Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich


Barbara Robertson

The jury for the Computer Animation and Visual Effects category, Shuzo John Shiota, Virgil Widrich, Ellen Poon, Lance Williams and Barbara Robertson arrived in Linz on Thursday evening, April 23, from Japan, Vienna, and California. During the welcoming reception at the Ars Electronica Center, we discovered we had 388 films to look at in the next two days. By Sunday afternoon we would need to narrow the entries down to no more than 15 and announce our Golden Nica, Awards of Distinction and Honorary Mentions.

When we met on Friday morning, we decided our strategy would be to stop screening any film that got one “yes” vote from a jury member. Even so, it took all of Friday and more than half of Saturday to complete the first round. Saturday afternoon we began screening the remaining 73 entries, many of which we had not yet seen in their entirety. For this round, a film needed two “yes” votes to stay in the running. Some of the films warranted discussion, not simply a vote, so we worked until late in the day to cull the list.

“But I want to see it anyway,” became a common refrain along with, “I wish we could at least send a note of encouragement. It’s almost good enough.” Surprisingly, when we stopped working on Saturday, we had narrowed the list down to 22 films. Certain that Chris Landreth’s Ryan would be in the final cut, as would Pixar’s Finding Nemo, we decided to save time by not watching them until our final round. Saturday evening found us quite pleased to have such a strong group of films from which to choose our final winners, and we were encouraged that our initial discussions showed a fruitful melding of expertise on the jury.

Sunday morning, coffee in hand, we decided on our final strategy: Rather than trying to cull the list of 22 films to 15 and then pick our winners, we would vote, without discussion, on the top three winners to see if we had any agreement. If so, from those we would pick our Golden Nica and Awards of Distinction. And then we would consider which films to include as Honorary Mentions.

And so we settled in to watch the entire 14 minutes of Ryan. When the film ended, no one said a word. The room remained completely silent for several minutes. We didn’t even look at each other; we were so lost in our thoughts. Finally, someone on the Ars Electronica staff hesitantly asked if we wanted to see the next film.

The next film was Pixar’s compilation of scenes from Finding Nemo, which put us in a merry mood. We spent a short while reminding ourselves of the other films on our list and looked at a few again. And then we voted. Each of the five jury members voted for three films. When the votes were counted, we had a list of eight films and of those, one film clearly stood apart from the rest: Ryan. Within minutes, without needing to take another vote, without even much discussion, we agreed that Ryan would be our Golden Nica winner. Picking our Awards of Distinction would be more difficult.

After many rounds of voting and much discussion, we eventually settled on two student films for two quite different reasons, but the overriding reason for choosing all three award winners was the same: In each case, the work exceeded our expectations. The films drew on the past and yet pushed the art of making films with computer animation and visual effects in new directions. When Shuzo introduced our Golden Nica and Distinction winners to the members of the other juries, he said, “Our selection demonstrates both how fare we have come and how far we have yet to go.”

Ryan is a perfect example. Few animations, let alone computer animations, have been documentaries —the idea seems nearly paradoxical at first thought. Bob Sabiston’s 2D animation Snack and Drink about an autistic child and Aardman’s stop-motion Creature Comforts come to mind as examples. But Chris Landreth pushed those ideas into new territory technically and in terms of story-telling. The film is largely based on videotapes of Chris interviewing Ryan Larkin, a legendary Canadian animator now begging for handouts on the streets of Montreal. It includes historical footage of Larkin’s early work; otherwise, it was created entirely with 3D graphics.

All the characters—Chris himself, Ryan, the people in the cafeteria where the interview takes place— are 3D, as is the cafeteria, all rendered in what Landreth calls “psychorealism.” The characters’ faces are photoreal, but they’re torn apart or distorted. Half of Ryan’s face is missing. Odd, brightly colored shapes appear on the characters to emphasize dialog and then disappear. The environment is also photoreal, but distorted into psychorealism. Indeed, the interview itself becomes distorted when the character Chris realizes that the documentary is about him, too. Thus, Landreth twists the idea of documentary filmmaking and the image of photorealistic 3D graphics into new forms and opens the door to new possibilities for animation. He gives us ideas that have far to go.

As for the Awards of Distinction—if we could have given four awards, two would have gone to Pixar’s feature animation Finding Nemo and the short animation Pfffirate created by students at the Supinfocom Institute in France. No studio creates better 3D animated films than Pixar; no school produces better student films than Supinfocom. Finding Nemo and Pfffirate are colorful, bright, funny films; both represent the perfect application of 3D graphics to animation. Finding Nemo is brilliantly executed—the story, the art direction, the use of computer graphics technology work beautifully together. Financially, it is the most successful feature animation ever, and it won the Oscar this year. So our praise joins that of thousands of moviegoers. Although a student film, Pfffirate’s balloon pirates on their balloon ship share many of Finding Nemo’s characteristics— a bright, happy story told by brightly rendered characters. But after much discussion we decided to award two less than perfect films, both created by students. Birthday Boy, by Sejong Park, a student at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, tells a touching story of a Korean child in 1951, whose father is a soldier. The camera follows the boy, lovingly catching intimate moments often realized by perfectly timed small movements and convincing facial expressions. The film shows a creative restraint often missing from animated films; the camera work and use of sound shows a sophistication beyond what we expect from student work. We found the tenderness of the animation to be unique and forgave the few instances of technical imperfection. As with Ryan, Birthday Boy offers a glimpse of future possibilities. Like Birthday Boy, Parenthèse, also a student film, has no dialog. But rather than relying solely on the animated figures to tell the story, Parenthèse, created by students at the Supinfocom Institute, has lines of literary text flowing onto the painterly buildings. The animation of the sad, lonely little hero moving through the city streets kept our interest, even when, during the jury meeting, there were technical hitches with the videotape. It is a testament to the quality of this work that even though we had to watch a small portion of the film in black and white rather than its intended color, we still found it compelling and unique enough to honor it with an Award of Distinction. As with Birthday Boy and Ryan, Parenthèse surprises us by finding new ways to use animation to tell a story.

We had no trouble finding twelve Honorary Mentions from our short list of 22 films: Any of the 22 was worthy of inclusion. Thus, we had the luxury of selecting, for the Honorary Mentions, examples from various forms, styles and applications of computer animation and visual effects.

Joe Takayama of Kyushu University in Japan created a mesmerizing abstract animation called Microcosm that we honored for its beauty.

In the short film Mother—Excerpt from Lines of Unity—Eleven Aboriginal Poems, German independent filmmaker Markus Bledowski attaches the camera view to objects in the film frame and otherwise alters our perception of childhood games to illustrate aboriginal poetry.

In Moo(n), animator Leigh Hodgkinson of Slinky Pictures uses black and white drawings in a wild cut-out style to create a wacky story-book animation.

Luc Froehlicher and the la maison studio in France deflated a Toyota RAV4 in high style, an excellent example of visual effects used for television commercials.

The action-packed, fast-paced Winning Eleven Tactics for Konami Computer Entertainment by Morio Kashida, Yoshihiko Dai and Hiroshi Chida provides a dramatic use of 3D animation for advertising.

The third commercial work to receive an Honorary Mention is a short public service spot called No Limits by Heidi Wittlinger, Anja Perl and Max Stolzenberg of the Film Academy Baden-Württemberg, an imaginative use of animation and illustration-style rendering to deliver a message about child labor laws.

We laughed so hard at New Balls Please, Richard James’ (Sherbet, Great Britain) brilliant satire, that we couldn’t help but include the three-minute film. And the excerpts from Finding Nemo and the short film Pfffirate were happy additions to the list, of course, as well.

We picked two films for Honorary Mentions that illustrated technical achievements. Few people have had a bigger impact on the methods used to light computer graphics in film than has Paul Debevec, now of the Institute of Creative Technology in San Diego, California. His entry, The Parthenon, once again pushes CG toward photorealism in film. When we first saw the girl sitting on the bridge in Liam Kemp’s This Wonderful Life, we thought she was an actress. The Great Britain-based independent animator’s realistic CG character is astounding, even more so considering that Kemp used the commercial software 3ds max, to create her.

Although all these films mentioned so far are examples of computer animation and visual effects used to create short films, whether for entertainment, education or commercial use, when we think about the future for computer animation and visual effects, we mustn’t forget interactive games—as an influence on the kind of work that is being done in other media as well as an arena of application for animation and effects. Lest anyone still harbors doubt that video games will eventually look like films, the opening cine- matics created by Mikitaka Kurasawa of Robot Communications Inc and Takashi Yamazaki of Shiroguma Inc., for Onimusha 3 should convince you. And that completes the list of twelve Honorary Mentions.

The theme for Ars Electronica this year, “Timeshift”, is a particularly serendipitous and fitting description for the 2004 computer animation and visual effects winners. As Shuzo said, our selections show how far we have come and, at the same time, how far we have yet to travel. Indeed, all 388 entries showed a surprising sophistication. They, and particularly the selected entries, demonstrated to us that computer animation and visual effects continue to help filmmakers find new and creative ways to tell stories.

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