Sunday, October 02, 2011

Some Ottawa Festival Thoughts

Everyone who attends the Ottawa Festival (or any other large event for that matter) is going to have an individual opinion. It's impossible at Ottawa to see every screening and attend every presentation, so opinions will vary based on what a person experienced. What follows are my thoughts, based on being there for just the weekend and the programs I chose to attend.

It's a shame that the animator picnic is not included in the weekend pass, as it is now the only venue at the festival where everyone is together. When the festival used the National Arts Centre, it was a central place for everyone to meet. This is my second year attending since the National Arts Centre is no longer used, and my feeling that the festival is spread over too great a distance remains. The individual venues are nice, but the lack of a real hub makes it tougher to find people and lessens word of mouth for any hot films.

I saw The Bug Trainer, a European documentary on Ladislas Starewitch, the stop motion animator. I didn't know much about him personally, so I was grateful to the film for filling me in, but I wish that the film, which only ran an hour and was most likely made for TV, had showcased more of his animation. Perhaps Europeans are more familiar with his films and didn't need to be reminded, but I've seen only a few Starewitch works and would have liked to see more.

John Canemaker

John Canemaker's presentation on Joe Ranft and Joe Grant was a highlight for me. Canemaker knew both men, so there was a personal dimension to the talk, which included artwork that isn't in his book Two Guys Named Joe. The Joe's emphasis on entertainment value was a contrast to much of what is screened at Ottawa. Canemaker mentioned that his next book was on Herman Schultheiss, an effects animator at Disney, who kept an extensive notebook about how the effects of the time were achieved, such as the snowflakes in "The Nutcracker Suite" section of Fantasia.

I always attend the screenings of children's films as I find them to be more satisfying than the films in competition. This year, my favorite was Princess' Painting, a German short by Johannes Weiland and Klaus Morschheuser about a Princess who receives automatic praise for superficial work and how she discovers that her priorities are wrong.

Saturday had several panel discussions set up by Tom Knott to give guidance to aspiring animation artists. I was on a panel about web portfolios chaired by Richard O'Connor of Ace and Son Moving Picture Company that also featured Knott, Brooke Keesling of The Cartoon Network, and Cal Arts instructor Fran Krause. Some solid information was passed along during this panel. The following panel, which I stayed for, was a collection of directors including Jan Pinkava, Marv Newland, Joanna Priestly, Isaac King and Jessica Borutski.

Left to right: Marv Newland, Jan Pinkava

Saturday night, I attended two competition screenings. The only film that I'd like to see again is Joost Lieuwma's Things You'd Better Not Mix Up from the Netherlands. The film was funny, something you'd think wouldn't be in short supply at an animation festival, but you'd be wrong.

Sunday, I saw two presentations from Disney-Pixar. The first was Enrico Casarosa screening the Pixar short La Luna, which will be released next year with Brave. The film is charming and clearly comes from a personal place for Casarosa. That personal connection is what separates the film from some other Pixar shorts and too much Disney these days.

The second presentation was of the Winnie the Pooh feature and the short The Ballad of Nessie. Pooh directors Steve Anderson and Don Hall were there to talk about the film after the screening. While they made it a point to go back to the original shorts for the design of the film, they talked about reworking the characters of Owl and Rabbit to make them carry more of the comedy. Personally, I felt that those characters were pushed too much, to the detriment of Tigger. Originally, Tigger's hyperactivity and wackiness was a strong contrast to the staid nature of the other characters. Now Tigger is only one of many broad characters. I also thought that the animators on Tigger (Andreas Deja) and Rabbit (Eric Goldberg) were miscast. Goldberg should have been given Tigger and Deja Rabbit.

Nessie also looked backwards to the Disney design of the 1940s and '50s. Johnny Appleseed was referenced for design.

Both the feature and short lacked the personal connection of La Luna. They were well crafted, but seemed to me to be imitation Disney rather than stories that needed to be told. By coincidence, the day after I returned from the festival, I was reading Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland and came across this quote:
In the first third of [the twentieth] century, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and a few fellow travelers turned the then-prevailing world of soft focus photographic art upside down. They did so by developing a visual philosophy that justified sharply-focused images, and introduced the natural landscape as a subject for photographic art. It took decades for their viewpoint to filter into the public consciousness, but it sure has now: pictures appearing in anything from cigarette ads to Sierra Club books owe their current acceptance to those once-controversial images. Indeed, that vision has so pervasively become ours that people photographic vacation scenery today often do so with the hope that if everything turns out just right, the result will not simply look like a landscape, it will look like an Ansel Adams photograph of the landscape.

This too will pass, of course. In face, artistically speaking, it has passed. The unfolding over time of a great idea is like the growth of a fractal crystal, allowing details and refinements to multiply endlessly -- but only in ever-decreasing scale. Eventually (perhaps by the early 1960's) those who stepped forward to carry the West Coast Landscape Photography banner were not producing art, so much as re-producing the history of art. Separated two or three generations from the forces that spawned the vision they championed, they were left making images of experiences they never quite had. If you find yourself caught in similar circumstances, we modestly offer this bit of cowboy wisdom: When your horse dies, get off.
If drawn Disney animation is to survive, the artists are going to have to find their own voices, not "making images of experiences they never quite had." Time to find another mount.

As I said above, this is only my experience of the festival. For other viewpoints, see Jerry Beck, Richard O'Connor (1, 2, 3 and 4) and Michael Valiquette.


Jonathan Lyons said...

John Canemaker was my professor at NYU. I saw him give the "Two Joe's" lecture at the Disney Family Museum. He always does a good talk.

Anonymous said...

I agree about finding some sort of Hub.

But I disagree with you about Canemaker. For all the accolades he's received about some of his work, I find it, and his lectures, trite, only on the surface, and frankly, boring. He ought to know the difference between a general audience and an audience of animators who get past the surface pretty quickly. Aside from his book on Raggedy Ann, I find his books to be in a similar vein--little more than collecting known information into one place. While I can appreciate the idea behind this, his book skip along the surface as well. His book on Mary Blair is a perfect example--light text, but just enough to render the all important artwork too small to appreciate. Thank goodness Disney is putting together an art book of her work.

Mark Mayerson said...

I don't know how you can say that Canemaker's books just collect known information. His books on Otto Messmer and the Disney layout artists are full of information that I was unaware of, to just give two examples. He also has to be given credit for taking animation history books from hagiography to a more realistic view of artists working in an industrial art form.

Michael Sporn said...

The comments by "Anonymous" are just that, comments by an internet writer who doesn't have the courage of his convictions to actually use his/her own name. To anyone trying to understand animation history, those comments should be dismissed. Interesting that you should mention the "Felix" book; I'm rereading it now and am amazed at some of the information in there.

Your comments on the Festival synthesized it for me. I wanted to be there and after reading your column am even sorrier that I wasn't. Thanks for taking the time.

warren said...

Thanks for the write-up, Mark! You've inspired me to pick up 'Art & Fear' and Canemaker's book on Felix.

As for inspiring me to attempt to alter the course of feature animation stories...well...if i'm going to hop off the dead horse, it's on my own time & dime. This corpse seems to be made of greenbacks, or so they'll tell you until the box office disagrees (waits for the incendiary replies)

Mark Mayerson said...

Warren, I was specifically referring to Disney's drawn animation, not feature animation in general.