Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Ten Greatest Animated Short Films:

Animation, perhaps even more than its live-action counterpart, has the incredible ability to draw a viewer entirely into its world, to construct a completely new dimension of reality. Everything you see onscreen is the product of the animators' imaginations, every subtle stroke purposefully conceived and painstakingly brought into existence.
Below I've assembled my top ten animated short films of all time. In order to maintain a good variety, I've deliberately included only one film from each director, though additional recommendations are also included for animators whose other work is equally unmissable. Despite my attempts to keep the choices as diversified as possible, a quick browse reveals a ridiculously-evident bias towards the United States and the Soviet Union. I'd like to venture into some Asian animated short films when I get the chance, so, if you've got any recommendations for me, be sure to leave a comment.

Additionally, so that my readers may also enjoy my ten favourite animated shorts, I've included YouTube videos of each of my top ten films (where available). Just click the Read More... button at the bottom of this post.
Now let's get to the countdown:

10) Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora {The Cameraman's Revenge}
Year: 1912; Director: Wladyslaw Starewicz; Country: Russia

An absurdly-hilarious and strikingly-human tale of the jealousies and infidelities surrounding a beetle marriage, Russian animation pioneer Wladyslaw Starewicz's The Cameraman's Revenge is a delight of early animation, brimming with highly-effective stop-motion puppetry and no shortage of imagination.
Mr. and Mrs. Beetle have a completely uneventful marriage, and both yearn for more excitement in their lives. Mr. Beetle's desires can only be satisfied by the beautiful exotic dancer at the "Gay Dragonfly" night club, whom he visits whenever he takes a "business trip" to the city. A fellow admirer of this dancer, an aggressive grasshopper, is jealous that Mr. Beetle has stolen his lady and, as fate would have it, he is also a movie cameraman. The devious grasshopper follows Mr. Beetle and his acquaintance to a hotel room, where he films their exploits through the keyhole.
Also recommended from Wladyslaw Starewicz: The Insects’ Christmas (1913)

9) Frank Film
Year: 1973; Director: Caroline Mouris, Frank Mouris; Country: USA

When it comes to experimental film-making, I am the worst possible critic. Where others see great beauty and vision, I see pretension and uselessness. Frank Film is my inevitable exception. Over a five-year period, the directors collected a vast volume of magazine clippings, and these are used to animate the visuals. There are two soundtracks: in the first, Frank Mouris continually lists a number of seemingly-random words, and in the second he delivers a personal synopsis of his own life, touching on everything from school-life as a child to his career-choices in college.
These two soundtracks play simultaneously, sometimes cutting over each other and occasionally seeming to merge into a single entity. The animation works like an endless stream of the subconscious. As Frank's meandering autobiography turns its attention towards a particular topic, the visuals unleash a gush of related images. For example, as he discusses his endless love for food, we witness a collage of culinary images, each merging into the other, the memory of ten thousand past meals. This is what I like about Frank Film; it is a film that successfully connects with the way that the human memory works, a stream of long-forgotten recollections brought forth by a simple subliminal trigger.

8) Zhil-byl pyos {There was a Dog}
Year: 1981; Director: Eduard Nazarov; Country: Soviet Union

Eduard Nazarov's Zhil-byl pyos is based upon a classic Ukrainian fairytale that told of a dog making friends with a wolf, re-enforcing the age-old wisdom that good is always rewarded by good. When the clumsy and lazy domestic dog (voiced by Georgi Burkov) is banished from his home after neglecting to stop a burglar, he depressingly retreats into the forest and seems as though he is about to hang himself.
However, a wheezy old wolf (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) manages to talk him out of it, and he offers the dog his assistance in reclaiming the love of his family. The following winter, the dog, long ago returned to his home, hears the mournful howls of the wolf, and he follows the sound. He finds the wolf huddled cold, weak and hungry amidst the snow, and so sets about returning the favour that had saved his life previously.

7) Suur Tõll {Toell the Great}
Year: 1980; Director: Rein Raamat; Country: Soviet Union

If you’ve ever felt that animated films were designed solely for the enjoyment of children, then you must seek out Suur Tõll, undoubtedly one of the most unusual animated shorts you will ever see. The story was based on an Estonian folk tale about the gigantic hero, Tõll, who lived on the island of Saaremaa (Oesel) in the Baltic Sea. The imagery of Suur Tõll is completely and utterly unique, and I've never seen anything in its style before.
There is perhaps nothing technically amazing about the animation itself, but it is presented in such a bizarre form that you must really see to understand. It's difficult to explain, but the images really do give the feeling of epic mythology; a world not quite grounded in reality, and yet strangely entrenched in history. The soundtrack to the film is majestic, compelling and haunting, with the booming chanting of the men often sending a shiver down the spine.

6) Feed the Kitty
Year: 1952; Director: Chuck Jones; Country: USA

It’s no easy task to pick out a favourite from the extensive catalogue of animation great Chuck Jones, but this one has always struck me as his most emotionally-involving. Feed the Kitty was the first to feature two of Jones' lesser-known characters – the loving bulldog Marc Antony and the cute little kitten named Pussyfoot.
Following a somewhat frictional introduction, the unlikely pair get into all sorts of adventures, particularly when Marc Antony believes his feline friend to have been accidentally blended and baked into cookies by his mistress. The final minutes of the film are very touching, as an anguished Marc Antony watches the blending through blood-shot eyes, the slightest peek causing him to faint on the spot.
Also recommended from Chuck Jones: One Froggy Evening (1955); Duck Amuck (1953); What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)

5) The Tell-Tale Heart
Year: 1953; Director: Ted Parmalee; Country: USA

Parmelee's 8-minute cartoon adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's short story is a faithful, stylish, atmospheric, genuinely-unsettling feat of clever animation, creepy sound effects and an excellent voice-over by James Mason. It tells the story of an insane man who murders his elderly landlord because of his "strange eye" and is driven to madness by the continual hideous beating of the dead man's heart. We never actually see the madman's face, restricted to glimpsing his shadow on the floor and his dirty, gnarled hands. The audience witnesses the events through the warped mind of the murderer, with even ordinary events and objects taking on a surrealistic, twisted, terrifying light.

4) Geri’s Game
Year: 1997; Director: Jan Pinkava; Country: USA

There seems to be little remarkable about this four-minute short film from Pixar Studios, in which a senile old man keeps entertained by challenging himself to a game of chess. However, it’s such an incredibly efficient production, presenting its simple but clever premise without the burden of additional sub-plots that would only distract from the two wonderful characters at the film’s heart. I say two characters, but, of course, they are one and the same, and a significant part of the short’s genius is how, in such a limited stretch of time, Jan Pinkava is able to develop each of the old man’s conflicting personalities into fully-fledged personas.
Also recommended from Pixar Studios: For the Birds (2000); Lifted (2006).

3) The Old Man and the Sea
Year: 1999; Director: Aleksandr Petrov; Country: Russia-Canada-Japan

Based on Ernest Hemingway's 1952 novella of the same name, Aleksandr Petrov's The Old Man and the Sea is a masterpiece, taking a classic story and offering it a beauty that only Petrov could accomplish. Completed over two and a half years, the film was created using paint-on-glass animation, a technique which uses slow-drying pastel oil paints on glass sheets. Running for approximately 20 minutes, the film is comprised of more than 29,000 paintings, each frame a veritable work of art.
The film traces the fortunes of an old man named Santiago, who has had a proud, adventure-filled life, and now whittles away his days fishing alone on the ocean, usually without catching anything. On this particular fishing trip, Santiago comes up against a magnificent marlin, which takes the bait but refuses to give in. The old man feels that, despite he and the fish being brothers, it is his duty to kill the marlin, and only in doing so can he prove his worth.
Also recommended from Aleksandr Petrov: My Love (2006); Cow (1989).

2) The Old Mill
Year: 1937; Director: Wilfred Jackson; Country: USA

This Silly Symphonies short from Walt Disney was essentially a testing-ground for many of the techniques to be used in the upcoming feature-length milestone, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Artists experimented with the animation of animals, rain, wind, lightning, ripples, splashes and reflection, and also debuted Disney’s revolutionary multiplane camera.
Interestingly, that The Old Mill was basically a trial-run perhaps contributed to its greatness, as, unburdened by any notion of a solid narrative, the film allows the viewer to simply sit back and lose themselves in the atmosphere of nature scene. The loose plot concerns the wildlife inhabitants of an old mill situated in an isolated swamp, whose quiet night is suddenly violently interrupted by a terrifying and immensely-powerful storm that threatens to tear their home apart.
Also recommended from the Silly Symphonies series: The Skeleton Dance (1929); Flowers and Trees (1932); The Three Little Pigs (1933).

1) Skazka skazok {Tale of Tales}
Year: 1979; Director: Yuriy Norshteyn; Country: Soviet Union

I’ve raved about this film before, and a recent repeat viewing only strengthened by belief that Yuriy Norshteyn is the finest animator ever to have tread the Earth. Voted as the greatest animated film of all time by the Animation Olympiad in 1984, Tale of Tales is a triumph of heartbreaking animation and emotion.
The 30-minute film is comprised of a series of related sequences, each deeply rooted in the history of the Soviet Union, meticulously evoking a time and place that the filmmaker recalled from his own childhood. A haunting visual poem, presented in the fractured manner of a dream, Norshteyn uses various recurring characters – the little girl playing jump-rope with he disheartened bull, the young boy feeding apples to the crows, the suckling baby, the little grey wolf (voiced by Aleksandr Kalyagin) – to recreate the images, sounds and, indeed, even the scents of a saddening chapter in a nation’s history.
Also recommended from Yuriy Norshteyn: Hedgehog in the Fog (1975); The Heron and the Crane (1974); The Fox and the Hare (1973)

Remember: click Read More... below if you'd like to see any (or all) of the films of Youtube. Hopefully they're all still accessible. For my #1 choice, it is a necessity that you see the film at night, in a dark room with no interruptions.
Now that I've laid down the ground-rules, enjoy!

10) Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora {The Cameraman's Revenge}:

9) Frank Film:

8) Zhil-byl pyos {There was a Dog}:
(no subtitles, but my plot description should be enough to get you through it)

7) Suur Tõll {Toell the Great}

Part one:

Part two:

6) Feed the Kitty:

5) The Tell-tale Heart:

4) Geri's Game:

3) The Old Man and the Sea:

Part one:

Part two:

2) The Old Mill:

1) Tale of Tales

Part one:

Part two:

Part three:


tosser/ressot said...

That's odd. I posted here just a few minutes ago, but it's not showing. Oh well.

Anyways, ever since I saw Frank Film about a year ago, I haven't been able to remember the name. Now I finally know what it's called! Thank you!

As with you, I'm not so much a fan of abstract cinema in general. e.g. Symphonie Diagonale: WTF?

Haven't seen any of the others on your list. I'll be sure to give some of em a go.

ackatsis said...

Yeah, I don't get those experimentalists. That short film of yours was rather... odd. :-|

Remember that you can watch the YouTube clips directly from my film blog. Just click the "Read More" at the bottom of the post.

GW said...

I found this blog through your link on the IMDB forums where I've been lurking for a while. That's a rather good list, though not completely in line with my tastes.

Since you've seen and enjoyed The Cameraman's Revenge, I'm wondering if you saw Starewicz's full length film, The Tale of the Fox. It's only available on a French DVD, but it has English subtitles.

Thanks for linking to Frank Film, which was the only one I hadn't seen and I really enjoyed it. I have a blog about lesser known animated feature length films, though it's updated on a rather irregular basis. You could browse through some older articles on AniPages to get some idea of good Asian short films. Here's the link: