Review - Elephants Dream

May 13, 2006

After receving my copy yesterday and watching the movie and commentaries several times and without yet looking at what others have said, here’s my completely subjective, non-technical review:

The movie

First, the bad. Not all movies need a script to work but most do and that includes this one. At times it felt like the only thing keeping the story together was the fact that the characters were heading somewhere. You can also tell the absence of a script by the ending which in this case is very abrupt.

I think the random choice for a name is a bit sad and it just shows that the story wasn’t really planned ahead. I can appreciate the fact that “Elephants Dream” isn’t just another plot-driven “cartoon”, but animation is a time-based art form and so it needs some kind of progression and a at least a hint of logic.

The voice-overs didn’t do the rest of the movie justice and they are the biggest problem I have with the production. The acting seemed over-done and very fake. It was also too fast and difficult to follow. This “rushing” of things is I think a common “mistake” in first short films because you feel like there’s not enough time to tell everything. The reality is quite the opposite and You’ll notice that the best short films feel very “long” because they’re “slow”. Perception of time is totally subjective.

At times it was difficult to distinguish the main characters - it seemed as if they were acted out by the same person. I found Emo’s voice irritating, almost as much as Proog’s habit of mentioning his name in each sentence. Voices should give us hints into a characters soul and mentality which here are all over the map. We see Emo going from a timid boy to a crazed lunatic which makes zero sense. Proog sounds paranoid, which I guess is fitting.

The dialog in general I felt was mostly “filler” and did nothing for the story, at times feeling completely redundant - a lot of it could have been replaced with slower, expressive animation sequences (we can see hints that the artists could have pulled this off remarkably well), especially since the lip-sync, for the most part, didn’t work.

Luckily the rest of the sound was brilliant - Jan Morgenstern, the composer and sound designer did a super job and deserves a standing ovation - it’s not easy scoring a “scriptless” film. From the opening credits to the big finale, the score, sound effects and overall “soundscape” are very expressive and give a much-needed continuum to the whole story.

It’s hard to critique the animation. On its own, it’s stellar - there are some absolutely stunning scenes here, with the elevator scene with it’s breathtaking culmination probably being my (and probably many others’) favourite. Some very talented and dedicated artists worked on this, and it shows.

It’s interesting that they managed to keep the animation relatively fluid and cohesive with each artist still having his own style. The art direction deserves credit for the consistantly captivating look of the film and the director for pulling everything together (although I have a feeling there was no strict division of tasks). However if you look at the animation in the context of a story, it becomes just a very well-executed series of movements and events. Overall, the animation was very nice which is just overshadowed by the voice-overs and script. I felt that, unlike the voices, the animation was also pretty well timed in each scene.

The modeling was intricate and imaginative and I can’t wait to sink my (baby) teeth into the blend files.

I enjoyed the camerawork - the team managed to avoid the typical high speed zoom (except in the elevator scene, were it worked very well!) and DOF gimmicks. There are some really neat camera angles here which of course is one of the great benefits of 3D animation. I really liked the choice of wideangle shots towards the end. Would have like to maybe see more close-ups of the characters, just to establish more of a connection between them and the viewer.

The DVD

The box design is acceptable for a practically non-profit (?) project. What’s of course really important is what’s inside it and this must be the best-featured DVD I’ve ever seen: separate region-free PAL and NTSC discs, an HD version of the movie as an AVI file in 3 resolutions, 4 commantary tracks (!), an in-depth making-of (although next, time, please use a lavalier mic, the big “newsmic” just looked amateurish), subtitles in 33 languages (including Estonian!), a blooper reel, professionaly authored menus and transitions and finally…

Blender

… every single asset used in the film available under a Creative Commons License!!! And I can’t stress the last part enough. This is (to my knowledge) a historical first and a landmark for future projects. I can’t even imagine what kind of impact this will have in adopting Blender in media schools worldwide - having this kind of material readily available will be a fantastic resource.

I’m really glad that this turned out to be so much more than a technology demo for Blender. Although it most certainly works as such too. We’re at the stage in computer animation evolution, where the viewer must be pushed beyond the technology and I think it was also the case here.

It was really interesting to notice how the software was openly developed while in production and I guess that just illustrates the awesome power of the Open Source and Blender community (not to mention Ton Rosendaal!). I can also see how putting Blender into such a tight, demanding project probably helps to make it even better.

This movie project will turn a lot of heads and my only wish is that the makers will still keep in touch with the community once the 6-figure offers start pouring in from the big studios. I have a feeling they will.

A huge thanks to all the people involved! You’re talent and dedication is nothing short of inspiring.