Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Animating Our Place in the Universe

Cartoon-blogging, essay 2 of 21 blog entries on
250 great animated short films

The Bead Game (1977), directed by Ishu Patel.

This is the second of 21 essays based on a list of 250 great animated short films, composed in August 2012 by Scott Bussey, Jorge Didaco, Waldemar Hepstein, Bill Kamberger, Robert Reynolds, Sulo Vatanen, and Lee Price, with additional assistance from participants on the IMDb Classic Film message board.

Restrictions can trigger creativity.  Naturally, the biggest restriction on an animated short film is length.  By definition, an animated short film has to be short.

When you only have ten minutes to make your case, it has to be daunting to tackle major philosophical questions like…

          What is man’s place in the universe?
          Is there a larger meaning to our lives?
          Why must there be suffering in the world?

These are the themes loved by ambitious mavericks like Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Carl Dreyer, and Terrence Malick—directors who slowly and gracefully unfold their ruminations on the screen.  They are artists.  They can’t be rushed.  Two hours is often too short for them.

Duck Amuck (1953), directed by
Chuck Jones.
Directors of animated short films don’t have that luxury.  Chuck Jones has seven minutes to put Daffy Duck through existential hell in Duck Amuck and the rush is on from the first shot.  Thirty gags later, the short is over, the audience is exhausted from laughter, and—as a side bonus—some pretty interesting philosophical thoughts have been broached. 

Working at their peaks, Jones and numerous others of his peers have fearlessly tackled the tough questions in short bursts of dizzying animated genius.  It turns out you can say quite a bit in seven minutes.

Powers of Ten (1968):  Two animated short films were released in 1968 that challenged viewers to consider their relationship to both the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of an atom’s nucleus.  These are big concepts—but one’s that lend themselves surprisingly well to a purely visual presentation.  Created independently of each other, Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames and Cosmic Zoom by Eva Szasz consider infinity from a very human perspective.

Both Powers of Ten and Cosmic Zoom were inspired by “Cosmic View,” a 1957 illustrated essay by Kees Boeke, a Dutch educator.  Many years later, NASA returned for their take on Boeke’s essay with the IMAX film Cosmic Voyage (1996) and even more recently there was a 2012 iOS app remake of Powers of Ten called Cosmic Eye.  Only Powers of Ten made our list but all are impressive achievements (and readily accessible on YouTube).

A formidable husband-and-wife partnership, Charles and Bernice Alexandra “Ray” Eames are probably better known for their innovative modern architecture and furniture than their films, but it was in their nature to explore any creative format that presented itself.  The concept of Boeke’s essay must have appealed to their sense of design, with its streamlined visual approach to a vast subject.  The Eames completed their first version of Powers of Ten in 1968 and then returned to update it in 1977 (the version now in general release).  Two decades later, its importance in film history was acknowledged with its selection to the National Film Registry in 1998.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Powers of Ten is available for purchase on The Films of Charles and Ray Eames, Volume1: Powers of Ten.

Jumping (1984):  Like Powers of Ten, Tezuka Osamu’s Jumping starts small then steadily expands the frame.  But Jumping’s attitude is very different from the scientific stance of Powers of Ten.  Osamu’s vision is edgy and ironic, sharp-edged with dark humor.  Instead of a graceful trip outward to the edges of the universe, Tezuka bounces his film merrily into hell.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Jumping is available for purchase on The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu.

The Bead Game (1977):  An astonishing visual delight from opening to close, Ishu Patel’s The Bead Game (1977) finds beauty in unusually harsh material.  Swiftly tracing the evolution of life on earth, the film’s subject could be pared down to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s description of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”  Life in The Bead Game is a constant stream of devouring, climaxing with escalating human violence and the development of atomic weapons.  But the visual and aural tone of the film belies the seeming pessimism of the subject matter.  The animation grants us the ability to perceive beauty and patterns everywhere.  The final effect is strikingly ambivalent—perhaps it’s meant as a God’s eye view of a world deemed good, even while being undeniably red in tooth and claw.  With its remarkable closing shot, The Bead Game certainly suggests that a formal beauty underlies all.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! The Bead Game is available for purchase through the National Film Board of Canada.

From our list of 250 great animated short films, here’s a selection of some other films that boldly tackle philosophy’s most daunting questions.  It’s a formidable selection, filled with movies designed to provoke thoughtful meditation.

Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, USA, 1953) 
Butterfly / Babochka (Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, USSR, 1972) 
The Sand Castle / Le château de sable (Co Hoedeman, Canada, 1977) 
The Circle / O kyklos (Iordanis Ananiadis, Greece, 1981) 
Crac (Frédéric Back, Canada, 1981) 
Paradise (Ishu Patel, Canada, 1985) 
The Man Who Planted Trees / L’homme qui plantait des arbres (Frédéric Back, Canada, 1987) 
Feelings of Mountains and Waters / Shan shui qing (Wei Te, China, 1988) 
Balance (Christoph Lauenstein & Wolfgang Lauenstein, West Germany, 1989) 
Grasshoppers / Cavallette (Bruno Bozzetto, Italy, 1990) 
Manipulation (Daniel Greaves, UK, 1991) 
The Monk and the Fish / Le moine et le poisson (Michael Dudok de Wit, France, 1994) 
Quest (Tyron Montgomery, Germany, 1996) 
Glassy Ocean / Kujira no Chouyaku (Shigeru Tamura, Japan, 1998) 
Adagio / Adazhio (Garry Bardin, Russia, 2000) 
Black Soul / Âme noire (Martine Chartrand, Canada, 2001) 
Rocks / Das Rad (Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel & Heidi Wittlinger, Germany, 2003) 
The Dream of an Old Oak / Quercus (Vuk Jevremovic, Germany, 2004) 
The Man With No Shadow / L’Homme sans ombre (Georges Schwizgebel, Canada/Switzerland, 2004) 
Restart (Miao Xiaochun, China, 2010) 

© 2012 Lee Price

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