Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Animated People: Carl "Skip" Battaglia

Carl "Skip" Battaglia, Stephanie Maxwell,
Marla Schweppe, Me. (l to r)

So it's Fall and I'm back teaching again. 

One of my colleagues said that I should consider working on a film during my spare time and then showing it to my students on the last day of class. Sort of a "hey, I did this over the past four months in my spare time, think about what you could accomplish." Well, as I was shuffling through the backlog of stalled ideas and "y'know, if I ever get the time" sketches, I came across this little gem from my former professor Carl "Skip" Battaglia. Back in 2008, I was toying with the idea of an abstract animation but it didn't fit into the mold of narrative animations that I was used to using when designing films. As Skip is an accomplished animator who is very knowledgeable about experimental techniques, I reached out to him:

Hi Skip,

Hope this letter finds you well. It was a real treat to talk to you and your daughter at Ottawa and see what you've been working on for the past year. Sorry that you didn't win the award for experimental/abstract animated short film, but was very happy to see your film in the competition. Well, after watching your latest film (and reviewing your Skip's Pics DVD), I've bumped up an abstract/experimental-style animation on my list of projects. The entire short animation deals with the techniques and artistic style that I'm learning about in my Oriental Watercolor class this semester. However, as I'm working through the planning stages of this film, I'm finding that the traditional treatment-script-storyboard-soundtrack method that I use to plan films just isn't lending itself very well to abstract expression. I'm getting kind of frustrated trying to get a film to fit into a mold that it wasn't designed for. So, I was wondering if you could suggest a couple of books that you use to plan your films that I could read?

Thanks Skip, and see you in Ottawa '08. Hopefully by then, I'll have a couple of films to run alongside you and Stephanie. And please give your daughter our best from me and Ted. Hope she does well in her final class. =)


Charles Wilson

This was his response:

Hi Charles:

There are no hard-and-fast books in experimental design for animation.

I read philosophy and poetry, study painting.  I have always listened to a lot of musics, including experimental, free jazz, South American, and African.  My notebooks and sketches provoke some things.  Knowledge about film continuity (which you have), animation production, storyboarding (pay attention to the vectors of movement; I arrow them in/over in red pencil) are helpful as the storyboard will come directly in response to your premise for the film.

Sometimes I begin with a rough idea, then score a musical track via ProTools to give me a scratch soundtrack to animate to for the sake of rhythm, tempo, drama -- and to have a timed track to give to a composer later.

Thinking historically, the books which have been most helpful are/were:

Rudolph Arhheim, "Art and Visual Perception."

H. Marshall McLuhan and Herley Parker, "Through the Vanishing Point."

"Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind."

books on graphic design, painting process...

... and everything I teach, and films I've viewed.

I'd also think about designing the film in reverse or out of sequence from your usual methods.  It would enable a new approach (which seems to be what you're looking for).

Good to see you.  Let me know how this goes.

Get loose!


Now, as I'm currently composing a short book on the importance of mentors for my nephews, I could go off on a rant about how important it is to maintain professional relationships with your professors after graduation and how important mentors are in your career. But to be honest, the main reason I posted this e-mail is because Skip has since retired and I want his knowledge to be shared with a much wider audience.

* * *

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Animated Thoughts: Surrealism and Afternoon Tea at the FIA

So I've been keeping my eye on events at the Flint Institute of Arts. No matter how much I enjoy an afternoon at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the FIA is a little closer and while both the collection and the building are smaller, there are still very interesting things to see and do.

Case in point: this past month, they had two exhibits that were of particular interest to me. The first was "Beyond Dreams: Surrealism and Its Manifestations", an exhibition of surrealism in art. The second was "the Art of Refreshment", examples of cutlery and ceramics in food service.

Surrealism for me is one of those on-again/off-again interests. Dali always seemed pretty odd to me, but in a darkly good way--especially the short film Destino that he worked on at Disney. Man Ray's work was always visually thought provoking. And I spent a fair amount of time looking at the work of René Magritte as I was forming ideas for the visual style of my MFA thesis film. I ended up going in a different direction for my thesis, but I remember making a 3d animation using Electro-GIG 3D-GO with a distinct Magritte feel to it. The reference to Magritte is still there in my notes from March 21st, 1995. The animation was of a guy built out of simple primitive shapes that was running across a blue cloudy plane suspended in space against a blue cloudy backdrop. The "primitives" guy was also textured with the same blue sky and cloud pattern. I remember sitting there trying to finish it before the deadline with fellow animation grad Leah Bosworth sitting beside me and pointing out controls on the interface that would've taken me hours to figure it out had I been working on my own.

I've also come to enjoy watching abstract animated films--mainly as a result of instruction by Marla Schweppe and through the films and instruction of Stephanie Maxwell and Skip Battaglia. So whenever I see an exhibit like "Beyond Dreams", I like to review those old lessons from my time at R.I.T. as I appreciate the artwork.

One of the things that I thought was most useful was that the curators had put up a 'Glossary of Surrealism' listing that defined several terms which were applicable to this art movement. Just a little something extra there to educate some and refresh the memories of others. It was appreciated.

As I walked around the exhibit, unlike last year's fantasy art exhibit, I had no real goal other than to look at whatever caught my eye. "Metronome" was one of those images that I just found enjoyable. There was nothing profound about it, it was just visually appealing, especially with it's use of light and shadow.

Metronome, 1990
by Scott Fraser

This one, "Moving Skip Rope" by Harold Edgerton was of particular interest given that I'm an animator--and I really wish that I had been able to get a better picture, the lighting and the glass just worked against me. "Moving Skip Rope" is a photograph taken using a stroboscope flash which produced an image that was reminiscent of Muybridge's motion studies. The resulting artwork below is a dye transfer print.

Moving Skip Rope, 1952
Harold Edgerton

Then there was "Personnage" by Man Ray. This was another one of those that appealed to me as an animator. It reminded me of those early 1980's CGI animations where all the characters were made out of basic primitives (or the assignment that I produced back in '95).

Personnage, 1975
Man Ray, 1890-1976

Afterwards, I sauntered across the hall to view the "Art of Refreshment" exhibit. There was a lot of beautiful glasswork in this exhibit but also some ceramics and some metal, ivory, stone, and silkwork.

There really weren't any moments that provoked epiphanies in this exhibit, I just found it enjoyable. You could see that there was a lot of thought and skill put into making these mundane objects remarkable.

Some of the ones that really caught my eye were the following.

So, while my trips to Flint may not be the events like what I experience in Detroit--a day of appreciating art along with a nice meal, followed by some drawing in the galleries--but what the FIA does have over the DIA is this luxurious library of artbooks with chairs and sofas that you can lounge in while reading. I'm reluctant to share photos of it because it's one of those 'best kept secrets'. I closed out my trip by spending an hour paging through books filled with historical pictures of Chinese and Japanese brushwork. Lots of food for my imagination.

*  *  *

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Animated Events: Capital City Comic Con

Well, C4 has come and gone. As I was running a tabletop miniatures wargame at a local store, I didn't get to be there as long as I would have liked on Saturday but the time I was at the con over the whole weekend was time well spent.

Back in the day, like 2002-2004, two gentlemen ran a local gaming convention called "Foundation". My brother and I would run wargames at the con and for those two years we were a top draw with some showcase events like tournaments, how-to-play events, and a paint-and-take table. Well, sadly Foundation came to an end but years later one of them joined up with some other friends and started the Capital City Comic Con (C4).

I'll admit it, I really enjoy the convention experience: looking at the artwork, doing a little shopping, playing some demo games, but my favorite activity is attending panels and lectures to learn more about my field of study. There's just something special about being able to talk to people who are out there forging their own paths and willing to share their knowledge and experience.

This year, the two foreign comics panels were especially interesting. There's some fascinating history about comic books that you don't often hear about. The first panel was more about valuation, rarity, and pricing for the collectors market but the second was a more in-depth history of the foreign comic book market running back to around the 1930's and '40's up to the present day. It's probably due to a fair amount of myopia on my part, but I was surprised to see how the foreign market had a lot more nuance than just simple one-to-one translations of existing books. Apparently during the '70's, when Marvel was just trying to survive, it appeared that foreign writers and artists had a lot more freedom to make changes to the content of the books and covers. There were also changes made due to foreign censorship and sensibilities--and word translations that work in English but not in other languages.

One of the more interesting things I noted was how the German imprint for the Amazing Spider-Man was called "Die Spinne". Y'see, back in 1986, Marvel published the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one-shot crossover with the "High Tide"storyline. In it, Peter Parker and Logan team up while in East Germany. As he didn't bring his black bodysuit, Peter has to buy a Spider-Man costume from a store. On the back of the outfit, in the middle of the spider logo, are the words "Die Spinne"--English translation: "the Spider". At the time, I was never able to figure out why it was there. And the suit actually showed up years later in another comic after Peter and Mary Jane got married. She moves into his loft apartment and they start paring down the extra costumes so she can have some room for her clothes. The first suit they pull out of the closet is the German suit from the crossover issue.

So, some thirty-plus years later, after learning about the German imprint of Amazing Spider-Man, why the suit from Spider-Man vs. Wolverine had the words "Die Spinne" printed on the back all made sense. And I have to admit that it was a pretty neat Easter egg at the time for all of those in the know back then.

Another standout for me over the weekend was the indie comic production and self-publishing panels. These weren't as well attended as I they should have been, but the small numbers did lead to some very interesting interactions between the crowd and panelists. In both panels, they were very interested in hearing about my animation work, as much as I was in their graphic design and publishing experience. Still, I would gladly have sacrificed some of that interaction if it meant that more kids who want to get into comics would've been able to hear some of the great advice and experiences that the panelists were giving away.

Well, as with any convention nowadays, the cosplayers were out in force. I found one of the X-Men walking around: Cyclops, from the early 1990's--one of my favorite periods of time where Marvel was producing some of the best written, best drawn issues of the series; due in large part to folks like Chris Claremont, Mark Silvestri, and Jim Lee.

And you know you have to get a photo when you purchase a poster for Arcane and you walk around the corner just in time to come face-to-face with K/DA Ahri! As much as I love to see K/DA or True Damage characters from League of Legends, I have to admit that I'm a little crestfallen that I don't see more people cosplaying the characters from Arcane. You see Jinx and Vi every so often, but the costume design was so amazing, I'd love to see a Jayce or Mel Medarda walking around in formal outfits.

"I'll show you what I'm made of
Rise to the occasion
Got fears, but I face them, oh-oh"

While it's my policy to purchase something from a vendor or two and some art from the independent artists/writers if at all possible, I did stick to my budget for the con. Though I have some regrets when I saw some of the amazing artwork that was for sale at the silent auction. Think I'll set aside some extra cash during the year just to bid on an illustration or two next year. Or, maybe spring for the VIP ticket and attend the "Drink-and-Draw" event to do a little creating of my own.

"Yep, He is Groot!"

In the end, Capital City Comic Con is a great example of a local convention. With so much attention going to larger cons like Gen Con or San Diego Comic Con, it's refreshing to see local cons like C4 who are able to provide an excellent experience in our home towns. I'm already looking forward to next year (and planning out my budget).

* * *

Friday, June 30, 2023

Animated People: Erik Timmerman

Blue Cactus
The Blue Cactus Bar & Grill

One of those Ottawa International Animation Festival experiences that remains near to my heart is when I bumped into Erik at the festival back in 1996. He was going to have lunch at the Blue Cactus Bar & Grill with graduates Ted Pratt, Bill Trainor, and a young lady whose name I don't recall.

I do remember that while taking the graduate computer animation program classes, she moonlighted as one of the models for the figure drawing class to make a little extra cash. She rode a motorcycle and she kept calling Erik "E.T.". Both she and Bill were working at Xerox at the time. At the festival's closing day party, she and I sat outside the building and talked for a little over an hour -- well, she talked mostly. Nice enough girl, but hard to get a word in edgewise. Lot of life experiences packed into a few short years, that one.

Bill was wound a little tight but a decent enough guy. Didn't talk much, seemed lost in his own thoughts most of the time. He was the Grad Lab Supervisor before me and had helped me recover and distribute a Director Lingo script that allowed students to automatically export Director image frames from the computer to an optical disk recorder. Oddly enough, I still have the script file in my archives. 

Strangeness in the Night by Ted Pratt

Ted Pratt was a good guy (still is, afaik, we haven't talked in a couple of years). When Erik introduced us, I immediately recognized his name from the R.I.T. demo reel that the department sent me during my senior year at Taylor. It was a VHS tape that had Ted's student graduate film Strangeness in the Night, among others. At the festival's closing picnic, Ted was very encouraging, reassuring me that "yes, there were jobs out there for graduates and I'd have no trouble making enough money to pay off my student loans."

Shadowpuppets by Chuck Gamble

I still have that VHS tape and ended up digitizing the films for my R.I.T. archive project years ago--including films like:
  • Chuck Gamble's Shadowpuppetswhich was the first ever computer animated student film shown at the SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater; 
  • Christopher Walsh's UaguziHe went on to animate the flying dagger in 1994's the Shadow after graduating from R.I.T. and still works in the VFX industry;
  • Hikmet Safuoglu's trippy film within normal limits, which was animated to the equally trippy song 'I Robot' by the Alan Parsons Project;
  • Elouise Oyzon's beautiful first year film conjugations. She went on to teach at R.I.T.'s School of Interactive Games and Media. I still see her occasionally at the class reunions;
  • And the delightful Ignorance is Bliss? which M. Shan Yeung animated to look exactly like a Chinese ink painting.
Ignorance is Bliss? by M. Shan Yueng

I once asked Elouise if she had a copy of her graduate thesis that I could show at a class I was teaching. She said that it was all on an old computer. She wasn't even sure if she could recover the film anymore. And while I was sad for her, I was doubly glad that I had preserved that VHS tape. I have to wonder, how many people will get to see these beautiful student films from the early years of computer animation (1990 to 1993)? I once tried to get copies of these films uploaded to RIT's student film archive "SOFAtube". Unfortunately my efforts were unsuccessful, a victim of university politics.

conjugations by Elouise Oyzon

Each one of these films was produced by students in the graduate computer animation program that Erik founded at R.I.T. Each of these films has Erik's fingerprints on them. How many students entering R.I.T.'s graduate animation program will see that plaque on the wall with Erik's name on it and wonder who he was or what influence he had on the films we produced during his tenure?

Back to Ottawa: 

As the five of us sat there at the Blue Cactus, it wasn't about work or school or imparting any great lessons about life or anything like that. At that moment, Erik wasn't just my professor or my mentor, he was my friend. He talked to all of us as you would talk to friends. A couple days later, we'd all go back to Rochester and fall back into those roles of professor and student, but for that moment, we were just a couple of people sitting at a pub talking about animated films like we'd known each other our whole lives.

When Erik was undergoing chemotherapy, he didn't want any of his students to see him or the toll that the treatment took on him. But fortunately, Ted Pratt didn't listen. Since he lived a short ways away from where Erik was convalescing in Berkley, Ted drove out there to see him. While I knew Erik was sick, I had no idea to what extent. He didn't talk about it much. I tried to keep in touch with him and sent him a 'get well soon' basket of fruit and veggies, which he appreciated. He had moved out to California by then. His college girlfriend was taking care of him during his chemotherapy and Erik wanted to be closer to his children Erica and Kristofer. While still in Rochester, I helped him translate a computer program he had written in BASIC to something that would run on a PowerPC. He wanted to update a film he had made years earlier. It was all about spirograph drawings animated to a jazz soundtrack. He and I never finished it. Producing an experimental animated film while he was on chemo was a tall order, but I still feel like I failed him. We could produce the images he wanted, no problem, but we just couldn't get the PowerPC to talk to the optical disk recorder. Erik left for Berkeley shortly thereafter.

That was some of the last contact I had with him. We exchanged a couple e-mails after that but I got busy with life over those two years and Erik was undergoing a regimen of treatments and healing. Then, a couple months after messaging me that his cancer was in remission and he was feeling optimistic about the future, I got the e-mail from Marla about Erik's death.

To say that her message hit me like a ton of bricks is an understatement. My friend was gone and I was left with only six years of memories. Now don't get me wrong, I'm very thankful for those six years. But the point of my rambling is this: the things that we thought were important at the time more often than not end up being inconsequential when compared to every lost moment that we could have spent with our family and friends.

Social media has brought many evils, but it's also done us a great service by allowing people to transcend time and distance in order to reconnect. Physical letters are fine and all, but they cannot compare to the conversational nature of an e-mail or instant messaging. So I encourage you to savor those moments in the now where you can talk to people you care about. And take a moment to contact those who have drifted away, even if it's just to say 'hi, how have you been?' Some day, you may find yourself longing for those precious moments where you can hear your friend's voice one last time.

* * *

Monday, June 26, 2023

Animated Thoughts: Shuo Feng - Po Zhen Zi

Still patiently waiting for Shuo Feng - Po Zhen Zi (North Wind: Broken Time) to reach the North American market. It's times like this that I keenly feel the loss of the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema as this is clearly one of those films that Joe Chen would move heaven and earth to show at WFAC. A cursory search on the internet reveals announcements back in 2020 for the film while will be produced by Nice Boat Animation. The animation in the trailer is stunning and it appears to be a Chinese historical drama, apparently an adaptation of Shuo Feng Fei Yang by A Nu. And I'm all for it, personally. I love it when different countries develop animated films based on their own history, culture, stories, and art styles. It brings so much more to the community as a whole when foreign animation markets produce something original as opposed to the usual attempts at replicating the latest Disney/Pixar or Anime film. Some of my favorites in the past have been films like South Korea's Leafie a Hen into the Wild and Padak Padak (Swimming to Sea), China's White Snake and Serbia's Technotise, Edit i Ja (Technotise: Edit & I).

If the trailer below is any indication, Shuo Feng - Po Zhen Zi is going to be one of those must see/must have in the collection films. And while it'll be too late for me to talk much about it in my History of Animation Class this semester, I'll enjoy playing the trailer for my students and providing what little I know of the as-yet-to-be-released film.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Animated Events: No Accounting, just butterflies

Okay, so it's Summer here in Michigan. I've been writing so much fantasy setting fiction for an upcoming game that I don't feel like writing anything animation-related... and the only animation work I've done is for an advertisement that I can't show just yet (hopefully). So, here's some more of those lovely butterflies and landscapes from the Frederik Meijer Gardens that I encountered this Spring.

Small Postman
(Heliconius melpomene)

Common Morpho
(Morpho peleides)

Tiger Longwing
(Heliconius hecale)

Butterfly resting by waterfall.

Definitely worth having in a D&D setting!

Lovely container (all mine at home are filled
with vegetables and herbs).

Time for some reflection at the Zen Garden.
(or maybe just a little rest from all the walking).

No idea what these seed pods were, but
think they'd made a neat character animation.

"The perfect blossom is a rare thing.
You could spend your entire life looking for
one and it would not be a wasted life."

* * *

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Animated Events: Accounting and Butterflies

Malay Lacewing (Cethosia hypsea)

Tax time has come and gone. And as much as people dread this time of year, I've come to look forward to it. Years ago, my accountant moved across the state and sent out a very polite 'thank you for your business over the years' letter to all of us in his former location. Well, we've been friends for years and I've always been very happy with his work, so it was only natural to keep working with him, distance notwithstanding. As his office is only an hours drive from mine, every Spring, I drive out to Grand Rapids: once to drop off my tax binder and once to pick it up and sign any paperwork.

One of the things that makes the trip so enjoyable is that this is during the same time Meijer Gardens has their yearly butterfly exhibit (with a healthy dose of orchids from their Spring orchid event).

Hecale Longwing (Heliconius hecale)

So far, I haven't done any drawings or paintings of the butterflies. Need to break out the colored pencils and watercolors and change that. Back in the day, my friend Angie did this beautiful colored pencil drawing of a butterfly and posted it on her social media. Still wishing I had been quick enough on the draw to buy it (though I do hope it went to a good home where it'll be appreciated for years to come).

Small Postman (Heliconius erato)

Here was a nice surprise: a butterfly that I'd never seen before. I always see the Blue Morpho/Common Morpho butterflies, but this time there was a White Morpho hanging out on a stick. Wish he'd flexed his wings though. When I saw him flying a short while later, the tips of his wings were a rich orange color on the inside.

White Morpho (Morpho polyphemus)

While I haven't done any sketching at the Meijer Gardens in the past, I have played with some of the video functions on my iPhone. One of the more interesting surprises came when I took some slow-motion videos of the butterflies as they flapped their wings. The interesting surprise was seeing how their wings bend as they flap up and down as opposed to staying rigidly straight. Check out the video below, especially from around the 20 second to 30 second mark.

Afterwards, since the weather was beautiful, I walked around the outdoor grounds where the Japanese garden is always a treat.

And though I always expect to see the fish swimming around in the shallows, the turtles were out in force this time around.

Seeking out a little peace and serenity sure makes tax time sting a lot less.

* * *

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Animated Reviews: Suzume

Suzume is the latest animated feature from Makoto Shinkai, which follows a successful series of movies in his filmography, like The Garden of Words, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, and 5 Centimeters per Second.

Y'know, I've harped on this in a prior blog post but it still bugs me. Before watching the spectacular film Your Name back in 2017, 5 Centimeters per Second was the only Makoto Shinkai film I'd seen before. And while I've seen '5 Centimeters' two times now, I still don't remember a single thing about it. In doing some research for this article, I read the plot and I still don't remember this film. I'm not sure what that means. I mean, it's a film by Makoto Shinkai, so I'm sure that the visuals were amazing, the characters relatable, and the story multi-faceted. I've got it on DVD but I'm not sure what a third viewing would do for me. It's only an hour long, so wouldn't be a bad thing to watch it again, but I find it odd that I can remember details about some really obscure animations, however this one gives me so much trouble. I didn't even remember that I had watched it two times when I wrote that blog post in 2017. Now that I've reviewed the reference blog post, the really odd thing is that I remember mentioning not remembering watching the film to a friend, and then going on to watch the film with him--but I still don't remember the film itself. Here's the trailer for '5 Centimeters'.

Nope. Don't remember any of it. The thing that spooks me about the idea of rewatching it for a third time is what if I walk away not remembering anything about it--even with all the information I now have regarding the characters and plot? I have to admit though, due to the nature of memory being so nebulous it's almost more interesting to me to know the reason why it's so difficult to remember watching this film. Hrm.

Oh, yeah. Suzume...

Well, it's a Makoto Shinkai film, so, as I said earlier, the visuals, backgrounds, and character animation, you know they're going to be spectacular. And this film did not disappoint. The story is about a girl who meets a young man on the way to her school and she quickly gets swept up into a supernatural plot to stop massive earthquakes in Japan. The layer beneath the metaplot is the young man trying to explain to her the nature of reality all while she is coming to terms with tragedies in her own past. For me though, it really wasn't the supernatural/sci-fi elements of the story that roped me in, it was the human elements: those relationships that develop between the characters as she races against time across Japan. Those interactions are the really interesting elements of this film. Those alone make Suzume worth a second viewing.

In the pantheon of Shinaki's films that I've seen, I'd put this one as better than Weathering with You but not as good as Your Name. I do recommend watching this movie in the theaters while it's still there--a large format screen really allows for one to absorb a lot of visual detail that you'll miss on a television screen--but be sure to see it when it comes to streaming platforms or DVD/BluRay. While I didn't have enough of an emotional connection to "Weathering" to want it in my DVD collection, Suzume is one of those that I just might pick up when it hits the stores. 

* * *

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Animated Events: TAAFI Film Festival 2023

Well, the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International's annual film festival has come and gone. And while I miss spending the weekend in Toronto, enjoying good food, great films, and the chance to spend time with valued colleagues, I'm very thankful that TAAFI has made the decision to maintain a hybrid virtual/in-person festival format for the time being. Since heading over to Canada isn't an option for me at the moment, it's nice to still be a part of some of the best animation festivals in the world.

This year, TAAFI had a number of their feature-length animated films streamed online along with the full shorts competition and a number of presentations. After the features, they would bring on the creator (usually the director) to discuss the film and take questions from the audience. 

While I was disappointed that I couldn't watch The Amazing Maurice and Unicorn Wars (due to them not being streamed and only shown to the in-person portion of the festival), Unicorn Wars is a rental on Amazon Prime so I don't mind throwing a couple bucks to a filmmaker through their choice of streaming platform. And I imagine that 'Maurice' will be on streaming platforms soon enough (I missed it's run in the theaters), so no worries there. As I've largely moved from watching movies in a theater to enjoying them in the comfort of my home theater, it's become my preferred way of consuming film. And it was a very pleasant experience as TAAFI showed the features in the evenings during the week and followed up with the shorts programs over the weekend. So the festival fit into my work schedule quite nicely.

Final TAAFI Film Festival 2023: Terry Ibele from Toronto Animation Arts Festival on Vimeo.

I started off the week watching their first feature film presentation: Rift.

Okay, Rift was an interesting experience. The visuals were a quantum leap backwards in time. They were "primitive" in every sense of the word: the models looked blocky, as if they were constructed out of primitives (spheres, cubes, cones, etc). Very primitive facial expressions with little animation. Most of the motion was stiff and stilted. The backgrounds were blocky and not as detailed. Honestly, the whole movie reminded me of the T.V. series Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles from back in 1999, except produced with worse graphics (full disclosure: I enjoyed ST:C and have all the DVDs). If you watch the trailer for Rift, you'll see what I mean about the visuals, backgrounds, and animation.

Now, credit where credit is due: this film has a very interesting story with decent voice acting. So what is the payoff, you may ask? Why would someone create a film like this? An attempt to be retro? Bringing their personal vision to life? Well in this case, the director was working with new technology and a production pipeline that was designed for smaller production filmmaking during a lockdown which would be easily adaptable to a limited budget, limited staff production.

Much of the animation was motion capture and performance capture which would be cleaned up by animators with special tools that allowed for minute changes on the models -- things like changing a mouth position or tweaking the movement of a hand gesture. And the film was also produced with Unreal Engine as the backend render engine for both the development and final film production phases.

All-in-all, it looked more like a stage between pre-visualization and final production. But it's a very interesting production pipeline and it is really worth keeping an eye on the technology as it develops since it makes feature-length animation much more affordable and accessible to smaller production teams. Is it ready for "prime time"? I'm not too sure about that, but Rift was a good stepping stone (or perhaps a proof of concept) as the technology evolves. The director and his production crew did a decent job with the tools they had and the restrictions they were under, so I'm very interested to see what Hasraf Dulull produces next as well as how this technology develops and is adopted by other filmmakers.

The next feature that stood out was Interface by Canadian artist Justin Tomchuk.

Interface was actually edited together into a two-hour feature-length movie from a series of web shorts that Tomchuk released previously. I'm not sure I could summarize the plot and do it justice, so here's the description from TAAFI's website:

"Henryk, a man who doesn’t age, and Mischief, a clown-like entity with the ability to shapeshift, travel across several locations searching for Henryk’s great-granddaughter, all while being pursued by KAMI, a mysterious, artificial “god” created by the most likely malicious Greetings Robotics Corporation."

Interface was weird. It reminded me of one of those quirky features that I sat through on a lark at the  Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema but would end up enjoying by the time the film was over. It was surreal with visuals that ran the gamut from what looked like 8-bit video game graphics to experimental to European animation. I'm planning on watching this film again when I have the time to really sit there and digest what I'm watching.

Justin Tomchuk has released the full film online for free viewing, so give it a look. I'd say sit through the first fifteen minutes or so and see if it ropes you in like it did me.

As the weekend approached, I waited patiently for the animated shorts screenings, which traditionally are my favorite events of the festival. And they did pay off. TAAFI groups the shorts programs into general themes: Oddball Shorts, Dark Shorts, College Shorts, etc. I don't know why, but I really appreciate that format. Maybe because there's a sense of harmony across the films. Thought for another day.

While it was very fun to see some more popular short films, like the Rick & Morty spinoff web series highlighting the Vindicators, there were a couple films this year that really spoke to me.

The Queen of the Foxes was a delightful film directed by Marina Rosset. The story follows the Fox Queen and her coterie of foxes that scour the city at night looking for unsent love letters. It's a wholly charming film with a great payoff. The trailer is below, but this is one of those films I'd love to have in my collection. 

Sincereality is one of those films I'd love for everyone to see. It's created by a Japanese director "Dada Gaugin", and it succeeds in being anime without being anime. It's basically a music video about a girl and her struggles to be a musical performer. And fortunately for everyone, the director posted it online about a year ago. When you watch it, click on the "CC" option as it's got English subtitles. Dada Gaugin is one of those directors I now have on my list of artists whose career I need to follow. The song is so fun and uplifting and the visuals match the pacing of the film so well, even if you don't speak Japanese, the film is easy to understand. 

Here's the film. I challenge you to watch this film and not walk away with a smile on your face.

Chit Chat and Homebody were both films about social isolation -- the first a film about a socially awkward man who dials people on the phone, looking for someone to talk to, who ends up striking up a friendship with an elderly woman. Homebody told the story of a shut-in woman who lived vicariously through her friend's adventures. In both cases, these films really struck home for many of us, especially during the waning days of Covid. The directors (Elisa Baudy & Jeanne Dalmas & Flore Pean & Gabin Ageorges & Bradley Lejeune, and Sophia Du respectively) struck a very good balance between highlighting the painful situations their characters find themselves in but choosing to end the films on a hopeful note. I'd happily watch both films again.

Mileage was good. Very good! Mileage was one part horror and one part psychological thriller all wrapped up in seven minutes. Horror isn't the easiest genre to pull off in animation and I'm very impressed that the directors of this film were able to set up the conflict, build tension, and finish up with a resolution that really points a spotlight on human nature without being overbearing. If you have the chance to watch this at a festival, definitely check it out. Props to the directors Jennifer Wu & Kym Santiana & Ruyee Lu & Christopher Hsueh & Nicole Taylor-Topacio & Joy Zhou & Ruby Saysanasy & Miranda Li & Saul Benavides.

And then, after the last Saturday screening, it was over. I felt a little wistful since I was able to watch some incredible animated films, but since I didn't get to watch them in Toronto with my friends and colleagues, I was left with some good memories but with noone to share them with. All in all though, I remain very thankful to the folks over at TAAFI for continuing this in-person and virtual festival format so folks all around the world who would be there otherwise can be a part of the festivities. Hopefully next year, things will be closer to normal and a return trip to Toronto will be a part of my festival plans.
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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Animated Events: 2023 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts at the DFT

Well, I made it to Detroit to see the animated short films that were nominated for the 2023 Academy Awards. And while I don't follow the Oscars, per se, I do have some friends that are voting members of the Academy--and watching the shorts program at the DIA's Detroit Film Theater is a fun experience, so off to the Motor City I went.

I spent a couple hours drifting around the DIA, mostly looking at paintings and sculptures up in the third floor -- the Dutch Masters galleries. Then had a brief, yet pleasant talk with one of the docents about 'Veiled Lady', a marble sculpture by Giovanni Maria Benzoni from back in 1872. A quick lunch later, and I checked out the Impressionists gallery to see that the four van Gogh paintings owned by the DIA were back in their home again.

After which, it was time to see the films!

An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It.
This is the story of a salesman working in a call center who has an existential crisis. It's a clever concept with competent execution. I don't think that they broke any new ground with the story or animation here but it was an entertaining film with good production values. 

For the time being, you can watch this film on the Troy | Movies | Videos YouTube channel at this hyperlink.

The Flying Sailor
Always good to see the National Film Board of Canada with a film in competition. And when the film is directed by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, you know that it's going to be entertaining. This one was the story of a Canadian sailor who was caught in an explosion when two ships collide. It was a really trippy film that looked at the nature of existence but without becoming pretentious or drawn out for too long. If you've ever had a near-death experience (or thought you were having one), you'll relate to what transpires on the screen. Watch to the end because even when you think that it's over, this film sneaks in a really good endcap. 

For the time being, you can watch this film on the New Yorker's YouTube channel at this hyperlink.

Ice Merchants
Delightfully quirky with a good payoff. This film reminds me of the fun and quirky films that I would see at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. The story is all about a father and son who live on the side of a cliff, harvesting ice and selling it to the townspeople below. I was able to figure out the payoff at the ending about halfway into the film, but wow was it a fun ride to get there. This was my choice for the Oscar. Unfortunately, it lost out to 'Boy, Mole, Fox & Horse', but having seen all the contenders, you pretty much knew who the Academy members were going to cast their votes for. 

For the time being, you can watch this film on the New Yorker's YouTube channel at this hyperlink.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Gorgeous visuals and smooth animation. There was some clever dialog throughout the story of a boy learning life lessons from animals whilst finding his courage. A little too saccharine and simplistic for my tastes, but it was adapted from a children's book, so you know what to expect going in. It's worth seeing once and I'm sure that parents will enjoy watching this film with their children. Definitely stay seated through the ending credit sequence and pay attention. 

Last I knew, this film was only available to watch through the Apple+ streaming service.

My Year of Dicks
An interesting, entertaining story. Visuals were reminiscent of Joanna Priestley's Voices with some nods to Richard Linklater's Waking Life. The main problem with this film wasn't the story--a teenage girl who decides that she wants to lose her virginity and the hi-jinks that follow--no, it was that the music and sound effects drowned out the dialog, so there was a lot of nuance and character development that I ended up missing. It was a quirky film with some interesting notes and the final sequence was painfully funny and relatable to men and women alike. Honestly, I'd watch it again (though only if it came with subtitles). This short film is rated "R" for content, however, overall it was pretty tame. I don't recall any nudity or anything like that, just some foul language and its mature subject matter. The DFT and Shorts International did it right: before the film was announced, they gave time for parents to remove their children from the theater. I don't know where this film is available for viewing right now, but if you're into "coming of age" stories, this one is worth a look.

And to end this blog post with the obligatory foodie photo, I have to say: the DIA Cafeteria has a superior bowl of chicken soup!

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Sunday, February 26, 2023

Animated Thoughts: The 50th Annual Annie Awards


Well, tonight was the 50th anniversary of ASIFA Hollywood's Annie Awards and also my ramblings on the always entertaining awards ceremony.

  • Opening the 50th with Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob Squarepants.
  • Hrm, don't recall seeing Ice Merchants. Looks to be worth a look. Fortunately, it's on the New Yorker's YouTube channel (https://youtu.be/mhj74ZjfaQ8).
  • Best Special Production: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse. I just love the visual style of this film. Can't wait to watch it.
  • June Foray Award goes to animation historian Mindy Johnson and is well deserved!
  • I'm reminded of the fact that I need to watch Phil Tippett's Mad God.
  • Best Character Design in TV/Media goes to Blur Studio's Alberto Mieglo for the Jibaro episode of Love Death + Robots! What an awesome win for an incredible episode of animated film.
  • Best Character Animation in TV/Media goes to Tim Watts for The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse.
  • Another great win for Love, Death + Robots: Animated Effects in an Animated TV/Media Production for the Bad Traveling episode.
  • Editing in an Animated TV/Media Production, another win for The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse. This film is having a really good night!
  • Was very touching to see Evelyn Lambart posthumously receive the Winsor McCay award. I really loved seeing the montage of films, photos, and interviews featuring Evelyn. It's always a treat to see her work shown to a larger audience.
  • Was even more touching to see how ASIFA Hollywood brought out Lauren Faust to present the Winsor McCay award to her husband Craig McCracken.
  • Hrm. So they bring in Bob Iger to present Pete Docter's Winsor McCay award. And when they do the montage for Pete Docter's career, they blank out the video that's being streamed to online audiences "Due to copyright and clearance issues..." Ooookay...
  • Another win for Love, Death + Robots: Andrew Kevin Walker won Best Writing/ TV/Media for the Bad Traveling episode.
  • They produced a stop-mo segment for when the Tiny Chef Show won Best Animated TV Production for Preschool Children--with the Tiny Chef presenting the congratulatory speech. That was pretty clever.
  • Really like how they've added the 'Best Animated TV/Media Production, Limited Series' category. That was a really classy decision--to shine light on some shows that would otherwise be overlooked.
  • Not sure if Guillermo del Toro ad-libbed some of his lines but he sure was funny.
  • Love, Death + Robots is having a great night as Emily Dean won the award for Storyboarding in an Animated Televison/Media Production for the Very Pulse of the Machine episode.
  • I make a mental note to track down exception / エクセプション and watch the Misprint episode.
  • Another win for the Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, this time Directing in an Animated television/Media Production. Now I really can't wait to watch this film.
  • I bump My Father's Dragon up on the list of features I want to watch.
  • A very gracious and humbling yet energetic speech from Guillermo del Toro when he won the Annie for Directing in an Animated Feature Production for Pinocchio.
  • Am a little embarrassed that I haven't seen any of the entries in the Best Indie Feature category.
  • And Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio wins the Best Animated Feature. I quickly log on Netflix to add it to my queue.
Congratulations to all the winners and the nominees.

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