Experimental Reviews

Half Full (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Olivia Trotter

Animators: Ethan Lamb, Mackenzie Thompson, Luca LaFaire, Mike Dichiara, Molly Owen, Olivia Trotter, Misha O’hara Manley, Harley McCumber, Zoe Huddleston

Running time: 10mins

Interpreting experimental films can be tricky – especially ones described by their own creators as a “film/psychedelic fever dream”. Half Full is a short animation which appears to be a meditation on something or other. Life, maybe?

In abstract filmmaking, the creator has an important question to consider. How much meaning do they wish to impose on the work – if any at all – or do they want the viewer to be left to draw their own conclusions?

Then, regardless of how they approach that question, they still have numerous decisions to make. What images do they put on the screen? How do they present those? What sounds, speech or music do they include? How do they structure the film?

In animation, the creator has almost total control. There are no actors to filter the director’s intent. There are no hard-to-control factors such as set lighting or location noise. There may be some limits set by the animator’s technical skill or the film’s budget but aside from that what we see should be a direct transmission of the film maker’s vision.

And yet, there remains a language barrier.

Half Full is available in full on Vimeo. If you would like to see it, contact Olivia Trotter for the password, via her website.

Animation is a form of visual language. When it’s a clear representation of familiar objects, we can understand it quite easily, instinctively even. But if it veers into the abstract, if those familiar objects are tortured into indistinct shapes, the language becomes garbled. Fully abstract animation is a type of made-up language. As with any made-up language, we can sometimes discern meaning through tone of voice or a slight similarity to something from a language we already knew.

And so it is with Half Full. The film begins very clearly and obviously with an image of a half-full (or is it half-empty?) glass. The liquid is poured between various receptacles before forming a ball and then taking on a variety of shapes and forms as the visual language escapes its shackles. After a while, the imagery changes to recognisable, if iconographic, human symbols before shifting to more expressive figures with facial features.

Also in the mix are some Gilliam-esque appearances of classical statuary. Following what is very much a birth scene, the mood becomes cartoonish, with clown-hooter sound effects. The music has also been through some changes by this point. We then have a brief photo-montage scene, followed by a return to some of the earlier themes before heading into full CGI. This is slightly incongruous and, dare I say it, slightly 1990s. Finally, there’s a brief return to the original style and image of a glass half-full (or indeed half-empty).

In evaluating this film, the first question to ask is how successful has the language been in communicating the vision of (in this instance) the multiple creators. In my opinion, the answer is: quite successful. The mixture of clearly comprehensible and deliberately obscure imagery does a good job of evoking mood. There’s enough that’s recognisable to help us feel we have a rough idea of what’s going on – we’re not completely cast adrift. It’s an engaging watch; there’s always something happening and the pacing never gets bogged down.

The second question then is the fundamental one concerning meaning and the role of the viewer. And here I think the film’s use of metamorphic visual language works well. While offering clues and prompts towards possible themes, it never resorts to plodding prosaic literalism. Such films can be killed by the creator metaphorically shouting to get their message across. Here the makers have guided, teased and cajoled us without ever hectoring.

I had intended to give a crushingly obvious score of 2.5-out-of-5, along with a tediously predictable “either half-full or half-empty” comment. But the film is better than that, so I feel I should be too.

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