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Fresh out of college and with no tempting job offers, Latvian arts graduate Gints Zilbalodis decided to start work on an animation. Away is the result, a remarkable film – and all from one man’s bedroom (and imagination).

Zilbalodis was 24 when he started on his three-and-a-half-year marathon and didn’t just do all the animation we see in the finished result – he pretty much did everything else too, production, editing, sound, music the lot. Think of the scrolling hundreds of names you see in the credits in a typical animation and marvel.

It’s obvious from the opening shot that something good is going on. A young man hangs from a blasted tree by a parachute cord. Zooming in much closer, the “camera” observes an eyelid. It doesn’t so much open as peel back.

Over the next 75 minutes we follow this survivor, a stranger in a strange land, as he tries to find his way back home, through a wasteland which occasionally shows signs of once having been inhabited, accompanied by a small yellow bird and pursued by a gigantic dark lumbering creature, a Golem in all but name.

You could describe the plot as “bare bones Studio Ghibli” – wide-eyed human juvenile being menaced– though no words are spoken through all four chapters. In interviews, Zilbalodis has said that he divided Away up this way to make it seem like less of a mountain to climb. I’m just making four shorts, easy-peasy kind of thing. And after getting rave responses to the first part, Oasis, after he put it up online, he felt he had the green light to continue.

Stylistically it’s a case of trying to extract the maximum effect from the minimum. This extends to every aspect of the film from the one-word title onwards. It’s most visible in the animation, which consists of great blocks of colour, simpler in style than the Tintin books but not a million miles away. Think Fuzzy Felt, shadow-free, or with as few shadows as possible. This is notably broken in the case of the “Golem” (my shorthand for a creature never named) who seems to be a boiling mass of shadow and so has some 3D form – but in general Zilbalodis suggests dimension by “camera” movement and perspective shifts rather than shading. This would have been impossible on home computing tech even a handful of years ago.

On his way to safety
On his way to safety

That’s not to say there isn’t any feeling of light in the film. In fact at one level it is an almost academic exercise in the rendering of light, the way it turns green leaves into translucent shimmers of colour, or the searing white of the desert our fugitive is at one point trying to cross, or a geyser erupting from the earth as if it were an almost solid chunk of water with facets changing shade like some semi-polished gem stone.

The minimalist style extends to the score, which is inspired by Max Richter and Philip Glass, among others, and to the story itself, which has a simple chase dynamic. The man flees, at speed once he finds a motorbike (it must be a magical realm because he never seems to need to refuel it), pursued by this dark giant who can only plod but nightmarishly never stops, in It Follows style (surely a film Zilbalodis watched while a student).

No words, simple chase plot, it doesn’t sound that dramatic, and though the minimalism of the animation is brilliant, it’s slightly less effective in terms of the story, which came to an end just at the point when, I thought, its creator had taken it about as far as it could go. Any further and Away was about to start feeling like a video game that’s running through the level.

That said, there’s a chase-jeopardy sequence set on a rickety crumbling bridge that is so well executed on every level that it makes that criticism seem churlish.

The yellow bird is an obvious nod to Disney – the animal sidekick – and adds some empathic heft to what could almost as easily be watched as an exercise in technique, and of the squeezing of every artistic choice for every drop it’ll release.

All in all a remarkable achievement. Will Gints Zilbalodis found a studio though?

Away – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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