Any visit to the animated shorts program at your local film festival will offer up plenty of examples of expressionistic pieces, live action cut-outs over glass etchings and bad experimental puppetry that not only challenge the definition of the word animation but the word short as well. Artistic merit notwithstanding, most of it feels more like the motion picture equivalent of standing in an art gallery, where, fortunately, you have the ability to turn away and indulge in the cheap wine and stale cheese.
Square Footage Films two-volume Avoid Eye Contact DVDs contain some 30 animated shorts from 15 NYC artists who controlled every aspect of their productfrom concept to production to distributionwithout the aide of studio backing or computer-generated imagery. And who needs it? Even the pieces with the crudest visuals have an incredible self-awareness and reliable comic point so that theres no need to hide behind CGI since the vision of the respective animator remains consistently clear.
Here the product is as independent as its creator, but its the camaraderie that exists beneath this collection that speaks to the communitys strength and makes the discs so compelling as a whole. Take, for example, Life, directed by Mo Willems, where cartoon figureseach penned by 33 different animatorsjump into frame with the purpose of devouring the preceding character. This goes on for six minutes: one scenario consuming the other, only in turn to be consumed by the next. It can be seen as a metaphor of the New York animation community where seasoned masters like Bill Plympton, whose abundantly inventive shorts and features have been gagging and punning their way through the industry for decades, only to inspire younger animators like Patrick Smith to begin his own series of technically proficient short films.
Whether its the childlike, lighthearted style of Latvian animatress Signe Baumane or the joyful exercise in sadistic anticipation that is John Dilworths The Mousochist, everything remains bright, crisp and accessible. The commitment to strong characterization and clear narrative separates Avoid Eye Contact from your usual film festival fare. Turns out animated shorts do have a place, and apparently, that place is New York City.