By Phil Hall | February 6, 2008

Say “student film” and it is too easy to clench your jaw with impatience. Say “computer animation” and it is too easy to die a little over the prospect of another garish, tacky production.

But, holy cow and hallelujah, it’s time to smile and bask in the glow of “Solar,” a wonderful computer animated short by Ian Wharton and Edward Shires, students at the Cumbria Institute of the Arts in Great Britain. “Solar” is a fascinating slice of imagination, artistry, humor and originality. And with a running time of less than five minutes, it is everything a short film should be – quick, succinct and memorable.

“Solar” takes place at a strange barnyard-type residence located in a dark, dreary, isolated outpost. Wind turbines blow from the rooftop and on large towers. A stretch of railroad track snakes by the residence, which is home to a muscular giant and a tiny robotic character. Their job is to place large boulders into the cup of a huge mechanized catapult and shoot the boulders into heavens. The boulders, which come with propellers that power their trajectory, turn color from cold grey to warm gold during their orbit. But their flight is limited and they eventually fall back into the catapult’s giant cup. And the process is not foolproof – in one case, the smaller character needs to do celestial troubleshooting.

The joy of “Solar” is recognizing that it is simultaneously simple and complex. The story line is deceptively simple – a monotonous labor is abruptly yet briefly disrupted by an unexpected breakdown. Yet the setting and execution shows startling creativity. The production design is wonderfully eerie, with its mix of a seemingly benign rural setting with odd characters and contraptions that clearly seem more at home in science fiction. The film’s final scene, which explains the ongoing actions in their proper geographical content, is boldly imaginative and richly humorous.

Yes, I am being a bit skimpy on details on what makes “Solar” so special. However, this short is online and I would prefer if you saw it for yourself – giving away too much information would spoil the shock of Wharton and Shires’ deep talent.

If “Solar” is any indication, Wharton and Shires will be reconfiguring the animated film genre in a very short time.

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