How's this for a parable of modern life?
An effete engineer woos a damsel, and they go to the back of a train for a snog. This sends the unmanned engine careening down the tracks. The giddy passengers hardly notice at first. Even when they do, those in economy merrily accept the abuse of the first-class passengers, as an unperturbed bovine sits dumbly on the front of the engine's cow catcher awaiting its fate.
That's how Cordell Barker, one of Canada's most popular animators, sees the world in his new film.
The slapstick animated short, Runaway, depicting society's auto-destruction in the guise of a runaway train, is currently playing the Sundance film festival, along with two other standout films by the National Film Board of Canada: Bruce Alcock's Vive La Rose and David Coquard-Dassault's Rains.
Barker's film, however, has generated uncommon buzz. It has already won awards at both Cannes and the prestigious Annecy animation festival in France last year. It's also a possible candidate for an Oscar nomination.
As a freelance animator in Winnipeg for nearly 33 years ("I'm ashamed to say, I live about four blocks away from where I grew up"), Barker has spent much of his career doing work for commercials. Runaway is only his third film, after his 2001 short Strange Invaders and 1988's The Cat Came Back, both of which were nominated for Oscars. The Cat Came Back remains one of the NFB's all-time hits and is among the most-downloaded of the shorts on the NFB's iPhone app. Runaway maintains Barker's hyperactive animation style. And while his first two films hinged on personal hysteria (while trying to get rid of a destructive feline) and marital mayhem (with the arrival of a devilishly sweet alien), Runaway addresses a larger theme.
"The metaphor of this film is that, whether you notice the jeopardy or not, everybody is trapped on this track, and we're all going to the same place," Barker explains. "I'm a bit of a Cassandra. I'm always feeling like I'm looking around and seeing this really apparent jeopardy. But a lot of people I know [have]that kind of disbelief that anything can shake their normal day-to-day life," he says. "I keep thinking, 'Man, we're doomed.'"
On the phone from Winnipeg, Barker isn't as downbeat as his words. His tone is moderate, not morose, though nowhere near as exuberant as his films. His work makes you imagine him as a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants guy, madly fine-tuning his energetic animation - but Barker comes across as just the opposite.
"For some reason, I just agonize over them," he says. "I think I'm fairly pessimistic, so once I get rolling [on a new film] I'm just a big bag of self-doubt. I agonize to the point where it takes much longer than it should, and then of course the longer you take, the greater the completion anxiety. And then it just spins out of control."
That's surprising. "I know, isn't that weird?" says Barker, who describes himself as more of an observer of life around him than a participant. "I've only made three films. But I've noticed that, in each case, I have to attain that critical mass in order to feel that it's no longer just a bunch of separate bits and pieces . . . that it's all starting to tie together. And then I feel the weight of the thing is now there, that my original concept is coming to fruition."
Winnipeg has been a supportive base for Barker. Some of his major influences have been fellow Winnipeg animators Richard Condie and Brad Caslor, as well as the Dutch animator Paul Driessen, who has worked with the NFB. He also lists The Ren & Stimpy Show and old Warner Bros. cartoons as having a strong impact on his work - real "cartoony" stuff, as he calls it, with brisk, comic timing.
This probably accounts for much of Barker's popularity, far greater than the attention paid to the ground-breaking and auteur-ish work many other NFB animators produce. Vive La Rose, for instance, a mix of drawing and stop-motion animation, is about lost love in traditional Newfoundland, set to a ballad by Emile Benoit. Rains, in contrast, is a beautiful depiction of a city soaked by precipitation and the little patterns of behaviour that emerge in people's efforts to stay dry.
Partly because of his self-doubt, partly because of his busy schedule of commercial work, Barker has had to set aside his personal films for long stretches of time. He shelved Strange Invaders for two and a half years in the mid-1990s, for instance, while working on a Bell Canada campaign. He stewed over the idea for Runaway for years.
These days he has more time, he says. Swirling computerized graphics and digital imagery is replacing a lot of traditional animation work, freeing up Barker to focus on his own films in the spare-bedroom studio in his house.
"I'm sort of viewing this as a good thing," he says. "I did let myself get sidetracked by [commercial work]a little more than I should have. And if I hadn't done that, I would certainly have more than three short films done and maybe something even longer form. That's something that interests me a lot, the idea of developing ideas for something longer."