Friday, May 06, 2016


The greatest danger in pitching ideas is not rejection.  While rejection is common, the one benefit to rejection is that your idea remains your property.  The greatest danger is finding a buyer, and that's dangerous because in exchange for getting your idea produced, you will generally lose ownership and control of the very thing you created.

Mike Valiquette of Canadian Animation Resources is now associated with Startoon, a competition to find an animated property worth producing.  This competition is different, because they make no claim to your ideas if you don't win.  This is in direct contrast to most other competitions, where the contest runners have the right to use your work forever in any medium simply because you entered.

It's too soon to know if this will result in a successful project or if the winning creator will feel satisfied at how he or she is treated, but it is encouraging that someone is willing to do business in a more creator-friendly way.  Watch Mike's pitch below and find the complete details here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Canadian Content, Regulations, and Audiences

Canada's federal government is interested in revisiting rules and funding regarding Canadian culture.  In the TV business, broadcasters and cable channels are required to play a certain percentage of Canadian content daily in order to guarantee local producers access to audiences and give audiences access to local content.

As broadcast and cable were the only ways to get a show into homes, the old regulations focused on distribution.  A producer needed a letter from a broadcaster or cable channel in order to qualify for money from various funding bodies.

These days, broadcast and cable have become less relevant with streaming and torrents.  In effect, the audience has left the building and advertisers are going with them, leaving the broadcasters and cable channels with shrinking markets and dubious futures.

The question is whether the government will be smart enough to understand this and resist vested interests who will fight to preserve their positions. 

With distribution available to everyone now, through Netlix, YouTube, etc, the focus should turn to creators.  The problems creators face are financing production, earning enough to live on, and making the audience aware of their work.

While I am obviously biased in favour of creators, I'd be the first to say that those who can successfully engage the audience are a rare breed.  Many can write, draw, direct or act, but only a few can hold an audience's attention. 

Everybody can sing.  No doubt with lessons and practice, everybody could sing better.  But only some people sing well enough to sell tickets.  I teach around 150 animation students a year.  While there are usually a dozen who are genuinely good animators, there are rarely more than one or two with the ability to engage an audience.

The challenge for the government is setting up a system where those creators with the ability to engage an audience can survive economically, and the audience can be made aware of their work.

If creators succeed, government support should be withdrawn and the money and resources put towards discovering other people.  If people fail, they should be barred from reapplying for a period of time.  Too often in the past, people succeeded by working the government's system rather than creating successful products.   That ends up being a wealth transfer from tax payers to mediocrities.  Avoiding that and discovering new talent should be the focus of any revised set of cultural regulations.  It's a big challenge and I hope that the government gets it right.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

TAAFI - The Toronto Animated Arts Festival International

 After a one year hiatus, the Toronto Animated Arts Festival International (TAAFI) will resume on April 22 and run through April 24.  The Friday and Monday will feature workshops with industry veterans such as Eric Goldberg, Samantha Youssef, Michel Gagné and others.  The weekend is dedicated to screenings from around the world, including the world premieres of the features Spark and Nova Seed.  Other guests include Marv Newland, Audu Paden, Michael Rianda, Stevie Vallance, Willie Ito, Jerry Eisenberg and Tony Benedict.

Early Bird discount passes are available until March 22.  The website, with more complete details, is here.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Irish Animation in Toronto

As part of the sixth annual Toronto Irish Film Festival, there will be a program of Irish animation on Sunday, March 6 at 1 p.m.  at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  Some of the most interesting animation being done today is coming from Europe, and the program includes films from Cartoon Saloon, maker of Song of the Sea, and Brown Bag films.  There are also some student animated films.

The list of films for all programs can be found here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

2016 Sheridan Industry Day Promo

We're rapidly approaching the end of another school year, and the animation students of Sheridan's class of 2016 have created a promo to showcase their films.  As always, there is a variety of design styles and techniques used.  I look forward to seeing these films on Industry Day, when Sheridan invites studio personnel to view the work of the newest members of the animation industry.

Sheridan College Industry Day Commercial 2016 from Jessica Mao on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Michael and Lisa
(Spoilers below.)

Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, is a film that I respect but don't love.

I respect it because its ideas have been rigorously worked out in the script, cinematography, animation and soundtrack.  It's a film that is extremely clever in revealing the nature of the main character and uses animation in original ways.  My problem is that for all its excellence, it is a cold film.  Michael, the main character voiced by David Thewlis, is stuck in a depressed state and by the film's end, does not understand himself any better than he did at the start.  He's needy, presumptuous, impatient, selfish and ultimately clueless as to his own nature.  It was difficult for me to spend time with him or to care what happened to him.

Michael is an expert in customer service traveling to Cincinnati to give a talk at a conference.   By the time we learn this, we've seen him interact with many people in the hospitality industry, all of whom behave in ways that Michael would endorse.  However, he's so wrapped up in his own head that he can't appreciate the service he's being offered and is so distracted that he comes off as brusque. 

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that every character except for Michael has the voice of actor Tom Noonan and all have identical faces, whether they are male or female.  While Michael's speech to the conference emphasizes treating customers as individuals, he himself is incapable of seeing people that way.  The only person that looks and sounds different to him is Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is there for the conference and is damaged in her own way.

Lisa has a scarred face and crippling self esteem problems.  When Michael invites her to his room, she assumes that he would be happier with her friend.  After spending the night together, Michael wants to run away with her.  Her life is so empty that she agrees, but when they breakfast together, Michael finds flaws in her and her voice transforms into the the generic voice all the other characters have.  Michael can't accept people as they are, which is why all his relationships end with him unhappy and isolated.

At the end of the film, Michael returns home to his wife, child and a house full of guests, but the final image of Michael is him staring at a mechanical doll, unable to relate to any of the people around him.  By contrast, Lisa seems grateful for the attention she received and seems renewed by the tryst.

While this film looks like it could have been done in live action, stop motion is used to distance the characters from reality enough to make the audience aware of the difference.  The puppets are about five heads high, proportioned with slightly larger heads than real people.  There is no attempt to hide the seams on their faces that separate the parts that are replaced frame by frame. 

The animation successfully communicates the characters' emotional states.  That's what animation is supposed to do.  The facial and hand movements are subtle.  Michael and Lisa are individualized through their movement.  The acting avoids animation clichés and grounds the characters in understandable human emotions.

The direction, cinematography and art direction are impressive. Michael's hotel room and the corridor outside it successfully capture the generic look familiar to anyone who has stayed in a North American hotel.  The lighting of the characters and sets is exceptional.  While lighting in cgi has advanced tremendously, it still can't match the beauty of live action lighting.  The camera moves are fluid and generally unobtrusive until they need to add emphasis.  The sound effects bolster the reality of the world that the puppets move through.

For all of this film's accomplishments, it's difficult to do a story about a character who can't change and who ends up where he began.  The audience learns more about the character over the course of the film, but as the character is not very appealing, it's hard to engage with him.  The central character, while fully realized, is the film's weakest point.

While I don't care about the Academy Awards, this film and Inside Out are both nominated in the Best Animated Feature category and I suspect that one of them will win.   They are opposite in many respects.  One is cold and the other is warm.  This film is tightly structured while Inside Out is a bit of a mess.  I suspect that the Academy will go with the feel-good film, but there is no question that Anomalisa, in spite of its coldness, has taken animation in a new direction in terms of subject matter and technique.  It presents possibilities, something that Pixar hasn't done in years.  While I can't say I enjoyed watching this film, I'm glad that I saw it and glad that it exists.  Anomalisa is a direction worth pursuing.