Zoetrope: Five groundbreaking animated short films you can watch online

Originally written 22nd November 2017 for Varsity, but not published

Animated short film is not an easy thing to get into. Although lists of the greatest feature films of all time abound online, and you can see most buzzed-about films, no matter how obscure, if you’ve got a decent indie cinema nearby. For shorts, however, it’s a different story; apart from a handful of infamous experimental shorts like Meshes of the Afternoon or Un Chien Andalou, the history of short film is little-known and often-overlooked. And for animated shorts, a subcategory within a subcategory, there’s even less information available.

So, for my final column, I want to show some love for a few animated shorts that, although you might not have heard of before, are well worth your time. Some of these films are impressive for their sheer technical innovation, while others are impressive feats of wordless storytelling, but each one is wholly unique. They range from conventional narratives to surreal, abstract vignettes; they each come from a different country, from Japan to the Czech Republic; they may make you want to cry, or they may make you want to throw up, but I can guarantee that they will stick with you.

Sally Cruikshank – Quasi at the Quackadero

The most colourful, and perhaps the most unusual, film on this list, American cartoonist Sally Cruikshank’s Quasi at the Quackadero follows a stout anthropomorphised duck named Quasi as he explores a delirious, kaleidoscopic carnival. Although made in the mid-70s, Quasi seems to owe much of its stylistic inspiration to the LSD-soaked 60s; it’s beyond trippy, a bizarre cacophony of shapes and sounds that is constantly shifting, jumping from one psychedelic scene to the next, always finding some new way to disorient and confuse you. Even the B-movie-grade voice acting is strange and unnerving. Quasi’s slightly deranged style might scare some people off, but if you’re looking for something a bit leftfield, this is perfect.

Jan Švankmajer – Food

Jan Švankmajer is one of the few animators who can rival Cruikshank’s sheer weirdness. A veteran of the international animation community – his first short came out in 1964, and he’s still making new films at age 83 – Švankmajer specialises in claymation, but not the kind you will have seen in Wallace & Gromit. Food, his grotesquely comic 1992 short, combines live-action and stop-motion in three acts. To give you an idea of just how weird this gets, the first act features a man who essentially acts as a human vending machine – you pay by pulling out his tongue and making him swallow the coins, and you order by poking his eye. Švankmajer’s striking and occasionally very graphic physical humour isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is extremely imaginative and undoubtedly memorable.

Wendy Tilby & Amanda Forbis – When the Day Breaks

If Cruikshank and Švankmajer both sound like a bit much, Tilby & Forbis might be more up your alley. This short is less visually adventurous (although its shadowy backgrounds and jittery camera moves give it a distinct aesthetic), but it is one of the most poignant films I’ve ever seen, regardless of length. What seems to open as a cheery slice-of-life short quickly turns into a sombre meditation on death, urban life and the way people relate to one another as its protagonist is accidentally embroiled in a tragedy that, though it isn’t her fault, shakes her to her core. Tilby & Forbis’s style is sparse, usually placing only one or two things in the frame at a time, and this gives the film a distinct poetic quality, a quality that means, despite this short being less than 10 minutes long and featuring no dialogue, it is more moving than many films 10 times that length.

Kunio Kato – La Maison en Petits Cubes

Despite its whimsical French title, this Oscar-winning weepie is actually Japanese. Set in a future in which constant sea level rises forces people to build new floors on their home every few years, La Maison en Petits Cubes follows an elderly man who, accidentally dropping his pipe down the fishing hole he has carved into every floor of his house, is forced to dive back down to the very bottom to retrieve. As he descends floor by floor, a flood of nostalgic memories returns to him, and we see essentially see his entire life in reverse order. Don’t be fooled by this short’s picture book-esque, cartoony visuals – this is a deeply melancholic film, full of longing and loss. Think the Carl and Ellie scene from Up, except sadder.

Daisy Jacobs – The Bigger Picture

The most recent film on this list, Daisy Jacobs’ aptly-titled Bigger Picture is the only film I’ve ever seen to use life-size stop-motion – whereas most stop-motion animators use small-scale models for the sake of convenience, Jacobs combines to-scale wall paintings of her characters with (also to-scale) physical objects in the foreground. When one characters goes to pour the kettle, for example, a papier-mâché arm protrudes from the point where the arm is painted onto the wall, and grabs it. Jacobs finds lots of clever ways of manipulating this technique, and the story she tells is touching too, following two brothers as they struggle to decide how best to care for their aging mother.

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