When it comes to animated films, it doesn’t always have to be about Pixar or Disney. Many of the most innovative examples of storytelling can be found in animation shorts created by independent animation directors.
In no particular order, here are 11 short animations to prove that powerful stories don’t always have to entail flawlessly animated visuals. Many of these are hand-drawn, painstaking frame by painstaking frame. Most do away with colour and opt purposefully for a crude style. Some even look as if they could have been made by a 7 year old child with MS Paint. But by employing potent metaphorical language and a keen awareness of the human psyche, these animations succeed in engaging both the gut and the mind.
1. Story From North America (2007)
This is a story from North America: A young boy gets scared of the spider under his bed. He calls his father into his room to kill the spider for him, prompting his father to launch into a song about compassion and empathy.
Story From North America, co-directed by Garrett Davis and Kirsten Lepore, is simultaneously delightful, didactic, and touching. But it doesn’t stop here. Many internet commentators have theorised that this film is in fact an allegory of the plundering of the developing world by developed nations, who are motivated solely by phantoms of fear blown out of proportion. The father plays the role of the peace-broker, a kind of buddhist ideal that advocates cooperation and humanity. Although this animation was made in 2007, it seems that, going by prevailing states of political affairs, we are still in want of such an ideal figure.
2. Laundry (2006)
A human brings his horse into a laundromat; proceeds to wash it in an upsized washing machine.
Which prompts the question, what does this all mean? The artist, David Shrigley himself, has once said in an interview that his works are meant to be self-explanatory – that it is what you think it is. This is not surprising, considering that Shrigley also said in another interview that he’d like to become a “convincing bullshitter”.
So, as to the answer: maybe it’s a play on the idea of “cycles”? Maybe it’s not supposed to mean anything? But if you’re one of those people who appreciate Shrigley’s brand of humor, then it means everything.
3. Patti (2017)
If you thought David Shrigley’s animation short was nonsensical, then this one, by James Runde, is likely to invoke the same response. Employing similar stylistic effects, Runde’s Patti resists all attempts at semiotic reconstruction.
But Patti is also a creature of its own, and you’ve probably not seen anything like this before – or at least heard anything like it. Clocking in at a tight 2 minutes and 50 seconds, the animation consists of just two scenes about banal people in banal situations. What does stick out is the use of onomatopoeia and verbalised sound effects, to bewildering results. Runde said that it’ll be interesting to find out who laughed at this piece. We’d sure love to know, too.
4. What I Forgot to Say (2014)
What do you call the flâneur who takes a dérive through his own mind?
From cats and ponies, exploding piñatas and bullies, to internet culture and pop philosophy, German director Patrick Buhr delivers it all in this collection of visual non sequiturs, held together by a whispered narration that grates on the nerves. It begins with trying to explain what the flâneur is, but quickly spirals down a stream-of-the-conscious, punctuated by “intermissions” in the manner of public service announcements. Some elements of this film (for instance, the plant motifs) can perhaps be explained by the relevant literature: 19th-century poet, Charles Baudelaire, referred to the flâneur as “a botanist of the sidewalk”, while 20th-century essayist, Walter Benjamin, referred to flânerie as “botanizing on the asphalt”.
As it turns out, What I Forgot to Say might just be the most fitting name for this animation short. After all that has been said, nothing has really been meant. Maybe this film is a satire of pseudo-philosophical bullshit. Maybe the creator is poking fun at himself (Buhr used to study philosophy in university). Who knows?
5. Small People with Hats (2014)
Helmed as the best animated film in 2015 by Vice, Small People with Hats is a puzzling, surreal, but nonetheless intriguing animation short by Japanese animator Sarina Nihei.
The film depicts, well, small people with hats living amidst regular people. Except that it descends into the grotesque, as the titular small people get caught up in all kinds of situations that slowly but surely unveils a meta-narrative of power structures, systematic abuse, and endemic numbness to violence. There also seems to be something of a film noir atmosphere in this animation short, be it in the menacing sound effects, the uniformed small people, or the femme fatale(?) that goes on a stabbing rampage. Metaphors and symbols are heavily used in this one, and we’ll leave you to figure them out.
6. Nuggets (2014)
A kiwi bird finds golden nuggets on the floor. It manages to walk away from the first one, but curiosity compels it to consume the second one. The nuggets initially fill it with a kind of precious, titillating warmth. But before long, they come to dominate all its strength and will.
This short animation, by the German animator Andreas Hykade, is a sparse but powerful metaphor for the debilitating cycles of addiction. The ending leaves us hanging. Has the little bird found salvation? We can only hope.
7. Futon (2012
Yoriko Mizushiri’s Futon is perhaps the odd one out on the list. For one, there’s nothing crude about its stylistic presentation – everything speaks of a gentle elegance. Second, it emphasizes the theme of sensuality, something that has, thus far, not been represented by the animations here.
Futon takes us on a voluptuous journey through the intimate realms of sensuality. Maybe it’s the fragile lines, the soft colours, or the delicate balance between positive and negative spaces – all the objects and situations in this film speak out to the sense of touch. Who would have thought that a heavy futon, a nigiri sushi, or the drip of soya sauce could bring such exquisite delights? In stark contradistinction to the hurried pace of daily life, Futon brings us through an otherworldly realm of calm and peace, bypassing language all together to reach straight for the instinct.
8. Velodrool (2015)
Plunge head-on into a surrealist fantasy with Velodrool, an animation short by Estonian director Sander Joon.
Velodrool is about an addict who must participate in a cycling race in order to get his next nicotine fix. But it’s not just about cycling and cigarettes: things go awry right from the crack of the starting pistol, and it all descends into madness from there. The race is governed by strange customs and even stranger spectators, who soon make it clear that they are anything but innocent bystanders.
Joon’s inspiration for this film stems from the discovery of an article about an athlete who started hallucinating after ingesting performance-enhancing drugs. Which makes us ponder: what is the cyclist fuelled by – the adrenaline of the race, the stimulants in the drug, or the nicotine in cigarettes?
9. Dumbland (2002)
Dumbland revolves around the daily life of Randy, a perfect specimen of the stereotypical American redneck.
What seems crude and, well, dumb, at first sight gradually reveals themes that resonate with Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and Twin Peaks – principle creations by cult-favourite director, David Lynch. While Lynch’s animations are much less well-known, they are plentiful, and not lacking in any of the signature eccentricity that made him so famous. Most of them carry semblances of a deeper meaning. Once you get past the bawdiness of Dumbland, you’d see that it opens up an existential gulf characterized by the misery, bleakness and disquiet pervading the American suburbia of Lynch’s cinematic world. Maybe you’d even start to feel sorry for Randy.
Do pay special attention to episode 8, “Ants”, in which an army of ants chant profanities straight to Randy’s face. The accompanying music sounds distinctively like that of Angelo Badalamenti’s (who happens to be Lynch’s long time collaborator). If you ever wondered what being “Lynchian” is all about, then Dumbland is perhaps as good an introduction as any.
10. Bruce (2009)
Bruce is the 2009 graduation film by animator Tom Judd. The film is set in some kind of near future/alternate universe, where open source synthetic biology allows people to grow their own miniature humans. The “protagonist” in this short film does just that. And from life to death, his miniature creation succeeds in lasting just three (nasty, brutish, and short) minutes.
As a whole, this film presents a sobering look at the ethical questions revolving around the ethics of human cloning. It also combines a number of other popular filmic themes: the dangers of playing God, gaming addiction, and the desensitizing effects of technology.
11. The Meaning of Life (2005)
This film, created by animation auteur Don Hertzfeldt, might as well have been called The Meaninglessness of Life. Because the lack of meaning seems to be exactly what it’s about: figures walking aimlessly, lost in their petty squabbles, until their lives reach an inevitable end. The camera then pans out into an unfeeling, purposeless cosmos. If this isn’t the most blatant depiction of nihilism, then what is?
There is a deeper irony at play here: Hertzfeldt spent four excruciating years working on this film, which was illustrated entirely by hand. The process brought on bouts of depression, causing him to remark, at one point, that “the animator’s job when you really break it down is one of sitting in a chair staring at the same stuff for many many months on end”. Which is all very dissonant with what one might consider as the good things in life – happiness, sunshine, and all that stuff.
But maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel. As many an existentialist writers have expressed, meaning is only made possible if one recognizes, survives, and recovers from the fundamental nihil. If accepting nothingness is the only gateway to creating meaning, then one could perhaps interpret this film in a more optimistic light.