What if somebody drank so much that their face mutated? Quite the unexpected premise for a short story, yet it is precisely what came to the genius mind of Martinus Klemet for his latest animated gem, Face Recognition.
Igor could not foresee the crazy turn his day would take when he committed an infraction by crossing a street with the red light on and got his face recognized on a surveillance camera. Definitely not that he would get so drunk that his face would mutate into a gorilla’s and most definitely not that he would end up playing bowling with his pursuers using their heads and body parts as props.
As unreal as it may seem, what happens to Igor is based on actual news Klemet read about people in China being caught on surveillance cameras in public toilets and fined for overusing toilet paper. At a time when we are witnessing the increasing use of new technologies to track people and intrude on their private lives, Face Recognition could not be more timely and feels like a salutary punch in the face.
Encroachment on people’s freedom and intrusion in their privacy strikes a strong chord with Estonia-born Klemet, as he experienced it firsthand in his childhood. “I tend to create stories about the loss of freedom. We Estonians are very sensitive about that topic, because of our history”. He was already a young adult when he could finally attend his first animation festival in Tallinn, as his country regained its independence after almost half a century of iron-clad Soviet rule.
With foreign influences banned in the country, he grew up watching Eastern European animation on TV and was inspired by their unique mix of quirk and dark humor. Watching Estonian animation made under Soviet rule immerses the viewer in a dark and surreal world, clearly reflecting the gloom of the era but also the animators’ mastery of social satire. A masterclass in dodging the bullets of censorship, where the stroke of a pen and absurd storytelling create eerie and dark visual beauty.
In spite of being a small relatively unknown nation, Estonia is making big waves in the animation world, with its directors regularly gracing international festivals and winning coveted prizes. Voldemar Päts’ Adventures of Juku the dog in 1931 marked the first milestone in Estonia’s rich tradition of animation, later boasting internationally acclaimed directors of the likes of Heino Pars, Rao Heidmets, and Priit Pärn. An impressive feat for a country of fewer than 1.5 million people. The unique blend of absurd storytelling, eerie atmosphere, and dark humor has become the trademark of Estonian animation and makes it, without a doubt, one of the most versatile and exciting to watch.
Martinus Klemet definitely stands as a worthy heir to his predecessors, one of the main faces of the new generation of Estonian animators along with the likes of Kaspar Jancis. And for good reason, as his teacher and mentor is none other than the legendary animator Priit Pärn himself.
Known for his departure from conventional graphic styles and depiction of everyday situations, Pärn’s influence on the new generation of Estonian animators, Klemet included, is undisputed. When asked about his ability to come up with unexpected and unique ideas, Martinus credits his famous teacher for his unique storytelling methodology. Students learn to associate random and totally unrelated words or concepts to create their own stories. This technique is reminiscent of the cadavre exquis―an exquisite corpse in French―a method developed by Surrealist artists at the beginning of the 20th century in France. What started as a game among them where someone would choose a word then hide it and pass it on to the next until a random sentence was born, developed into a full-fledged method to create and develop unique ideas. The same playfulness permeates Klemet’s work, with a healthy dose of dry humor.
Another striking aspect of his work, which appears to be a trademark of Estonian animation, is the mindboggling versatility of style and techniques used. Diving into his previous work is like looking through a kaleidoscope where minimalist hand-drawn strokes cohabit with 3D and poetic pastel colors with a constant thread of absurd playfulness tying them all together.
When asked about why his style changes so much from one film to the next, Klemet answers pragmatically: “I thought a lot about the style of my animation, if I should develop my own trademark as many animators do, but I just get bored sticking to one style”. His previous experience in commercial animation and commission work for art museums also explains his ability to easily morph into different styles on demand. His attraction to hand-drawn animation however remains a constant. “It feels more spontaneous and the drawing process helps generate new ideas. I just love drawing”.
That spontaneity radiates throughout Face Recognition with its bold and simple style. Minimalist with clear-cut lines but also a far from the innocent choice of block colors of red, `white, and black to convey its message. A striking combination of colors that have been abundantly used by authoritarian regimes. “In my opinion, this is the most aggressive color combination possible. I thought that style really supported the theme and the satiric aspect of the film” explains Klemet.
One of the first students to join the Estonian Academy of Arts’s animation department upon its creation in 2006, Klemet is now following in the footsteps of his mentor Priit Pärn as a lecturer passing on his knowledge to a new generation, although as he jokes, sometimes it is not clear who is teaching. While this helps him keep in touch with new developments in equipment―his students introduced him to a new software he used on Face Recognition―he is eager to give opportunities to his students to work on concrete projects. A few of them are now working as craftsmen on feature animation, a European co-production.
Klemet however is happiest when working on his own projects and is grateful for the academy’s support for his creative work and touring international festivals. He recently returned from a festival in Fredrikstad in Norway where Face Recognition was selected. A real jack of all trades, he happily talks about his unexpected travel companion, a life-size sleeping statue of his main character Igor, which he displayed around the Norwegian city as a sort of impromptu happening as he enjoyed the puzzled faced of passersby. The former fine arts student is already dreaming of recreating his movie’s final scene as an art installation. As for his next animation project, it is only in its early stages but one thing is for sure, it will feature hand drawing and dark humor. Be prepared to expect the unexpected.
Face Recognition (Director: Martinus Klemet) was the nominee for MFW7 Best Animation Short. The film was screened at the Opening of Minikino Film Week 7, Bali International Short Film Festival at Geo Open Space, Omah Apik Pejeng, Uma Seminyak, and art-house cinema MASH Denpasar.