The artful scoring of animation

Katerina Sakkas, 2013 Melbourne International Animation Festival

Koji Yamamura, Mt Head [Atamayama] (2002)

Koji Yamamura, Mt Head [Atamayama] (2002)

A glance at what we can expect from this year’s Melbourne International Animation Festival reveals a program that can fairly be described as spectacular in its breadth. More than 400 films, both short and feature-length, will be shown over the festival’s 11 days.

MIAF will encompass 11 international, three Australian, three Canadian and three children’s programs; surveys of animation from Lithuania and Portland; a CG Symposium and RENDER: a two-day animation conference with international guests.

A highlight of this packed program is a survey of the works of master Japanese animator Koji Yamamura, who also features as one of MIAF’s special guests. Yamamura’s animations for adults combine elements of the traditional tale with unsettling meditations on the nature of existence, using hand-drawn animation to depict an unravelling of the self. Yamamura gained international recognition for the absurdist Mt Head [Atamayama] (2002), nominated for an Academy Award for Animated Short Film in 2002 and awarded the Cristal d’Annecy and Grand Prix at the 2003 Annecy and 2004 Zagreb Animated Film Festivals respectively.

Mt Head is based on Rakugo, a form of traditional Japanese performance where a lone actor tells an extended comical story with minimal props. The film tells the tale of a miser whose head unaccountably sprouts shoots, ultimately becoming a microcosm with a cherry tree at its apex. In keeping with the artform, Yamamura almost completely confines the film’s sound to a Rakugo narrator whose sardonic sing-song is accompanied sparingly on shamisen. Deftly following the vocal cues of the storyteller, Yamamura’s imagery demonstrates the facility with which the expert animator conjures ideas of scale, mutation and paradox.

Mt Head’s precise lines, parchment backgrounds and watercolour tinting recall the delicacy of traditional Japanese painting, which Yamamura combines with the more cinematic effects of artificial lighting and layered images. In Mt Head, sound and image are of equal importance. Neither overrides the other, which is fitting given the film’s basis in an almost totally vocal artform.

Two other works previewed by the festival, Re-Collection, by Nicholas Kallincos—part of the Australian Showcase—and Andrew Thomas Huang’s Solipsist, from the International Program, also explore the threat to the self through an atmospheric balance of image and sound.

Melbourne-based animator Kallincos attained a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Adelaide before studying animation at RMIT. Re-Collection, his fourth short film, follows on from his mysterious, romantic short The Luminary (2005), which screened at 10 international film festivals. The central character in both of these non-verbal puppet animations is an insect collector with a light bulb for a head who encounters a human-sized white moth. While The Luminary’s mood is one of wistful longing, Re-Collection has a more sinister edge, as the collector is plagued by nightmarish manifestations of the moths he seeks to possess. Re-Collection’s use of light and sound (with a score by Cornel Wilczek) is particularly effective in driving the mood of this piece. Indeed, light as a concept is intrinsic to Re-Collection’s central motif of the unavoidable attraction between collector (with lightbulb head) and moth.

While the collector attempts to fall asleep, Kallincos’ tableaux of his bedroom are overlaid by the sounds of the bush at night, ghostly chimes and a subtle high-pitched tone which sets the nerves slightly on edge. As he is dragged into the lunar world of his nightmare, the sound becomes more charged, with electric guitar introduced. Later, the restless sound of flapping wings, along with skilled deployment of shadows and flickering light, evokes perfectly the panic of the sleeper beset by insects at night.

Young American animator Andrew Thomas Huang’s striking work Solipsist (2012) begins with the idea of solipsism—a state of being wrapped up in oneself—but arrives through a series of hypnotic passages at its antithesis, with individual entities subsumed to each other—disintegrating, being buried, re-forming into something new. Using live performers, puppets and skilled yet unobtrusive CGI, Huang orchestrates scenes of sensuous transformation against a watery pentatonic score.

In Solipsist, two women sway languorously as myriad sinuous forms bind them together; undulating, marine creatures intertwine to form a pulsating forest; a climactic final passage depicts spectacular disintegration, covering everything that has preceded it in an explosion of coloured sand. The pace throughout is meditative, the idea explored coherent, yet abstracted enough not to be obvious. It’s not difficult to see why on the basis of Solipsist, Huang was commissioned to direct Björk’s Mutual Core video and has exhibited at MOCA LA, MOCA Taipei and the Saatchi and Saatchi new directors’ showcase at Cannes.

The considered artistry of Koji Yamamura, Nicholas Kallincos and Andrew Thomas Huang is reason enough to attend MIAF 2013.

2013 Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF), ACMI, Melbourne, 20-30 June

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 29

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

6 June 2013