Thursday, December 27, 2018

Animated Thoughts: TAAFI 2018 - part one

I'm going to end the 2018 festival season with a report on my visit to the 2018 Toronto Animation Arts Festival International - part one. And I call it "part one" because they tried something different at TAAFI this year: splitting it into two festivals. I originally published most of the following article in the Fall/Winter Newsletter for ASIFA Central. But now that it has been distributed to our membership, I've enhanced it with some additional thoughts that would be more to the tastes of my readership and republished it here. Hope you enjoy and have a Happy New Year.

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Another Festival Experience
by Charles Wilson

There are a lot of great festivals in Ontario, like the Ottawa International Animation Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and even the Montreal Stop Motion Festival in neighboring Quebec. However, there are also some smaller festivals out there in Canada that are worth a look. For example: the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International, where I spent the first weekend in November.

The Toronto Animation Arts Festival International will always hold a special place in my heart.

Back in 2014, after seventeen years of monthly payments, I had finally paid off my student loans. And as I wanted to do something special in order to celebrate my newfound financial freedom, and since I had been previously invited to TAAFI by friend and fellow animator Ben McAvoy (one of the co-founders of TAAFI), forty-eight hours after sending in that final payment and seeing that "$0.00" balance on my account, I found a cheap hotel, bought my festival pass, and hightailed it to Canada yelling "Freedom" at the top of my lungs as I crossed the border.

A view of the CN Tower from the Corus Building's parking lot

Four years ago, TAAFI was a weekend event filled with presentations from industry insiders, short film screenings (and the occasional feature), a robust artists alley where students and professionals sold their art, a relaxed figure drawing arena where you could hang out and draw models, and the ever entertaining Nelvana bouncing ball party on Saturday night -- where I first saw the Cybertronic Spree.

This year was different. As I encountered Ben in the Corus building down by the harbor on Saturday morning, he stated that the responses which they had been receiving indicated there was so much to see and do at TAAFI that it was becoming a little challenging for attendees. If you wanted to see a film screening, it meant that you would miss out on one, or more, of the industry insider presentations (and vice versa). So this year, the leadership of TAAFI decided to test out an idea: break the festival into two dates and hold them several months apart.

TAAFI part one: the Industry Animation Conference

This worked out well for me as the first weekend of November was the newly christened "TAAFI Industry Animation Conference" filled to the brim with the industry presentations I love so much. And as always, TAAFI did not disappoint!

Fred Siebert, founder of Frederator Studios
The opening keynote was headlined by none other than Fred Siebert who delighted us with stories about how he fell into a career in animation almost by accident.

My schedule then followed with a presentation from Jessica Borutski and Dan Haskett, both discussing how they deal with the challenges of character design. For those who don't know, Jessica is the Canadian animator whose work includes Ren and Stimpy's Adult Party Cartoon, the Looney Tunes, and Bunnicula. And you may know Dan Haskett from his character designs seen in this little arthouse film produced by Disney called "The Little Mermaid". Yes, Dan is the man who did the initial designs for Ariel, Sebastian, and Ursula. And Belle for Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Evolution of Character Design
(l to r) Barry Sanders: moderator, Jessica Borutski, Dan Haskett

Before the presentation, I even had the chance to catch up with Jessica, whom I interviewed for International Women's Month back in 2011. I honestly hate to take up too much of her time when we see each other at festivals/conferences, but I simply love hearing about what projects she's working on (Bunnicula was a recent favorite show of mine).

Saturday was also filled with presentations about the state of the Canadian animation industry which left me interested in checking out the web series Gary and his Demons and the show humorously named Captain Canuck -- both sardonic looks at the horror and superhero genres respectively. Fun fact: The Canadian comic book industry imploded shortly after World War II due to the lifting of trade restrictions and the imposition of censorship. So when "Captain Canuck" debuted in 1975, it became 'the first successful Canadian comic book' since 1947, according to Wikipedia anyways.

One of the most interesting presentations for me personally was the "Indie Creator Spotlight" where Mike Valiquette (owner of both Toronto's Go Lucky studio and the Canadian Animation Resources blog) moderated a roundtable discussion with freelance animators Hector Herrera and Gyimah Gariba, and independent creator Joel MacKenzie about how they built and maintained their careers in the Canadian animation industry. There's always a fair amount of information that's universal to being an animation freelancer all across North America, but what's always fascinating is learning how each country's animation industry developed and is sustained. For example, Hector mentioned how he emigrated to Canada because of the lack of overall financial support and opportunities for animation in Mexico. There was a little discussion about the National and Provincial grant structure in place for artists in Canada that doesn't exist in the United States (or Mexico). And as always, there was talk about striking the balance between paid client work and your own projects. As I said, all-in-all, it's always a fascinating discussion to hear.

The last presentation for the day was "The Big Pitch". Moderated by animation director Barry Sanders, two teams presented their ideas for animated shows to a jury consisting of Jessica Borutski, Jen Oxley, and Linda Simensky. The winner was Hamin Yang, a scriptwriter who was working on a pilot for his show idea. For those interested, Hamin's show is about an aging movie star who wants to be in the reboot of the show that launched his now flagging career. But in his misguided quest for a treatment that would make him young again, he ends up becoming a white man trapped in a young Chinese man's body. The rest of Yang's pilot was a funny and touching series of events as the main character learned the trials and tribulations of navigating Hollywood as an Asian. Hamin Yang filled his time telling stories relating frustrations with Asian stereotypes, dealing with the hypocrisy in PC culture, and the problems of trying to find an Asian woman who is interested in dating an Asian man -- most of which made it into the animated clips seen in his self-financed pilot. Afterwards, I had to congratulate him and thank him for pitching a show that I found immediately relatable given that part of my extended family is Vietnamese.

Eh, it's November, why not put out the lights?
My Saturday ended early as I skipped the annual Bouncing Ball party -- was fighting a sore throat so figured a couple extra hours of sleep would do me some good. But, I couldn't make a trip to Toronto without visiting at least one of my favorite haunts. Dinner was at Marche's followed by a quick diversion to the plaza next door where they had already started preparing for the Christmas holiday.

Dan Haskett

Sunday began on a very strong note as, for two-and-a-half hours, Dan Haskett detailed his career in animation working on such varied properties as the Little Mermaid, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Looney Tunes, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure, and the Simpsons, among others. Soft spoken and engaging, Dan punctuated his presentation by drawing characters under the camera and gifting students and professionals alike advice from his forty-two years of life spent working in animated film. The day was even moreso enjoyable due to the fact that my friend, and fellow R.I.T. alum, Glenn Ehlers drove up from Buffalo for the day. And I also had the chance to have lunch with Toronto animator (and former International Women's Month interviewee) Janice Schulman. Festivals. Always better with friends.

Linda Siemensky: moderator, Jen Oxley,
Austen Payne, Michelle Melanson (l to r)

Later that morning, TAAFI brought Michelle Melanson, Jen Oxley, and newcomer Austen Payne to the stage for a discussion on women working in the field of animation, ably moderated by Linda Siemensky. Austen, the youngest of the group, talked about facing the challenges of breaking into the industry as a young woman. The more mature Michelle and Jen discussed the work/life balance especially when you want to have a family but still maintain a career. All the while, Linda would interject stories about what the American animation industry was like for women ranging from the 1980's to the present day.

The rest of the day was a blur as attendees shuffled from one lecture hall to the other in order to hear about building an animation career in the Canadian market and working (and surviving) as an independent animator -- which involved bringing back Joel MacKenzie for the closing keynote to give out some wonderful career lessons that he'd learned over several years of producing animated shorts, like: "You can't control other people's tastes but you can know your own" and "Get a lawyer".

After saying my goodbyes, when I got into my car and left Toronto for the five hour drive back to Michigan, I was already constructing plans for making the drive back in February for TAAFI part two: "the animation screenings".

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