Animation is a fantastic visual medium. It’s the one through which the storyteller’s rich inner world is most directly allowed to come to life, and that’s never more so than with computer-generated imagery, through which entire amazing worlds have been rendered.
However, this can be something of a double-edged sword. For, as you’re about to see, the rich inner worlds of some artists are actually deeply terrifying. Please note: The title isn’t lying. These animated shorts contain intense and disturbing images and themes.
By Mike Pelletier
Canadian artist Mike Pelletier has a thing for fusing the creative with the technological. This piece, rendered with the modeling software MakeHuman, was created by translating human muscle movements into computer algorithms, tweaking those algorithms using eerie, lifelike avatars, and then ratcheting those parameters beyond all rationality. Behold Parametric Expression, and sail right into the yawning gulf of the uncanny valley.
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you could smile, then just keep smiling, all the muscles involved stretching out in their own directions until they all burst right out of your face—well, then this may just be the film for you. You may also have some problems that the rest of this list are almost certainly going to exacerbate, so we hope you’ve never wondered that.
By Yuval Markovich And Noam Abta
This entry is technically only partially animated (it’s the only one, we promise), but what animation it is. All of the characters in this piece boast giant, bulbous animated heads attached to real bodies, which is quite unsettling. And that’s before the real horror kicks in.
Made by students at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Smile showed up on YouTube in 2008. It’s difficult to fathom where the concept could have originated; its story, such as it is, plays more like an exceptionally vivid nightmare than anything else (those heads don’t help). Just let its slow, increasingly surreal buildup to a bizarrely inevitable conclusion creep over you. And next time you meet a strange girl with her leg in a cast, maybe don’t ask her what happened.
8Escape From Hellview
By Hadas Brandes
Hadas Brandes is another illustrious alumnus of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and we’re starting to wonder if they do something terrible to their students. Escape From Hellview is everything its title promises. The viewer is drawn in by the simple, friendly animation style, thrown off balance with weird little visual cues, and finally rewarded with pure, distilled nightmare fuel.
The short is the story of a little boy who draws a door to a magical kingdom on the wall of his room one night, after his mother has gone to sleep. The things that happen there—including a vague, almost menacing, parental figure who won’t stay in one place long enough for the boy to reach its comforting (?) embrace—send the little boy screaming back through the door after a desperate escape from terrifying pursuers. But even back safely in his room, there’s little light or comfort at the film’s end.
By David Firth
If Escape plays like a distillation of childhood fears, animator David Firth’s Crooked Rot seems like nothing less than the bluntly, brutally adult version. There are images on display here that are as difficult to describe as they are to watch, and it will come as no surprise that a lot of David’s work deals with mental illness and depression, though he says he’s not trying to upset people.
This entirely stop-motion project features an original score from Swedish composer Marcus Fjellström, which stands on its own in terms of pure creepiness. We regret to inform you that the entries get more disturbing as we go along, and that Mr. Firth makes another appearance further down the list.
6The Sad Tale Of Bad Breath Joe
By Dimitri Kozma
Looking for a bit of a breather before powering through the rest of these? This piece, the shortest on the list, is the product of Brazilian-born Canadian multimedia artist Dimitri Kozma. His style combines a bit of the “grotesque” caricature method of art with cartoonish whimsy—and the result is deeply unnerving, especially in this short, which is ostensibly about societal pressure and the (apparently psychotic) lengths people will go to for acceptance.
We know exactly what’s coming in those final few seconds, and the short almost seems to be desperately trying to play for laughs. But if you’re trying to tell us that you didn’t really, really, feel like looking away, because of the little creak and slight splintering sound in your brain as the shot lingered on, then we’re trying to tell you that you’re lying.
By Aleksander Wasilewski
The second short on this list to be titled Smile has nothing in common with the first. Indeed, rather than a surreal, disjointed nightmare, Aleksander Wasilewski’s Flash-animated short is calm, deliberate, and almost gentle in its examination of cold, unflinching brutality.
In front of a jury-like panel of what may or may not be his peers, our protagonist is implored by a flashing sign (there are no spoken words) to SMILE! And he tries, though it looks as if his heart isn’t in it. Don’t worry, buddy—it’s only going to get harder.
The jarring ending of this piece could be seen as an abrupt tonal shift. We’d argue that it isn’t, unless the shift in question is from “bleak” to “soul-crushing despair.”
By Andrew Huang
We feel the need to reiterate—we’re heading into the home stretch. By continuing, you are agreeing that, yes, you would like to presented with some truly messed-up imagery. Moving on.
Los Angeles–based artist and filmmaker Andrew Huang produced this startling short, his commentary on humankind’s futile effort to find a satisfactory visage for ourselves among the vapid images we are fed by the mass media. As on-the-nose as that message may be, the cold, striking visual style, combined with expressive animation, give this short its ability to get under the skin. The unforgiving ending also serves to underline what seems to be a theme in many of these pieces, especially these final ones: a sense of utter futility.
By Chris Landreth
Chris Landreth is a computer animation veteran. His pioneering work helped lead to the development of Maya, one of the very first desktop computer animation applications. His short Bingo was among his first, produced in 1998. Despite that, you’ll notice that the animation is . . . very, very good. In fact, at the time, it’s likely that no other CG animation with so many moving parts had even been attempted. The unbelievably complex and moody visual style of the short is the perfect complement to a wicked, Twilight Zone–esque rumination on individuality.
A lone man sits in a spotlight on a dark stage; he seems unsure of who he is and how he got there. But the other denizens of the theater approach him one by one, with a suggestion for him—he’s Bingo. Bingo the Clown-O. By the time the lights finally come up in this theater, you may very well be wondering who exactly you are.
2Dog Of Man
By David Firth
David Firth strikes again, with a piece that he describes very succinctly: “This one is about a man and his dog.” That’s it. We suppose you could describe it that way, if you would also describe Eraserhead as a movie about a man and his baby.
The simply animated short does, indeed, depict a relationship between man and dog. A relationship that involves such Cronenbergian body horror as electrical plugs stuck squishily into skulls, throbbing malevolent tumors, and dismemberment by large knife. An apparent bid to make Crooked Rot seem soothing and comforting, Dog Of Man hits discordant, sanity-stretching notes with every image and every spare line of dialogue—including especially the final, choking croon of “Thank you very much.”
By Renzo Kinoshita
Finally, we have a piece by veteran Japanese animator Renzo Kinoshita. The director of award-winning children’s television programming of the ’60s and ’70s was commissioned to produce this short, and, yes, it was made for children—Japanese school children. You may see where we’re going with this.
Animated in the loving, gentle style of early Disney features, the short spends nearly its entire first half simply showing us the routines of several citizens—a small child, a breast-feeding mother, a cart driver—in the city of Hiroshima, early on an August morning in 1945. The second half is exactly what you think it is. The short intended to show its viewers the full horror of what happened in that city, on that day.
Unlike the rest of the entries on this list, the film is meant not to frighten or disturb, but to educate as to the capacity for destruction lurking in the very darkest aspects of human nature. It is, for that reason, the most disturbing of them all.