The Cream of a Very Fine Crop – A Look at the 2021 Brooklyn Film Festival Animation Program

By William J. Hammon, ActuallyPaid.com

The beauty of animation is that as a medium, there is literally no limit to what an artist and a filmmaker can accomplish, save the boundaries of their own imagination. In the span of just a few minutes, a cartoon can make you laugh, or cry, or fill you with inspiration and righteous rage in equal measure, thanks to the highly creative visuals that storytellers put on display. Whatever you can dream up, you can put on a screen, through any number of different technologies and art styles. It’s what makes animation truly an essential form of expression.

This year, the Brooklyn Film Festival featured 23 films from animators around the world, tackling heavy themes like depression, drug abuse, and sexuality, as well as giving us solid laughs through delightful premises and sheer comedic force of will. This year’s program ran the gamut from relationship issues to post-apocalyptic poetry to a newscast run by chickens. As mentioned in our preview of the festival, the animation block even included a film that came just shy of an Oscar nomination this year.

Truly, there’s a ton of fun stuff here, and you never know what you’re going to get from one film to the next. And even when you can guess the thematic direction, the execution will almost always surprise you. After viewing this year’s program, here are the five best entries from my personal perspective. Every entry has something of great value, and is worthy of your eyeballs, but these are the best of the best for me.

Ciervo (pictured above)

Opening on a pastoral field of flowers like something out of a post-impressionist painting, Ciervo (Spanish for “deer”) invites you in with the feeling of a light-hearted adventure of childhood innocence and discovery through its young girl protagonist. However, Pilar Garcia-Fernandezsesma’s traditional 2D film quickly takes a dark turn into an exploration of abusive family life and one’s capacity for mercy.

The somewhat assertive girl at the center of the film is an empathetic lead, her wide, doe eyes standing in for the literal doe eyes of the deer her father traps and hunts. It’s telling that despite looking at his face, we don’t see his actual eyes until the closing moments of the film. Instead, we see a closed face, with only thick brows to demonstrate that he even has them. The thick smoke he blows all over his surroundings takes the form of a constantly encroaching pool of blood, signaling his cruelty well before he fully acts upon it.

Artistically, the film succeeds without saying a word, with the dialogue-free soundtrack instead going for enhanced sound effects to get some of the more traumatic points across. Also, the animation style is quite strong, using normal cell-shading in the foreground with a gritty, almost colored pencil look to the backgrounds, creating a fine contrast. The transformational nature of our hero and villain in the film’s climax is a sight to behold!

But really, what makes this film spectacular is the emotional journey of the lead. The world is a chaotic, violent place, and the child’s recognition of that truth, as well as her personal reconciliation of how she wants to live in that world, is a strong, and crucial statement of individuality, and it’s just lovely to witness, despite the dark path she must walk to get there.

Crowded
Essentially done in a time-lapse, Crowded uses little more than a few sheets of paper to tell its story, with the artist drawing thousands of layered shapes to form the outlines of the characters throughout. You can even see brief moments where the animator focuses on a single section long enough for her hand and wrist to be visible for a few frames. It’s amazing how well this is drawn, not to mention the immense degree of patience required to plan out such an endeavor and execute it without making serious errors.

Calling it a “short story of particle configurations,” director Nathania Rubin begins by creating a face out of her shapes, then constantly erasing and redrawing until the face becomes a woman in a room, meeting a lover. Before long, the fantastical and surreal take over, creating a completely dream-like state that looks just so spectacular in its relative simplicity.

I really, really enjoyed this. Seeing a world created before your eyes is a pretty warped experience, and Crowded captures that confusion and wonder tremendously. It’s like watching a story unfold through an old-fashioned flip book, except it’s all on one static page. It feels like living an entire life in just five minutes, and I loved every second of it.

Death Hacks

We went over this Snapchat series in our preview, so I won’t say too much more here. It definitely ranks among the best of the animation field because of its well-written jokes and its brightly-colored grotesque design, like something out of a White Zombie music video from the 90s.

But while I brought up the two main voice actors before – Thomas Middleditch and Kristen Schaal – it’s also worth noting the contributions of comedian James Adomian. He’s a talented voiceover artist in his own right, and a stellar comic, particularly his well-known impersonation of Senator Bernie Sanders.

In this show he’s the third wheel of the Death Hacks vlog, Internet Troll, and he’s exactly as advertised. Popping in at times just to insult Middleditch’s Adam, Troll has an incredible design and absolutely perfect comic timing. The satisfying crunch as he eats rats is a joke that never gets old, and “translating” his vitriol into heartfelt subtitles during his special “makeover” episode is an expert touch. Adomian also voices “guest star” D@mi3n N1ghtm@r3 (as previously mentioned, the social media satire is on point throughout), a “nightmare prankster” who looks like a combination of Criss Angel and Mark Hamill’s Joker, pulling garish stunts in people’s dreams for the seemingly sole purpose of selling merchandise. He’s a great one-off character.

Death Hacks is the most commercial and mainstream entry of the entire animation program, but that doesn’t stop it from being among the best. It’s got all the elements of a great niche adult cartoon, and I certainly hope it gets another season. I might even join Snapchat just to watch it.

Last Shot
The ability to blend genres is a hallmark of great animation, and Korean film student Ji Hyun Yu expertly creates a fusion of comedy, heartfelt family drama, and horror with his four-minute piece, Last Shot.

Set in a run-down photo studio, the ghost of a construction worker lingers after his death, watching the photographer’s monotonous day-to-day living snapping ID pictures and waiting for the son he was supposed to meet there on the day he died. When it turns out the photographer can see the ghost through the camera lens, there’s hope of a final connection at last.

This leads to a good bit of slapstick, as well as the incorporation of several elements from Eastern horror films. You can definitely see the influence from movies like The Grudge and A Tale of Two Sisters, but with a much more family-friendly, light-hearted vibe.

It’s a simple, quick story that feels longer than it is, because the 3D animation is rendered so perfectly, and because the characters feel lived-in enough (despite the obvious handicap of one of them being dead) that the single-room story is given a grander aesthetic. It only takes a handful of seconds to establish motivations and core traits for each character, which allows the remaining time to be spent enriching the story, and Ji Hyun Yu succeeds admirably.

The Snow Ball

While I’m not officially ranking these five films, I will come right out and say that this was my favorite. Directed by Rick MacDonald (who’s worked on shows like Final Space and the Emmy-winning The Loud House), this five-minute delight from Canada is the perfect little bit of comedy that captures the imagination and mischievous nature of childhood with hilarious results.

Jamie Leclaire voices a bratty young boy out for a high-intensity sled on a snowy day. When he goes too far off course, he lands among a group of snowmen, all of whom have been dressed up like they’re going to a party. The boy imagines he’s there with them, only to be thrown out for being a kid. This leads to a highly-stylized battle (in his own mind, of course), where he takes out all the snowmen for their insult to his honor, culminating in a tremendous surprise punchline to pay it all off.

The art style here is tremendous, with the “real” world consisting of backgrounds filled with hills and trees designed as if they were using cutouts from newspapers, to give it that artificially angular look, even though it’s all standard 2D animation. The boy himself seems like he was designed in an art studio at Nickelodeon (appropriate, given MacDonald’s work history), with shades of Hey Arnold! and Ren and Stimpy in his slightly off form. Even some of the early jokes work within this conceit, like having the boy’s sled suspended in mid-air until a crow flies underneath, its “caw-caw” literally written on the screen before the boy finally falls.

Then, when the scene turns to battle, the entire affair takes on an anime look, with letterboxing brought in, the models completely changed to more of a Samurai Jack motif, and all color drained out except for red to illustrate blood splatter and the boy’s scarf. It reminded me fondly of the “Good Times with Weapons” episode of South Park, which went back and forth between the normal set pieces of the show and an imagined anime-style combat saga. That’s one of the best episodes in the show’s history, making The Snow Ball is a welcome companion piece both in style and its rapid-fire comedy.

* * *

As I said, there wasn’t a bad entry in this set, and I encourage you to see as many of the films as you can and find your own favorites. Animation is one of the purest artforms out there, and this year’s Brooklyn Film Festival showed us precisely why.

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