Readily apparent from our past selections, we’ve got a lot of animation geeks on staff here at Short of the Week. Thus our thesaurus is chockfull of adjectives we like to use in describing this love. However “cinematic” is rarely one of them. It’s a term we’re not shy about throwing around for live-action dramas, or the new breed of documentaries that rely on exquisite camerawork, but cinematic tends to connote the magic of—well—the cinema. And here in the States we don’t have good examples of animation painting on that kind of canvas.
So when To Build A Fire opens with an extreme wide shot of a snowy expanse, revealing a absurdly wide aspect ratio that is nearly 3:1, it caused us to lean forward in our chairs. “Well, this is different”.
The newest online release from Fx Goby, previously featured for his work with Matthieu Landour on En Tu Brazos and The Elaborate End of Robert Ebb, To Build a Fire is indeed very different from what we’ve come to expect from animations—which is fitting for the talented Nexus Studios director, who has seamlessly traverses animation and live-action in his commercial and artistic career. The film is simple, perhaps a bit too much for its 12min runtime, and relies heavily on pulling you into its rhythm and fixing you within its tension for it to work—something that, again, likely works better in a theatrical environment rather than on your phone. In contrast to the expanse of its landscapes, the narrative of To Build a Fire is purposefully intimate and grounded. Based on a celebrated short story from Jack London, it is a classic man vs wild story, but the drama is, as always, within man himself, as our protagonist fights simple mistakes, and the resultant panic, in an attempt to survive bitter temperatures that are 50 below.
Largely wordless, except for barked commands to his dog companion, the film will resonate with fans of The Revenant, as it is a similar survival tale set in austere conditions. Goby however uses the art of animation to accentuate the themes he is playing with. The vast backdrops contrast with how tiny and insignificant the man is amongst the larger landscape. These backgrounds are intricately detailed, yet the man himself is oddly simple in his character design. Nature is complex in Goby’s reasoning, but the drives and impulses that propel that man are innate and primal.
London’s short story is narrated, but Goby opts against, placing a bigger burden on himself and the production to effectively relate the man’s internal thought process through blocking, body language and music. The latter aspect received a big boost when composer Mathieu Alvado and the film team successfully secured the services of the London Symphony Orchestra in performing the score, the first time they had done that for a short film. This accompaniment helps immeasurably in invoking the cinemascope grandeur of bygone Hollywood films, adding to that cinematic feel.
Programmed at over 40 top-flight film festivals, the film makes it premiere online today as a Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere. After having success in longer formats with TV docs in Europe, Goby is currently writing his first feature screenplay.