Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

Art or Experiment?
Bob Sabiston & Rita Street

As jurors we imagine the fear and trepidation of artists submitting their work for our evaluation. We imagine them imagining us — how we arrogantly sit, smoking our Cuban cigars in the comfort of our dark screening room, critiquing, musing, thinking big thoughts, talking big talk, declaring, proclaiming and ultimately — for no particular reason — eliminating.

Wow! If they only knew. Our experience as jurors was so profoundly different from that imaginary picture. The Computer Animation / Visual Effects Prix is not about comfort or egos; it’s about endurance and community. Can we actually view 375 films in three days and can our new found friendships survive the process of declaring a winner?

Contrary to what artists might expect, there is a secret desire, a hidden wish held by every Prix Ars jury to have a perfect moment, a moment when we all agree and say, “Yes! Yes! That film is the Golden Nica! No doubt about it.” It is this desire to agree and feel that we have made a good and right decision that drives us.

For a jury, coming to a unanimous decision is like winning a Golden Nica ourselves.

This year, one film brought us together for the first day and a half but, for the last day and a half, threatened to tear us apart. That film was the brilliant, clever and extremely well crafted Tim Tom. Although computer-generated, the animation boasts an organic quality that resembles clay stop-motion.

The storyline features two figures with paper notepads for heads. The pages of their notepads tear off to show changes in their expressions which are drawn, quite simply, onto the blank surface of the pads. Tim and Tom want nothing more than to shake hands across a stage (perhaps the stage of life?). Unfortunately their salutations are foiled by divine intervention: the giant hand of the animator himself reaches in to separate the two little figures. Again and again the characters approach each other only to be aggravated by the mischievous animator.

Tim Tom boasts excellent timing and character animation. Its plot is clever, full of self-aware references to filmmaking and animation. At one point Tim falls through a hole in the frame of the film and lands on the optical soundtrack. Anxious to help, his friend blows a horn, which produces a ramp in the soundtrack for the character to climb up, back into the frame. Tim Tom is definitely a homage to the films of Keaton and Chaplin, yet it is very much its own creation; a unique offering that stands on its own. It is silly and fun and could very easily have been made by animation greats like Chuck Jones, Tex Avery or Bob Clampett.

In every sense Tim Tom meets the qualifications of animation’s highest form of art; it is a perfect cartoon — a perfect cartoon made, not by two directors from Walt Disney or Warner Bros., but two students Romain Segaud and Cristel Pougeoise from France's noteworthy academy, Supinfocom. Of course, this was almost reason enough to award Tim Tom the Golden Nica, the fact that such mastery could be achieved by artists just learning their craft, but Tim Tom exemplifies one other very important quality for the 2003 jury — it did not look, feel, or “act” computer animated.

As never before in the history of the Prix we saw films that we did not immediately think to evaluate on a technical basis. We would estimate that at least half of the films submitted impacted us not for their digital wizardry but for their ability to tell a story. Suddenly we were faced with evaluating submissions as works of filmmaking art rather than experiments in a medium.

And, more interesting, we weren’t always able to tell how some of these films were made. In years past there was a very obvious thumbprint on both technique and software, so that we could say, "Oh, that visual effect was created using a particle tool inside Softimage, however, that character model was obviously set-up in Maya." As if to highlight this conundrum, we were presented with Atama Yama ("Mt. Head"). We were particularly intrigued by the subtile combination of traditional drawings, computer animation, digital ink-and-paint, digital compositing and editing in this beautiful Grimm-like tale from Japan's Koji Yamamura. It is, quite simply, breathtaking.

The story is a fable about a man who is so stingy that rather than discard the pits of the cherries he has scavenged, he eats them. Karma being karma, the man soon grows a cherry tree out of the top of his skull. When people congregate on his head to relax in the shade of the tree's blossoms, he gets angry and chases them away. When he rips the tree from his head, he creates a hole that fills with water that attracts happy swimmers. The stingy man, unable to cope with the loss of his privacy, eventually falls into a watering hole of his own.

The film is complex and funny; it plays with scale and logic in appealing ways. Because it exhibits multiple layers of meaning and rewards repeated viewings, we gave Atama Yama one of our two awards of distinction. And, then we were back to rewarding more cartoon-cartoons. Admittedly, all of our top 15 selections made it into the top three positions at one point, but there was something about Gone Nutty from Carlos Saldanha and Blue Sky Studios that grabbed us and kept us laughing. We didn't really mean to give it an award, but that silly Scrat, the Sabertooth Squirrel from the 20th Century Fox blockbuster, Ice Age, just got to us. In fact, when we were feeling really grumpy and disheartened, we simply stopped everything to watch it again — not to judge it, just to get some relief.

Actually, it's hard to say why we choose Gone Nutty over the equally appealing offering this year from Pixar, the cartoon spin-off from Monsters Inc., Mike's New Car. Both made us belly laugh, but that ridiculous Scrat with his bug-eyed passion and ridiculous quest to keep his acorn nabbed us. On the technical side we were particularly impressed by artists' use of secondary animation techniques (follow-through movements typically seen only in traditional animation) evident in the movements of Scrat's furry and fantastic tail.

Yet, here again, was the horror and guilt of awarding a major prize to a cartoon. Shouldn't the Nica and the Awards of Distinction go to works that pulled at our heartstrings rather than tapped our funny bones? And isn't this the ultimate conundrum of the Oscars, that the award to best picture typically goes to a drama and seldom to a comedy? This was the big talk we were engaged in as jurors. Could we, in all seriousness, award the Golden Nica to a cartoon?

Well, yes, of course we could and we did. But it was this question; a question concerning content and appropriateness that bothered us for long hours. It shot Tim Tom down and, in the end, it brought Tim Tom up. Although we were never wholly united on this front; although we did not have a unanimous "Ah, this is it!," we did leave our experience as jurors happy and fulfilled.

Yes we were exhausted. No we did not sit in comfortable chairs. Yes, we smoked, but outside. Yes we drank, but Red Bull, not wine as you might imagine … (Well, we did sneak in a few beers). No we didn't agree. Yes we enjoyed our experience. And, now, more than ever when we imagine contestants imagining us, we hope they imagine us as a different sort of jury — not a group of technologically savvy elistists but as handful of jittery and very excited members of what every contestant wants most of all — a great audience.

Following are our thoughts and comments on the Honorary Mentions:

The Dog Who was A Cat Inside: Siri Melchior; DK / UK
If only we could have seen this short as children, we could have carried it with us our entire lives as inspiration. The story of finding love inside ourselves, this little treasure is an intriguing combination of handdrawn illustrations, gorgeous animation and CG composites.

Pipe Dream: Wayne Lytle; ANIMUSIC, USA
Pipe Dream is a very cool integration of computer animation with a musical score. Lytle uses physics simulations to generate a series of balls that fly through the air; they magically land in just the right places on his three-dimensional rendered musical instruments to produce the perfectly synchronized soundtrack. The more you watch it, the more you are amazed.

Gestalt: Thorsten Fleisch; D
We received a fair number of abstract and experimental pieces of animation this year. Although many of them used impressive techniques that are both innovative and unusual, everyone agreed that it is just a lot harder to make a successful abstract film. Perhaps because our jury consisted mostly of narrative filmmakers, we were not eager to award films which existed solely to showcase a specific technique or algorithm. That said, everyone on the jury did agree that Gestalt displayed a spectacular use of fractal set techniques. Fleisch shows exceptional deftness in assembling a series of algorithmic transformations that are beautiful and really visually interesting.

The ChubbChubbs: Eric Armstrong; Sony Pictures Imageworks, USA
This year's Academy award winner, The ChubbChubbs is a well done, really entertaining short story and a very funny bit of character animation. Although this short was created as an experiment into the viability of a particular production pipeline, you can tell the filmmakers had a blast making it. The fun slips right off the screen and into your lap!

Mantis: Jordi Moragues; Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln, D
We all agreed that this is an elegant, very quiet film. In beautifully composed shots that recall brush-and-ink prints, Mantis depicts the life cycle of an ordinary praying mantis. The film is rendered three-dimensionally, but it has a filter or post-process applied which makes the whole thing look hand-done. Spare but dramatic use of color and the natural, realistic animation make this film a standout.

3D Character Animation for Blockbuster Entertainment: Tippett Studio; USA
What could be more fun to animate (or more frustrating), than a hamster and a rabbit? This commercial campaign for the video-rental chain deserves praise for its fully-blown characters. No matter who you are or where you live, you immediately know these two personalities. We were also impressed with the abundance of well-rendered fur and good lighting.

Au bout du fil: Jérome Decock, Cécile Detez de la Dreve, Olivier Laneres, Mélina Milcent; Supinfocom, F
What a strange, strange story: a character that literally follows a thread through various worlds and situations. Not only were the transformations in this story unique, we all liked the design of the lead character. Great CG animation and backgrounds. This should have come from a studio, but it is another amazing piece of filmmaking mastery from Supinfocom.

The most outstanding of the visual effects entries were GDF Dolce Vita (Luc Froehlicher; LA MAISON, F) and Untitled (Christoph Ammann; Vancouver Film School, CDN). GDF Dolce Vita is a commercial that features a sophisticated combination of effects and live action, depicting two nude figures: a male immersed in a sea of realistic, beautifully rendered bubbles, and a female descending in a cloud of swirling feathers. The piece as a whole is graceful and elegant. Ammann's Untitled impressed us equally. In this experiment, computer-generated robot scouts prowl around a live-action set. The motion of the robots is believable and the integration with the background is seamless.

Mike's New Car: Pete Docter, Roger Gould; Pixar Animation Studio, USA
Pixar's entry this year, Mike's New Car is a short film that features the main characters from last year's Golden Nica winner Monster's Inc. While the film was not a technical innovation over last year's entry, it exhibited such a mastery of character animation and timing that it unquestionably belonged in our list of honorees. Specifically, the level of actual acting by these characters was remarkable.

Justice Runners: Satoshi Tomioka; Kanaban Graphics, J
This film is definitely a trip down the White Rabbit's hole. Although this short has a comic storyline, basically an escape from paying the landlord, it has all the horrible anxious feelings of a really bad nightmare; those super frightening ones that are set in broad daylight rather than deep night. We appreciated the complexity of imagery, the pacing, the amazing amount of CG models and especially the brilliant color pallette of this over-the-top gem.

Remind me: H5 / Ludovic Houplain / Hervé de Crécy, F
H5's video for the Röyksopp song "Remind Me" is most remarkable for its sophisticated use of design. Director Ludovic Houplain utilizes nearly every well-known style of statistical graphic in order to tell a story; that of one woman's workday routine in London. From the time she awakens to the time she goes to sleep, the various aspects of her life are represented comically, but also a bit disturbingly, by pie-charts, bar-graphs, cross-sectional illustrations and the like. The style of animation as she gets dressed and applies makeup is similar to the drawings on an airline safety-card –the one that points out all of the exits. Accompanying her subway ride to work is a graphical depiction of the relative speeds of the various modes of travel: walking, subway, car, plane. At lunch, as she drinks a milkshake, we see a technical breakdown drawing of the steps the milk has taken to get to her: from the glass to the milkshake machine, to the pasteurization plant, back to the machines milking the cows. The nonstop flow of informational motion graphics is beautifully animated and accompanies the music well. The overall effect is to poignantly remind us of the mechanization with which much of our lives are regulated.

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