Earlier this year I was lucky to be invited by the Austrian Culture Forum London to select and present a programme of films from the Ars Electronica 2012 festival programme.

Ars Electronica is one of the top festivals for animation with a focus on how art, technology and society intersect, is based in Linz in Austria, and has been around as long as I have. The 2012 programme, The Big Picture: New Concepts for a New World did not disappoint my expectations. There were many strong entries out of the 77 films I was able to view on the blu ray Ars Electronica provided, and lots of outstanding directors that I’ll be keeping an eye on.

These are the films I selected:
Solipsist, Andrew Thomas Huang, US, 10’02”
How to Eat your Apple, Erick Oh, US, 1’30”
Crossover, Fabian Grodde, DE, 5’46”
The Great Western Singularity, Eric Schockmel, LU, 3’38”
Red Bull Music Academy World Tour, Pete Candeland, AU, 2’38”
Blade Runner revisited > 3.6 gigapixel, Francois Vautier, FR, 4’13”
Vorwerk “Mite City”, Mate Steinforth, DE, 1’00”
The City, Five Years Older, Dirk Koy, DE, 4’02”
Chronograph, Casey Reas, US, and Tal Rosner, UK, 9’30”
Eris, Lukas Schrank & George Thomson, UK, 3’51”
Elements, Bif, UK, 2’18”
Coca-Cola Contest, Rimantas Lukavicius, LT, 0’30”
Exibison, Marielle Tollis, FR, 2’54”
Androp: Bright Siren, Party, JP, 4’50”
Countdown, Celine Desrumaux, FR, 3’43”
The Visual Effects and Animation of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Industrial Light and Magic, US, 2’38”
Rotting Hill, James Cunningham, NZ, 4’16”
Of Monsters and Men: Little Talks, Mihai Wilson, CA, 4’17”
Rear Window Loop, Jeff Desom, LU, 2’58”

I chose to call my selection ‘Transformations’, as I believe animators transform the everyday into the fantastical. Like magicians, there’s a slight of hand trick going on. Though invisible to the naked eye, animators are making magical things happen. Yet at same time, animation is ubiquitous. It’s around us, it’s everywhere – in our train stations, on our smartphones, in our cinemas, in glorious 3D – and I believe we take this magic for granted.

Take Transformers. I included the Transformers: Dark of the Moon’s VFX showreel in the programme. For me, as a child of the 80s, Transformers will always be a 2D hand drawn, children’s TV series. Nowadays it’s a 3D high definition blockbuster franchise. It takes skill, artistry and a touch of magic to make the FX happen in these blockbuster films. It takes the FX artists 7 months to build each one of the 17 robots visually. 7 months! It’s mind-blowing. So in honour of this, I’ve included several VFX works to highlight these talents in the programme. And I have to say, I find it refreshing that Ars Electronica spotlights these talents, giving them their own category in the festival programme.

As someone who works in animation I can tell you there’s a general feeling that the artistry produced is undervalued, and the VFX industry in particular is feeling undervalued at the moment. For example, take the recent Life of Pi scandal. A film made up of 80% digital FX, made by a company that’s now filing for bankruptcy. When Director Ang Lee received the Oscar for Best VFX, he didn’t thank the FX artists, or even mention their part in its making. The industry is angry, and rightly so.

As well as transformations there are other noticeable trends in the Ars Electronica programme. Here are three to note:

Animating the inanimate – we see animators playing with the capabilities of digital technology. With the films Elements and Coca Cola Competition we see the physical properties of objects subverted.

Remixing or reimagining existing work – take the Grand Prize winning Rear Window Loop, The Great Western Singularity and Blade Runner Revisited. These three films start with an existing work and manipulate it to create something new.

Exposing the process – as with Bright Sirens, Rear Window Loop and Rotting Hill. As the process is key to all three works, all three signpost the process that went in to making the work within the work itself. The makers want us to appreciate the skill and the craft of the process, and so share it with us.

I’m just going to say a bit more about a few of the films that caught my imagination, starting with Solipsist, a film of convergence, unison and collective consciousness.

Solipsist, Andrew Thomas Huang, US, 10’02”

I love this vibrant film, and how Huang combines costume and craft with CG FX. It has the glossiness, the artistry and the overall mood of an expensively produced fashion film, though was made through a relatively modest Kickstarter crowd funding campaign. It’s no surprise that this film went on to win a Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors Showcase at Cannes Lions and a Vimeo Staff Pick. And from the success of this, Huang was asked by Bjork to direct the stunning video for Mutual Core from the Biophilia album.

Huang says: “Solipsist is meant to be a purely visual film built around the idea of convergence and unison between living things. The title comes from the philosophical theory of solipsism in which the self is the only thing that one can know or prove to exist. The isolation of this theory inspired me to imagine a counter-hypothesis – a world in which living beings are not constrained by a singular experience. Rather, the characters in this film are constantly merging into one another, forming a collective consciousness through unison of their minds and bodies.”

How to Eat your Apple, Erick Oh, US, 1’30”

Erick Oh is a Korean animator based in California, who studied at UCLA, and now works at the legendary Pixar animation studios, animating on films such as Brave and Cars 2. Erick refers to the film as an animated poem or a moving illustration. It’s a humorous meditation on the cycle of life, with cryptic symbols representing various elements of the cycle arising and disappearing speedily in this bizarre short.

The Great Western Singularity, Eric Schockmel, LU, 3’38”

A contemporary reinterpretation of JMW Turner’s painting Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway as a CG animation, commissioned by jotta.com for Intel’s REMASTERED series on art history masterpieces. The work that inspires the film is a characteristically hazy painting where the absence of landscape focuses the gaze on the silhouette of a train coming down a track. Turner painted the work in 1844 at a time when public railways were still quite a new invention, so Schockmel’s imagining of it as a radical piece of technology chimes with how it would have originally been viewed as an alien entity.

Schockmel says: “This short animation examines the concept of the Technological Singularity, the point in human progress after which predictions become increasingly difficult to formulate. Industrialization and computational innovation are re-imagined in a minimalist environment, drawing from video game and runtime aesthetics.”

Of Monsters and Men: Little Talks, Mihai Wilson, CA, 4’17”

Although I’m not keen on the song this is a spectacular music video with some particularly fantastic beasties. The band, Of Monsters and Men, enter into an epic fantasy quest with a steampunk aesthetic. It’s worth checking out the making of to see how vintage images are collaged with live action, still photography, digital FX and 3D CG to create this hyper colourful animation. The bands striking make up and costumes are inspired by the costumes and make up worn in Papua New Guinea. The director shot footage of the landscape in Iceland, where the band originates from, to create the mythical backgrounds, then in post digitally added the statues and monsters.

Rear Window Loop, Jeff Desom, LU, 2’58”

The Winner of the Golden Nica Grand Prize at Ars Electronica and also Winner of the Vimeo Remix Award 2012. It’s a real cinephile’s film and a brilliant invention. Desom has composited together the recognisable view of the courtyard in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (see the trailer above) into one panoramic frame, so that in 3 minutes all of the action that takes place outside of the window is played out, day to night, rain to sun. Desom cleverly draws the viewer’s eye to different scenes uses effects such as blurring, tilt-shift and tracking techniques, which binds together the separate elements into one effective piece. Whilst he plays with the footage from the original film, the order of events that takes place is adhered to. Desom originally created the work as a 10 meter wide installation piece for 3 projectors creating a wide panoramic projection instead of the miniature set effect that watching it online gives the work.

Desom says: “Since everything was filmed from pretty much the same angle, I was able to match them into a single panoramic view of the entire backyard without any greater distortions.”