originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/680263...
Ninety-nine animation nights on a wall…
That’s right, tonight we’re watching films about being in a Long Distance Relationsh- *listens to phone* oh, Netflix’s Love, Death and Robots? Well OK, sure. Hmph.
Back in the misty days of 2020, Animation Night began with the package film: collections of short films, often by different directors, loosely organised around a theme. For example! Among those we’ve seen, look to Robot Carnival, Short Peace, Manie-Manie/Neo Tokyo/Labyrinth Tales, the Japan Animator Expo, Memories, and indeed the Animatrix and Star Wars: Visions! (See: Animation Night 6, Animation Night 73).
Nowadays I can look back and recognise that a lot of these, Memories in particular, were the work of the 90s ‘realist’ lineage - directors such as Otomo and Kon of course, and animators like Toshiyuki Inoue and Hiroyuki Okiura who would later create masterpieces like Ghost in the Shell. Not to mention launching the career of Kōji Morimoto, who would go on to found Studio 4C, one of the most consistently stylish and imaginative animation studios (Animation Night 74)… the more I learn about animation the more I appreciate them.
Now hold on a minute weeb, that’s all anime! What of the the rest of the world? We saw Disney’s Fantasia of course, which was Walt all over - meticulously polished, fawningly Respectable with its classical music and classical imagery, and oops sorry about the racism, but for all that, certainly a beautiful work of animation. Against it we saw Allegro non Troppo, an Italian parody of Fantasia, which had some very strong moments mocking American cultural dominance like the march of the mutated post-apocalyptic dinosaurs through the coke bottle landscape, but sadly lost much of itself in that post-Fritz the Cat “wow! the newspaper cartoons are fucking!” period of animation (scant writeup at Animation Night 5).
Also from Disney was Saludos Amigos (Animation Night 68), the product of a wartime ‘goodwill tour’ that conveniently let old Walter avoid the union.
Much later, we saw Heavy Metal on Animation Night 71, and found it to be a curiously passionless project, falling far short of its Humanoides inspiration. It redeemed itself somewhat in its final entry, capturing some of the enigmatic grace of Moebius’s drawings with a sequence based on Arzach, but mostly if you want a Humanoides feeling in animation, you would have to look elsewhere - perhaps to René Laloux (Animation Night 93), the OVA Dragon’s Heaven (did I cover this? I feel sure I’ve shown it!) or Dezaki’s Space Adventure Cobra (Animation Night 95)… (welp, she’s back on anime, someone stop her)
Why so few? Well, part of the answer might be economic: Fantasia was an expensive failure, Heavy Metal was evidently deliberately niche and leaning on edgy novelty, while by contrast the 80s economic-boom-driven OVA market and otaku audience meant that a collection of short films wasn’t so out of the question.
Well, times are certainly changing in the economics of animation production with the rise of streaming media - in particular, Netflix. For better or worse, they have tons of money and a fascination with user surveillance, and a large amount of freedom from content censorship. That means they caught onto the fact that… people love anime, and also that people like to see gore and titties.
Enter Love, Death and Robots!
LDR was conceived at some point in the 2000s, when David Fincher, a movie director who began with Alien 3, and Tim Miller, founder of CG house Blur Studio - more on both of them imminently! - started trying to do a sequel to Heavy Metal. The project was announced in 2008, but the pair struggled to get funding from the film studios and the rights went to Robert Rodriguez in 2011, who also didn’t manage to make the film. Fincher and Miller let go of the Heavy Metal branding and eventually took the ‘edgy animated short film collection’ idea to Netflix, who agreed to throw money at them.
The eventual list of studios draws in a wide swathe of the VFX industry, and its films vary considerably in tone, ambition, and style - the only real thing unifying them being that most are some sort of scifi and the high quotient of sex and body horror. In this, it perhaps most resembles the Animator Expo, but with a high budget VFX industry sheen; perhaps not surprisingly, a great many of the films have the feeling of pre-rendered videogame trailers.
So who are Blur Studio? They’re actually among the first animation houses I ever paid attention to, after their intro trailer for (laugh at me if you will) Warhammer 40000: Dawn of War - yes, that’s two ‘war’s in one title! You can watch that here:
At that age, I was very taken with this video of various burly men running at each other screaming and cutting each other up. At this time, Blur had a website where you could see their various short films, such as Rockfish (2003) iin which a man going fishing is turned into a hunt for a giant sandworm, and A Gentleman’s Duel (2006) in which an Englishman and Frenchman have a mecha duel for the affections of a noblewoman - all to be downloaded in quicktime format, naturally!
The word that comes to mind for their like, early artistic ethos is really only ‘bro’. Some, like Gentleman’s Duel, have a similar feeling to many of the Blender open movies - impressive technical skills supporting what’s mostly a relentless barrage of sight gags. The role of women in their films is, at best the kind of object-to-be-fought-over as in Gentleman’s Duel, at worst the screaming nagging figure of In The Rough (2008) berating the put-upon male caveman. The animation in this period keeps things very simple: usually unsubtle, broad gestures, which definitely calls to mind student animation to modern eyes, but they were definitely up there as one of the ‘big’ CG studios of that era.
Of course, in this time, they also did plenty of games industry work, starting with the opening and closing cutscenes for the lightgun game CarnEvil (2006). Perhaps the most fascinatingly weird is Sonic ‘06 - yep, that was them! - in which Sonic attends a ceremony with 2006′s best effort at a photorealistic human girl. (Oddly enough, they would be among the studios doing visual effects for Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)… somehow a recurring theme). It’s… a fascinating oddity; how they got the idea of trying to take Sonic in a Final Fantasy direction I can only guess.
In short, they were kinda representative of the CGI/VFX industry as it stood in the 2000s; still learning exactly how to bring the lessons of traditional animation into the digital realm, keen to move beyond animation being a children’s medium, but mostly just landing on ‘haha sex’.
They quickly grew, establishing themselves as one of the videogame industry’s go-to studios for pre-rendered trailers of all sorts. Probably any given E3 you’d see multiple short films of Blur Studio. A full well-organised list of their works is somewhat hard to come by, but IMDB and Wikipedia will go some way. We can sort of see this as a parallel animation tradition to feature animation and TV animation, reflecting primarily the artistic values of the videogame industry as it matured. Military sci-fi is the dominant mode, a bit of gore is always tasty, photorealism and chiaroscuro is king, and editing needs something short, punchy and clearly communicated to get an audience excited at a press event.
So, naturally, such a studio would have a huge number of VFX friends to tempt with a high-profile Netflix show. And, while Fincher and Miller seem to have been very hands-off as leaders of the project, preferring to avoid imposing constraint, no doubt their opening film Sonnie’s Edge - a cyberpunk short about a bloodsport which makes sure to give us a bit of lesbian teasing before everyone dies - helped set the tone! The vast majority of studios involve work primarily making CG cutscenes for games, although a handful instead work in traditional animation.
The films in Love Death & Robots are almost all based on short stories by various science fiction authors. They hit so many different tones it’s kind of hard to describe them. Some are straightforward outings of military SF such as Sony Pictures Imageworks’s film Lucky 13 about a dropship pilot in $space_war, or The Secret War by the Hungarian Digic Pictures which sees a group of Soviet soldiers fighting nazi demons during WWII. Some are more comedic, which are often the weakest entries in the collection since the humour tends to just be ‘look how cynical we’re being’, like Three Robots and Alternate Histories. Blur’s “Suits” seems to be a return to the territory of Rockfish, with American farmers with Southern accents in mech suits fighting alien bugs.
A great many of them go for a twist ending - to the point that it gets kind of funny trying to guess how it will end horribly for the characters - sorta like Yoko Taro’s weapon stories.
The strongest entries to my eye are the ones which try for something new stylistically, and (surprise surprise!) use traditional animation. These include Zima Blue based on an Alastair Reynolds story about an interview artist with enormous vision and scope, drawing on psychedelic Afrofuturist imagery, and Good Hunting which adapts a Ken Liu story imagining a Huli Jing getting brutally cyborgised in colonised Hong Kong - a short that seems to seem to want to have its cake and eat it in terms of taking a fascination in a woman’s body being modified by colonial forces but also like, making her into a kind of figure of revenge against the depravities of men. These ones have some real thematic ambition, beyond recombining familiar images.
And I was actually surprised to realise one of them, Ice Age, a quirky little story about tiny people living through the span of human history in a fridge, draws on one of my favourite authors Michael Swanwick. Still, it’s kind of hard to miss that the suite of authors selected is… let’s say it’s kinda gender-skewed lmao, which is to say that of all the authors and directors across the 26 films, there are (to my count) exactly two women. I’m no longer as hardline about this kind of stance as I once was, and there’s no guarantee that introducing more women to the project would lead to more interesting stories - Sucker of Souls, based on a Kirsten Cross story, is not one of the stronger films - but given this is such a ‘libidinal’ project, shall we say, I would very much wish to see ‘our’ gooey guro fantasies get the same level of money thrown behind them!
Almost all the scripts were adapted for screen by the same guy, Philip Gelatt. Since the release of LDR, he’s actually directed a feature-length rotoscopy-animated film, The Spine of Night, which is definitely going on the list for one of these future nights.
Anyway, since I saw the first collection, Netflix went ahead and released even more in 2021! The second set is not quite as huge as the first, but it sounds like it includes many exciting entries.
You can view the full list, with directors, studios, and authors, over here.
Overall, while there are many weaker entries in the collection, there is enough of interest that it definitely far surpasses something like Heavy Metal, and it’s definitely an interesting cross-section of where the egregore-mind of the VFX industry is at. At the time I first watched it I was in a pretty depressed place and felt almost duty bound to dismiss it, so I hope this time I might give it something of a fairer shot - plus so many of these seem like they’ll be a lot of fun enjoyed with friends. And I think we need something a little id-accessible after a week of Kyousougiga and Mamoru Oshii ;p
So, with this being the last of the double-digit Animation Nights, let’s go back to our old-school package film days and see how many of these we can get through in one night - by the numbers, the full collection might be viable, but that might be a tad ambitious! We’ll be starting in about half an hour (7:30pm UK time) over at twitch.tv/canmom - hope to see you there! And if I can find the energy, I would love to write a semi-detailed review of every short film in the whole collection like I did for Annecy last year.