Still catching up on the backlog (I'm writing this on the long weekend of October 9th, and later on the 24th after a week stuck at work and now November 2nd!), I barely have enough time to write a medium length story (it was supposed to be short but kind of grew) about my five days at the Animation Festival, and a few following events including a play, a not-so-long lost brother and a newish computer.

Ottawa International Animation Festival


My experience with the festival this year got off to a good start at the pass desk - they actually had all the material ready, including a bag full of goodies (popcorn, pens and lots of postcards were the highlights). Even the festival programme was complete, down to screen shots of all the films in competition and an accurate schedule of showings. They went beyond mere competence and had the pre-movie slide show advertisements in the theatres changed to show information about the upcoming events - making deciding what to see next much easier and convenient.

Incidentally, the person at the pass distribution table recognized Artech, and even knew about our local Anime fan who's surprisingly famous in the Anime convention circuit, though pretty quiet at work.

Feature Competition

The evening's first show in the features competition (I doubt these links will work next year - pity since the pages are as good as the paper guide - they include good descriptions and film stills) was Raining Cats and Frogs / La Prophétie des Grenouilles, a nice kids film about a modern deluge (40 days of rain) that swept a French farm/zoo out to sea. Even though it was for kids, it had a hard edged dramatic tension that kept the adults interested; the carnivores were getting sick of French fried potatoes (the farmer had 28 tons of them in the floating barn) and wanted to eat meat. They knew it was bad, and most of them managed to hold back, but some were having trouble. A turtle rescued from crocodiles chasing it in the sea (floating in a life saver ring that we later notice is from the boat that the farmer's friends had been vacationing in), isn't as helpless as it seems, and causes more trouble and an extra half hour of plot. Worth seeing once.

Short Film Competition #1

Next up was the first competition. It opened with Fred Crippen's Improving Communications about a professor teaching about all the many uses of the word fuck. The audience enjoyed it. Later on in the Fred Crippen retrospective or more likely in the meet-the-master session, we found out that it had been many years in the making, sitting on the back burner in various stages (script, sound recorded), finally getting nudged into production as a festival entry.

Also in the competition was the Pioneer 'Headbangers' advertisement on how high-powered car speakers can help knock your head off. Later on I met its animator Michael Overbeck at the morning meet-the-filmmakers session and had a chat about how he makes a living doing animation.

Of note is Lorenzo from Michael Gabriel of Walt Disney Animation. This one knocked my socks off with it's new style of animation (apparently inspired by the Tango). Sure, it included some classical Disney character shapes for the animated cats, but they were rendered in an amazing combination of 3D, 2D and other styles in a story that would never have been told by the old Disney. I liked the simple shapes and colour glow used for the street lights in fog. Visually it was quite astounding. Makes you exclaim "This is a Disney film? Wow!"

The funniest of the night was The Crab's Revolution / La Revolution des Crabes about a species of ugly crab that can only walk sideways, and can't change direction. Some are born lucky and can walk across the ocean bottom before hitting an obstacle. Others have a straight line path that's bounded by two nearby rocks. Simple black and white animation, the dialog and characterisation are the thing. Worth seeing three times. You can download a French Quicktime movie version from

Grasshopper was an interesting use of 3D contour following to give a wide assortment of different appearances to an old man talking wisely (extra wide floppy jowls for example). Nice to see how the idea of having self-aware lines trying to follow edges of a movie has been enhanced to polygons with a bit of 3D. If you don't understand the underlying algorithm, then it will be even more fascinating.

Finally, if you liked the Blackfly film from the NFB, there's a sequel of sorts, Nibbles about a fishing trip. Except that most of the food is road side fast food, not the catch of the weekend fishing expedition.

Harvey Birdman

I stuck around (after a night-time dash along the back streets from the Bytowne theatre to the hot Arts Court theatre) for the 11pm Birdman late showing of some Harvey Birdman cartoons. I've never seen them before, other than the recycled Hanna Barbera characters which appear in them. It's a nice campy script / limited action animation set of short cartoons about a super hero lawyer who defends other super heroes. Stories ranged from the Indian chief who could grow very big - but got scalded by some hot coffee, to Shaggy from Scooby Doo getting arrested for drug possession. Lots of fun, each is worth seeing twice.


International Film Showcase #1

The morning started off with the International Film Showcase #1. All of the films were watchable, but my favorite was Karl and Marilyn / Karl Ja Marilyn by Priit Pärn of Estonia (I liked it for its sillyness and fun, even though Chris Robertson (the festival artistic director) is known for being biased towards Estonian works - as you could tell from his announcement of the preponderously Estonian winners at the opening speeches). M&K is about a film star famous "Karl Marx" and his attempt to run away from fame by cutting off his beard. His murder of the barber gets discovered in a fish lover / photographer's shots of a fish tank, which happened to show the barber shop across the street. The film ends with a chase down the sewers, where Karl sees Marylin's bottom from below (not too hard since she's standing on the sewer grate, raising her skirts for at least a month, with a large crowd of onlookers, though she eventually gets tired). I said it was silly, not that it made sense!

Fred Crippen retrospective

Next up was the Fred Crippen retrospective. Now I know what Roger Ramjet looks like! And those famous cheap lumber ads. Surprisingly, Buster Keaton turned up in one of his 1950s advertisements for Mars chocolate bars, with Buster trying to set up an animated billboard sign. Crippen's most significant one (according to him) is The Edifice (part of a series by Saul Bass) which shows a pillar of rooms/boxes with history happening in them - starting out with a cave man at the bottom. There's a nice comment by Amid Amidi about how he put together the retrospective at Cartoon Brew Archives - August 10 2004.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Then in the early evening was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, part of the the Hayao Miyazaki retrospective. I'm thankful for the retrospective, since it lets me fill in the gaps of the Miyazaki films I haven't seen. I'd last seen Nausicaä on low quality video tape, in Japanese, with a fan created translation on paper, so this time it was almost like seeing a new film. Wonderful flying sequences and a nicely imagined world, with the caring for the environment versus short term greedy thinking point to make. Worth seeing twice, or more if you're inclined that way (some people think it's his most important film, though I favour Spirited Away).

Short Film Competition #2

Finally, in the late evening was the second competition. Upon hearing the dreaded "Category D, Non-Narrative Film" I gritted my teeth and was pleasantly surprised by Bathtime in Clerkenwell which, rather than abstract scratchings to music, had recognizable characters (cuckoo birds) trying to take over a person's apartment (or perhaps trying to get him to take a bath). The inhabitant started by throwing the stream of birds into the bookcase, where they'd stick in beak first. The bird captain (you can tell by its hat) kept on coming up with new tactics to defeat the man, eventually succeeding and taking over part of London. A crisp visual style well done in time to music with a good beat by (The Real) Tuesday Weld (don't tell anyone, but it also has a story and characterisation).

The Phantom Inventor / L'Inventaire Fantôme got my attention for it's visual appearance, using 3D to get a complexly textured world. Again, good use of dirt and dust makes it real and look like the 1880s. Though I wonder if it should be titled The Phantom Inventory, since it involves a French reposession man coming to collect on debts owed, and all he can find in his inventory of the place are the memories nobody wants (which is what the inhabitant of the place collects). Spooky.

Saddam and Osama was a tremendously funny and politically incorrect. It posits a TV show on the Abu Dhabi Network for Kids based on Saddam and Osama being super heroes, able to change shape magically. When chased by the American army (their political leaders are shown in a parody of bias to be Jew-loving homosexuals and worse), Saddam changes into a goat and Osama mistakenly changes into a bag of pork rinds - something that's attractive to the army instead of being repulsive. They get out of there by Saddam changing into the Dukes of Hazard TV show car and driving off with the pork rinds. Amusingly, the advertisements between segments of the show are good too - kids: collect our rocks with the pretty fluorescent decals, good for throwing at tanks! There's also the Batman show, where the video is normal but the audio hype describes the Joker as "the jew", Riddler as "another jew" and Penguin as "the old jew". They also had Snow White being narrated by the former public relations guy for the Saddam Hussein regime, with a completely insane spin that didn't correspond to the video, much like his real life story spinning. Watch S&O now while the world is in political turmoil, it's sure to be censored in the future much like other cartoons (like those Bugs Bunny episodes on Negros and war time ones on Nazis) which are now considered inappropriate.


Meet the Filmmakers

At 9am I went to the Meet the Filmmakers gathering in the lobby of the Arts Court theatre. It was a nice small intimate gathering of about 8 of us, including Chris Robinson as the occasional moderator, and another animation fan / school teacher eagerly talking the ear off anyone nearby.

I got to talk with Michael Overbeck (picnic photo at - he's the one closest to the camera) who is starting a career as a commercial animator. I found out that he was work via an agency of some sort, where he gets offers and then bids on them. I'd seen his Pioneer 'Headbangers' advertisement for car audio (really loud speakers leading to decapitation in one version of the commercial). He also had a Chicklets 'Kung Fu' commercial in a later competition. It seems to be enough to live on, while having fun. Later on he spotted me in the audience at the opera hall, guess my animation festival hair style stood out enough to be recognizable :-).

Also there were Stephen Subotnick of Glass Crow, inspired by the Defenestration of Prague, but more about crows eating the free food (corpses) left behind in the following battles. Lots of crow sounds, forest textures, abstraction. He'd been mulling the idea over after reading that bit of history and just had to get it down on paper. He's like his film, a bit too sophisticated for me to appreciate (need I mention that Jules Engel and experimental animation are in his background?).

Joris Clerte and his musician associate Philippe Briday of Prudence 'À Tort ou À Raison' were there and kept up a good discussion even though English isn't their native language (so we switched to French occasionally). They had a short discussion of their technique, which as I understand it involves an overhead digital camera (3 megapixels?) to capture the imagery. Most of it is stop motion and some is actually done live (I forget if the bug on the tablecloth was live or not). The images are then cropped and panned using ordinary software.

Finally, Steve Dovas (wearing a Pratt Institute tag) was there to inject a few hard-headed comments. Oddly enough, last year he had reviewed Subotnick's book about animation process and production, after meeting him at an earlier animation festival.

What is Machinima

Then at 11 was the What is Machinima lecture. This newish genre uses 3D games to make animation. Originally it was live performances in a game, recorded to video. Later on scripted actions and customised graphics (props, characters, world) have made it into something different.

We saw Anna, an example of the extreme mutation of the game into a different world. They'd even gone so far to hack the OpenGL graphics buffers to add different kinds of fog, and make a nice looking world, where a flower survives. We also saw a related tool they'd been working on for making it easier to make Machinima.

On the other end of the spectrum is Friedrich Kirschner's $50 budget production The Journey which looks weirdly like a National Film Board pencil drawn animated film. Friedrich is a young film student from Germany, whom I had a chance to talk with at the next morning's meet the filmmakers gathering. He explained that the look was because he couldn't draw, or make 3D models well. Instead, he made a simple box person then used three alternating pencil scribble textures to give it the look of hand drawn animation. He also did the same for the ground textures and other objects, making them look like someone had spent hours drawing on paper. He used scripting in Unreal Tournament 2004 to generate streams of people walking up a valley. For the story, one person breaks away from the stream of drones, goes past the advertising billboards and finds a more colourful land outside. Somewhat annoying arhythmic cello playing served as the background music.

New Media Competition

After a pause, the New Media Competition fittingly continued the modern media theme. Nothing super interesting, except that there were surprisingly many political commentaries. I guess the style and budget and easy underground distribution of the form makes it fitting. This Land was the best of the lot, and unusually unbiased.

P3K: Pinocchio 3000

The feature film of the evening was Pinocchio 3000 or P3K, this time shown in Southam Hall at the NAC (national arts center), a rather large opera hall that can seat a couple of thousand of people (the NAC had removed the projection equipment from the smaller Theatre hall). P3K is Canadian made, wonderfully rendered and has a decent story line for kids, with good characters. There's the one thing it's low on - a few nudges and winks for an adult audience to enjoy. I'd say see it once for the look.

Short Film Competition #3

Then Competition #3 finished off the evening. It started with Ryan, a quite justifiably hyped by word of mouth film. Take the damaged junkyard robot from AI which only has a fragment of hair on a stick with the rest of its head missing, and extend that into a whole representation of a character, rendered in 3D. Except that this character is a real person, former NFB animator Ryan Larkin, who's fallen onto hard times due to addiction. Other characters in the film have their damaged state shown in other astonishing disfigurements, all different. Ryan himself was there to receive a round of applause. The story is done through an interview with Ryan and is quite touching. Worth seeing two or three times, both for the amazing disfigurements and the story.

Other notable films include: Creature Comforts which is yet another fine Aardman plasticine production of interviews of animals, great for the characterisation and voices. Fast Film was an interesting use of old film images to tell a new story - animated paper characters from some films running through sets of other films in a kind of high speed chase meta-story. Harvie Krumpet was a good biography character story. How to Cope with Death was funny the first time at the student festival, but not as much this time.


Apple's Motion

After catching the tail end of the meet the filmmakers meeting (a much larger group of over 20 people this time), I went to see the Apple Computer demo of Motion. It is a nice real-time video editing and compositing suite, mostly suitable for making titles and other spiffy effects, the ideal example being a TV news show with all the graphics elements done by Motion. And when they say real time, they mean it - the video keeps on running as you add layers, warping effects, tints, more animated elements and of course text. That makes it easy to tweak the effects and see the results immediately. However, it wasn't the 3D motion animation system I was expecting. Sometimes verbosity in naming things is good.

Scoring for Animation

Next up was the Scoring for Animation workshop. A trio of working musicians told their stories on a moderated panel. The less interesting side of their jobs included creating music which sounds like famous music, but isn't, to avoid the hassle of figuring out and paying licensing fees. The more fun part was working with artists, particularly if they get involved early in the process rather than doing it in post production (which can lead to unpleasant surprises).

Short Film Competition #5

Competition #5 wasn't as enjoyable as the others, until we got to Frank and Wendy 'Hungerburger' about a plot to take over the world with hamburgers, countered by some intrepid secret agents (part of a larger TV show called Frank and Wendy). The whole thing was quite silly and fun, and yes, it's from Estonia. Maybe Chris Robinson is on to something with his Estonian bias, though I usually hate the films he likes (non-narrative is deadly to me), perhaps there are two animators in Estonia, one making art and the other funny films? I wouldn't mind seeing Hungerburger again, or tracking down other episodes from the show.

Meet Fred Crippen

After that was a Meet the Master talk with Fred Crippen, fleshing out the story behind the retrospective. He gave us a good summary of his early days in the late 1950s, leading from graphic design to a job with United Artists. After a UPA executive didn't show up for a meeting with a visiting beer company executive, Fred talked to him and got the job - leaving UPA and setting up his own studio (UPA was also obviously failing at the time). Later Crippen complained that people working for him left under similar circumstances, taking his jobs! Maybe he should think of it as an education system, spreading the art (that sometimes happens at my workplace too).

Another comparison with Fred Crippen and my workplace is the Roger Ramjet series. He had pre-recorded the dialog and sound effects on 45 RPM records, which the animators then worked from. This had the advantage of preventing the clients from making changes. I can see the cost of too many changes every day at work while making computer games. That denial of changes along with a rushed production process (sometimes leading to visible mistakes) made the series profitable and prolific too (156 episodes). His comments also helped me understand the way work works a bit better too!

Hair High

Hair High was the highlight of the evening. It's Bill Plympton's latest feature film; meaning it runs for over an hour, is drawn by Bill with a few assistants in New York, and has his trademark body part grossness along with a good story. Besides fitting coughed out lungs and digestive tract into the story (the hero was paying attention in biology class and was able to stuff them back in the right order into the teacher), he does tell a good love story (new boy at school inadvertently makes an enemy of the school bully, falls for the bully's girlfriend, etc). Along the way there are some wild scenes, the best being when one of the bully's henchman is given a bottle of aphrodisiac to help with his girlfriend, but guzzles all of it down when it doesn't work. An hour later when it becomes effective, he's wearing the giant chicken costume at the big football game with the rival school... That's got to be one of the funnier, ummm, action scenes in animation! Worth seeing again once or twice or more.

Short Film Competition #6

The sixth competition followed. The brutal Son of Satan was first, and made a strong impression on the audience just like it did last year at the student festival. Horribly evil, but well written.

It was followed by one of my favorite advertisements, Caisse d'epargne 'Les Triples' about a deer father-to-be (well done computer graphics) in a hospital at the birth of his triplets, pointing out that the bank doing the advertisement can adapt to changes in your life.

Another fun element were the series of The Three Amigos advertisements about AIDS prevention. Well characterised condoms!


Deconstructing Spirited Away

Sunday morning started with the eagerly awaited former Sheridan teacher's exploration titled "Inner Worlds - Outer Worlds : Ellen Besen on Miyazaki's Spirited Away". My favourite story analyst and my favorite Miyazaki film! I even arrived early to make sure I got a seat - so early that the access control person hadn't started giving out numbered tickets yet. Oddly enough there were a few seats left, unlike previous years, but then we were in the larger Arts Court Theatre this time.

We (the audience was quite involved in observing and commenting) started at the beginning, noticing the obvious things that define the characters' personalities and the situation. The change from the pragmatic world to the spirit one. A comparison with Alice in Wonderland. An alternative explanation that never occurred to me was that the spirit world is just the dreams of a little girl, or perhaps her insanity. Then there were subtle (to me) observations, such as the selection of camera viewpoints to give a cramped confined feeling, which lasts until the spirit world is entered. At that point the camera and characters come out of a tunnel and see a wide open field, of course tunnel double meanings were brought up by the audience.

Someone pointed out that the wind was blowing through the tunnel, giving a sense of flow to the movement, urging on the characters, pulling them in. I even noticed that the clouds were moving in the correct direction once they'd left the tunnel. But oddly enough (well, not so oddly if you consider the cost of drawing wind) there was no wind until the stream crossing, where the gluttonous father first smelt the food cooking in the spirit world restaurants. I noticed the possible significance of the stream being a boundary separating the real world and the spirit world, as well as separating their smells. I'm reassured that Miyazaki doesn't think of everything - the wind direction was wrong for being able to scent the food.

Even the graphics had good composition. The film happened to stop at a frame where the road into the town (just after the bridge) split the scene pleasantly, with a house and telephone pole on the right and an equaly balanced set of buildings on the left. Remove the pole and it wouldn't look quite as good. Accident of timing or consistently good scene layout? Mu hunch is that Miyazaki or whomever did the storyboard is experienced enough to always draw nice looking scenes, often hitting those composition rules that art commentators think exist and love to talk about.

And then it was over, an hour and a bit had passed much too quickly.

Porco Rosso

Miyazaki's Porco Rosso continued the pleasure in the afternoon. I'd never seen it before, and I think this may be one of the first showings of a recently dubbed English version by Disney (done quite well too). This film leaves one with a feeling of the wonder of flying in small 1930s airplanes over the Mediterranean sea. It has an enjoyable story (though the plot isn't as pointed as later films), of a pig-man (due to a curse) flying bounty hunter missions against air pirates, at the end of the romantic era of individual honour. One thread is the lost love of the hotel owner favored by many of the fliers. Another is the story of a young woman aircraft engineer proving her abilities, and indirectly guiding the story to a big aerial duel finale. Worth adding to my Miyazaki collection.

Sounds Like a Blast

A workshop on recording techniques was up next. Besides the usual point of having the sound involved early in the cartoon making process for better results, there was a nice demo of doing foley sound to add walking in gravel noises to a cartoon. Much time was spent talking about how to set up a low budget sound studio for animation - cutting background noise is the main theme. I also found out the difference between dynamic microphones (a magnet and coil track the vibrations) and condenser / diaphragm / capacitor mics (a mylar foil vibrates in front of a similarly sized electrode and changes the electrical capacitance between the two). Since the mylar is a lot lighter than the magnetic coil or magnet, it can respond to vibrations more accurately and at higher frequencies. Expect to pay $400 for a half decent microphone, real pros have several, with different frequency response qualities and pickup directional patterns.

At the workshop, Tamu Townsend, sponsorship promoter of the Concept Science Fiction convention in Montreal, noticed me reading an Analog Science Fiction magazine. After the workshop we had a nice half hour long chat about science fiction and conventions, with some urging for me to come to the Concept convention in Montreal. She even recognized authors like Charles Stross, my current favorite post-cyberpunk, post-singularity author. Unfortunately for her convention, I'd rather read the books than talk about them. On the other hand, an animation festival lets you see things you wouldn't otherwise be able to see, even if you ignore the workshops, panels, trade show and partying side of things. However, they have events (games and other social activities) that animation festivals don't have, see for more - their next convention is November 13 & 14 2004.

Awards Ceremony

All that remained was the evening awards ceremony. It was a humourous presentation in parts (the giant can of tomatoes and crude but funny giant zucchini post-presentation, ummmm, presentation). This year I agreed with most of the award choices, as you can see from the favourites I've already mentioned. The big exception was La Piccola Russia which didn't seem narrative to me. My two regrets are not seeing an episode of My Life as a Teenage Robot (I wasn't able to see the Children's competition due to conflicts with way too many other interesting things to see and do), and I missed John K's grossest films collection.

All in all, another excellent season. And the next one will be next year!

Other Distractions

There were so many other distractions in the days and weeks following the festival that I wasn't able to finish writing this until November!

Better Living

It started on Thursday September 30th, where I went to the Great Canadian Theatre Company, to act as a talent scout for one of the guys at work, and observed Krista Morin as Gail in "Better Living". Here's my report:

Her performance was pretty good, but not quite as good as the other actresses. Costume wise, she looks the part of a generation X teenager (hot chick, matching her cool punk boyfriend). She seems to be doing all the right things, but the end result comes out a bit strident. Speaking too loud at some points in a sentence breaks the illusion of her character. Gestures are sometimes just too energetic. Reminds me of a Fringe Festival performance, but a very good one.

Mary Ellis as the lawyer was second most unrealistic, though she mellowed and became believable in the second act. Everyone else was fine, even Tom Butler's loud voice fit his ex-cop character. Paul Rainville was excellent as the drunken priest/uncle. Nancy Beatty's seemingly weak and wispy speaking and flighty behaviour made sense when I realised she was insane. The set was impressively well decorated - lots of detail in the kitchen and a hint of the back yard and outdoors so you could see characters entering the house or waiting outside. Music quality was very good, guess they have good speakers and a good sound guy. His help wasn't needed for voice; the actors did their part too - all were quite audible.

But best of all was the writing by George F. Walker. A nice complex silly farce (things carried to the extreme), with a serious undertone. Lots of funny stuff happens (like dynamiting the basement), and the character interaction is good. I'd be happy to see it again.

Yet More Distractions

One weekend was taken up with a new computer (actually a used Pentium III/450 Mhz desktop to replace my mom's old laptop).

Another was consumed when my brother dropped in for a weekend visit from Toronto, while doing a Quiz Bowl competition at Ottawa U.

Work got kind of busy for several more weekends, trying to get the animal trivia DVD game out for Christmas.

It didn't help that Trainz came out with a new service pack, making me waste even more time playing railroad games.

But finally, this very final sentence got written!

- Alex

Copyright © 2004 by Alexander G. M. Smith.