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The External World of David O’Reilly

This aggressively dark animation may be the best short film all year.

By / Posted on 15 February 2011

German animator David O’Reilly has certainly developed an aesthetic. Through commercial work in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Son of Rambow and the video for U2′s “I’m Gonna Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” O’Reilly has become recognized for creating cute child-like characters in a bleak and unwelcoming world. It’s an all-too relatable world-view, and perhaps why his personal films resonate and continue to win awards.

The latest such film is The External World, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, won the Grand Prix at the Ottawa International Animation Festival and received rave reviews just last month at Sundance. A seventeen-minute collection of vignettes that shine a light on the dark recesses of modern civilized society, The External World borrows vernacular from a wide range of pop culture, including videogames, cinema, animation both classic and contemporary and more. The more deeply set the audience is in these aspects of popular media, the more likely they are to understand and be significantly affected by the aggressively dark portrayal of the human condition displayed.

There’s really not much more we can say without ruining some of the experience, so please enjoy the film and we’ll discuss more below.

The boy who learns to play piano. From the very beginning of the film you expect him to get it right by the end. It’s just about the only thing you can predict accurately throughout. That he finally succeeds when all the other characters from The External World have congregated for his performance — and that he plays such a somber refrain — delivers a strong and deliberate message: you should be sad. The music is sad, the situation is sad, the stories are sad, you should all be ashamed of yourselves and (more importantly, as the camera backs out towards the cosmos) of the world.

'Don't worry, it's just animation. It has no real effect on people.'

The film is absolutely filled with moments that cause the viewer to open their eyes and proclaim, at least internally, “Wh-wh-whaaaat? Did that just…? Why did…? WOW, this is dark!” From the elderly cartoon slipping on the mischievous banana peel to the family of “Gentlemen” dismembering a man while the screen reminds the audience that “there is only a silent emptiness spreading infinitely in all directions,” familiar moments are extended to their morbid conclusions and beyond. Scenes and characters are revisited, showing how they’ve worsened over time. The Acme Retirement Castle becomes entirely flooded by the blood of their own, the girl who kills a worm for sexual pleasure is scalped by the very tissues she uses to console her grief (and let’s not even get started on her choice of “mood music”). Nothing is taboo. Racism, the Holocaust, and sexual perversion are all covered so effortlessly it’s like they weren’t remotely controversial. Even details like signage, advertisements and graffiti are all opportunities for O’Reilly’s biting cynicism.

The External World is truly a remarkable piece of work, one that should raise awareness of David O’Reilly as an innovative voice in the indie animation scene to the likes of Paul Robertson (Pirate Baby’s Cabana Street Fight 2006, King of Power 4 Billion %), Don Hertzfeldt (Rejected, Everything Will Be OK) and Bill Plympton (Your Face, I Married a Strange Person!). For extra credit, check out O’Reilly’s previous short-film, the 14-time award-winning 2009 clip about a troubled relationship, Please Say Something:

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.