Friday, September 18, 2009

A Gaggle of Guests

(Updated at the bottom.)
Paul Fierlinger
It's only the second week of classes at Sheridan College, but due to a variety of circumstances, we've been lucky to have three industry guests in three days.

Paul Fierlinger was in Toronto to attend the Toronto International Film Festival screenings of his new feature My Dog Tulip. I was able to reach Paul and arrange for him to speak at the college, but the notice was so short we wedged him into a first year animation lecture and then spread the word to students from other years.

My Dog Tulip
Fierlinger spoke about his long career as a freelancer and independent film maker, urging the students to be original and to use their originality as their main selling point. He said that except for corporate logos, he never did a job that wasn't in his own style. It wasn't enough for him to say that his style was better, he had to show the client (often with sample animation) that his approach would work better than a design approach they put forward.

Fierlinger was very bullish on the internet, urging students to find communities that exist on line and figure out ways to serve them through animation. He mentioned a friend who was a 5th grade teacher who made simple animations for his students as a hobby, and now other teachers were now requesting copies and the friend was making several hundred dollars a week marketing the shorts while continuing to teach.

Fierlinger stressed the power of the internet, both in terms of making sales but also for doing research and for collaborating. Fierlinger was able to research the location of My Dog Tulip without traveling to England thanks to the internet and he found Shay Lynch, the composer for his next film (on John Slocum, the first man to sail around the world solo), after hearing his work on The Animated Life blog on the New York Times.

Fierlinger has been freelancing continuously for 51 years and his example is a good one for animation students, who often only think of landing a job at a studio. His determination to work with his own artistic style and his ability to deal with adult content in films like A Room Nearby and Still Life with Animated Dogs, point in directions that students need to consider.

Don Hahn
On Wednesday evening, Don Hahn made an appearance at Sheridan College. The event was held in the large theatre on campus and over a hundred students were still turned away. Hahn did a presentation about Walt Stanchfield, artistic inspiration and the production process. After his presentation, he signed copies of his recent books. Hahn was also in town for the Toronto International Film Festival, where his documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty was screening. The film is about the revival of Disney animation in the 1980s and '90s.

Walt Stanchfield was a Disney animator who taught drawing extensively at the studio. Stanchfield's notes on various drawing and animation topics have circulated in photocopy form for years, and Hahn has compiled the notes into a recently published two volume set called Drawn to Life. The presentation on Stanchfield included lots of his art and several videos of him teaching at the Disney studio.

Hahn showed a great many pieces of illustration art that inspired Disney's original artistic crew and more recent work that had an influence on the newer generation.

Not by design, Hahn started off by taking the opposite tack from Fierlinger, saying that animation is a team sport and talking about the pleasures and necessities of collaboration. He stepped through the entire production process, showing sample art and video for each step. He showed rejected character designs and played a bit of the first version of "Circle of Life" to make the point that you want to fail fast and fail often. It takes going down wrong paths before you find the best solution and the collaborative process allows for many more variations to be examined before the best solution is found.

Hahn was enthusiastic for the future of animation and drawn animation in particular, saying that he greatly admired what he had seen on The Princess and the Frog, but should it fail at the box office, Disney would still continue to make drawn features. He talked about how international animation has become and the many opportunities thanks to that and technology that were not available when he started. He was excited to see what films would be made in the next 10 years by the people who were currently students.

Hahn was asked what his most pleasant working experience was and he answered that it was working on Atlantis. While he admitted that the people had to judge for themselves how successful the film was, he said that he was working with people he had known for 10 years and very much liked. By contrast, the toughest working experience he had was on Beauty and the Beast, where the production had to deal with Howard Ashman's death, having its budget cut and Hahn having a child during production.

Joe Haidar
The last guest of the week was Joe Haidar, a veteran animator who has worked in Canada, England and the U.S, including 15 years at Disney. Joe was in Toronto to visit friends and family and brought along Animated American, a live action and animated short film he co-directed with James Baker and that was produced by Susan Cohen.

I had Haidar as a guest in my second year lecture, though many third and fourth year students sat in. He screened the complete film and then talked about how the film was made. When he and Baker were laid off at Disney, they decided to do something for themselves rather than just look for another job. The two wrote the story and then brought in screenwriter Tim Talbott to polish the script. The live action was shot over 4 days and then Haidar and Baker did the bulk of animation themselves over more than a year.

Haidar was surprised and sorry to discover that people from live action were far more cooperative and generous in helping the film get made than people in animation. He also mentioned that when they started the film, they realized that they knew hundreds of artists, but no business people and he suggested to the students that they don't limit their professional relationships to other artists.

Animated American is currently playing festivals and Haidar and Baker are planning to do a live action feature as their next project together.

The best thing about these guests is their varying viewpoints. Fierlinger is the lone independent, Hahn is the corporate team player and Haidar is the new director looking to launch his own projects. If nothing else, they demonstrate that animation, as an occupation and a medium, has greater possibilities than many people realize.

(Update: Paul Fierlinger posted his impressions of how My Dog Tulip was received at the Toronto International Film Festival here. The Globe and Mail has an article dealing with both My Dog Tulip and Waking Sleeping Beauty here.)


Alex_Munguia said...

I very much enjoyed this post. Im a student at the Art Institute of Las Vegas- regretfully our school focuses mainly on teaching students how to use programs more so than actual animation. With that said I wish I had done more research and gone to Sheridan or Cal Arts hahaha- its an inspiring post and reminds me I CAN accomplish what I hope to, I just keep moving- thank you.

Brubaker said...

I wish I was at the Paul Fierlinger appearance. I love his work. Thanks for the brief rundown, Mark.

One of my prized possessions is a 16mm print of "It's So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House".

Michael Fukushima said...

Lucky you guys, Mark (and great initiative on your part). Fierlinger is one of my most favourite storytellers out there. And hadn't heard anything about Annecy reaction (followed the link); such a shame, really.

David Nethery said...

What's notable too about the feature film My Dog Tulip is that in terms of the actual animation production it was made by only two people , Paul and Sandra Fierlinger .

Other people worked on the film of course doing the voices , music, etc. but this is truly an independent animated feature. Paul directed, animated, Sandra did the color styling and backgrounds. Sandra has an amazing digital "watercolor" technique , see examples here:
TVPaint Gallery - Paul & Sandra Fierlinger (Scroll down to see Sandra's still life paintings at the bottom of page.)