There are two particularly powerful aspects of the best miniature-based animation: a kind of revelatory hyper-real perspective that comes from the relative size of the lens to the objects being represented (using a normal camera on miniature skyscrapers can give a level of detail and a texture of perspective equivalent to shooting a real skyscraper with a camera that is four stories tall); and the thrill that comes from recoginzing one material as the image of another (the moment when you see the puppet as both wooden and flesh, when you see the strings and simultaneously believe in its internal life).
The films of the PES animation collective profoundly excel in this second aspect. They make short witty stop motion films that tightly intertwine their materials with their subject matter, often in breatakingly surprising ways.
For example, in Kaboom, they give us a skyline made of oil cans, salt and pepper shakers, trophies, drill bits, tea balls, and old fashioned razors. The surrounding city grid is perfectly implied by loaded circuit boards. When the (peanut shell) bomb lands, shiny spherical Chrismas ornaments make for an especially cheery explosion. Rendering skyscrapers and bomb blasts with such transient and informal objects is a perfect match for the movie's apocalyptic narrative since it both underlines the fragility of even large scale human endeavors and simultaneously adds an irony of underemphasis to the destruction of the city, transforming it into a child's trashing of his model town.
This obsession with toys and brightly-colored baubles, is especially evident in another film, Fireworks.
This film follows the progression of a fuse setting off fireworks-launching coin wrappers whose amunition explodes into concentric bursts of children's candy and shiny change. At the start, two back-to-back yellow and orange candy corns make for a highly believable lighter's flame. The materials make physical the childlike wonder we feel at fireworks while playing with their sentimental and nostalgic resonances.
A third film, Wild Horses Redux (originally made as an ad for Nike), uses this material intelligence to explore classic themes of the Uncanny.
The film shows a team of toy football players stampeding across a furry landscape before passing through an opening into a cave with walls of meat (tunnels constantly recur in PES's films) before exiting back into the landscape and disappearing into the distance as the slogan "made to move" fades up along with the Nike "swoosh." All of the material choices, from the people represented by dolls (Hans Bellmer) to the furry ground with its exposed fleshy interior (Meret Oppenheim), use classic surrealist strategies for creating an Uncanny confusion between human and animal, living and inanimate. The frozen plastic football team rumbles like a herd of animals while the meat inside the cave implies that the whole landscape is itself a (formerly) living thing. All of these factors combine to create a confusion between a football game and a primal animalistic charge, which exactly fits Nike's larger branding aesthetic.
PES's films tend to last exactly long enough for you to notice what everything in them is made of and no longer (with the exception of Pee-nut, which rambles on trying to wring something more out of what is essentially a bawdy one-liner). Although this short format perfectly suits their reliance on these rich uses of materials, it would be exciting to see PES try to sustain a more complex story over a longer film, using multiple environments and sets of materials. With the right subject matter, PES could make a film that would find a place alongside The Triplets of Belleville in the growing niche in mainstream moviegoing for quirky and independent animation.