Sunday, June 30, 2019

Animated Thoughts: Erik Timmerman

During the years that I attended R.I.T., they were operating on the quarter system--a schedule that I much preferred to the semester system that Taylor University used.

With only ten weeks per quarter, there was really no time to slack off. If you didn't use your time wisely, it was easy to get overwhelmed and fall behind to a point where you couldn't catch up.

Case in point: during my first year's Winter quarter, we had a class where we grad students were taught the process of producing an animation. By the end of Winter quarter, we were expected to have our treatment, script, and storyboards completed and be ready to start animating on day one of Spring quarter.

So there we were, sitting in a circle and pitching ideas for our Spring films. I pitched an interactive comic book--something where I'd scan an existing comic into a multimedia program and then animate certain panels when the user clicked on them. Erik said, rather bluntly, that I didn't have the drawing skills for something like that. It stung. A lot. But he was right. When I started grad school, I could barely draw stick figures. Granted within one Fall quarter of figure drawing class, I had made tremendous progress, so much so that my professor said that she'd never seen anyone come so far in so short a time. Maybe I was operating at that intersection of desire and hard work or maybe desperation breeds miracles. Who knows. Again, if I'm being honest about the whole situation, Erik was right and I wasn't ready to tackle such a project. And that was part of his job, giving us enough rope to stretch and grow as animators but making sure we didn't hang ourselves on a project that we couldn't complete in ten weeks.

So there I was, sitting in a room, getting called out in front of my classmates about the level of my artistic skills.

I then had a choice: feelings or logic. I could react to what my feelings were interpreting as an assault on my personhood (and receive the consequences of said action), like I had done so many times before in my life, or I could shoulder the embarrassment and grow as a person. I made that rare choice to listen to the logical side of my brain and take another step forward towards maturity. I said, 'okay' and then stated that the only other idea I had was about a Chameleon who got stuck in an art gallery. Well, it turns out that Erik loved the art gallery idea and over the following ten weeks, he helped me develop the idea from treatment to finished script. And while "visually" it never matched up with what was in my head, due to both my drawing skills being what they were and the fact that I had to draw the whole thing in the computer using a mouse (these were the days before tablets caught on), The Chameleon would be finished on time, screened, and would go on to win 2nd place in that year's SMTPE/RAVA awards.

Unlike most of my fellow grad students, my background was in English writing and computer programming, not art. So I had to work harder to catch up to their skill and experience level within the visual medium and Erik was always there to help me in that regard by encouraging me through a judicious use of both the 'carrot and the stick', helping me select projects that were within my skillset and skill level AND would be just out of my reach slightly enough so that I had to grow as an artist.

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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Animated Thoughts: To All Things, An End

Maintaining a state of d├ętente with
the Fleet of Fog at Shuto Con.
As Shuto Con, Lansing's only anime and Japanese-culture con has been closed for good by its owners, and they're shutting down the Facebook group that so many of us used to frequent at the end of the month, I'd like to share a little something that's been on my heart and then give a little back to the community that embraced my interest in the history of Women Animators.

So, here's an open letter to the owners, staff, and attendees of Shuto Con who may be following my blog or may come across it in the future, cross-posted on the soon-to-be-shut-down Facebook group:

"Well, all good things must come to an end, I suppose. Thank you to all who made an old anime fan feel welcome and who put up with my 'yeah, my first anime was Speed Racer and Astro Boy' comments! A special 'thank you' to the Shuto Staff for giving all of us who feel like outsiders here in the Lansing-area a place to feel like we belong, even if only for a weekend. And lastly, as this group will be shut down shortly, here's the last batch of anime movies that will be coming to the mid-Michigan area.

Remember everyone, if we want to see more anime films in Michigan, we need to support the theaters who are willing to screen them for us! Hope to see some of you around town or at some of the other Michigan cons. :)"

(links are in the titles for those who wish to buy tickets)

Whisper of the Heart
Studio Ghibli's Whisper of the Heart is showing at Celebration Cinema Lansing, the Regal Lansing Mall 12, and Flint West 14 on Monday, July 1st and Tuesday, July 2nd.

Sound! Euphonium: The Movie - Our Promise: A Brand New Day
Sound! Euphonium: The Movie - Our Promise: A Brand New Day is showing at the Regal Lansing Mall 12, Flint West 14, and Emagine Novi 18 on Thursday, July 11th and Monday, July 15th.

Is it wrong to pick up girls in a dungeon? - Arrow of the Orion
For you Danmachi Fans, the Arrow of the Orion film will be playing at the Celebration Cinema Lansing, Regal Lansing Mall 12, and Jackson 10 on Tuesday, July 23rd.

Kiki's Delivery Service
Studio Ghibli's Kiki's Delivery Service: 30th Anniversary screening will be shown at Celebration Cinema Lansing, Regal Lansing Mall 12, and Flint West 14 on July 28th, 29th, and 31st.

Millenium Actress
On Tuesday, August 13th and Monday, August 19th, the late-great Satoshi Kon's masterpiece Millenium Actress will be shown at Celebration Cinema Lansing, Regal Lansing Mall 12, and Jackson 10 theaters. As an animator, I can safely say that this is one of, if not the best animated film that Kon ever created. Every time I watch this anime, I find something new in the animation, the editing, the layout, you could spend an entire semester studying this film and only scratch the surface of Satoshi Kon's genius.

My Neighbor Totoro
Studio Ghibli Fest continues with My Neighbor Totoro on August 25th, 26th and 28th at Celebration Cinema Lansing, Regal Lansing Mall 12, and Flint West 14.

Theaters haven't been announced yet, but Studio TRIGGER's latest film Promare will be screening on September 17th and September 19th. So bookmark the and check back for locations as tickets will go on sale July 3rd.

The Secret World of Arrietty
On Sunday and Monday, September 29th and 30th, The Secret World of Arrietty will be shown at the Celebration Cinema Lansing, Regal Lansing Mall 12, and Flint West 14.

Spirited Away
Just in time for the Halloween season, the Academy Award winning film Spirited Away will be shown at the Celebration Cinema Lansing, Regal Lansing Mall 12, and Flint West 14 on October 27th, 28th, and 30th. (be sure to attend in costume!)

Princess Mononoke
The visually stunning Princess Mononoke will be shown on November 17th, 18th, and 20th at the Celebration Cinema Lansing, Regal Lansing Mall 12, and Flint West 14. Great timing for those of us who need a quick pick-me-up before spending the Thanksgiving holiday with family members who just "don't get" our hobbies or our taste in film... ;)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Studio Ghibli Fest 2019 comes to a close in December with the last film directed by Isao Takahata: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Showing on Monday, December 16th and Wednesday, December 18th at the Celebration Cinema Lansing, Regal Lansing Mall 12, and Flint West 14, come and close out the year by paying tribute to a masterwork by one of the greatest directors in the pantheon of anime and the co-founder of Studio Ghibli.

'Sumi-Jaki' Shuto Con's "imp" mascot.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Animated Women: Suzan Pitt

As you longtime readers of my blog know, every March I post interviews and little tidbits of history about women animators. Well, it pains me to report this, but I have just learned that veteran animator and instructor Suzan Pitt passed away this weekend at her home in New Mexico.

For those who are unfamiliar with Suzan's work, I recommend watching the following video 'Persistence of Vision' created by Blue and Laura Kraning:

Persistence of Vision from Suzan Pitt on Vimeo.

Four of Suzan's films can be viewed on the streaming service Fandor via the following link:

Update [06/19/2019]:
Over on Animation Magazine's website, Ramin Zahed wrote a very nice summary of Suzan's life and career in animation. You can read the article here.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Animated Thoughts: Appreciate some art, pt. 2

Okay, I'll level with you all: I'm really busy writing another course on animation. As such, there's lots of reading, lots of screening films, lots of creating assignments and quizzes, and lots of writing lecture material and presentations. So I'm taking the rest of the month off from blogging.

But, as I have lots of photographs from my trips to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Meijer Gardens, here are some of the pics I have taken during those travels for my ongoing art studies.

Royal Ontario Museum:

Detroit Institute of Arts:

Meijer Gardens:

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Animated Thoughts: Appreciate some art

In March, the 'post-Winter and yet still pre-Spring' doldrums were setting in. The snow was almost gone, leaving patchy brown grass in its wake. The sky was still grey and overcast. And although the time change left us with more light during the day, still, the warm sunlight was noticeably absent other than the occasional glimmer at sunrise and sunset. Rain and sleet were pervasive.

In order to get the much needed pick-me-up that would carry me to the first few days of Spring, I engaged in my time-honored tradition of appreciating some art.

As fortune would have it, the Detroit Film Theater was showing the English-dub version of Ruben Brandt, Collector. I had already seen this visually engaging film at TAAFI a month earlier, but I leapt at an opportunity to see it again. At TAAFI, they showed the English-subtitled version. And while I don't shy away from watching films in their original language, a film like 'Ruben Brandt' with all it's surreal visual imagery (and artistic Easter eggs) needs to be seen in a format that allows you to take it all in without having to split your attention between the film and the subtitles.

Still Life with Yellow Apple, 1858
John F. Francis

However, before the film, I decided to spend the better part of the afternoon looking at paintings. After observing the watercolors in the newly refurbished Asian wing, I headed upstairs to spend time with the DIA's lone Monet painting. Sadly, 'Rounded Flower Bed' (formerly known as 'Gladioli') wasn't on exhibition, having been loaned out to another museum for the next six months, but it did offer me the opportunity to do a little exploring of other works of art. I soon found myself tracking down one still-life painting after another with the common theme of 'food'.

The Sinfonia (Family Portrait), 1671
Michiel van Musscher

Other than an appreciation of the paintings themselves, much of what I was looking for with this little exercise were instances of near-realism within these paintings--like the use of color to create the illusion of three dimensions within a two-dimensional image.

A week later, I made a day trip over to the West side of Michigan, starting with Meijer Gardens up in Grand Rapids for their yearly exhibition of butterflies. I'll be honest, I wasn't feeling it. After struggling to navigate hordes of toddlers and crotchety older people for a half-hour in order get a decent photo, I switched tactics. Instead of standing over a butterfly, patiently waiting for it to spread its wings only for the insect to be scared away by a little kid or hear a nasty remark from an older person who wanted to get by me, I started looking for the butterflies that were simply resting. If you've ever been to a butterfly conservatory, you know that this pose is far more common (as seen in the picture below).

The pressure off, I left Meijer Gardens about an hour later with some beautiful photos of butterflies and plants that I was really happy with.

No idea what this is, but it looks like it could start
singing and dancing at any minute!

After a quick lunch at a Chinese restaurant by the gardens, I made my way down to the Riveria Theater down in Three Rivers for a screening of the documentary 'Loving Vincent, the Impossible Dream'.

Loving Vincent is a very captivating film and watching the documentary provided a very revealing look into the making of this singular feat of animation. It is the "world's first fully painted feature film", after all. And while I did find learning the background of the directors and their struggle to get this film financed and into theaters entertaining enough, I was honestly more interested in the nuts-and-bolts of the production.

For example: I found the transformation of an empty warehouse into an animation studio filled with curtain shrouded cubicles containing built-in projection systems for rotoscoping with oil paint to be far more fascinating.

What also piqued my interest was the process that they used to weed out all the experienced oil painters that they needed to create the 65,000 frames of film as well as how the painters were apparently paid per painting. If I understand correctly, on the production, the more paintings you produced, the more you got paid. No small feat when you look at the complexity of the images in the trailer below:

Loving Vincent is now available for viewing on various streaming services (like Amazon Prime, Hulu and YouTube), as well as available on DVD and BluRay. So if you have an afternoon, it is highly recommended viewing.

My cousin Circe dressed as Ruby Rose
from the animated series: RWBY.
Well, the last gasp of Winter was bittersweet this year as it was, what would be announced about a week after the convention, the last Shuto Con to be held in Lansing.

There were rumblings of declining quality, increasing prices, and financial instability over the past few years, but I took them all in stride as I had been attending my local con since it's inception in 2011.

This year, the con had scaled back to a fraction of its original size as the owners fulfilled the final year of their contract with the venue.

The mood that weekend alternated between festive and somber, depending on who you asked.

Don't get me wrong, I made a decision to have a great time no matter what, and I was not disappointed. However, my worst fears were realized when the convention owner went on social media with the announcement that they were throwing in the towel and ending the con for good--leaving Lansing with one less venue for animation and one less place where I felt like I belonged.

Shuto will always hold a special place in my heart as they were the first venue that provided me space and equipment to do presentations and screenings on the history of women animators. Even though they were a Japanese animation and culture con, they saw the value in my work and for that, I will be forever grateful.

Regardless, it "is" times like this when I wish I lived in a bigger city with more opportunities to be social and engage in activities that interest me. Such is life.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Festival Season, pt. 1: TAAFI 2018 or is it 2019?

This year, the management of TAAFI decided to split the festival into two parts: the first was an industry day back in November 2018, which was filled with presentations and talks given by industry luminaries, and the second was three days of the animation screenings we know and love so well.

With it being the beginning of the year, I decided to forgo taking any vacation time off of work to see the sights in Toronto and just drive out on Friday morning. However, after checking in to my hotel, I had some time before the evening's opening ceremonies and first screening, so I quickly grabbed a late lunch at Monga Fried Chicken (if you've never been, I highly recommend it) and gathered lots of photo references at the Royal Ontario Museum all on my way over to the Hot Docs Cinema.

My goal at the ROM this time out was seeing "Zuul" as he was now on display. For those who don't know, Zuul is the name of the ankylosaur "recently" discovered in Montana and purchased by the ROM. Paired up in the display with a gorgosaurus model, apparently of the skeleton found near Zuul, along with examples of other ankylosaur bits for comparison, examples of man-made armor, and some videogames that were used to teach kids about how much damage an ankylosaur could do when it swung it's armored club of a tail.

"Zuul crurivastator - the destroyer of shins"
(or some of him... parts are a model)

However, before leaving the ROM, I snuck over to the geology wing while they were setting up for a fund-raising event and took some photos of a couple gemstones and minerals that I had missed back during September's visit.

Then it was off to the Hot Docs cinema where I spent the better part of the weekend talking to Lynn Dana Wilton, Pam Rose, and Lynne Slater while waiting for the screenings to start. And although there were some pretty solid short films during the TAAFI experience, for me, the high-point of the screening lineup was the two feature-length animated films: Ruben Bryant, Collector and MFKZ. Both films were surreal experiences in their own way -- Ruben through the incorporation of classic works of art into its visual style and MFKZ through the frenetic action and character designs that looked like they leapt off the pages of Metal Hurlant magazine. I had many a wistful thought of the Waterloo Festival since these were two movies that would undoubtedly been screened by Joe Chen.

The rest of the festival was a blur with some really creative short films, a pre-release screening of How to Train Your Dragon 3 -- complete with a post-screening Q&A from director Dean DeBlois and Hiccup voice-actor Jay Baruchel -- and time left over for mixing with colleagues and students.

I'm honestly not sure if TAAFI will stick to this format, but I personally appreciated it. I love both TAAFI events (industry and screening) for different reasons. Both events focus on the two parts of the Ottawa International Animation Festival that I enjoy the most: animation presentations and films. And now with the new format, I can enjoy them to their utmost without having to skip out on one to enjoy the other. For someone like me who travels five hours to Toronto, having TAAFI now being two festival events may be a little more pricey, but they're both worth making the trip.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Women of Animated Film: Pilar Newton-Katz

Pilar Newton-Katz
I've been attending the Ottawa International Animation Festival since 1994. Coincidentally, 1994 was also Pilar Newton-Katz's first year at the OIAF. For the better part of twenty-some years, we'd see each other at the festival but our paths never intersected. One day about five or six years ago, we were both heading to a screening of MTV Animation films and I found myself standing on an escalator behind Pilar and finally said 'hi'. At that point, I pretty much had made a friend for life. Pilar is one of those bundles of positive energy who seems to be guided by the philosophy that "every stranger is a friend I haven't made yet." And over the years, it's been a real joy to interact with her, learn about her history, and hear about the exciting projects that she's working on before she jets off to share her energy with other festival attendees. There are a lot of things about the Ottawa festival that I look forward to all year and Pilar is one of them. It is my pleasure to introduce Pilar to those of you who have never met her in person and reintroduce her to those of you who have fond memories of her boundless enthusiasm for animation.

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CW: What is your current job description?

PNK: Animator, Director, Illustrator, and Animation Professor at the City College of New York and Kingsborough Community College -- both part of the City University of New York.

CW: How long have you worked in the animation industry?

PNK: A little over twenty years.

CW: You've mentioned in previous conversations that your parents were always supportive of your desire to be an artist. But when did you know that you wanted to be an animator? Was there a single defining moment?

PNK: Watching the Smurfs on TV on Saturday mornings really blew me away. I had no idea how that cartoon was made as I was 8 at the time, but I just knew that was what I wanted to do.

CW: What roles have you performed during your career in animation?

PNK: I started off as an inbetweener on a series of short films that John Dilworth of Stretch Films fame directed for Sesame Street. He then moved me over to take on scenes to animate, working directly off of layout that he handed directly to me in the tiny studio. When Courage the Cowardly Dog launched I was a prop designer and a Story Board revisionist on that show. I then went on to be a layout artist at MTV for shows like Daria. I’ve done character design and BG design too as well as storyboard and sheet timing.

CW: You have worked for studios and as an independent, which do you prefer and why?

PNK: I love working independently. With a slightly more flexible schedule I can be PilarToons and I can also teach which I am now equally passionate about, particularly at the college level.

Also, working independently I attract clients that more or less give me creative freedom to interpret their projects.

CW: You've stated that you're pretty busy working on jobs and bringing in more jobs, are you able to find time in order do more personal work?

PNK: Amending my previous answer: I am doing more personal work lately because I just started grad school this summer at the School of Visual Arts MFA Visual Narrative program. It is heavy on illustration and creative writing. In the next couple of years I will have illustrated a graphic novel and a picture book and a number of other really cool things.

I’m also in the process of developing a series of shorts geared towards girls.

CW: Let's go back to your time working for MTV Animation. You once told me a funny anecdote about how you drew yourself into the crowd scenes of Daria's "I Loathe a Parade". Did you have to get permission to do that or was it a little mischief that you played on the producers?

PNK: It was the producers on the show that came up with the idea to pad the show side characters with likenesses of Daria crew. There were only so many characters that the designers could come up with for dozens of kids walking through the halls of the school and scenes that take place in the town such as a supermarket or a sporting event or parade. So we had a model pack full of teen versions of the Daria crew as well as the generic kids and townspeople.

Editor's note: If you see a girl with short hair and red shirt in the Daria parade scene, that's Pilar! :)

CW: You've been branching out into illustration work. Is this a recent development in your career?

PNK: I’ve illustrated over 20 children’s books for companies such as Nickelodeon, Random House and Little Golden Books. I do character art for licensing having worked on the style guides for Frosty the Snowman, Pink Panther and various Warner Brother’s properties. All of the illustration that I have done has been commissioned work. I am working on releasing my own children’s book soon.

CW: You've experienced first-hand the ups and downs of the New York animation scene. In the past while working on Daria, you were also doing some work on the side, so when Viacom shut down MTV Animation, it didn't impact you as hard as it did others. Do you think it's important for animators to have a 'fall back' skill that they can draw upon during times when animation work is scarce? (Examples: illustration, storyboarding, coloring, special-effects, etc).

PNK: Yes, Illustration became my 'fall back' skill. Whenever animation work dried up for a time, I would fall back on illustration work. For the past 6 years teaching animation became a really useful side gig. Now lately, teaching animation is more than something to fall back on, it is a passion of mine, particularly at the college level.

Pilar after the show with the Cybertronic Spree. 1
CW: You've been attending the Ottawa International Animation Festival for about twenty-five years now, what do you think is the best benefit for attending festivals?

PNK: I’ve been attending OIAF since 1994 and I also attend local festivals in New York City of which there are many. Going to festivals is inspiring and it is a really great way to get out there and show your face at industry events. It’s not a guaranteed way to get work even at networking events, but rest assured you will come away feeling really inspired.

CW: Speaking of the importance of networking at festivals (and being at the right place at the right time), would you share about how you got to meet industry luminaries Jon Musker and Ron Clements?

PNK: I met them because I attended a screening of the Little Mermaid at the Bytowne. All of my friends went to a Laika presentation. Musker and Clements gave a small introduction and the movie commenced. When the movie ended I was standing in the nearly empty theater chatting with some people when I noticed way on the other side of the theater Clements and Musker were just standing there talking to about three people. Myself and a couple other people ran over and introduced ourselves to them and they were both lovely and didn't seem to be in a rush at all. They took their time chatting with us until someone came and whisked them away to another event. Later that evening everyone else that I knew stood on line for an hour to meet them. I managed to take my picture with Jon Musker

Pilar, posing at the NightOwl party's live-drawing session. 1
CW: How has the industry changed for women animators since the time you started?

PNK: Having visited the Pixar studio a couple months ago I met so many amazing artists that were women who were story artists, directors, animators etc…

I can’t say with authority that there are more women that are in animation now than another time but I am pleased with the number of women that I am meeting in the industry

CW: If your daughter said that she wanted to work in animation, what advice would you give her?

PNK: Draw, draw, draw! Practice drawing and never stop. Like my mentor John Dilworth told me “draw drawdrawdrawdraw!”

My advice would also be to not let whether you work in a studio or not define you as an artist. You are an artist whether you work in a studio or not.

CW: What is the most important thing that authority figures (parents, teachers, professors, etc.) can do to encourage girls who are considering a career in animation?

PNK: Tell them they can do it!

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In addition to her teaching, Pilar is also the owner of her own boutique animation studio called Pilartoons where she conducts most of her freelance work. I encourage everyone to take a look at her comic strip "Just Pilar", Pilar's humorous take on her life experiences as a grad student. And before you go, I also recommend checking out some of Pilar's freelance animation work on the Kabbalah Toons series that she directed for (along with husband and Sound Engineer Ivan Katz) -- a series of animated shorts designed to teach concepts about science, Judaism, and the Torah to kids.

1. Photos copyright Charles Wilson.
2. All other photos, illustrations, and videos copyright Pilar Newton-Katz (PilarToons LLC) and used with permission.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Women of Animated Film: Lotte Reiniger's Trick-Table

It's March 8th, which means it's both Women's History Month and International Women's Day. So let's start out with a little history about women animators!

Back in November 2018, I drove out to Toronto to see a special screening of films by Lotte Reiniger including the rarely seen English version of Aucassin and Nicolette (which she produced for the National Film Board) and the even rarer Ring and the Rose (independently produced for Gordon and Patricia Martin), from an old 16mm film copy.

The event was hosted by Jonathan Culp at the TAIS Studios on Dufferin Street. And after an introduction by Jonathan, and a showing of the latest silhouette animation workshop film by Lynn Dana Wilton, the following films were shown:
  • The Art of Lotte Reiniger (the full documentary)
  • The Rose and the Ring
  • Carmen
  • Jack and the Beanstalk
  • Aucassin and Nicolette
  • Thumbelina
  • Grasshopper and the Ant

Lynn explaining the trick-table setup
Afterwards, we retired to the "Lotte Studio" where Jonathan talked about the history of Lotte's trick-table, how it came to be in his possession (along with a large amount of "animation artifacts" from Lotte's time in Canada) and what led up to his decision to donate the table to the Toronto Animated Image Society.

Dedication Plaque
Jonathan then placed a plaque on Lotte's trick-table to commemorate both her and the Martin's contribution to animation. The dedication video is presented below:

Now, if you would like to have an animation experience that touches upon a part of animation history, specifically the history of women animators, I would like to recommend a trip out to the Toronto Animated Image Society ( TAIS has made Lotte's trick-table available for members to rent for their own animated films. Located at the TAIS Studio on Dufferin Street, the table setup comes with a digital camera, a Macintosh computer running DragonFrame, and a bottom-mounted set of lights. Studio Membership costs at TAIS are reasonable as are the rental fees for using the Lotte Studio.

Back in September, I was blessed to spend a day working on a silhouette film using Lotte's table before driving to the Ottawa International Animation Festival. And while I wouldn't call it a "religious experience" per se, it certainly was a very gratifying experience to work on an animation using a piece of animation history that was built by and used by a titan of animated film. If you have the time, I highly recommend the experience.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Animated Reviews: Modest Heroes and Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice)

I like to support theaters around town that show anime or non-mainstream animated films. Now that Video-to-go has closed their doors and the future of Shuto Con is in doubt, support for animation here in Lansing is flagging. Though even before, Mid-Michigan was pretty much a cultural wasteland with regards to animation. Even though Lansing Community College has an Associates degree in animation and Michigan State University has an animation minor, you'd think that there would be a much bigger animation scene, but no. In order to see some of the more popular animation releases from overseas (and Canada) you have to travel to Detroit or Grand Rapids. It's a sad state of affairs but it is what it is. You can't make people care about the things that are important to you. All you can do is get your message out there as loudly and as widely as possible so that like minded people will find your events -- and hopefully encourage more people to discover your interests.

Which brings us to two of the local theaters: Celebration Cinema on the South side of Lansing and Regal Cinema on the West side of Lansing. For years now, these two theaters have done more to bring in animated films than others in our area. And even though I'm usually one of about six or seven people in the theater during the one (or two) exclusive screenings, their efforts are appreciated. With the bleak winter sapping my will to go outside, two movies made me make the trek through the snow this past January.

The first was Modest Heroes, the second release by newly founded Studio Ponoc. This entertaining trilogy of animated shorts was created by the studio who brought us the anime adaptation of Mary and the Witch's Flower last year. And while 'Mary' really didn't speak to me, Modest Heroes ended up being the anthology film that I wished Studio Ponoc had released first.

In the spirit of anime anthologies like Robot Carnival, Memories, and Genius Party, Modest Heroes is a series of unconnected short stories but with a theme that unites them all--that theme being spelled out in the title: everyday people rising to meet extraordinary challenges.

Summarizing the three stories:
  • "Kanini & Kanino" is the story of a pair of water faerie brothers who struggle for survival in their river home after their mother departs to give birth to the next generation of water faeries.
  • "Life Ain't Gonna Lose" is the story of a boy dealing with a deadly allergy to eggs and how he rises to face the challenges of an environment that is innocuous to the rest of us but lethal to him.
  • And lastly, "Invisible" tells the tale of an office worker who is so overlooked by the people around him that he literally becomes invisible. When a near-death experience leads him to question his worth to the world, he is suddenly confronted with the question: can a nobody like him rise above circumstance to become a hero?

As with the initial offering from Studio Ponoc, the animation in Modest Heroes was first rate. All three stories were interesting and the characters were engaging. I'd recommend this anthology to anyone who loves short films.

Kanini & Kanino
Best of all, after the screening, they played a video where Yoshiaki Nishimura, the film's producer, discussed the origins of these three shorts as well as the importance of making short films--especially when you're a studio that makes feature-length films. Hopefully, that video will make it into any future DVD releases.

The second film that came to Lansing was the re-release of  Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice)--billed as the Shape of Voice for English audiences. Produced by Kyoto Animation and initially released in Japan in the same year as the mega-hit your name., A Silent Voice was brought back by Fathom Events and distributor Eleven Arts to North American audiences for a two-night run: one for the English sub and one for the English dub version.

The night that the film was to be shown in Lansing, the polar vortex hit Michigan with a vengeance, yet I still made the run to the Regal Cinema (along with three other people). Eh, the snowplows were out and my car has both wide tires and traction control. Unfortunately, the Regal Cinema had decided to close for the day because of the cold and the snow. Dejected, but understanding the reason, I trudged home -- though I wish they had posted the closing on their website, social media, or on their answering machine. Would have saved me the drive. Within two hours, I received an e-mail from Fathom Events which included a refund for the ticked I purchased online.

Still, I wanted to see this movie. It had done exceedingly well in the Japanese box office even against the your name. powerhouse and had won multiple awards, so I figured it was worth my time. So I went online and discovered that there was a Kyoto Animation channel on YouTube with the English sub version of the movie uploaded. I went on to watch the film eight times over the following week. Well, as fate would have it, it wasn't an official Kyoto Animation channel and it's been pulled down by YouTube due to copyright infringement -- and rightly so if it wasn't an official channel. Fortunately for all of us who like to watch films AND make sure that the original content creator gets our money, Shout Factory is releasing A Silent Voice on DVD and BluRay on April 2nd in both English sub and dub formats (it will be a part of my collection... oh yes, it will!).

However, if you can't wait until then, you can whet your appetite by watching the trailer below. In preparation for the DVD release, be sure to have a box of tissues handy. As I said, I've watched this movie eight times (yes, that amounts to a little over sixteen hours of my life -- sixteen hours well spent) and I got choked up every time I watched it (aargh... gak... the feels...!).

This film is a story about personal struggle and redemption. When the arrival of a deaf girl disrupts the social balance of a middle school classroom, she becomes the target of bullying by the other students and complete indifference by the teacher. However, when the bullying is called out by her mother, one of her tormentors becomes the scapegoat for the actions of the entire class. Flash forward several years. The kids are now in High School and former bully Shoya Ishida is now a social outcast shunned by his fellow students, crippled by social anxiety, and haunted by the memories of his past actions. It is during this period of time that he decides to track down Shouko Nishimiya and make amends to her before ending his life.
Main character Shoya Ishida - Note the people surrounding Ishida,
with the x's representing his inability to look at people face-to-face.
I won't go into any more detail than the above because this is really a movie that should experience. There's a lot of nuance in the story and it's a lot more complex that you would initially think as it delves into the Japanese concept of redemption and doesn't shy away from the causes of bullying. This is a 'shades of grey' script that explores its concepts from multiple perspectives using the lives of well developed characters to provide a richly textured, multi-layered look at flawed people struggling to deal with the consequences of their actions.

In the end, both films are well worth your time. I highly recommend watching both when they are released on DVD or streaming services. A Silent Voice is being released on April 2nd through Shout Factory. Modest Heroes was acquired by GKIDS for North American distribution, but no word on a DVD release as of yet.

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1. Modest Heroes images are from the press kit found on the GKIDS website and used with permission.
2. A Silent Voice images are from the press kit found on the Fathom Events and Eleven Arts websites and used with permission.