Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ottawa Festival Report

My visit to the Ottawa International Animation Festival got off to a bad start. I usually walk from the bus station to the hotel, but it was pouring rain when I arrived. As the walk would have been a half hour, I would have been thoroughly soaked, so I was forced to take a cab.

The wireless at my hotel was not working when I arrived, which was frustrating. The first program I attended was the International Student Showcase, which was a unrelieved depression and boredom. It may be the choice of films or maybe students are actually this depressed, pretentious and boring, but I was contemplating never coming back to the festival during this screening.

Fortunately, this was the low point and things rapidly improved. The next thing I attended was Amid Amidi's presentation on Ward Kimball, a teaser for his forthcoming book Full Steam Ahead: The Life and Art of Ward Kimball.  Amidi covered things I didn't know about Kimball's childhood and his artistic evolution.  Kimball's father had repeated business failures and seemingly moved the family to a new location after every one.  It prevented Kimball from forming long-term friendships and made drawing more attractive as it was one of the few areas of his life that Kimball could control.  Amidi talked about the influence of T. Hee on Kimball, moving Kimball's art more towards simplified design.  The talk was illustrated by unpublished paintings, drawings and home movies.  Amidi has the cooperation of the Kimball family, including access to the journals that Kimball kept during his time at Disney, so he had access to a rich source of material not common in other Disney books.   I pre-ordered the book as soon as Amazon listed it, and I am even more anxious to read it after seeing this presentation.

I started Saturday seeing part of an interview with Elliot Cowan conducted by Richard O'Connor.  Cowan is at work on an independent animated feature starring his characters Boxhead and Roundhead, the star of several shorts.  It's great that so many animators are tackling the challenge of a feature either solo or with small crews.  It's more likely we'll see artistic and thematic growth in these films than in mainstream animated features.

That was followed by a panel discussion of professional etiquette for job seekers and people pitching in animation.  I've attended several of these panels and they all hit the same notes: research who you're talking to and make sure you're a good fit, be brief, get to the point, and network like crazy.

Ralph Bakshi

Ralph Bakshi's talk was easily a highlight.  Unfortunately, it was not well-attended and people missed a tremendous opportunity to hear an important figure.  Bakshi readily confessed to the shortcomings of his films, but stressed the conditions they were made under.  He couldn't afford pencil tests and there was no room for retakes.  He talked about the incessant battles over money, ratings, distribution, etc.  His attitude has always been that it's better to say something in a flawed way than to say nothing new in a slick package.  By coincidence, I was re-reading Sam Fuller's autobiography A Third Face during the festival and I realized that Bakshi is animation's Fuller.  Fuller stuck with low budgets in order to have creative freedom (though I suppose that Bakshi didn't do that by choice), and Fuller's style was always blunt and direct.  There are similarities between Fuller's films Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss and Bakshi's films set in New York.

Bakshi is currently doing shorts for YouTube.  Here is Trickle Dickle Down.  The animation is repurposed from Coonskin, which caused Jerry Beck to reject running it on Cartoon Brew.  Bakshi was very vocal in his disagreement over this, stating that the message was more important than the re-use.

Following Bakshi's talk, I caught up with Paranorman, which I had missed in theatres.  Made by Laika, the company behind Coraline, I actually liked it better than their first feature.  While I felt the designs could have been more attractive and that the second act seemed padded, the film worked and had strong themes.  The fear of those who are different and the mob descent into violence are themes that are as relevant to the film's supernatural world as they are to international politics.

I only saw one shorts competition this year.  These programs are always a mixed bag and all you can hope for are enough films you like to make the program worthwhile.  Films I enjoyed in this program included I Am Tom Moody by Ainslie Henderson, Melissa by Cesar Cabral, Pythagasaurus by Peter Peake of Aardman, Night of the Loving Dead by Anna Humphries, Una Fortiva Lagrima by Carlo Vogele (using a 1904 recording by Enrico Caruso), and The People Who Never Stop by Florien Piento.

Due to arriving on Friday and various schedule conflicts, I only got to see one feature in competition, Le Tableau, directed by Jean-Francois Laguionie.  It is set inside an unfinished painting, where the figures form a class system based on their level of completion.  While this film also had a meandering second act, it dealt with fascism, ethnic cleansing, the search for God and God's responsibility toward his creations.  The film combines cel-shaded 3D with painterly 2.5D backgrounds and while I could think of ways that characters could have been more developed, I was still highly impressed with the look and the thoughtfulness of the film.  See it if you get the chance.

I regret missing Arrugas, directed by Ignacio Ferreras, a feature set in a retirement home and which won the grand prize at the festival.  If anyone has seen it, please comment below.

Barry Purves

Sunday, I started with the Barry Purves retrospective.  Purves, a brilliant stop motion animator, introduced his work and then returned to answer questions at the end.  Besides running clips from his TV work, he ran Next, Screen Play, Riggoletto, Achilles and Gilbert and Sullivan.  Purves is clearly in love with opera and operatic voices.  Riggoletto and Gilbert and Sullivan are built entirely around them.  However, I wonder if the music and singing are too broad for the intimacy of film.  On stage, the audience is a distance from the action and there is no cutting or close-ups possible.  When the audience is only inches from a character's face, the operatic delivery often overpowers the visuals.  Purves would be horrified at the idea of redubbing his films, I'm sure, but I wonder how they would play with more intimate arrangements and singing.  None of this takes away from his mastery of performance, though.

I ended my festival with the screening of children's films.  Every year I look forward to this, as the films are the antithesis of most of the shorts in the festival.  They are bright, funny, well-paced and are clearly concerned with how the audience will receive them.  While all the films were worth watching, my favourites were Stick Up For Your Friends by Anthony Dusko, My Strange Grandfather by Dina Velikovskaya, From Point A to Point Z by Karl Staven, Why Do We Put Up With Them? by David Chai and Thank You by Pendleton Ward and Thomas Herpich.  I was pleased to see that two excellent films were from Toronto: The Fox and the Chickadee by Evan DeRushie and Beethoven's Wig by Alex Hawley and Denny Silverthorne of Smiley Guy Studios.


Anonymous said...

"These programs are always a mixed bad" LOL
Thanks for the insightful review for those who can't attend

Mark Mayerson said...

Freudian slip. I've corrected it.

Nori Retherford said...

Hi there. This was my first time at an animation festival. It sounds you like caught most of the things I missed so I really appreciate your review.

As for Arrugas, I think you have to see it. It was pretty aggressive in it's message (not necessarily a bad thing) but very heartfelt. And funny, despite the depressing topic. On the other hand, I still can't make sense of the ending with the dog. I need to see it again.

Thad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thad said...

It was great seeing you, Bob, and Steve last weekend. I enjoyed the Kimball, Bakshi, and Purves events considerably, but meeting with you guys is an experience I treasure and value highly.

rich-a-rich said...

Thanks for the review Mark!

John Muill said...

Ralph Bakshi's talk was easily a highlight. Unfortunately, it was not well-attended and people missed a tremendous opportunity to hear an important figure.

Why is he an important figure? He's never made anything good - and by that I mean both technically and as far as having anything new to say. Crumb was right about Fritz, and his Lord of the Rings was awful.

Bakshi readily confessed to the shortcomings of his films, but stressed the conditions they were made under.

He may have readily confessed but he wasn't honest about the shortcomings. He wanted to be someone he couldn't be due to a lack of talent.

Mark Mayerson said...

John, show me an American animated feature aimed squarely at adults before Fritz the Cat. Like it or not, Bakshi extended animation's subject matter.

I would never claim that Bakshi's films are great, but there's an undeniable sensibility at work in them (especially his urban films) and I think that Heavy Traffic is a film worth repeated visits.

Take your favorite animation director and give him/her Bakshi's budgets and see what results. We'll never know what Bakshi would have done with a $100 million budget.