The world of animated short films is unsurprisingly vast and varied. With so little space I decided that a whirlwind introduction may prove more useful than forcibly opting for the obscure. The directors listed here are giants in the field and their influence is incalculable. I hope you enjoy and, if these pique your interest, you have a very wide world to further explore...
Angels Games (1965) Walerian Borowczyk
Walerian Borowczyk was a man of many talents. Originally trained as a painter, he later transitioned into lithography and poster design- the latter a particularly hallowed art-form in his native Poland. From distilling other’s cinema into a single tableau, it made sense for Borowczyk himself to experiment with the medium, and an early partnership with Jan Lenica, produced several short, animated films. By 1959, Borowczyk had relocated to Paris, which would serve as his base of operations as his work in cinema and other media grew increasingly ambitious, not to mention controversial. He would eventually move into feature filmmaking, including one animated work, Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre, but the 1960s was mostly devoted to producing a series of experimental, and often brilliant, animated and live-action shorts.
From that rich crop, Angels Game may well be Borowczyk’s most austere and mysterious work. It is a film that revels in dark imagination and invites the viewer to ask questions not only of its content, but also of its form. That is to say, that separate of its discomforting visions of some abstract factory that “processes” angels for extermination, Angels Game also subverts many of the standard assertions we might use to characterize typical animation. Borowczyk utilizes his preferred method of manipulating cutouts, as opposed to frame-by-frame cell animation, but much of the movement is inferred by sound design and clever gesture of the camera as it moves across a large, static painting rather than traditional animation. Of course, given the identical effect, we may discern that animation may be defined as much by the lack of specific movement as by its presence- a paradox at the core of montage.
The film opens with an indiscernible landscape whipping past us- the busy clacking of train wheels sets the pace. Text, in three languages, assures us that the following film is not based in reality. Such a claim only entrenches the film’s critique, as the film’s industrial setting and impersonal violence seem clearly designed to evoke the mechanics of the Holocaust. We finally arrive to a labyrinthine assemblage of abstract, incomplete rooms and containers, all barren walls, with incomplete pipes protruding at oblique angles. Its utility uncertain, this is the architecture of nightmares. Sound design is crucial. A frequent collaborator, electronic music pioneer Bernard Parmegiani provides a cacophonous, insistent organ score that is looped and recycled. On first occurrence it seems reverent, quasi-religious, but its sense of threat grows with its monotony and repetition, especially as a bony array of pipes, seemingly of the organ that produces this sound, later transmutes, again through a simple shift in perspective rather than “active” animation, into a wall of rifle barrels that make short work of a resigned victim.
The angels at the centre of the film are of unknown stock. They primarily seem to be victims but an early shot suggests a group chanting together. As the executions emerge in the film’s second half, the angels are isolated from each other, even disassembled to separate them from the totality of their own bodies. Are this first group overseers or collaborators, or simply not on the slate for oblivion today? We’ll never know, and certainly the violence of the film is presented as the force of some anonymous presence. The delicate patter of the angels’ wings will soon be snuffed out by harsh electronic thumps. Soft feathers and vulnerable flesh, glimpsed in the form of a nude, but restrained and shorn female, and the shuffling of angel parts as they hopelessly try to re-assemble, is subsumed by this institution of violence before the train finally carries us away, back from this ‘fictitious’ (how those opening credit reassure) place back to the safety of our real lives.
By the 1970s, as France’s censorship systems relaxed towards overt sexual content, Borowczyk’s films began to increasingly court eroticism. Later films, as funding grew harder to find, became increasingly compromised by the required salability of the sexual content, which began to dictate all terms and repel artistic inquiry. For a long time, these films weighed down Borowczyk’s career, often causing him to be dismissed as a highbrow pornographer. For those willing to explore, it should become evident that Borowczyk deserves serious consideration as one of cinema’s most unusual and valuable contributors.
Chromophobia (1966) Raoul Servais
Belgium doesn’t have much of a native film scene, so we might say that “making it” for Raoul Servais took a lot of extra determination. Some of his projects have taken years to get off the ground and suffered lengthy interruptions as funding and resources have dried up. Nonetheless, having largely taught himself the trade, Servais has established himself as one of Europe’s most impressive animators, with several major awards under his belt including a top prize at Cannes- the Palme d’Or du court métrage, awarded for short film. His adolescent, in a Europe torn asunder by World War 2 has shaped his body of work, which often features anti-war messages and cynical depictions of militarist might. It’s not a vein of criticism that’s ever likely to grow stale. His 1971 short, Operation X-70 reacted against the then-ongoing war in Vietnam.
With a broad range of work to choose from, Chromophobia seems a good emissary for Servais’ work. What impresses is the wealth of its visual imagination, as items morph and transfigure. There is a humor and logic that calls to mind Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and that sense of childish glee is important here, enervating a tale of resistance in the face of humanity’s darkest pursuits. Although it ends with restoration of a happier state, the weight of the imagery throughout its grimmer passages is not muted for the viewer. The release of such a film, even twenty years on from the end of World War 2, with such raw invocations of fascist imagery likely disturbed still vulnerable wounds among its audience. Especially as the rampaging authoritarian forces on display here are depicted as quite successfully usurping natural order to their own ends. That things return to what they were before is a relief, but the enemy is no aberration of nature. No, they harness the natural order, with growing trees becoming ready gallows and the besieged town’s bright cockerel readily subsumed by a dark raven, an avian accomplice to the forces of discord etc. It is the resistance of the populace, embodied in one little girl with associations to the color red (did Spielberg consciously end her, in a red jacket, nearly thirty years later in Schindler’s List, to insist on the seriousness of his own film’s thesis?) that ends the siege, not the idea that war and domination itself is unsustainable or self-defeating.
Servais’ later films would grow more abstract and technically ambitious, cleaving from linear narrative and presenting more tangled webs of associations. He was a technical innovator too, developing a photographic system he named ‘Servaisgraphy,’ which allowed him to more easily combine cut-outs of live-action footage with animated backdrops- used to great effect in his later short film, Harpya. Unlike many animators, who become identifiable through their preferred style, the visual design elements of Servais vary drastically as he has experimented and utilized new techniques and technologies. From his early career, using a home-made camera to create crude animation in a rented greenhouse, he would later embrace live-action cinematography and digital composition techniques. Like several others on this list, as of this writing he is still active, even well into his 80s, and may yet surprise us again.
Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) Jan Švankmajer
Although they may not be contenders à la the USA or Japan in today’s world of commercial animation, Czechoslovakia’s (now Czech Republic but maybe rebranding to Czechia) reputation for producing quality animation is peerless. Perhaps that’s little surprise considering the nation labored under the thumb of Communism in the wake of World War 2. With stringent media supervision to identify and discourage “aberrant” messaging that might undermine the regime’s legitimacy, animation, a format that remains couched in the fantastical, whether pitched commercially or politically, proved a rich tool for subversion.
Among many break-out talents, the work of self-professed surrealist Jan Švankmajer is among the most widely recognized and acclaimed in Czechoslovakian animation. Although he began animating in the mid-1960s, his work wouldn’t gain much traction internationally until the 1980s. It probably didn’t help that Communist authorities banned him from making films for a period in the 70s and then worked hard to suppress later works. Nonetheless, Švankmajer’s humor, provocateur tendencies, boundless imagination, and incredible technical skill have pushed him to the forefront of the medium, both with shorter works and feature-length pieces.
1982’s Dimensions of Dialogue is a fabulous showcase of both Švankmajer’s technical talents and his ability to broach complex ideas in unique fashion. It divides into three “dialogues”: Exhaustive, Passionate, and Factual. We might suppose that a fourth dialogue may emerge subsequently as we try and determine what it all means. The three archetypes of the first chapter – representations of agrarian, proletarian, and bourgeois identities? – devour, digest, and reformulate each other until only bland simulacra remain, endlessly perpetuating. The passion of the second act is rendered in clay, the tactile formulations of interlocking humans capturing a distinct erotic charge that often emerges in Švankmajer’s work. It also offers us a forgotten lump of clay that’s surely every bit as pitiable as whatever Disney/Pixar happen to be anthropomorphizing today. A caustic view of parenthood, or perhaps of any creative endeavor? Poor Clay-E! The final chapter may provide comment on Communism’s muddled markets but it’s just as inviting as a clever innuendo on how simple conversation can easily go awry. Anyone who’s spent time on online forums can probably relate.
Street of Crocodiles (1986) The Quay Brothers
(Watch full film HERE)
Identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay (pronounced ‘kway’) offer an unusually transnational twist to the world of surrealist stop-motion animation. Originally from the US, they have worked out of London for the vast majority their professional careers although their work occupies yet another space- an oneiric Eastern European borough entirely of their own devising. It was a poster exhibit at the Philadelphia University of the Arts, which included, among others, the work of the aforementioned Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, that had an extraordinary effect on the pair, ushering in a multi-decade long fascination with European surrealism and its confluence with animation.
Though their work is generally abstract and allusive, they have produced commissioned works for British television, for MTV, and were among the contributors to Peter Gabriel’s notoriously complex Sledgehammer music video too. I was in two minds about which of their film to pick here. A personal favorite of mine is their earliest credited, and extant work, Nocturna Artificialia- a hypnotic, somnambulist exploration of an incomprehensible architecture of angles and shadows. It very much sets the tone for their work but while they have not disowned the film, they do consider it fledgling, and have requested that it be presented separately of their main oeuvre. I see nothing deficient in it, but certainly the brothers refined their craft in subsequent years. So I needn’t sacrifice a jot of artistry by selecting Street of Crocodiles instead.
Based on a story by Polish author, Bruno Schulz, the film again ventures into an unknowable space, this time contained within a clockwork contraption that may or may not relate to a barely glimpsed map of Poland. Our guide, a lanky puppet finds all manner of odd activities unfolding, with trip-wires, elastic bands, teams of tailors, and autonomous screws. It is all texture and rhythm. Underpinning it, indeed guiding it all, is a score by experimental Polish composer, Leszek Jankowski, who composed the music in its entirety first. With the music complete, the Quays adapted their cadence to what already existed, creating a synthesis of image and sound that reverses the usual order in cinema. The final product is varying degrees of impenetrable and alluring, rich in textures and tactile details informing the heart of the medium, that search for inner life in lifeless objects. The film is filled with visual repetitions, rhymes, and choreography as the camera scans carefully over dust and pockmarked, worn surface before later free-wheeling through halls of mirrors- charting a realm that is in decay, subservient to some inaccessible purer reality.
The Cat with Hands (2001) Robert Morgan
(Watch full film HERE)
I can’t find much online about British animator Robert Morgan. He apparently saw uber-gory (for its time) monster flick Fiend Without a Face at a young age and it inspired a life-long love of cinema. Why not, I suppose? It’s arguably the greatest film ever made on the topic of atomic-powered invisible, flying brains with psychic powers and a cannibalistic taste for their less mobile counterparts, the brains that still reside inside people’s heads.
Compared to the others on this list, Morgan’s work is a little more straight-forward, which may or may not be a problem depending on your own predilections. Where the likes of Švankmajer or the Quays may present grotesqueries, they form part of such a specific focus that they generally don’t register as “horror.” Morgan’s work is much more in line with invoking taboo to assault the viewer’s best senses. In that vein his work can be uneven, but the evocation of weary flesh he can ring from his puppets, particularly in short films such as The Man in the Lower-Left Hand Corner of the Photograph (1997) or The Separation (2003), can provide counterpoint even if it’s all too obvious which buttons he’s pushing
The Cat with Hands could easily be dismissed as a sort of grand pun, but Morgan’s eye for details finds a wealth of curious creepiness as it overlays human and animal: puppet and performer. It’s a technique familiar in stop-motion animation, Švankmajer and others have previously used taxidermy to induce a hyper-realist veneer to their puppets. The results are uncomfortable emulations of “life” that push distinctions between puppet and actor closer to collapse. Come to think of it, David Lynch won’t acknowledge the ingredients used to create the lachrymose babe in Eraserhead either.
The film opens with a reflection, a rhyme of the “real”, flitting across an open eye, a sensory gatekeeper with direct access to our imagination. Lines blurred, we venture into a live-action world which is soon replaced by a puppet reflection. Herein dwells our curiously dexterous feline, who links animal behavior (preening) with human feature (um, hands). Soon puppet and actor will interlink, one consuming the other in a fashion both carnivorous and existential- a cat that wishes to become human, or something entirely unknowable that once looked like a cat and now looks like a human. A cat got the tongue, the final pun rings out, but in the film’s dark realms we’re reminded of nightmare ordeals where terror cannot be voiced nor warnings transmitted. We might never know just how deep the well go at the scene’s center goes?
- BONUS ROUND! - Meat Love (1989) Jan Švankmajer
But wait, there’s more! Mainly because this will literally only take a minute. Švankmajer’s tendency for odd erotic manifestations return in a compact sex tragedy that features exposed flesh in every frame. “Don’t play with your food,” his parents would (probably) say. “Well, maybe just this once.