Saturday, October 10, 2015

Animated Thoughts: Festival Season part two: MSMFF 2015

The Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival
So earlier in the year I was contacted by my friend, fellow animator and fellow ASIFA Central member: Steve Leeper. Sifting thru my fragmented memory, I think that the conversation went something like this:

Steve: Chuck, you've been to Montreal, right?
Chuck: Um... nope. Ottawa is as far as I've gone. I mostly hang out around the Waterloo-Toronto-Ottawa corridor.
Steve: Would you be interested in going to Montreal?
Chuck: Well, it "is" only ten hours from my house... same distance as Ottawa... what's on your mind?
Steve: The Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival!
Chuck: ...
Steve: Chuck?
Chuck: You had me at 'Stop Motion'.

And thus began Steve and Chuck's wild ride to Montreal!

Okay, maybe it didn't "exactly" go like that and perhaps it wasn't such a 'wild ride' but it was a fun experience that I'll not soon forget.

For those of you who don't know him, Steve is a professor teaching animation at Huntington University approximately 45 minutes north of Taylor University, where I went to undergrad. Before that, he worked with Phil Vischer on VeggieTales. An accomplished stop-motion animator, when he's not teaching or jetting around the country to work on animated commercials, Steve is working on his passion project: Brother Thomas (

One of his most recent projects was working with Heave-Ho Productions on a stop motion commercial for TownPlace Suites (which can be seen here:

After a mad dash from Michigan--a mere four days after I made it back from the Ottawa International Animation Festival--we made it to Montreal just in time to get our badges and walk into the opening ceremonies. The festival itself was a very solid mixture of competition screenings and presentations by visiting animators. The MSMFF flew PES in to headline the opening night and deliver a talk on his career which spanned his early film 'Roof Sex' all the way to his current commercial work--which included a 'how we did it' for the Honda 'Paper' film in addition to his successful Kickstarter film 'Submarine Sandwich'.

After the PES presentation, Steve and I met up with his mentor, National Film Board of Canada director and animator Co Hoedeman, and attended the opening night party. Having first seen 'Sand Castle' back in the Ontario Science Center waaaay back in the '70's, it had a serious impact on me. Up until that point, my experience with animation had only been Saturday morning cartoons, Charlie Brown specials, one or two anime shows that I vaguely remember, and the occasional Disney animated feature. Mr. Hoedeman was as polite and as gracious as you'd expect--and he didn't seem to mind me quietly geeking out as he and Steve talked shop about their respective stop motion productions.

Day two began the competition screenings. There was a wide range of stop-motion techniques on display ranging from substitution, puppet, clay, even pixilation. But rather than list them all out, here is a selection of some films that really caught my eye and are worth a few minutes of your time:

'BluBlök' produced at Sheridan College by Eustace Ng and Joe Marcy

BluBlök from Eustace Ng on Vimeo.

In the first couple seconds of his demo reel, you can see a clip from 'That One With The Robot' by Erik Blohm-Gagné

Erik Blohm-Gagné April 2015 Demo Reel from Erik Blohm-Gagne on Vimeo.

'The Armadillo and the Earwig' by Ben Cresswell had some really inventive models.

The Armadillo and the Earwig from Ben Cresswell on Vimeo.

'Croque-Monsieur' by Thomas Dallaire-Boudreault was a unique take on our unrealistic expectations of potential paramours as told through pixilation.

Croque-Monsieur from Thomas Dallaire-Boudreault on Vimeo.

'Pretty Crabby' by Charlotte Blacker. Wow! I love the knitted characters and backgrounds in this film set to a catchy tune by Caspar Babypants (check out 'the Stump Hotel' on YouTube).

This clip from "Once upon a Blue Moon" produced by Steve Boot will resonate with anyone who has a cat (or a small child). Keep an eye out for when Steve releases this film online, it's really worth watching the entire film.

"Once upon a Blue Moon" clip from steve boot on Vimeo.

There were two very enjoyable presentations after the day's screenings. The first was by the NFB's Cordell Barker on his hybrid hand-drawn and stop-motion film 'If I Was God...' If you'll recall, Cordell Barker created the Oscar nominated films 'The Cat came Back' and 'Strange Invaders' (both viewable on the NFB's website).

Cordell Barker
Main characters from the Stop-motion scenes

'Young Cordell'

"Augie", Cordell's Grade 7 nemesis in "fly mode"

Something that Cordell spoke about during his presentation was how difficult drawing is for him (which really resonated with me personally). Here's a man with a very impressive independent and commercial career and he struggles with the same issues in animation that many of us do, and rather than rest on his laurels, he's honest and open about it. Really gave me (and I'm sure many others in that crowd) a lot of hope for my own career and in my struggles with my art.

Afterwards, Steve and I met Cordell--another NFB animator who is humble, gracious, and down-to-earth. Seems to be a pretty common set of traits from the group of NFB animators whom I have met so far (Co Hoedeman, Martine Chartrand, Lynn Smith, Jean-François Lévesque). To say that I really liked the guy would be an understatement.

While his film is still making it's way through the festivals and not available for viewing on the NFB site, there's a great interview with him on Skwigly Online Animation Magazine's YouTube channel where he discusses his new film in the greater context of his career.

The second presentation was on the upcoming animated feature film adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's book 'the Little Prince'.

Had never heard of the book, though it's apparently very popular. However, after seeing the presentation and movie clips, this film made it to the top of my must-see in 2016 list. Check the trailer below and you'll see why.

In order to maintain the storybook look and feel of the original book in the 'story scenes', many of the puppets were made out of specially constructed paper.

Check out the fox's tail in the image below: just a bent wire with the paper wrapped around it and then painted.

The snake in the image below: a thin wire threaded through extra small cylinders (they said that they were rubber, but I forget the technical term the presenter used). That scarf on the boy? Thin wires with paper. His clothes? Yup. Paper.

Many of the characters have the traditional ball and socket skeleton (seen below).

And those were just the models. The background sets were constructed mostly of paper, or made to look like paper. There's a scene where they simulated wind blowing through a field of paper "grass" that I can't wait to see again--just to study the motion that the army of animators created. I'm pretty sure that I'll have to watch the film a couple times because the first few times I'll be lost in the visuals--especially knowing what I do about how they were made. It's times like this that I wish I could rent out a movie theater just so I could have a private viewing and really study the film with no distractions and on a big screen, but I suppose that's what the DVD is for.

Jean-François Lévesque
Sunday saw Steve and I skipping a number of the MSMFF screenings in order to take advantage of one of those rare opportunities: a visit to the National Film Board of Canada! Turns out that some friends of Steve introduced him to Jean-François Lévesque, director/animator for the film 'The Necktie'. Well, Jean-François was working on another film for the NFB and invited a bunch of us for a short tour of his studio!

The NFB's Montreal building

Our group split up into two taxis and mine arrived faster. So while we waited for the others to arrive, sculptor Jim Randall and I sprinted to the front of the complex to capture the moment in digital film.

Trying not to laugh as I recall 'the Simpsons' NFB Spoof!*

Afterwards... while we were still waiting... Jim pulled out a couple stop-motion models that he was building for Jean-François; think the intricately geared puppet heads from Tim Burton's 'Corpse Bride' that allow for a wide range of facial expressions without having to replace the face models, as seen in Laika's 'Coraline.'

Jim and Jean-François discussing one of the puppets.
With just a small allen wrench, Jim had the eyes looking around, the eyebrows arching, and the mouth opening and closing. I'd seen 'the making of' videos where these intricate models were explained, but those are nothing compared to having the actual sculptor holding the model twelve-inches from your eyes and discussing the fabrication process!

A closer look at the puppet.
Jim is active on Facebook and, fortunately for all of us, many of his puppet construction posts, photos and videos are viewable to the public. You can see an animated turn-around of a puppet head that Jim made and Jean-François animated listed under his January 8th entry. Just looking over the photos of his puppet development process is a college education in itself!

And while we're all waiting for his next film to enter the festival circuit, definitely head over to the NFB website and watch Jean-François' animated film 'The Necktie'. It's also available on iTunes and on DVD if you want your own personal copy--the links are on his NFB page.

Though it probably was not their original intention, the whole building had this beautiful 'animation museum' quality to it. Filled with photographs, pictures and signs (and inside jokes that only animators or people who know the history of the NFB would get), the walls have these wonderful displays taken from their rich library of films--like this one from Norman McLaren's 'La Merle'. It's the history of Canadian animation that you rarely get to see. Though if you want to read about it, I highly recommend tracking down a copy of "Cartoon Capers: The History of Canadian Animators" by Karen Mazurkewich.

'La Merle' (the Blackbird) by Norman McLaren
After another taxi ride back to Concordia University--and a quick dinner later--it was on to the final screenings and the presentation I had been waiting for: 'Shaun the Sheep'. My first introduction to Nick Park was 'The Wrong Trousers' back in 1994 at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. And while my interest in Aardman Animations' library has waxed and waned over the years (I'm still trying to wrap my brain around 'Angry Kid'), 'Shaun the Sheep' was one of those delightful films that makes you want to go back and binge-watch the television series. A movie with virtually no speaking roles, it had more heart than most films could pull off with dialog much less without.

Characters and props from the film.
In addition to the usual clips from the film, Lead Animator Laurie Sitzia gave a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at the movie's production.

Shaun waving to the crowd.
One of the little tidbits that she shared was how fast production was on this film as compared to others. Since they were coming off of a television series, many of the models and sets were already established, and more importantly, the animators themselves were used to working with the characters so it cut the learning curve down dramatically.

A 'bare bones' Shaun

Props from the film; the sundaes were about an inch high
After the final presentation, Steve and I hung around for the final professional film competition screening and the closing ceremonies. The ceremonies included a screening of selected films from all the competition screenings--Student, Independent, and Professionals. If memory serves, I think that they showed more than just the winners that the jury selected, but at that time, I was just still trying to process everything that I had seen and done over the weekend.

The big question that I pondered on the ten hour drive back to Michigan was: would I go back? And there's no easy answer. I liked a lot of the films mainly because most of them had a solid narrative structure to them. The four presentations (PES, Cordell Barker, the Little Prince, and Laurie Sitzia) were excellent and of a level of quality that I'm used to seeing at TAAFI and the OIAF. In truth, there were only two downsides to the Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival:

1. They had extreme difficulties sticking to the schedule and ate up all the break time between events in order to compensate. So the only way we had time to get something to eat during the day or the evening was to skip a presentation or a screening. They really need to work on this!

2. It's the weekend after Ottawa. For me, skipping the Ottawa festival is non-negotiable. It's the one festival to be at. But it's a ten-hour drive there and back for me. Jumping in the car four days later and driving another ten hours to Montreal and ten hours back after a three day festival was brutal!

So, would I go back? Probably. Would I skip Ottawa for Montreal? Nope. Was it an experience worth having? Absolutely! Even if I hadn't be able to visit the NFB, I still would've made the trip out there. It's worth going at least once. And if you're a stop-motion animator, it's worth putting on your list of festivals to be at year after year.

* Watch The Simpsons' Season 17, Episode 8 titled: “The Italian Bob“. Thank me later. :)