Nothing transcends the limitations of traditional film-making as well as the animated short film. Often there are no words at all, so there are no barriers to communication. The character, or characters, are free to go wherever they like in time and space with no consideration of budget. Huge or tiny themes can be addressed, and the viewer can be made to question everything or nothing. For the sake of entertainment alone, or with social or political motivations, the animated short film has a breadth and freedom that means you never know what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch one.
Hungary is a country that has a history of producing animated shorts that push the boundaries of possibility. Hungarian animators first started to produce works in the 1910s, but it was really during the cold war years that freedom of expression was explored through animation, with black humour or traditional folktales being used to raise points about the repressive Communist government. In the 1980s experimentation with different styles and approaches abounded, including the production of the very first fully digitally animated film.
In 1985 the first Kecskemét Animation Film Festival (KAFF) was held, and it still runs today, showcasing the best of Hungarian and European animation. Film-makers continue to stretch the limits of what the animated form can do, and the results can be fun, challenging, or deeply moving. Here’s a look at ten of the best:
1. Passion (1961)
A comic look at the perils of smoking (or, at least, attempting to give up smoking), Passion deals with a modern issue in an engaging and entertaining way. It’s a precursor of a series of similar adventures, each only a few minutes long, in which a character called Gustav meets the obstacles of modern life, from dating to alienation. Gustav was shown around the world and was incredibly popular, particularly in Eastern Europe. It’s easy to see why – we can instantly relate to his personal battles, which bring a wry smile and a sense that maybe things should, could, be better.
The best thing about Passion is the sound effects. They never fail to make me laugh. The sounds that accompany the actions are so unexpected and yet completely right.
2. Dilemma (1981)
Janos Kass made the first fully digital animation, and he made it on the subject of humanity’s gift for invention and appetite for destruction. It is, for that reason, a disturbing experience. Famous faces and scenes of war are broken down into pieces and transposed to create new images, showing how history repeats the same struggles, and intensifies them.
Dilemma won a number of awards but seems to be mainly forgotten about now, even though it was pioneering piece of work. There’s a lot to love about it, including the synth-pop soundtrack that places it squarely in the 1980s and gives it a psychedelic edge. It feels like it’s expanding your mind in all sorts of weird ways as well as expanding what animators could dream to do.
3. Maestro (2005)
Sometimes a short piece of animation lends itself beautifully to a twist in the tale story, looking to do nothing more than make you see something from a fresh perspective and then smile at the revelation. Maestro is a lovely example of that. It uses music and the movement of the camera so well to suggest the joke that lies ahead, so that when you get to the end everything feels like it has come together to make a satisfying experience.
A world-class singer prepares backstage for a gala performance, assisted by a strange and very pushy mechanical arm…
4. The Struggle (1977)
What can you say in only two minutes of animation? In this film by Marcell Jankovics you can sum up the entire experience of artistic endeavour and include something about human nature to boot. The sculptor hacks into his creation, and the creation picks up a chisel and hacks back. They change each other over time until they are beyond recognition.
A hand-drawn film, The Struggle is a careful contemplation of what it means to create, and it feels like a labour of love. It won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film.
5. Ashes (1996)
Like looking inside someone’s head and finding a terrible nightmare within, Ashes is very raw and subjective, the images sometimes not making sense and yet the meaning coming through with a clarity that speech and traditional storytelling could not achieve.
Ferenc Cakó uses sand animation to create these effects. Ashes is dedicated to his mother, and it amazes you on a technical level while disturbing you on an emotional one. All of Cakó’s drawings in sand are stunning, and connect acutely with the viewer. Perhaps it’s the way that the figures evolve from the sand, from one moment to the next, that draws you in so.
6. The Ball With White Dots (1961)
This stylised animation manages to feel joyous, bright and inclusive as everyone gets to play with the ball with white dots, including the viewer. Statues in the street, cars, and zoo creatures all want to take a turn.
Just as Ashes tells us that imagination can be dark and frightening, The Ball With White Dots takes a child’s delight in imagination; it makes the world a friendlier place. If there is one animation on this list that captures childhood – the dated quality of the animation adding to its overall effect now – it’s this one.
7. The Fly (1981)
This is brilliant, and it makes me feel sick. Not for any terrible reason, but because of the movement of the animation as we’re put in the place of a fly, buzzing randomly around, alighting on objects in a house for a few moments before flying off again.
Soon we realise that the fly is being stalked by an unfriendly human and the rhythm of the sepia-toned drawing becomes even more erratic and agitated. It’s a very unpleasant sensation, but it only lasts a few minutes and it really does make you want to treat every creature, even flies, a little better. It’s very important that we all have an open window offering us escape to somewhere, it seems. Also, the last shot is horrible and depressing.
8. Life Line (2007)
Giving us an original and intriguing perspective on the world, Life Line shows a human as a collection of cogs and clockwork, and the path of that human’s life as a single black line upon which he/she must skate. Is each life really so automatic, and so unchangeable? Must we walk that one line, and never leave it? It’s a world where everybody is endlessly moving, so caught up in the journey and the road ahead that there is no time to stop and help others who might be struggling.
Animator Tomek Ducki has an online presence that showcases his many animations, including Life Line.
9. Rondino (1977)
From the wry humour of Passion to the horror of Rondino which makes you laugh to ward off the darkness at its heart – József Nepp was a great writer for summing up any issue, big or small, with a few lines. Rondino was a collaboration with Csaba Szórady, and it was no more than very basic illustrations that touch a terrible nerve.
A cartoon figure is being tortured by two black triangles. The way the triangles mutilate him is so painful to watch, and some of the images remind you of the darkest events in human history. Why would these triangles commit such atrocities? The end of the animation will give you a kind of answer, but it’s one that offers no comfort.
10. Ariadne’s Thread (2009)
It may be the newest film on this list but it draws its inspiration from the oldest of sources; the story of Theseus and the minotaur, and Ariadne’s role in providing the thread that enabled Theseus to navigate the labyrinth. It was written, directed and animated by Bertóti Attila, and the animation is brilliant: chunky, surprising, and full of personality. Theseus has the best animated bottom I’ve seen.
And, on that note, we’ve reached the end of this list. Whatever you look for in visual entertainment, it can be found in short form here – from spectacle to surprise, thrills to chills, Hungarian animation has pushed the boundaries of what film-makers can do. Tracking down any of the ten films mentioned here in a spare moment should provide plenty of rewards for all those who admire innovation and commitment in animation.
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