Monday, October 29, 2012

Animated Thoughts: An Animated October, Part One

October was a busy month for animation.

I had barely recovered from the Ottawa International Animation Festival, when a rather timely article was posted on Cartoon Brew by animation historian Jerry Beck regarding the current state (and a possible future) of classic animated film.

It turns out that the Turner Classic Movie channel had decided to broadcast six hours of vintage animation with the added bonus of having Jerry introduce each segment with historical information about the films being produced during that time period. It immediately made me wish that I had more than just the basic cable package that Comcast provides for people with high-speed internet. Once again, I found myself wishing for a-la-carte packaging of cable channels.

Given the difficulties involved in watching classic animated film--that from the late 1800's even up to the 1950's--it makes me appreciate the efforts of Joe Chen, Chris Robinson, Madi Piller, and ASIFA/Central's own Brad Yarhouse even more as most of the films that I've seen at the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema, the Ottawa International Animation Festival, the TAIS screenings & workshops, and ASIFA's International Animation Day have never seen much distribution here in the States outside of the festival circuit or on the Internet. While not the purpose of Jerry's article, it does highlight why venues like these are so important to the animation community.

'Technotise, Edit y Ja', 'Fedot the Hunter', 'Chico and Rita'--these are just a few of the feature-length animated films that have been shown at the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema in recent years. And none of them received any serious distribution in the United States--leaving people like me to travel anywhere from one to ten hours, and usually to venues in Canada, in order to watch these films. And that doesn't even begin to cover the more fringe films and topics like the Russian animation retrospectives shown at the Ottawa and Waterloo festivals. These two retrospectives alone introduced many to the films produced by Russia's Soyuzmultfilm during the years of the Cold War.

While the Internet has done an excellent job at making more animated films available to a wider audience (especially many of the short films that up until now were only available on the festival circuit or through traveling programs like the Tournee of Animation or the Animation Show) it has made the signal-to-noise-ratio problem worse as we are continually bombarded by hours and hours of internet memes and so-called "animated" video mash-ups. One is only left hoping that the cream will eventually rise to the top--as in the case of Simon's Cat and Dick Figures. But while we won't always appreciate every film that makes it into a festival, the odds of seeing a film that is closer to our tastes is much more likely if one can just tap into the festival scene. There may be far more festivals out there than just Ottawa, Waterloo, the TAIS summer screening, and ASIFA's IAD, but these are the ones I've personally gravitated to--partly due to proximity, partially due to content, and partially due to community. The point being: at a festival or society screening, you already have someone that has sifted through the films and selected those that, at least in their opinion, are worthy of your time.

Personally, I have experienced a side-benefit from my festival attendance. Over the years, I developed a change in my own tastes. When I was in grad school, I couldn't stand abstract, experimental animated films--I always dismissed them as nothing more than computer screen savers. For me, it was narrative short films or I wasn't interested. However, through attending festivals and screenings where I could meet and talk to their creators, I started to see the artistic merit in such work. And I even started to see their influence on more commercial work, such as the flavor/taste sequence in Pixar's film 'Ratatouille' where Remy tries to explain food combinations to his brother.

Had I not been forced to sit through the occasional abstract animated film at festivals--films selected by people who understood the merits of such work--I would have never had the opportunity to expand my horizons and learn to appreciate these films. An appreciation which has recently led me to learn more about the films of Norman McLaren, Ishu Patel, the National Film Board of Canada, and the rich history of Canadian animation. Had I stuck with just watching films on the internet, I very likely would not have ventured beyond the confines of of my little box (which is filled with the usual narrative short films that I so love) and I would have missed out on the wider world of animated film.

I'm very encouraged by Turner Classic Movies' decision to show films that, up until recently, were the purview of only a select group of die-hard enthusiasts, like myself, and students who sat through History of Animation courses at college. TCM should also receive credit for making the controversial decision to show the films of James Stuart Blackton unedited--those which have racist and anti-semetic imagery. These films were discussed by the hosts beforehand, along with a warning to the audience of what they were about to see, and were presented in their proper context: the world as it existed when they were created.

End part one.