics are the key for Barnes. It’s all very well having a superb, fully operational CMS, but where’s the value if the effectiveness of content isn’t measured accurately? Other presenters would return to this theme, which, along with the notion of ‘digital disruption’, seemed to sum up the tenor of the event.

Brett Maishman, National Sales Manager for Fuji Zerox Australia, warned of the dangers of ‘channel proliferation’. With a multitude of channel options available and 1-billion-plus connected devices pinging one another worldwide, how can organisations maintain consistent messaging? His answer: personalisation. Customers today demand a new relationship based on their specific needs. In Maishman’s words, ‘If you don’t know them, you’ll lose them’.

Yet unspoken in his talk was the downside of such a relationship. Get the balance wrong and you run the risk of stalking your audience. Many businesses trip themselves up in an effort to stay relevant on social media. A recent high-profile case involved McDonald’s and its attempts to ingratiate itself into its customers’ lives with a ‘heart-warming’, tell-all hashtag, only to watch in horror as it turned into a ‘bashtag’. Let’s add to Maishman’s message, then. It’s important to be nimble in a time of change, but also to retain a strategic approach: plan, create, listen, measure.

Cameron Owens, CEO of Symplicit, among Australia’s largest customer experience consultancies, introduced the concept of ‘digital disruption’. This is the threat businesses face when their market share is eroded by newer digital competitors. Banking, publishing and education are facing this, he warned, but the solution is relatively simple: ‘Be curious and strong when responding to change.’

He presented a few core tactics. ‘Whatever connection people have with your business,’ he said, ‘they also have with 300 other people.’ Given this, social media must naturally be at the heart of any marketing strategy, but in a way that embodies differentiation: focusing on customer experience and service to set a business apart from the pack. Owens reiterated how RMIT has invested materially in different channels – web, mobile, video, social – but that in itself is not enough. The challenge is to ‘sweat the assets’, extracting full value from optimised digital channels. That can only be done through regular and rigorous review of analytics and metrics, analysing and assessing user journeys and behaviours.

John Riccio lays down the law. Photo: Simon Sellars. 

John Riccio, National Digital Change Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia, spoke about ‘digital maturity’: the point at which an organisation moves from being a novice in the digital space to becoming a trusted expert. Digital maturity is a journey with peaks and troughs; a business doesn’t reach it overnight, and it involves much testing, re-testing and re-planning.

For Riccio, web policies are an enabler in that, but only if designed a certain way. In a digital environment, no one wants freedom of speech curtailed, so policies should be a ‘bumper on either side of the journey so that people don’t go off the rails’. Then, if the policy framework is adaptable enough, you reach a point where use of a particular technology has become mature enough that you don’t need the policies front and centre.

Policy then drops away to become a guide, implicit as a kind of background hum, but in order for that happen, it must be designed so it’s responsive to new devices and new ways of working. That’s not to say that governance isn’t important. In fact, Riccio believes it’s necessary to avoid what he terms the ‘minestrone effect’: silos doing their own thing on their own terms, without a centralised strategy or oversight in place, creating a soup of conflicting strategies that dilutes a brand. It’s how governance is implemented, packaged and delivered that is important. That’s a message RMIT’s own web policy awareness campaign also endorses, with its central theme of empowering people to build an online presence and use it with confidence, resulting in that desired end state: robust digital maturity.

Shefik Bey, Managing Director of the U1 Group, explored the challenge RMIT faces in its plans to develop a responsive design for its mobile site. He highlighted the ‘deep structures’ within the RMIT desktop site and the difficulties in boiling this down to a responsive mobile template. He made the salient point that there are currently no best-practice principles for responsive design. By the time there are, he suggests, with the rate technology is progressing, a different technique – even a different delivery system – will have replaced it. ‘If mobile is today,’ he speculated, ‘wearables are the future’. Google Glass, anyone?

Still, he offered a few handy tips for managing today’s challenges. Reiterating points from earlier speakers, what’s needed in any digital transformation, he reckons, is flexibility; in his words, learning ‘the art of the pivot’. As did the other speakers, he emphasised the importance of ‘success metrics’ and ‘success reporting’. Make sure your metrics are robust enough to ride the ever-shifting waves of the digital sea. Go back to core principles. Encourage experimentation through innovation. Bring silos together.

Importantly, keep your written content succinct. Make sure it translates from desktop to mobile. For Bey, the channel is not important; good content will endure, no matter the platform.

Shefik Bey faces the future. Photo: Simon Sellars. 

On that note, we’ll end this wrap-up of the first half of the conference. Follow us to PART TWO, where we review the second half of the event. We discuss the importance of user research, the art of writing great online content the art of writing great online content … and nothing less than the web’s apocalyptic future.

More information:

RealTime Archive Highlights: Animation

Simon Sellars: Australian Animation

Originally published in RealTime magazine, September, 2009.

I began writing about Australian animation in 2003, but only by default. I was in the queues for the Melbourne International Film Festival waiting to see various short film programs, which is what I intended to review. I kept overhearing the names ‘Adam Elliot’ and ‘Harvie Krumpet’ in conversations between fellow filmgoers, and noted they were talking about animation, not short film. I wasn’t aware Australia had much of an animation industry. I had known student friends who made cartoons, but professionally? It wasn’t like local animators were ever mentioned in mainstream media, therefore they didn’t exist, in that if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest kind of way. But there was an insistence about this Elliot character that made me want to know more, and that’s how I came to interview him. That was before Adam’s Oscar success, and I was left with admiration for those who made painstaking animations in a country that barely acknowledges Australian live-action film, let alone something as marginalised as this medium (it seems likely there’ll always be a cross-section of society that sees animation as strictly ‘for kids’).

There have been some hiccups. A few RealTime writers, including myself, have criticised the oft-simplistic nature of Australian animation, usually directed towards storytelling. Generally, the technique is admirable and improving, especially since the CGI fad seems to be waning. RealTime’s reviews of the annual Melbourne International Animation Festival demonstrate this: some years, the festival’s local component seemed out of touch; recently, it has held its own with the international selections. The RealTime archives highlight other significant developments and patterns. Danni Zuvela’s review of Aboriginal animation from Canada and Australia focuses on work blessed with much storytelling potential at the historical and mythological levels. Ashley Crawford declares the slapstick Dadaism of Arlo Mountford’s extraordinary work in a league of its own. Dan Edwards takes a timely look at the 17-minute Sweet and Sour, an Australia-China co-production and a welcome change from what he terms Australia’s “depressing myopia” when it comes to non-US/UK film influences. And Keith Gallasch admires Lee Whitmore’s compelling The Safe House, “in which childhood, history and politics…come seamlessly together, a rarity in Australian film.”

Appraisals of international productions include no less than four reviews of Boca del Lupo’s theatre/animation hybrid, My Dad, My Dog; Angela Ndalianis’s seduction at the hands of ACMI’s Pixar exhibition; and Megan Carrigy’s analysis of the extraordinary animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, making the salient point that having the film “in general release…is significant since animation has become a major site for innovation in Australian short films”. A couple of historical overviews serve to contextualise: Adrian Martin passionately introduces The Illusion of Life II, a 576-page collection of essays from animation scholars past and present; while my own look at Flickerfest’s historical overview of Australian animation allows me to revisit the beloved “Life. Be In It” commercials of my youth, leading to the revelation that this country has always had an animation industry, just not where you’d expect to find it.

Review: Sinclair/Ballard/Bond/Bavidge/Baxter

Ballardian: Three Recent Reviews

Robert Bond and Jenny Bavidge, editors. City Visions: The Work of Iain Sinclair. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. ISBN 1-84718-153-8.

Jeannette Baxter. J G Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination: Spectacular Authorship. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7546-6267-9.

This double review was originally published in Colloquy, issue 17, August 2009, pp. 108-12.

City Visions: The Work of Iain Sinclair

It is perhaps surprising that Iain Sinclair has courted less academic attention than might be expected from a writer of his stature. His circular excisions of the written word, rewoven into the circuitous labyrinth of London’s urban fabric, his insistent intertextual frameworks and syntactic ambiguity seem to beg, at the least, a type of speculative literary criticism. Yet, as City Visions’ editors, Robert Bond and Jenny Bavidge, propose, perhaps Sinclair’s critical absence is a result of the peculiar tension his body of work engenders — tension between genres, between film, poetry and literature, between critical and commercial success and obscure, small-press inaccessibility, all of which he straddles. For Bond and Bavidge, “the multidiscursive and multi-encyclopaedic range of his sources and references … has made it difficult for commentators … to grasp the scope, and identities, of Sinclair’s various colliding projects” (2). However, it is in this fluidity that the various contributors to City Visions, which collects papers given at the University of Greenwich’s 2004 conference of the same name, find a way in. According to the editors: “Sinclair suggest[s] that the river could teach us a way of interacting with urban history and culture – a fluid imagination-work, as it were … as playful, democratic and formless as nature itself: as organic, grounded and experimental as the city could continue to be” (8). Accordingly, City Visions is far away from opaque literary theory, typified by Ben Watson, who admits to being stung by, and then colluding with, “Sinclair’s scorn for the patronising academic ‘overview’ [that] burn[s] occult insignia on the back of [my] neck” (82).

The anthology has four sections with titles that give an indication of the focus: Contexts, Culture and Critique, Connections, and Space. “Resistance” is a recurring concept, embodied, it is claimed, in Sinclair’s micro-detail. Because there are no real narrative arcs in his writing, the overarching critical strategy on display involves deep excavation of the mechanics of discourse. Kirstin Seale suggests that Sinclair “alienates the reader through use of digressive narrative, which, in its Blakean insistence on cyclical shapes, resists the linear structure of rational imagination” (105). Robert Hampson charts connections between Sinclair’s mapping of urban space, intertwined with the latterly reborn pyschogeography movement, and Sinclair’s sense of evasion of the all-consuming gaze of late capitalism: “The ‘fresh’ relations of collage coincide with visions of a transformed city” (113). David James skilfully picks apart Sinclair’s “cryogenic narrative” logic (a “bolting together of clauses,” like cryogenic suspension), where the artificiality of prose language is attacked, and reordered, to counter the “violence” it wreaks upon “felt experience,” resulting in what Sinclair in Dining on Stones describes as the “futility of fixing the present moment, instead of experiencing it” (157).

Indeed, “dispensing with the sub-clause,” to use Hampson’s term, comes to have macroscopic significance, paratactical resistance that might well be a “fidelity to the writer’s unconscious” (88), as Watson asserts regarding the dissent in Sinclair’s early poetry. Brian Baker, too, holds that “it is in fact the poetry that is vital to an understanding of Sinclair’s writing practice” (133), an experimental freezone where many of Sinclair’s core obsessions are developed.

I was disappointed by the lack of interest in Sinclair’s film work with Chris Petit, a long, fruitful and ongoing partnership. Although the films are mentioned sporadically throughout City Visions, only Esther Leslie’s essay on London Orbital (the Petit/Sinclair film of Sinclair’s book) applies any kind of weighty critique. Yet while her analysis is perceptive, dubbing the filmmakers’ interest in image overload and recovery as an “aesthetics of refuse” (refuse as both garbage and resistance), she misses a trick by failing to mention the overarching influence of J G Ballard, such an acknowledged influence on the film he may as well be credited as the third director.

David Cunningham rectifies this, albeit referring only to Sinclair’s written work. While many commentators tend to simplify the Ballard/Sinclair symbiosis, smelting it down to an effortless story of compatible writers, Cunningham deftly challenges that assertion by exposing the Ballardian influence as the grit in Sinclair’s work, a productive f(r)iction that allows Sinclair to revivify Ballard’s archetypal non-place: “re-plac[ing] the fictional spaces of Ballard’s novels through what is described as a tenuous act of re-enchantment … as if the lexical variety and richness of [Sinclair’s prose] might overcome the emptiness that it confronts” (142).

All up, this is a very impressive collection (despite the niggling problem of multiple typos that renders some footnotes unintelligible). It meets Sinclair’s work on its own terms, becoming state-of-the-art literary theory that is intelligent and deep, but never anything less than playful, engaging and revelatory.

J G Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination: Spectacular Authorship

Ballardian: Three Recent Reviews

In contrast to Sinclair, Ballard has been very well served by academia. J G Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination represents the fifth book-length, critical analysis of his work (alongside numerous essays) and the second by Jeannette Baxter, who also edited Continuum’s collection of essays, J G Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (2009). One wonders what Ballard himself might have made of it all. In 1991, he penned a wonderfully distemperate letter to Science Fiction Studies, in which he denounced the critical consciousness surrounding SF (a genre he is strongly associated with) as “bourgeoisification in the form of an over-professionalized academia with nowhere to take its girlfriend for a bottle of wine and a dance.”

What more can be said about his work? Quite a bit, according to Baxter, especially regarding his highly developed visual sensibility. The work of surrealist artists, Dalí especially, corroborated his decision to invert the standard tropes of science fiction in the 1960s, to explore inner rather than outer space, using the language of dreams to remap the reality of a burgeoning, mass-mediated consciousness — a parallel excavation of McLuhan’s global village. Yet, as Baxter points out, while “‘surreal” and “surrealist” have become standard terms for reviewers and critics when describing Ballard’s work … remarkably, no sustained analysis of the extent and order of Ballard’s Surrealism exists” (1).

While this may be true — “surrealist,” like “dystopian,” undeniably forms part of the clichéd critical lexicon surrounding Ballard’s material — is it that “remarkable” that a sustained analysis of his Surrealism doesn’t exist? (If by “sustained” Baxter means “book-length”). After all, how many authors have entire volumes devoted to a single element of their work? In J G Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination, this becomes problematic in that, over the course of Baxter’s 237 pages, the thesis sometimes stretches thinly. For example, discussing Ballard’s novel The Crystal World (1966), she asserts that it offers a “critique of emergent US Neo-Imperialism within ‘decolonised’ Africa” (39). The Crystal World clearly draws on Surrealist technique, resulting in some of the most striking and uncanny imagery of Ballard’s career. But to suggest it has an extratextual political, postcolonial dimension seems more a result of Baxter adapting the novel to her critical framework, which avowedly aims to explore the “historical, political [and] visual dimensions” of Ballard’s Surrealism, rather than simply the “aesthetic (and purely) textual aspects” (13).

All the same, the book is commendable in its desire to parse the entirety of Ballard’s output: not just his novels, but also the numerous interviews he gave, his journalism, his short stories and particularly his graphic art. This imbues Baxter’s analysis with considerable depth, typified by her discussion of Ballard’s experimental novel, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), which returns the Atrocity chapters to their original sources as standalone “condensed novels,” often accompanied by collages, in Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine.

J G Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination is recommended to those already familiar with Ballard, and who want to examine his influences in more detail. Otherwise, the dense, single-subject approach and the equally dense writing, tightly compacted with substantial academic language, might not be the best entry point. Like City Visions, typos plague it, surprisingly, given how long Ashgate has taken to release it. According to Baxter’s endnotes, the manuscript was finished in 2006 and published three years later, highlighting the perils of academic publishing, which can be slow to match the pace of the outside world. The book misses out on Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come (2006), and his autobiography, Miracles of Life (2008), omissions that immediately date any overview of Ballard published in 2009. The former would have slotted in well — according to Baxter’s prerequisites, it is blackly funny (she adroitly teases out the sly humour in the rest of Ballard’s work, locating it as an index of the Surrealist influence), political and highly visual — while the latter offers extended insights into the sway of Surrealism in his life.

The bibliography, as in most academic appraisals of Ballard, is somewhat predictable (at least in the material directly concerned with the writer), a feedback loop that references a select few, visible publications. This becomes apparent when Baxter discusses Jean Baudrillard’s article on Crash, returning to the same vehement reactions to Baudrillard’s interpetation that were levelled within academia back in 1991. Recently, there have been some productive re-readings of the Ba(udri)llardian symbiosis online in both blog and non-mainstream academic formats. These would surely have enhanced Baxter’s research in that they share her admirable central ideal: to rejuvenate the ossified critical shorthand that so often marks readings of Ballard.

The BLDG BLOG Book: Geoff Manaugh’s Hall of Mirrors

Simon Sellars: BLDG BLOG

An artificial reef in the Red Sea, which features in the Landscape Futures section.

Originally published in Blueprint, 19 August 2009.

Los Angeles-based Geoff Manaugh has been described by fellow futurist writer Bruce Sterling as ‘the world’s greatest practitioner of “architecture fiction”’. His online ideas factory, BLDGBLOG, attracts descriptors like ‘promiscuous’ and ‘omnivorous’. His new, beautifully designed book-of-the-blog delivers more of the same. It features cartoons of his trademark ‘urban speculation’, maybe the only medium flexible enough to capture the onslaught.

There are four components treating eclectic aspects of the built environment: subterranean worlds, music/sound/noise, ‘landscape futures’, even climate (the ’space between buildings’). The section on ‘noise’ works best, considering something many architects seem to disregard:”: the acoustic footprint of urban areas and how this might be ‘tuned’ to satisfactory ‘user’ experiences. Discussing the psychological effects of the built environment, Manaugh’s self-acknowledged debt to JG Ballard becomes most apparent. That’s the value of Manaugh’s work. At heart he’s an outsider, an enthusiast armed with a surplus of imagination and creative latitude, voicing ideas a professional insider with all the right references might miss, or wilfully ignore.
The book contains a lot of new material, and some that has been reworked from online. If you know the blog, you’ll know the style: breathless; italicised for emphasis, and exhorting ‘you’ to consider video games and spam email as architecture as much as actual buildings. Such writing might work best in the cross-linkage of the online matrix, although it doesn’t suffer on the page. Among the thoughtful features and interviews, including urban theorist Mike Davis and architect Lebbeus Woods, are numerous sidebars, allowing the reading experience to fold in on it self.

Take Manaugh’s discussion of ‘a medieval treatise on the use of mirrors’. He contemplates how a man with no soul could walk into the infinite non-space generated when two mirrors reflect each other, but then we’re suddenly aboard the International Space Station and he’s conjured up an astronaut, ‘crazed with loneliness’, who sets up two mirrors before wandering inside them, never to return, while back on Earth children sing hymns in remembrance. The hall-of-mirrors metaphor is apt: follow Manaugh, and you never know where you’ll end up – a long way from home, certainly. He should write a novel.
There’ll be protests: ‘that’s not architecture’. But surely all architecture is fantasy on the drawing board until it meets the harsh reality of governance, big business and the real world. And, as Manaugh points out, ‘If architectural critics can get people to realize the everyday spatial world of earthquake safety plans and prison-break films is worthy of architectural analysis, and that architecture is everywhere and everything, then perhaps we’ll learn to stop taking those spaces for granted’. Besides, his burgeoning popularity might help to finally break Ballard in the States. But why no index? It’s annoying: Manaugh chews through so many topics, but good luck finding them in a hurry.

The BLDG Blog book by Geoff Manaugh Chronicle Books, £16.99

Tricks and Treats

Simon Sellars: Australian animation

Carmen Torero.

Originally published in RealTime #92 Aug-Sept 2009 p31.

In its 9th iteration, the melbourne international animation festival’s programming policy continues to be brave and adventurous, and this resulted in another diverse set of programs. This year, the boast was that miaf screened over 400 films selected from over 2,000 entries, spread over 40 programs and representing over 30 countries. That’s a lot to absorb in just seven days and, as always, while some selections may be a little underwhelming, there are always unreserved classics at every turn. I mean that both historically (miaf takes great care to present an overview of acknowledged gems from the past) as well as indulgently: there are so many masterpieces being produced today, and miaf, seemingly, garners them all.

Animating with sand
Each year, the festival spotlights a particular animation technique. In 2008, it was puppetry, which presented an excellent counterpoint to the industry’s surfeit of CGI. In 2009, it is sand animation, also promising. I was excited at the thought of a program dedicated to this laborious and visually stunning technique, which involves the manipulation of coloured powders (actual sand, most often, but also salt) over a light box, typically with hand brushes and air brushes. The program presented eight ‘classics’ and seven recent films, but the outcome was hit and miss. It seemed the form too often dictates the content because the technique necessarily involves swirling, dissolving imagery, generating too many twee scenarios (ponderous childhood reminiscing, dissolving memories) and a little too much navel-gazing, windswept hair and fluffy clouds.

A notable exception was Aleksandra Korejwo’s Carmen Torero (Poland, 1996; 3’45), based on Bizet’s Carmen. Korejwo’s skill is incredible, presenting a consistently mesmerising interpretation of Carmen’s interactions with the bullfighter, whose majestic cape-swinging movements through time and space engulf them both in great swathes of colour and grain (salt injected with dye in this instance, manipulated by animal feathers instead of brushes). Fur Mathilde (director Alla Churikova, Germany, 2009; 7’00) was also masterful, mixing a young girl’s (literally) black-and-white existence with her escape into the noise and colour of the city—some of the latter scenes are almost photorealistic, almost 3D, astonishing when you remember this is sand. But what I would really like to see in sand animation is a horror film. Imagine it, all that red powder and tenuous human forms —it would make for an excellent shower of blood, dissolving not into soft-focus memories but into traumatised brain tissue, skull fragments and exploded flesh. Just a thought…

There were 10 international programs: six mixed sessions plus tailored programs for digital forms, abstract films, long shorts and new Croatian animation. I enjoyed Bubblicious (Geoffroy De Crecy, France, 2008; 3’15), a film clip for Rex the Dog’s eponymous French house track, featuring a cut-out-style mutt rendered in 3D and singing the diva-like club anthem with serious attitude. Ridiculous, but infectious and super stylish. Two animations were distinguished by their hands-on technique. The Note (Hwang Bo Kumbyul South Korea, 2008; 3’30), about a letter that comes to life before the eyes of a child, is mesmerising, folding in on itself as ethereal bits of tracing paper prove to hold all sorts of secrets—morphing shapes, objects and scenarios barely held together by sticky tape…Almost like one of the family (Astrid Goransson, Sweden, 2008; 9’45) is bizarre and magical, with charcoal drawings on walls coming to life around a housewife in her kitchen, forming nested worlds within worlds that draw her deeper and farther away from the domestic.

Simon Sellars: Australian animation

The Spine.

The Necktie (Jean-Francois Levesque, France, 2008; 12’15) is a wonderful tale of Kafkaesque bureaucracy that pits our puppet hero against an internecine office conspiracy involving people who are nothing more than (again, literally) paper cut-outs. It’s an instructive example of form underscoring a story, rather than dictating it. Chris Landreth’s The Spine (Canada, 2009; 11’00), voted Best of the Fest, is a breathtaking combination of sketch artistry impressed onto CGI frames in a style Landreth has dubbed “psycho-realism.” According to the filmmaker, CGI makes animators lazy, able to cheat and do ‘incredible’ tricks without thinking; psycho-realism, then, tricks the audience into thinking the scene is reality, until everything collapses into disturbing surrealism. In The Spine, characters are trapped in a marriage counselling session as strips of flesh hang from their faces, while the lead character, free from his domineering wife, grows an actual, literal spine when initially he was just a blob of a man. Landreth is working on an animated biopic of HP Lovecraft, a truly exciting prospect. Other international highlights were to be found in the London’s Calling program, a blend of advertisements and short films showcasing the best of that city’s animation, including Marc Craste’s Varmints (UK, 2008; 24’00), which is truly warped in its mix of elements: dystopian sci fi, apocalyptic alien invasion and, yes, cuddly animals. City Paradise (Gaelle Denis, UK, 2004; 6’00) is an outstanding live-action/animation tale of a Japanese girl who visits London only to find a city even stranger than she is. It’s a really smart inversion of the standard Lost in Translation-style ‘foreignness’ attributed to places like Japan.

Australian Panorama
With only a few misfires, the Australian Panorama was true blue. Factoids and Slapstick (Doug Bayne, 2008; 4’15) was part of the BigPond/Screen Australia–sponsored Great Moments in History competition, in which animators were invited to consider “funny stuff that happened between the Big Bang and the end of time.” Ostensibly, it tells the story of Vlad the Impaler, but the animator steps into the frame to express doubts about the whole storytelling process—clever and fun. The Aussie Panorama screened two other films in this series, but they weren’t as good, relying on tedious toilet humour. There should be an unimpeachable, ironclad rule in film school, along with those other immutable maxims they teach about good story: “NO FART/POO/BUM JOKES. Ever.”

Be Famous and Die (Simon O’Carrigan, 2008; 4’45) uses simple techniques to deliver a deeply felt monologue about the peculiarities of Melbourne’s obsession with statues of famous people. Laura Stitzel’s fabulous The Roaring Tide (2008; 4’00), drawn in Roaring 20s deco style (all blocky, angular shapes and zoot suits) is, joyously, about shipwrecked passengers who simply refuse to admit the severity of their situation, insisting instead on partying and unadulterated hedonism. Bronze Mirror (Susan Danta, 2008; 7’00), voted best Australian film of the festival, was a worthy contender. Based on a Korean folk tale, it uses surreal CGI to depict rural folk in old Korea mesmerised by a ‘demon’ they’ve never seen before—themselves in a humble mirror. But perhaps Mutt (Glen Hunwick, 2007; 7’00), about a dog in the outback obsessed with his ball even though he has no one to play fetch with him, should have got the nod. The technique (rounded, grossly caricatured characters), the set design and the colour scheme are outstanding, and the story is just too funny, the poor dog’s antics lingering in the memory. It was one of two great Aussie canine stories, the other being Dog with Electric Collar (Steve Baker, 2008; 4’45) which uses a whip-sharp style—pulsating, fantastical and colourful—to portray a dog who just can’t stop barking, even under threat of painful death.

All up, the MIAF team, led by Malcolm Turner, have really settled into a good groove, with a programming style that delivers. Our local animators have also risen to the challenge, proffering a brace of films that stand up to scrutiny. Here’s to the future.

2009 Melbourne International Animation Festival, ACMI Cinemas, Melbourne, June 22-28; www.miaf.net

MIFF 2008: Lo-tech Brilliance

Simon Sellars: Daume

Daumë, Ben Russell.

Originally published in RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 23.

One of the interesting things about the Melbourne international film festival is the ‘parallel world’ effect. The festival you experience may well be completely different from anyone else’s, so much so you may sometimes wonder if you were at the same event at all. This year, a friend was telling me about the English coming-of-age dramas, the Iranian rites-of-passage films and the Irish hunger strike re-enactment that provided her with her most vivid festival moments.

I was telling her I felt like I’d been at film school, watching and learning about the art of guerrilla filmmaking and how to work outside the system. Fir my festival was filled with George Romero zombie flicks (Romero being the ultimate maverick), the admirable program of Ozploitation fare (excavating ignored strata of Australian film history), and the wonderful ‘expanded cinema’ worlds of Guy Sherwin, Ben Russell and Ben Rivers.

Sherwin’s films were shown in a dedicated program at ACMI, while the two Bens shared a program; Sherwin and Russell also performed at Who is Miss Roder?, a subsidiary festival event at 45downstairs, a gallery and performance space in an old city warehouse. Over three performances, it featured the two internationals plus Australian artists in a mix of experimental cinema, performance art, sound design and video mixing. This was a great idea, enabling Sherwin and Russell to present a different side to their work, and it really added to the sense that, this year, MIFF was something different.

Ben Rivers

At ACMI, the best of the Ben Rivers material was Ah, Liberty!, shot on 16mm black-and-white stock, an exercise in faux ethnographic, mockumentary weirdness: feral kids in sea monster masks scavenge in rusting machinery dumps while odd scenarios play out around them—a car with no doors, for example, being driven in circles on a muddy field. Rivers projects surreal horror vibes, radiating 10 shades of uncanny, with moments of hilarity jolting you into the realm of the simply deranged. Most of his work is like this: unsettling, weird, but nonetheless conforming to its own internal logic. The overall effect is surprisingly ‘narrative’, given the lack of dialogue, the ultra-rapid editing and the warped tableaux. Another highlight was This is My Land, Rivers’ portrait of the Scottish hermit Jake Williams. Rivers’ scratchy träume style is totally suited to Williams’ self-contained, eccentric lifestyle. As he tinkers with the compost, builds bird feeders and tends his ramshackle house, Williams, in his lilting Scottish voiceover, says whatever comes into his head: an internal world that, like Rivers’ films, conforms to its own weirdly centred chronology.

Guy Sherwin

Sherwin has been making his miniature masterpieces since the early 1970s, building and unpeeling layers of tone, texture and grain, above all with acuity to create a shifting world of perception. A camera is affixed to the back of a bicycle wheel, simply recording the shadows from the bike as it meanders under the sun, then through a puddle of water, calmly recording the wet tyre marks which look like unravelling DNA. A cat sleeps on a roof. The film is slightly sped up. The creature is dreaming, twitching and kicking its paws into the air. Suddenly, it wakes with a start, looks around and wanders off. An elderly couple stand around laughing and joking. Between them is a mirror, which reflects Sherwin winding the crank of the box camera recording this poetic little piece. The film is silent. We watch Sherwin watching the couple who watch us watching Sherwin. These films were all shown at ACMI, where Sherwin introduced them, expressing surprise that his work was being displayed via state-of-the-art equipment. Normally, he said, his films are screened in a small bar or café type environment, where an element of performance comes into play.

Who is Miss Roder? provided that environment. Here, Sherwin presented his work in partnership with Lynn Loo. Vowels and Consonants was a piece for six projectors that screened variations on a simple, flickering font printed from computer onto acetate and then transferred to film. O’s and N’s fly into frame like amoeba under a microscope, vibrating and oscillating in response, seemingly, to the treated voices that announce their arrival; I’m sure the letters were triggering sound somehow. Sherwin and Loo manipulate the projectors to introduce fades, cuts and cross-fades matching the overlapping effect of the voice. The letters fold and bounce off each other. The overall effect is synaesthetic, like you’re actually watching sound take shape (and in fact the sound design was really something too—an ominous, post-industrial hum).

Man with Mirror was amazing, but it’s complicated to explain, let me try. Sherwin stands in the middle of the space, holding a mirror, which is painted white on the reverse side. Onto the board, the projector beams film of a younger Sherwin (from 1976) doing exactly the same. With a twist of the board, young Sherwin morphs into the older version. He turns the mirror to the reflective side, while young Sherwin turns the board over to the white side, which the real-life Sherwin is doing also. The latter then turns his board over to reveal himself, and then flips back to the mirror, which is now reflecting back to us young Sherwin in profile, the board outstretched in front of him. He turns to face us, flips the board over to the white side and we see the older Sherwin now standing in profile, holding the board in front of him. And on and on in endless variations. It’s like a form of time travel: a man disappearing into light and shadow and reappearing as a younger version of himself. It elicited ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the audience, and rightly so: the choreography was mind-bending.

Ben Russell

At ACMI, Ben Russell’s films included one from a static camera fixed on a wildly stuttering neon sign and another recording workers leaving a factory in Dubai: field recordings, the unblinking eye of the lens inducing subtle changes in people’s behaviour just by being there. Then there was Black and White Trypps Number Four. Russell takes a strip of 35mm film from a Richard Pryor performance and treats, warps and re-projects it, so that it folds in on itself, as does Pryor’s spiel, which pokes fun at white people and their paranoia about black people. Pryor trips on stage, the image stutters, then burns away as if caught in the projector, melting, reforming, white gaps in the film becoming black, black becoming white, until Pryor ends up leached away to a white screen, his voice slowed to a scratchy burr, and we are left to interpret the meaning: is Pryor a reverse racist? Or is Russell just having loads of fun (artistically and philosophically) with ‘black’ and ‘white’, gaining maximum mileage from minimal materials?

At Miss Roder, Russell upstaged Sherwin, screening a loop from his fake ethnographic film, Daumë, which screened in full at ACMI and is a brilliant piece of work in its own right. Again, how to describe? Young men dressed as ‘natives’ engage in strange rituals, throwing chairs at each other, punching each other randomly. The events are seen from many different angles. Black and white, flickering film. Bizarre masks and a heightened sense of surreality. It’s no wonder Russell and Rivers feel simpatico. At the performance, wearing nothing but underpants and a Church of the Subgenius mask, Russell manipulated the loop with two projectors, blurring the films together, flying by the seat of his (under)pants, improvising a pure performance of analogue dexterity (also manipulating sound via a mixing board, spewing forth granulated sheets of noise). Here, the aesthetic and philosophy of filmmaking becomes a raging, malleable, shapeshifting beast.

More Magic

All the Miss Roder acts were excellent. Other highlights included Jon Pak’s performance piece The Feast, in which a small restaurant is actually set up in the space. Two actors, a man and a woman, enter. They sit down to eat, served by an impudent waiter. Their every movement is wired for ultra-amplified sound. There is a video screen upon which their images are projected, electronically treated so that they appear to be underwater. They are nervous with each other and every gesture, burp and nervous laugh is magnified painfully and uncomfortably. Steven Ball’s Personal Electronics was an absorbing study of paranoia, surveillance and the thoroughly fruity modern day phenomenon of ‘gang stalking’ (Google it, you won’t believe it), with pixelated video footage snaking around a suburb, recording people, cars, houses, neighbours, while an unhinged woman in voiceover tries to make sense of a world she thinks is out to get her. Later, Ball did a spoken word reading from similar case studies in his detached tones, while the insane pixels continued to unfurl.

I left these performances feeling divided: half inspired that so much amazing work is being done with scant resources, old media and boundless imagination, half annoyed with myself for wasting so much time watching crap film over the last few years when there’s all this to explore.

The Guy Sherwin, Ben Russell and Ben Rivers expanded cinema program tour to the Melbourne and Brisbane International Film Festivals was curated and organised by Danni Zuvela, Joel
Stern and Sally Golding (OtherFilm).

Guy Sherwin, Ben Russell, Ben Rivers, Melbourne International Film Festival, Otherfilm, ACMI, July 30; Who is Miss Roder?, presented by MIFF, Greyspace, Otherfilm, Arts House; 45 downstairs, Melbourne, Aug 1-2.

Puppet Power and Scary Magic

PeursDuNoir [Fear(s) of the Dark] – Burns 06, Charles Burns.

Originally published in RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 p24.

This year’s MIAF was flush with riches. Selected from over 2000 entries, there were 150 films in competition and 150 outside of it. There was an eight-program international selection, music videos, digital animation, studio and producer showcases, a series of San Francisco historical animations, animated documentaries and themed packages with titles like late night bizarre and strange ideas and bad craziness.

There were graduate, teen and kids programs, animation 101 sessions and the careers in animation forum, all adding to the crucial work MIAF does in building a vibrant animation culture from the ground up.

The technique focus this year was on puppet animation. I’ve been bored with CGI’s dominance so I welcomed it. MIAF curator Malcolm Turner, introducing the Icons of Puppet Animation screening, highlighted how puppetry can uniquely express the soul of an animated character. Jiri Trnka’s allegorical masterpiece The Hand (Czechoslovakia 1966, 17mins) was the exemplar. According to Turner, this was one of the first puppet animations to feature static faces, telling the story of a down-at-heel sculptor making art in his small apartment.

An enormous, live-action hand breaks the frame, filling the apartment with its bulk and forcing the artist to make sculptures in its likeness, attaching strings to the artist and manipulating his actions, or destroying whatever non-hand art the artist produces. The allusion to totalitarianism is clear, but the state’s capacity to endlessly erase and reinscribe its own identity in order to control and dominate is also apparent. This is reinforced by the contrast between the puppet-artist’s mournful, unblinking face, which becomes a screen for the audience’s imagination, and the hand’s everchanging bulk, trying every trick it can—even dressing its fingers in lacy lingerie—to lure the artist.

Another Icon standout was Balance (directors Christoph & Wolfgang Lauenstein, Germany 1989, 8mins). Five identical, skinny, bald characters with sunken eyes and prison-camp greatcoats stand on a platform suspended in space with no visible means of support. If one moves, the platform tips and they all go sliding close to the edge and oblivion; therefore they must work with each other to maintain balance. It’s finally a devious and deadly game as curiosity, then jealousy, brings them undone. The bleak monochromes of the set and costume design give this an existential charge that is hard to shake off.

Kataku (The House in Flames, director Kihachiro Kawamoto, Japan, 1979, 17mins), a fable about attraction and choice, is like a Japanese doll set come to life, all slow movement, glossy faces and hair, watercolour backgrounds and scenery, almost imperceptible stillness melting into exquisite motion poetry, mixing noh and bunraku styles. Pygmalion (Arnold Burovs, Latvia 1967, 9’45mins) is a brilliant union of clockwork figures and metronomic sound design as a sad, bearded inventor creates a mechanical woman only to become lost in her gaze and ultimately the op art scenery surrounding her. The Philips Broadcast of 1938 (Holland 1938, 9’30mins) featured George Pal’s amazing and beloved Puppetoons, incredibly flexible puppet characters that contort and shape shift with sheer glee, so skilfully realised and synchronised via Pal’s replacement animation technique [using multiple puppets or parts for each character move. Eds] that they look hand-drawn.

Of the contemporary puppet animations, the standout was Madame Tulti-Pulti (Chris Lavis & Maciek Szczerbowski, Canada 2007, 17’25mins), an intricate stop motion that took me somewhere I’ve never been before. The titular Madame boards a strange, steampunk train powered by an enormous turbine. Dressed like a 30s Parisienne, she settles into her compartment and tries to read a book. On the overhead bag rack, two men are hunched over a chess set. Whenever the train hits a bump, the chess pieces fly into the air and rearrange themselves in different combinations on the board. A freaky kid stares at the woman. Then a beefy pervert makes the fucking signal with the time-honoured ‘O’ sign of one hand penetrated by the index finger of the other. Poor Madame.

She nods off and wakes up to find everyone gone and an alien green mist polluting the compartment. Shadowy figures glide past and, when she investigates, it appears that everyone but her has been the victim of, I think, an organ-stealing black market operation. Perhaps. I won’t pretend to know what it’s all about, suffice to say that Madame Tulti-Pulti has quite clearly taken a train ride to hell. The other remarkable aspect of this film, besides the scenery, the stage sets and the character of Madame herself, wafer thin and etched with grain, is the filmmakers’ technique of compositing live-action human eyes onto the puppets. A kind of hellish variant on the 60s animated TV series Clutch Cargo, it has a supremely bizarre, preternatural touch that plunges the viewer deep into an uncanny valley.

Live Life (Jonathan Pasternak, Israel, 2006, 5’30mins) is a self-consciously odd Day of the Dead puppet musical featuring decomposing versions of Albert Einstein, Joey Ramone and other celebs all gathered in The Ossiary, the famous Czech church adorned with 40,000 human bones. This lunatic troupe is led by Johnny Cash in a rousing rendition of the William Shatner song, “Live life like you’re gonna die, coz you’re gonna.” Even the Ossiary’s skulls join in on the chorus. I loved The Bridge (Vincent Bierrewaerts, Belgium, 2007, 13mins), about a boy who lives with his father on a mountain top. When he accidentally kills his dad, the boy grows up alone, thinking he’s trapped up on high, watching the bombing of the city far down below in some unnamed war. The only access to the outside world used to be a bridge that fell down long ago, but eventually the boy finds a tunnel down through the mountain and wanders the shell-shocked city alone. The puppet boy is masterfully rendered: pure expressive innocence memorably etched onto his bulbous eyes and round head.


The Australian Panorama was maybe the best Australian animation program of the last few years. L’Animateur (Nick Hilligoss, 2006, 3’45mins) takes a corny premise, the Garden of Eden, and infuses it with a meta-narrative on the joy of animation itself. A medieval jester lands on an planet uninhabited save for a few frogs. He unpacks a little portable stage set and places two lifeless wooden puppets on it. They are attached to strings but then he zaps them with some kind of beam and they move about autonomously. They see a tree with apples and, naturally, eat them. Flesh subsequently grows on their bodies, there is music cranked out by the jester and the frog audience dances in thrall. When the humans are fully realised, the jester pulls the floor out from under them and they fall to the ground. The jester packs up and flies to another planet, leaving behind the first human life on Earth and a performance those frogs will always remember.

Other Australian standouts included the hilarious, affecting Monkeynaut (Snooze Animation, 2007, 7’15mins) about what really went on in those early chimp-only space missions (hint: it involves lots of long, yellow fruit). Professor Pebbles (Pierce Davison, 2006, 12’45mins) is inventively realised with its tale of a minion of Satan who has a mid-life crisis on his 500th birthday and decides to go above ground for a change of pace, yet can’t quite shed his wicked ways. The lurid colour scheme and claymation weirdness make an imprint on the retina. The Goat that Ate Time (Lucinda Schreiber, 2007, 7mins) is really beautiful, both in terms of its textured technique and its sentiment, about a voracious goat who eats everything under the sun including clocks and watches, with the timepieces and their chronological ‘nutrition’ slipstreaming her into an endless, timeless present.

And, now, just as I ran out of time to see everything at the festival, so too I’m out of space, with just enough words to big up the portmanteau film Fear(s) of the Dark (Canada 2007, 85mins). Based on the work of 10 graphic artists and comic-book creators, and almost entirely monochrome, it weaves nightmares from the most basic of materials, black and white, for all nightmares emerge from the shadows. My favourite scary story was Richard McGuire’s about a man who is lost in a snowstorm and takes refuge in an abandoned house.

Inside, he has to find his way around in compete darkness, the brief flickering of light from his candle exposing what looks to be floral patterned wallpaper, but may or may not be a woman’s dress. And ‘she’ may or not be holding a meat cleaver. The floral shapes melt back into the dark as the candle goes out and the games of illusion begin again. In the morning the whiteness of the outside world proves as treacherous as the black of night, with a glimmer of help for the man frustratingly melting back into the snow-covered landscape as clearly as it emerged.

Finally, congratulations to MIAF for its bold, imaginative programming. The only sour note is that all events weren’t sold out. Readers, do you know what you have in your own backyard?

Melbourne International Animation Festival 2008, ACMI, June 16-22, www.miaf.net/2008/home.html.

Australian Animation: Quality Wins

Simon Sellars: Animation

Ward 13.

Originally published in RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 25

In compiling a program of Australia’s best animation shorts for Flickerfest, curator Anthony Lucas chose films that inspired his own animation career, including TV commercials. Lucas describes the program as “a retro view jumped up on tang, wearing Golden Breed stubbies, riding a Malvern Star, with the streamers coming off the handlebars, down to the milk bar for a Chikito.”

Meaning we’re in thrall to an Aussie suburbia as dislocating and uncanny as the best gothic horror, but with better jokes.

In Darra Dogs (1993), the veteran filmmaker Dennis Tupicoff narrates his childhood in the bleak, industrial Brisbane suburb of Darra. Centrally, it’s the story of how the death and disappearance of Tupicoff’s pet dogs traumatised him into adulthood, but there’s no treacly sentimentality, just the grimmest fatalism reflected in the animation, with its hard, etched lines tracing maps of pain against stark, primary colour backgrounds. Still, the dogs themselves are rendered beautifully, even the scene in which Tupicoff comes across a rotting canine carcass in a lake. The scene is a work of art in a visionary film, and Darra Dogs is a deeply affecting testament, hewn from bare trauma, its images recorded as if directly from the mind’s eye.

Sarah Watt’s Local Dive (1988) resolves in a more upbeat fashion as a socially awkward girl uses the local swimming pool as a wormhole into fantasy. Contrasting sharply with the banality of the other patrons, she dives underwater where she imagines herself as a marine creature, alternately graceful and predatory. Watt’s paint-on-glass technique brilliantly evokes the psychedelic awkwardness of youth.

The fondly remembered TV ads (despite the lamentable absence of Mr Sheen) are mostly taken from the 70s and earlier, contrasting the late period angst with the sheer jouissance of a young nation finding its feet. The first of two Life Be In It ads (both 1977) joyfully scrolls from screen top to screen bottom, innocent tableaux taken from city and country life (before 21st century affluenza and alcopops apparently made the streets and parks unsafe). In the second, the famous fat, alcoholic Norm, symbol of a nation, makes an appearance. The moment when he decides to go for a walk instead of pursuing the sedentary life is hilarious. The animation pauses, the familiar jingle slows down, and Norm takes a mighty step up from his armchair and out into the world. It’s presented with all the gravitas of Neil Armstrong’s Moon landing until the spell is broken by a live action John Newcombe at Mission Control. Sporting a handlebar moustache you could land an Apollo capsule on, Newk congratulates the cartoon fatman with a matey thumbs up and the impenetrable call sign, “Bewdy, Norm.”

In the ad for KO Hairspray (1977), two blokey, boofheaded bears discover the camp joys of personal grooming, while the SPC Baked Beans & Spaghetti ad (“for hungry little human beans”) has a typically maddening Mike Brady jingle and trippy animated spag and beans that morph into musical notation. The Life’s a Ball ad for Jaffas features zoot-suited characters breakdancing like an animated version of Duran Duran’s Rio album cover, while the iconic Mortein ad (1962) starring Louie the Fly renders the tedious chore of catching and killing household vermin a game of fun and intrigue for all the family via the smokescreen of catchy jingles, noir animation and the bland, neutral typography of the Mortein can.

Bertie the Aeroplane appears in a classic Aeroplane Jelly ad from 1942, in which he surprisingly discovers UFOs, described by the narrator as “flying saucers.” But the first widely reported sighting of a UFO, and the first use of the term “flying saucer” to describe it, was by the civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold in 1947. So was Aeroplane Jelly in on some giant conspiracy? Was this seemingly innocuous food combine using the cloak of homely consumerism and the “aw, shucks” cuteness of a fat, wobbly, anthropomorphised plane to expose Australians to the truth a full five years before the rest of the world?

The program also features Leisure (1976), Bruce Petty’s film about the need for leisure time in a society increasingly dominated by industry and work. At times it comes on like some sci-fi public service announcement beamed in from a far-future utopia in which all crime and dissent has been eliminated. Spouting aphorisms like “In order to make life more certain, humans took up industry” and “the new challenge for humans is leisure”, I couldn’t quite work out if it was having a lend or not. Philosophically, Petty, the famous Australian newspaper cartoonist, appears to be completely serious, making the point with virtuosic style incorporating line drawing and collage, like a more stately Terry Gilliam. Even more bizarre, this complex meditation on the nature of existence won the 1976 Best Animated Short Film Oscar. Who said the Academy had no taste?

Adam Elliot is also featured, and he of course repeated Petty’s Oscar win with Harvie Krumpet in 2003. But Lucas makes room for Elliot’s Cousin (1998) instead, a black-and-white, rawer, darker Krumpet prototype. Lucas himself got in on the Academy act in 2006 with a nomination for The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, but of his own work he’s chosen to include Slim Pickings, a sweet little claymation about a green alien alone on a small planet who has run out of food. The Little Prince influence is obvious, yet smartly integrated.

Ideally, Peter Cornwell’s Ward 13 should also have been nominated for the 2003 Best Animated Short Film Oscar—perhaps it should even have won. It’s a remarkably accomplished tale of a road-accident victim who wakes up in a hospital of horrors, fending off tentacled mutants, nurses in Halloween-style hockey masks, two-headed dogs and orderlies wielding bone saws. With no dialogue, this stop-motion masterpiece is told kinetically. Its set piece is a jaw dropping scene with hospital bed trolleys and wheelchairs used as escape vehicles and walking sticks wielded as Ninja swords, rivalling Mad Max 2’s lauded chase climax for inventiveness and (stop) motion sickness.

Simon Sellars: Animation

Cane Toads.

Wendy Chandler’s Union Street (1990), a tale of street-level suburban machinations, is narrated by Andrew Denton and is beautifully ‘acted’, with fabulous photographic cut-outs coloured in and collaged, providing a graphic match for the intricately plotted drama. Lucinda Clutterbuck’s Tiga (1989) eulogises the Tasmanian Tiger with reminiscences from locals, a sumptuous soundtrack and variegated rotoscoping. Max Bannah’s sardonic One Man’s Instrument (1990), about a man who makes flora flourish amid the concrete jungle by playing his trumpet, is one of two films with distressing close-ups of a character’s penis and testicles; Bannah has the old meat and two veg literally pissing on the man’s dream, crass urbanisation winning out. Andrew Silke and David Clayton’s Cane Toads (2002) is a fine example of CGI (rare among these films), starring Baz, the horny-skinned animal version of Life Be In It’s Norm, except that Baz doesn’t take great strides, instead getting mangled for his efforts to better himself in a number of bloody and imaginative scenarios.

Anthony Lucas deserves praise for assembling this excellent program, and the inclusion of the TV ads was inspired. Assuming you’re of a certain generation, the frisson of recognition they provide reminds us that the inclusion of the words ‘animation’ and ‘Australian’ in the same sentence is not such a strange concept. And even if you’re not of that generation, the chance to see where the luminaries collected here might have gained inspiration from is invaluable. With its trip through the shimmering talent of Tupicoff, Petty, Watt and Cornwell, the program very effectively counterbalances any suggestion that Australian animation had no pulse pre-Krumpet.

As for themes, well, there is the Aussie gothic but if we’re going to read ‘Australianness’ into the program, let’s think in terms of “quality” rather than cultural cliche. After all, as Peter Cornwell said when asked why the Academy has suddenly embraced Australian animation, “There’s a different Australian sensibility, but it is really difficult to say what that is. We don’t really have an animation industry. There’s so many obstacles that you really have to be passionate about finishing it, you’re not just cynically making it for the market.”

Well said.

Flickerfest 17th International Short Film Festival: The Bold, the Brave & the Best—Celebrating 30 years of Australian Animation, curator Anthony Lucas, 124 minutes, Flickerfest national tour, Jan-March 2008.

Small Tales and True: Short Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival, 2007

Simon Sellars: Melbourne International Film Festival

Still from The Boy Who Loved Rain.

by Simon Sellars

Originally published in RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007.

Recently in RealTime and elsewhere I’ve been critical of Australian short film and animation, so much so I’m beginning to bore myself (and doubtless others) with the old refrain.

Still, I voice these criticisms from a position of respect for the Australian independent scene and its unrealised potential, which is why it was so refreshing to attend the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Australian short stories session.

These weren’t shorts made by superhero writer-directors who think they can do it all, insulting the audience’s intelligence with woeful scripts, lame punch lines, toilet humour and clichéd narrative tricks, and they weren’t shot in such a hyperaware glossy. fashion that I was forced to wonder whether the director wouldn’t be happier making ads. Instead we were presented with genuine, lived-in dramas rooted in experience and a sense of worldly self-awareness. These were films made by people who actually have something to say about their immediate environment, rather than by filmmakers who appear to have little motive other than adding another notch to their showreel by aping overseas trends (trends that are stale by the time they reach these shores anyway).

Indigenous short film

Australian Stories, a showcase for Indigenous film, included four animation shorts produced as part of the 12-strong Dust Echoes series that collects Dream Time stories from Arnhem Land, produced by the ABC in association with Deakin University and the Djilpin Arts Aboriginal Corporation. Of these, Mermaid Story (James Calvert, 5mins) was told entirely through music and sound—no narration, no dialogue. Mixing cut-outs, silhouettes and traditional drawing styles, the simple story, about a man who chooses to live with mermaids, thus forsaking his family, was achingly poignant. The Bat and the Butterfly (Dave Jones, 5mins) was perhaps the most impressive. Its characters looked like a cross between gingerbread men, stone carvings and claymation, and the story was told through snatched whisperings and ambient desert sounds, culminating in a powerful tale of cowardice and lack of responsibility versus courage and redemption. Dust Echoes was stunning, with every element in synch, creating a rich, sensory experience—visualising the Dream Time by melding the techniques of the future with the raw emotion of the very distant past.

The live action in Australian Stories was also impressive. Pauline Whyman avoided sentimentality in Back Seat (5mins), a film seen mostly through the blurred POV of the child protagonist, aimed at the Aboriginal family she sees at the end receding through the window of the car driven by her white foster parents. Stark emotional dynamics told the story: close-ups of car locks and windows; a simple Polaroid frame left lingering in the memory.

The hilarious Nana (Warwick Thornton, 5mins) featured a young girl’s comments on the titular oldie, an ancient lady whose good works include beating up alcohol smugglers who threaten the sanctity of her community. In her down time Nana paints, delighting the little girl with her off-the-cuff remark that “I paint the same painting every time. White people wouldn’t know the difference anyway.”

Adrian Wills’ Jackie Jackie (5mins) is a completely warped film about an Aboriginal girl who has to put up with the ghastly prejudices of her white boss at the supermarket where she works. All around her, the robots who work at this place are represented in hypergarish style: blue plastic wigs, clothes in colours that would do Howard Arkley proud. In the end, the boss gets his and the message is clear: stick up for yourself, because self-respect is often all you’ve got. Back Seat, Nana and Jackie Jackie are from the AFC Indigenous Branch’s latest initiative, Bit of Black Business (see page 23).

Darlene Johnson’s Crocodile Dreaming (26mins) starred David Gulpilil as an elder with the power of magic. When his clan’s sacred stone is stolen and thrown into the river, Gulpilil must defy totemic crocodiles to retrieve it. He’s the perfect choice for such an ‘aqua man’, with his ultra-smooth skin and pitch-dark eyes like portals to another dimension. The film is a tour de force, including all the performances (Tom E Lewis is the antagonist); Darlene Johnson is one hell of a filmmaker—the disturbing scene of a crocodile’s revenge and another where one swims quietly above Gulpilil are testimony to that.

When the Natives Get Restless (28min), also from Adrian Wills, is a raw look at an Aboriginal housing estate in Dubbo, a lawless non-place. One resident says, “My life’s not worth living”; another despairs, “I hate Dubbo, hate the estate, hate what it’s done to me.” The point is made that in the city people only hear media versions of what goes on, like a recent riot depicted here. The film takes us beyond that. An interviewee says that ever since settlement black people have not been allowed to work. After you see how subtly and insidiously hardwired this attitude is, you realise this country hasn’t come very far. Here, aggressors come to seem more like victims and we are left shaken with the sense that people are still left to live like this in the 21st century.


The animation component of MIFF 2007 also contained some impressive Australian work. Thomas Fraser’s The Boy Who Loved the Rain (7mins) was a wonderful, impressionistic and atmospheric short, blending all sorts of morphing effects with nature’s rain and the unnatural snow of a TV set, while Susan Danta’s The Bronze Mirror (7mins), based on a Korean folk tale, related with wit, style and grace the story of simple folk bamboozled by their reflection in a mirror. The absence of these two films from the 2007 Melbourne International Animation Festival’s disappointing Australian Panorama, supposedly a showcase of our best recent local talent, is puzzling.

Of the internationals, The Adventures of John & John (William Bishop-Stevens, UK, 7mins) told the story of a couple of geeks who invent a machine that projects thoughts onto a screen. With its fearless crosscutting of variegated animation styles aligned to fierce, black humour and a self-deprecating tone, this one was a cut above. However it was matched by Gitanjali Rao’s Printed Rainbow (India, 16mins), about an elderly Indian lady living in a grey present-day dystopia dreaming of her former life via the multicoloured, psychedelic hues of her matchbox collection, souvenirs of the old country. Taking her cat along for a ride through inner space, she steps into the ultravivid matchbox scenes, perhaps never to return, willing a better life in a transcendental, beautifully rendered testament to the power of the imagination.

Lapsus (Juan Pablo Zaramella, Argentina, 4mins) was loads of fun, its blocky, black-and-white style milking maximum coverage from a nun whose body changes shape and form seemingly against her will. Yours Truly (Osbert Parker, UK, 7mins) was an outstanding noir: found objects from old films and magazines reanimate to provide twisted thrills (think Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid with a Blood Simple sensibility). Spain’s The Lady on the Threshold (Jorge Dayas, 14mins) was disturbing, an unearthly combination of secret sects and voluntary amputation enhanced by the deceptively passive quality of the animation.


I also caught MIFF’s Experimental Shorts program. Nothing matched the highlight of last year’s session, in which two fat Germans wanked to Mozart. Instead we had Silver Poem (Cristiana Miranda, Brazil, 4mins), a riot of monochrome textures, scratchy film and a great soundtrack. Order-Re-Order (Barbara Doser, Hotstetter Kurt, Austria, 7mins) used video feedback to form all sorts of shapes from cellular blobs of light. It was like diving into a dissected brain to the accompaniment of phased, symphonic, loop-locked music. Stuart Gurden’s Harmonium (UK, 9mins) also played perceptual games, using visual and aural tape loops to create complex inter-rhythms that slowly resolved themselves into a Terry Riley piece overlaid with spoken text by Kurt Vonnegut. Harrachov (Matt Hulse, Joost Van Veen, P Esther Urlus, UK & Netherlands, 10mins) was old school, visually reminiscent of Nosferatu, all stop motion and time lapses, with its depiction of a machine assembling itself. That’s a clichéd theme, but the addition of shots of nature also assembling itself—clouds moving, water rippling—lent the film a timeless quality that was beguiling.

Finally, I’d like to note Paul Winkler’s Popkitsch (Australia, 17mins), a hellish mishmash of the tackiest cultural refuse: a midi soundtrack of “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” set to flipbook-style animations of kewpie dolls, photos of Hawaiian muscle hunks endlessly replayed, coagulating into a poptrash, shapeless blur…This film sums up the maddening quality of MIFF’s experimental shorts: that thrill of recognition tempered by utter, infuriating banality that makes you question your very will to live with the crushing, yet sometimes bizarrely uplifting, boredom of it all.

Melbourne International Film Festival, July 25-Aug 12, www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 19

Animation: Access, Artistry, Limits

Simon Sellars
Still from Carnivore Reflux.

Originally published in RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007.

At the Melbourne International Animation Festival’s ‘Careers in Animation’ forum, an audience member wanted to know what institutions look for in their entrance interviews. Robert Stephenson (from the VCA) said that an understanding of the body’s movement and mechanics is useful.

He suggested would-be animators enrol in life-drawing classes and bring a storyboard to their interview, even if the applicant has never made a film, as this may suggest an understanding of how to tell a story. Another tip: “don’t copy drawings out of a ‘how to animate’ book.”

The panel also included animators David Blumenstein (Naked Fella) and Jim Kalogiratos (Tantalus) alongside educators Peter Allen (Holmesglen TAFE), and David Atkinson (RMIT). Atkinson said that while an applicant’s drawings might be naïve, it didn’t necessarily mean they’d be bad storytellers—their talent might be in writing and they might make good directors or producers. He reckoned his course could just about turn a mathematician into an animator, suggesting an applicant bring to the interview anything that gives the sense of them as a creative individual, such as visual diaries and journals; he said he’s even had applicants rap dance and serenade him with guitars.

Kalogiratos was quiet while Blumenstein was outspoken, referring to himself as a traditionalist with a 2D style. He expressed disgust for the hackwork animators have to do for studios to make a living, which contrasted with Allen, who said there are no opportunities for 2D work and that it’s best to concentrate on 3D industry and studio work. Stephenson disagreed, saying that the global children’s market is huge for 2D work—Australia just needs to refocus and become “one of the main players.” Allen acquiesced, indicating there is in fact a big market for 3D films that look like 2D; therefore animators may still need 2D skills in order to make the 3D simulation look ‘realistic.’ Of course, the animation course at Allen’s Holmesglen is more industry oriented than the VCA’s or RMIT’s, and it was this contrast that made for lively debate.

So, in essence, that’s what they’re teaching; now let’s see whether the results stacked up in MIAF’s Australian Panorama screening, which this year, we were told, was extended over two sessions as “there were so many outstanding entries.”

Emit (director Fergus Donald, 8’30min, 2007) told of a dead clock in a post-apocalyptic wasteland that ticks again after a space-probe crash. Unfortunately, a dull, derivative story overwhelmed the excellent digital technique. Even before MIAF, I felt I’d already had my fill of cutesy inanimate objects becoming reanimated and anthropomorphised to embark on a ‘rites of passage’ quest set to a Spielbergian score. In the even more pointless Ticketweavels (Caroline Huff, 2’15, 2005), a train ticket was invisibly shredded in stop motion set to a grinding industrial soundtrack. Steve Baker’s An Imaginary Life (5’00, 2007) may have won Tropfest, and the mix of animation and Super 8-style footage might be nicely done, but the story is incredibly hokey.

Brendan Cook’s compelling Heart’s A Mess (4’45, 2007) was a music-video clip for Goyte, with shape-shifting industrial creatures reminiscent of the marching hammers in Pink Floyd’s The Wall film. The Puppetmaker (Timothy Gaul, 4’00, 2006) could have descended into cliché—how many times have you seen a sad puppet yearning to break free of the strings—but instead was atmospheric, short and sweet. Rosalie Osman’s The Rabbit (6’00, 2006) was a silly tale of cats coming back to life to punish an animal beater, while JC Reyes’s Box (1’45, 2006) was a successful union of a short poem about forbidden pleasures with a textured animation style like a twisted children’s book. Thort Bubbles/ Dividing Cells (7’45, 2006) was another stop-motion Caroline Huff effort, overlong, dated and set to a pretentious voiceover (something to do with regeneration).

From Gold to Grapes: The Story of Landsborough From Gold to Grapes: The Story of Landsborough.

From Gold to Grapes: The Story of Landsborough (Al MacInnes, 6’15, 2005) had a previous airing at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) in 2006; it features hand-drawn animation by young kids telling the wistful story of the adult narrators in the town of Landsborough. I loved the idea and the execution, and especially the use of real-life stories. It marked a refreshing change from The Luminary (Nicholas Kallincos, 9’15, 2005), also at MIFF 2006, which featured—yes, you guessed it— inanimate objects struggling with human feelings, in this case a light bulb falling in love with a moth. Elka Kerkhof’s Filled with Water (5’00, 2006) was about a female surfer coming across a giant TV in the street; a ballerina performs on the TV screen, the surfer falls through the screen, and they kiss passionately. It’s about feeling comfortable with same-sex leanings, but still, Kerkhof’s sense of narrative is head-scratching.

Carnivore Reflux (The People’s Republic of Animation, 7’00, 2006) was outstanding, with its bitingly witty poem about overeating, indulgence and flatulence set to a savage, ultra-vivid animation style like a cross between Terry Gilliam in his Python days and Marco Ferreri’s feature film La Grande Bouffe. Cry from the Past (6’00, 2007), by Susan Stamp (a VCA animation lecturer), was a lovely piece about the old-time Boydtown whalers, and the quirky whales themselves, with excellent technique, halfway between watercolour and animated charcoal. Fraught (Stephanie Brotchie, Chris Pahlow and Maia Terrell, 6’00, 2006) was also very good, drawing on real-life stories of embarrassing moments, with the interviewees overlaid with a variety of animation styles including surreal cut-outs, and shimmering line drawings.

Gargoyle (Michael Cusack, 9’30, 2006) has garnered a bit of hype, with its gothic tale of a statue coming to life—still more reanimation! But the stop motion was excellent and the sets evocative. Paper City Architects (Daniel Agpag, 6’30, 2006) was a moody dystopian set piece reminiscent of Brazil in tone, and with a kooky look: the central character is a matchstick, but at least he’s not struggling with human emotions—he’s just flinty. Clint Cure, Holmesglen’s animation course coordinator, doubtless drew on personal experience for The Lecture (4’00, 2006), a very funny tale of two old-school animation teachers aghast at the values of the younger generation of students. The animation style is simple yet bold and witty. Fluid (Lachlan Dean, 3’00, 2006) was a gentle piece about movement and colour, while Gloomy Valentine (Isabel Peppard, 5’50, 2006) was a weird stop motion about a woman driven batty by the absence of love in her life. The Designer (John Lewis, 10’00, 2007) featured yet another oddball creature performing alchemy in some bizarre, remote location.

I was left wondering: did we really need another screening of the overexposed An Imaginary Life, or films that have previously featured prominently at MIFF, or indeed films from 2005 given that MIAF’s focus is on ‘recently released’ work? Instead, why not include the excellent work animators are doing in the games and mobile-phone arenas (see Sasha Grbich’s “Tiny movies, big moves”, page 5) a platform hyped up in the careers forum? Also in the forum it was stressed that animators need to respect their audiences, but that appears to have gone unheeded in some cases here. Yes, fantasy is good, and animation facilitates that, but the danger is that it can be like telling someone about the really weird dream you had last night: fascinating for you, excruciating for the listener (or viewer).

I’d rather see MIAF deliver one killer session of absolute top-drawer stuff, rather than stretching the Australian Panorama out to support something that just isn’t there.

Melbourne International Animation Festival, ACMI Cinemas, June 19-24, www.miaf.net/2007