Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Animated Thoughts: Festival Season part three: TAAFI 2016

It was nearing the end of April, and the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International was holding their bi-yearly celebration of animated film in downtown Toronto. TAAFI holds a special place in my heart. Not only was one of its founders a friend of mine, not only do I see many of my friends from the Toronto animation scene there, but this was the first festival I attended after paying off my student loans back in 2014. After a long seventeen years of self-induced servitude to Sallie Mae and various banks, TAAFI 2014 was the reward that I gave myself for buckling down for five years, working every extra freelance job I could handle, and getting out from under roughly $50,000+ in student loan debt. As I made the drive into Canada back in 2014, I shouted "freedom" at the top of my lungs when my car crossed the border. In what is becoming a tradition whenever I attend an animation festival in Canada, this year was no different as I crossed the Blue Water Bridge.

Atlas Moth
Due to weather and construction, the drive took much longer than usual. Much like in Michigan, Ontario's "construction season" has begun in earnest and it has really brought traffic to a crawl! So, rather than stay on the 403/402/401, locked bumper-to-bumper with semi-tractors, I stopped in Cambridge to "hunt" butterflies. As it is Spring, there was no shortage of Butterflies fornicating at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory. But, fortunately, I did get to see the Atlas Moth for once! He was hanging out, right next to where butterflies were emerging from row after row of chrysalises. I didn't stay in Cambridge long, but got some really great shots of some rather hard to photograph butterflies. And as the latest season of the Venture Bros. ended a month ago, I did have a good chuckle over seeing the Blue Morpho chrysalis.

The Blue Morpho ('Kano' sold separately)
Just shy of an hour later, traffic had cleared up somewhat, so I continued on to Toronto. After checking in at the hotel, I made my way through the subway construction for my traditional dinner at Marché down by Union Station. Good food as always, but I learned that I don't like 'black forest' cake. Never been a fan of maraschino cherries. Even as a little kid and my parents took me and my sister to the House of Ing here in Lansing, I couldn't stand the cherries in my 'kiddy cocktails'. Eh, next time, I'll stick with the macaroons. A touch pricey, but always worth every penny. Had a nice walk around Toronto at night after dinner, then I solidified my plans for Friday. Lots to do and only one day to do it in...

Marché, an animator-friendly eatery right down to the décor.


The day was both fun and a little trying. Skipped breakfast and just started running around. Got my festival pass and dropped it off at the hotel then made a beeline straight towards the Labyrinth and BMV over by Koreatown. Unfortunately, there was no love there for any of the books on my list. Am rapidly reaching the point where the books I'm searching for are only to be found on the internet at inflated prices (or in libraries that are loath to give them up). By this time, judging by some newly forming blisters, it was pretty clear that my insoles were long past their prime. Undeterred, I picked up some gel soles and trekked down to Chinatown, home of my favorite Toronto-based game store: 'Meeplemart'. Found and picked up a game that I was thinking about buying at Gen Con. Thank you favorable exchange rate! Then I tracked down 'Navito World', the local importer of anime figures and memorabilia for Japan's 'Good Smile Company'. Had a great talk with the manager about next month's Hatsune Miku concert. Found out that, unfortunately, there won't be any Miku Expo-specific merch at the concert due to high import taxes between Japan, Canada, and the United States. Troubling. Am going to be at the concert with a die-hard Miku fan so this will undoubtedly be a real disappointment for him. Hopefully, they'll be able to get some t-shirts or pins in regardless of the import duty. On the bright side, I have a friend who's going to New York's Miku Expo a week later, so getting some souvenirs mailed to me shouldn't be that difficult. I can hear some saying now: "why not go to Chicago's concert as opposed to Toronto's since they're both about the same distance from Lansing?" I would argue that those people have never been to Chicago before. Toronto is very clean, especially compared to Chicago. Additionally, I feel safe walking around Toronto by myself at night. I don't feel safe in Chicago walking around during the middle of the day even in a group of people! But I digress...

Since Miku Expo won't have much in the way of merch, I figured I'd find a way to make the trip special for my friend anyway--find something that he couldn't do at the other concert locales. Taking him to Navito World should be fun. The figures there are a little pricey but there's some cool stuff that he might like anyways (am planning on picking up one of their little King Kazma figures from 'Summer Wars' on the return trip). But, the dogs were barking and the pair of scissors that I'd use to trim down my new gel insoles were back at the hotel. So, I started trudging back to Gloucester Street, all the while looking for someplace to eat between here and there. On the way back, I found Toronto's first ever Maid Café. Not sure if that little detour is going to fly with his fiancé, but, I put it on the list for the return trip anyways. At least "Uncle Tetsu" appears to be doing his best to keep his Maid Café classy and fun for all.

Later that evening, while waiting in line to get in to the screening hall for TAAFI's opening ceremonies, serendipity struck when I met a young man named Darrell. I work in forensic animation. Before becoming an animator, he worked for Canadian law enforcement processing crime scene photographs. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about before the show. Also saw former Toronto natives: Barry and Carolyn Sanders. Wasn't sure that they'd make the trek out from Nova Scotia, but was good to see them. Happy to hear that they're doing well. Hopefully, they'll be back to this year's Ottawa Festival--just wouldn't seem like an OIAF without Barry being there.


George Brown College & the Corus Building
My favorite day of the Ottawa festival is Saturday--that's the day with all the professional development lectures and presentations. It's like being back at grad school except without all the tests and projects, just learning for the sake of learning.

TAAFI has three tracks: one with talks, one with screenings, and one filled with presentations. I usually bounce back and forth between the talks and the presentations. Would've liked to have seen a shorts screening program while I was there, but the chance to learn what folks in the animation entertainment industry are doing was just too enticing.

After a quick breakfast at Marché, and a cringe-worthy one-mile walk to the waterfront later, I got to see Bryce Hallett while waiting for the first session. Didn't get to talk for as long as I had hoped. Another person on my list of folks that I hope to see at Ottawa this Fall, Bryce always has a funny story to tell that leads to some very insightful thoughts about the world of animation. While there, I also got recognized by Lydia Pepin from Ottawa's Jam Filled Entertainment. Said she's seen me at the OIAF before. I'm a little surprised to be honest. Not used to being noticed as I don't work in entertainment. Had a lovely chat though. Got some great advice from her regarding social media and how to better manage it to maintain and further my career. Quickly added her on LinkedIn. Strikes me as a good person to keep in touch with. Also bumped in to Nancy Beiman. Should really try harder to stay in touch with her. Would be a very interesting person to interview for my blog, especially since she's still teaching at Sheridan.

'Being a Design Dynamo'
The presentations were rapid fire, one after another: 'Birth of a Short Film', 'the Inside-Outs of Pixar Animating', and 'Being a Design Dynamo'… such a wealth of information. I couldn't take notes fast enough. Above and beyond the wealth of information provided, the researcher in me was particularly pleased by the all-female panel for the 'Design Dynamo' panel discussion. But after three hours, I was feeling worn out so I skipped the following 'production pipeline' talk, and got some water and fresh air instead. The GBC building where TAAFI is held is mostly glass, so the sun beats down and heats up the place something fierce. Not the best environment for an overweight, out-of-shape animator who wants to stay awake during the talks (Bryce's "2016 is the year to get into shape" challenge from last year's Ottawa Fest still weighs heavily on my conscience). After my walk, I sat down in the lobby for a couple minutes to compose my notes from the previous sessions. Then I got up to refill my water bottle and walk upstairs when I heard someone calling my name. I turned around and there was Ellen Besen. Like before with Bryce, sadly, we didn't get to talk long as she was on her way to an interview, but it was long enough to get some sage advice about the women animator course I'm writing. Took her less than five minutes to cut right through the clutter in my head, and I don't think she was even trying. Wish I'd had the chance to take a couple of her college courses back when I was a student.

So Ellen heads off to her interview and I walk upstairs to get in line for the 'Nova Seed' screening--and right into the path of Kelly Neall, Managing Director for the Ottawa International Animation Festival, which led to a great conversation about animation festivals in general and the history of the OIAF. That right there was pretty much the high point of my TAAFI festival experience. I've been attending the OIAF since 1994 and over the years I've be able to talk to Kelly Neall and Artistic Director Chris Robinson only peripherally. I've always wanted to sit down and talk to them a little more in-depth but at the festival they're always running around like mad, making sure that everything goes off without a hitch. So it was really nice to get to spend time with Kelly over Saturday and Sunday and get to know both her, and by extension the festival, a little better.

The evening screening film 'Nova Seed' was interesting enough. Mad props to anyone who could animated a feature single-handedly. The film reminded me of the old Heavy Metal/Metal Hurlant magazines from the 70's and 80's that I used to look at when my parents weren't watching. Not sure how much of a commercial success it'll be, but I'm confident it'll have a good run in the festival circuit. The animator/director/producer… well, the guy who did almost everything on the film, Canadian filmmaker Nick DiLiberto was in attendance to explain how he created his film and the trials and tribulations he went through to bring 'Nova Seed' to the screen.

So at this point, my knee is tasking me something fierce from all the walking and I decide to call it a night. I say my goodbyes to Kelly, limp my way to the bus, head up to Marché, and sit down for dinner. At that point, I'm taking advantage of their free WiFi and catching up on FaceBook, figuring I'll skip the 'Nelvana bouncing ball' party and get some rest. Eh. It's very difficult for me to hear what people are saying at those "club atmosphere" parties and I've forgotten my triple-flange earplugs at home, so figure I won't miss out on much. That's when I saw one of the TAAFI posts about the Cybertronic Spree! I do some digging and sure enough, they're playing a set at the Nelvana party.

Me and my brother, Optimus, at the Alamo Drafthouse
Some background is necessary. Back in 1986, I took my nine-year old brother to see Transformers: the Movie. I don't remember doing this, mind you. I remember seeing the movie in the theater, I just don't remember taking him. But Ted swears up and down that I did, so, I guess that's what happened. Almost thirty years later, the Alamo Drafthouse theater is showing the movie again. So, I take my brother to see the movie at the Alamo and a fun time is had. Well, in years past, we had seen the videos of the Cybertronic Spree performing some of the songs from the Transformers movie. And we made a deal that if they ever came to Michigan, we'd go see them--knowing full well that the Cybertronic Spree is kind of a parody band and they'd never make it here. But, when you're three sheets to the wind and watching videos on YouTube, it seems like a reasonable pact to make.

So there I am. Realizing that not only can I see the Cybertronic Spree in person, I can text a photo of the concert to my brother and screw with him! Sitting there with my half-finished bowl of stir fry, wondering if they have gone on stage yet, and can I make it back there in time? Decision made, I wolf down dinner, hail a cab, and race back to the waterfront where the Corus building is hosting the party. Fortunately, they hadn't performed yet, so I chatted up Bryce, Kelly, Ellen, and Lynn Dana Wilton at the party while we waited.

The Cybertronic Spree
Then they were on stage--and they were just as awesome as you'd hope! Geek flag achieved: I have now watched the Cybertronic Spree at an animation festival with the Managing Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and four fellow Toronto animators! The band was well worth the drive out to Canada.

Geeking out with Hot Rod and Arcee
I would've stayed a little later after their set, but the night was catching up to me, so it was time to go back to the hotel. Would need to pack everything up before morning as Sunday's presentations and workshops were going to start at 9:30 a.m. I was so charged up, I walked (almost sprinted) the mile back to Union Station, blisters be damned!


Eric Goldberg with 'Things you've never seen.'
Eschewed a 'farewell' breakfast at Marché for my usual orange juice and granola bar and drove straight to the festival venue. Wanted a good seat for the Eric Goldberg presentation. It's not very often that the presenter gets enough time to cover their career from it's inception. But TAAFI had made the wise decision to give Mr. Goldberg two hours, and he used it adeptly to show films and talk about his early career with Roger Williams, his own animation business venture in England, what brought him back to the States to work with Disney, and even a touching tribute to Robin Williams.

The second session on Sunday was one I had been looking forward to most: Michel Gagné on 2d Special Effects animation. More background is needed: I vividly remember sitting in a room at the RIT Research Corporation back when I was in graduate school, reading a copy of Computer Graphics World that had a small article with artwork on Mr. Gagné's short film 'Prelude to Eden'--which he created as a test for the then new Animo animation software. Below is s a link to his film. Go ahead and watch it. I'll be right here when you get back.

Just based on that one photograph from 'Prelude', I was hooked! Of course, it wouldn't be until many years later, and with the advent of YouTube, that I would be able to see the entire finished short film. But ever since that day back in 1995, I've kept an eye on the art and animation of Mr. Gagné--from his work with feature studios like Dreamworks, Warner Brothers, and Pixar to his game 'Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet'. His presentation was a special treat for me personally as he spent a lot of time covering the design development of ITSP as well as some of his other work integrating 2d hand-drawn effects into 3d videogames. As I waited years to see Prelude, I am currently patiently waiting for him to finish his next personal film project: 'the Saga of Rex'.

After lunch, I had the pleasure of chatting with Kelly some more--behind the scenes festival workings, tracking down all the old festival trailers for the Ottawa Festival's 40th anniversary, the trials of transferring Betamax to digital, and all the things that one needs to do to make the second largest animation festival in the world run smoothly.

Technically, my last session for the weekend was the 'Animating on YouTube' presentation, but I just had to stick around to see the Toronto Animated Image Society talk. Several of my fellow TAIS members had put together a presentation that covered who TAIS is, what's going on at our new location, and showed some of the resulting animations that were produced through the animator-in-residence program. Some interesting work. Not sure if I'm on-board with the projects that are getting approval, but I'm more of a traditionalist and less of an experimental animator, so, we all have our biases.

Then it was time to go home. Said goodbye to Kelly and the TAIS crew. And in a stroke of serendipity, I bumped into Bryce as I walked out the door and got to say my goodbyes to him.

Come to TAAFI, we have red velvet cupcakes!
Wrapping up the experience, the only con from attending TAAFI was that I couldn't fit in any of the short film screenings because they are run at the same time as the seminars and presentations. Now Ottawa does this as well, however the way that the screenings are timed out and spaced in the TAAFI schedule meant that the screening I wanted to see on Saturday morning would've ended about 20 minutes into the 'Birth of a Short Film' presentation that I wanted to attend--thus forcing me to make a difficult decision. Considering all the positives, not a big deal, all-in-all. Next time, I'll bring some art supplies and sit in on the live figure-drawing workshops. I may even take an extra day and attend some of the hands-on workshops that TAAFI uses to bookend their festival. The chance to study hand-drawn animation with Eric Goldberg, or 2d hand-drawn FX with Michel Gagné... It'll be another two years until the next TAAFI. It can't arrive fast enough!