Out of Range: a study of character transformation through personal crisis and breakdown

CĂ©cile Guillard, Lana Choukroune, Yijia Cao, “Out of Range” (2019)

In the Gobelins animated universe, the most mundane incidents can give rise to major transformations in a person’s life, so much so that we can almost say that person has experienced a kind of death and been born anew. So it is with the sole character in this 4-minute short: Sue, a busy and harassed lawyer, is on her way to meet with a client on a rainy day. The expected meeting forces her to drive on a highway through unfamiliar countryside. The car breaks down and Sue has to pound her way through a forest with only her mobile phone to light her way during the encroaching twilight darkness and a steady rain. Along the way she loses some important papers, the phone falls into a puddle and goes flat, and she is bothered and hampered by annoying insects and a low-lying branch. She falls over and sees her reflection in a puddle – a reflection of her harried workaholic self – and ends up collapsing into an ocean that engulfs and deposits her into a sunny open-meadow paradise of rippling long grass under pale blue skies, the whole scene bearing an uncanny resemblance to country backgrounds in Studio Ghibli movies.

The film’s use of colour emphasises the different worlds Sue crosses through in her mental collapse: reality is portrayed in various harsh textures of grey and dark colours; the post-breakdown world is made up of soft pastel colours. Before her collapse, Sue is ill at ease with the flora and fauna of the forest: she trips over tree roots and mosquitoes and dragonflies bother her to no end. Post-collapse, Sue begins to wonder and marvel at the natural world around her and attempts to hold butterflies in her hands. The most astonishing work in the film though is in the flood that engulfs Sue and sweeps her away into a new world with harsh use of black and white imagery while she fights the rising waters but is later forced to succumb.

While the story is quite simple and is open to many interpretations, it never feels stale due to the strong character creation and build-up with an excellent voice-acting performance from Isabelle Guiard as Sue. You can really feel Sue’s frustration and slight sense of panic as she goes deeper into the forest and gets lost. Sue’s character is well-defined enough and at the same time generic enough – we don’t know her history and background but we can guess at parts of it – for viewers to readily identify with her. This film certainly repays watching.

Pour la France: emphasising the common humanity of two opposed sides in their potential for mutual understanding and violence

Vincent Chansard, “Pour la France” (2019)

Set in Paris during the so-called La Semaine Sanglante (The Bloody Week) in May 1871, during which time the French Army put down the Paris Commune government and ended two months of experimental socialist government, this film exudes energy and passion for its subject matter, posits a difficult dilemma in which personal ethics clash with one’s loyalties, and emphasises the common humanity of the socialist revolutionaries and the soldiers alike, both in their potential for understanding one another and learning the truth about each other, and in reacting in blind rage and resorting to violence and murder over mutual understanding. The film centres around an army sergeant, Mercier, who treasures a book (Victor Hugo’s “Confessions of a Condemned Man”) given him by a teacher back in 1848, and a revolutionary, Lorraine Mazin, who happens to be that teacher. After the French Army storms the barricades set up by the Paris Commune, Mercier and Mazin are reunited unexpectedly by less than ideal circumstances in which Mazin is one of a number of revolutionaries arrested and condemned to death – and Mercier happens to be part of the shooting squad. Needless to say, teacher and former student recognise each other.

Does Mercier go ahead and obey his general’s orders? If he does, he’ll be a hypocrite and he knows it; if he doesn’t, his own life will be in danger. By reading the Victor Hugo book, Mercier reveals himself to be a thoughtful man already dissatisfied with aspects of mainstream French society of his day, dominated by small, politically and socially conservative, even repressive elites and the powerful Roman Catholic Church. His teacher Mazin may be a revolutionary but she tempers her zeal with reason, telling her fellow revolutionaries not to kill the monks and priests (which they do anyway). When the two meet again, both soundlessly realise the unexpected ethical dilemma and crisis facing Mercier.

The film’s animation is forceful and energetic. Backgrounds featuring scenes of realistic-looking fires are unforgettable. Human characters are roughly and minimally drawn with somewhat exaggerated features, enough to distinguish one person from the next. Characters who lack self-awareness are portrayed with shaded eyes or shut eyes; only significant characters or characters with self-knowledge are portrayed with open eyes. This seems to say something about human nature generally, that in most societies (especially Western societies), most people seem to go about their business on autopilot and are lacking in self-knowledge.

Compared to some other Gobelins short films I have seen, this film does look very good and has a distinct style but the story it tells is not quite as powerful as those of the other films, perhaps because it runs like an excerpt of a much longer imaginary film and the characters are not well developed enough for viewers to care about them.

Hors Saison: a powerful character study of consequences arising from rash actions and interpersonal tensions

Nicolas Capitaine, Celine Desoutter, Lucas Durkheim, Leni Marotte, “Hors Saison / Out of Season” (2017)

Few films can portray character and tell a story complete in itself in the space of six minutes as does this impressive short effort from a group of 2017-vintage graduate students at the Gobelins school of animation in Paris. The story is set in a national park in the northern United States and revolves around park ranger Jude, aged about 50 years and perhaps suffering from career burnout as she tries to keep up with younger and chirpier work partner Karen. The sun is setting low in the west and Karen decides to hop back to HQ while Jude still needs to clean up a few branches cluttering up the road. With Karen gone, Jude gets a call from HQ to hurry up and something said to her over the radio rattles her enough for her to throw her radio into the thicket. On retrieving it, she discovers a poacher with suspicious booty in the back of his pick-up. While trying to arrest the fellow, he starts shooting at her and she fires back in self-defence. Having disabled the shooter, Jude calls HQ for an ambulance and reinforcement. While waiting for help, she peeks into the shooter’s shed – a decision that nearly costs her her life. Jude just manages to defend herself against the shooter’s partner – and then a third person appears in the doorway of the shed …

Quite a few themes establish themselves very quickly in the course of the film: there’s the obvious one of age, experience and perhaps world-weariness versus youth, energy and naivete in Jude and Karen’s interaction early on in the short which establishes a tension between the two. Jude’s conversation with HQ further reinforces the sense of isolation, psychological as well as physical, that the park ranger feels in the remote environment: an isolation that becomes more troubling and intense as Jude, alone, investigates a possible poaching ring involving at least two men who will stop at nothing to get their way. The consequences of Jude’s alone-ness, her determination to prove that she’s still fit and able, are messy indeed to say the least, and viewers can’t help but feel for her, knowing that she will have to explain her actions that will not only cost her her job but also warrant charges of manslaughter. The open-ended nature of the film’s closing, with Jude confronted by the awfulness of her actions arising in part from her fatigue and her stubbornness, made a powerful impression on this viewer and will certainly do the same for other viewers.

The animation, especially the background animation (with one breathtaking scene of a snow-capped mountain in the background behind a forest of fir trees), is well done: the backgrounds look three-dimensional though the characters are clearly two-dimensional and a little cartoony and exaggerated in some of their features. The villains especially appear rather stereotyped as surly sociopathic types. The most noteworthy feature is the voice acting with the actor playing Jude conveying the character’s tiredness, work fatigue and feelings of inadequacy when speaking to Karen.

This animated short deserves repeated viewings (in spite of scenes of violence and implied past violence) for its powerful story-telling and deep character study of a woman who makes one mistake after another.

In Orbit: a distinctive visual style in telling a rough story about survivor guilt

Soham Chakraborty, Hanxu Chen, M Joffily, Justin Polley, Julie Trouve, “In Orbit” (2019)

Similar to Gobelins’ 2018 release “Quand j’ai remplacĂ© Camille” in its theme of survivor guilt, “In Orbit” uses impressive visual imagery to explore an astronaut’s feelings of guilt at not having been able to save her colleague and lover from a space accident that has left her comatose, and the astronaut being forced by memory, visual associations in her work environment, and the mere fact that she is transferring to another work unit that will involve working outside a spaceship to relive the incident and gradually accept it. The film appears to owe a debt to past Alfred Hitchcock films (in particular, “Vertigo”) and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in its ideas and images.

The colour palette of the film is dominated by blues, purples and dark colours which mirror the astronaut Sonia’s depressed moods (though red for danger and yellow also appear). In a number of scenes there is an emphasis on the huge scale and empty rooms of the space station where Sonia is currently resident, making her and her fellow travellers look very small and at times as much isolated from one another physically as well as psychologically from the guilt-ridden Sonia. Changes in viewpoint reinforce a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia as Sonia is pursued by her demons: in one memorable scene, the audience viewpoint does a somersault up to the top of the vault-like corridors Sonia runs through, following the lines of the walls, and then focuses (almost vulture-like) on the tiny figure running across the screen.

Even though all the action takes place on a space station, and the horror exists mainly in Sonia’s mind, this film has most of the necessary elements of a haunted-house horror film: the changes in viewpoint, the dark colours and shades, the suspense and anxiety, irrational fears and memories playing tricks on the mind. While the plot is rough around the edges and has no real resolution – we do not even know if Sonia is still on the material plane of existence when she finally meets with her lover – the film has succeeded as a science-fiction horror film in its visual style.

Blind Eye: a satirical poke in the eye at religious fanaticism, blind faith and priestly control

Bruno Cohen, Germaine Colajanni, Rohan Deshchougule, Ronit Kelkar, Isabella Littger de Pinho, Diego Porral, Yujia Wang, “Blind Eye” (2019)

After seeing Muhammad Houhou’s 2018-released short”Ostrich Politic”, I wasn’t expecting to see another animated short illustrating the famous Plato’s Cave allegory from students of the renowned Gobelins School of animation in Paris but a group of animators has done just that in the second year running in the school’s new 2019-released batch of shorts. “Blind Eye” tells the story of a community of worshippers sacrificing to their god The Almighty Eye in a complex ritual conducted by their priests. A small toddler starts munching on one of the sacrificial offerings and the offended community and priests yield him up to the giant birds to take him to the god. Just as one of the birds snatches up the child, the little boy’s sister races to the altar and tries to save him but both children are borne away by the bird … to an upper paradise world where the birds turn out to be part of the local wildlife and previous sacrificial victims, one of whom was known to the children in the past, lounge about on the grass and worship the sun.

The film is open-ended so it can be the subject of various interpretations: the children are stunned to learn the true nature of The Almighty Eye; the people in the upper world might be preparing the siblings for another sacrifice, one they won’t so easily escape; or they really have died after all and their spirits have gone to a completely different dimension. The film is also a satirical commentary on how blind faith and religious dogma jealously controlled by a priestly elite combine to keep a community ignorant of the truth.

The animation style is cartoony but zippy enough to keep a surprisingly complex plot going at a brisk pace and packing in enough story and one surprise after another in the space of just over six minutes. We actually don’t learn all that much about the siblings’ original community and yet there seems to be a lot of depth in it – certainly we get some sense of the priests’ hypocrisy and panic when the fanatical community threatens to get out of hand and tear the toddler from limb to limb for desecrating a sacrificial offering.

Viewers will either laugh along with the jokey poke in the eye at religious fanaticism and blind faith or be just as stunned as the children when the scales literally fall from their eyes at where they are delivered.

Oasis: eco-SF fantasy on societies’ responses to new ideas and ideologies

Florencia Atra, Leonard Hicks, Man Luo, Claire Matz, Luana Nguyen, Marine Petri, “Oasis” (2019)

Compared to other Gobelins animated shorts I have seen so far, the symbolism behind “Oasis” is a little more complicated to follow. The film revolves around two characters, the child Edwin and his agronomist mother Amaranthe, who live in a desert oasis paradise growing plants for scientific study. Edwin recovers a tiny plant from the sand which, when doused with special liquid nutrient that Amaranthe has developed, disrupts the precious ecosystem that Amaranthe has so carefully nurtured over the years. The plants die off, Amaranthe is devastated that her life’s work now lies in ruins, and a looming desert storm threatens to bury the entire oasis. Amaranthe allows Edwin to put his troublemaker plant into the central reliquary where her precious plant once stood, and Edwin’s plant promptly revives the entire ecosystem and wards off the dust storm.

The message of this little eco-SF fantasy seems to be that Edwin and his little plant represent a new paradigm of ideas that threaten societies long accustomed to a particular order and way of viewing the world that may no longer have any relevance or basis in a changed reality. Such societies will reject and suppress these ideas until an existential crisis threatens the survival of these societies; only then are the new ideas and new models accepted as the new mainstream paradigm.

The animation in “Oasis” is well done though not very remarkable. Background animation can be very lush and gorgeous as would be expected of a sudden explosion of green exotic flora. The characters communicate by looks and facial expressions. The music soundtrack is forgettable. “Oasis” is noteworthy mainly for its plot and the parable-like message behind it.

The Tree: a deeply moving film on hope and the importance of memory

Han Yang, Basil Malek, “The Tree” (2018)

Almost completely silent save for ambient background sound effects, this deeply moving animated short about an elderly man living an isolated life in a drought-stricken desert world, spending his days trying to obtain enough water from a well to water a tiny tree sapling that seemingly fails to thrive, is sure to have many viewers in tears. The narrative demonstrates the importance of the tree to the man: it is a memorial to his long-dead daughter who, in her dying days, drew a picture of herself and her father in the shade of a flourishing tree on the wall of their hut. After her death, the father planted a tree sapling on her grave and has cared for it ever since.

The animation is very minimal and concentrates on the main characters: the father and the tree itself. Despite all his efforts, the tree always appears fragile and on the verge of dying. The well gives up very little water. The father spends all his days trying to fetch more water to feed the tree until one day a huge dust storm gathers and threatens the tree’s survival. The father throws himself upon the girl’s grave to try to save the tree. What happens next may well shock many viewers and surprise and gladden others.

Self-sacrifice, hope, the importance of memory and remembering lost loved ones, and the deceptiveness of appearance – things that seem the most frail turn out to be the strongest – are the major themes of this poignant film.

Souffle-court: a study of an authoritarian father-son relationship through bike racing

Pierre-Marie Adnet, Jean-Luc Dessertaine, Guillaume Pochez, Tristan Poulain, Vincent Rouziere, Alessandro Vergonnier, “Souffle-court” (2018)

In this 5-minute short film, a young teenage supercross rider Tom is being trained by his father for an upcoming major competition at which recruiters for what I presume is the national training club in the sport will be attending. The film portrays the authoritarian ways in which Tom’s father controls his son, risking the boy’s safety and life at times, to fulfill his own need for recognition and success, his own career in biking having been unsuccessful. Up to now always compliant, never daring to rebel, Tom starts to have doubts about his dad’s obsessively single-minded focus on his riding and gradually comes to realise there is a whole world outside supercross racing where he can be free and just himself. Viewers sense that crunch-time is rapidly coming, when Tom must make a decision that perhaps could affect the rest of his life …

Compared to some other Gobelins shorts that were also released in 2018 by graduating students, the animation is not quite as good though the backgrounds are well done and quite detailed. The characters are drawn in a minimalist way that makes them look flat but which allows their faces to show subtle emotions: indeed I would say this portrayal is the film’s strongest point. Plenty of close-ups are taken of Tom and his father to show how trapped Tom feels in his relationship with his father. The father behaves like a bastard throughout the film but becomes a broken man at the film’s climax and viewers can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for him when he discovers that his dream has coming crashing down a second time.

While the story is quite simple with an open-ended conclusion, it is nevertheless quite emotionally intense in its own minimalist way.

Ostrich Politic: a brilliant short film about the ease with which societies become fascist

Mohammad Houhou, “Ostrich Politic” (2018)

What struck me most about this film is its encapsulation of the allegory of Plato’s Cave in which society is convinced that the shadows it sees on a cave wall are reality whereas a few individuals who have dared to venture out of the cave realise that reality (and thus truth) is very different from what is seen on the cave wall. For years, a nation inhabited by ostrich citizens has long believed that ostriches by nature are timid and, when faced with problems and conflicts, deal with them by sticking their heads into the ground. Heck, their national hero is immortalised in bronze statue form sticking his head into the ground. However the president of that nation discovers from reading recent scientific research that this long-held and treasured tradition may be just that … a tradition with no basis in fact. He decrees that the notion that ostrich instinct is to stick your head into the ground is false and ostriches’ natural inclination is to confront and resolve problems when they occur. The bronze statue is covered up and laws forbidding sticking your head in the ground are enacted. The chaos and panic these laws create throw society into disorder, the streets are filled with hysterical ostriches racing to and fro, unable to accept the responsibility that being free and knowing the truth entails, until further scientific research reveals that maybe sticking your head in the ground might be a natural and instinctive reflex after all.

Of all the Gobelins short animated films I have seen so far, this one by Lebanese animator Houhou is the most brilliant in its story and relevance to human society, and in its execution. The animation, using archived live-action film shots, and deliberately drawing on Nazi-era symbolism and elements in parts, with an emphasis on oranges and reds amongst the shades of grey and dark grey in the backgrounds, is skillfully and beautifully done. The film does not have a distinct style of animation but rather draws inspiration and elements from a range of film and animation styles, and its distinctiveness comes from a narrow range of colours and the realist look of the ostriches and the city environments where they work … or rather, where they stick their heads in whatever receptacles will accommodate their craniums.

The film’s narrative quickly comes to the point about human nature and society: rather than prize truth, fact and rationality, we humans find truth and its consequences – we might need to change our ways for the better and make sacrifices so others can also achieve comfort and security – uncomfortable to accept and accommodate, and prefer to deny facts by either hiding from them or worse, arresting and imprisoning the messengers who bring such unpleasant news, and suppressing the truth at all costs. People prefer the comfort and security of lies and propaganda, even at the cost of freedom and, in the long term, prosperity and stability, and a better life for their children and grandchildren.

The film does not delve into how lies and propaganda are formed and repeated so much that they form reality for the majority of society.

A Gong (Grandpa): a journey of grief, accepting death and finding hope

Ellis Ka-yin Chan, Tena van der Galovic, Zozo Jhen, Yen-chen Liu, Marine Varguy, “A Gong (Grandpa)” (2018)

A tale of a small Taiwanese boy attending his grandfather’s funeral with his parents, performing little rituals he has no clue about, becomes a journey exploring intense grief, the closeness of ties between two generations, reincarnation and the hope it encompasses, and the continuity of life. The animation may look cartoony (it was hand-drawn with oil pastels) and a bit two-dimensional but this is to emphasise the film’s focus on the child and his point of view. Dialogue is pared back almost to the point where the film could be considered a silent film.

The film cleverly portrays the boy’s growing confusion and concern over the death of his grandfather and the strange rituals the adults follow (and urge him to follow as well) during the funeral to see off the old fellow, clad in his motorcycle outfit in the open coffin. The child’s unease reaches breakdown point when at night he hears the distant roar of a motorcycle and he races outside the house in pitch darkness to chase a dim red light. When the light disappears and the child comes to a fork in the road, he is in complete despair at having lost his grandfather forever. At this point, something unexpected happens: a puppy with a very familiar shape and expression on its face appears.

Taiwanese funeral customs and the spectacle they involve – not to mention their overwhelming nature to small children who may be perturbed by emotional adults, the solemn chanting of Buddhist monks, the burning smell of incense, and more besides – are showcased to good effect here. Viewers may be more impressed though with the boy’s grief and gradual acceptance of his poppy’s death, and the old man’s final gift to the child to offer him hope and comfort.