SF IndieFest’s animated shorts reflect narrative range of the medium

Animated characters floating out of a screen
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Animated shorts occupy an anomalous place in the pantheon of cinematic categories. Beyond their brief feature during the Oscars, you really have to seek out these works in order to see them — and beyond the atypical viral submission (such as Kobe Bryant’s “Dear Basketball,” which won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2017), many of these works often escape mainstream viewership.

At the 21st SF IndieFest, the animated short section, which debuted Saturday at the Roxie Theater, showcased these brief, often beautiful, works. With the wide variety of these works, the program was a testament to the power that short films can have. The short film packs all the punchiness of a novelistic short story — by bringing to the fore those works that really succeed in making the most of their short runtimes, brevity can be an advantage.

The program opened on an exceptionally good note with Helena Bonastre Rodriguez’s “61 Beehive Street.” Depicted in the style of a vintage children’s book with dynamic, black-and-white drawn scenes, the short follows four characters and is framed in a cross-sectional view of an apartment building. Within this contained location, the characters are simultaneously in their own worlds and part of the greater organism of the building — having known and unknown effects on each other as they go about their lives. Rodriguez imbues the vignette with humor, tragedy and whimsical illustrations. It hits all the right points, drawing you in and making you care about these characters in the short timeline.

Another standout was “Dahlia,” directed by Ana Mouyis. In a totally different style from anything else in the program, this short follows two lovers as they navigate their relationship while dealing with mental illness. Lush, bright colors envelop the pair as they come together and apart — sometimes disappearing into their own minds but always ultimately finding each other through the storm. Mouyis communicates the love between the figures with deep empathy. In a film absent of dialogue, this is a significant accomplishment, with all emotion communicated through characterization, color and symbol.

While “61 Beehive Street” and “Dahlia” make the most of both artistic expression and brevity, some of the selections miss the mark in this sense. “Glissando” by Min Shi, which consists of four minutes of images played out against a melodramatic score, leaves little impression or sense of plot. While “Flytrap” by Connor Bland establishes a clear narrative, it attempts to be creepier than its time constraints allow for. The result is a disturbing short without much substance beyond being topically provocative.

Some of the shorts dealing with political topics also felt a little out of place, trying to be too pithy in too short of a time frame. “Kevin Klein Live Animation #3” by Eduardo Juarez Jr. portrays an exchange between a radio host and a Trump-supporting listener calling in. It’s a funny concept, but it becomes grating in its four-minute run time. “Trump Bites” by Bill Plympton fares better, with color-penciled animated scenes paired with audio of some of the president’s stupidest statements. It’s a caricature that fits, just overblown enough for what it is.

Music also provides a successful complement to some of the shorts — tying a five-minute song to an accompanying clip is fitting, almost emulating a music video. “The Elephant’s Song” by Lynn Tomlinson pairs oil-painting-esque animation, archival footage and a foot-stomping original song (written by Sam Saper and performed by Trucker Talk) about Old Bet, one of the country’s first circus elephants. Told from the perspective of a farm dog, the short is simultaneously engaging and deeply melancholic, ending in tragedy for the pachyderm. “God I Need a Girlfriend” by Stefan Janoski also utilizes an original song, with a retelling of the story of Adam bringing Eve into the world by his rib. With a creepy-looking puppet, this story is biblically gory and disturbing, but it works with the narration provided by the track.

In sum total, the best shorts at the IndieFest were those that made the most of the form, packing in dynamic storytelling and beautiful visuals into these brief vignettes. These films are a testament to the capabilities of the animated short, a great representation of the breadth of topics that can be tackled in such a form.

Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].