Judge Joel Pearce loves this documentary short about Canadian animator Ryan Larkin. Why can't you understand that? What, does he have to draw you a picture?
"…but I'm getting off the subject, I'm afraid. This story is about Ryan."—Chris Landreth
Winner of the 2004 Academy Award for animated short, Ryan is an example of what can be done in a brief 14 minutes of film. This documentary presents a fresh way of looking at the world, and it's augmented on this excellent DVD release by a big stack of supplemental material.
Facts of the Case
Ryan Larkin had a promising career in the late '60s as an animator with the Candian National Film Board. He had two Oscar nominations, before falling from grace and into an ugly drug habit. Decades after creating his last film, he's a panhandler living in extreme poverty. He still draws, though, and most of his inspiration is gained from the few short seconds he spends with the people who pass him on the street.
Ryan's director, Chris Landreth, uses his own cunning animation to capture Ryan's past and present life. The dialogue between the characters is real, recorded during live conversations between Chris and Ryan. The animation is another story altogether…
Some short films have a lot more to say than features. Ryan is one of these shorts, and it has an important place in the history of Canadian film. Few people have now heard of Ryan Larkin, even though his films have had a great influence on a generation of animators. Ryan's story is a sad one, but instead of telling it in a conventional way, Chris Landreth decided to use the medium that Ryan himself had used.
Chris Landreth is most noted for his unique brand of animation, which has been dubbed "psychorealism." Characters are deformed and grotesquely molded by the psychological damage they have sustained over the course of their lives. Each character flaw and destructive choice remains as colorful scar tissue, until eventually some of the characters look barely human. This surreal world co-exists with our own, like an inverted dimension seen through a mirror. This allows Landreth to show Larkin's emotional damage (as well as his own) in visual terms.
Landreth's style of animation makes Ryan much more than a documentary. We hear the two men talk and share their ideas, but we're also able to see what is going on inside their psyches. Bursts of colors and shapes emerge as thoughts, both reinforcing and subverting the words that the characters utter. I want to be careful how much of the film I describe, since seeing it is such a wonderful experience. I will say, however, that enough is happening visually that the film warrants several close viewings.
A 14-minute short film is hardly enough to fill a DVD. Fortunately, Rhino realizes that. In addition to Ryan, the disc contains five other short films directed by Ryan Larkin or Chris Landreth, as well as an hour-long documentary about the creation of Ryan called Alter Egos. This documentary, directed by Laurence Green, has many of the features of a special edition DVD. It has production footage, interviews with a variety of people, as well as a closer look into Ryan Larkin's past. It answers many of the questions that the short leaves unanswered, and it leads up to a fascinating true-life event: Ryan Larkin seeing the film made about him for the first time. Because of his own insecurities, waiting to see his response is suspenseful and excruciating.
Inclusion of the other short films was also important to fully understanding Ryan. While Larkin's films were influential by being famous and impressively drawn, there are other things that tie them aesthetically to Chris Landreth's film. Both are created without the usual animation aids. Larkin's films were drawn purely by hand, without the aid of rotoscoping or keyframing. That means that he drew each frame completely and independently, though you would never guess by looking at it. Likewise, Chris Landreth didn't use any motion capture in order to create the CGI characters that appear in his own film. In Chris Landreth's other films, we see how his psychorealism technique developed. Every one of the short films here are truly impressive pieces of art, and the chance to have them all assembled on one DVD is a great opportunity.
The transfers are excellent as well. Ryan and Alter Egos are both presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and are vibrant and impeccable, as expected with recent digital productions. The other short films are presented in their original ratios, and have been remastered nicely, particularly considering the age and budget of the old NFB films. The sound is also strong, with most of the films mastered in either Dolby 5.1 surround or stereo. Aside from the additional films, the only real extras are commentary tracks on every one of the shorts, delivered by their respective directors. They are impressive, covering everything from the design process to the animation techniques.
If you have any interest in animation, get yourself a copy of this DVD immediately. It features some very impressive short films by truly skilled animators, and also gives the contextual background needed to make Ryan: Special Edition worthy of a place in your collection. The story of Ryan Larkin is a sad one, but his glorious early days as an animator have been brought back into the light with Chris Landreth's unique and powerful short.
I wonder what my psychological damage looks like…
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