Thursday, September 11, 2008

Busulfan Makes My Liver Quiver

You know how some days you've got a phrase or a song stuck in your head, no matter what? Despite tons of Raymond Scott, Red Hot Chili Peppers and, right now, some kickin' bhangra, I have been unable to get this earworm out of my brain: Your hat is stupid!" "My hat is AWESOME!"

Ahem. So, yesterday was the last fludarabine infusion; today, we switched to the more hardcore (which I mistyped as "hardcare," which still works) busulfan. In comparison to the fludarabine's 30-minute infusion, the busulfan takes three hours. Also, it's potentially more damaging to my liver and kidneys, which means I have to take a mess of extra pills on top of my gout-preventing allopurinol to help prevent any damage.

I also have to take in 8 cups of water a day, to help me just pee the damn stuff out. It's all reminiscent of my cyclophoshamide episode, but at least I'm not running to the bathroom three times in ten minutes—my own intake of water, juice, milk and Jell-O is supplemented by the 1.25 liters or so (a little over 5.5 of the 8 cups) of salinated water I get through my IV throughout the day. Oh, I also have to take two Zofran anti-nausea tablets (instead of the fludarabine's one.)

Yesterday I was wiped out from a painkiller I'd taken earlier in the day for my leg, so I'll fill you in now on what's happened since Sunday.

I've met a few more members of the team here. There is, of course, a transplant doctor (not the same hematologist I met with before I was admitted, though he is part of the team) who I've seen just about daily since Tuesday. There's also a social worker here to see to my mental health. (Stop snickering, you people in the back row! And the ones in the front, left and right! And in the balcony!) The pharmacist drops by every day to see how I'm doing.

Yesterday I had my first visit from the dietitian; after an extensive talk about the foods I need in my diet, the possibility of a feeding tube, and foods I'll need to eat more of or avoid when I'm out, we went over my menu choices, including other options on a blue-green sheet of paper she pulled out of nowhere, which includes Jell-O with every meal and tasty high-protein shakes they whip up here. (As a side note, I ate my spare orange Jell-O as I was writing that last sentence. I am telling you, this mini-fridge is awesome.)

The last new person I met was the physiotherapist, who is going to give me exercises to work my arms and legs daily so I at least don't lose any more muscle tone. Until she did her tests I didn't realize how much power I'd lost in my shoulders and biceps. They're like, well, Jell-O. My triceps and wrists are great, but jeez! I'm looking forward to her return on Monday.

The food here is still roughly tied with the stuff I was eating before. The egg rolls I had at lunch were so-so, as was the mushroom cream soup. But man, I demolished the plate of beef & mac, scalloped potatoes and wax beans at dinner, leaving behind a tiny piece of potato I didn't want to bother chasing before I went to town on the carrot and pineapple cake. After those and everything else I didn't even have room for the two digestive cookies I'd saved after lunch.

Prepped for a shower and showed Katie, today's day nurse, how we do it back home. We skipped the Saran-Wrap and I asked her for a blood sample bag, tucked the lines into the exterior pouch (exterior to the bag, that is—it's placed directly on my chest) and taped the whole thing up. After she left I turned on the Red Hot Chili Peppers, left the bathroom door open so I could hear them, and got myself clean. (Leaving the door open is also incentive to dry off pretty quickly and thoroughly.)

Incidentally, while I like all the nurses here so far, Katie is my favourite nurse for the simple reason that she always calls me "kiddo." It's like being in the comics I read and the movies I watched growing up.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Japan Media Arts Festival 2007: Entertain Me



Every year there's something in the Japan Media Arts Festival's Entertainment Division which also happens to be animated, and worth a mention. (The categories are porous like that.) This year that honour goes to the music video for Ryukyudisko's "Nice Day."

The entire video is a progression of still photographs starting somewhere in the 1970s, with a couple getting busy under the covers and producing a young boy. We watch him get older, get a job, and then he hits the clubs and meets a girl–and the whole starts going into reverse, as we go back into the girl's history. However, we find ourselves going back even farther than her parents, for reasons that eventually become apparent—and the eventual trip forward again carries its own surprises.

There's a lot of whimsy in this video, and the pity of the Flash-based video above is that you lose some of the detail in the historical photos, as well as the deliberate colour choices to replicate older film (up to a point—director Junji Kojima skimps a little when he starts getting into the 1930s and earlier).

By the way, if you think the tune is catchy you can drop a couple of sawbucks for an import of the single at Amazon.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Japan Media Arts Festival 2007: Not So Short Shorts



Veterans of animation festivals know that the term "short film" is pretty elastic, from Malcolm Bennett's 30-second Rocky to Yuri Norstein's 29-minute Tale of Tales. They also know that the longer films are usually programmed at the tail end of a given screening, and that prior to the end of the Cold War many of those films were from Eastern Bloc countries—often gorgeous, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes dark.

What's surprising about the 2007 Japan Media Arts Festival's award-winning works is that there are four films that pass the twenty-minute mark. The longest, Love Rollercoaster, is the most straightforward. The remaining three are reminiscent of those old Eastern Bloc films.

I'll start off with the 21-minute Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor because (a) director Koji Yamamura pretty much roped me in with his Mt. Head and The Old Crocodile a few years back; (b) it's actually based on the work of the Jewish-Czech Kafka, which gives it that weirdness that can be supplied only by Eastern European creators in general, and Kafka in particular; and (c) I can't help re-watching it whenever I can. Like any Kafka story, A Country Doctor starts with a seemingly normal premise combined (a country doctor is summoned at night to take care of a young patient) with some bizarre aspect ("unearthly horses" transport him there instantly). As in Kafka's better-known The Metamorphosis, the introduction of the preternatural element marks the moment the protagonist can never go back to the way things were. As in Yamamura's Mt. Head, the pace, sketchy images, and hand-drawn transformations complement the story nicely. At the rate A Country Doctor has been racking up awards, I think Yamamura's going to have to put serious thought into new shelving.

Ryu Kato's The Clockwork City also mines the surreal with traditional tools. The film is pretty much wordless, and you should expect to have to work at sorting some aspects of it out. A young visitor comes to a new city, and it's quickly apparent she doesn't quite fit in—every person, every bird, and even a few buildings have these wind-up mechanisms stuck in them, and she doesn't. After exploring the city for a little while she meets with the town's honcho (who wears a wind-up crown) and exchanges fruits and other goods. Soon after the city goes to war with an unknown enemy, its soldiers identically featureless and wearing blue ties and white shirts. In the aftermath, our protagonist confronts the top man and his flunkies over the discovery of a giant wind-up key; what mysteries does it hold? This is definitely on my "must rewatch" list.

Yusuke Sakamoto's The Dandelion Sister takes us into the realm of stop-motion animation, where a young girl has to contend with her older, sick sister—who happens to be a giant dandelion. There's a lot going on here: There's the younger sister missing out on social activities because of her responsibilities; her resentment of how much attention is heaped on her sick sister; her inability to draw, and express her feelings; and her fear of her sister's death. Like The Clockwork City, The Dandelion Sister is wordless, but as its concerns are more grounded in reality it's open to a number of interpretations about adolescence, caring for sick relatives, and acceptance.

{Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Japan Media Arts Festival 2007: Happy Birthday



Another odd little parallel shared by some of the award-winning animation shorts in the Japan Media Arts Festival: three of them had to do with birthdays—after a fashion.

My least favourite of the trio was also the longest: Hiromasa Horie's Love Rollercoaster unfortunately has nothing to do with the Ohio Players song, but is instead about a cutesy young bear cub named John trying to solve the mystery of a mysterious birthday present left behind my his late mother. Involved in the search are his friends, and they soon drag in the creepy Lovegun, an eyeless, sharp-toothed green-skinned critter who lives half in and half out of a rocketship. I like the idea behind some of the characters (especially the pair of mischievous panda siblings), and the overall story idea is a solid one—the ending is particularly sweet. But the whole thing is killed by the execution.

As a clay animation fan it shouldn't bother me that a CGI film tries to emulate a plasticine look for its characters. And I've never had a problem with Japan's cult of kawaii. But whenever the characters talk or scrunch their eyes, their skin wrinkles and folds in an a way that quickly renders them uncute. I'm sure John's initial concept drawings were very cute, but his textured skin, along with the bags under his eyes and all that wrinkliness just made me ill. Throw in excessive camera movement, the same kind of needless bobbing and weaving that bothered me in Skyland, and a half-hour–plus running time, and, well... let's just say that sometimes I watch these things so you don't have to.

(As an aside, I should mention that Love Rollercoaster is one of several projects generated from a Japanese talent incubator called Anime Innovation Tokyo. I'd rather have seen just about anything else their creators have put together.)

The much shorter, lo-fi Ushi-nichi (or, as the English titles say, Happy Birthday) is pretty much Love Rollercoaster's exact opposite. Created with pencil and paper (complete with smudges) by Hiroko Ichinose, the nine-minute short features a motley crew of characters each going through their own machinations. A man stands in the desert waiting to hitch a ride, but turns down almost everyone who stops for him; a man wakes up every morning transformed in some way (extra-long arms, a huge 'fro) and cheerily skips to the employment office to find new work based on his condition; a woman starts eating pieces of her pet giraffe, mindless of the transformations it causes to her own body. Everything comes together in a whimsical denouement. Deep meaning? Who cares? The jittery, rough and utterly charming style makes the whole film a pleasure.

Meanwhile, Toshiaki Hanzaki's Birthday puts another spin on the word, relating the evolution of life on Earth from one-celled organisms to man and, it seems, beyond. Working mostly with silhouetted forms, it's slicker than Ushi-nichi, but it is, if anything, more whimsical, with its portrayal of a giant fanged asteroid killing the dinosaurs and aliens accelerating our evolution. (It's also in the opposite direction of Hanzaki's earlier Birds, my favourite of the Digital Content Association of Japan's 2005 Digital Creators Competition's award-winning works.) Finally, at about a minute and a half, it's more compact. It gets where it needs to go, and then ends. Brevity really is the soul of wit.


[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Japanese Media Arts Festival 2007: Livin' La Vida Low-Res



One of the pleasures of film festivals, whether you're watching them or organizing them, is in discovering unintended themes in the films. Sometimes it's inevitable, such as when social or political issues are on everyone's mind, but these are so unsurprising as to almost be banal. It's the small, quirky and sometimes trivial themes that are the most interesting to discover, and this year's award-winning short animation offerings from the Japan Media Arts Festival has a few worth mentioning.

One thing I look forward to in any compilation is when people take a backward step, especially when it comes to CGI. There's such a tendency to lard on the detail, be it photorealistic or natural-media or whatever, that few make the deliberate choice to step back and pare things down.

This year three films made a point of dialing down the detail, each in different ways. Youhei Murakoshi's Blockman goes the furthest. The viewer peers through a telescope to a strange world where everything is made up of identically sized cubes. Some are black, most are white, some make larger blocks, and some of the larger blocks have faces, courtesy of dots or lines on individual blocks. The curious lifeforms walk, fly, float, combine and come apart in a variety of ways, with the telescope lazily floating from one vista to another. The effect is similar to that of the even more minimalist Dice—an earlier Japan Media Arts Festival honoree—but perhaps more mesmerizing.

Sejiro Kubo, Ichiro Tanida and Katsunori Aoki collaborated on Copet, a series of shorts starring a cast of animals that are all straight lines and simple curves, plugged together like deranged Lego. At first glance it's appallingly cute, but little touches like camera shake and nifty bits of business (like a gorilla who repeatedly shivers himself out of a stupor) are at odds with the simplistic motion, and the tension works. But what really kept my attention were the bits that didn't follow the simple-is-better formula, like an erupting volcano, a meteor streaking toward Earth and water that looks, well, watery. The characters' occcasional forays into the live-action world, along with incomprehensible but still amusing storylines were also bonuses. If you can read Japanese you can check out the Copet website, which goes into the shorts' world in considerable depth and pimps Copet merch, including a DVD.

Hiroshi Chida's Boneheads was produced by Polygon Pictures, which I mention because it shares a certain aesthetic sensibility with Polygon's Polygon Family shorts, in which the characters' blockiness is celebrated, rather than smoothed and textured to death. But Polygon Family is mostly monochrome, whereas Boneheads' colour pops with Day-Glo intensity. The latter's characters are also every so slightly asymmetrical, which just makes them kookier.

Moreover, where Polygon Family's animated used the anime and fighting videogame idioms, Boneheads is pure, non-stop Tex Avery-style mania (it's running time of seven minutes makes it even more reminiscent of a Golden Age cartoon). Roccos and Bone are two primitive creatures fighting over bananas—between themselves, and between other critters who get wind of the tasty fruit (or them). The whole thing is really just an escalating chase scene, but as every Blues Brothers fan knows, that's not really a bad thing. Radar Cartoons reps Polygon in the U.S., and Boneheads was produced for Viacom, so here's hoping that it pops up on our screens soon.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Run Wrake's The Control Master



Now this kind of advertising I can get behind. Run Wrake (who we already love—and maybe fear a little—thanks to Rabbit) has applied his quirky collage technique to The Control Master, a pseudo–1950s-sci-fi film in which an evil genius and two heroes battle. The commercial angle here is that all the elements of the film come from CSA Images, a stock art company. Not that that gets in the way of the enjoying the film for even one second.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

The National Film Board of Canada Expands Its Audience

As a Canadian cinephile, I'm often frustrated that more people outside of the country don't realize what a rich cinematic history we have.

A lot of that history is bound up in the National Film Board of Canada (the NFB, for short) which has spent the last 69 years pushing at the frontiers of, among other things, animation and documentary filmmaking.

A pal who works at the NFB recently tipped me off to their latest online initiative. Over on beta.NFB.ca they've created a free, public online repository of NFB shorts and features, starting with over 300 films from their archives. The films can be shared and embedded YouTube-style, as well.

This isn't the first time the NFB has dipped into their vaults for their online audience. Two years ago, to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the creation of the animation department, the NFB put 70 of their animation shorts on their Focus on Animation site. However, that played as something of a "greatest hits" collection; not that that's bad thing, but it didn't have the scope of beta.NFB.ca, which even in this preliminary stage offers a more textured view of the history of Canada, Canadians, and cinema as a whole.

As its name implies, beta.NFB.ca is still a work in progress, with a few rough edges to be found in search, among other things. Also, the emphasis so far is on older films, which doesn't quite give the sense of the NFB's gradual evolution as it started to include more works from Canadian filmmakers looking at the world outside its borders. But hey, there's plenty to keep us occupied until they get truly settled in. Here are three tidbits.

What do nuclear annihilation and Scrabble have in common? The Big Snit:


The 1964 experimental film 21-87 was enough of an inspiration to George Lucas that he snuck a reference to it into Star Wars. It's quite a leap from one to the other, isn't it?


Give an emerging filmmaker (and creative taxidermist) a Nikon digital SLR, and you get Carla Coma's stop-motion oddity The Squirrel Next Door:


[Cross-posted from Today @ PC World.]

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Persepolis on DVD



Just a few weeks ago I was in a car with Tee Bosustow, on the way to an interview for his Toon In podcast. We kicked around a few thoughts on different animated productions, and when I mentioned that I really liked Persepolis, he said he wasn't as enthusiastic about the film.

"What?!?" I said. "Let me out of the car right now. You know what? Don't even bother stopping. Just slow down and let me jump out."

Okay, so maybe that's not exactly how it went down. For that matter, I don't really remember why he didn't like it as much as I did. But at the time his reasoning struck me enough that I recently re-read the comics in anticipation of the DVD release, which I watched not too long ago, along with all the extras. Here are some of the impressions I came away with:

It's always kind of funny when you mistakenly get the DVD with Spanish menus.

Catherine Deneuve is at the Persepolis press conference at Cannes and doesn't get asked a question? How is that possible?

I suspect that Iggy Pop is incapable of sitting in one place for too long without taking his shirt off.

Finally, upon rewatching I think that Persepolis is as much a tribute to Marjane Satrapi's grandmother as it is an autobiography. Never mind the bittersweet ending; from the moment the young Marjane opens her mouth to question authority in school, she's negotiating the principles of self-awareness and honesty to oneself that her grandmother taught her against the realities of the world around her. Whether she's telling off members of the Guardians of the Revolution or standing up to French bigots, she's channelling her grandmother; and guess who's the person she goes to whenever she has serious problems, and the first person to bite her head off if that's what she needs?

Because of the story's geographic and spiritual location in Iran and the timing of the movie's release, some might consider Persepolis political. Because of the strength and intelligence exhibited by Marjane, her mother and her grandmother, some might consider it feminist. After watching the extras, I don't think Satrapi would agree with either sentiment. Persepolis is the story of ordinary-yet-extraordinary people—we all know folks who fit in that category—in trying circumstances, and the legacy that she carries.

Yeah, I'm still on the Persepolis bandwagon.

Where to Get It
Buy Persepolis books and DVDs from Amazon.com


[Crossposted from Frames Per Second.]

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Animation Show, Vol. 3



It's a given that even with such a wealth of animated shorts on the Internet, there's nothing like rubbing shoulders with like-minded people at a film festival. But when it comes to festival compilations on DVD, things get a little trickier. After all, if you're going to watch a bunch of shorts on the small screen, why buy them on DVD when you can probably find many of them, legally or otherwise, online?

That question plagues the third iteration of the annual Animation Show DVD release; a quick glance at its contents revealed three shorts that I'd seen online already, and I'm sure most, if not all, of the rest are lurking around somewhere.

Ah, but then you wouldn't have the distinct pleasure of watching 103 minutes of some of the best shorts of the past three years by pressing just one button from the comfort of your couch. Really, there isn't a false note here. I've seen Rabbit, City Paradise, Tyger and Learn Self Defense a gazillion times, and cheerfully sat through them from start to finish again. The kaleidoscopic Collision was serviceable and short enough not to be too taxing, and One D entertained me despite its one-note gag, unsurprising animation in-joke and glaring technical inaccuracy. (Hello, these characters are two-dimensional, not one-dimensional. Watch Ladd Ehlinger, Jr.'s interpretation of Flatland to see it done right.) Overall, a nice variety of films in a nice variety of styles.

Also, you wouldn't get great extras like an animatic and three video interviews, along with text interviews you can read by putting the DVD into a computer. That's some good bang for the bucks.

For all that, though, there are a few things that bother me here. I'm still not sure if I'm keen on the DVDs including a bunch of shorts that weren't screened during the theatrical run. I expect to see shorts on the big screen that I won't see on DVD due to rights issues, but it feels kind of odd that neither medium, by itself, is the complete experience.

Most glaring, however, is the inclusion of an eight-minute trailer for MTV's The Maxx, which is stuck in the middle of the festival extras instead of with the MTV trailers. (The Animation Show DVD is distributed by MTV Home Entertainment.) It's strange, because it's not part of the festival content, but its placement implies inclusion in the festival. Er, um, why exactly? It feels like a bit of corporate pimping, which doesn't reflect well on anyone involved.

Where to Get It
Buy
The Animation Show, Vol. 3 on DVD from Amazon.com

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Isn't "Premiere" Supposed to Mean "First?"

The entertainment industry, particularly Hollywood, is a strange world. I've spent years of intense study demystifying its many arcane practices, but there's still one thing I don't understand: how can Lou Diamond Phillips and family have been attending the "premiere" of Kung Fu Panda earlier today when I, my sister, and a cinema full of parents, kids and animation fans saw it on Wednesday?

It's not the first time this has happened. Back in 1999 I attended the Toronto International Film Festival's screening of Princess Mononoke. As part of an abortive assignment for Animation World Network, I later interviewed Gillian Anderson and Neil Gaiman—and Anderson (among others) referred to the Los Angeles screening she attended a week or two after mine as the "premiere." (One person referred to it as the "world premiere," despite the film's having been released in Japan two years earlier. But I think that was just a slip of the tongue.)

Seriously, what is it with this?

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954

Countless column inches, magazine pages and pixels have been devoted to the question/problem of racist black stereotypes in animation, and at some point someone says these cartoons need to be framed or presented in their historical context. It's unstated, but that phrase often means "Let's acknowledge that these cartoons were produced in a less enlightened time, and that the images are offensive. But man, are they funny. Can we go back to watching them, please?"

Not that the first sentence is untrue, but it's a simplistic reading at best. If you really want context, then start with Henry T. Sampson's That's Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960, which catalogues the many American cartoons that used these images, along with plot descriptions, production credits, and industry publication reviews—necessary and welcome, but maybe a little too clinical. The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954, in contrast, takes the same kind of data as That's Enough Folks and shapes it into a decades-long narrative.

Lehman recounts a chronological history of film animation from its beginnings at the hands of J. Stuart Blackton through most of the Golden Age of animation, weaving in descriptions and explanations of the types of racist images used. This really does put things in context, as for the first time we get to see how the evolution of these images and the gags behind them corresponds to the evolution of animation, movies, pop culture and society at large.

After I finished the book—at 137 pages it's a quick read—it occurred to me that The Colored Cartoon is, in itself, an answer to many of the questions and misconceptions that have swirled around this debate for at least as long as I've observed it. Why is it okay to make fun of Elmer Fudd, who is white, but not black characters who chase Bugs Bunny? The seemingly obvious answer is that Elmer Fudd's skin colour isn't the source of the humour, his ineptitude is. For those that argue that a black character's ineptitude isn't necessarily racist, Lehman's long-range view breaks down the different types of stereotypes and why even the most innocuous-looking depictions were part of a larger trend. Is the call to stop broadcasting cartoons with these images a recent example of political correctness run amok? Hardly. The NAACP—you know, black people—have been protesting these cartoons since World War II. (If you'd read Donald Bogle's Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, you'd know that. But if your reading list is restricted to animation books, The Colored Cartoon will fill you in.)

The Colored Cartoon isn't perfect. Far from it, in fact. While I liked how Lehman sometimes talked about simple economic or technological issues (like the trouble early animators had with lip sync) and how they affected what was seen and heard onscreen, I was less enthused by some of his conjectures that were presented as fact. Was Bugs Bunny a descendant of African-American mythical trickster figures like Br'er Rabbit? Sure, I can get behind that interpretation. Does that make him, and his trademark cool, an example of black culture being mined and transformed for cartoons? Maybe, but that leads to the thorny question of intent. While animation artists like Bill Littlejohn and Martha Sigall weigh in throughout the book, they don't offer any insights here, which leaves Lehman's assertion as an untestable theory.

I'd have preferred if the book was longer (but then, with good books I usually do), held back on the theorizing and gave us more animator interviews, more in-depth stories of activism (I like Lehman's frank description of the NAACP's missteps, and I'd like to see more interviews in that area) and more industry insights—for starters. Still, imperfect doesn't mean bad. At the very least, The Colored Cartoon is a start—a start at providing the often-cited context for this debate that will allow it to move on to a different level. That alone makes it a worthy entry in this still-nascent field.

Where to Get It
Buy
The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954 from Amazon.com

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Kihachiro Kawamoto Films on DVD



If there were awards for truth in advertising, then Kino International would have to win something for the use of one adjective. The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto contains the bulk of the animation master's work, seven short films made between 1968 and 1979.

Kawamoto is considered a stop-motion animator, and his recent feature-length masterpiece, The Book of the Dead, features gorgeous sets to accompany his beautiful puppets. However, this DVD serves as a reminder that his shorts were rarely quite so straightforward. All of the films on the DVD involve the manipulation of physical objects—if not puppets, then cutouts—but Kawamoto freely mixes them with drawn animation and flat paper cutouts with varying degrees of abstraction.

In earlier films like 1972's The Demon, Kawamoto plays with this stylization by having characters move in sync with the background music's rhythm, almost as if they were performing the story as a dance. By the time of the final film, 1979's House of Flames, he's also using stark lighting and elegant compositions to suggest, at times, a stage play. The three middle films in the collection, An Anthropo-Cynical Farce, The Trip and A Poet's Life (from 1970, 1973 and 1974) all break from the use of puppets and the use of ancient Japan as a setting, but are no less compelling. They are perhaps a bit more obtuse in that unique way that independent animation from the 1970s could be.

Kino has also released the feature-length The Book of the Dead, which features some of Kawamoto's most exquisite—there's that word again—stop-motion work to date. Like his best-known short-form films, the movie features Buddhism in ancient Japan. However, this time Buddhist teachings are central to the film, as it takes place in the eighth century, around the time that Buddhism was being introduced to Japan from China. Unlike his shorts, Kawamoto has chosen here to fill out his sets with physical objects and far more characters, all realized with considerable detail. It's hard to watch a sequence with a room full of elegantly dressed puppets with their clothes blowing in the wind and not be awestruck by both the scene's verisimilitude and its poetry.

As lovely as these releases are, there are a few things I'd have liked to have seen. The Book of the Dead uses the English narration with no option to hear the original Japanese (though all the dialogue is still in Japanese, with optional subtitles) and neither disc includes any kind of extras. While Kawamoto's work speaks for itself, the level of craftsmanship on display on both DVDs leaves you wanting to see and hear more. Finally, completists are likely to wag their fingers: The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto lacks four shorts that were included on the Region 2 Kihachiro Kawamoto Work Collection DVD.

Where to Get It
Buy The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto from Amazon.com
Buy The Book of the Dead from Amazon.com
Buy Kihachiro Kawamoto Work Collection from YesAsia.com


[Cross-posted from Frames per Second.]

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Speed Racer Learns from Manga, Can Teach Feature Animation a Few Things



I'm generally not a fan of live-action adaptations of animated TV shows, because they almost always disappoint. The problems usually start with the choices the filmmakers make in order to get animated (or animated-looking) characters into a live action universe. The Flintstones had fake-looking rock sets; Alvin and the Chipmunks and Scooby Doo had CGI critters in an otherwise realistic universe; Fat Albert had the TV characters coming to life in the real world.

In Speed Racer, the Wachowskis do what none of the creators of these other films had the will to do: they created a cohesive universe in which all of the elements in any given frame look like they belong together. In the process, they also highlight something that's been missing from mainstream animation for quite some time.

As I was sitting in the cinema watching Speed Racer, it occurred to me that I already knew how most journalists were going to describe the movie's look. Some would say that it looks like a video game, or that it's anime come to life. They're dead wrong. Outside of some race scenes the movie looks nothing like any video game you've actually played, and outside of a few Akira-like shots and a nod to the original series opener, it looks nothing like any anime you've ever seen. Really, these are just phrases that reviewers use when they want to say that there are lots of things moving around very fast, or that have bright-coloured, futuristic-looking elements.

In a strange way, however, they're also right. Speed Racer, like many video games, demands that its viewers process a lot of visual information at once. Like anime, it stylizes motion in a way that isn't entirely realistic but is believable within its own reality.

If anything, Speed Racer's filmic cues come from green-screen/digital-set movies like the most recent Star Wars trilogy and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, along with shorts that feature heavily processed and manipulated live action, like Gaëlle Denis' City Paradise. But the Wachowskis' real inspiration here is manga. This doesn't just apply to the racing scenes, but to just about anything set outside of the Racer family home. Take a look at these images, and pay special attention to how they put the focus on certain foreground objects or characters and use the backgrounds to denote movement, atmosphere and mood, These compositions are pure manga:







Better still are the transitions, in which the camera moves around a foreground character's head and the backgrounds change to show scenes either as a transition or as a flashback to the past. Some of these scenes are multi-layered, including audio from both the current time and place and the location or time being referenced. There's even one scene where one character tells Speed about about something that will happen in the future; as the camera whirls around Speed, the background shifts to show scenes that highlight what the other character is saying—and eventually we discover this isn't speculation, but what actually happens in the future. The whole sequence interleaves between the present moment and flash-forwards, kind of like an episode of Lost on, well, speed. (Lazy journalists will look at all this and make references to audience members with short attention spans or ADD; the truth is, you really have to pay attention if you want to follow it all.)

I'm just scratching the surface here. All in all, Speed Racer is a visual effects spectacle that doesn't reserve its inventiveness for eye-candy money shots; rather, it's a carefully constructed, dynamic reality that is unlike anything seen on the big screen. All of which brings me to the question I kept asking myself when I left the cinema: why haven't I seen anything like this in feature animation for so long?

It's a cliché these days to say that effects-heavy summer movies are cartoon-like, and there's some truth to that. But it's also true that live-action movies have, through the heavy use of CGI, taken animation's "anything can happen here" mentality and run with it. Meanwhile, feature animation has largely concerned itself with looking more realistic, obsessing over things like realistic fur and hair. Even those productions that aren't so fixated are, relatively speaking, conservative. I've very much enjoyed Pixar's films, but when you get right down to it they mostly fit into a niche best described as "Talking ____s," with the blank filled in by toys, bugs, fish, rats or what have you. The Incredibles was an exciting departure, but so far the new direction that it signalled appears to be a dead end.

Where's the wow? Where's that moment when you jump up in your seat, excited because you've been shown something you've never seen before? Speed Racer provides that in spades, but in feature animation it's been sorely lacking. I remember seeing Tron in 1983, Akira in 1988 and Mind Game in 2005 and each time feeling like someone had redefined what was possible in animated cinema because I was being shown things I hadn't seen before. I've had that same feeling many times over since then, but when it comes to animation it's generally been in OAVs, shorts and—much to my surprise—television.

I'm all for the blurring of boundaries, but to me movies like Speed Racer indicate that feature animation is ceding ground to live action. Something is very wrong with this picture.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Returning to the Source of "Otaku"

When an anime fan proudly describes themselves as an otaku I usually wince a little. I realize that language evolves, especially around loan words—the term anime is a classic example—but I've always found it odd that a word with such negative connotations in Japanese is worn as a badge of honour in the English-speaking world. I usually point to the case of Tsutomu Miyazaki (no relation to director Hayao Miyazaki), who molested, killed and mutilated four girls in the late 1980s. Among his massive video collection were pornographic anime and slasher films, and he was something of an outsider; the Japanese public linked the term otaku with dangerously antisocial behaviour.

However, the term existed before then; less sensationally, but still negative. Over on Néojaponisme, Matt Alt has translated the first two parts of a series of articles in which the term "otaku" was first applied to extremely obsessed fans with few social skills. The articles, written by Akio Nakamori, first appeared in 1983, and you can read them in "What Kind of Otaku Are You?" and "Can Otaku Love Like Normal People?".

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The "Censored Eleven" Problem



For years (and years, and years) I've been reading the same tired arguments about racist cartoons, particularly those that use black stereotypes. It's a problem that's as old as cartoons themselves; John Stuart Blackton's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, considered the first cartoon short, made fun of blacks and Jews (Blackton's lightning sketches include two images labelled "Coon" and "Cohen") in 1906, and the image of big-lipped, Stepin Fetchit-inspired characters didn't lose steam in popular American cartoons for another half a century.

The problem began when networks stopped airing these cartoons in their regular lineups, and larger companies were slow to include them in videocassette (and now DVD) compilations unedited. Not that they were never released—I still have my Tex Avery laserdiscs with Uncle Tom's Cabana and a handful of shorts that use blackface gags, for example—but some Warner Bros. cartoons have been considered so over the line that they haven't been aired on TV for decades, and never released by Warner Bros. on any kind of home video. These shorts have acquired a mythical status, and a name: The Censored Eleven.

Talk of these shorts (and similar ones not so blessed as to be tagged with such a dramatic moniker) invariably brings up discussions of the shorts' historical significance, the fact that they were made in a different era, and, at some point, an exhortation to the rightsholders that the shorts should be released unedited. My longstanding complaint about these arguments is that, for the most part, it's a bunch of white guys standing around arguing about what black people should and shouldn't find offensive. (Books like That's Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960 are a step toward rectifying that problem, as well as the more recent The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954, which I'll be reviewing soon; I've also done my bit with essays on the subject and, most recently, a 2006 guest blogging stint on ReFrederator.)

In light of a recent re-emergence of the discussion, Thad Komorowski has nailed the other complaint that I've never fully given voice to: that many cartoon fans, in their desire to own these films, have bent over backwards to claim that these films are not racist. Because, let's face it, they most emphatically are. If a joke is being made with the understanding that something is funny because a character is black, then it's racist. It's a pretty simple equation. (And please spare me the "I have a black friend who loves these cartoons" argument; I think Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs is one of the funniest, snappiest, and most brilliant cartoons Bob Clampett ever directed, but denying that it's entirely built around racist imagery is like denying gravity.)

I am more than pleased that someone has come out and called it like it is, and urge you to read Thad's frank commentary. And hey, if you've been itching to see the Censored Eleven for yourself, he's also posted them there for your edification.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Top 5 Animated Earth Day Shows

Say "environmentally themed animation" to most people and they'll think of FernGully: The Last Rainforest or Captain Planet—both well-intentioned, but as subtle and as thrilling to experience as a boot to the head. Presented in alphabetical order, here are five titles that get it right; essential viewing not just on Earth Day, but every day.

The Lorax
When we talk about Warner alumna who worked with Dr. Seuss, we tend to mention Chuck Jones and, er, that's it. But it was Hawley Pratt who directed The Lorax, the 1972 adaptation of the good doctor's book from the year earlier. In it, the Lorax—a typically Seussian odd-looking, oddly coloured creature who says he "speaks for the trees," tries to convince an industrialist not to chop down the Truffula trees, which he uses to make a unique form of clothing called Thneeds.

The industrialist doesn't listen, and the Thneeds take off. His small shop becomes larger, which leads to the construction of larger factories and more roadwork, which leads to increasing destruction of the forest and the air—and eventually, the growth of a whole city, which just makes the problem worse. Futile though it is, the Lorax protests the whole time. Near the end of the story, the industrialist chops down the last tree and realizes he's not only ended his business, but destroyed the very reason he came to the forest in the first place—and the Lorax sadly picks himself up (literally) and flies away.

The Lorax is pads the original story with reasonably entertaining songs, gags and bits of business to bring it up to a half-hour special, and it captures the Seuss look pretty well. While it's comparatively strident—"greedy industrialist" is all you need to know about the antagonist—it's still a striking look at how we can carelessly consume and destroy resources when we're not careful.

The Man Who Planted Trees
Frédéric Back believes passionately in the need to protect and co-exist with the environment, and his most moving testament to that belief is his 1987 masterpiece The Man Who Planted Trees, an adaptation of a 1953 French short story. In the story, a man visits an abandoned valley in France three times. The first time is before World War I, when the valley is dry and desolate, and he meets a young shepherd who is planting acorns; the second time is between both world wars, when the young trees are starting to dot the landscape; and the third time is after World War II, when the valley is a green, lush paradise, and a small village has sprung up around it.

The story itself, in which one man selflessly and patiently turns emptiness into a thriving, living community, is inspiring, but what makes it work as a film is Back's method. Using coloured pencils and frosted cels (like traditional acetate cells, but with a tooth to them so that traditional but inkless drawing tools can be used on them), he made each frame a gorgeous illustration, with each one cross-dissolving into the next. When we return to the valley-as-Eden, that technique serves to make every leaf on every tree burst with life. When we hear that our actions have far-reaching implications, it's usually when we're being warned not to do something. When you see the forest in The Man Who Planted Trees flowing across the screen, you realize that there's a positive aspect to that as well.

See a clip and storyboard images from The Man Who Planted Trees

My Neighbor Totoro
In 1950s Japan, Mei and Satsuki move to the countryside with their father, as they wait for their hospitalized mother to recover from her illness. From the moment they set foot in the house, the girls discover (magic?) forest creatures large and small, who seem to be presided over by the largest of three creatures, that seem like a jovial cross between a cat and a bear; Mei calls them Totoro.

Not much more needs to be said, because if you haven't seen Totoro, you've probably heard of it (and, really, should make the time to go see it.) It's the 1988 film that made Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli icons in Japan (literally, as Totoro now graces the Ghibli logo on every movie opener), and, after some time, abroad as well. The three Totoro are probably the Ghibli characters you're most likely to see pop up in the background of comics and animation, as artists the world over pay homage.

The reason for all the love is simple: Totoro is a gentle film that is as much about the joys of childhood as it is about the beauty of nature. Linking expertly realized scenes—of napping in a forest, of skipping over a creek, or of savouring the night breeze through the trees—to our own memories makes a better case for preserving forests than any amount of brow-beating. The Japanese public apparently agreed, and Totoro has become a symbol, both official and unofficial, of its environmental movement.

Princess Mononoke
Nine years after Totoro, Ghibli released its flip side: Miyazaki's look a fifteenth-century Japan where the powerful forest spirits still walk the Earth with both majesty and terror. The young prince Ashitaka is banished from his village when his arm is scarred in an encounter with a deranged boar god, and during his travels he encounters San—the demon princess of the title—and Lady Eboshi, who has founded and runs Iron Town on the edge of the forest. San has literally been raised by wolves (or, more accurately, wolf gods), and is constantly sabotaging Iron Town's operations, as their manufacturing facilities are encroaching further on the forest.

Ashitaka, and the audience, quickly learns that things aren't as black and white as they may seem. Lady Eboshi has taken in lepers, prostitutes, and other people cast off from society and given them a home; by mining and refining the iron she's been able to keep Iron Town self-sufficient. San and many of the forest creatures see humanity as a threat, an ever-reproducing virus that needs to be destroyed for their safety. The result is the beginning of a bloody war, with interested outside parties looking for opportunities and Ashitaka risking life and limb to keep things from escalating past the point of no return.

Princess Mononoke carries two messages within it, both rarely said in environmentally themed films. First is that if you push nature too hard, nature will push back harder. The second echoes a sentiment spoken by John Muir, godfather to the American environmental movement: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe." The fatal error that is often made in the movie, and in real life, is that humanity is somehow separated from nature.

Respire
French group Mickey 3D's 2003 CD Tu vas pas mourir de rire (You Won't Die Laughing) is full of politically conscious songs set to toe-tapping music. Its second track, Respire (Breathe) is the basis for a CGI music video that features, for the most part, nothing but a young girl running barefoot through an open field, skipping through creeks and climbing trees, all under a gorgeous blue sky. The laconically delivered lyrics speak of what man has done to his world, and how action needs to be taken by everyone, right now.

It's the end of the video that brings everything together as, with a Twilight-Zoneish twist, we discover that things aren't what they first seemed. Frankly, I find this scenario all too plausible. Consider Respire a warning you can dance to. Watch the video and decide for yourself.



Where to Get It
Buy
The Lorax DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy
The Man Who Planted Trees DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy
My Neighbor Totoro DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy
Princess Mononoke DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy
Respire (part of the Imagina Trips Vol. 2 compilation; PAL, Region 2) on DVD from Amazon.fr
Buy
Tu vas pas mourir de rire on CD from Amazon.com

Previously on Frames Per Second
Imagina Trips Vol. 2 review


[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Masaaki Yuasa's Kaiba



A few weeks ago I watched Mind Game again, and not for the first time I wondered what director Masaaki Yuasa was up to post-Genius Party. And what do you know, shortly after I found out: he's directing the series Kaiba, which just started airing on the Japanese satellite channel WOWOW. Makoto Fukuda reviewed the first episode in today's Yomiuri Shimbun. As she describes it, the show is "set in a world when memories can be filed as data, and humans no longer regard the death of their physical bodies as the end of their lives."

I just finished watching the first episode, and I have to say that I agree with Fukuda's review, but she only hints at what I think makes it interesting. At its core, Kaiba offers up a lot of things we've seen before: the titular protagonist wakes up with amnesia, and is almost immediately attacked; strange machinelike creatures are attacking people while a ragtag resistance fights back; even the character designs, which Fukuda describes as echoing "those found in manga for children popular several decades ago" capture that 1960s and 1970s retro feel.

What Yuasa does is he mixes it up and makes it fresh. I like how little is explained as Kaiba makes his way through this new world. When the camera pans up or across in a scene, you're following his viewpoint. Nothing is explained to either of you, so you have to pay attention to everything you see. (Some things are conveniently spelled out, but as the title sequence hints that there's considerably more to Kaiba, you get the sense that there's information that should be filed away for later.) The world is just familiar enough that you know you're in a shady bar, but just weird-looking enough that you're trying to figure out what those lumpy wall protrusions are for. The character designs are retro, but they don't quietly elide the oddball wacky-looking characters I was fond of in older anime in favour of the graceful designs of the protagonists. I got a nice fix of people walking around with potato heads, wobbly jowls, bright red noses and the craziest hips you've ever seen. The cartooniness infects some of the action as well, but not in an at all jarring way. In some ways it's a better interpretation of what Tezuka did in his manga than the beautiful but perhaps too crisp Metropolis.

What I'm particularly fond of is Yuasa's interpretation of movement. As we saw in Mind Game, little of what he does falls into stock anime poses, staging or motion, and that feeling of always seeing something new is invigorating. Between the animation and the storyline—I particularly want to know what's going on with that bird-creature that's saved Kaiba three times now—Kaiba has my attention. I'm hoping someone picks it up domestically so I can watch it with subtitles, but, in another throwback to the old days, I'm perfectly willing to watch it entirely in Japanese just for the sake of seeing it.

Images and a Youtube trailer below.















[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

DreamWorks Brings You Ghost in the Shell Again



Just 15 months after Kodansha and Production I.G. kissed and made up over optioning Ghost in the Shell, they've found a taker: DreamWorks, who released Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence in North American cinemas under their GoFish banner in 2005, has acquired the rights to make a live-action, 3D version of the property.

While I think Ghost in the Shell is a great selection for a 3D film, I can't say I'm particularly enthusiastic about the news. I'm generally not a fan of live-action remakes of animated shows or comics; overall, there have been more misses than hits. More to the point, the recent spate of rights acquisitions for anime (or anime-like)-to-Hollywood live-action adaptations (Robotech, Akira, Avatar: The Last Airbender—have I missed anything?) reminds me of the old maxim that in Hollywood no one wants to be first, but everyone wants to be second. Speed Racer is due to hit cinemas in just a few weeks, and I've long had the sense that these acquisitions are a means of lining things up to ride an anticipated wave of anime-inspired movies, in the same way Spider-Man and X-Men helped launch a wave of comic-inspired movies.

One thing I won't do, however, is claim that Spielberg (or any of the other directors/producers working on adapted anime works) will somehow "ruin" the original. Gimme a break—that's like saying a bad date will ruin your memory of your first kiss.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Ollie Johnston, 1912-2008



Ollie Johnston (pictured above at right, with longtime colleague, co-author and pal Frank Thomas), the last of Disney's fabled Nine Old Men, passed away yesterday, marking a symbolic end of an era.

I owe Frank and Ollie a lot. About 25 years ago, a few years after my first attempts at animating, I decided that just studying movement frame by frame wasn't going to cut it, and started reading about the process. The duo's Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life wasn't the first book on creating animation I borrowed from the library, but it had an impact that was, quite simply, life-changing.

Prior to reading the book I knew little about the actual history of animation in general, and next to nothing about the history of the Disney studio. I liked Disney movies—Kino Kid and I made a point of catching every new and re-released Disney film—but unlike the constantly rerun Warner Bros. productions, I couldn't tell you who directed what, or offer any analyses of the movies. The gorgeously produced Illusion of Life was a gift from the gods, offering the ultimate insiders' view of the studio's best decades, artistically and technologically, liberally sprinkled with concept, pre-production and final artwork. The final pages contained actual animation instruction, but in truth the whole book was a masterclass for anyone who cared to open their eyes.

I devoured The Illusion of Life. Twice. The first time was during an extended road trip that took us to Toronto and Saint Catharines in Ontario, then Ann Arbor, Michigan. The second time was just a few years later, after I'd started seriously immersing myself in animation publications and bought my own copy. Both times, I couldn't put it down.

I have to admit to more than a twinge of disappointment when I later learned about the 1941 Disney strike, and discovered that the divisions caused by the strike ran so deep that The Illusion of Life effectively elided the contributions of those who participated in it. But in the end, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were my first animation history teachers, and one of my earliest and most thorough animation teachers. Without them, and that book, my life would be very different—there would certainly be no Frames Per Second—and for that I offer my thanks to Ollie and belated thanks to Frank.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Two Animated Indies Hit Tribeca Fest



Signe Baumane dropped me a line to let me know that two of her fellow New York-based independent animators are screening the American premieres of their recent features at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival. Nina Paley's longtime endeavour Sita Sings the Blues—which we featured in our November 2005 issue—will be showing from April 25 to May 2, while Bill Plympton's Idiots and Angels runs from April 26 to May 3. Screening times and ticket info below.

Tickets: Visit the Tribeca Film Festival site, or call 646-502-5296.

Sita Sings the Blues

Friday, April 25, 8:15 pm
AMC Village VII (AV7)
66 Third Avenue (at 11th Street)
New York, NY 10003

Sunday, April 27, 3:45 pm
AMC 19th Street East (A19)
890 Broadway (at 19th Street)
New York, NY 10003

Monday, April 28, 10:45 pm
AMC Village VII (AV7)
66 Third Avenue (at 11th Street)
New York, NY 10003

Thursday, May 1, 1:45 pm
Village East Cinemas (VEC)
181 Second Avenue (at 12th Street)
New York, NY 10003

Friday, May 2, 3:00 pm
AMC 19th Street East (A19)
890 Broadway (at 19th Street)
New York, NY 10003

Idiots and Angels

Saturday, April 26, 5:30 pm
AMC 19th Street East (A19)
890 Broadway (at 19th Street)
New York, NY 10003

Sunday, April 27, 9:30 pm
Village East Cinemas (VEC)
181 Second Avenue (at 12th Street)
New York, NY 10003

Wednesday, April 30, 11:00 pm
AMC Village VII (AV7)
66 Third Avenue (at 11th Street)
New York, NY 10003

Saturday, May 3, 8:00 pm
Village East Cinemas (VEC)
181 Second Avenue (at 12th Street)
New York, NY 10003

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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