Monday, December 1, 2014

Animated Thoughts: Festival Season part four: ASIFA Central 22nd Annual Animators Retreat

This year, ASIFA/Central partnered up with the Mosaic Film Festival for our 22nd Annual Animators Retreat. In exchange for being a 'value-add' to their festival, we were given use of the the Konig Micro-Cinema and it's lobby to host our events. It worked out pretty well too as partnering with the MFF allowed us to share the crowd between their and our events. Throughout the weekend, I spotted people drifting between the films being shown in the Peter Wege Auditorium and our animation programs and events in the Micro-Cinema.

The Wealthy Theater in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Friday began with our annual reception where our members from all across the mid-west drifted in for cake and camaraderie. This year, tradition was broken as the ASIFA Central cake made it to the reception unscathed! Apparently we've discovered the secret to not damaging the cake: have the Peterson's bring it with them. Though they might not realize it yet, succeeding at this challenge has ensured that Jennifer and Gordon will be the 'keepers of the cake' for future ASIFA Central retreats.

The illustrious, and unscathed, ASIFA Central cake

Afterwards, we all retired to the Micro-Cinema proper where we saw this year's ASIFA International Animation Day screening curated by Brad Yarhouse. Two of my favorites from a very solid program of world-wide films produced by ASIFA members hailed from ASIFA Atlanta:

Halcyon-17 by Jeff Macdonald, Colin Wheeler and Jenna Zona.

Halcyon-17 Trailer from jeff macdonald on Vimeo.

And Create by Dan MacKenzie.

Given that in my (much) younger days, I had studied a little Kung Fu, ASIFA China's A Warriors Dream by Jin Li really resonated with me.

The day ended on a very high note as Deanna Morse graciously opened her home to myself and Gary Schwartz for the weekend. So after we all left for the evening, the three of us sat around her dinner table and talked animation over tea and cookies.

Join ASIFA Central... no really, join us, we have leftover cake!

Saturday flew by faster than expected as we held one event after another starting with the first of several student animation screenings set up by ASIFA Central Treasurer Deanna Morse.

Gary Schwartz hard at work

However, while many of us were watching the student screening programs, Gary was out in the lobby working with students who came to the Mosaic Festival, producing a spontaneous stop-motion animated film (seen below).

Before long though, we all broke for lunch and took over a restaurant as we crowded several tables together to continue the shop talk from the previous evening's reception. But before we knew it, it was time for the afternoon screening followed by my History of Women in Animation presentation. Afterwards, when I compared the results of my 'game show', I was surprised to see how our animation industry veterans stacked up against a bunch of animation students and anime fans from when I first gave this presentation at Shuto Con. The results were almost completely opposite of each other. The students at Shuto Con did really well in the television and anime categories, so-so in the feature category and not very well in the independent animation category. Our ASIFA members and guests did well in the indie category, about average in the feature category, and not so well in the television and anime categories. But, everyone had fun and it gave me some more ideas on how to improve my presentation for next time. And as a tribute to her 100th birthday, I ended the presentation with a short film on the life of British animator and studio co-owner, Joy Batchelor, produced by Joy's daughter, Vivian Halas.

The next presentation was our longest and is always a crowd pleaser: the Animator's "Show and Tell" session. Here is where we all get a chance to load up our work onto the big screen and then stand there in front of everyone and share about what we're working on. And there was a great mix to the presentations! We got to see some really solid student work coming out of Huntington University, Kendall College of Art and Design, Grand Valley State University, and Ferris State University's Digital Animation and Game Design program. Additionally, our professors like Steve Leeper and Brad Yarhouse updated us on the films they're currently working on in what little free time they have outside of their respective programs. And people like myself had the opportunity to show some work from 'the other side of the tracks' (forensic animation and historical animation) proving that you don't have to work for the entertainment industry to make a good living in animation. A really nice treat during our program was that a high school girl from Toronto, who had a film in the Mosaic Film Festival, attended our 'show-and-tell' gathering and took the opportunity to discuss her body of work.

The rest of the night after the evening screening remains a little hazy. I remember visiting Brewery Vivant with Steve Leeper twice, once just the two of us and once with Gary, where we all swapped stories and discussed the state of the industry. For those who don't know, Brewery Vivant is a microbrewery in what used to be a Christian chapel, and they serve this delightful hard cider from Vander Mill over in Spring Lake, Michigan.

Sunday found a number of us over at Brad Yarhouse's home where he graciously hosted an ASIFA Central members end-of-the-retreat brunch with myself, Stephen, Lynne, Gary, and ASIFA Central President Jim Middleton. It was a really nice time to reflect on the prior weekend's events--all the while the conversation being split between animation history and plans for next year's retreat. One of the best things to come out of all these discussions between our officers and members was a ton of fresh, new ideas--including a pretty substantial break-down regarding what we could do to improve our current events and what more we could offer next year to make the 23rd annual retreat even better.

In the end though, the ASIFA Central retreat is more about camaraderie than watching films or learning history. Animation can be a very solitary experience, especially when your group covers such a wide range of area across the country. It's always exciting to show up and discover who's going to make the trek for the weekend. Which makes me even sadder to see how few students show up for our retreat. Even though ASIFA Central is one of the few branches of ASIFA that allows students to join our roster, and even though our retreat is free to both members and non-members, it's disappointing to see students missing out on a great opportunity to network with those of us who are currently working in the field. Just off the top of my head, I can think of at least eight universities here in Michigan with animation programs--more if we expand to include the four States surrounding us. When I see all the students who make the trip out to Ottawa for the yearly animation festival huddling in their little groups, I have to wonder how many of them are missing out on a unique opportunity by not making a hour or two drive to meet the local animators in their own back yard? You never know when you'll meet someone who can point you towards a future employer, or have a solution to the production problem that has been vexing you for weeks, or introduce you to a new style of animation, or even help you find that mentor you've been searching for. The internet has allowed us to network with animators all around the world, but social media can't replace that face-to-face contact you get at a festival or a retreat.

Image from Wikipedia
Well, normally, here would be where the "next post... the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema" tagline would appear. Unfortunately, there was no WFAC this year. Turns out that for reasons of his own, festival owner and curator Joe Chen decided to take a break. Given how much work it must take to program four days of feature length animated films, and both research and write introductions for said films, and make sure you have all the equipment to play them in their received format, AND advertise your festival, well, after thirteen years, I'm sure that Joe needed a break even if WFAC was a labor of love for him.

Joe's Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema was where I would normally watch most of the features that would end up being in competition for the Annies and the Oscars. It had become my traditional end to the festival season, that treasured four day weekend where I'd watch animated features that I would never get to see otherwise, hunt for deals at the local used bookstores, enjoy the local cuisine, see some friends from TAIS, and enjoy a little solitude so I could marshal my strength for the following weekend's trip to Boston for Thanksgiving with the family.

While Joe has been pretty quiet about any future plans, many of us regulars are hoping the Waterloo Festival will be back in 2015.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Animated Thoughts: Festival Season part three: OIAF 2014

September rolled around, and it was time for my yearly trek to the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

As per protocol, I drove to Toronto for the evening so I could do my best to decompress before all the activity of the festival. When I crossed the Blue Water Bridge into Canada, I rolled down the windows and yelled "Freedom!!!" at the top of my lungs just as I hit the border between the United States and Canada. My first Ottawa Festival with no student loan debt. What a wonderful feeling it was to have that weight off of my shoulders. I truly wish I could've shared this Ottawa with my friend and mentor, Erik Timmerman, who passed away fourteen years ago. He was the one who got me into grad school at R.I.T. and he introduced me to my first Ottawa International Animation Festival back in 1994.

My day in Toronto was brief and thankfully uneventful given how busy the year had been. It was nice to unwind with no real responsibilities to speak of. Unfortunately though, I missed out again on having lunch with Michelle Melanson-Cuperus as she was leaving for Ottawa the same day I arrived--since Ottawa's Television Animation Conference started later that day. Instead, I stopped by ABC Books and picked up Maureen Furniss's Animation Bible along with a copy of Laura Hett's collaborative work: Animation Sketchbooks. More fodder for the personal library!

The Arts Court on Daly Avenue
On Wednesday, I arrived at Ottawa, went to the Arts Court to pick up my festival pass and who was sitting there in the cafe area but Lynn Wilton! Had time for a very nice chat with Lynn and festival Artistic Director Chris Robinson before picking up Joan Gratz' DVD and the book "Good Girls and Wicked Witches" at the festival shop. Two more resources to take off the list for my women animators research.

After a quick (and rainy) visit to an old haunt for dinner, it was off to the festival's opening screening.

In what is becoming a very welcome tradition, I sat with fellow R.I.T. alum Glenn Ehlers during the opening screening and had a wonderful chat with him beforehand. Nice to hear that his children's book is done. Hope he finds a publisher for it as I'd like to buy a copy after it goes to print. The festival competition screening opened with some strong films. Maybe not the most appealing to me from a story standpoint, but some very impressive visuals.

The two standout films for me were: Bear with Me, a High School animation by Agata Bolansovoa. Sadly, I haven't found this online yet as it's a real treat and I'd like to see this film have a much wider audience! It was a throwback to the old Looney Tunes/Tex Avery/Walter Lantz cartoons from the fifties. An extremely solid performance that worked on every level (animation, story, sound) where we were treated to the trials and tribulations of a bear who wanted to hibernate and a little fox who wanted someplace warm to stay over the winter.

The other film I really appreciated that night was Steven Woloshen's 1000 Plateaus (2004-2014). Background is necessary: Mr. Woloshen created this direct-on-film animation over a decade while sitting in his car, waiting for studio execs and celebrities to show up. In addition to being an accomplished filmmaker, Mr. Woloshen's day job is as a chauffeur for the film industry. The film itself is a fun and jazzy abstract animated film with dancing visuals that draw you right into the symphony of motion and color. While it's still making it's way through the festival circuit, shown below in an interview conducted by Skwigly Online Animation Magazine, Steven describes the genesis of his film.

Afterwards, I skipped the opening night party -- no surprise there, I just can't deal with all the noise.

Thursday came around and this year I decided to see all the student-produced, animation school competition films. The first two screenings were okay. The ECMA films were well produced and artistic, but the RISD films were actually kind of disappointing. Far too many abstract visuals with no narrative structure, kind of like watching those Adult Swim/ADHD cartoons for kids with Attention Deficit Disorder. Just not my scene. I think a big part of it is that with the move to computers, I'm not seeing a lot of films that concentrate on solid visual storytelling and polished, competent drawing skills. And I throw myself in that same category--drawing has been a struggle for me throughout my entire career. But when you put the films that are coming out today side by side with the animated films from the 20's, 30's, 40's and 50's, they really seem to be lacking technique. I don't want to judge these students too unfairly though, I know that my experiences with Japanese animation has left me with a deep appreciation for technical ability, but there's more to creating an animated film than throwing random shapes and colors up onto the screen. For an example of someone who really gets this, I recommend looking into the works of my friend Anne Beal. A graduate of RISD's animation program, Anne really seems to understand how to weave narration and abstract visuals into a cohesive whole. Okay. Rant over.

The International screening was much more satisfying--or perhaps just closer to my sensibilities. I loved, loved, loved "Aug(De)Mented reality", an inventive short with some really clever character animation by Hombre_McSteez shown below:

He's done a sequel that's also worth watching along with some clever photos on his Facebook page.

Had time to hang out with Lynn Wilton some more during the day and even had time to reconnect with Lynn Scatcherd from Dainty Productions.

Lynn Wilton's Kaiju puppet
 Lynn was carrying around her silhouette puppets from her TAIS Robot film. Before the International Screening, she explained to me how she constructed the joints for her puppets using snaps instead of wire and glue. A much more elegant solution than the wire brads I'd been using for my puppets!

The second competition screening had some nice films. Still a little heavy on the abstract so far, but I'm seeing some really solid technique now. And even though our schedules just didn't mesh while we were at the festival, I did get a chance to enjoy Corrie Francis Parks' film Hatch at the screening.

HATCH from corrie francis parks on Vimeo.

Saw Kelly Neall later that afternoon--and was a joy to interact with her as usual. Wish we had had more time to chat, but as the Festival Director, she's always busy making sure the festival goes off without a hitch. She's definitely someone whom I would love to sit down with over tea and interview about what it takes to run the second largest animation festival in the world.

After dinner, it was off to the Women in Animation cocktail party. Wow did my new triple-flange earplugs make the difference. Best $12 I've spent in a long while. Mingling is still difficult, not going to lie, but being able to blank out all the background noise and actually hear what people are saying makes all the difference in the world. Met some new people, reconnected with others -- Ben McEvoy, Dayna Gonzales, Gary Schwartz. Was a good time. Handed out business cards for my women animators blog as best I could. But after an hour and a half, I had to retreat. Hopefully, I'll do better at the picnic -- though I consider this trial by fire a success for the new earplugs and my attempts to become better at networking with my colleagues. I've known about these earplugs for a couple years, now that I see how well they work, I really wish I'd pulled the trigger on these years ago.

WiA mixer at the Novotel
At the WiA Mixer, I asked Gary Schwartz if Joan Gratz was there, since earlier I thought I saw someone who looked like her. He thought she had been there but had left. Fair enough. It was getting crowded and kinda loud. So I went to the evening screening and met up with Glenn again. We start talking and a woman walks by. I ask if that's Joan Gratz -- as I thought she was the woman Gary spoke about at the WiA mixer. Glenn didn't know. The conversation continued on. Not five minutes later, Joan Gratz sits down in front of us! Thus began a wonderful conversation where Joan spoke about her career (and asked me about mine) and she agreed to an interview for my woman animators blog. My sister once told me that her career was one where she was always in the right place at the right time to meet the right person. I'm starting to understand what she meant.

We Can't Live Without Cosmos, by Konstantin Bronzit

The competition screening's standout film for me was We Can't Live Without Cosmos by Konstantin Bronzit. The humorous story centers on the training of two Russian Cosmonauts--friends from childhood. When tragedy strikes the friends, the story turns bittersweet, leading up to a still-bittersweet, yet hopeful ending. Well worth watching (and the award it won at the OIAF).

Afterwards, I went to the Salon de Refuses screening. Chatted with Lynn Wilton again and got to see the film of hers that didn't make it into the official OIAF lineup (the other was presented at the Canadian Showcase). As always, there were some really decent films in the Refuses screening, but nothing that could top Bronzit's film for my choice for the best film I saw that day. I don't envy Chris in his job to select films for the festival line-up. That must be one tough job, not just to sift through all the, ah, substandard films but to have to choose between films that are equally excellent in their own right knowing that inclusion of one film might mean that there won't be screening time for another equally deserving film.

Friday morning's competition screening was okay. Too dark for my tastes though. I guess I just want to laugh--I did get my chance to do so when I watched Torill Kove's new film Me and My Moulton. Was a decent film, and one that was a bit more personal than her previous films: the Danish Poet and My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts. Not sure if it was better than those previous two films but it was an entertaining film with an interesting story and I really liked how the visual style of the backgrounds fit cleanly into the theme of her parents being 'modernist architects'. Afterwards, I ended up on the double-decker bus on the way to the picnic, sitting with Glenn. He noted that the screenings seem to be thematic this year: good mix of topics for the opening, sex, darkness, etc for the others. I have to agree.

The OIAF Animators Picnic's "Brain Cake"

The picnic was fun. Met Tyler, one of Glenn's co-professors, who went to Huntington University and studied under fellow ASIFA/Central member Steven Leeper. We commiserated about being stuck in Indiana for four years of undergrad -- the land of corn and little else! With the earplugs keeping me in the game, I moseyed around and saw Madi Pillar, then Pilar Newton-Katz, then Dayna Gonzales. Then it was time to hitch a ride back to the festival for more screenings -- that is, a ride with Madi, Lynn and the TAIS crew. Good timing. More providence. And made it back in time for the Canadian Animation screening--which was decent. I still haven't seen a whole lot of films that really resonate with my sensibilities, though the ones that grab my attention are really memorable.

It's funny how I keep bumping into Glenn, Lynn, and Dayna. Hope that's not weird for them. I don't want to monopolize anyone's time, but do want to be friendly. Casual human interaction still baffles me.

The program on Disney's short film Feast was a crowd-pleaser--as was the film. Had a bit of a 'Paperman' feel to parts--and kind of lost a little magic due to that, but all-in-all it was good. One of my friends said it was schmaltzy. I have to agree, but there's no doubt, when the puppy shows up on the screen for the first time and every girl in the audience lets out a collective "ooooooh", you know that Disney has struck gold with that short film. Will it be a timeless classic? Maybe not, but it's an enjoyable film nonetheless.

Before the Pixar's Lava short film/Seth's Dominion feature screening, I had the opportunity to have a quick chat with Jerry Beck about the infamous Disney rejection letter. Mr. Beck never ceases to impress me with how approachable he is to everyone--student or pro. Jerry said he thought he'd seen the Disney rejection letter about 20 years ago, but doesn't know if any historian has fully researched it. Might have to track it down myself. My gut tells me that it's legit, but given the lies and falsehoods that are floating around on the net regarding Walt Disney, you just can't take anything for granted nowadays. Wonder if one of those History Detective shows would do it?

Saw Bryce Hallett at Friday's competition screening. Glad he made it out here. Saw Linda Siemensky from PBS and said 'hi'. Doubt she remembers me though, the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International was quite a while ago. The competition screening films continue to be thematic and hit-or-miss. And Chris seems determined to end each screening on a really strong note. Tonight's pick for me was A Tale of Momentum and Inertia, a 3d CGI short film by House Special out in Portland, Oregon. Rather than say why, just watch it below, It's only a minute long and you'll get why this was one of my favorite films at the festival.

A Tale of Momentum & Inertia from HouseSpecial on Vimeo.

After the screening, I hooked up with Steve Stanchfield, Gary Schwartz, and Brooke Kessling and received an offer from Steve to help find the lost films of Helena Smith Dayton! Also said he found another Virginia May film and gave me permission to show them! Must... find... something... really special to do for Steve in the not too distant future... The evening ended with the four of us at the Novotel lounge swapping stories over cream soda and laughing about how we had an ASIFA/Central and College for Creative Studies quorum.

Saturday morning arrived far too soon. Even though the professional development panels are my favorite part of the festival, I skipped the recruiters panel for once to get some extra sleep. Was a good call. Would have loved to have been there, but Brooke warned me the night before that it probably wouldn't be as fully staffed as in previous years.

Pixar's Lava short film talk was okay. Doesn't seem like they were breaking any new technical ground with their animated short, but just wanted to tell an entertaining story. Fair enough. Next, they held the "Iron Pitch" competition where Barry Sanders and Bryce Hallett cleaned up. Go Toronto! Then it was time for Nickelodeon's talk about their upcoming series "Pig, Goat, Banana, Cricket". I was sucked in immediately when the co-creators and executive producer started talking about the story structure.

While the artwork is reminiscent of Ren and Stimpy, it's the ingenious storytelling structure that fascinates me. Imagine four characters, each with their own individual story arc, each story arc interweaving with the other stories, and told in eleven minutes! It's kind of hard to explain and provide the real sense of what they're attempting.

The pilot (originally titled Pig Goat Banana Mantis and directed by Nick Cross) is on YouTube and it's worth a look. While the overall show may not appeal to everyone, I'd love to take this show into an animation scriptwriting course and deconstruct it with the students. It's not out yet, but this is going to be one series to keep an eye on.

The Disney talk afterwards was just pure fun as animation veterans Ron Clements and John Musker reminisced about their careers with Disney, creating iconic classic features like Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules and Princess and the Frog. Their talk was pure gold!

Sunday was a pretty good end to the festival. Three screenings and a feature-length animated film. Saw Lynn and Dayna at the first screening and got the chance to say goodbye to them. Saw Glenn at the second screening--and got to say goodbye to him. The student films I saw that day were so good, I skipped the 'Best of the Fest' screenings. Before making that ten-hour drive back home, I really wanted to leave on a high-note and there were a number of the competition films that won which I found unappealing for one reason or another. One of my friends said the same thing--was why they went to the kids animation screening before leaving Ottawa. And while the RISD student show was good, there is no way that it was better than the student reel that the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design entered in the competition. With all due respect to my RISD friends, Bezalel should have won, hands-down. Overall, this year it feels like both TAIS and Ottawa seem to be showing far more abstract, non-narrative animations in their narrative film categories then actual narrative films. Problematic. There's always going to be some bleed over between the two categories based on the animator's visual style and design choices, but it really feels like people are eschewing hand-drawn animation or cohesive narrative structure as a result of the onset of enhanced computer tools like After Effects and Maya. The Ottawa crew works very hard to provide a venue for a lot of films that wouldn't get to be seen otherwise, so I suppose in large part it will always boil down to individual tastes in film content. It does feel cyclical, however. There were periods like this back in the nineties when I started attending Ottawa, so I'm sure we'll see the pendulum swinging back soon enough. I forget who said it, but 'the only thing we need to spark another renaissance in 2d hand drawn animation is another Lion King.'

This year's festival had a very nice balance of visiting with people and watching films. As much as I enjoyed many of the programs and films, what I appreciated the most was how it felt like circumstances were constantly being tweaked so that I was in the right place at the right time in order to spend some time with with a friend whom I had only briefly chatted with online over the past twelve months. Now all I need to do is convince some more of my fellow R.I.T. Alumni to come back to Ottawa. Then we can have our own reunion.

Next stop: The ASIFA/Central 22nd Annual Midwest Animator's Retreat.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Animated Thoughts: Festival Season part two: TAIS Summer Anijam

A month after TAAFI, it was time for the Toronto Animated Image Society's annual screening.

This time, I was fortunate enough to get one of the rooms that the Novotel holds in reserve for Fortunate in that Radical Sheep Productions is only one block away from the hotel.

Okay, background is necessary. At TAAFI, I asked Michelle Melanson-Cuperus for permission to record the WiA roundtable discussion. I wanted it for personal reasons, but also because I believe that every time Women in Animation does an event like this this--where they have women animators discussing their careers--it should be recorded and put up on the website as a value-add for members (and would become a valuable resource for researchers). Well, after multiple fiascos of me trying to e-mail/Dropbox/Sendthisfile the audio file to Michelle, I just burned the files on a CD-ROM and figured I'd drop it off at her office.

The drop off went well. Unfortunately, I missed Michelle by 15 minutes. So, undaunted, I went book hunting instead and found a copy of "A Century of Stop Motion Animation" by Ray Harryhausen... 240 pages and only two pages reference Virginia May, one of the first woman animators! Kind of typical I suppose, but am still glad to have that reference material in my library. As good as the internet may be, Toronto remains one of my best sources for finding used books.

Janice Schulman
Later that evening, I met up with fellow TAIS member and former woman animator interviewee, Janice Schulman, for dinner. Was a fantastic evening! The conversation ranged from her new projects and inspirations for her old projects, to funding sources in Canada, freelancing, and TAIS and WiA project development. One of those nights that you wish could go on a lot longer... or at least could be transplanted to Michigan!

The next day found me visiting the Royal Ontario Museum as they had a special exhibit on China called 'The Royal Family of the Forbidden City'. There were a lot of objects on display ranging from tableware to ornately embroidered robes to military garb, bells, and paintings. But what was of particular interest to me was how the curators had integrated animation into the exhibit. There were several worthy of note: the first was a multi-panel video display that depicted the emperor and his entourage being led into the Forbidden City via a military procession--all painted on a handscroll--which can be seen at time marker 1:38 to 1:43 in the YouTube video below. As you looked closer, the figures in the painting would move as it slowly panned across the scene. The other videos were in adjoining rooms and they depicted the daily life of the Emperor and the tale of a Chinese citizen advancing in social rank. Both stories were presented in a black-and-white silhouette animation style that mimicked traditional Chinese shadow-puppet theater. Unfortunately, as cameras were not allowed in this exhibit, I was unable to record any footage of these last two videos.

Shortly after leaving the Forbidden City exhibit, I made the rounds to capture some visual references for future art projects. As fate would have it, Lynn Dana Wilton was in the prehistoric mammals room with a friend, doing some drawing before the TAIS screening.
Vickie and Lynn (l to r)
Not one to miss an opportunity to screw with Lynn, I took a candid photo of her and Vickie, then sat down on the bench next to them--waiting for a moment to enter the conversation and reveal my presence to the two animators who were intently drawing a fossil. The joke paid off rather well a few moments later--though now I'm left wondering how Lynn is going to get me back...

That evening, Madi and the TAIS board tried something new as they held a barbecue in the back lot behind the Cinecycle before the screening. It was a great decision as it really promoted a sense of camaraderie between the attendees and provided an opportunity to network with our peers. Though afflicted with social anxiety, I still had the opportunity to chat with Lynn, Madi & Tom, Hugo, Patrick and Bryce at the cookout before the films were shown. Fortunately for me, the back lot never got so loud that I could not understand what people were saying--regrettably, a problem that I've had my entire life which usually forces me to retreat somewhere quiet in order to refocus my thoughts. Needless to say, I find museums and libraries much more enjoyable than the club scene.

TAIS at the Cinecycle
The screening was a mixed bag. This year, the AniJam subject was "Robots", which I had a lot of fun with and figured that many people around the world would too. Unfortunately there weren't many submissions this year.

I hate to say it but even though I very much enjoyed Patrick Jenkins' new film Circle Game, I found the rest of the program to be a touch underwhelming. There were just too many non-narrative, abstract films.

One thing that I was pleasantly surprised by was that the film selection was almost equally split between films produced by woman animators and those produced by men. And there were a couple standout films in the selection, like A Life With Aspergers by Jamie Ekkens, Blackout by Sharron Mirsky, Choir Tour by Edmunds Jansons, and Robin by Yuval Nathan. But overall, the selection left me feeling crestfallen. As the TAIS screenings have been moving in this direction for a while, one where films with cohesive narrative structure appear to be eschewed in the name of those with eyestrain-inducing visuals, well, I'm sorry to say that I'll probably think twice before I go to another TAIS screening. Animation is a visual medium and I expect to see well produced abstract animations (like Circle Game or Robin), but to program your screening in such a way that the number of abstract films drastically overwhelm the narrative? Unless it's a program specifically designed for abstract films (like the one held by the Ann Arbor Film Festival every year) then it's just not for me. It would be different if I lived in Toronto, but when you have to shoulder the expenses of a nine-hour round trip visit, one has to wonder if you're allocating your resources as wisely as you could be. Looking back on the experience, I think that I'd be better off reallocating that money towards attending the TAIS workshops instead and really sharpening my skill-set.

The following day saw my first visit to the new TAIS offices--and I was duly impressed. TAIS continues to flourish under Madi Pilar's leadership. Though a bit out of the way from what I'm used to with the old location, the new office has multiple workstations suitable for digital filmmaking, stop-motion puppetry, and under-the-camera techniques along with a small library and conference area. As Bryce Hallett continues to teach hand-drawn animation workshops, I look forward to taking one of his classes in the new building in the future.

Afterwards, I went to visit Patrick Jenkins at his studio to see the progress on his latest Noirland film. Patrick continues to push beyond the boundaries of what he has produced in the past using the paint-on-glass technique, seen in his previous films Labyrinth and Sorceress. Every time I visit Patrick and see his film continue to grow and coalesce under the camera, I leave his studio encouraged and looking forward to the day when I get to see it on the big screen. If you haven't seen them yet, the first two films in his Noirland series are available for free viewing on page 3 of his section of the Bitlanders website.

As it had just opened up, I couldn't leave Toronto without visiting the new Ripleys Aquarium  adjacent to the CN Tower. It appears that no expense was spared when building this new attraction. As you walked through the aquarium, they had the traditional 'fishtank-style' exhibits as well as a moving sidewalk that took you though an aquarium, though you don't realize that you're surrounded by water until a shadow falls over you and you look up just in time to see a large shark or stingray swim overhead. I especially enjoyed the horseshoe crab and shark petting ponds, even though I spent considerably more time photographing jellyfish as they drifted along.

I would love to see the Ripley's Aquarium added to the sites available through the Toronto CityPass system--especially given that the Toronto Zoo is outside of the downtown Toronto area and the Science Museum is more geared to families with little kids.

Well, no Summer trip to Ontario would be complete without a visit to Niagara, so on my last day, I drove down to the Falls. Unfortunately, they didn't have a fireworks display that night, but I still got some great photographs while I was there.

The next day, it was time to go home to Michigan, but I didn't want to leave Niagara without a quick side-trip to the best Butterfly Conservatory in the Great Lakes region. And I even found time to make a new friend.

Next stop: the Ottawa International Animation Festival!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Animated Thoughts: Festival Season part one: TAAFI

Well, the Summer festival/convention season opened for me in June and once again, I found myself heading across the border to Toronto so I could absorb some animated culture, study my craft, and network with colleagues.

This year was a little different as I had passed a major milestone in my life. After seventeen years, I had finally paid off my student loans.

So, to celebrate this monumental achievement (monumental, given how much I owed on my education AND how long it took me to pay it off), I decided to skip GenCon this year and instead take the train from Windsor into Toronto for Ben McEvoy's Toronto Animation Arts Festival International (also affectionately known as TAAFI).

It was an easy decision to make when I saw them list a panel discussion on Women in Animation along with several lectures by women animators, directors, and producers. Figuring that at the very least, I'd head out there for the day on Monday and then drive back that night, at least I would get to see the four sessions that interested me most! Then I received a residual check from a client that was much more than I had expected. Over the span of several days, I made hotel and train reservations, bought a pass, registered for events, and visited my bank to make that final money transfer to my student loan service provider. The day before I drove to Windsor, the money transfer went through and I was able to see the balance listed as $0.00 in my account.

TAAFI would become my reward to myself for not only making it through eight years of higher education, but also going through seventeen years of student loans without ever defaulting and only being late on my payments three times. And oh what a reward it was! I've only missed attending one Ottawa International Animation Festival since 1994 and have visited many others across the Great Lakes region and Ontario and I have to say that TAAFI is the only festival I've ever been to that can match the OIAF in sheer enjoyment and return on investment.

Held down at the waterfront of Lake Ontario in the Corus Quay building and George Brown College, TAAFI really strives to have something for everyone whether you're there for screenings, lectures, workshops, networking, or to do some shopping at their artists alley/dealer's room.

Easily, one of my favorite events at Ottawa is the Saturday professional development classes and workshops. It is on Saturday that they bring in animators from all over the world to discuss topics relevant to our careers. Rather than limiting it to just one day, TAAFI spreads it out over all four days!

I immediately found myself sucked in to lectures and roundtable discussions that ranged from improving our ability to tell a story:

"Ridiculously Great Storytelling" presented by Ellen Besen and Aubry Mintz
"Storyboard Driven Cartoons" with Natasha Allegri, Steve Wolfhard, and Matt Fernandes

to examples of character design:

"Compelling Character Design" with Jessica Borutski, Stephen Silver and Dave Cooper

to the business of animation:

"How Not to Get Screwed" presented by Stephen Silver
"Creating Success" with Dave Cooper, Mike Geiger, Natasha Allegri, and Michael Rex

working with existing properties:

"Redesigning Bugs Bunny" presented by Jessica Borutski
"Playing in Someone Else's Sandbox" presented by Jim Zub

how to survive and thrive within the industry:

"Being an Independent at Pixar" presented by Erick Oh.
"State of the Industry" with George Elliot, Juan Lopez, Mark Jones, Michelle Melanson-Cuperus, Laura Clunie, Brian Simpson, and Shari Cohen

and how the landscape of animation instruction is changing:

"An Animation Education" with Aubry Mintz, Brooke Keesling, Tony Tarantini, and Richard Arroyo.

But for me, the highlight of the weekend was "Women in Animation" a roundtable discussion with Kallan Kagan, Lillian Chan, Karen Lessmann, Vesna Mostovac and Lesley Headrick, curated by Michelle Melanson-Cuperus of the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa branch of Women in Animation.

I was very fortunate that although many of the lectures and talks had to be restricted due to agreements with studios, Michelle allowed me to create an audio recording of this talk. Completely understandable as studios don't need their animators talks recorded and spread all over the internet where they can be taken out of context and used to create controversy where none exists all in the name of selling advertising.

The discussion was very refreshing as the ladies confronted many of the issues a young lady who wants to become an animator will face in her career along with some that are just good general advice: don't burn bridges and the importance of networking. One that I especially appreciated was when the discussion confronted the issue of managing your career while managing motherhood--work/life balance. One of the panel members discussed how you really have to make choices on where you're going to focus your energy. In her life, she admitted that, though married for 13 years, she made a conscious decision to not have children. And I think it was a very important thing that needed to be said. I'm not going to pontificate about how life is a zero-sum game that is dictated by the limited amount of time that we have access to. Still, it was very important for issues like these to be stated and discussed openly as the industry landscape changes and we see more and more girls looking towards animation as a viable career choice.

A special treat while I was there was that I got to meet Nancy Beiman in person. Nancy was one of the first female supervising-animators in the business (including at Disney and Amblin Entertainment). Nancy was kind enough to take a couple moments out of her schedule and clear up some information about who was the first female supervising-animator at Disney and where she fit into the line-up.

While I was there, I had the opportunity to see Bill Plympton's new film Cheatin'. Wow! Bill's visual style has come a long way from the Tune and So I Married A Strange Person. The animation and rough drawing style was still distinctly Bill Plympton, but the lush digital watercolor-style coloring and the more serious tone to the story kept his work feeling fresh. I'll be very interested to see if he gets an Oscar nod in 2015.

As I sat on the train back to Windsor, where I would pick up my car before making the final leg back to East Lansing, I looked over my journal which was overflowing with notes and compared it to the actual breadth of events that Ben had scheduled into TAAFI. I felt very content with what I had seen and done, but it was clear that I had missed a lot of what was available. Just looking at the selection of animated shorts that they showed, well, next year, I'm definitely going to make time for some animation short screenings and attend a workshop or two.

Next stop: the Toronto Animated Image Society's animation showcase.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, Epilogue

Here's a couple films that didn't make my list, but I think are worth seeing if you have the chance. They missed my top spots for one reason or another--plot holes, animation that was a little less than stellar, weak dialog, or just personal preference. But that doesn't mean that they aren't worth your time.

1. The Iron Giant
A fun romp with great voice acting and animation, a wonderful story, well thought-out characters, and almost seamless visual compositing between the 2d cel animation and 3d CGI characters which was directed by future Incredibles director: Brad Bird. It got a little too political for my tastes at the end with it's shout out to the anti-gun lobby, but it was still a great film nonetheless that deserved to do far better in the box office than it did.

Availability: Available in the States. Video-to-go has a copy.

2. Jason and the Argonauts
An incredible use of stop motion animation and old-school compositing by master animator Ray Harryhausen. The skeleton fight from this film is still a classic example of stop-motion animation composited with live action which, apparently, took Harryhausen three months to complete. For those of you interested in stop-motion animation, the hour-long documentary "The Harryhausen Chronicles" can be seen on at the following link: YouTube. It's a must-see for budding stop-motion animators who have enjoyed films like Laika's stop-motion films Coraline and Paranorman (or trailers from their upcoming film The Boxtrolls).

Availability: Available in the States. Video-to-go has a copy (make sure it's the 1963 version starring Todd Armstrong with stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, not the 2000 Hallmark production with Jason London and Natasha Henstridge).

3. The Last Unicorn
Ah, a classic Rankin/Bass production--stilted animation, campy dialogue, and not-too-subtle anti-Semitic characters (he said mostly in jest; seriously, a magician named "Schmendrick"? Hmmm...). Still, as a kid who grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons, I greatly enjoyed this film as a child. And along with another Rankin/Bass classic, A Flight of Dragons, I still enjoy it today. It's a beautiful film that deserves to be introduced to a new, present-day audience. Rankin/Bass had some really interesting productions back in the day ranging from the stop-motion holiday specials we all know and love (Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman) to Tolkien classics The Hobbit and the Return of the King. One little tidbit that most people don't know: almost all of their productions were animated in Japan! I have to wonder if The Last Unicorn inspired any Japanese animators in their younger years given the sizable number of fantasy Isekai anime series nowadays.

Availability: Available in the States. Video-to-go has a copy.

4. Allegro Non Troppo
Bruno Bozzetto's answer to Walt Disney's Fantasia. The live action storyline that introduces each animated segment is pretty tedious. Best just to fast forward through it in order to get to some superb and dynamically inventive animation. Throughout the film, there's this wistful, melancholy feeling to many of the stories that is illustrated brilliantly in one of my favorite sequences where a cat, wandering around a burnt out building, remembers what it was like to be part of a loving family. Still animating today, Bozzetto's more recent animated shorts are always a favorite of mine whenever they're included in the line up at the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Availability: Available in the States. Video-to-go has a copy.

5. 9
Shane Acker's 9 started out as a short film which he parlayed into a feature-length animated film. 9 was a very good short that didn't make the translation into feature as well as it could have. The story, visuals, and animation in this "stitchpunk" tale were supurb, however, the film's main weakness was it's dialog. Seriously, you could make a drinking game out of every time a character gasps in shock. But, regardless of its flaws, 9 remains a very unique film that's worth seeing.

Availability: Available in the States. Video-to-go has a copy.

6.Technotise, Edit y Ja
Not a very deep story, and it borrows probably a little more than it should from Ghost in the Shell, but Technotise is still a fun film that looks like it jumped right off the pages of Heavy Metal (Metal Hurlant) magazine. It's not a rock-opera like the Heavy Metal movie, nor is it an animated Sci-Fi B-Movie like Heavy Metal 2000, it's just a good science fiction story out of Serbia.

Availability: Not available in the States. Up until recently this film was available for streaming online via Amazon's streaming service. It remains to be seen if it'll be offered again.

It's here that I wrap up this series on my blog with a shout-out to local video stores. Here in Lansing, Video To Go is a second home for film buffs and a cornerstone of the film loving community. Owned by Tom Leach, whose son Justin would go on to become an animator on such films as Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, and Ice Age, Video To Go is the best place I have ever found to see many of the popular classic films of animation as well as more recent films that rarely get seen.

When doing research for this series of blog posts, I was floored to see animated films like The Painting, Persepolis, Cool World, Fritz the Cat, Chico and Rita, and Jin-Roh on Video To Go's shelves--just waiting to be discovered by a new audience. These, and many other animated films are ones that you normally only see at animation festivals or through limited run direct order DVDs. It gives me great hope for the medium of animation, knowing that there are men like Tom who aren't afraid of streaming video services and national video rental chains and are willing to risk their money by bringing adult, independent, and avant-garde animation DVDs to local audiences.

So before you spend a half-hour on Netflix, searching for something to watch, consider making that drive down to your local video store (like Video To Go) and spending that time browsing their shelves. Not only will you be supporting a local business but you might just discover one of these rare gems of animation that could become a part of your list of animated films that everybody should see at least once.

Thank you for your time.

Charles Wilson
Smudge Animation LLC

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, pt. 5 of 5

Well, this is it, my last five animated feature films that everyone should see at least once. I'm wrapping up the list with video games, robots, animated non-'Rodgers and Hammerstein' musicals, and political allegories told by bunnies. At this point, I hope everyone has seen a couple films that they'd love to watch or something from their past that they'd love to watch again. Thanks to everyone for following the countdown.

21. Tron
I have to include Tron in this countdown as it was the film that inspired me to become an animator. While not the first film to use computer animation (and the CG animation only comprises approximately 20 minutes of the film's total running time), in its day, Tron became a milestone for 3d computer graphics and set the stage for the coming years. The story of a maligned computer programmer who finds himself brought into a computer (literally) during his search for justice, Tron was a mixture of old and new animation techniques as the live action scenes inside the computer were filmed in black and white, printed out on film stock, then rotoscoped to add the color. You can find more detail about Tron's production history on their Wikipedia page if, like me, you enjoy geeking out over the techniques used to create this film.

Though not a financial success, Tron did serve as inspiration for many other animators, most notably Pixar founder John Lasseter, who is reported to have said: "without Tron there would be no Toy Story."

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

22. The Tune
No list is complete without mentioning the godfather of American independent animation: Bill Plympton. While Bill has made many feature length animated films (his latest film Cheatin' just screened at the Toronto Animated Image Arts Festival International), I keep going back to his first as my all-time favorite Plympton film: The Tune. As the story goes, after producing a series of successful animated short films, Bill realized he had enough material that could become a feature with the right metastory to tie them all together. The Tune tells the story of a songwriter who is trying to write the perfect song in order to save his job while, at the same time, trying to make it to the boss's office by the end of the day. Where does 'the Tune' fit in? Well during his travels, he bumps into a wide variety of people with their own inspiring songs. Drawn in Bill's signature visual style and animated at five-frames per second, The Tune is filled with Bill's quirky sense of humor and visual gags that have become his trademark.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. If you want a copy though, you have to go to Bill's online store to get one.

23. Wall*E
Wall*E is about as close to a perfect film as I've seen. I have watched this tale about a little robot with a soul almost fifty times at this point and I have yet to find any serious flaws or plot holes in the storytelling. Once again, Pixar proves that they're willing to take risks on unorthodox storytelling--like having the first act of this film told without any dialogue--and reap the benefits of taking that proverbial (and oft clichéd) road-less-travelled. If you have the chance, check out Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull's book "Creativity, Inc." Within Chapter 5, you'll find some great information about the 'Pixar Brain Trust' and why it works so well when applied to finding the flaws in their films and fixing them before they hit the screen. I'm not going to go too in depth about Wall*E since at this point, I'm assuming that almost everybody reading this list has seen it at least once. Suffice it to say though, setting aside their enormous technical achievements, Wall*E remains one of the best examples of Pixar's success because in this film they never lose sight of how important it is to tell a good story.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

24. Watership Down
Yes Virginia, the life of a bunny can be a brief and violent one. Much like Animal Farm, Watership Down is a thinly-veiled political allegory that highlights the differences between various political systems--in this case told through the lives of bunnies who are struggling against different forms of tyranny in the search for their own freedom. Watership Down was originally a story by English author Richard Adams, who also wrote an even more gut-wrenching film called Plague Dogs which tackled the difficult subject of animal testing (and incidentally included voice acting by a young Patrick Stewart). Both films can be very tough films to watch as they don't shy away from violence, brutality, and death. While not for younger children, both Watership Down and Plague Dogs can be very good tools for promoting a discussion with older children on topics like the needs of the collective versus the rights of the individual or what is the role of mankind's stewardship of nature when viewed through the lens of tests performed on animals (or through mankind's consumption of animals)? Or perhaps how media can be used to influence our beliefs by provoking emotional responses.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

25. Wreck-it Ralph
Another movie about video games, Wreck-it Ralph is filled with puns and pithy one-liners, like "it's hard to love your job when nobody likes you for doing it." But don't let the plethora of gags fool you, Wreck-it Ralph has more heart than most animated films (and even more live action films). Something that I really appreciated was the path that Disney took with Ralph as he went from anti-hero to actual hero. Ralph's journey is one mistake after another as he starts out his story being a bum and a liar who thinks that he can get what he wants by cheating. By the end of the film, rather than copping out by ending the film with Ralph 'accepting who he is', Disney pushed the story further by having Ralph learn the lesson that you don't have to be thought of as a hero in order to be one despite what your lot in life is. It's very reminiscent of Dr. King's statement: "If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well." There's a lot more that I'd like to write about this film, but it's hard not to write about Ralph's "hero journey" without totally spoilering the film for those who haven't seen it yet. If you have kids, this is a great film to watch with them and discuss the evolution of Ralph's internal character growth.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

Honorable Mention: The Illusionist
Like Arrugas (Wrinkles), this is another movie that didn't "need" to be animated. You could have told the entire story in live action and it would have been just as beautiful and as touching. However, much like director Sylvan Chomet's earlier film, the Triplets of Belleville, there is almost no dialogue in this film. By doing so, it's probably one of the main reasons why the film does work better as an animated feature rather than a live action feature--how many live action films out there exist where none of the characters speak? Taken from a script written by the late Jacques Tati, and supposedly inspired by the regret he felt over abandoning his daughter as a baby (and the girl's mother), the Illusionist is the story of an old magician nearing the end of his days as an entertainer who finds himself in the unlikely position of being a father-figure that guides a young girl into womanhood. Setting aside the controversies behind this film, Sylvan Chomet has woven a multi-layered tale filled with bittersweet moments and the recurring theme of the old giving way to the new--whether through the relationship between the Illusionist and Alice or through the vaudeville entertainers who are watching their careers disappear amidst the onslaught of television and rock-and-roll.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

Well, perhaps we're not 'completely' finished with the countdown. As a special bonus, in two weeks, I'll post a list of six animated features that are great films in their own right and are worth watching, but didn't make my top twenty-five list for one reason or another.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Animated Quotes: Ralph Bakshi

"The computer is the greatest single instrument that ever happened to an animator."
~ Ralph Bakshi
Source: Cartoon Brew Interview, May 5, 2014

Monday, June 30, 2014

Animated People: Erik Timmerman

Growing up, the consequences for missteps were pretty dire. My Dad rarely took the time to teach me anything, he just assumed that I knew how to do things and do them "his" way. And when I inevitably failed, I'd get punished. It actually lends itself to a sort of mental paralysis that I believe is rather common among those people who either grow up abused or are abused later in life by a spouse. The mindset being: if you're going to be punished regardless, then why even bother trying? A bit grim, I know, but it is what it is.

With my childhood filled with those experiences, it was hard not to fall into a pattern of behavior where I viewed other male authority figures through that particular lens, whether it was justified or not.

So there I was during my first quarter at R.I.T., sitting there in the Photography Core 1 class along with my fellow students, chatting away as we waited for Erik to show up and start teaching. Well, Erik arrived and said he had to do something real quick and then he'd be back. And then he asked me to go get the TV/VCR setup and bring it into the room. I did as he asked and parked the big portable TV stand at the front of the room, then sat back down with my friends.

Erik came back and he started giving his lecture to the class. When it came time to show the example video to the class, he paused, then unwound the cord from the TV/VCR stand, plugged it in, and showed his video.

I was mortified at my screw-up. I should've unwound the cord and plugged it in so he wouldn't have to do it himself. The rest of the class, I was sweating bullets, waiting for the inevitable dressing down for not finishing the job he had given me. When the class was over, I apologized to Erik for not plugging in the unit. He seemed surprised at my behavior and said it was no problem. When he asked why it bothered me, I said that overlooking something like that would've earned me a two-hour lecture from my dad.

He then gave me this quizzical look that telegraphed how "another piece of the puzzle was falling into place" then told me not to worry about the small stuff.

As the relief washed over me I started to see things in a different light. I didn't have to walk on eggshells around Erik. Be polite and respectful, of course, but I shouldn't see him as someone who was just waiting for me to make a mistake so he could drop the hammer.

Looking back at it with years of hindsight, that was one of those moments where I realized that I made the right decision coming to R.I.T. in the first place. That, at least for the moment, I was where I belonged.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, pt. 4 of 5

When you mention feature-length animated films, most people immediately start talking about Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, or Japanese animation. But many other countries have their own animation industries: France, Russia, and Canada, for example. And many others are trying to get into the game both domestically and world-wide. After years of domestic box-office failure, three-years ago South Korea released their most successful animated feature: Leafie, A Hen into the Wild. Based on a children's book, Leafie recouped it's production costs domestically within one month! But where do we see these films legally here in North America (read that: without bittorrenting bootleg copies on the internet)?

Now seems like a good time to talk about the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema. Located in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, the Waterloo Festival is the only animation festival in the world that showcases animated feature-length films exclusively. Every year, theatre owner and festival curator Joe Chen scours the world animation scene for the best features available including many that become North American premieres--like Redline or the Evangelion relaunch films. Joe also enhances the experience with guest lecturers and panel discussions that detail the history of specific animation topics: like the history of animation during the Soviet Union or the works of Mamoro Oshii. After discovering WFAC a few years back, the Waterloo Festival has become a yearly trip for me every November and the last animation festival I visit for the year. I'm continually thankful that the animation community has people like Joe who is willing not just to do the hard work in bringing in films from around the world (and deal with the headaches involved in doing so) but that his festival is within a four hour drive of Michigan. It's one more reason to stay in the Great Lakes region.

Now, in the words of the late Casey Kasem: on to the countdown.

16. Redline
Whenever anyone asks me 'what is anime' this is my go-to film. Completely hand-drawn in a time where most production is going digital (although they used computers for compositing and many of the special effects), Redline covers almost every trope that you're going to see in anime: aliens, magical girls, giant robots, buxom heroines, kaiju, and action that is out of this world. Redline is the story of "Sweet JP", a race car driver trying to find redemption, love, and victory in the universe's top racing circuit: the Redline! I made a seven hour round trip to the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema just to see this movie and it was worth every minute of the drive (and every dollar spent on gas).

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

17. Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury
In Rio 2096, Brazil's Lightstar Studios tackled the difficult subject of their country's history from Portuguese imperialism all the way to a possible future where the Amazon rainforest has been decimated and water is the most precious commodity of all. This film follows the story of an immortal native Brazilian warrior as he searches for his lost love throughout the ages. Submitted for an Academy Award, it was an utter travesty that Rio 2096 didn't get nominated. If it had, I would've been rooting for Lightstar Studios to win the award instead of Ernest & Celestine.

Availability: Not available in the States, but hopefully this will change soon.

18. Sita Sings the Blues
What do you do when you're an animator and your husband moves to India for a job and divorces you by e-mail? If you're animator Nina Paley, you make a feature-length animated film almost single-handedly! Borne out of the painful situation she found herself in, Nina found a parallel story in the ancient Indian text 'the Ramayana', only it was the story of Rama's jilted wife Sita. Thus, an independent animated feature was created and was animated almost entirely by Nina herself. After battling copyright issues on some songs used in the film that may or may not have been public domain, Nina took the step of releasing her film for free under the Creative Copyright banner and then became a proponent of the free content movement. So. If you want to see Sita Sings the Blues, you can watch it for free online.

Availability: Available in the States online. Click here to watch the 1080p version on YouTube.

19. Spirited Away
I've seen most of the animated features that Hayao Miyazaki directed at Studio Ghibli, and Spirited Away is easily the best film that he's created to date. Spirited Away follows the story of a little girl who finds herself in a bathhouse for the spirits--and at the whims of it's denizens as she tries to save the lives of her parents. This film is a visual feast filled with enough visual subtext to make Guillermo del Toro jealous. Throughout the film, we watch the heroine, Chihiro, grow from a whiny, selfish little girl into maturity as she faces one challenge after another in the spirit realm. But much of this internal character growth is shown visually (and very subtly) through camera angles, color palettes, forced perspective, and evolving body language. While more than one Miyazaki film has suffered from one-dimensional characters and deus ex machina events to resolve plot holes (see Howl's Moving Castle or Ponyo), Spirited Away suffers from none of those flaws and works on almost every level. If you only ever watch one Miyazaki film, make sure it's this one.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

20. the Secret of Kells (Brendan and the Secret of Kells)
Secret of Kells tells the story of a young monk and Ireland's greatest national treasure--a lavishly illustrated copy of the four gospels. Throughout the story, Brendan is torn between helping his uncle prepare their monastery for an invasion by the Vikings and helping an old monk finish illustrating the Book of Kells. Drawing parallels with the illuminated text, the visual style looks like a stained-glass window come to life with flowing animation that is reminiscent of UPN or many of Chuck Jones' more avant-garde shorts. A co-production between Belgium, France, and Ireland, Secret of Kells won multiple awards during it's festival run and even saw a limited theatre run here in the United States.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

Honorable Mention: Animal Farm
You can't have a countdown of the top twenty-five animated films without touching upon the works of John Halas and Joy Batchelor: the husband and wife team who created Great Britain's largest animation studio--and Great Britain's first theatrically released feature-length animated film. Halas and Batchelor had created an earlier feature-length animated film, however it was a training film for the Royal Navy. Incidentally, Animal Farm was also paid for by the Central Intelligence Agency which reportedly influenced the translation of George Orwell's story from book to film as part of the propaganda initiative during the Cold War.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

We're almost there. In two weeks, numbers twenty through twenty-five of the animated feature films everyone should watch at least once! And as an added bonus, you'll find out what movie inspired me to become an animator.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, pt. 3 of 5

Feature-length animated films are becoming more and more prevalent as the cost of the tools and equipment needed to produce them come down in price and increase in availability. One of the most exciting things to see in the past fifteen to twenty years is the increasing number of independent animators who are making their own animated features outside of the mainline established studio system. The 'godfather of American independent animation', Bill Plympton, hand-draws an animated feature every couple of years (his sixth feature Cheatin' is currently making the rounds in the festival circuit). Independent animator Signe Baumane just released her first animated feature this year, titled Rocks In My Pockets. In 2008, Nina Paley animated her first feature: Sita Sings the Blues. Director/Animator M dot Strange has three features to his credit: We Are the Strange, Heart String Marionette, and I Am Nightmare. Don Hertzfeldt released Everything Will Be OK back in 2007. And after being out of the game for years, Ralph Bakshi is currently working on his latest animated feature The Last Days of Coney Island. And this is just a small snapshot of the American animation scene. The beauty here is that increased access to affordable technology is enabling independent animators to tell the stories that they want to tell without outside interference from studio management. To be sure, the financial rewards and audience exposure are probably far less that what they could have had if they were backed by a large production or distribution company, but I'm sure that all of the aforementioned filmmakers would agree that it is a price they willingly pay for complete artistic and creative freedom. My meandering point is that there has never been a better time in the history of filmmaking for independent animators to toss their hats in to the ring and tell the stories that they want to tell.

But enough of my rambling, on to the countdown!

11. King Kong (1933)
While technically not an animated film, respect still needs to be paid to Willis O'Brian for his brilliant use of stop motion animation. Released in 1933, King Kong is the story of a giant gorilla who is captured and brought back to America for display to the masses. Pretty straightforward. Over the years, King Kong has spawned it's imitators (Mighty Joe Young), been integrated into Japanese Kaiju films (King Kong verses Godzilla & King Kong Escapes), been updated for modern audiences (1976's King Kong and Peter Jackson's King Kong in 2005) and even spawned sequels (Son of Kong & King Kong Lives) and two cartoon series (The King Kong Show & Kong: The Animated Series). The legal wranglings over who owns King Kong and what is and isn't in public domain is enough to make your head swim. Fortunately, you can forgo all the controversy and simply enjoy the original 1933 film.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

12. Kung Fu Panda
Kung Fu Panda is fun on so many levels with a heartwarming message at it's core. In today's day and age, how many times do you actually get to see an animated film where the father-figure is not only physically there for his family but is: a) not played as an utter buffoon, and b) actively involved in being the father who guides his son into manhood (and in the case of Kung Fu Panda, he's even the father that he didn't have to be)? Finding Nemo? Maaaaybe the Incredibles? Well in KFP, even though Po's father (Mr. Ping) is a minor character, James Hong does a masterful job voicing this restaurateur who loves his adoptive son whether he succeeds or fails to attain his dreams. Easily one of the best films that Dreamworks Animation has produced. In my mind, Kung Fu Panda is less a story about the lovable misfit trying to live out his dreams and more about a father (and a mentor) guiding a boy into manhood with all it's responsibilities and consequences.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

13. The Little Mermaid
If you say that Disney (and Jeffrey Katzenberg) singlehandedly launched the second golden age of animation with this film, I would be hard pressed to find anyone who could provide evidence to contradict that statement. Applying a 'Rodgers and Hammerstein' formula to the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the Little Mermaid breathed new life into the Disney Animation Studio during a period of time where WDAS had been on the decline ever since the death of Walt Disney (and was suffering through the steady stream of retirements by Walt's Nine Old Men who were taking their decades of experience with them). A fun, heartwarming film with songs that stuck in your head, The Little Mermaid was just what Disney needed exactly when it was needed (and by extension, what the American animation scene needed).

As a side-note: the answer is "no". Despite what the conspiracy theorists want you to believe, during the wedding scene, the old priest is not 'becoming aroused'. I met Tom Sito at the Ottawa International Animation Festival last year and he confirmed during his lecture that not only was he the person who animated that particular scene, he stated unequivocally that the priest was shifting his weight from one foot to the other. So that bulge under his robe was indeed his knee.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Look for the "Platinum Edition" if you want to see the short: the Little Matchgirl. Video-to-go has a copy.

14. Millennium Actress
Millennium Actress is the story of a reclusive former film star told almost entirely in flashbacks during an interview with a documentary filmmaker. At this point in her life, the abrupt end of her career is long past and she spends the interview reflecting upon her personal and professional history. I would love to say more about the story and the characters, however, it's difficult to describe this film without spoiling some of the important elements that drive this film. Directed by the late, great Satoshi Kon, this film contains some of the most masterful uses of transitions I have ever witnessed as the actress's present life and past memories blend seamlessly from scene to scene. There is little doubt in my mind that had Kon's life not tragically ended back in 2010 at the age of 46, his past and future films would have been placed at the same level of respect as Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

15. Patlabor, the movie
The first Mobile Police Patlabor movie is a detective story, plain and simple. While Patlabor was originally a seven episode OVA, and this movie is set shortly after the end of that series, you don't need to have watched the OVA in order to enjoy this film--or the 63 episode television series apparently set in an alternate timeline. Throughout the film, Kazunori Itō and Mamoru Oshii never let the story get sidetracked or overshadowed by the fact that the main conflict has giant robots, called "Labors", at its center. This is a movie that puts the characters right at the forefront of the story, and rightfully so. Now you can't swap out the giant robotic labor units with say tanks or modern construction equipment--the computerized operating system is integral to the plot--but the point is, the robots never overshadow the human drama as the story unfolds, which leads to an inventive and engaging story.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

Honorable Mention: Akira

Back in 1988 when Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira hit the States, it immediately became the darling of the anime fandom, and rightfully so. Akira skillfully juggles concepts like societal revolution and forced evolution all against the backdrop of a bombed out Tokyo and through the story of a gang of teenage bikers. Released on VHS by Streamline Video in 1988 with an English voice cast, this version has the best English dub performance in my opinion. If you can find a copy (and still have a functioning VCR) it's the best version to watch. While the subsequent DVD releases don't seem to have tampered with the score or sound effects, I've personally found that the new English dub is lacking both in emotive quality with the voice actors as well as has some shots where the mouth positions aren't timed correctly with the dialogue leading to a jarring disconnect reminiscent of badly dubbed kung-fu movies. But, all-in-all, I wouldn't let those issues stop you from watching this film. Akira will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. As an additional note: Akira is not for children under the age of sixteen due to violence, language, and a brief scene of nudity.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

Well, we're halfway there. In two weeks, I'll delve a little deeper into the world animation scene with only one film listed from numbers 16 to 20 having been produced in America--but what a film it was! Come back in two weeks to find the answer to the question: "what do you do when your husband takes a job in India and divorces you by e-mail?"