Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

The Sole Requirement: Make a Compelling Piece!

Shuzo John Shiota

For the last four years, I have been fortunate enough to be invited time and again to the Prix Ars Electronica jury, and have thus viewed more than 1,700 entries that were either mind-blowing, great, good, so-so or just plain awful! And although we, the jurors, get stuck in a dark screening room for the better part of three days, the process never seems to bore me. Not only do I get to see a very articulate snapshot of what’s going on in the world of computer animation and visual effects, there are always those precious gems that are so gripping and intriguing, that the whole experience becomes more than worthwhile.

Another aspect of the jury sessions I’ve come to love so much is the opportunity to mingle with, listen to, and debate with the other distinguished jury members whom the Prix Ars Electronica staff have so carefully chosen. Every year, the Prix succeeds in inviting the most talented, knowledgeable, outspoken and dedicated experts and artists in the field. This year, of course, was no exception. The team consisted of Rick Sayre (US), who has been an integral member in the creation of most Pixar films from Toy Story to The Incredibles, Mark Dippé (US), an ILM alumni, film director and producer, Sabine Hirtes (DE), who is currently teaching at the amazing Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg (more about this academy later), Dietmar Offenhuber (AT), a long time collaborator with the Ars Electronica Futurelab and a professor at the University of Applied Sciences Hagenberg, and yours truly, President and Executive Producer of the 23 year old CG animation studio, Polygon Pictures in Tokyo, Japan.

We gathered the first evening at the welcome reception to hear that there were a record number of submissions, a whopping 581! Instantly my spirits started to fade, but soon revived to hear that Dietmar and our trusty friend Christine Schöpf had done the initial legwork for us by viewing, and toning down the number to a somewhat manageable 321.

Round one started the next morning, with our attention focused on the task of eliminating those unfortunate pieces we were certain would not make the top pick. These consisted of pieces that were technically inferior, had no apparent message, and were generally poor in quality. If none of the jurors presented a “yes” vote, the piece was eliminated. After one and a half days, the list was narrowed down to 84.

In the second round, we enjoyed the luxury of scrutinizing the submissions. We took the time to see each piece in its entirety, albeit at times at fast-forward. After viewing, we each voted whether we wanted to keep the particular piece in the race. A submission required at least three “yes” votes to escape elimination. This process narrowed the list down to 22.

In the past years, a vague consensus as to which subjects would comprise the top prizes had been formulated by this time. This year proved more complicated, as, although there were a notable number of impressive pieces, there seemed to be no clear-cut winners. As such, we were not able to take the usual approach at this point in deliberations, which would be for each juror to pick their top three pieces. Instead, each of us chose our top fifteen titles.

For many of you who submit your precious creations to competitions such as the Prix Ars Electronica, the deliberation process may seem a total black box. You may wonder whether the jurors give your piece, the culmination of several months, sometimes years of dedicated work and passion, its rightful attention. You may question what our criteria are, and their validity.

I tell you truthfully, we really do care and we are attentive. We care because great submissions inspire us and open our eyes to new possibilities. We also know that what defines “great” work is that it constantly evolves, and is never static. This requires us to be attentive, to exchange ideas and ideals and create a set of criteria that befit this particular crop of submissions, at this particular time.

This was exactly what happened in our quest to find the top fifteen selections. Heated but sincere discussions took place. Each juror was invited to express his preferences; we defended our favorite projects passionately. One such discussion evolved around the treatment of visual effects pieces. As with all years, many impressive visual effects pieces from big budget films were submitted by major studios. Each of these was of very high quality, expertly executed. Yet, after all was said and done, the jury chose to exclude most of them from the final selections. Rick Sayre said, “Just cutting together all your money shotsis enough, no matter how good those shots are.” He continued, “Make a compelling piece. That is, in the end, the sole requirement.” Rick’s comments illustrate how difficult it is for effects pieces these days to be compelling solely on their technical merits.

After painstaking deliberations, we finally decided upon our final fifteen. I must add, however, that each of us had to sacrifice one or two titles we loved in order to bring the list down to the desired number (there was even a blatant “I’ll give you this if you give me that” deal-making amongst two of the jurors!).

It was now time for us to do some real soulsearching for the top three prizewinners. We found ourselves leaning towards a piece that somehow didn’t seem like an obvious winner the first time around, but had gained strength with each additional screening. This piece was called 458nm, produced by students of the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, a romantic story of two mechanical snails that find each other under the moonlight. The film is at once erotic and violent, emotions only conveyable through the perfect execution of the medium. In the end, we were all very happy to accord this brilliant student piece with the Golden Nica. Here’s how Rick describes it.

Jan Bitzer, Ilija Brunck, Tom Weber / Filmakademie
Baden-Württemberg (DE)

Flawlessly executed photo-surrealism. Biomechanical snails act out nature's oldest ritual, with the most futuristic of details. The impossible scenario is conveyed with stunning visual reality, the subtleties of macro-photography conveying scale. The film plays with structural conventions, moving effortlessly from abstraction to narrative via changes of scale. A Corvus Corax ex Machina ending warns that, as in nature, so with machines.
( Rick Sayre)

Coming up with the two Awards of Distinction was even harder. As always, each of us had our opinions, but each title that was discussed had its strengths and weaknesses that prohibited a consensus amongst the team. Finally, Mark (if I remember correctly) said, “Hey, couldn’t Kein Platz für Gerold (“No Place for Gerold”) be a Distinction?”

This was the revelation we needed.

Can such a simple, no-frills piece, dealing with such a trivial topic as the conflicts of flat sharing be considered for an Award of Distinction? Sure it can! The story revolves around three flatmates — Ellen, Armin, and Roger—who are sitting at the kitchen table waiting for their fourth flatmate Gerold to return. The three must break the news to Gerold that he is being evicted, but the conversation takes an unexpected turn. By pitting a carnivore alligator, Gerold against herbivores, the frivolous interlude becomes at once engaging. Here’s what Dietmar has to say.

Kein Platz für Gerold
Daniel Nocke / Studio FILM BILDER (DE)

This is a modest, almost simplistic film, telling the story of a typical conflict situation among mates in a German flat-sharing community by using a format resembling reality TV shows. With its strong contrast between the realistic setting and the animated animal characters, the short uses computer animation as an alienation device unmasking the motives of everyday rituals.
(Dietmar Offenhuber)

In retrospect, our second choice for the Award of Distinction was a perfect balance to Kein Platz für Gerold. Negadon: The Monster from Mars is a 25 minute film created almost solely by independent filmmaker Jun Awazu. Where as Gerold was simplistic to the point of extreme, often conveying emotions by mere eye contact, Negadon is amazing in its level of detail, and the massive density of each shot.

Negadon: The Monster from Mars
Jun Awazu (JP)

A fully computer animated film made in the tradition of the old Japanese tokusatsu (special effects) films of the 60’s and early 70’s. The artist’s dedication to the genre is fully apparent in his almost manic attention to detail. Tributes to the old Godzilla and other Kaijyu (Monster) films abound. The translation from live action to CG is almost perfect, giving it a distinctive look while retaining the retro feel.
( Shuzo John Shiota)

Finally, below are our Honorary Mentions, as introduced by the other jurors (Mark unfortunately couldn’t contribute due to time constraints).

Discord: metal and meat
Stephan Larson (US)

Abstract in form and motion yet compellingly real in texture and the interplay of light, this metaphorical piece possesses dramatic tension. A symbolic meditation on the power of biology.
( Rick Sayre)

Straße der Spezialisten
Saschka Unseld, Jakob Schuh / Studio Soi (DE)

At first glance, Straße der Spezialisten from Studio SOI fooled the jury by pretending to be a narrative animation, a theory that ultimately had to be abandoned. What remains is a surreal road movie featuring a yellow robot and a vintage Opel, a beautiful combination of 2d and 3d animation, appealing also through its slow and musical pace.
( Dietmar Offenhuber)

The Regulator
Phillipe Grammaticopoulos (FR)

A 15-minute piece from Philippe Grammaticopoulos (a French comic author, who also created the awarded animation Le Processus) is an eerie and compelling story about parenthood in a mechanized world. From the large number of entries featuring a black and white comic book illustration style, the regulator is aesthetically the most powerful example, supported by a reducedbut very effective “mechanical” character animation.
( Dietmar Offenhuber)

Leonard Thomas, Marques Guillaume, Jacamon
Paul (FR)

A technically astounding piece with a blockbuster feel, rarely seen in student pieces (or in professional pieces for that matter). Not only was it dynamic but fine attention was given to details giving it an eerie realism. But for its rather disappointing ending, it was a strong prize contender.
( Shuzo John Shiota)

MTV: Crow
Marie Hyon, Marco Spier / PSYOP (US)

Crows wheel in black flocks
A crow lands a forest grows
Visual haiku
( Rick Sayre)

Als ich hier angekommen bin
Perrine Marais / Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg

Unforeseen troubles can be encountered when traveling to foreign countries, even by crossing just the nearest border—a charmingly told, excellently designed and remarkably sensitive animated story.
(Sabine Hirtes)

Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek
YAMATOWORKS (Shuhei Morita, Shiro Kuro, JP)

A full 3D CG animation, with all the flavor and look of anime. Technology is neatly hidden behind breathtaking art designs and eloquent cinematography, but effective enough to give it a touch of depth not evident in 2D anime.
(Shuzo J. Shiota)

Shinsatsu-Shitsu (Consultation Room)
Kei Oyama (JP)

A man’s mind travels back to his days of childhood, when his fears and imagination seemed almost limitless. The mostly hand-drawn animation that uses realistic textures and rotoscoping techniques in particular shots to bring forth a stronger measure of reality. A piece that shows you something new every time you watch it.
( Shuzo John Shiota)

Rexona – Stunt City
The Mill (UK / US)

Ordinary men, magically protected, take every risk they can: this is the premise of Stunt City—a hilarious story brilliantly planned and realized by enhancing real footage via invisible visual effects.
(Sabine Hirtes)

Sin City
Stu Maschwitz / The Orphanage (US)

A visual effects piece with an attitude. These days, technical prowess unfortunately isn’t enough. Its strong aesthetic statement made a strong impression on our critical jurors, and remained the only VFX piece left from many entered for the competition.
( Shuzo John Shiota)

Christian Volckman / onyx films (FR)

A feature film of striking design that was the subject of many discussions among the jurors. Those who supported it lauded its audaciously new approach to narrative filmmaking, those who didn’t questioned whether trying was enough to accord merit. An edit of its most beautiful sequences may have brought it closer to the Golden Nica.
( Shuzo John Shiota)

One Man Band
Mark Andrews, Andrew Jimenez / Pixar Animation Studios (US)

Pixar with its intense musical editing and almost aggressive tone—the battle between street musicians—shows a new side of Pixar, always reinventing its character animation style in new facets.
( Dietmar Offenhuber)

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