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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

By The Rapids: First Nation Animation

Yesterday I visited Big Soul Productions, a First Nations owned live action and animation production facility located in downtown Toronto.
(First Nations is the Canadian equivalent of "Native American")

My friend Jean Pilotte is animation supervisor of an animated series called BY THE RAPIDS. The show was created and written by Joseph Tekaroniake Lazare, who also directs the show. Lazare based the town of "By the Rapids" on his hometown of Kahnawake, Quebec, and the characters on people who lived there. The main character, Cory Littlehorn, is a modern teenager whose parents are successful lawyers. The Littlehorn family return to the parents' community in By The Rapids to live, and each episode deals with...well, highly unexpected things. I won't describe the plot of the episode Jean showed us here, but the writing was really outstanding and nothing about the program's plot was predictable. The gags were funny, if sometimes highly unconventional (all right, I'll tell you about one of them: all the dogs in the town smoke cigarettes.) The show is highly original and entertaining. The animation is limited but the characters still worked.
The show is produced in English and Mohawk languages and airs on APTN , the Aboriginal People's Television Network. This network covers all of Canada but I am not sure whether it reaches the USA.
Perhaps some American network would air this interesting show.
Big Soul Productions is located in a wonderful arts building just off Spadina Street in Toronto. I amused myself by looking at the bookstore (where I didn't buy anything) and the musical 'museum' store (where I bought a small rattle that reminded me a little bit of a cartoon mouse.) Afterward, a friend took me to a well known Polish/Eastern European supermarket where I amused myself by recognizing the Frosch (frog) brand cleaners that I used to use in Germany.

So I'd call this a nice, multicultural day out!
Oh, and we had a nice Sheridan senior student with us on the tour. I thought that since Bernice's film involved Raven and the Moon (a Northwest Coast legend) she might be interested in hearing about By the Rapids. Not only was the young lady overjoyed to be there, she obviously made an impression on some of the staffers, and a copy of her film will be shown to the producers when they return from a trip to New York.

Perhaps BY THE RAPIDS will air on PBS. That would be nice.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A New Disney Documentary and some Books

I spoke with Frank Thomas' son Ted yesterday. Ted's company 'Theodore Thomas Productions' produced the delightful documentary FRANK AND OLLIE and has just completed work on a fascinating new one about the Disney studio artists' trip to South America in 1942.
Apparently new, raw footage has been found and this, along with some animation from SALUDOS AMIGOS, is used in the film.
I'll write more when I hear about the distribution and release dates.

Work continues on the book, which is dedicated to Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and Shamus Culhane. I chose these three dedicatees because of their writing--not their animation! Frank and Ollie's book THE ILLUSION OF LIFE is the first important study of character animation, and Shamus Culhane's ANIMATION FROM SCRIPT TO SCREEN was the first important animation textbook. All three men were my friends, and I hope the new book won't be too shabby. Lynn Johnston has agreed to write the Foreword, or Backward as it will probably turn out.

Speaking of books, I've just provided a blurb for the updated TIMING FOR ANIMATION by John Halas; Tom Sito wrote some excellent additions bringing the book into the digital age. (Hey, we still time the same way; a second is a second, whatever program or technique you use to measure it!) There will also be illustrations from some CGI and Flash sources in addition to the originals, which may be difficult to view today. This update is one that everyone should get...I recommend it highly.

I've ordered the two Walt Stanchfield drawing books and will write a review when they arrive. I studied with Stanchfield and Glen Vilppu at Disney's and actually preferred Stanchfield as a teacher, though both were of course excellent.

So that's all the news that I'm allowed to print. I have more, but can't print it!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A bit of bother and a new film

I apologize for the long hiatus between posts, but a combination of family emergencies and a lengthy attack of bronchitis has slowed me down a bit.
There is some interesting news on the animation front: the Russian feature THE TALE OF THE SOLDIER FEDOT (Fedot Strelets) made by the Melnitsa Animation Studio was posted on YouTube for a few days. Note: someone took it down, which is probably what I would have done in their place. I did get to see it beforehand. I hope that it is made available on dvd; in the meantime, the website for the film is still up, and the trailer can be viewed there. I am told that the film did make a respectable amount of money by Russian standards, and it was either loved or disliked in equal measure by the audiences.
The film is beautifully art directed; the artwork resembles lacquer paintings on Russian boxes. It is done in digital cutout animation, apparently the first Russian feature to use this technique (though short films have done this for some time). Some characters' heads turn; others are flat.
The animation is stylized and never boring.
The poem it is based on probably sounds better in Russian. My friend Alexey Kobelev sent me a link to an English translation last year, and it is this translation that is used in the film's subtitles.
I was surprised and a little repulsed by one episode near the end, which contains a grotesque racist caricature. The character is described in repulsive terms in the original poem, but the visuals take the stereotyping to the limit. The episode could be edited out of the film if anyone wanted to show it in the West. (The Tsar is trying to marry his daughter off to just about anyone...and there were many more candidates in the original poem.)
Take a look. It's worth it. I wish Studio Melnitsa luck in their future productions.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Thanks, Mike

Mike Sporn called me out on the last post, so here's an amended version: Nina Paley is the first person to singlehandedly produce an animated film in FLASH. She is possibly the fourth person to ever animate an entire film by herself (Neither Bill Plympton nor Lotte Reiniger did EVERYTHING on their films themselves. Reiniger's husband was her cameraman and Plympton works with renderers and probably cameramen/women.)

But while researching the Polish feature ADAM 2 that Mike mentions (which is unavailable on YouTube) I found two films that I saw in junior high school that I have (a) had nightmares about and (b) been searching for ever since. I'm serious. I haven't forgotten the first film in forty years, though I thought it was French because its title is French....RENAISSANCE by Walerian Borowczyk is a stunning allegory of war. I remember being fascinated by the stop motion animation, which has never, in my opinion, been used to greater horrific effect than it is here.

LES JEUX DE ANGES, also by Borowczyk, is an even more harrowing depiction of life--if you can call it that-- in a death camp. Stay with it. The slowness is part of the horror. I remember that I and one other Jewish student were the only ones to understand this film in the entire class. Perhaps it was better for the other students that they did not understand it. Borowczyk ended his career making porn movies and I can't say I blame him for seeking some kind of escape, any kind of life affirmation, as the antidote to these memories.

So thanks, Mike, for inadvertently getting me on the right track to find these two films. Maybe I should have just asked Jules Engel about them at Cal Arts. It never occurred to me to do so so it's taken me a bit longer to find these films than I had hoped...but they are worth the wait.