Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Animated Thoughts: Ottawa International Animation Festival 2012

I love Fall.

Maybe it's because I'm still on the academic schedule but around September, just when the temperatures start to drop in the evenings, I get this feeling of renewed hope and excitement. I remember getting this feeling every year when I was a kid and also when I was in college. It was like all the mistakes and failures of the previous school year were magically washed away and I was being given an new opportunity to get it right.

Well, other than the occasional night course, I'm not in school anymore, but something else has risen up to take its place: the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Every Fall, Ottawa becomes this grand nexus of animation as it hosts the second largest animation festival in the world (and the largest in the Western Hemisphere).

I left on time from Michigan: 8 a.m.--which left me time to divert to Hamilton and pick up my Thanksgiving bottle of cranberry wine at Puddicombe Farms. Unfortunately, the weather prevented me from visiting the Toronto Zoo -- it was overcast and drizzly. Looks like I'm going to have to wait until October to see the new Asian environment section of the Zoo. So, had lunch instead and hightailed it to Ottawa. For once, my timing worked out to be perfect as I arrived at 6:35 p.m. and missed all the rush hour traffic. After getting settled in, it was time to make a run to one of my favorite haunts -- "Marroush Shawarma." Unfortunately, Marroush is no more. It's now "Three Brothers Shawarma." I ate there anyways. Wasn't bad, but there's a certain something that Marroush had that isn't there anymore. I knew that the previous owner, Mostafa, got bought out a couple years back, but last time I was there, the food was still just as good.

Woke up at 3:15 a.m. feeling like I had the flu. Not the best way to start a festival! Walked to the Arts Court Centre and picked up my pass--regretting not bringing activated charcoal with me the entire way. But, I did make the welcome discovery that the OIAF was selling all their t-shirts from previous festivals for $5 each and they had my all-time favorite shirt in my size! I picked up two. Then it was back to the hotel where I slept for the rest of the day. Having attended the Ottawa festival since 1994, I've seen enough of Ottawa to know that the city can handle me not wandering around before the screenings begin.

A couple hours later and I woke up feeling much better. And then the text messages started arriving around 5:40 p.m. Turns out that a client in Boston had some urgent website design requests. After buying a $2 FTP Client and getting access to the server through the hotel's WiFi, I was able to make the changes on my iPad. It kind of justified bringing it with me where ever I went all week.

The crisis averted, I walked across the street to the Bytowne theatre for my first screening of the festival. "Arrugas (Wrinkles)" turned out to be a simply delightful film--though a bit melancholy for me as it dealt with a group of senior citizens in a rest home who work together to prevent the doctors and staff from discovering that one of their friends is slipping further and further into Alzeimers. As my Grandmother died earlier this year from a series of micro-strokes that left her with dementia, watching Arrugas was a sad yet fascinating look into the world of a person who is losing their grip on reality as the present and past start to merge together.

After Arrugas was over, they emptied out the theatre and I bumped into fellow R.I.T. Alum Glenn Ehlers. A short conversation about the film later and we were ushered back into the theatre for the first Short Competition screening.

Funny Story #1: I'm walking into the screening and see J.J. Sedelmaier waiting for someone at the door. I say "Hi Mr. Sedelmaier", he looks over, and says "Hey... didn't I meet you here a couple years ago?" When the titans of the industry remember who you are from a chance meeting four years ago, you know that it's time to really step up your game!

Funny Story #2: Car Crash Opera, by my professor Skip Battaglia was shown during the Shorts Competition 1. So after the screening was over, Skip walks over to me and Glenn and thanks us for letting him know that his film was going to be screened at Ottawa. Apparently, he was out hiking in the mountains somewhere and didn't know his film was accepted until he saw my and Glenn's Facebook posts congratulating him!

Well, there were so many excellent films during this evening's screening -- I've never had so much trouble deciding who to vote for. Usually, I can point my finger at one film and say "that's my favorite", but this screening was pretty hard to decide. My four favorite films from this year's festival were all in Competition One. Including Skip's "Car Crash Opera" there were:

Pythagasaurus by Aardman Animation

The People Who Never Stop by Florian Piento.

and "Una Furtiva Lagrima" by Carlo Vogele. If you get a chance, I recommend the following article on Cartoon Brew regarding Mr. Vogele's animation process using real frozen fish!

Afterwards, we were again ushered out of the theatre and I talked to Gary Schwartz about his trip to England and a new discovery regarding the first color film ever made before roughly sixteen of us all walked en-masse to the opening night party.

Funny story #3: So I'm with this mass of veteran animators, including Gary Schwartz, Linda Siemenski, and Brooke Keesling and we're all walking towards the party, when most of them peel off at an intersection leaving four of us standing there. Turns out they all decided to beg off the opening night party in favor of getting some sleep! That left me, Glenn, Carol Beecher, and Thomas Reinholder to make our way to the Hard Rock Cafe. After an hours worth of shop talk about ASIFA and the New York animation industry in general with Dayna Gonzales, Nick Fox-Geig and Glenn, it was back to the hotel around 1 a.m.

The opening night was everything I had hoped for. "Wrinkles" was superb, I saw some amazing short films, and I met up with lots of friends and colleagues from R.I.T., TAIS, ASIFA, and past festivals. We talked, went to the party, and talked some more. The feeling of community here was overwhelming.

Yet again, my TAIS and ASIFA memberships pay dividends beyond the local meetings and workshops.

I woke up with the realization that I'm sleeping better here than at home. After making a mental note to look into buying a new mattress when I get back to Michigan, I walked to the Arts Court. While waiting in line, more text requests for website changes came in. Fortunately, the Arts Court Theatre had Wi-Fi set up for festival attendees and I split my time trying to be polite to people I knew, while scrambling to make website updates before Madi Pilar's presentation on experimental animation in commercial work ("Whoa! What? Experimental Influesnce in the Commercial Realm").

While the other two presenters were entertaining, I personally thought Nick Fox-Geig's presentation was the most interesting of the three as it dealt with the nuts & bolts of animation, not just the artistic side of things. Turns out that the reason Nick has been in New York for the better part of a year is that he's part of a program working on creating software plug-ins that will allow motion capture using a Kinect device interfaced with Adobe After Effects.

Then it was across the street and into the mall to the Empire Theatres for the "YouTubular" screening-- animation on the internet... on the big screen. Man, was that a disappointing hour! With all the good Internet animation out there--Simon's Cat, Dick Figures, Akumi the Hunter, BiteyCastle--the lineup choices simply baffled me. Maybe I'm getting old but I just don't find crude, ADD-inspired, drunk-fratboy humor appealing. I definitely should've gone to the 'Experimental Animation in the Third Dimension' screening instead. But, fortunately the International Showcase made up for it with their first film: Disney's "Paperman" ... more on that later.

After few more website updates over dinner at Don Cherry's, my being 'johnny-on-the-spot' with the website maintenance was immediately rewarded by a very positive e-mail update on some museum work that I'm lining up for next Spring. The updates made, I parked my iDevices in the hotel room and it was off to the "Hotel Transylvania" screening. Turns out that all cell phones were being checked in without exception so people couldn't record "Hotel Transylvania" and post it on the internet. Eh, we got a private screening a week before the film opened in theatres so I didn't care.

"Hotel Transylvania" was funny. The story was a little on the light and fluffy side, but as it was geared for kids, I didn't mind. I loved the character designs and motion and their exaggerated poses. As a special treat, they even brought out director Genndy Tartakovski for some Q & A. After hearing about all the thought that he put into the production, and based upon what I had just seen, I decided that this film might be worth seeing again in 3D.

I had a really nice time talking to Nick before the evening's screenings--and getting a little more info on the Kinect project he's been working on. Hearing about his jumping back and forth between work in Toronto and New York kind of makes me jealous of those people with dual Canadian/American citizenship.

Afterwards, it was off to the Salon des Refuses party where I handed over my rejection letter, sat down with some ginger-ale/rum concoction, and settled in to watch films that didn't quite make the cut. It didn't take long before, I was amazed at how a lot of the films were rejected. Ended up thinking that many of them were better than some of the competition films I'd seen thus far.

Funny Story #4: During the course of the festival, I played 'text message tag' with Anne Beal, a RISD grad and animator in Chicago who's interested in joining ASIFA/Central. Turns out that she had a film in the Salon des Refuses screening so we made plans to meet up and say 'hi'. Well, after her film was over, everyone applauds and this guy sitting at the table in front of me pointed to a girl at the table and said 'the filmmaker is right here!' Shortly thereafter, she walked out of the screening to chat with other filmmakers. I was pretty engrossed with the films at that point, so by the time I left, she was surrounded by people and talking about her film. So, I missed my chance to say 'hi' to her at the party. But, she was there with lots of friends so it didn't bother me. I spent so many years going to Ottawa festivals by myself, drifting from screening to screening and not talking to anyone due to my social anxiety. It did my heart good to see her there with her friends and students from RISD. The festival is so much better when you can experience it with others.

Met up with Barry Sanders at the morning competition screening where I was able to see stop-motion master Barry Purves' film "Plume". I wish I had been able to fit the Barry Purves Retrospective into my schedule, but since I've seen all the films they were going to show, save "Gilbert and Sullivan", I had to skip his screening this year in favor of films that I hadn't seen yet.

The OIAF Picnic, brought to you by Cartoon Network!
After some polite conversation about "Hotel Transylvania", Barry convinced me to go the picnic--an event I usually skip due to my hearing difficulties and lingering social anxiety. But, Barry's advice was well worth it. I got to spend some quality time with Glenn, Madi, the TAIS and NFB crew, Mark Simon, and even got to say thanks to Michael Fukishima for his inspiring words at last year's Ottawa Festival but, as the tent was getting crowded and they needed the seats, I shuffled off to the Canadian Showcase so I could watch Martine Chartrand's new paint-on-glass film "Macpherson" and Madi Pilar's "Animated Self Portraits".

And then another shawarma before meeting up with Glenn and watching Le Tableau at the National Arts Centre. What a beautiful little film! "Le Tableau" was kind of stereotypically French in story--it was all about class struggle and the search for the creator--but the story was entertaining and I loved how the entire film was animated in 3d but was rendered with this two-dimensional, oil paint quality.

Funny Story #5: After I had made it back to Michigan, I sent a message to Joe Chen--the curator of the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema--regarding these two delightful films. He immediately responded that both were in the running for being screened at November's WFAC! I hope at least one gets accepted, I'd love to see either film again.

Watched the Shorts Competition Three with Skip Battaglia, his wife Ginny, and Carol Beecher--who graciously agreed to let me interview her for next year's Women in Animation month. I wish I could find a copy or at least a trailer of "The Bean" by South Korea's Hae Jin Jung. It was cute little story about a girl who doesn't want to eat her vegetables. What got me was the story was cut-out animation where all the visuals fit the Japanese anime asthetic. Think Pokemon if it was filmed with all the characters made out of colored construction paper. I was very pleased to hear that "The Bean" won the Adobe Prize for Best High School Animation. In my opinion, it was well deserved. It was also the film that I voted for.

That night, I skipped the eleven o'clock 'Comedians in Animation' screening to spend the next two hours having cocktails at the Chateau Laurier's cozy little lounge with Ellen Besen. Talking with Ellen is always well worth the time invested as she lent me her insights into how to encourage women to get into animation, why KAFI is no more, how to get a new animation festival going in East Lansing, and how to set up an 'old school' internship for students who want to work in the field of animation but need experience to do so. Ideas that are definitely worth looking into. Well, we closed out the lounge, then bumped into friends on the way out of the Chateau Laurier. After escorting her back to her hotel, then making the hike back to mine, I didn't get to bed until 3:00 a.m.

Saturday meant spending the entire day at the Professional Development lectures. As much as I love the screenings and parties, I live for the industry specific information that is provided at these sessions. While they don't always exactly cover what is stated in the session descriptions, there's always gold there that can be mined out of the discussions if you're paying attention and taking good notes. As entertaining as the "Boxhead and Roundhead" session was, my favorite session had to be fellow Michigander Butch Hartmann's writing masterclass. One part director and one part inspirational speaker, he did his best to drive home the point that if he could be successful in this industry than so could we. I left feeling very encouraged about producing another film.

Had a nice lunch that day with Barry, Dominic, Esteban & friends at Dunn's. The discussion meandered from what we were working on to what U.S. and Canadian animation studios failed in the past couple years and why. I've said it before ad nauseum. but living and working where I do, I really miss out on being a part of the animation community. There's a lot of shop talk and camaradie that I just don't get unless I'm at an ASIFA event, a TAIS event or at Ottawa. Well, almost as an answer to my earlier thoughts, later that night, I was back at the NAC for the evening screening when I bumped into another Michigander: Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean Animation. Had a great conversation with him about what's going on at ASIFA/Central as well as the 2012 TAIS workshop and visiting animator series. Hope to see him at upcoming ASIFA/Central events as he seemed really excited about what we're up to.

Once again, I skipped the evening party and I stumbled into something better: dinner with Madi, Craig, and Martine Chartrand. Funny thing was that it was at the same restaurant where I had lunch earlier that day with Barry--and Skip was at the table behind us having a late-night dinner with friends! Well sketchbooks were passed around between the four of us and we doodled while waiting for our food to arrive. It was then that Madi sold me on attending the Signe Baumane lecture at TAIS in October. Don't want to miss the opportunity to hear her discuss her efforts to produce a feature-length film while dealing with depression--a subject a little too close to my heart for comfort.

Sunday found me at the ParaNorman discussion. Chris Butler gave a presentation with lots of video clips and he discussed the various aspects of the story, characters, and filmmaking process. There was a lot of good information about the color 3d printing/prototyping process--just what I had hoped for--but I was let down by his disparaging remark towards Christians who didn't like aspects of his film. Struck me as unprofessional and a touch hypocritical from a director who made a movie that, at it's core, was about tolerance.

Was hoping to leave Ottawa on a high note, so I walked across the street and had lunch at an old haunt: D'arcy McGees Pub. Shepherd's Pie and friendly waitresses wearing kilts--what's not to like! If I didn't have to drive that afternoon, I would've lifted a pint with the other patrons. Then it was back to the final event of the festival before I left town: the annual Disney/Pixar shorts. Given that it stars my least favorite Pixar/Toy Story character, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed "Partysaurus Rex". There didn't seem to be any new and exciting tech there, it was just a very fun little film.

On the other hand, "Paperman" was simply breathtaking. In order to preserve the visual '2d drawing' style of Disney's former films, they created new software routines that map vector lines in three dimensions. So, the 3d character can be animated as normal, then inserted into the production pipeline appears to be an extra step where the animators add pencil-like vector lines--and the lines will warp themselves as well as hide themselves based upon the position of the 3d character! What I would've given to have had access to that software sixteen years ago when I was working on my M.F.A. thesis! But based soley on the story itself, the spirit of Walt Disney is alive and well! I can't wait for "Wreck-it-Ralph" to hit theatres so I can see "Paperman" again!

Well, after hanging out with Glenn at the Disney/Pixar discussion, it was time to say my goodbyes, drive home, and reflect on my thoughts from this year's festival. While my thoughts were all across the board, the top three were:

1. As Michael suggested, I need to produce another film and enter it into festivals.
2. As Madi suggested, I need to go to the TAIS/Signe Baumane event in October.
3. I need to take a 'back-to-basics' approach and work on my drawing skills.

Once again, it's time to step up my game. While I've accomplished some of my goals for this year, others have floundered miserably for a variety of reasons. Despite my hectic work schedule for the past three years--and the even crazier year that is coming in 2013, I still would like to accomplish more before next year's OIAF -- which I'm planning to attend!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Animated Inspiration: Skhizein

One of the smarter animations I've seen at the festivals, French animator Jérémy Clapin has graciously posted his animated film 'Skhizein' on Vimeo. Though his website is in French, the following description is paraphrased from Bing's English translation: 'the main character is struck by a meteorite and, as a result, is dimensionally shifted 91 centimeters off center.'

This is one of those films that you want to bring home from the festivals just so you can share it with all your friends. 'Skhizein' blurs the lines between fantasy and reality and leaves you wondering if what the character experiences is real (in the context of the world he lives in) or if it's just a metaphor for some mental illness or life changing experience he's trying to deal with.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Animated Quotes: Sophia Loren

"Getting ahead in a difficult profession requires avid faith in yourself. That is why some people with mediocre talent, but with great inner drive, go much further than people with vastly superior talent."
~ Sophia Loren