Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Animated Thoughts: Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema 2011

The Chrysalids Theatre in Waterloo, Ontario
November saw my return to Waterloo, Ontario for the annual Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema. Every year, Joe Chen puts together a first class selection of animated feature films from around the world and this year was no exception!

Day one: drive to Waterloo and spend a couple hours taking photos in the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory. After visiting this conservatory several times, I have to say it's the second best that I've been to in the Great Lakes region--the first being the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory right down the road from Niagara-on-the-Lake. Yeah, I know. Why butterflies and animation? Again, no real reason, watching butterflies is just a relaxing experience for me. You show up, hunt butterflies with your camera for a while, then sit on a bench in the enclosed nature setting and watch them flutter from here to there. Honestly, I can't think of a better way to relax and prepare myself mentally for a weekend of animated feature-length films.

As always, the Walper Terrace Hotel is comfortable and the staff friendly--and best of all, one block down the street from the Chrysalids Theatre (which used to be named 'the Gig Theatre').*

Thursday only had one screening: 'Full Metal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos.' I've never been a big fan of FMA. It's not a bad series, and I absolutely love Major Armstrong (whose presence was notably absent in this film save for one scene), but it didn't hold my interest after the first episode or two. Fortunately, I have a couple friends who dragged me to the first film--which I enjoyed--and explained to me the whole premise for the series (including character bios). Needless to say, I was entertained with this film. It wasn't spectacular, but it wasn't bad either. I liked the story, which took place between a couple of episodes during second season--or so a fan told me. The animation was acceptable and the characters interesting. However I thought that the special effects were above average. There are scenes with magma flows and eruptions which had me thinking back to Disney's Atlantis and my time talking hand-drawn SFX with Joseph Gilland. I have to say that attending the TAIS Elemental Magic workshop has really expanded my appreciation of animated special effects.

After the screening, I hunted for someplace still open where I could have dinner. I settled on takeout pizza and a soda. No complaints. They were open and the food was something that could be eaten back at the hotel while watching cable t.v.

Day Two: Spent a dangerous amount of time in the local used bookstores before the evening screenings. Sadly, while there was some interesting stuff there, it wasn't anything I couldn't live without. As time marches on, and my library expands, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find books on animation with information that I don't already have.

Teriyaki Beef Bento Lunch
I also returned to a favorite restaurant for lunch: Niko Niko. As I had been watching the anime series 'Ben-To' for the previous couple of months, I just had to order one of their bento box lunches.

I was not disappointed and made several return trips before leaving town on Sunday. Needless to say, I must find a restaurant like this in the Lansing area!

There were two films that screened on Friday night: 'Leafie - A Hen Into the Wild', a big-budget Korean animated film, and 'El Sol', an Argentinean film that I still am having trouble wrapping my brain around.

Leafie was good. Hands down. It was produced from a popular Korean children's book about a hen who escapes a farm and ends up raising a duck in the wild. I don't want to say too much about it because Leafie is a film that must be experienced. Like Disney films, there's a lot there for adults and children alike. Even though you can really tell the difference between American and Asian mindsets and their effect on storytelling, Leafie was still an easy film to follow for Westerners. One word of caution though, there are parts of the film that are really dark--think "Bambi's mother getting shot" dark, so it's probably not a good film for very young children.

I really can't say anything about the content of 'El Sol'. It held my interest, no question there--even through the  many scenes of sex and violence. I guess I just didn't "get it" is all. I think it was about surviving in a post-apocalyptic world and trying to find your own happiness in that world. I'm not sure. Personally, I thought an earlier Argentinean film 'Boogie, El Aceitoso' was a better film partially because it was more logical and plot driven--though with equal amounts of sex and violence.

One of the more interesting things that occurred at this year's festival was the addition of live acts. While I skipped the one evening of metal (due to a pounding headache), I did stay for the live animation show. I can describe this performance as watching a animated screensaver to music. Unfortunately, that doesn't begin to do it justice. While one performer played stringed instruments, fed the music into a computer, and remixed them in realtime, another performer worked with a computer and tablet to create abstract animated 'paintings'. It was a very interesting, very surreal experience that left me very appreciative of my time spent with Stephanie, Skip, and Marla back at R.I.T. Before I met those three professors, I never really appreciated abstract animated films. But through their explanations, education, and personal films, I've developed a rudimentary understanding of (and appreciation for) abstract animated film. Was very nice to see the college education pay off in a new and unexpected way!

Day Three: 'Fimfarium 3', 'the Great Bear', 'the Princess and the Pilot', and 'Chico and Rita'. Wow, what a great line-up of animated films. 'Fimfarium 3' was a series of three stop-motion vignettes that carried a very dry wit to them, much like you would see in the films from Aardman Animation. While there didn't seem to be any connecting thread between them, each individual vignette was expertly animated and very entertaining. It's always a treat to watch what the Eastern European puppetmasters produce!

'The Great Bear' a 3d CGI film about this brother and sister who roam the forest and try to save a bear the size of a mountain from the hunter who is stalking him! Personally, I thought the moose were hysterically funny. Seriously though, this was a nice family film. The characters were a touch wooden in their appearance, but once you get past that, it's a really cute story with a nice payout at the end. Sadly, I don't see this film showing up as an 'English dub' in the States anytime soon. Too bad. This is a nice movie to put in the DVD player and entertain the kids while you're sneaking upstairs for a little fun (or a much needed nap) with the wife.

'The Princess and the Pilot' was textbook. Discriminated and abused pilot has to brave enemy territory and deliver a princess to her soon-to-be-husband prince, thus uniting the two realms against a mutual enemy. This is one of those films where you just sit there and enjoy it. It's not very deep, but it's good. It had solid continuity, engaging characters, and really cool airplane and warship battles. This is one to put on your list of anime to watch once it's out on DVD--although it was undoubtedly better seeing this film on the big screen!

This brings us to the last film of the night. I'll admit it. I hate Jazz. Hate it with a passion. Most Jazz sounds like noise to me--no harmony, just dissonance. Add to that, it was supposed to be old-school rotoscoped. So I went into 'Chico and Rita' with low expectations. But, I skipped the film at Ottawa this year, so figured it was worth sitting through. Wow was that ninety-four minutes well spent! 'Chico and Rita' tells the story of a pair of performers from Cuba experiencing the Cuban and New York Jazz scene before, during, and after the Communist revolution. At its heart, this film is a love story between two people who are brought together and torn apart by forces both within and beyond their control. While I'm still not a fan of Jazz, per se, 'Chico and Rita' has really helped me understand a lot more about the history of Jazz and it's place in both American and Cuban cultural history. Although I haven't seen 'Cat in Paris' yet, so far, 'Chico and Rita' is my choice for the Animated Film Oscar this year.

Day four: Up early to check out of the hotel and see 'Adventures in Plymptoons!'--a student-made documentary (mocumentary?) showcasing the life and times of America's most prominent independent animator, Bill Plympton. This story is told mostly by the people who know Bill and through a lot of reused footage from his earlier film 'Plymptoons'. I don't want to be too critical of this movie because I know that it's a student-produced film--which, in my mind, means it's held to a lower (perhaps more forgiving) standard of quality. But I have met Mr. Plympton. I like him very much both as a professional animator and as a person. I just left the theatre thinking that this film wasn't up to his standards.

Due to last minute licensing restrictions, Joe couldn't show 'Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below', one of the films I was looking forward to seeing. On the good side, it looks like it'll have a North American DVD release, so hopefully sooner rather than later, I'll get to enjoy this film. But, as I was tired, had to be back at work on Monday morning, and my car was giving me trouble the entire trip, I decided to skip 'Green Days' and go home early. On the bright side, I missed the bad weather on my way in and had some time to relax, unpack, and gather my thoughts. On the down side, I think I should've gone back to Niko Niko, had a very leisurely lunch, and then watched 'Green Days'. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, I suppose.

All in all though, the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema remains one of the high points of my year and a trip that I look forward to at the end of every year. I truly wish that WFAC got the press and turnout that it deserves. It remains one of the best kept secrets in the world of animation festivals.

* No, I didn't realize the butterfly themed connection between the conservatory and the theatre when I was there, but now that I have, I'm really digging it.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Animated Inspiration: Simon's Cat 'Catnap'

Well, it's Thanksgiving here in the States and I'm thankful that another Simon's Cat was released!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Animated Inspiration: Kick Me

So back in the early to mid-1980s, I saw a cartoon on PBS. It was basically a line drawing of a pair of legs (red, I think) on a white background. The legs did a little hop dance and then started walking around. Well, shortly afterwards the legs started running up and down a stairwell, got chased by a giant bouncing ball (which got eaten by a giant spider), got chased by a giant spider, and ran away from a bunch of little spiders that made a net with their spider-silk (which blocked a passage in the stairwell). Yeh, I know, kinda surreal. For the past four years, I've been wondering about this animation--who did it, how was it made, etc. After fruitless searches on the net, searching through film databases at the National Film Board of Canada, and asking on forums, I was no closer to an answer. Then, I wake up today and log in to Cartoon Brew (which I often do in the mornings after looking at my e-mail and checking Facebook), and there it is! Animation Historian extraordinaire Jerry Beck is tracking down this film for another reader. Within an hour, we have an answer: it's called "Kick Me", an academy award nominated film from 1975, produced by Robert Swarthe. With the mystery solved, you can now enjoy this 'direct-on-film' flashback from my youth.