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.