Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Women of Animated Film: Pilar Newton-Katz

Pilar Newton-Katz
I've been attending the Ottawa International Animation Festival since 1994. Coincidentally, 1994 was also Pilar Newton-Katz's first year at the OIAF. For the better part of twenty-some years, we'd see each other at the festival but our paths never intersected. One day about five or six years ago, we were both heading to a screening of MTV Animation films and I found myself standing on an escalator behind Pilar and finally said 'hi'. At that point, I pretty much had made a friend for life. Pilar is one of those bundles of positive energy who seems to be guided by the philosophy that "every stranger is a friend I haven't made yet." And over the years, it's been a real joy to interact with her, learn about her history, and hear about the exciting projects that she's working on before she jets off to share her energy with other festival attendees. There are a lot of things about the Ottawa festival that I look forward to all year and Pilar is one of them. It is my pleasure to introduce Pilar to those of you who have never met her in person and reintroduce her to those of you who have fond memories of her boundless enthusiasm for animation.

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CW: What is your current job description?

PNK: Animator, Director, Illustrator, and Animation Professor At the City College of New York and Kingsborough Community College -- both part of the City University of New York.

CW: How long have you worked in the animation industry?

PNK: A little over Twenty years.

CW: You've mentioned in previous conversations that you parents were always supportive of your desire to be an artist. But when did you know that you wanted to be an animator? Was there a single defining moment?

PNK: Watching the Smurfs on TV on Saturday mornings really blew me away. I had no idea how that cartoon was made as I was 8 at the time, but I just knew that was what I wanted to do.

CW: What roles have you performed during your career in animation?

PNK: I started off as an inbetweener on a series of short films that John Dilworth of Stretch Films fame directed for Sesame Street. He then moved me over to take on scenes to animate, working directly off of layout that he handed directly to me in the tiny studio. When Courage the Cowardly Dog launched I was a prop designer and a Story Board revisionist on that show. I then went on to be a layout artist at MTV for shows like Daria. I’ve done character design and BG design too as well as storyboard and sheet timing.

CW: You have worked for studios and as an independent, which do you prefer and why?

PNK: I love working independently. With a slightly more flexible schedule I can be PilarToons and I can also teach which I am now equally passionate about, particularly at the college level.

Also, working independently I attract clients that more or less give me creative freedom to interpret their projects.

CW: You've stated that you're pretty busy working on jobs and bringing in more jobs, are you able to find time in order do more personal work?

PNK: Amending my previous answer: I am doing more personal work lately because I just started grad school this summer at the School of Visual Arts MFA Visual Narrative program. It is heavy on illustration and creative writing. In the next couple of years I will have illustrated a graphic novel and a picture book and a number of other really cool things.

I’m also in the process of developing a series of shorts geared towards girls.


CW: Let's go back to your time working for MTV Animation. You once told me a funny anecdote about how you drew yourself into the crowd scenes of Daria's "I Loathe a Parade". Did you have to get permission to do that or was it a little mischief that you played on the producers?

PNK: It was the producers on the show that came up with the idea to pad the show side characters with likenesses of Daria crew. There were only so many characters that the designers could come up with for dozens of kids walking through the halls of the school and scenes that take place in the town such as a super market or a sporting event or parade. So we had a model pack full of teen versions of the Daria crew as well as the generic kids and townspeople.

Editor's note: If you see a girl with short hair and red shirt in the Daria parade scene, that's Pilar! :)

CW: You've been branching out into illustration work. Is this a recent development in your career?

PNK: I’ve illustrated over 20 children’s books for companies such as Nickelodeon, Random House and Little Golden Books. I do character art for licensing having worked on the style guides for Frosty the Snowman, Pink Panther and various Warner Brother’s properties. All of the illustration that I have done has been commissioned work. I am working on releasing my own children’s book soon.

CW: You've experienced first-hand the ups and downs of the New York animation scene. In the past while working on Daria, you were also doing some work on the side, so when Viacom shut down MTV Animation, it didn't impact you as hard as it did others. Do you think it's important for animators to have a 'fall back' skill that they can draw upon during times when animation work is scarce? (Examples: illustration, storyboarding, coloring, special-effects, etc).

PNK: Yes, Illustration became my 'fall back' skill. Whenever animation work dried up for a time, I would fall back on illustration work. For the past 6 years teaching animation became a really useful side gig. Now lately, teaching animation is more than something to fall back on, it is a passion of mine, particularly at the college level.

Pilar after the show with the Cybertronic Spree. 1
CW: You've been attending the Ottawa International Animation Festival for about twenty-five years now, what do you think is the best benefit for attending festivals?

PNK: I’ve been attending OIAF since 1994 and I also attend local festivals in new York City of which there are many. Going to festivals is inspiring and it is a really great way to get out there and show your face at industry events. It’s not a guaranteed way to get work even at networking events, but rest assured you will come away feeling really inspired.

CW: Speaking of the importance of networking at festivals (and being at the right place at the right time), would you share about how you got to meet industry luminaries Jon Musker and Ron Clements?

PNK: I met them because I attended a screening of the Little Mermaid at the Bytowne. All of my friends went to a Laika presentation. Musker and Clements gave a small introduction and the movie commenced. When the movie ended I was standing in the nearly empty theater chatting with some people when I noticed way on the other side of the theater Clements and Musker were just standing there talking to about three people. Myself and a couple other people ran over and introduced ourselves to them and they were both lovely and didn't seem to be in a rush at all. They took their time chatting with us until someone came and whisked them away to another event. Later that evening everyone else that I knew stood on line for an hour to meet them. I managed to take my picture with Jon Musker


Pilar, posing at the NightOwl party's live-drawing session. 1
CW: How has the industry changed for women animators since the time you started?

PNK: Having visited the Pixar studio a couple months ago I met so many amazing artist that were women who were story artists, directors, animators etc…

I can’t say with authority that there are more women that are in animation now than another time but I am pleased with the number of women that I am meeting in the industry

CW: If your daughter said that she wanted to work in animation, what advice would you give her?

PNK: Draw, draw, draw! Practice drawing and never stop. Like my mentor John Dilworth told me “draw drawdrawdrawdraw!”

My advice would also be to not let whether you work in a studio or not define you as an artist. You are an artist whether you work in a studio or not.

CW: What is the most important thing that authority figures (parents, teachers, professors, etc.) can do to encourage girls who are considering a career in animation?

PNK: Tell them they can do it!

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In addition to her teaching, Pilar is also the owner of her own boutique animation studio called Pilartoons where she conducts most of her freelance work. I encourage everyone to take a look at her comic strip "Just Pilar", Pilar's humorous take on her life experiences as a grad student. And before you go, I also recommend checking out some of Pilar's freelance animation work on the Kabbalah Toons series that she directed for chabad.org (along with husband and Sound Engineer Ivan Katz) -- a series of animated shorts designed to teach concepts about science, Judaism, and the Torah to kids.


1. Photos copyright Charles Wilson.
2. All other photos, illustrations, and videos copyright Pilar Newton-Katz (PilarToons LLC) and used with permission.


Friday, March 8, 2019

Women of Animated Film: Lotte Reiniger's Trick-Table

It's March 8th, which means it's both Women's History Month and International Women's Day. So let's start out with a little history about women animators!


Back in November 2018, I drove out to Toronto to see a special screening of films by Lotte Reiniger including the rarely seen English version of Aucassin and Nicolette (which she produced for the National Film Board) and the even rarer Ring and the Rose (independently produced for Gordon and Patricia Martin), from an old 16mm film copy.

The event was hosted by Jonathan Culp at the TAIS Studios on Dufferin Street. And after an introduction by Jonathan, and a showing of the latest silhouette animation workshop film by Lynn Dana Wilton, the following films were shown:
  • The Art of Lotte Reiniger (the full documentary)
  • The Rose and the Ring
  • Carmen
  • Jack and the Beanstalk
  • Aucassin and Nicolette
  • Thumbelina
  • Grasshopper and the Ant

Lynn explaining the trick-table setup
Afterwards, we retired to the "Lotte Studio" where Jonathan talked about the history of Lotte's trick-table, how it came to be in his possession (along with a large amount of "animation artifacts" from Lotte's time in Canada) and what led up to his decision to donate the table to the Toronto Animated Image Society.

Dedication Plaque
Jonathan then placed a plaque on Lotte's trick-table to commemorate both her and the Martin's contribution to animation. The dedication video is presented below:


Now, if you would like to have an animation experience that touches upon a part of animation history, specifically the history of women animators, I would like to recommend a trip out to the Toronto Animated Image Society (tais.ca). TAIS has made Lotte's trick-table available for members to rent for their own animated films. Located at the TAIS Studio on Dufferin Street, the table setup comes with a digital camera, a Macintosh computer running DragonFrame, and a bottom-mounted set of lights. Studio Membership costs at TAIS are reasonable as are the rental fees for using the Lotte Studio.

Back in September, I was blessed to spend a day working on a silhouette film using Lotte's table before driving to the Ottawa International Animation Festival. And while I wouldn't call it a "religious experience" per se, it certainly was a very gratifying experience to work on an animation using a piece of animation history that was built by and used by a titan of animated film. If you have the time, I highly recommend the experience.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Animated Reviews: Modest Heroes and Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice)

I like to support theaters around town that show anime or non-mainstream animated films. Now that Video-to-go has closed their doors and the future of Shuto Con is in doubt, support for animation here in Lansing is flagging. Though even before, Mid-Michigan was pretty much a cultural wasteland with regards to animation. Even though Lansing Community College has an Associates degree in animation and Michigan State University has an animation minor, you'd think that there would be a much bigger animation scene, but no. In order to see some of the more popular animation releases from overseas (and Canada) you have to travel to Detroit or Grand Rapids. It's a sad state of affairs but it is what it is. You can't make people care about the things that are important to you. All you can do is get your message out there as loudly and as widely as possible so that like minded people will find your events -- and hopefully encourage more people to discover your interests.

Which brings us to two of the local theaters: Celebration Cinema on the South side of Lansing and Regal Cinema on the West side of Lansing. For years now, these two theaters have done more to bring in animated films than others in our area. And even though I'm usually one of about six or seven people in the theater during the one (or two) exclusive screenings, their efforts are appreciated. With the bleak winter sapping my will to go outside, two movies made me make the trek through the snow this past January.

The first was Modest Heroes, the second release by newly founded Studio Ponoc. This entertaining trilogy of animated shorts was created by the studio who brought us the anime adaptation of Mary and the Witch's Flower last year. And while 'Mary' really didn't speak to me, Modest Heroes ended up being the anthology film that I wished Studio Ponoc had released first.

In the spirit of anime anthologies like Robot Carnival, Memories, and Genius Party, Modest Heroes is a series of unconnected short stories but with a theme that unites them all--that theme being spelled out in the title: everyday people rising to meet extraordinary challenges.



Summarizing the three stories:
  • "Kanini & Kanino" is the story of a pair of water faerie brothers who struggle for survival in their river home after their mother departs to give birth to the next generation of water faeries.
  • "Life Ain't Gonna Lose" is the story of a boy dealing with a deadly allergy to eggs and how he rises to face the challenges of an environment that is innocuous to the rest of us but lethal to him.
  • And lastly, "Invisible" tells the tale of an office worker who is so overlooked by the people around him that he literally becomes invisible. When a near-death experience leads him to question his worth to the world, he is suddenly confronted with the question: can a nobody like him rise above circumstance to become a hero?
Invisible

As with the initial offering from Studio Ponoc, the animation in Modest Heroes was first rate. All three stories were interesting and the characters were engaging. I'd recommend this anthology to anyone who loves short films.


Kanini & Kanino
Best of all, after the screening, they played a video where Yoshiaki Nishimura, the film's producer, discussed the origins of these three shorts as well as the importance of making short films--especially when you're a studio that makes feature-length films. Hopefully, that video will make it into any future DVD releases.

The second film that came to Lansing was the re-release of  Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice)--billed as the Shape of Voice for English audiences. Produced by Kyoto Animation and initially released in Japan in the same year as the mega-hit your name., A Silent Voice was brought back by Fathom Events and distributor Eleven Arts to North American audiences for a two-night run: one for the English sub and one for the English dub version.

The night that the film was to be shown in Lansing, the polar vortex hit Michigan with a vengeance, yet I still made the run to the Regal Cinema (along with three other people). Eh, the snowplows were out and my car has both wide tires and traction control. Unfortunately, the Regal Cinema had decided to close for the day because of the cold and the snow. Dejected, but understanding the reason, I trudged home -- though I wish they had posted the closing on their website, social media, or on their answering machine. Would have saved me the drive. Within two hours, I received an e-mail from Fathom Events which included a refund for the ticked I purchased online.

Still, I wanted to see this movie. It had done exceedingly well in the Japanese box office even against the your name. powerhouse and had won multiple awards, so I figured it was worth my time. So I went online and discovered that there was a Kyoto Animation channel on YouTube with the English sub version of the movie uploaded. I went on to watch the film eight times over the following week. Well, as fate would have it, it wasn't an official Kyoto Animation channel and it's been pulled down by YouTube due to copyright infringement -- and rightly so if it wasn't an official channel. Fortunately for all of us who like to watch films AND make sure that the original content creator gets our money, Shout Factory is releasing A Silent Voice on DVD and BluRay on April 2nd in both English sub and dub formats (it will be a part of my collection... oh yes, it will!).

However, if you can't wait until then, you can whet your appetite by watching the trailer below. In preparation for the DVD release, be sure to have a box of tissues handy. As I said, I've watched this movie eight times (yes, that amounts to a little over sixteen hours of my life -- sixteen hours well spent) and I got choked up every time I watched it (aargh... gak... the feels...!).

 
This film is a story about personal struggle and redemption. When the arrival of a deaf girl disrupts the social balance of a middle school classroom, she becomes the target of bullying by the other students and complete indifference by the teacher. However, when the bullying is called out by her mother, one of her tormentors becomes the scapegoat for the actions of the entire class. Flash forward several years. The kids are now in High School and former bully Shoya Ishida is now a social outcast shunned by his fellow students, crippled by social anxiety, and haunted by the memories of his past actions. It is during this period of time that he decides to track down Shouko Nishimiya and make amends to her before ending his life.
 
Main character Shoya Ishida - Note the people surrounding Ishida,
with the x's representing his inability to look at people face-to-face.
 
I won't go into any more detail than the above because this is really a movie that should experience. There's a lot of nuance in the story and it's a lot more complex that you would initially think as it delves into the Japanese concept of redemption and doesn't shy away from the causes of bullying. This is a 'shades of grey' script that explores its concepts from multiple perspectives using the lives of well developed characters to provide a richly textured, multi-layered look at flawed people struggling to deal with the consequences of their actions.

In the end, both films are well worth your time. I highly recommend watching both when they are released on DVD or streaming services. A Silent Voice is being released on April 2nd through Shout Factory. Modest Heroes was acquired by GKIDS for North American distribution, but no word on a DVD release as of yet.

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1. Modest Heroes images are from the press kit found on the GKIDS website and used with permission.
2. A Silent Voice images are from the press kit found on the Fathom Events and Eleven Arts websites and used with permission.