Friday, March 27, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

I'm a big Maurice Sendak fan (who isn't), and I'm also a big Spike Jonze fan (there are also many of those), so I've been following the development of this film adaptation pretty closely.

As closely as you can follow any production that has been mired down by so many rumours, half-truths, and curious misleads. Things like "the producers are making Jonze re-shoot the entire film because they don't like the effects," to "the producers are making Jonze re-shoot the entire film because they don't like the lead actor's performance," to "the producers have fired Jonze". I am sure there are many, many others...

What's given me hope throughout is this: the production stills I've seen look very promising, Sendak has given it his blessing, Jonze has a great way with visual effects, a way that insists on effects feeling physical (even if they're digital), Dave Eggers (whose fiction I greatly admire) was co-writing the screenplay, and Jim Henson Company was involved in a big way.

Now the trailer is out, it LOOKS like its a clear path to a release later this year, and all is as well as it can be. I think the trailer looks exciting, and hints at an emotional depth that I hope the film has.

I've long admired Sendak primarily for his insistence that kids can TAKE IT. And by "it" I mean the darker realms of human existence. Kids are humans, not "pre-humans," to be treated like idiots.

Consider Sendak's "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" to see how he addresses death, and the loss we feel when a loved one leaves us. Not material for kids? Then why is Sendak so popular?

Anyway, I hope this film is dark, scary, ferocious, angry, tender, loving, comforting, and moving. All those things can co-exist- in life, and in cinema.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gerald's Last Day

Legendary NFB animator Kaj Pindal (with whom I have the pleasure of co-teaching an Animation History course with) has a great way of describing the process of making an animated film. To paraphrase- "Making an animated film is like writing a novel one word a day." In other words, the challenge is to create a world that lives and breaths and captures your audience, BUT you have to do it through a process that is incredibly slow and careful.

In still OTHER words, it ain't easy.

Justin and Shel Rasch, a California-based duo, has somehow managed to make it look easy.

Their stop mo film Gerald's Last Day runs just over 11 minutes, and tells the story of a chubby pooch (Gerald) who is facing "termination" in the dog pound at the end of the day, unless someone takes him home.

When I talk with students about developing strong stories for short animation, I really try to encourage them to focus their efforts (at least initially) on 1)- character and then from that, 2)- character's objective. I've learned the value of this through my own storytelling efforts, my work in animation and live action film, and from my studies with renowned story editor/writer/filmmaker/ professor Amnon Buchbinder. Keep your character focussed on his/her/its objective, and you're on a good path, in terms of developing a story.

Consider the following objective: "I want to continue living." That is essentially the strongest objective a character can have! And THAT, quite simply (and powerfully) is what drives the story in this short film.

It's so clean, so clear, and so deeply rooted (thanks again to Buchbinder's language here), it allows the film to fly forward like an arrow, perfectly, towards its conclusion (which it hits like a bull's eye).

This film is doing very well for itself in animation festivals and competitions. That success is due in no small part (along with very nice animation and performances) to the clear/clean/concise quality of the story. When I finished watching it, I felt supremely satisfied, and why? In part because the character had stayed on task in terms of moving towards his objective.

That's not to say he ACHIEVES his objective, but rather that he stays on task. You'll just have to watch the film to find out whether poor Gerald finds a home.

Also, briefly, in terms of the "less is more" school of acting (especially when considering acting with puppets), the climax of the film is very strongly done. The acting is modest and restrained, and reveals a very careful directing hand. What could have been a very sappy, overdone moment instead honestly touches the heart.

This is close to a perfect little film. And it's extremely encouraging to any indie filmmaker (working in any form of animation), because it's literally a "home made" film. Justin and his partner Shel (who contributed greatly to the film, not just co-directing but also creating a VERY tight edit) toiled away in a home studio to bring this to life, while also managing outside jobs and SEVERAL kids.

Wow. What an inspiration (for an exhausted father of just ONE little ankle biter).

I can't wait to see more work from this film making team. They are already well underway on their next stop mo project, which you can follow here.