LIFF 2020 Highlights: Three Animated Experiments

Programme: World Animation Competition: Programme 1

Directors: Patrick Smith (Beyond Noh), Thomas Renoldner (Don’t Know What), Betina Bozek (The Land of Whim)

Length: 4 minutes, 8 minutes, 8 minutes

Country: United States, Austria, Poland

If you have ever sat through an animated short film collection at a film festival, then you will know that it is often a place for invention. It is the time when we get to see filmmakers with the reigns off, playing with reality and aesthetics in a way a live-action director could only dream of. Animated shorts are, in brief, the home of the weird and wonderful, the strikingly beautiful and the downright bizarre.

Such a trend is taken to its extreme in the Leeds International Film Festival collection, World Animation Competition: Programme 1. Here we have one of the most packed schedules of all the LIFF shorts screenings, with 10 films showing in under 90 minutes, and some outrageously odd offerings. All of the filmmakers here show both great skill in their animation and an admirable confidence and belief in their ideas. Every short here is doing something bold and original, and they all deserve praise for that.

In particular, though, I would like to highlight not one but three animated shorts that managed to connect with me on a greater level than the others. All three are linked by being on the shorter side and acting essentially as visual experiments, including little-to-no narrative and pushing the boundary of what we think of as film.

Beyond Noh, directed by Patrick Smith, is the best example of this. It is a four-minute piece of visual art that would look as at home being projected onto the wall of a gallery as in a cinema. It is very simply a collection of 3, 475 masks from around the world edited to music, each mask either flicking by or lingering as they morph into one another and take us on a cultural tour of the world. Smith’s approach to the idea reminded me of Birdman somewhat, fusing sound and image to the extent that the film progresses with rhythm, as if the images are moving independently of the artist, dancing along to the beat of a drum.

The masks are presented straight-up, with no text, dialogue or effects layered over them. Smith and writer Kaori Ishida are therefore showing little attempt to make any overt cultural or political commentary with Beyond Noh, but there’s certainly something that could be read into its proliferation of face coverings. The very idea of a mask, hiding our true selves, is an interesting one, and the sheer amount of them here brings that to the forefront. Which ones we recognise, and the difference in masks between cultures, could also prompt thoughts about commerce and cultural appropriation for the viewer. Or perhaps Beyond Noh is just an aesthetic experiment and nothing more. In which case, it is a resounding success as a mesmerising fusion of music and visuals.

The idea that these animated experiments might not really ‘mean’ anything at all is not a bleak thought, but actually quite an amusing one. It is like a sly joke being played on an artsy audience looking for symbolism where there is none. If any short in this collection is playing that joke on its audience it is Don’t Know What, from the mind of Thomas Renoldner. In it, Renoldner himself sits at a table in front of the camera and repeatedly lets us know that he does not know what is going on or happening to him as his body and mouth contort robotically for several minutes, producing all manner of sounds like an involuntary beatboxer.

Perhaps Rendoldner, as much as us, really doesn’t know what is going on here. He’s just messing around, playing with his images and sounds in an attempt to create something innovative and exciting. If that was his intention, then Renoldner has succeeded, as there is definitely something excitingly innovative about Don’t Know What. You may have picked up on the fact that this is an animation programme and yet this whole film features a real, live person sitting in front of a real, recording camera.

What Renoldner does is push the boundaries of animation by taking a ‘live action’ image, and then animating it. For most of the film Renoldner moves and speaks in ways that are not humanly possible, stuttering and repeating like a broken record. This idea of animating real images and photographs is a fascinating one, particularly in an age of ‘live action’ films that are in fact entirely animated (see: The Lion King). Similarly interesting is the soundtrack Renoldner creates for the film with his own mouth, editing ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ into something resembling music. All together Don’t Know What is an amusing play around with the fusion of the human body with filmmaking technology.

The final highlight of the collection is Betina Bozek’s slightly more narrative-driven The Land of Whim (pictured), which is also very concerned with our bodies. There’s no recognisably human bodies in this one, though, as everyone in Bozek’s imaginary world is some kind of weird, malleable shape. Whilst one character snoozes away, their nose mutates from one shape to another with each deep breath as little animated dogs chase the bones on their patterned pyjamas. It is all thoroughly bonkers, but there does seem to be some point to it.

Bozek’s approach to the bodily form is one that creates recognisable feelings and textures using bizarre techniques. The feelings of waking up in the morning still tired, or of boogying away on the dance floor are actually very recognisable in these brightly-coloured, stretched out forms. There is a humour running through the whole thing that adds to the fun, as does an extended bit of pounding EDM which gets to the heart of what Bozek’s joyful, expressionistic images are trying to achieve.

In all of this animation programme there is joy and wonder to be found, and a group of artists pushing boundaries and taking risks in a way that may raise some eyebrows, but could never once be called dull. It is a feast of creativity and, I would bet, something truly different than what you previously planned to watch tonight.

World Animation Competition: Programme 1 is available to stream on the Leeds Film Player until the end of the festival on 19th November.

Andrew Young