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Monday, November 19, 2007

Academy Screeners

I've just returned from a short trip to New York City to see Academy Award short animated film screenings. Ten of the 36 films shown will be screened again in January to determine the nominees for this year's short animation Oscar.
Greg Ford was kind enough to offer overnight accomodation in his studio's extra room. It's not the first time I have slept overnight in an animation studio, though this time I did not have to sleep under the desk.

I arrived on Friday afternoon in time to take in the terrific Ronald Searle exhibit at the Forbes Gallery (thanks, Amid Amidi, for the heads-up)--the show is there til March. The exhibit is in two hallways and also in rooms that once housed the Forbes' collection of 13 Faberge eggs., which have been returned to Russia. Turns out the millionaire who bought them bought EVERYTHING--all the Faberge tchotchkes, not just the eggs. I'm glad I saw them when I could.

The Searle exhibit has original drawings, ceramics, books, and even some movie footage, though no mention is made of DICK DEADEYE, the one feature film to be based on Searle's style.
Ronald Searle has influenced animators since his first book was published; Chuck Jones cartoons, Bill Peet's designs for 101 DALMATIANS, and most British animation would look very different without him.

Do not miss this show if you are in New York. The museum is open during business hours and is absolutely free.
It is amazing to see just how different the original Searle drawingss look from the often poorly printed early books. And the rest of the Forbes gallery is also delightful.

Now to the Academy screeners:

I thought this would be a good year for short films and was frankly disappointed. There were a number of loud, overproduced films with poor concepts or stories. For a wonder not all of the overproduced ones were CGI; there were some really weak stop motion film as well.

Some of the films had no excuse for being there. They were poorly made. Even a sophomore in college could do better (and yes, I can prove this.) I suppose they managed to get a two day screening in Los Angeles. One horror was so very bad I saw people nearly flying out of the room seconds after it started. Surprise. This thing is going to be 'adapted' into a feature. Why do people waste money on things like this when they could back competent artists who need money to complete films (Youri Nourstein comes to mind?)

I was shocked NOT to see many excellent films that obviously did not get the L.A. screening. Where was MY HAPPY END, the outstanding paper-cutout-and-hand drawn film from Hamburg? Or A DOG'S LIFE?

I've already started talking with someone about possibly hiring a theatre to show a Student Film Showcase in L.A. during the season. Good independent and student films could be shown there for the qualifying period--longer, if people were interested in seeing it--and the theatre rental expense split between several institutions. It would materially improve the quality of the submissions.

Now I might as well mention the good stuff. Yes, there were some good films there.

The most outstanding entry, IMHO, was JEU by Georges Schwizgebel. This was an amazing abstract piece scored impeccably and wittily to Prokofiev's music. It's so rare to see actual wit in an abstract film--Schwizgebel offers commentary on the music rather than just illustrating it literally or moving stuff around on the screen. The hand painted look was very interesting as well, though obviously used with computer graphics program. Four stars for this one.

THE CHESTNUT TREE looked even better compared to most of the 'professional' entries since it was subtle, well timed and acted, and simple. Four stars again.

Three stars:
MADAME TUTLI-PUTLI was lovely to look at and a little light on story.
HOW TO HOOK UP YOUR HOME THEATRE from Disney was a welcome return to the full animated, hand drawn days of short film production. It's not that it was something new--it was just nice to see something old there.
MY LOVE from Alexander Petrov had his usual incredible technique but was a little hard to follow if you haven't read the story it was based on.
I was delighted with I MET THE WALRUS, a witty, well timed and directed animated tribute to John Lennon (who provides the soundtrack.)
Bill Plympton's SHUTEYE HOTEL was 'arrestingly' designed, and well timed.
A real surprise was MEME LES PIGEONS VONT AU PARADIS, an hilarious French film about a priest who tries to scare an old man into repenting his sins with the aid of a 'heaven machine'. It's witty, well timed, and has an unusual story.

Two stars: Disappointments, although well made: THE PEARCE SISTERS from Aardman, which was unattractive to look at and had an obvious story, though it was extremely well directed and animated; PETER AND THE WOLF, an overproduced stop motion version of the Prokofiev piece that featured an excellent duck, but poor use of the music, weak story 'adaptation'--(what's with that beginning and ending, anyhow?) and overly-realistic character design; and PRINTED RAINBOW, which would have been great had it been shortened by approximately 50% of its running time.

Weak films outnumbered the good-to-fair ones by a factor of three. I won't write about the ones I would call 'pretentious crap'. There were a fair few of these.
We are only allowed to rate films from 5 to 10 if they have gotten this far in the screening process. I think some of the others must have given 1's or 0's to at least one of the screeners.

There was a notable 'thanatopsical' bent to many films. So many seemed to feature views of mortality and dissolution that Greg Ford confided during a break that "There's a real pattern here...I can hardly wait to die."

It's just the Zeitgeist, I replied.

Note to Academy: Please reinstate the system where we can raise our hands to have the film stopped. Ten hands used to mean that we didn't have to sit through interminable films. For some reason, we had to sit through them all. This is a bit much, even with the nice lunch provided.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Singapore Schedule

Well, here it is...
I'm a 'legend in my own lunchtime'. Here's the schedule for my talk and masterclass for those of you who are in Singapore in a week's time!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

LaVerne Harding

Here is a link to Asifa's short biography of LaVerne Harding.

She started at the Walter Lantz studio in 1934, one year after Lillian Friedman started animating at Fleischer's. Harding died in 1984 and received an Annie award for her work in 1980, so she wasn't completely unrecognized in her lifetime.

Selby Kelly's story that Harding was promoted to animator on the spot during a strike at Lantz's is impossible to substantiate.

Lantz is quoted on the site, saying "They thought that women could only draw birds and flowers. They were wrong, of course."

Harding apparently redesigned Woody Woodpecker in 1950, and it is her model sheets that are used for later cartoons.


Friday, November 09, 2007

Girls Rule at Film Fest

2D OR NOT 2D festival 2007

This year’s theme of the 2D or not 2D festival was GIRLS NIGHT IN: WOMEN IN ANIMATION. It was appropriate that many of the top festival awards were won by female animators this year.

I was one of the opening night speakers along with Microsoft producer Kathie Flood and Pixar animator Kureha Yokoo. My presentation consisted of character design and storyboard sketches I drew when at Disney’s that had never been publicly shown, together with some clips from HERCULES and TREASURE PLANET. I had particular fun describing why some designs were not used, including a rare ‘censored’ scene I did in one film.

In my opening remarks I made sure to mention those who had gone before us: Lillian Friedman Astor, Retta Scott, LaVerne Harding, Selby Kelly, and Tissa David—you would know them better by their performances as Betty Boop, Bambi’s hunting dogs, Woody Woodpecker, Pogo Possum, and Raggedy Ann. Tissa David is still with us and still working. The others never received recognition in their lifetimes, and frequently did not receive credit (Harding being an exception to the rule—she was often credited as Verne Harding to make her sound more masculine, but she was always credited. Thank you, Walter Lantz!)

The difference between the hand drawn and computer animation presentation was interesting to note: a computer animator has the scene’s acting blocked and timed by the layout artist before they receive the shot. The performance is still theirs, but the staging is pretty set—there’s no tweaking, as frequently occurs in hand drawn films.

Ms. Yokoo’s shots from RATATOUILLE showed her to be an excellent actress. She also showed a hilarious and telling juxtaposition of two photos: the “Nine Old Men” of Disney and the “Nine Young Ladies” of Pixar’s animation staff. There are 92 animators at Pixar, but it’s a start.

Ms. Flood ran some interesting X box footage from Microsoft games that she produced. The scenery in the racing games featured actual cityscapes (Race you to St. Petersburg, Russia, anyone?) and was extremely realistic. Ms. Flood took many questions from the audience.

This year’s entries were from a wider range of animation schools than the first year’s show; Tony White thought that it might be a good idea to emphasize the student films more than ‘professional’ ones in future shows. Two schools, Tony’s own Digipen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington and the Van Arts college in Vancouver, B. C., gave presentations to local students the day before the festival opened. The two schools also were co-sponsors of the program.

The opening night films were all by female animators. Most were student films produced in a wide variety of media. THE CHESTNUT TREE by Hyun-Min Lee (Cal Arts) was the outstanding film of the evening, and of the festival. Producers Bert Klein and Don Hahn were present on the following evening, along with the filmmaker. THE CHESTNUT TREE, a lyrical tribute to the spirit of a girl’s deceased mother, has won many awards and will be a strong contender for this year’s Oscar. Since it was a student film that was finished professionally, it is not competing in the Student category.

Other opening night films that I enjoyed were ART’S DESIRE from NYU’s Sarah Wickliffe, an amusing story about the Guernica painting’s subjects attempting to get into a less violent painting; GEIRALD THE 5 LEGGED SPIDER by Sheridan College’s Sam(antha) Rusztyn, a cautionary tale about love in the world of arachnids; and Tristyn Pease’s INVADERS FROM INNER SPACE from RIT, featuring space tourists that ruin an alien’s life.

Kathy Rose’s THE INN OF FLOATING IMAGERY was intended to be part of a performance piece; I wish Kathy had been there to act along with the film.

A screening of THE SNOWMAN, directed by the late Dianne Jackson, was the ‘late night surprise’ after the screenings and presentations. Jackson was a brilliant talent who left us much too soon. THE SNOWMAN is a classic film that beautifully captures the style of cartoonist Raymond Briggs.

Saturday morning’s surprise film was lost somewhere in the mail, so they re-ran the previous year’s winners, including many films from RIT students who are all are currently working in animation. The lovely THE MAN WHO WALKED BETWEEN THE TOWERS was also screened; much of the animation for this Michael Sporn production was done by Tissa David, affording her a virtual presence at the ‘women’s festival.’

The second round of competition films had a lot of films about dogs and aliens, though not together. I enjoyed MY HAPPY END from Milen Vitanov (Hamburg Film School) a stunning, imaginative, and very funny combination of hand drawn and cutout animation about very unusual dog/dogs. A DOG’S LIFE from Adam Comiskey was a hilarious depiction of a dog’s daily routine after his foolish master leaves the house for work. I particularly liked THE LIBRARIAN FROM THE BLACK LAGOON by Galen Fott, which is based on a successful children’s book, and ALIEN FOR CHRISTMAS by Dave Pryor, which featured a catchy song that I still can’t get out of my head.

Presentations by Michel Gagne, Tony White, and Don Hahn followed the screenings. Gagne has a wide range of talents; his latest project is a series of short films that update Len Lye and Oskar Fischinger’s ‘visual music’, called SENSOLOGY. He had a fine range of his books and sculptures of ‘twisted rabbits’ on display in the theatre’s foyer.

Tony White’s presentation included the premiere of the excellent FIRE GODS animated documentary, produced with the aid of student animators at the Digipen Institute of Technology. The film is a combination of hand drawn, computer, and Flash animation and tells the story of the invention and production of glass from Roman times to the present day. Tony is now head of the animation department at Digipen and the school should have some fine films in the next year’s show.

Don Hahn gave a very enjoyable talk about creativity and development of stories. The visuals included some preproduction art from classic Disney films that had not been seen for sixty years. He was one of the producers of THE CHESTNUT TREE, which closed his presentation. Hahn was awarded the second Roy E. Disney Award for his outstanding work as a producer and assistant director at the Walt Disney Studio.

Here is a list of the films that won Merit Awards and “Golden Pencils” this year: (I list the colleges when I know them—many of the top films were, as I mentioned earlier, made by students.)

Merit awards certificates were awarded to:

“Fish” by HyunJeen Lee. (Student film, SVA)
“Alien for Christmas” by Dave Pryor.
“The Chestnut Tree” by Hyun-min Lee. (Student film, Cal Arts)
“The Librarian from the Black Lagoon” by Galen Fott.
“Geirald The 5 Legged Spider” by Sam Rusztyn. (Student Film, Sheridan College)
“2” by Kim Anderson.
“The Intruder” by Alessandro Ceglia.
“Lost Utopia” by Mirai Mizue.
“My Happy End” by Milen Vitano. (Student Film, Hamburg Film School)
“For the Love of God” by Joe Tucker.
“The Space Burger” by Sookyoung Choi. (Student Film, SVA)
“I Am PillowCat” by Elaine Lee. (Student Film, RISD)
“t.o.m.” by Tom Brown.
“Bai Ri Meng (Daydream)” by Jennifer Tippins. (Student film, NYU)
“The Tree With The Lights In It” by Jason Harrington.
“Movement and Stillness” by Yi-Hsuan Kent Chiu.
“everything will be ok” by Don Hertzfeldt.

The “Golden Pencils” were awarded to:

2D Animation/Best Film: “Lost Utopia.” By Miral Mizue (this was a really stunning After Effects production, with over 1500 drawings manipulated into a series of interlocking patterns)
2D Animation/Best Animation in a Film: “The Chestnut Tree.”
Student Film/ Best Film: “Geirald the 5-Legged Spider.”
Student Film/ Best Animation in a Film: “I am Pillow Cat” by Elaine Lee (hand drawn pillow has a fight with dustbunnies)
Digital Media/Best Film: “Fish.” By HyunJean Lee (a boy has a CGI animated fish for a roommate in a typical apartment)
Digital Media/ Best Animation in a Film: “Movement and Stillness.” By Yi-Hsuan Kent Chu (Chinese brush painting, animated)
All-style Animation/ Best Film: “Alien for Christmas.”
All-style Animation/ Best Animation in a Film: “My Happy End.”

We ended the festival with a get together upstairs at the New Everett Theatre. All were delighted with the increased participation of many fine animation schools. Next year’s show should be equally impressive.
Congratulations to the Animaticus Foundation for another splendid display of animation (not all ‘2D’ but all different.)
You can read Tony White’s comprehensive write-up of the festival here: