Tuesday 17 April 2012

Chaisson: Rise of the Zerad (2010)

Director: Kevin Ulrich
Stars: Bryan Forrest and Robert Daymond

The world is full of first time filmmakers and many of them begin their careers with short films. It makes sense, after all, to start small and grow big, to figure out the filmmaking process with only a condensed story and a barebones cast and crew. Well, Kevin Ulrich began with a short film too, this one, but it's hardly a small picture. It's 28 minutes long, for a start, which is a third of feature length so really isn't that short. What makes it really surprising is that it's an epic fantasy set in a fully realised world that unfolds entirely through stop motion animation. Even as stop motion it's nothing if not ambitious. Ulrich stages frequent battle sequences, sometimes with sixty or more characters, each with fifteen frames of movement a second. Just the animation alone took him eight months of work at ten hours a day, six days a week. This is not the usual slasher film shot in a back yard with a bunch of mates in Hallowe'en masks. Talk about patience and dedication!

The film starts as it means to go on, with a battle scene full of action and fire, elves fighting over the bodies of the slain and being thrown into stunts. Can we call them stunts when the stuntmen are made of clay over paper clips, sculpted into place and baked in a toaster oven? Well, I'm no animation guru, but given that every move has to be done frame by frame, brandishing a sword has to be a lot easier to stage than tumbling down a hill, so I'll stick with stunts. Ulrich and his younger brother, Brian, drew character design for a world called Chaisson even as kids and that world stayed with them as their skills grew and they got to the point where they could make this film. We're thrust right into that world at the usual point in high fantasy stories, when everything has hit the fan on a grand scale. It's a time of war, with race fighting race, alliances forged and broken, and a trio of new monsters, the Zerad of the title, to keep things really interesting.
In this slice of Chaisson history, the Elves of Enderen are attacked by the men of King Marduk of Nimbus. He has unleashed the Zerad to serve his will and built intrigue to provide the validation. Caught in the middle are the wolfmen, who are being slaughtered in the crossfire without much understanding of what's really going on. We arrive as Prince Elrane comes into his own as leader of the elves, with the help of a wolfman called Nentha. They battle and grow together, so he can lead his people to safety at a legendary hidden city called Ankoria. We realise that this is but a small story taken from a much bigger one, but that's always the case with the best high fantasy just as with the best history. It has all the components it needs to engage: not merely a world in conflict but characters in conflict too, with each other and with themselves. We're drawn in so effectively that we can't help but want more but those 28 minutes race by amazingly quickly.

Perhaps because stop motion takes so long to make, the follow up, Chaisson: Quest for Oriud, scheduled for release this summer, is live action. The trailer looks impressive but it'll have to do a lot to surpass this beginning. Ulrich only had to work with the voices of actors, so could build everything else exactly how he wanted it all on his own. His many years of amateur films, from Lego animations at the age of eleven up to this one, taught him the cinematic language and he uses it well. Characters are placed exactly where they should be, looking and moving the way they should. The choreography is impeccable and the camera movements follow suit. One shot in particular had me grinning like an idiot, as a giant berserker called the Brute unsheathes his weapons. The sound design and music are both players and the voice acting is solid. Then again, I think the Ulrichs had this in mind when they were in single digits. That's a lot of rehearsal time.

I was surprised to find that I recognised one of those actors, Robbie Daymond, who plays the lead wolfman, Nentha. He impressed me in a supporting role in Office of the Dead, a feature that blended horror with comedy, and then impressed me again in Recollection, a much more serious horror short, released the same year as this film. This is a complete change of pace but he does a fine job with only his voice. Most notable on the voice front, I think, has to be Steve Hahn, as he gives birth to some truly amazing vocal sounds, including a glorious Zerad shriek that's like a ringwraith/raptor hybrid on steroids. Bryan Forrest does a solid job as Prince Elrane, but he can't compete with Hahn's shrieks. At the end of the day though, this utterly belongs to Kevin Ulrich, mostly as the animator supreme but also as director and co-writer. I'll happily watch the live action sequel but I really want to see more glorious Chaisson claymation. Old school rocks.

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