Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Animation of Sally Cruikshank

I’d already become aware that independent animator Sally Cruikshank was responsible for a beloved childhood short from Sesame Street, and that she had produced other, stranger animation, but going back to her catalogue for a second time made me realized how much I loved her material.

It’s entirely unsurprising. After all, her art is very brightly-coloured and extremely surreal, with a penchant for reptile-people…how could I not like it? When I have some extra money, I’m definitely going to buy the DVD of her shorts that she offers from her website, though the Sesame Street ones won’t be on there.

For me, it started out with the Sesame Street animation, “Above It All”, about an alligator-girl and her flight-enabling beanie. Normally I’d boo and hiss at a reptile with hair and lipstick, but the short was so good I really didn’t care. It perfectly captured (and may have triggered) some of my childhood dreams of flying.

Going through her catalogue reveals other Sesame Street shorts I remember/or are memorable. “From Your Head”is a great adventure in dreaming and thinking, and “ “Beginning Middle and End”   is another something I do remember from childhood; it’s about storytelling, and has a pterodactyl in it. Good times, and there are many more of such shorts, instantly recognizable.

When it comes to her independent work, the ultimate standout is the short “Face Like a Frog” an innocuously titled short which is the most bizarre cartoon I’ve ever seen. There is a bit of a plot, but it’s really just an excuse for weird shit to happen. Driving on a night road, a frog-man is lead by a frog-woman named Gluey to a hexed house that she thinks he can un-hex. The house turns out to be filled with her weird frog family. He does manage to escape with Gluey on a subway that goes to hell but “makes one stop in Miami Beach”. With the visuals it’s even weirder, and even the bland, brief dialogue becomes a window to strangeness once put in context. There’s also a cameo by Danny Elfman and Oingo Boingo, as a lizard who tells the protagonist in song to avoid the house’s basement.

Two of her other longer shorts, “Quasi at the Quackadero”  and “Make Me Psychic” don’t quite match that level of strangeness, but they are pretty strange. The first thing you’ll notice is that the protagonists of these shorts are called “ducks” but like some kind of strange Muppet, with long muzzles in place of noses and mouths, and yellow colouring for the male characters, being their only presumably avian features. Cruikshank even admits that, “they came out looking like ducks only her, which is a wonderfully strange statement. One short is about a trip to a fair, the other about a device that allows its owner to have psychic powers, though both are given innumerable bizarre twists.

However, her more recent shorts are sadly disappointing. They lack the vibrant colour and detail of her older works, and instead look like crude MS Paint facsimiles of the same. The use of text-to-voice software over actual voice actors is also very off-putting, and the attempts at satirizing consumer culture (in shorts like “Whinsey on Your Phone”and the “Charbucks” series) also fall flat.

Still, her major material is worth checking out, and needs to be seen to be believed. Find most of her work at her personal YouTube channel, Sally Cruikshank Films, or her website Fun on Mars, through which you can order her DVD.

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