Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Animated Thoughts: Art Comes in Many Forms, pt. 2

I had a rare weekend off so figured I'd take a day and feed my soul. Fortunately, there were opportunities here in-State. But rather than drive down to Detroit or over to Flint in order to appreciate an art museum (or two), this time I drove in the opposite direction to see what Grand Rapids had to offer. I was not disappointed.

First stop: the Frederik Meijer Gardens in order to see the butterflies before that particular exhibit ends for the season, then a little hiking around the grounds. Gotta get those steps in. However, before he other events, as I'm on the quest to find the perfect egg salad sandwich, I had to take a moment and fuel up at the cafeteria.

Not bad. About a 6 out of 10. A little too heavy on the greens.

Then, it was off to go hunting for some butterflies!

Next, I went hiking around the grounds to see the Japanese garden. 

It was still early in the season, but there were some flowers in full bloom.

And I spotted an escapee from the indoor butterfly exhibit.

"Fly, be free!"

I had plans to visit the John Ball Zoo and experience their Lantern Festival, but I really wanted to go there closer to sunset in order to get the full effect. Which left time to stop over at Max's South Seas Hideaway, a tiki bar in the heart of Grand Rapids.

The food and drinks are tasty. And while I'm not really into the "tiki bar" scene, Max's has some really beautiful artwork in what looks to me like the Midcentury Modern style, and that's what I go there to see.

After taking a bunch of photos (and finishing off the Pu Pu Platter), it was time to go walking again. Which meant a quick drive over to the John Ball Zoo. This was the first "lantern festival" I'd ever seen first hand and it was pretty impressive. The Zoo had timed entry in order to manage the flow of foot traffic, however once you got in, you could go around the Zoo as many times as you wanted. The exhibits themselves were arranged by environmental themes: prehistoric animals, undersea animals, insects, etc. Most were a set color and pattern, but some had undulating lights, some would move, and others had some interactivity built in such that if you stepped on a pressure plate, they would move or change color. They even had a flower that was hooked up to a smoke machine so when the kids stepped on it, it would blow a burst of "pollen" at them. And three times a day, they had a troupe of chinese acrobats doing traditional performances--like balancing acts or magic tricks. Fun stuff.

In looking at the displays, I enjoyed all the shapes and colors and forms of the "lanterns", but if I'm being honest, I would've loved to be a fly on the wall when they set up and tore down the displays just so I could see how they were done. I'm sure that a lot of it was basic LED lighting but the animatronics and the interactive components add a lot to the show. 

Art comes in many forms.

* * *

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Animated Events: TAAFI 2024 Film Fest, pt.3

Friday's events were mostly mixers and meet-and-greets. When I heard that there was going to be limited numbers of passholders allowed to these events, I took a pass. Better to let students or animators looking for work in the Toronto area to attend. I've always felt welcome at TAAFI events, but if they have to limit the attendees, I'd rather see the locals get preference.

Instead, I walked around Toronto and saw a couple old sights. Had lunch at Ginger. Bought a game at 401 then it was off to the Royal Ontario Museum. There's always something interesting to see at the ROM but I always stop to see the gemstone exhibits and dinosaur bones while I'm there.

Quartz variety: amethyst, from Bolivia

"Leaf" necklace, gold and diamond

The massive Futalognkosaurus skeleton 

As always, I took a lot of good reference photos while I was there, but was struck by the fact that I really need to get back to sketching when I'm at museums--draw in the moment as it were, instead of hoping that I'll use the photo references to draw later.

Went back to the hotel for a quick nap before dinner. But not many of the restaurants that I enjoy were on this side of the city so it was worth trying something new. There was a restaurant called "Pigot's Burger Club" that sounded interesting. Turns out though that they served their food through a local bar. No worries. There was room for one at the bar and they took good care of me. The food was awesome and noone complained about me watching cartoons on my phone. Afterwards, I discovered this little hole-in-the-wall cafe with exquisite crepes!

One chocolate crepe and a strawberry juice later, yeah, I'm definitely coming back to Melt n Dip next time I'm in town.

On the walk back to the hotel, I was reminded that one of the things that makes Toronto so appealing to me is that there is art worth looking at everywhere you go.

Mural at Sansotei Ramen

Saturday was a full day of screenings that would end with a feature. It was the big day at TAAFI, for me anyways. The day was jam packed with animated short film screenings, capped off with the North American premiere of Mars Express. I was on pins and needles all day waiting to see this feature and I have to say that Mars Express exceeded all of my expectations. I was looking for an experience similar to when I watched Love Death and Robots or Technotoise, Edit y ja for the first time and I was not disappointed.

The film was a dystopian look at society's struggle between humans and robots on a colonized Mars--all told through the eyes of a war-weary detective and her partner, a robot who is the backup copy of her fellow soldier, long since killed in battle. This film is coming out on DVD through GKIDS, so I won't spoiler it, but hopefully the trailer below will whet your appetite.

I'll end this post with a couple more stand-out films that I saw over the weekend. As they work their way through the festival circuit, these are the ones that I think are well worth your while to track down, be it in a festival or when they're posted online.

I'm Hip, a short film by John Musker--the writer and director of such Disney classics as the Little Mermaid and Hercules. I'm Hip was a cute musical number that definitely lived up to the hype.

Delete Machine by Charlotte Ledwidge was a hilarious gag film with excellent timing and a great payoff. Would love to show this film in a class that teaches comedy.

Fried by Melina C was another cute film, this time about a raccoon who gets caught in a fast food restaurant. It was filled with decent character and background designs and character animation.

Side Sidemi by Zoe Medcraft was all about ants gathering food told to a jaunty musical score. I really liked the character design and character animation on this one. Also liked the overall design/visual style. There were no arms or legs to any of the characters, just the bodies, hands, and feet going through the motions as you expect they would. Reminded me of Evelyn Lambart's animation style and her film Fine Feathers.

Then there was The 7th Night: MaoMao Visits by Ah Loong. This heartbreaking tale of a boy and his cat explored the Buddhist concept of spirits from the recently deceased visiting their loved ones on the seventh night from their passing in order to provide a measure of closure.

Well, I would've loved to stay in town a little longer, but had to run to Ann Arbor for an impromptu family reunion before everyone drove to Ohio to see the eclipse. But yeah. TAAFI is always worth a visit!

* * *

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Animated Events: TAAFI 2024 Film Fest, pt.2

Thursday morning arrived a little sooner that I expected. I awoke to the sounds of cars, construction, and people--the typical sounds of a big city. Was immediately reminded that I still need to finish watching Walter Ruttman's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City before the Fall semester. If I'm going to recommend a film (or talk about it) with my students, I like to have watched it myself in its entirety. Only real downside to watching these silent films though is confronting the question: do I stick with the musical score that's on the uploaded video or do I turn the sound off and focus on the visuals? There are so many lessons to be learned from these old movies from the dawn of film. We grow up unconsciously knowing the "rules of film editing" because they are so prevalent in our media today. But back then, Soviet Montage Theory was in its infancy and people were making up the rules as they went along (mostly from what worked with stage productions). One thing I love doing is showing students the films of Georges Méliès with his elaborate sets and trickfilm special effects and then showing them how the same principles were used in portions of Enya's music video Caribbean Blue. Thoughts for another day, I suppose.

My plans for that day were to meet up with Lynn Dana Wilton for lunch and then head out to the evening screening. However, I still had lots of time before that... and I "was" a couple blocks walk from Toronto's Museum of Illusions, so...

Wow was that fun. Now I freely admit, it'd probably be a more fun experience with two people--some of the exhibits are pretty tricky to navigate when you're on your own. But the staff were very helpful so I wouldn't avoid a visit if you have a solitary nature. And there's one in Chicago if you don't want to drive to Canada.

The exhibits were all hands-on and they played with perspective, mirrors, optical illusions, some traditional art tricks and more--see the "hole on the floor" video below.

I'll admit, I went there have a little fun, but one of the things that put the museum on my radar was seeing how some of these illusions have shown up in film over the past century or so. In my lectures, I discuss how we're seeing some of these illusions and techniques in modern day, only enhanced by new technology--like the 3d LED billboards in New York and over by Tokyo's Shinjuku Station, or the Pepper's Ghost "hologram" illusions in the Vocaloid concerts. As I tell my students: somewhere in history may be the solution to a problem you're having in your film, or it might hold the inspiration to your next film.

But speaking of film, I did have to get back to the hotel to meet up with Canadian filmmaker and stop-motion animator Lynn Dana Wilton. Tempus fugit.

Lunch was everything I hoped it would be. Lynn is a fascinating woman with a very storied career. I hadn't talked with her for a couple years due to the lockdowns, and we only had time to exchange 'hellos' last September at the Ottawa fest, so it was such a pleasant experience to sit there and really talk. We quickly got caught up on each other's lives and then launched into discussions about the state of the  animation industry, future trends for animation, and the teaching work we've done. When we finally looked at the clock, we'd been chatting non-stop for four hours. It felt like four minutes had gone by. We could've talked longer, but she had another meeting to get to and TAAFI awaited me at the Hot Docs Theater. The restaurant had been very patient with us so after we left a healthy tip and thanked the management and staff we parted ways.

It was off to the opening ceremonies and the first night's screening for me where I immediately ran into two old friends, artist/animators Pam Rose and Lynne Slater.

The next couple hours were a whirlwind as the film festival started strong with two programs: the Student Film Block followed by the appropriately named "Uplifting Shorts".

The films that really shone that night were Marc Salvatore LaJoie's End of the Line, Jennifer Wo's Mission Popo, ap-sol KANG's Meet Again JAHOE, Christina Woo's Pipe Dreams,  Sonia Furier's Ostinato, and Thomas van Kampen's Mixed Signals.

End of the Line was a touching film about a girl dealing with anxiety issues that come to a head when she loses her favorite fox toy.

Mission Popo. What a fun ride. I saw this in Ottawa last year and it was just as good the second time as it was the first. Hah! Noone messes with Grandma!

Meet Again JAHOE had a really nice visual style, especially in the otherworldly sequence. It definitely had some hints of Miyazaki in the design. I'd really like to watch this film again because I'm sure that I missed a lot of what was going on.

Pipe Dreams, a tale of bugs living in a rundown building told in the form of a reality tv show. Quirky and fun.

Now Ostinato, this was a beautiful and relatable tale of a woman struggling with her creativity as she tried to compose music while also trying to block out the noise that surrounds her.

The last film worthy of note was Mixed Signals, the story of a neurodivergent robot that struggles to fit into society. I had the chance to chat with the director Thomas van Kampen and his girlfriend Ariel afterwards. Turns out they were mutual friends with Pam. I had met them years ago before the lockdowns but it was just in passing. I'd honestly like to sit down with Thomas for a longer chat as he and I had a lot of the same experiences growing up. Even now as I grow older, I find that life is this constant assault on my senses that gets more and more difficult to block out. I saw a lot of myself in the little robot who was constantly getting overstimulated by all the sensory input. A very thought provoking film. After his festival run, I hope Thomas releases his film on Vimeo or YouTube. There's a lot of people who I think would really benefit from the conversation this film inspires.

Afterwards, I grabbed dinner on the way back to my hotel and settled in for the night. Yeh, today was better.

* * *