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Frank the Wrabbit
M.C. Escher: Sky and Water 1
Transfigured
The National Film Board of Canada digitally innovates
Frank the Wrabbit
National Film Board of Canada
Directed by John Weldon
Canada, 1998

M.C. Escher: Sky and Water 1
National Film Board of Canada
Directed by Gayle Thomas
Canada, 1998

Transfigured
National Film Board of Canada
Directed by Stephen Arthur
Canada, 1998
All right class, solve this equation: animation + Canadian + computer = ?

You would be forgiven if you answered ReBoot or Beast Wars, but this year's Montreal World Film Festival showcases three new animated shorts that make prominent use of computers--and don't even remotely resemble the polished 3-D look you'd expect. All three are from the National Film Board, continuing their tradition of experimenting with new techniques and aesthetics and pushing the boundaries of the art of animation.

John Weldon's Frank the Wrabbit (that's pronounced "wuh-rabbit") is the only one of the three to use a straight narrative. The story focuses on Frank, who considers himself "a wrabbit" because he's notably smarter than the rabbits around him. When his local supply of carrots goes missing, he pursues the truck carting them off to the market, inadvertently setting off a chain of events which gets him much more than he bargained for. Frank the Wrabbit comes across as a fable for the younger set, but it comes with a healthy dose of ironic humour. It's also interesting to look at: the drawings are all done by hand, in a very loose, rough style, but the animated objects are manipulated digitally, with depth of field and motion effects. The result: a wonky visual atmosphere especially suitable for a wonky tale.

M.C. Escher: Sky and Water 1 is a three-minute exercise for your brain. Gayle Thomas brings Escher's work to life in stark black and white, as a flock of birds and a school of fish come together to form... Escher's Sky and Water 1. If you've ever seen a print of Sky and Water 1 before, this is no big surprise. What's interesting is how Thomas gets us from animated birds and fish to the still image. Sky and Water 1 (the film) captures the essence of motion in Sky and Water 1 (the print), and--more remarkably--blurs the transition between the animation and the still in the same way Escher blurred the transition between positive and negative space. If anything, this will increase your appreciation of Escher's work, which makes this film a fitting tribute to the Dutch master.

And, the best for last: Stephen Arthur's Transfigured is the most visually arresting of the three. Based on the work of painter Jack Shadbolt, Transfigured's images twist, stretch, and transform themselves from one hallucinatory vision to another, many representing different aspects of the West Coast. The result is a direct, jolting wire to the brain: on repeated viewing, your mind interprets the wild colours and shapes as different objects or creatures, with a different viewing experience hitting you each time. It feels like cinema at its purest, causing you to react to the images that evolve in front of you at 24 frames per second, without the rigid imposition of scripts, sets, or actors.

It's worth noting that by creating Transfigured, Arthur has achieved something so few directors ever accomplish: by creating metamorphoses so organic and visceral, you completely forget a computer was ever involved. Let's see them do that on ReBoot.

Originally printed in the Montreal Mirror (August 27, 1998)
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