LAIKA

‘Spooky Girls’: a new puppet short-film series

The Hand and the Shadow production company has a new series of puppet films about teen witches ready to roll

UPDATE: Spooky Girls is now watchable on Vimeo.

A funny thing happens when you have puppeteer friends: sometimes, the coolest strangers who show up in your photo feed turn out, upon closer inspection, to be handcrafted. That’s been happening to me lately with specimens from The Hand And The Shadow production company’s as-yet-unreleased The Spooky Girls. See for yourself.

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Tracy gives a documentary-style “interview” in one of the Spooky Girls shorts. Each character gets to have their say this way.

Pretty lifelike, no? Yeah, spookily so.

The Spooky Girls is the passion project of Jason Thibodeaux, Gabriel Temme, and Sarah Frechette (whom nerds of the oeuvre may remember from a feature in Artslandia Kids 2015, various LAIKA credits, and Night Shade Puppet Theatre, a shadow-puppet troupe that’s played TBA and Disjecta with Japanther). Wrapping a year of hard work in studio, they plan to start rolling out 11 short webisodes on and after Halloween, although the platform (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) hasn’t yet been announced. Then, they hope to crowdfund a feature film.

When I stopped by The Hand And The Shadow’s studio workspace—a warehouse on North Columbia Boulevard—they’d just finished shooting a scene on their “pizza place” set (a dead ringer for Rocco’s). Tracy, a lavender-haired post-punk character a little shorter than my forearm, was perched in a red vinyl booth, poised to enjoy a tiny chocolate sundae.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: A Bartow gift; last licks of summer

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

And suddenly it’s fall. Not on the wall calendar, but on the school calendar, by which thousands of kids across Oregon went back to their classrooms on Monday, a week before Labor Day, depriving them cruelly of a final week of summer break and no doubt dealing a sharp financial slap to the economies of towns along the coast and other tourist-reliant parts of the state.

What’s done is done, and your task is to get in a few last hurrahs in spite of the school boards’ impulse to jump the gun. Think outdoors, think Labor Day weekend, think (at least) of these three things:

Oregon Symphony Waterfront Concert. And the tradition rolls on – a big, booming, free concert along the Willamette, beginning at 12:30 p.m. Thursday (rain date Friday) and pulling out the stops into the evening with an all-star lineup of music by, this year, Wagner, Mozart, Puccini, Dvorak, Bizet, Tchaikovsky and Offenbach, along with some of John Williams’ music from the movie E.T: The Extraterrestrial and a little bit of John Phillip Sousa to punch things up. Downtown in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, near the Hawthorne Bridge at the foot of Southwest Columbia Street.

Art in the Pearl. Another longstanding tradition – this is its 20th anniversary of art, craft, music, and food sprawling along the North Park Blocks on Labor Day weekend – Art in the Pearl combines street-fair festivities with a broad range of things to buy. You can also just look, of course, and admission is free. Work by more than 130 artists in all sorts of disciplines will be on hand, and there’ll be demonstrations of blacksmithing, woodturning, boat building, fiber arts, and other forms. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 10-5 Monday, between Northwest Davis and Flanders streets.

Love’s Labour’s Lost. The 47th season of Portland Actors Ensemble’s summer Shakespeare in the Parks winds up with performances of the comedy Saturday, Sunday, and Monday at Reed College, starting at 3 p.m. each day. It’s free; keep in mind that donations keep the ship floating.

 


 

"Rider with V," Rick Bartow, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 inches. Froelick Gallery.

“Rider with V,” Rick Bartow, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 inches. Froelick Gallery.

THURSDAY IS SEPTEMBER 1, which means it’s also First Thursday, which means it’s time to see the newest exhibitions opening for the monthly art walk at galleries across the city. This month we’re looking forward in particular to Froelick Gallery’s  Sparrow Song, which includes many of the final works of the great Northwest artist Rick Bartow, who died earlier this year at age 69. The work is astonishing, and the gallery’s statement puts it into perspective:

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A biased (and glowing) review of ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

Though LAIKA studio's new animated movie is related to past efforts, it reaches new visual and storytelling heights

Guys. Can I tell you how wonderful Kubo is?

You don’t have to believe me. The Kubo and the Two Strings screening I attended—for “Friends and Family”—is already a hint that I’m not quite impartial. I used to work at LAIKA, the Hillsboro-based animation company that produced this movie.

That said: I’d like to think that along with my potential for bias comes an at-least-above-average understanding of what it takes to create stop-motion animation. All the time I spent running errands through the wilds of the Coraline production floor, darting between miniature pink houses and knee-high orchards of hand-twisted apple trees, I picked up bits of insight from the charismatic and creatively dexterous people who’ve shaped the modern stop-mo craft worldwide, forming strong impressions of what works, what doesn’t, and why. I’m also in the unique position of being both a LAIKA alum and an arts reviewer, so I’m torn, as most arts writers are, by opposing impulses a) to uplift artists, not limited to but including those I know, and b) to uphold a lofty, impartial standard. Each time LAIKA puts out a title, I end up both writing about it and apologizing. Here’s my ParaNorman edition, and here’s my Boxtrolls installment.

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So when I say Kubo carried me away, swept me up in its story, gave me chills and made me cry…you can believe that this happened despite my best efforts to analyze it, and to come out of that Tanasbourne screening with dry notes that would show my film-making friends how astutely I’d observed the finer points of their craft. No such luck. This film, which surpasses the previous excellence of LAIKA stop-motion and elevates the genre as a whole, left me and my nephew blubbering like idiots. So you probably have to see it to believe it. But here are my (albeit soggy) notes…

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Viva la animation: ‘The Boxtrolls’ gets political

As the Oregon studio's latest hits the multiplexes, we track LAIKA's three-step trajectory from self to world concerns

Archibald Snatcher is rampaging through Cheesebridge in an armored vehicle, declaring that “the streets are safe now!” The weight of the steam-spouting contraption crushes cobblestones, and pedestrians scatter. Neighbors peep nervously from their windows. (Hmm. How near is Cheesebridge to Ferguson, Missouri?)

“They drag us away and we do nothing,” fumes Eggs when his community is raided, his guardians taken into custody. (Wait, are box trolls those “illegals” we keep hearing about?)

Earlier this month, Hillsboro-based animation studio LAIKA unveiled its third 3-D stop-motion feature film  The Boxtrolls for family and friends* in advance of the September 26 release. Despite fanciful trappings, regency garb, and English accents, the plot’s parallels to recent news are downright spooky, and it makes no secret of rooting for the masses, the under and middle classes.

Young Boxtrolls hero "Eggs" leads the unwashed masses out of oppression. No, seriously.

Young Boxtrolls hero “Eggs” leads the unwashed masses out of oppression. No, seriously.

More about the kid flick’s politics shortly, but first, for those less familiar with LAIKA, a brief history:

Currently named after a cosmonaut dog and led by Travis Knight (Nike mogul Phil Knight’s son), the company has deeper Oregon roots as the former Will Vinton Studios, which produced phenomenal claymation like The Little Prince, The Adventures of Mark Twain and the California Raisins. In the early 2000s, Vinton experimented with two pitifully short-lived stop-motion** TV series, The PJ’s and Gary and Mike, perhaps leading to the takeover/rebrand by then-shareholder Phil Knight.

By 2005, the newly-named LAIKA began production on Coraline, the first-ever stop-motion film to be shot in 3-D, based on a Neil Gaiman book. And they nabbed the director of 1993 cult classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, Henry Selick, to head up the project. (“Wait,” you ask, “didn’t Tim Burton—” No, actually. Burton was Nightmare‘s creator and producer, but Selick directed. It’s a sore point for some.) To further associate itself with the Nightmare brand, LAIKA acquired the rights to retrofit Nightmare for a 3-D video re-release and brought many key members of Nightmare‘s crew onto the Coraline crew. Needless to say, during production of Coraline, there was a lot of discussion about how to revive Nightmare‘s spirit—and replicate its success.

  • Thus, Nightmare begat Coraline, with Selick at the helm.
  • Then Selick moved on (temporarily) to Disney, and Coraline begat ParaNorman, the brainchild of Coraline storyboard artist Chris Butler.
  • Then Norman begat The Boxtrolls—sort of. LAIKA had considered its source text, Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters!, even before green-lighting Norman. Once Norman wrapped, the studio dusted off Monsters! and put Graham Annable, another story-boarder, in the director’s chair.

By promoting from within and retaining a core cadre of artists, LAIKA has intentionally created cohesion and flow across its growing filmography. On the other hand, its three feature directors are coming from different places, literally. Selick’s American, Butler’s English, Annable’s Canadian. Has that influenced how their films see the world?

The three films’ three main characters—in order of appearance Coraline, Norman, and the Boxtrolls hero dubbed “Eggs”—are uniformly white, western “tweens.” Yet the themes they confront seem to be…well, maturing, from Coraline’s shameless self-interest, to Norman’s conflicted peacemaking, to Eggs’ selfless, convicted activism to uplift the downtrodden.

Coraline: self-preserver

Consider (if you’ve seen her) Coraline, the personification of petty annoyance. She’s just been forced to move to a big old house in a boring town, where she has to go school-shopping (yawn) with her mother (ugh), strangers mispronounce her name (eyeroll), her parents don’t pay her enough attention or buy her delicious enough groceries (yuck). In a Through The Looking Glass-like conceit, she enters another world where alternate versions of her parents and neighbors are more attentive and indulgent and fabulous, until they turn on her with definite intentions to imprison her and a possible desire to eat her. She courageously battles her foes to (near) death, then returns slightly more gratefully to her regular life. Coraline’s ordeal helps her appreciate her boring old real parents, mostly because she’s safer with them. The moral takeaways? Look out for #1 or lose out completely; don’t trust anyone who seems too good to be true.

Norman: negotiator

In contrast to the whiny, fortunate Coraline, Norman’s got real problems. He’s bullied by humans and haunted by ghosts. On top of that, he learns that he’s the only person who can quell a zombie uprising in his town’s graveyard. With martyrly pluck, he confronts the zombies and learns that they’re not even that evil, just confused. In life, they were Puritans who did at least one terrible thing: they sentenced an accused adolescent witch to death. Centuries later, that girl’s ghost can’t stop reanimating them as a form of revenge. The zombies, still wearing powdered wigs and thumping Bibles as they crawl out of the grave, are caricatures of despotism in tattered vestiges of authority. (I realize the Puritans were American…but British empire much?) They’re more doddering than forbidding, and they cling to Norman to buffer them from the angry townspeople.

ParaNorman‘s storyline upsets the good/evil binary to raise legitimate questions about justice. It suggests that as justice has a statute of limitations, evil has an expiration date, and eternal damnation is too strict even for the worst offenders. It pulls a page from Frankenstein by sympathizing with all sides and suggesting that the mob is the only real monster. Furthermore, it reveals the current source of unrest, the ghost girl, as a former victim whose destructive actions stem from her loss and pain rather than from pure malice. Once Norman counsels her, she calls off her attack, and the film ends in a rapprochement. The takeaway here? The problems are bigger than the individual, and go back further in real-life history. Everyone and no one is to blame. Hatred and injustice create a vicious cycle that needs to be broken—not by war, but by diplomacy.

Eggs: advocate

Now meet “Eggs.” We don’t know his birth name, only that he is “the Shropshire baby” whose alleged kidnapping has created paranoid hysteria in his hometown of Cheesebridge (Lindbergh baby, anybody?). Rumored to be eaten by boxtrolls, the baby was actually rescued and raised by them. The boxtrolls are a literal underclass, speaking broken English, living underground, and eking out a makeshift existence with leftovers they scavenge from their city’s trash. Their adopted baby wears their traditional garb, a box, and takes his name, “Eggs,” from its label. Eggs’ primary guardian is Fish, and their close cohort is Shoe.(LAIKA has already lent these characters to PSA’s that encourage foster parenting, setting footage of the grubby box trolls and their cute baby with a voiceover that reminds adults that “foster kids don’t need perfection, they just need you.” Similarly, the first Boxtrolls trailer gave a soft nod to LGBT parents, declaring that families come in many forms.) The boxtrolls’ digs are a sort of DIY commune, decorated with salvaged, mismatched materials, with minimal privacy and housekeeping. (Migrant workers’ quarters, maybe? Or Occupy?)

Eggs, the son of an inventor, inherits a DIY spirit from both nature and nurture, and the thing he eventually decides to “do himself,” is save the boxtrolls, who need saving from a monster created by Cheesebridge’s imbalanced oligarchy: Archibald Snatcher. Above the manhole covers that boxtrolls huddle under, the denizens of Cheesebridge are further stratified into social classes.

“White hats” are the ruling class—mannered and aloof, consumed by consuming the finer things. They’re big into cheese (In metaphorical rap parlance, they’re “getting that cheddar, Baby,” or in more literal Portland terms, they’re actual “foodies,” lifestyle junkies more concerned with souping up their own sustenance than supporting others’ survival). The white hats’ indulgence in cheesy luxury isn’t in itself a problem, except that it skews their priorities. Lord Portley-Rind, for example, neglects his daughter Winnie and dismisses all civic concerns, even as dangerous envy foments among the “red hats,” the white hats’ presumed immediate social inferiors.

“Red hats” are laborers and civil servants. They speak cockney in contrast to the white hats’ “king’s English.” And Snatcher, a de facto chief, “aspires” to, well, snatch a white hat and be invited into the cloistered halls of the rarefied cheese-eaters. His scheme to get there throws the poor boxtrolls under the bus (or more aptly, the carriage wheels). He figures if he stokes Cheesebridge’s fear of boxtrolls, and then takes credit for eradicating them, he’ll rise. (Hi, Arizona lawmakers.) He gets grudging assurance of this from Lord Portley-Rind. Snatcher has three henchmen: one a deranged hatchet man, two slightly slow blokes just following orders. The latter two end almost every raid they execute by nervously reassuring each other:  “We’re the good guys, right?”*** The fact that they have to ask clues us in that they’re not. The fact that they do ask hints that there’s hope for their eventual redemption. (Ferguson cops, please ask the right questions.)

Before the movie ends,

  • Eggs enlists an ally, Winnie****, to try to rescue the boxtrolls and influence her father, a policymaker, on their behalf
  • The white hats demonstrate their ultimate disconnection from humanitarian concern in several ways
  • The white hats also refuse to promote Snatcher despite all his “hard work,” putting the lie to social mobility
  • Snatcher rampages through the streets crushing innocents, then seizes power by force and metaphorically and literally overfeeds himself

…and…to say any more would be too many spoilers. But are you picking up what The Boxtrolls is laying down? I am, and I find it rather timely. It’s not all about Eggs, and it’s not all about getting that cheddar; it’s about saving the whole produce sector.

 

For more notes on LAIKA films’ aesthetics, check out AW’s Boxtrolls preview.

 

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A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

 

 

*Writer is an alumnus of LAIKA’s Coraline film crew.

**What, technically, is stop-motion? Animation created by compiling still images of three-dimensional elements—like Claymation, but not necessarily with clay. Nowadays, most stop-mo combines handcrafted mixed-media elements with computer-generated, 3D-printed plastic ones and robotic, magnetic metal machine pieces. Or clay. Hey.

***Nerd note: one of these men, Mr. Pickles, seems a distorted caricature of Norman creator Chris Butler, following a stop-mo tradition of putting one’s “puppet self” in the picture that goes back as far as MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch, where animators were reportedly invited to craft their own effigies for crowd scenes…as long as they did so on their own time.

****Winnie, by the way, has a filled-out body beside Eggs’ stick-thin shape. In Coraline, the girl was a stick figure and the boy was husky. Way to mix it up to foster a kid audience’s healthy body image.

Why LAIKA’s “ParaNorman” is the Oscar favorite

The Oregon studio just missed with "Coraline," but this time may be different

LAIKA's "ParaNorman" goes for the gold./Courtesy LAIKA

LAIKA’s “ParaNorman” goes for the gold./Courtesy LAIKA

BY A.L. ADAMS

Thursday morning, my Facebook was abuzz as former colleagues from Portland-based animation company LAIKA volleyed congrats following the 5 am announcement that their film, “ParaNorman”, was an Oscar nominee. Now there’s only the breathless wait for the possible prize.

This isn’t LAIKA’s first bid for the golden man; the company’s premier feature film “Coraline” won a nom but not the prize in 2010. Lately, Portland-filmed TV efforts have similarly come up short:  “Portlandia” and “Grimm” both earned Emmy noms but lost the prize in 2012, and “Leverage” was overlooked entirely. It’s probably safe to assume that at this point, crews, actors, and animators all over the city of Portland, as well as the Oregon Governor’s Office of Film and Television, are pining for a national win.

You know what? Go ahead and get your hopes up, because “ParaNorman” definitely stands a chance.

Why stop-mo is ripe for a win

The art form of stop-motion animation holds a unique position among film disciplines. Paradoxically, it uses cutting-edge 3-D printing (or “rapid prototype”) technology, yet delivers a post-mass-production handcrafted aesthetic, a la Etsy and Destination DIY. Stop-motion may be the only place where, like a lion and a lamb, the robot enthusiast and the knitter/tole-painter/dollmaker walk peacefully side by side.

Last honored by the Academy in 2006 (“Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit”), the discipline has since been snubbed in favor of a string of computer-animated titles. Even “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (with Clooney and Streep, no less) couldn’t finagle Oscar’s favor. Just saying: it’s high time stop-mo got mo’ Academy love.

That being said, “ParaNorman”‘s biggest competition this year comes from fellow stop-mo films. Tim Burton (who broke big co-creating “The Nightmare Before Christmas”—a perennially hot property that LAIKA now owns—with “Coraline”‘’s Henry Selick) has been nominated for “Frankenweenie,” a monster 3-D flick like Norman but with a black-and-white presentation a la old Hollywood horror. Burton’s name recognition and prior nominations may make “Weenie” a shoo-in—then again, he may yet be forced to atone for his 2009 release of computer-animated critical dud “9,” whose bad rap may have played into “Weenie “earning a lower domestic gross ($34,967,590) than “ParaNorman” ($56,003,051) or “Coraline” ($75,286,229).

“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” seems a lesser threat to “Norman” because its aesthetics do not cohere. Cartoonish character design clashes with hyper-realistic sets (a mistake never made by the consistently cartoonish “Wallace and Gromit” series, but woefully evident in long-dead Will Vinton/LAIKA TV effort “The PJ’s.”)

So Burton is the one to beat—but as any good workout coach will tell you, you’re only ever competing against yourself.

Here’s why LAIKA’s “ParaNorman” has better chances than LAIKA’s “Coraline”:

A brand-new director

“ParaNorman” began as a twinkle in the eye of “Coraline” storyboard artist Chris Butler, who pitched his zombie tale to “Coraline” director Henry Selick while Selick was still at the helm. It was a long shot. A gutsy move. And it ended up launching the charming, witty Brit’s directing career.

Though “ParaNorman”‘s more experienced co-director Sam Fell bears equal production credit, it’s Butler’s breakthrough that’s getting media mention in places like the Huffington Post, and that’s most likely to serve as Oscar bait. Pile on the fact that puppet character Norman parallels Butler—fighting his way from the fringes into mainstream acceptance. How could the Academy resist this compelling narrative that Butler is already so adept at recounting?

A redemptive plot

In Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline,” the hero and title character is a young only child, and the villain is her evil “other mother,” a soulless but seductive copy of her real mom with inexplicable buttons for eyes. The Other Mother lures the youngster through a door that may as well be a looking glass, into a souped-up version of reality that at first seems fanciful, but turns out to be a trap. Though a talking cat briefly speculates on the Other Mother’s motives for tricking and threatening “Coraline” (Perhaps she wants someone to love? Or something to EAT?), we never do learn what makes her tick—or, for that matter, how this villainous alter-ego relates to “Coraline”‘s real mother. We only see her grow into an increasingly sinister and more powerful spectre, culminating in a kill-or-be-killed dilemma for “Coraline.” Hence, Neil Gaiman’s plot proves boilerplate good-versus-evil.

In “ParaNorman,” writer (and “”Coraline”” crew alum) Chris Butler starts there and then goes deeper, following feuds to mutually well-meaning sources, and exploring the redemptive worldview of good-versus-misunderstood. Lead character Norman, a reluctant boy liaison for his town’s undead, is first persecuted by his peers and then attacked by an angry mob when his town confronts a zombie invasion. Norman is forced to negotiate peace between zombies and townspeople while tracing the whole uproar back to its source: a righteously indignant little girl ghost who’s bent on eternally punishing the town’s zombies (former Puritans) for having executed her in a witch trial. Bravely walking into a supernatural firestorm, Norman explains to the girl that her continued campaign is now punishing the innocent, and the only resolution is reconciliation.

Meanwhile, the Puritan zombies recall a classic, complex monster model: Frankenstein’s monster. Reanimated against their will, alienated from yet fascinated by the living, appearing ghoulish but meaning no harm, they portray lost souls awaiting Norman’s direction, which is ultimately “say you’re sorry.” And as soon as they do, they are free. More’s the pity that both Burton and Butler riff on Frankenstein at the same time—must be something in the water. (Algae?)

In summary, the plot of “Coraline” teaches us: If it looks evil, it’s probably REALLY evil. If it seems too good to be true, it’s probably terrible. The plot of “ParaNorman”? Hey, Monsters, hold your fire and let’s all talk.

Pixar’s “UP” snatched the Oscar from “Coraline” in 2010 despite the two films’ uncanny similarities (both were set around iconic old houses in a bohemian Oregon town, each featured one child who ventures out alone to meet the weird neighbor(s)…). I suspect an obvious explanation: “UP” was more…uplifting. The old man in “UP” who initially gives the little kid grief, lightens up over time and turns into a hero. And general faith in humanity wins the day.

A generous helping of wabi-sabi

When I visited the set of “ParaNorman” last spring, my gracious former co-workers ushered me around the production floor, showing off their favorite creations: A shoebox-sized ‘80’s-style van with orange and yellow stripes down the side. A plum-sized backpack with a real metal zipper, decorated with patches and keychains on mini caribiners. Even the dirt was a point of pride, having been formulated with different mixtures of sand, corn syrup, and mineral oil until it reached the perfect texture to hold up under lighting and handling.

Watching these professional elves make a mini world gave me a wave of nostalgia from my first “Coraline” visit—but also a distinct whiff of difference. In the rigging department, I saw puppet skeletons that herky-jerked on elliptical axles. I saw “face-maps” pocked with uneven freckles, age spots, and wrinkles. Was one of Norman’s ears slightly higher than the other? Sure enough. These “flaws” were no accident. “The rule is, nothing is symmetrical,” one artist explained.

For LAIKA, this is a new epiphany—in fact, it goes against the “Coraline” grain. Henry Selick (who went on to join, then leave, Disney) was legendarily fastidious, rendering his film so tidy that many casual fans mistook it for computer animation. “It’s too perfect to have been touched by human hands,” many assumed. But new advances in 3-D printing have since made the medium easier to rough up—and “ParaNorman” took full advantage to create a more organic look. Fell and Butler’s British roots may have also played a role, as British media has long embraced actors’ quirk where American counterparts tend to favor more uniform beauty. You know who else likes things a little off-kilter? The Academy.

Place your bets

Look, I’m not saying “Norman”’s a sure thing—but a win would be a great way for the Academy to validate LAIKA’s continued (and improving) efforts, while ushering its fresh (post-Selick) talent to the fore. While household name Tim Burton continues to cut an unforgettable fringe-cult figure beside wife Helena Bonham Carter at awards shows, the Academy may elect to show the Hollywood insider that the microcosm of stop-mo can accommodate more comers.

 

 
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