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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Relative Orbits / Fighting Gravity: Two Animated Short Film Collections by Joanna Priestley
Relative Orbits / Fighting Gravity: Two Animated Short Film Collections by Joanna Priestley
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Review by Randy Miller III | posted December 18, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Abstract, creative, dramatic and lovingly crafted, Relative Orbits and Fighting Gravity are two collections of short animated films by award-winning artist Joanna Priestley. She's produced and directed roughly 17 of these shorts over the past 20+ years, using a variety of media and techniques to create a diverse body of work that really thinks outside the box. Since 1980, Priestly has taught animation and the history of cinema at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, Northwest Film Center/Portland Art Museum, and even at Volda College in Norway. She's also an instructor at the Art Institute of Portland and a strong advocate of animation as a serious art form.

Although I've been a lover of comics, cartoons and animation since day one, it pains me to say I'd never seen any of Priestley's work before spending time with Relative Orbits and Fighting Gravity. It's a good thing I had both collections, too, because these things are addicting. The themes are varied, including the spoken-word confessional "Voices" (seen above) and the excellent study of prison life found in "Pro and Con" (below). There's also a biting look at romance in "All My Relationships" and a tribute to southern Spain found in "Andaluz". "The Dancing Bulrushes" uses backlit sand animation to re-create a traditional Ojibwa tale about a coyote. Another personal favorite, "Grown Up", explores the personal joys and pains that come with age.

Did I mention her films were varied?

Every short is skillfully done and worthy of multiple viewings; not just for the strength of the stories, but for the creative execution of the animation itself. These two discs (available separately, or as a pair) present the bulk of Priestley's work over the past two decades. Although I'd have preferred a more complete one or two-disc volume presented in chronological order, it's hard to complain when the content is this good. Here's the listing for each volume:

Relative Orbits: Voices (1985), She-Bop (1988), All My Relations (1990), Candyjam (1988), Pro and Con (1993), After the Fall (1991), Hand Held (1995) and Grown Up (1993). There's also a few nice bonus features, covered in more detail below.

Fighting Gravity: Utopia Parkway (1997), Surface Dive (2001), Andaluz (2004), Dew Line (2004/5), The Rubber Stamp Film (1983) and The Dancing Bulrushes (1985). Same deal about the bonus features...read on for more!

Strangely absent from the line-up---according the her filmography---is Times Square (1986), though it may be unearthed for a future collection.

Again, it's a shame this body of work couldn't have been presented in pure chronological order, as it would have been nice to see Priestley's evolution as an artist more clearly. With roughly two and a half hours of content combined (including the bonus features), it's also strange that both collections couldn't have fit on one disc (or, at the very least, a combined two-disc set). They're available directly from her website for $20 a pop (or $35 for the pair) plus shipping, so they might be a little expensive for some casual fans. Still, the content is strong enough to make this a must-see for die-hard fans of animation and short films. With that said, let's see how these discs stack up, shall we?

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Presentation:

In short, these films look excellent and won't disappoint. Colors are bold and rich, the transfers are clean and clear, and all but the earliest films look to be in immaculate condition. There are no major digital imperfections to be found, though I spotted a bit of interlacing (which animation fans are undoubtedly familiar with by now) and a hint of edge enhancement. Overall, a fine presentation and likely the best these short films have ever looked.

Likewise, the audio presentation does the job nicely. Much like the video quality, I'd have to give a slight edge to Fighting Gravity, if only for the younger age of the material presented. The bulk of the shorts are presented in a standard 2.0 Stereo format, though a handful of the newer films are also given an additional 5.1 Dolby Digital treatment. There's not a terrible amount of ambience present in these mixes, but the audio is clear and easily heard.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:

The overall presentation for each disc is nearly identical, and both are highlighted by fun, colorful menus. Each of the shorts can be viewed individually, and a handy "play all" option is also included. Each film is presented with no chapter stops, and no layer change was detected during playback. Like the films themselves, all menus and bonus features are presented in a 4:3 fullscreen aspect ratio. Packaging is also simple and straightforward, as each disc is housed in a clear plastic keepcase with descriptions of each film on the back. No inserts are included, although I'm not certain if my screener copies include the final artwork.

Bonus Features:

Each disc contains a nice little assortment of bonus material. Relative Orbits gives us a Priestley-guided Studio Tour (14 minutes), as she makes frequent stops to give the viewer a taste of her techniques and material. There's also a brief Behind-the-Scenes look at how she created "Voices", "She-Bop", "Pro and Con" and "Grown Up", as well as a list of Credits and other related info. Fighting Gravity contains an additional two Short Films: Jade Leaf (1985) and Kali Yuga (2000), as well as another Studio Tour with behind-the-scenes looks at "Surface Dive" and "Utopia Parkway". There's also a nice Interview with sound designer Lance Limbocker (8 minutes)---who's collaborated with Priestley on four of the shorts---and a second list of Credits and other info. Overall, not a bad mix of bonus material, though I'd have loved to hear a few commentaries here and there.

Final Thoughts

For fans of animation and quality short films, Relative Orbits and Fighting Gravity provide a nice one-two punch of indispensable material. Although I'd have preferred a more complete single volume, each of these collections offers a nice glimpse at one of animation's most overlooked talents. If I had to pick between the two, though, I'd have to lean towards Relative Orbits: it's a slightly stronger, more personal collection of Priestley's work (most of it earlier in her career). Still, it's hard to go wrong with either one, and die-hard fans would do well in picking up both collections. For all aspiring artists, this fantastic pair of discs easily comes Recommended.

Randy Miller III is a bald-headed cartooning instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.
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