Shorts Watched Late-ish 2016

The first roundup of misc shorts since the last one.


Tome of the Unknown: Harvest Melody (2013, Patrick McHale)

Wirt and Greg are heading somewhere, manage to get a ride with pumpkin-man John Crops to vegetable city, where they accidentally unleash the fury of the crows. Would play as a deleted scene from Over The Garden Wall if not for bluebird Beatrice’s different voice and some more cartoonish facial expressions. I’m guessing with the Harvest Melody subtitle that he’d planned to make more standalone shorts like this, but then they made the full series.


The Umbrella Man (2011, Errol Morris)

A web mini-doc on a single detail of the Zapruder film: a single man with an umbrella on the cloudless day Kennedy was shot. Interview with JFK assassination expert Tink Thompson, who sets up the mystery, then explains it was discovered that the man was making an obscure visual protest against a policy by JFK’s father.


Demon in the Freezer (2016, Errol Morris)

“Why is it so important to make the monkeys sick?”

The argument over preserved samples of smallpox virus – whether they should be kept, and for what purpose? Floated: vaccines and biological warfare with the Russians. I don’t know a whole lot about smallpox but it sounds horrible.


Dog (2002, Suzie Templeton)

A sick/dying/dead dog, a father, a boy, a murder, a patch of either blood or mold upon a wall, and the most disturbing stop-motion I’ve seen this side of Robert Morgan.


Oskar Kulicke and the Pacifist (1952, Kurt Weiler)

I loved The Apple, so watched some more puppet shorts by Weiler. Bricklayer Oskar endures the whining of a pansy pacifist then sets him straight, asking how the pacifist will like it when he’s conscripted after a U.S. invasion. No, pacifism is dumb and learning proper use of arms is essential, Oskar concludes.

The U.S. military elite:


Heinrich The Dysfunctional: A German Elegy (1965, Kurt Weiler)

Surprising to watch this right after the other, since it’s about a failed German invasion of Poland in 1472 due to misfortune and royal idiocy. King of Libnitz attacks Cracow in order to obtain liquor and a young bride. After recruiting a traitorous young goat farmer, the king makes it to the enemy castle, only to be pissed on by the local kids and sent home on a manure cart, all his cannons destroyed. “The fatal flaw of the heroic German character: thirst trumps wisdom.”

Last-minute reprieve for the goat farmer:

Ceremonial welcome:


Nörgel & Söhne (1968-70, Kurt Weiler)

Three-part story of how the nomadic Nörgel clan developed tools and farming, then trade, then currency. Character-based stop-motion with some fun material tricks with liquids, animals and the heavens. Nörgel becomes more of a brutal slavemaster the closer he gets to modern capitalism, and in the end he retires and reads Marx’s Das Capital (historical chronology is shifty in these movies) and regrets the awful thing he’s done.

Barter calculations:


Street of Crocodiles (1986, Quays)

Live-action man spits into the machinery, activating it, and releases stop-motion man who creeps into a dusty world of pulleys and screws populated by hollow-headed dolls. Wonderful string music. I still don’t know what it all means, been meaning to get the Bruno Schulz book forever now, but it’s all so dusty and textural and mesmerizing in its mysterious movements.


Quay (2015, Christopher Nolan)

Eight-minute trip to the Quays’ workshop featuring some Street of Crocodiles puppets and commentary on their methods. I suppose splashing Nolan’s name across the blu-ray package was meant to get new people interested in their work, kinda like “JJ Abrams presents Phantasm: Remastered“. I hope it’s working.


Esperalia (1983, Jerzy Kalina)

A guy goes slow-mo crawling through the forest overlaid by patterns and rotoscope lines, seeing visions and phantoms, with an increasingly disturbed soundtrack.


The Public Voice (1988 Lejf Marcussen)

Magnifying glass reveals the blueprints beneath paintings, the lines behind the lines behind the lines. Slow zooms in and out as patterns and figures slowly prove to be details within other works, a visual art history folded into itself. I didn’t recognize most of the work, but there’s some Dali and Bosch in there.

ParaNorman (2012, Laika)

Finally watched this Laika movie. I love love loved the look, beautiful stop-motion with ghostly effects. A total visual triumph, and I wish we’d caught it in theaters. Didn’t expect the screenplay to suck, though. Overall story is fine, weird kid in town can see ghosts, has to use his powers to save the town from a vindictive witch, but most of the plot points and dialogue were boring and obvious, led by a veritable who-cares of voice acting. Maybe it’s just because we watched it on Halloween (Katy’s sole SHOCKtober film) and treaters interrupted the movie every five minutes so I couldn’t get sucked into its particular atmosphere.

The cast:

The crew:

Norman McLaren, part one

Back in the day I’d flip through the Norman McLaren DVD box set regularly, but times change and you get old and overwhelmed with things and one day you realize you haven’t watched any McLaren in six years.


Blinkity Blank (1955)

Advanced hand-etched animation – musical battle of red dot vs. blue dot, flickering and transforming into different images for an instant at a time.

R. Koehler called it “possibly his greatest film, in which McLaren discovered the effect of not drawing on every single frame.”

J-P Coursodon:

One may briefly notice (provided one doesn’t blink) a flurry of feathers, a parachute, a bird cage, a pineapple, an umbrella that turns into a hen-like figure, as well as many undescribable doodles that keep bouncing all over the screen. “This is not a film you see,” wrote French critic André Martin in 1955, “it’s a film you think you see.” You do hear, however, and not just think you hear, Maurice Blackburn’s dodecaphonistic score … with strikingly percussive synthetic-sound punctuations added throughout like so many punches by McLaren’s scratchings on the soundtrack.


C’est L’aviron (1944)

Gentle boat ride in sync with a vocal French tune, constant 3D zoom forwards (and sometimes backwards) over sea, through clouds and towns. There’s a behind-the-scenes film explaining how it was made,


Spheres (1969)

Mathematical dance of stop-motion spheres against a morphing cosmic backdrop. Codirected with René Jodoin in 1946, with music added two decades later.


Love on the Wing (1939)

A post office advert – see also the Len Lye shorts – in which two postal letters are in love. Fast-paced, surrealist-inspired etched animation, characters constantly morphing into different figures.


La Poulette Grise (1947)

Variations of chicken/egg paintings, contorting slowly to a vocal song by Anna Malenfant (doesn’t that mean Anna Badchild?). At the end, the chicken sails away upon a crescent moon.


A Little Phantasy on a Nineteenth Century Painting (1946)

Chalky animation upon a reproduction of an Arnold Böcklin painting.


Là-Haut Sur Ces Montagnes (1946)

Another generative painting, a nice pastoral scene


Book Bargain (1937)

Short doc with voiceover showing the process of printing the London phone book. Cool machinery but kind an unexciting industrial film.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016, Travis Knight)

The ultimate meta-storytelling, misfit-family, humans-vs-gods, origami-magic, epic-quest movie featuring the ultimate ass-kicking monkey.

My only complaint about the gorgeous stop-motion, which features a centerpiece sailboat battle that is possibly the best scene I’ve ever seen accomplished in animation, is that it’s all so perfectly executed that you often can’t tell it’s stop-motion.

We stayed through the credits to see my favorite armaturist’s name on the big screen – way to go, Spake!

J. Spiegel:

I was pretty much an emotional wreck for the last 25-30 minutes of Kubo. It’s not that I was surprised by the twists–very soon after we meet Monkey and Beetle (the former of whom voices Kubo’s actual mother), it’s pretty clear that they’re not just metaphorical stand-ins for his parents, but literal ones. It’s that the way the script handles the notion of accepting death and treating it as a fitting end to our “story” was unexpected and achingly humane.

D. Ehrlich:

The physical reality of their characters conveys an otherwise impossible sense of impermanence, and reveals stop-motion to be the perfect vehicle for a story about the beauty of being finite. The movies have explored the afterlife almost as thoroughly as they have life on Earth, but this one is so powerful because of the precision with which it articulates these immortal ideas of transience.

Lightning strike:

T. Robinson for The Verge:

One of Laika’s ideals is that only one animator should work on a given scene at a time … for instance, in a scene where Kubo stands in a wooded area and a wind blows through the trees, that’s the work of a single animator moving every leaf and branch separately. The process is incredibly laborious: On Kubo, 27 animators worked simultaneously on their own scenes, each trying to achieve the company goal of 4.3 seconds of animation per week, and more often, only hitting about three seconds per week.

The Little Prince (2015, Mark Osborne)

Magical, delicate-looking stop-motion retelling of the Little Prince story, in which I guess he leaves his beloved rose, wanders some asteroids meeting strange adults, then crashes on Earth’s desert where he trades wisdom with a stranded aviator. Surrounding this, in a more Pixar-like CG animation style, is a sort of Little Prince Expanded Universe, in which eccentric Jeff Bridges tells the story to a neighbor kid who’s being meticulously groomed to be a serious-minded adult. When Bridges is sick, the girl flies into space to find the Little Prince, who has been corrupted by adulthood. You think of the Little Prince story as a fairy tale and the grey-cube grown-up CG world as reality, so it’s fun when they merge into one adventure at the end. Life Lessons seem pretty uncontroversial: protecting your inner child and holding onto important memories, but it’s all told in a pleasantly unusual way. This movie was dumped onto Netflix, but we drove an hour to see one of its rare theatrical screenings, and it was worth it for the gorgeous stop-motion scenes alone.

I recognized the director’s name from the great animated short More, which also features lead characters with colorful inner lives trying to break out of conformist grey-box worlds. All-star cast but the best voices were the non-actor kids, except for Bridges, and I’ll give credit to Ricky Gervais as “the conceited man”.

Anomalisa (2015, Charlie Kaufman)

Customer service expert Michael stays at a hotel named after a paranoid delusion in which all people appear to be the same person in different disguises. I didn’t know this until after the movie, but it works anyway because everyone except Michael has the same face and voice (Tom Noonan, paterfamilias of The House of the Devil). Michael is dreamily British-accented but erratic-acting David Thewlis, and life’s the same old drab nightmare for him until he meets someone with a unique voice: Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). His awkward affair with her lasts one night, after which she becomes Noonan-voiced and Michael leaves her, runs home to his Noonan-family.

Full of small pleasures in dialogue and puppet movement, and larger, weirder wonders (Michael’s subterranean gay-panic dream, Japanese automaton from sex shop, stop-motion recreation of a My Man Godfrey scene). Surely need to watch again – need to watch all Kaufman’s movies again.

Opened in Venice with A Bigger Splash, Francofonia and The Clan, winning what appears to be second place to From Afar. Award shows mostly considered it in animation categories, where it universally lost to Inside Out. Made the top-ten in the Skandies anyway, along with acting and screenplay mentions.

R. Porton in Cinema Scope:

The superb deployment of puppets and stop-motion animation in the work of Jan Svankmajer and the Quay Brothers highlight the vicissitudes of the macabre and the fantastic. Kaufman and Johnson’s film, although superficially more prosaic, manages to make the banalities of a business trip as chilling as anything in Alice or Street of Crocodiles. Towards the end of Anomalisa, Michael concludes that the real lesson of his visit to Cincinnati is “there’s no lesson at all,” a fitting coda to a movie which refuses to offer its audience glib bromides or anything more than cold comfort.

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993, Dave Borthwick)

Happy to come across this again – haven’t seen it since the VHS days. Awesome, hour-long stop-motion with live actors interacting with the miniature creations, which must’ve been difficult. Dark sci-fi fairy-tale following tiny Tom, born to normal-sized parents, then abducted away to a torture-lab, adopted by a tiny-people society, and brought on a guerrilla mission with a well-armed little guy. Death and horror is around every corner, and pretty much everyone is doomed. The grimy, insect-filled design is marvelous, would be cool to see this in HD someday.

Stills cannot convey the majesty:

Oh no, writer/director Dave Borthwick died a few years ago, after codirecting a kids’ animated feature. Dave’s “Bolex Brothers” partner Dave Alex Riddett is a stop-motion cinematographer (Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, way back to the Sledgehammer video), and the Bolexes also produced the great short The Saint Inspector.

Emile Cohl: 1909-1910 Shorts

Les Joyeux Microbes (1909)

Similar to Transfigurations, but now it’s a scientist trying to get an overacting scarf fella to look at different microbes under a microscope, each of which displays a different transmogrifying animated scene, usually involving cranky old people. Towards the end, one of the drawings becomes 3D, a drunk character’s paper arms wrapping around a prop bottle. Another wonderful detail: the final second of the film was presumably supposed to have the scarf guy storm out of the room, but the set door (which was working in the opening shot) bends, doesn’t open, Scarfie mooshing up against it until the film quickly cuts.


Japon de fantaisie (1909)

I guess it’s stop-motion using Japanese props. An insect lays an egg, hatches into a mask, which spews forth rats. Doesn’t seem like a very positive view of Japan… or maybe it’s a prequel to the Mothra films.


Clair de lune espagnol (1909)

These are getting more difficult to summarize now that Cohl has discovered intertitles and I don’t know French, but it looks like a matador gets rebuffed by a fan lady, so he leaps out a window… but is saved by a space-bound vessel. The man angrily shoots the moon with a shotgun, is challenged to a duel by moon men, then thrown back to earth, where the fan lady is now impressed with him. I liked the prop star that shoots sparks.


Le Songe du garçon de café aka Hasher’s Delirium (1910)

Waiter falls asleep during his shift, has loony prop-and-cartoon-based dreams. From all the bottles that appear, we can assume he’s a drunk. His appalled-looking cartoon dream-body is subjected to the ludovico technique, watching names of alcoholic drinks alternate with demons and horrors. Then he’s made to kick his own ass. Then he’s awakened in the most predictable fashion, given that just before falling asleep he gave a table of identical hat-wearing men four seltzer bottles.


Le Mobilier fidèle aka Automatic Moving Company (1910)

Debt-ridden Mr. Dubois hugs all his furniture one last time before it’s all repossessed and auctioned on a street corner. Later, each piece of furniture torments its new owner and flees (serves ’em right for taking advantage of poor Mr. Dubois, who cries and wails all through the auction), returning to Chez Dubois where they belong.

Len Lye

Shorts! I have discs and discs of shorts and rarely watch them. I’m awfully excited about the new blu-ray of avant-garde shorts from Flicker Alley, but how can I justify buying it when I’ve got a hundred shorts collections just sitting around unseen? Let’s watch some, shall we?

Doodlin’: Impressions of Len Lye (1987, Keith Griffiths)

Lye was a New Zealander who could’ve inspired Colin McKenzie through innovation and ambition. When standard animation techniques were too laborious and expensive, he started scratching and drawing directly onto film stock… and when film itself was too expensive he turned to sculpture – but kinetic sculpture, truly gigantic metal works, some of which he filmed. He’s designed a twisted metal “temple” which hasn’t yet been built.

Len demonstrates one of his metal works:

Lye lived in a lighthouse – flashbacks to Brand Upon the Brain – and moved to Samoa for a couple years, concentrated on “old brain” tribal art, wanting to reject Western art styles and doodle from the subconscious (see: Tusalava). Handmade films and unconscious creativity – of course Brakhage was a fan. After WWII, Lye was a director for the March of Time news series while working on silhouette photography.

I’d previously watched Tusalava at home, Kaleidoscope and Colour Flight at a Canyon Cinema screening, and Free Radicals and Rainbow Dance within the documentary Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film. Here are some more I’ve been able to find. Quotations are by Lye biographer Roger Horrocks.

Birth of the Robot (1936)

The documentary didn’t even go into Lye’s stop-motion work. This combines character stop-motion with an abstract sequence. I believe a female robot sends raindrops made of music to turn a man who died driving his car in a sandstorm into a male robot. At the end it’s revealed to be an ad for an oil company, but who cares. “Lye enlisted the help of avant-garde friends such as Humphrey Jennings and John Banting to make the amusing puppets.”

Trade Tattoo (1937)

Musical montage of work in factories and docks and markets, exploding in shifting patterns with wild colors. I guess it was meant to be an ad for the postal service, or maybe a PSA telling you to post letters before 2pm. Partly composed of Night Mail outtakes!

A Colour Box (1935)

Color is less brilliant now that we’re down to standard-def, but this Re:Voir DVD still looks super nice. Abstract lines and patterns run down a film strip to bouncy music. I don’t think he edits to the music, just creates fast visuals then adds something upbeat on the soundtrack. Another postal service ad at the end, meaningless numbers (6 lbs. 9d.). “Lye’s first direct film, which combines popular Cuban dance music with hand-painted abstract designs, amazed cinema audiences. Color was still a novelty, and Lye’s direct painting on celluloid creates exceptionally vibrant effects … in Venice, the Fascists disrupted screenings because they saw the film as ‘degenerate’ modern art.”

Kaleidoscope (1935)

Watched this one before, an ad for cigarettes. Although the films have titles and credits, and the bulk of them is just music and animation with the product placement coming in at the end, so it’s more fair to say they’re sponsored shorts than advertisements. More white space in this one, with clearly defined shapes.

Rainbow Dance (1936)

Boldly colored silhouette mattes as a musician/sportsman whirls through changing backgrounds, leaving psychedelic trails behind him. An ad for savings accounts, obviously. “Lye filmed dancer Rupert Doone in black and white, then colored the footage during the development and printing of the film, adding stenciled patterns.” This is all making me itch for Jeff Scher / Norman McLaren retrospectives as well.

Colour Flight (1937)

More black in this one, a disturbingly pulsating smile behind wavy-line jail bars, then an eruption of dots and lines, some outer space imagery, and a last-minute ad for Imperial Airways (which was bought by British Airways in late 1939).

Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1940)

Okay, this one is synched to the music, wonderfully, with swinging soundwave lines and jellybean dots of color. I like that he uses filmstrip perforations to create patterns. Abrupt edits in the music, as he picks from multiple versions of the song. “For this film Lye did not have to include any advertising slogans; friends at the Tourist and Industrial Development Association, shocked to learn that Lye and his family had become destitute, arranged for TIDA to sponsor the film – to the horror of government bureaucrats who could not understand why a popular dance was being treated as a tourist attraction.”

Colour Cry (1952)

Something different, even more abstract and fuzzy, shadow images with bright, distorted colors, soundtracked by harmonica and yowling vocals. The doc says he used Man Ray’s techniques for this one, “using fabrics as stencils”.

Rhythm (1957)

Footage of an auto manufacturing plant, spastically edited to fit a musical rhythm. The doc mentioned that Lye had trouble with U.S. advertising companies. Chrysler paid for this short but wouldn’t use it because they apparently weren’t fond of the tribal drumming on the soundtrack.

Free Radicals (1958)

More African drumming. Scratched twisted lines rotating in 3D space. Funny that after all the colors and manic patterns he came back to simple white figures on a black background. “The film won second prize in the International Experimental Film Competition, which was judged by Man Ray, Norman McLaren, Alexander Alexeiff and others at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.” Seen this a bunch of times on my laptop, and I’ll bet it’s awesome on a big screen. Hey Anthology Film Archives, ever think of opening a Nebraska location?

Particles in Space (1966)

Brakhage’s favorite. Plays like a sequel to Free Radicals, bringing some of the high-energy musical movement and complex patterns into its general design. Spots of white against an inky black, glistening like the ocean in moonlight. I think some of my listed release years are wrong – IMDB cannot be trusted.

Tal Farlow (1958)

Upbeat jazz guitar with synchronized white scratch lines which are definitely meant to evoke guitar strings. Finished by his assistant after Lye’s death in 1980.

I couldn’t find his “live-action film about the need to be careful in addressing letters,” or his first puppet film Peanut Vendor, or his war propaganda films. The new blu-ray mentioned at the top of this post includes Bells of Atlantis by Ian Hugo, which Lye worked on, so I’ll be watching that soon.