Animation at the 2018 Wisconsin Film Festival

From a wealth of shorts to Don Hertzfeldt's latest, a look at animated work worth catching. | By Reid Kurkerewicz, Grant Phipps, and Scott Gordon

  Clockwise from top left: "Future Language: The Dimensions Of Von LMO," "Konigiri-Kun: Kitchen Sportsday," "Spider Web," and "Driven."

Clockwise from top left: "Future Language: The Dimensions Of Von LMO," "Konigiri-Kun: Kitchen Sportsday," "Spider Web," and "Driven."

Aside from annual screenings of Oscar-nominated short films (at the AMC 6, formerly Sundance Cinemas Madison), the Wisconsin Film Festival is our only real opportunity in Madison to see a substantial amount of contemporary animation on the big screen. Most of it's in the form of short films, and anyone who is hitting the festival hard, in any year, should make sure to catch at least one shorts program or a couple of features paired with shorts.

This year, stick-figure prankster turned cosmic spiritual explorer Don Hertzfeldt's 23-minute World Of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden Of Other People's Thoughts will screen in a program with seven other animated and/or experimental shorts. The festival also features a new Studio Ghibli film (Mary And The Witch's Flower), an adaptation of some mischievous Roald Dahl poems (Revolting Rhymes), and a program of animated shorts specifically aimed at children.

To help give audiences a handle on the variety of animation in this year's festival (which runs April 5 through 12), we watched as much of it as we could. We weren't able to obtain preview screeners of everything we would have liked—including Mary And The Witch's Flower, Revolting Rhymes, and, most disappointingly, The Pits, a short about lovesick avocado halves. But that still leaves more than a dozen entries for us to ponder.

One final note: While the fest has almost always included a good amount of animation intended for adult audiences, we decided to also include highlights from the Big Screens, Little Folks program, because good kids' films should be able to do something for adults too.

World Of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden Of Other People's Thoughts

Screening In: More Worlds Of Tomorrow
AMC, Sunday, April 8, 8 p.m.; Thursday, April 12,  2:15 p.m.

Don Hertzfeldt's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated animated-short World Of Tomorrow (which screened at the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival), again takes hilariously pessimistic sci-fi concepts to philosophical extremes, with the same care paid to his adorably simple stick-figure characters. Hertzfeldt's niece provides candid voice acting again too, but she's a year wiser, and a year more talkative. This time around, Herzfeldt isn't as inherently cynical. The apocalyptic event that caused the action of the first film is resolved, and life continues for Emily-6, a "memory tourist," who is searching for meaning in her own life from her younger self. There is still that Hertzfeldt-ian heartstring-tugging, as we see Emily-6's memory and consciousness degrade with the cloning process and the promise of immortality. The most substantial update is the increased vibrance of the digitally-animated backgrounds, that ambitiously take on abstractions as far out as the inside of a consciousness. Hertzfeldt claimed in an interview that you don't need to watch the episodes in order, but if you haven't seen the first iteration and want to cry a little bit, you can rent it on Vimeo. —RK

The Amazing Neckbeard

Screening in: More Worlds Of Tomorrow

With clay, felt, paper, and plastic, Chicago-based stop-motion animator Aaron Legg crafts a charming, vibrant story of everyday heroics in just over two minutes. As a backdrop for The Amazing Neckbeard, Legg finds inspiration in geek culture and a comic-book convention as a lure for the superhero fantasies of an older, bearded, and bespectacled man. After designing a number potential costume ideas with pencil in his untidy apartment, the man discovers his titular persona using household items like tinfoil, a turquoise bath towel, duct tape, and red cloth for a cape and bandanna. After arriving at the ComicCon box office and realizing he may have purchased the last ticket, The Amazing Neckbeard then has an altruistic epiphany. Joshua Mitchell's music, which has the ring of high fantasy, elevates the character's small but invaluably charitable deed and concludes with triumphant feelings of self-worth. While this plays in the more adolescent-tailored "More Worlds Of Tomorrow" program as a result of few visual gags (including the tagline of a Squirrel Man poster on the wall), its grand, heartrending message will resonate with all ages. —GP

Obscurer

Screening In: More Worlds Of Tomorrow

Kiera Faber's beautifully creepy, hand-crafted, stop-motion tale centers on the blending of reality and fiction in the dreams of a secluded children's author. The short's detailed sound design escalates the eerie and surreal tension, as nothing in this imagined world is quite like ours. As the writer (whose face is never shown) sleeps, her mind free-associates a blonde doll companion without limbs, a sneaky pair of cloth dolls with large breasts and shimmering eyes, drawings of bugs that come to life, and the book itself, which remains locked away from the viewer in the nonsense language of the dream. The experimental combination of stop-motion and odd live-action makes for a compelling piece of abstract storytelling. —RK

165708

Screening in: More Worlds Of Tomorrow

Ontario-based filmmaker Josephine Massarella manipulates 16mm film and analog techniques to create this metallic, silvery-blue journey through the natural landscape. Elements of stop-motion and layered multiple exposure give the non-narrative short a strobing, jarring feel, with a raw, flickery, droning score by Graham Stewart helping to make it all the more immersive. Massarella shows us a lot of beauty here, but through a distorted lens that forces us to see it in an alien and perhaps even sinister light. Viewers will see a few different takes on experimental animation screening alongside World Of Tomorrow Episode Two, but 165708 stands out for both evoking the experimental work of Stan Brakhage and suggesting a way forward. —SG

The Tesla World Light

Screening In: More Worlds of Tomorrow

The revolutionary inventor Nikola Tesla once had plans to make a transatlantic wireless electrical transmitter that would be free to use, but this "Wardenclyffe Tower" was squashed by his patron, J.P. Morgan, who had originally contracted Tesla for a powerful communications tower. This short details the inner turmoil of the genius and humanist Tesla by mixing live-action, voiceovers of letters, and abrasive, flashing animation as he faces the grim reality of capitalism and the barriers erected before his ambitious ideas. The strange juxtaposition of light and dark was achieved by exposing 16mm film to controlled lights. According to director Matthew Rankin, who says he discovered letters from Tesla to Morgan in the Library of Congress, this animation sheds light on Tesla's inner world while adding new details to our historical understanding of his most infamous failure. —RK

Konigiri-Kun: Kitchen Sportsday

Screening In: Shorter And Sweeter
Union South Marquee, Sunday, April 8, 10 a.m.

The foods have gathered together—from fruits and vegetables to fried shrimp—to have an olympics, complete with team races and gymnastics. Two ninja rice-balls want the medals for themselves without having to compete, but the effort they put into their schemes might be better used on the field. You're not supposed to play with your food, but Mari Miyazawa's detailed stop-motion animation of food items playing with each other is achingly cute. —RK

The Art Of Cooking

Screening In: Shorter And Sweeter

In a more sparse take on food with free will, German animator Stella Wraith uses a line-drawing style and a single over-the-stove perspective to capture the reveries of a chef flipping an omelet or pancake—something round and flat, though it's never specified. But before long, the chef is locked in a battle of wills with the dish, as it begins to crawl, fly, and take other evasive maneuvers. Raith pulls off a witty piece of very minimalist animation here in less than three minutes, investing a flat white disk of food with playfulness and mischief, and maybe a bit of destructive menace as well. —SG

Driven

Screening In: Shorter And Sweeter

Julie Zammarchi's historical animation tells the story of Wendell Scott, the first African-American in NASCAR and the first to be inducted into the stock-car racing league's hall of fame. While white NASCAR drivers had sponsorships and technical help from big companies, Scott constructed and maintained a car himself along with the help of his sons, whose interviews make up the bulk of the story. After succeeding in small-scale local races, and persisting after being banned from certain tracks because of his skin color, Scott eventually won top-level races in the NASCAR circuit. —RK

Funny Fish

Screening In: Shorter And Sweeter

In Funny Fish, Indian filmmaker Krishna Chandran A. Nair manages to comment on ocean pollution while still keeping things nice and silly. The story follows two wide-eyed little fish who mistake a littered balloon for one of their own. After a crusty survivor of a failed fishing attempt (applying insight gleaned from his few moments above water) suggests that the balloon is probably a fish on a hook, they enlist their ocean friends to try to drag the balloon down. The young fish wonder why their new friend is acting so weird, and the audience learns a little something about hydrostatic pressure. —RK

The Pocket Man

Screening in: Shorter And Sweeter

Undoubtedly one of the most creative shorts in the festival's children's programming is from Tbilisi-based illustrator-painter-animator Ana Chubinidze. The Pocket Man's distinctive paper cutout animation and wide-ranging proportions seems to take aesthetic influence from the likes of René Laloux's Fantastic Planet, while also borrowing the earth tones and wordless sentimental fantasy of Shaun Tan. On an urban street, a diminutive man peeks out of his shoe box home when passersby should drop a button or discard a cup. Giving new meaning to the idiom "one man's trash is another man's treasure," the titular character inventively repurposes those everyday objects in his home, and is particularly delighted to use the flexible accordion end of the straw as a musical instrument. However, living in a shoe box in the middle of the sidewalk proves hazardous, as men and woman carelessly kick it over multiple times. Annoyed, the pocket man aims to retaliate by strategically placing a banana peel nearby, but ends up causing a blind man with a cane to slip and fall. Chubinidze saves her most vivid, appealingly surreal touches for the film's uplifting final minute, which emphasizes a whimsically idiosyncratic and symbiotic relationship. —GP

Spider Web

Screening in: Shorter And Sweeter

Russian animator Natalia Chernysheva favors classicism and simplicity in her latest four-minute short. Solely rendered on white backgrounds with black ink, Spider Web also features the comforting melodic familiarity of a Mozart Piano Sonata. This delicate story of peaceful coexistence begins with a small, lanky-legged black house spider ensnaring a plump housefly on the ceiling. Startled by a sneeze from the elderly woman below, the spider takes an eight-eyed gander at her web-patterned-like knitting and drops onto her shoulder. Of course, the sight of the unwelcome arachnid scares her, prompting her to leap out of the chair. In a sudden desperate effort to get rid of it, she comically chases it with a vacuum cleaner, and, in the process, pulls off all but one of its legs. In the direct face of its suffering, she has a sudden change of heart, which then incites a compassionate turn by her newfound friend as well. Ultimately, Spider Web is rather remarkable in how it delicately balances dramatic emotional shifts without dialogue, elegantly threading a buoyant tale of interspecies concern and friendship. —GP

Future Language: The Dimensions Of Von LMO

Vilas Hall, Saturday, April 7, 8:30 p.m.

First, a mea culpa: In a quick look at musical highlights in this year's festival, I overlooked the world premiere of Chicago-based filmmaker Lori Felker's new documentary, Future Language. Not only does the film capture an obscure, bizarre musical figure, it also makes a strong contribution to the tradition of incorporating animation into documentaries. Something of a self-styled post-punk Sun Ra, Von LMO made his mark in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York City, amid a fertile era of punk rock and no wave. He often claims to be an alien-human hybrid from the planet Strazar, but rarely keeps his outlandish stories straight. Throughout the film, Felker reflects on the seven-year process of interviewing and befriending Von LMO, and opens up to the viewer about her ambivalence toward her subject: "I've collected too many versions of Von to share," Felker says at one point. The lo-fi animated sequences in the film help Felker unpack the wacky mythology Von LMO has constructed around himself, especially stories that involve the musician being approached by sentient, brightly colored cubes. In addition to the animation, Felker uses the frizzy texture of old VHS tapes to tie together new and archival footage, and also incorporates a charming miniature solar system of papier-mache planets. Felker isn't trying to make fans of us or paper over Von LMO's character flaws, but she's also not out to mock him. The film's use of animation helps Felker strike that balance, telling us a lot about how Von LMO sees himself but also helping us keep his outlandish charisma in perspective. —SG

A Hole

Screening in: Tesoros
Union South Marquee, Friday, April 6, 3:45 p.m.

The fest's April 6 screening of renowned Mexican filmmaker María Novaro's latest feature, Tesoros—which follows a group of kids on a treasure hunt—is beautifully paired with the pre-feature treat of animator Maribel Suárez's short El Agujero, or simply A Hole. Suárez is a veteran illustrator of children's books, and that comes through in this film's warm color palette and scratchy colored-pencil textures. (If you have a kid or even a favorite niece or nephew you like to spoil, it'll remind you of one of those books that comes off the shelf over and over again at storytime.) The protagonist, a little girl, becomes fascinated with a hole in the backyard. Perhaps it's a deep portal to nowhere, perhaps a shallow divot in the dirt, but that's unimportant. What matters here is a child's ability to invest something so common with wonder and possibility. The hole becomes something between a plaything and an imaginary friend, and offers a touching window into the inner lives of kids. —SG