A Look At Recent Animation DVDs: Sintel, Secret of Kells & The Tell-Tale Heart

2010 Animation DVD Reviews

2010 has proven to be another banner year for Animation. 15 animated features have been nominated for the Oscar this year, Toy Story 3 was the year's highest grossing film, and the amateur animated film is appealing to a growing audience all over the world through the internet. There are so many great animated films available now in all kinds of formats, that it would take an article of much longer length to cover them all. But, I did want to share with you 3 recent animation DVDs that stand out for me, both for the quality of the films themselves, and also for the work put into the design and release of the DVDs themselves.

SINTEL (The Durian Open-Movie Project)
Directed by Colin Levy
Produced by Ton Roosendaal
A Blender Foundation Production
Released Sept, 2010
Running Time: 15:00
DVD: 4 Discs w/HD & SD film

Sintel is the third open-movie project produced by the Blender foundation, and is without a doubt the best work to come out of their collaborative process. If you don't already know, Blender is the free, open-source 3D suite that is continually being developed and discussed by a legion of supporters, both amateur and professional. Ton Roosendaal, the chairman and driving force behind Blender, smartly decided that actual 3D film production would be an excellent way to improve and develop the Blender suite, and began in 2005 with a small team hired from the Blender community to come to Amsterdam (the Blender Foundation home) to create what would be Elephant's Dream, the first open-movie project.

Greatly encouraged by the quality of the final film, the huge support of the community, and the solid contributions made to the Blender application, Ton went on to develop a second open-movie project in 2007-2008, which became the very amusing film Big Buck Bunny. Building on the continued enthusiasm and support of the Blender community, the Blender Institute set their goal quite high for their third open-movie project: to create a fantasy film with a young female protagonist and a dragon. Ton also wanted to raise the artistic quality of the film by fully developing the story, so that the film would stand on it's own and not simply be a film that emphasizes the new developments of the Blender software.

After a solid year of often difficult work with their largest team ever, the Blender Institute released Sintel, a 15-minute 3D animated fantasy film, on Sept 30th, 2010 to well-deserved acclaim. I was fortunate to contribute to the financing of the film last November when I pre-paid for the DVD release, which is one of the ways the Blender Foundation pays for the funding of the film. I received the DVD about 3 weeks after the premiere and sat down to watch the film on a new LED TV and Blu-Ray player. It was sure worth the wait as the film is wonderful and the 4-DVD package is, for my money, the best release of the year.

Story was the focus of Sintel's development and you can see it in the well-crafted, but simple, story of a young woman and her devotion to a dragon she befriends. So many of the animated films I see simply don't leave a lot to the viewer's imagination. Geared towards the child audience, every plot point and character quality is over-emphasized in films like Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon. This works fine for kids, but can be a strain on adults. And although there is a child-like sense of wonder in Sintel, it focuses primarily on an adult audience and refuses to provide an easy or simple resolution to the conflicts created in the story. In fact, there is even a sense of irony in the ending of the film, which is rare in any animated film.

The film itself is beautifully crafted and extremely well animated. Right from the beginning you are thrust into the action of the story, which immediately involves you emotionally with the character of the young woman. Editing and camera work are on a par with anything put out by DreamWorks or Disney this year. If I had any complaints, it would be in the hair rendering in some scenes which, after watching the extremely well done “making of” documentary, is understandable considering the production schedule and difficulties in working with hair.

The Sintel DVD box set comes with 4 discs. The first two discs contain NTSC and PAL versions of the Sintel film, along with a huge amount of short documentaries, commentary tracks and the one-hour documentary by Ali Boubred on the making of Sintel. The third disc contains an incredible 8 gigs of Data, including the film on HD (along with the doc), hours of tutorials, artwork, a very interesting “four split” video of the film with storyboard, director's layout, animation and final. The fourth disc contains all of the models, animations, textures and shot .blend files, along with renderfarm software and planning board files.

How many short animated films would not only provide the film and background media, but all of the 3D assets to the film as well? None is the answer, which is why the Blender Foundation and all of the crew of Sintel deserve a second standing ovation: one for the film and another for the 4-set DVD release.

The Sintel DVD Box Set is currently available from the Blender3d.org website for approximately $45 (34 Euros). I can't recommend it more highly, especially if you are interested in Blender or are planning to learn it sometime soon. The tutorials alone are worth the price.

THE SECRET OF KELLS
Directed by Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey
A Cartoon Saloon Production
Released (in US) March, 2010
Running Time: 75 minutes
Blu-Ray DVD, SD DVD

A lot of people were surprised when The Secret of Kells showed up in last year's list of Oscar nominated animated films, since very few people had actually seen the film in the States. But all that's changed now with the release of both the SD and Blu-ray editions of the film this last October. This extraordinary indie animated film came from Cartoon Saloon, a small film company based in Kilkenny, Ireland. Director Tomm Moore and Art Director Paul Young founded the company in 1999, and in the last ten years have created animated TV series, commercials, designs and, of course, The Secret of Kells feature.

The idea for the film had been kicking around in director Tomm Moore's head for a long time: the story behind the famous illuminated “Book of Kells,” which, in addition to being one of the most beautiful illuminated books ever written, is a national treasure of Ireland. As Tomm states in an interview at Twitchfilm.com, “... all along it was my ambition to tell a story about the importance of Art even in difficult times, and to try and create a unique style of animation. It felt like a responsibility to be creating the first Irish animated feature and I really wanted it to look different from everything else and to be unique and true to its heritage.”

The Secret of Kells tells the story of Brendan, a young monk in rural 8th century Abbey, who is fascinated with the process of book illumination being practiced by some of the other older monks. It is a time of danger for the Irish, as invading Norsemen (brilliantly depicted as ominous abstract figures) and Brendan's Uncle, the head of the Abbey, is desperately attempting to fortify and wall-up the Abbey as protection against the inevitable attack. Brendan, through a series of events, ends up venturing into the woods outside the fortified Abbey and encounters the spirit of the forest who he ends up befriending. When a famous illuminated book artist arrives at the Abbey and agrees to teach Brendan the art of illumination, Brendan comes into direct conflict with his Uncle.

Eventually, the Norsemen attack and nearly destroy the Abbey. Brendan escapes with his teacher, thinking that his Uncle has been killed by the marauders. Eventually, Brendan learns the art and completes the illustrations for what becomes the Book of Kells. He returns to the Abbey and is reunited with his Uncle, to whom he gives the book to share with everyone.

This short plot summary barely does justice to this wonderful story that features a brilliant variety of settings and characters. Deeply rooted in Celtic art and Irish mythology, The Secret of Kells is truly unlike any other animated film released this year. Created in a style that is reminiscent of medieval illustration and comic books, the film succeeds in something very rare in any kind of film: it is an artistic world/story that appeals to both the young and old alike. The Secret of Kells also avoids the cliches that hinder a good deal of American animation from being more convincing and emotionally involving. In short, the film is a masterpiece of animation art reminiscent of Miyazaki and Disney at their best.

The 2-disc Blu-ray DVD of The Secret of Kells is also a remarkable production. While the Standard Definition DVD is perfectly fine to view the film, it really has to be seen at home on a high-definition television. The color reproduction is flawless. And since the film features such a remarkable color palette, many moments in the film (the Norsemen invading in B&W and Red, Brendan's first trip into a forest of grays, emerald greens and shades of brown) are simply breathtaking to watch in high-def.

Supplemental materials included on disc one of the Blu-ray include excellent commentary tracks by the director, co-director, Nora Twomey, and the art director, Ross Stewart, a short documentary on the voice acting for the film (which is superb), and a fascinating “Pencil to Picture” presentation that shows scenes playing as the move from the original pencil drawings to the final film look. All of these are in standard def. High def features include a superb “Director's Presentation,” where Tomm Moore covers the entire production of the film, from inception to completion, primarily from the director's point of view. There are also trailers and an early concept trailer with commentary.

Also, if you get the Blu-ray, it comes with a standard def version of the film on disc two, which is a nice addition. There is a 20-page comic included with the Blu-ray called “Secret of Kells: Origins.” I believe Cartoon Saloon is working on a full-length graphic novel of the story to be published at some point in the future.

Whether you get the Blu-Ray or SD of The Secret of Kells, please pick this film up as it is a wonder of animation that will leave you moved and delighted with it's dazzling colors, design, and redeeming theme of the necessity of art. Certainly my favorite animated film of the year, and one that I will come back to over and over again. Highly recommended.

THE TELL-TALE HEART
Directed by Michael Swertfager
Released in February, 2010
Running Time: 16 minutes
SD DVD & Teachers bundle

Our final DVD recommendation is the indie hand-made adaptation of the Poe classic The Tell-Tale Heart by Michael Swertfager. This little gem of a 3D short (16 minutes) is way under the radar of most animation fans, even those who follow animation eagerly. I found out about the film through a post at the machinima/animation site cyberhermit.com, who in turn quoted a Santa Cruz Sentinel article on a local filmmaker.

I just love everything about this short film, from the obviously imaginative and poetic crafting of sets/lighting and modelling, to the cool design of the DVD and it's contents. A lot of hard work went into creating this moody and dark retelling of Poe's tale of murder and guilt. Five years of work to be exact. The director (he essentially created the entire film himself), worked for Cisco Systems as a project manager while creating this film at home. He got the Poe/Lovecraft bug when he attended the H.P. Lovecraft film festival in 2005, and using Maya and other digital tools, began creating from scratch his version of the Tell-Tale Heart. One in which the character of Poe himself is the murderer (see pix).

From the opening tracking shot, to the rack-focus of a spider attacking it's prey, this film is a work of love and passion. Exactly the kind of work that fuels a point towards a re-definition of the word “amateur.” No longer should we use the word in a derogatory sense, but to point out and describe works by dedicated artists who create their works out of a love for their subject and the tools they use to tell the story. It's art completely divorced from commercial considerations and utterly unlike the two previous films I've written about.

The DVD of Tell-Tale Heart is beautifully designed with students and fans alike. Two versions of the film are provided, one is an adult version with graphic violence and the other is a slightly softer version with the violence downplayed somewhat. There's also a “Making of the Tell-Tale Heart,” where Mr. Swertfager outlines his production planning and takes you through modeling and UV mapping of one of the characters. There is a “Director's Walk-through.” which is equally interesting, English/Spanish subtitles, a read-aloud version of the original story in Spanish and English, Soundtrack and movie art, and lastly, a preview of his next film, an adaptation of Poe's “The Raven”.

You won't find The Tell-Tale Heart widely available, although I hope Mr. Swertfager tries indie distribution sites like neoflix.com in the future. But, you can buy the DVD for $20 at the main thetelltaleheart.com website. There is also a very interesting “teachers bundle” version of the film for $30, which includes links to lesson plans, games, quizzes and more background on the film itself.

My hat's off to Mr. Swertfager for creating such a great film, and for doing it on his own terms. The DVD is very much recommended for children and adults alike. You'll love it.

Additional DVDs to consider:

Just a few suggestions for animation DVDs that are worth your consideration: Fantastic Mr. Fox, How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, Legends of the Guardians and Ponyo (DVD released this year in the US) are all well worth you time to seek out. On the Anime side, I loved the Claymore series, which had some of the most interesting design and sound work I've seen all year. Supplemental materials on all of these films are expansive and detailed. The Fantastic Mr. Fox has an especially rich collection of material on the making of/background of that wonderful stop-motion film. All in all another great year for animation on DVD. I hope you seek out some of the films I've mentioned and enjoy them as much as I have.


Screen cap from "Fantastic Mr. Fox"


Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
January 3, 2011

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Member Opinions:
By: IO4 on 1/3/11
Great article. The open-movie information is really interesting.


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