What a Blast! The Ottawa International Animation Festival, 2002

I had a pretty busy week last week. Most of it was spent watching cartoons at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. A typical day would start with waking up at 7am, having breakfast and then heading out via bus for the 9am workshop (most things lasted 1.5 hours in a 2 hour time slot), followed by more workshops, retrospectives and other showings until about 4:30pm. That left enough time to go home for dinner, then return for the evening competitions and events, one at 7pm and one at 9pm. I'd usually get back home and in to bed by midnight. After a few days of that, I was getting sleepy so I skipped a couple of 9am workshops.


Registration and Goodies Bag

It started on Wednesday October 2, 2002 with registration at the National Arts Centre. This year's canvas bag had the usual odd pile of goodies. Besides the catalog there were a couple of animation magazines, a fancy book from the Korean animation studios, flyers for places to eat, a coupon for the upcoming Bugs Bunny play-along with the NAC orchestra, a thick yellowish Teletoon ball point pen, and a small silver box from Dynomight Cartoons containing the Bunny and Squirrel game (die, cardboard cutouts for tokens, instructions and a map).

Opening and First Competition

The first competition showing was that evening. Chris Robinson gave a funny welcoming speech, which he had paid a dot-com to write for $25. It was overly flowery. He milked it well. Then the performance scratch film artists team manually whizzed film under projectors to generate sounds for the title film for the festival, which was a scratch film (made by scratching on the film surface, fortunately short, and with recognizable images). The best entries in the competitive showing were from last year: the gross The Headless Horseman about acrobatic cows eating fizzy bad thoughts from cowboy heads, and the amusing Das Rad (Rocks) about a pair of rock people being menaced by centuries of Human development in fast motion (for them), almost being killed by urban sprawl, but fortunately a war destroys the civilization just in time. You Animal was a more recent entry about show biz life and the personality quirks of too-popular-for-their-own-good people. A really good new one was Still Life with Animated Dogs about a young starving artist's life, starting with living in the Soviet Union (he forged a seeing eye dog trainer license so he could take his dog into restaurants) and continuing though the years, with various dogs, ending much older and with good success in the USA. There were also some non-narrative entries (horrible scratch films) and other non-entertaining artistic entries present to make you realise what a big factor a good a story is.


Story Telling Workshop

Thursday morning started off with Sheridan College's Ellen Besen's story telling analysis workshop. She has had fascinating and very popular previous workshops, so I showed up at 8:30. That was actually a bit early, so I talked with a purple haired early bird, who happily works in production at Pixar. She particularly liked being in San Francisco rather than Los Angles, even though it's just Pixar and nothing else in the area. The story telling workshop took apart Gerald McBoing Boing, the boy who couldn't speak and made sound effects instead. Analysing the first few frames revealed the medium (incrementally drawn rather than faded in to make the point that it is a cartoon), the characters (caring wife (lots of repeated rocking motion loops, doesn't reject child), innocent smiling child, upset conformist husband (hostile reaction (to first sounds) poses held in mid-air)) and even revealed the target audience - the husband wants his boy to be normal; this must have been a big concern for all those parents in the 1950s, thus the target is the parents of the baby boom generation! I had to leave early to catch the next item.

Buzzco Retrospective

Next up at 11am was a retrospective of Buzzco. It's mostly the team of Candy Kugel and Vincent Cafarelli. They have been making fairly independent cartoons in New York city since 1982. Quite a few make statements, some about the lies of the studio system, but the most fun and best one was the parody of politically correct stories called Snowie and the Seven Dorps: A Passive Aggressive Fable for the '90s, which was anti-correct, as in the opposite of correct. They're still keeping it up, filling their slow business times with Flash animations posted on the Internet making sharp points about recent political sabre rattling.

Taku Furukawa Retrospective

Then came the Taku Furukawa retrospective. A wild young Japanese artist goes from experimental and opinion based shorts to good stories, and a few more experimental ideas too. The best was Tyo Story (Tokyo) about grandparents travelling to visit their children (sometimes too busy with their cell phones and jobs) and grandchildren (all were more modern culturally), then going back home and deciding to try a few new things.

Korean Animation

At 3pm was a survey of Korean animation. There's been quite a bit of activity there, including independent animators doing their own thing, not just colouring in Simpsons episodes. I liked Mouse without Tail - about a dog shaped plasticine creature (much like British style plasticine) who has a job inside a computer mouse, which looks a bit like an exercise bicycle and needs him pedaling furiously away as the Human plays StarCraft. But the mouse is replaced with a wireless one, and he's out of a job. Desperately, he visits a back alley surgeon and gets The Operation. No more tail, and he has an Light Emitting Diode in his belly button. But all that's available is a job inside a box with some plumbing, where he flashes his light and operates valves. The camera pulls out through the window on an infra-red proximity sensor box on an automatic flush urinal.

R. O. Blechman

At 7pm was the R. O. Blechman and The Ink Tank retrospective. I hadn't realised that this guy is also one of the cover artists for the New Yorker and other magazines. Actually, a lot of graphic designers also do animation. Probably his most famous is A Soldier's Tale, where a soldier makes a deal with the devil to teach him how to play the violin in exchange for becoming a big businessman, then returns to Earth several years later to an empty life. Another one is No Room at The Inn where Christ's parents are looking for lodging in Bethlehem, and get turned down at all the 5 star, 4 star, ... no-star hotels, then after Christ's birth, those hotels turn on the advertising for pilgrims. One secret is that escaping to Egypt is really escaping to Canada.

Second Competition

I met several people while waiting for various competitions to start, including a couple of student graphic artists (I think they were from the Rhode Island School of Design, hi Ken!). Finally, at 9pm the second competition started. There were more horrible scratch films. But there were some really good story based films.

Home Road Movies was the sad tale of a British family switching from vacation travels by bus to their own transit (car), a Purgeot 404 station wagon (we had a black 404 imported from Italy in the late 1960s when I was a kid) which they used for family excursions across Europe. The kids saw all the sights and had a marvelous time. Over the years, more features were added (tents, TV, refrigerator) and they lived for their vacations. Over more years, the kids grew older, realised that 30 mph was kind of slow and camping wasn't that great. More years go by, the kids grow up and leave, while the ex-RAF dad putters around trying to get the car into shape, just in case there's a family excursion. The car rusts, the dad doesn't dare look at the engine and just paints rust spots. Eventually he takes the bus to the hospital and dies. But even though the car didn't move in the last 10 years, the taxes were paid and the license was registered.

A short but extremely funny one from Australia was How Democracy Actually Works. It shows a dump truck carrying the votes to a furnace, where they heat water in a boiler, which runs a turbine, which spins a generator, which powers a special power line that goes to the parliament buildings. In the building it runs a 40 watt bulb in the gent's loo, which has a small window looking outside. So if you go up to parliament in the evening and look up, you can see your votes at work. This one won a lot of humour awards.

Then I took the bus home. Yup, that's what one day is like. I'll skip the details on the rest and just write about the highlights of the highlights.


Timing Workshop

Friday morning, I went to the 9am Timing workshop, partly to make sure I had a place for the 11am workshop (it was already crowded, I got a spot on the floor). It was actually quite interesting. It's about timing animated actions to end on the musical beat, specified by the composer (before he writes the music) as happening every X frames. Later on, the composer can write the music without having to do unusual timing. There were lots of examples, mostly Bugs Bunny cartoons. This discipline was studio wide (one of the speaker's employees, who did many of the better Bugs Bunny scenes such as Wiley Coyote balancing upside down on his helmet with a wheel on a wire, told him tales of the golden age), but timing is now a lost art. Oddly enough, this may have helped with this week's show at the NAC where a live orchestra plays along with a dozen WB cartoons.

Writing for Animation Series Workshop

At 11am I was able to move from the comfy cool floor to a seat, the room got even more packed (chairs were shifted over tightly too), and the Writing for Animation Series panel started. The miniature Ellen Besen was there as the moderator, and we had three fairly famous animators (a side effect of doing a series): David Fine (Bob and Margaret), John Kricfalusi (Ren and Stimpy, odd kind of geeky looking red headed scrawny guy, leaning casually on the table, always looking sideways at the rest of the panel and rarely at the audience), and Mo Willems (Sheep in the Big City, a favorite silly cartoon of mine).

We found out how they worked (some write, some use storyboards, some use both, and in different orders). Kricfalusi wants writers that can draw. He acts out his scripts, many times, before writing them or storyboarding (and never draws the same expression twice). Fine writes (with his partner) what he imagines then gets the storyboards from that (he's happy that he can write "an aircraft crash happened" and that he doesn't have to animate it, plus he knows animators who would enjoy drawing that kind of a complex mess). Willems never puts in emotional cues, he won't say "the sheep is sad", instead he'll describe the expression on its face (makes it more likely that it will be correctly rendered by the animators). Dialog falls into place later, after the actions have been figured out. While talking about censorship, Mo mentioned that they had to leave off various bodily fluids and sex from Sheep, kind of plugging the holes. Kricfalusi of course said he was for open holes, lots of them. Wish I could remember the exact quote. John K. also strongly emphasized his worship of Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) and actors in other early sitcom shows (Jackie Gleason), saying that they could show a million times more with their expressions and acting than the supposedly subtle eyebrow lifting effects used in animation. He explained that some shows were gags, others were almost pure sitcoms, like the sad Stimpy's First Fart episode. Anyway, this went on for an enjoyable and much too short hour and a half.


Axel Demo

I went to a small demo given by Teresa Lang of the Axel 3D interactive plug-in and editor by Mind Avenue. It reminds me a lot of my fellow Carleton U student David Buck's elasto-lab. Pity they can't get together and use David's physics expertise to add fancier physical interactions (they already have inverse-kinematics).

Bill Plympton and Mutant Aliens

Speaking of grotesque, sex and violence appeal, Bill Plympton (currently working on Hair High) was there with a showing of his feature length film, Mutant Aliens. All drawn by himself, with a few helpers colouring it in his apartment in New York. Lots of what he's famous for, though it doesn't have the concentrated punch of his short film with a man picking his nose and turning his face inside out. But there are grotesque aliens, and a pregnant hamster. Still worth seeing. It got second prize in the feature film category.

John Kricfalusi Retrospective

Later on, at the evening's John K. retrospective (packed the theatre, I got in late due to chauffeur duties and had to go to the far corner of the topmost balcony), I heard Kricfalusi say that he based George Liquor, American on his father, and pointed him out in the audience. Though he did admit he'd probably get a few words back from his parents about that. They showed the controversial Ren and Stimpy episode staring George Liquor that got John K. fired, plus several Ranger Smith and Yogi episodes. Don't know how they got away with Boo Boo becoming a real bear and, umm, mating with Cindy bear, other than being commissioned by the Cartoon Network owners. But his stretching of the limits has made it easier for lots of others (South Park) to follow in his mushy gooey footsteps. But yes, Ren and Stimpy is more fun than Ranger Smith.


Meet Taku Furukawa

I went to a nice small workshop meeting on Sunday morning with Taku Furukawa (the Japanese animator), our host David Ehrlich (honorary president of the festival), a translator and a dozen fans. We got to ask questions, mine were about what life is like when working in Japan as an animator, from waking up to going to sleep. He also showed some of the art gallery installations he's working on (a nice animated cafe window in a real cafe, and Japanese room dividing screens playing animation based on a medieval story). He's also got commercial stuff, animating various vegetables vying to be chosen for pickling. He also does a lot of illustrations and manga drawings, passing around quite a few books and comics he's done. We finished by coaxing him to crack open one of the four DVDs he had brought of his work.


And of course, lots more competitions and many good cartoons.

Then when it was over, I had a day to recover and then it was back to being busy, with a trip on Tuesday to Dorval Island to help my aunt finish closing up the cottage (she had left behind a few things). It was an excellent fall day (sunny, crisp), with a pleasant drive there and back. After a few hundred e-mails, I've caught up enough to write this story, and now you know what it was like at the animation festival.

- Alex

Copyright © 2002 by Alexander G. M. Smith.