9 Years Later
|The minimalist 9 title card
Acker's film depicts the life of rag doll named "9" and its mentor, "5." These dolls inhabit a still world of rubble and junk with their nemesis, a cyborg cat beast. The film is full CGI with design in the style of stop motion, an original score, and no dialogue.
I first saw 9 at the SIGGRAPH 2005 Computer Animation Film / Electronic Theater. The audience of animation experts was ecstatic about the film. That night, it topped all submitted professional animations of the year to win Best in Show and a nomination for the Best Animated Short Academy Award. (It didn't win that 2005 Academy Award, but neither did the excellent One Man Band short, with the resources of Pixar behind it.) 9 won the 2005 Student Academy Award, the 2005 Student Emmy, and first place at eleven film festivals.
9 now streams on the web at Vimeo, a bit degraded by compression. It looks soft at the original 720x540 pixel DVD resolution when compared to current 1920x1080 television and 4096x2160 theater standards but otherwise holds up well.
The JourneymanShane Acker directed, produced, and worked in the primary animation roles on 9 over four years at the UCLA MFA program. The lighting and animation are professional but unexciting. The next quality level would be more tonal contrast, stronger key poses, and some fog or dust clouds to frame the shots in depth.
Character designs are thoughtful. For example, 9 is burlap with a zipper that also reads as a short tie. Mentor 5 is older, so it has button closures instead. The characters are their own pockets. Acker channels Lasseter to make this charming; Burton would have made it insipidly precious and Miyazaki, grotesque.
Texturing and materials are uneven. The textures occasionally stretch too far for real materials, distorting their appearance. A master CGI animator at the time might have carefully adjusted material mapping over the surface for each frame to avoid this. Today, cloth simulation technology economically solves this technical problem. So, the visual artifact is more a product of its time than an explicit lapse.
The Young Master
|Introducing the beast.
The character designs are specific through recognizable materials and differentiation. 9 and 5 are clearly similar but have distinct eyes, feet, and chests. The designs are suitably generic, with no fixed ethnicity, gender, body shape, or spoken language. That removes any barrier the viewer's personal identification. The abstraction of hand-drawn animation naturally achieves this. Acker is able to translate the property to a representational film. The setting is ambiguous early in the film to strengthen universality. Later elements suggest Europe or North America as the setting. These include brick architecture, an umbrella, and a white porcelain doll in the ruins.
All plot points and character relationships are clearly established. We knows the rules of this world and the major props from the outset. The foundations of plot twists are properly established so that the audience never feels blindsided. We see each trap being built, even though we don't realize it at the time. 9's number immediately indicates that there were at least eight others. We see the beast consume 5's soul, so we are prepared for the ending.
The film opens with brief vignettes of 9's daily life, linked by fading through black. Introducing a character though mundane experience is a technique for creating empathy. From this classic opening, Acker follows through with transparent mastery of other techniques:
- Clear establishing shots establish the set for each scene
- Cuts from POV shots to the characters' eyes
- Triangular compositions and blocking
- Dynamic color script, from muted browns to greens to warmer colors, and then a burst into pink and blue for the finale
- Clean lines and relatively high value contrast
|The final showdown.
WeaknessesI quibble with only two of Acker's choices. The first is the walking cane (hook screw) falling at 4:30. This event distracts the beast and enables 9 to escape. One should use such coincidences to draw characters into trouble, but never to release them. This is Hitchcock's rule.
|The back of the beast.
Moments of Brilliance
|5 strolls into the frame.
Exiting the flashback. Acker uses traditional tools to signal the beginning of the flashback: change of music and pace, faux film scratches, and a younger version of a character. Exiting a flashback is tricky. Like the character, the audience will be disoriented as they seek to recall the conditions before it. One must re-establish the scene and thus risk tedium by, for example, recycling a wide shot and then closeups to recall the character relations.
|Immediately after the flashback.
Acker deploys a bold technique for exiting the flashback. At 4:40, he crossfades between the flashback long shot of 9 running from the beast and the present-time, over-the shoulder shot of 9 in contemplation. The camera is in the same place but the lighting and color grading change. There is a necessary rack focus, but the depth of field is quite large at this point to obscure it. We never quite see flashback-9 and present-9 in the same frame, and the right-to-left running motion in the distance naturally leads directly to 9 entering the frame on the left due to a camera pan. This allows us to wake slowly from the flashback alongside 9 while avoiding repetition of the earlier establishing shot with the doll.
|The reverse shot after the jump in time; Acker twice
advances time within scenes instead of between them.