I’ve probably said this before, but the standard approach to CG doesn’t do a whole lot for me. It isn’t the fact that it’s rendered, or anything to do with “authenticity” or “heart” or any of those vague qualities that mean less and less the more you try to pin them down. It’s because of two things that really boil down to one thing: an overemphasis on realism on the one hand, and when there is stylization, an unwillingness to move much beyond the template that Disney/Pixar established. It’s a lack of imagination. In hand-drawn animation you tend to see the animator’s personal quirks in every frame. In CG, you see their desire to look as professional as possible.
There are exceptions, of course. There are always exceptions. David O’Reilly’s simplified, video-gamey worlds and the procedural weirdness of Ugly are two recent examples, and there’s a whole world of bizarre animation tests and films that embrace unpredictable glitches and interesting proofs-of-concept that I find myself getting lost in for hours at a time. The point of all this being, there’s a whole lot of unexplored space out there in CG land, which makes it all the more frustrating how rare it is to see fully fleshed out shorts that are interested in that kind of exploration.
Shunsuke Saito’s Small Garden is a step in the right direction. The dappled, watercolour-ish style reminds me a lot of the aesthetic that Ori Toor has been exploring lately, and it lends a lot of warmth to the visuals. The character designs are unique, too—you can see how they’ve evolved from Saito’s sketches in a way that suits the CG landscape.
Small Garden isn’t a perfect film by any stretch. The plot is just vague enough to be frustrating; you get a sense of what’s going on, but it’s hard to pin it down exactly, even after repeated viewings. But it’s lovely and distinctive in a way that a lot of films of this scale just aren’t. Animation festivals sometimes get flack for leaning towards hand-drawn films over digital ones, and there’s definitely some truth to that. But if more of those CG films were easy on the eyes as Saito’s work, I think you’d see that balance shift pretty quickly.