Ottawa International Animation Festival

It's been a busy five days, watching animated films pretty much continuously at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Perhaps due to the move to a festival once a year rather than every two years, the overall quality didn't seem as good as last year. But then last year they had the Hayao Miyazaki retrospective (nice to see that they have archived last year's web site) and other wondrous films.


This year was more notable for talking to people. After the Thursday morning meet-the-filmmakers meeting I chatted with Christopher Magoo/Magee? (an artist, guitarist and teacher with a Hawaiian background, though now teaching somewhere in grayest America, like Milwaukee or Philadelphia) and Andy London (half of the creation team and butt of the sadly funny personal story The Back Brace). I continued on with them to see the next competition, and occasionally met them at other showings, with time to exchange notes about our backgrounds before shows started.

Late Thursday night I had a good chat with a dreadlocked fellow (unfortunately didn't get his name) just starting at the Rhode Island school, while waiting for the 11pm Avoid Eye Contact showing. I ran into him at various other showings, though without much opportunity to talk. Hope he does well in the animation world!

I encountered Neil Lapointe in the Canadian showcase on Sunday, he's got some Artech connections. We chatted about the state of the game industry while waiting for the show to start.

The overclocked Lev Polyakov was at my table for the character workshop on Sunday; we talked mostly about Sega 32X development and other games. At the awards ceremony Lev won the high school student award for Piper the Goat and the Peace Pipe. Lev ran to the far side of the auditorium and climbed up onto the stage, I was surprised that he didn't continue by climbing up the wings! Instead he ran back across the stage and hugged the jurist handing out the awards, and Chris Robinson. He then gasped out an energetically emotional speech thanking his family and others, which won't be forgotten for a while.

Memorable Memories

A few notes so that I can refresh my memory next year, which may be of interest to everyone else since they were obviously memorable :-)


The festival started with the first entry in the feature film competition, Frank and Wendy. I'd greatly enjoyed last year's episode called Hungerburger, about radio transmitter hamburgers that encouraged people to eat. However, the movie was just a collection of episodes with a bit of weak glue between them. It was nice to see what the other episodes were like, but the whole didn't work.

After that was the first competition showing. Here I saw the funny The Back Brace; I met the maker later. The abstract The Curse of the Voodoo Child also came up in the following morning's meet the filmmakers talk, my main comment was how the artist hadn't represented the bass track of Hendrix's song. I also couldn't figure out the pattern in the scratches - turns out he was using sandpaper. This contrasted with cNote by Chris Hinton (also at the meeting), which had a nicely rendered abstractness (lines with character) from a commercial animator trying his hand at abstraction. The Comedy Central promotional shorts were all good (Stumpy is my favourite). Fish Heads Fugue and Other Tales for Twilight was notable for looking interesting but didn't make much sense as a story (nobody did the story, and it was also finished in a rush as a student project) - as I found when Lauren Indovina and Lindsey Mayer-Beug explained the next morning that they'd done a collaboration (and pulled it off quite successfully too), with Lindsey doing the characters and Lauren the sets. Milch won a prize, though I liked it mostly for the clarity of the sound track and completeness of the different environmental sounds. On a second viewing I figured out that it was a story was about adultery between the milk delivery girl and the kid's father - makes more sense now. Finally, the last film was good (quite often true of other competition shows), The Moon and the Son by John Canemaker - the story of his angry Italian small time criminal father with good characterisation and quality animation. Sometimes the best stories come from reality.


The morning started out with the Meet the Filmmakers meeting in the depths of the old court house in a small brick vaulted room with a table and space for about 30 people. Each of the animators talked about their film in turn, moderated by Chris Robinson. Then we had a general discussion, slightly dominated by the old hands talking about abstract films.

Next up was the International Showcase. The odd Moonraker showed up again (spaceman already on Mars destroying Mars rovers while submitting reports back to NASA's basement). Learn Self Defense by Chris Harding was last and funniest - an old style instructional film, but with a silly warp to its subject.

Then came the Student Film Showcase. 529 by Maarten de With and Neik Castricum (not to be confused with room 710) was quite humourous as a bored worker tried to take his life in various ways (from reading the cigarette pack warning to shooting himself in the head). The chicken clock and accompanying sound stands out as being really annoying. Plan B by Michel Lefevre was quite amusing - classically well drawn and with a nifty time travel paradox story. Cytoplasms in Acidic Medium was also quite amusing - what do you do when you're a bored student in a lecture? Besides picking your nose, you can stretch your Plasticine flesh, leading to the punch-scene of the bored class filing out, all disfigured in some way (flattened half head for one guy who fell asleep, big stretched ears on another and many other fun grotesqueries).

Next up was the DIY Canadian unsung independents. Lots of shorts from a few decades ago. I noticed red pastel drawings of horses and women combining, Gail Noonan's The Menopause Song and other films expressing the annoying parts of woman's life, and quite a few other very obscure films, some justly so. Still, it's interesting to see what people were doing back then.

Then came Empress Chung from Korea. Quite Disney-like but with a cultural twist - the heroine was shown working ridiculously hard (by Western standards) to earn the rice to get her father's sight back via a donation to a Buddhist temple. It had a nice sea adventure too. Though the cartoon sidekicks stuck out way more than Disney ones, with a simple drawing style that clashed with the rest of the picture. The story seemed a bit odd, but then maybe that's due to missing scenes, according to some of the other people in the audience. So good kiddie fare, but not as satisfying as the better Disney films like Beauty and the Beast.

The second competition then started. Some decent stuff like The Life and Death of Peter Sellers Title Sequence, Lemony Snicket 'Littlest Elf', Ikea. The award winning Icthys did a really good job of expressing the passing of a long time (years?) with nothing happening, though I didn't like the flaky plastic material used in the puppet's skin. Look for Christian symbols when watching it - that adds to its meaning. Finally, Drew Carey's Green Screen Show 'Episode 104' was the most fun of the bunch to watch. He and his team of comedians do stand up comedy in front of a green screen, with animation added later (like a knife blade as one guy cuts himself up, or cosy fur coats for the Alaska scene). Absolutely hilarious.

At 11 that night Avoid Eye Contact Volume 2 was shown at Chez-ani, the informal nightclub set up in the Saw Gallery. I got a seat by moving quickly from the Bytowne to Chez-ani, with time to get a bottle of water from the bar. The place filled up to capacity soon after. While waiting, I talked to the dreadlocked student from Rhode Island a bit about his indefinite future and a bit about the games side of animation. The show itself was a DVD made by a collection of New York artists to show their work. That was my Bill Plympton fix for the event (oldie but goodie of two men alternating cartoon violence), with works by lots of other familiar artists.

The College of the Canyons teacher Sheila Sofian wanted us to stick around afterwards, and it was raining, so I stayed to see their demo reel at 1am. It was a collection of really short works by animation 101 students (many of whom were present - nice to see them at the festival). Rough as you'd expect, with an emphasis on pencil drawings (the best starting point). I was most impressed by the Anime inspired one of the sister being bored in the jet fighter flight then taking care of the trailing attackers and going back to being bored - good drawing and a whole story got done. That might have been Skyship by Allan Jones, but I can't tell since the orange programme sheet doesn't show the drawings and I didn't remember the title at the time. Got home at 2:30 after a pleasant walk in the warm rainy night, then slept in and missed Friday morning, and went shopping in the afternoon rather than going to the picnic (picked up another Charles Stross book - Iron Sunrise).


Friday started late at 5pm with the Internet competition (the static half of the new media competition). It was well attended, I came only slightly early and had to sit away from the main viewing area, watching the TV over the Chez-ani bar along with a couple of dozen other overflow crowd people. Some people liked The Chase which is a nice Flash animation of the usual unscrupulous people chasing a teenager who intercepted a secret. Others liked the caged bear dreaming of alternatives (his ghost image takes the alternative routes to freedom). But in my option, and the crowd's too, S.P.I.F.: A Stupid Public Information Film was hilarious as was The Happy Tree Friends: Out on a Limb. One was a 1950's style instructional film on masturbation, while the other was cartoon violence taken to gory gratuitous extremes. I'm sure parents won't let children watch either one, though they'd naturally understand and enjoy the violent parts.

Next up was a showing of The District feature film, in my opinion (and later the jury's) the best of the lot. A nice gritty slice of corrupt cops, drugs and violence from the life of the poor in Budapest. The Romeo and Juliet foreshadowing (by the English teacher) of the doomed lives of the hero and his girlfriend twisted a bit of dramatic tension into the story of survival in a rough neighbourhood. Besides the unexpected time travel aspect, the ending makes the observation that wealth can make people more tolerant, while poverty makes them fight. Several philosophical and political points combined with interesting believable characters in a well detailed horrible cultural context make this a good film.

Then on to competition 3. Piper the Goat and the Peace Pipe was here - it starts with a seemingly childish story of a goat abducted by a UFO. Inside, after probes and a few good graphic ideas (for example the goat version of Leonardo Da-vinci's man in a circle), the goat pacifies a fanged rocking chair with a peace pipe, then goes on to another childish gag of the UFO's no-smoking monster. It then blasts into an unexpected surreal dream level that makes it worth watching and raises it above animation 101. The pithy poetry of At the Quinte Hotel was quintessentially Canadian - partly due to the excellent choice of voice actor. For some reason Chestnuts Icelolly appeared again, maybe I recall it from the student festival, and maybe the festival director has a soft spot for JJ Villard's mean spirited evil people stories. Phoenix Foundation 'Hitchcock' was a joy to watch - the choreography of the cars flying through space, burning rubber in formation and doing all sorts of acrobatics wowed the crowd, and me. Fallen Art is a well implemented simple gag - making animation by splatting soldiers onto the ground. Overtime was a strange muppet reverse where the puppets slowly realise that their master is dead, and then manipulate him into his final rest. It makes more sense if you think of it as a homage to Jim Henson, the prematurely late man behind Kermit the Frog. Finally, with lots of gusto and fun, was the Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law episode Birdgirl of Guantanamole. Why do they put the best ones at the end?


Saturday morning started off with the panel discussion about Setting Up a Production Pipeline, in the NAC 4th stage (lots of little tables in a large low black ceilinged room with a small stage in the middle). Eric Flaherty from Nelvana described their production system and their desire to stop shipping paper around (they were one of FedEx's biggest customers for a while) and move to electronic data exchange. Their traditional animation process has several well known stages, each of which has its own automation tricks. Script - Final Draft for editing, PDF file transfer. Storyboards - still on paper, but hoping to use the Wacom Cintiq combo LCD and tablet device and some new software coming soon from Toonboom. Breakdown - Final Cut animatic of drawings. 2D production - Flash and now Toonboom Harmony+Opus, Cintiq for drawing, Linux on the desktop, proprietary project management glue scripts in PERL. 3D production - Maya, Mental Ray, Combustion, PERL scripts. The asset management is a big task, they use Apache web servers, PERL scripting, Postgress database (tracks production state, inserts component artwork, search engine), Java and Javascript, Linux file servers, and open source tools like ImageMagick and ffmpeg and Open Quicktime to convert and process images. Someone suggested using Alien Brain, but that ends up being proprietary after being customised so much, so you might as well do it yourself with PERL etc. Post production - Final Cut Pro, Pro Tools audio, Combustion and After Effects, Photoshop, Digital Rapids MPEG compression hardware, Sony Vegas for making DVDs. VPN lets contractors connect to the Nelvana network to work remotely. Nifty trick: use the web server to dynamically generate MEL scripts for Maya to load - thus letting the database control various things in your Maya scene.

David Healing from Framestore NY then talked about his production setup, used for commercials (furry SUVs as buffaloes) and movie special effects (Harry Potter monsters). Mostly Maya. With lots of online collaboration between their UK studio and New York studio. Secret trick - photograph a white and a silver ball to get a lighting reference when combining 3D with a real scene.

The festival host had quite a few comments from his small independent point of view. Again, open source and off the shelf commercial software featured in the global pipeline. Sometimes you give a client a laptop preconfigured so that they can connect and view your work in progress for commentary - helps make conference calls smoother, a web cam helps too. He was big on ZBrush for quickly creating realistic 3D models using something close to sculpting. Apparently works well even on older PCs. Just about every step from concept art to final involved ZBrush. Of course, Motion Builder (filmbox motion data is now an open source format), Toonboom, Maya, Renderman are also part of his pipeline. Open source software includes Liquid to convert Maya data to Renderman, which then is rendered by Renderman, Delight, Aqsis or Pixie. Changing shaders lets you get many different "looks" out of the same render data. Alfred, Doctor Queue and Render Rabbit were suggested as Renderman job dispatchers. He found that remote render farms were difficult to use, better to buy a bunch of cheap servers (he likes Briqpaq servers from Clusterworks, or Macintosh Minis running Gentoo Linux in parallel with MacOS).

After the workshop came the Kids Competition, headed by the excellent Moongirl. It's the story of a girl who accidentally gets to the moon while fishing at night. There she meets the current moon girl, has a fight with the evil moon spirits breaking through the paper thin moon surface, then takes over the moon girl job, relighting it with her jar of fireflies. Oddly enough, I recognise Laika as the same studio that got a credit on Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, and apparently it is the new name for Will Vinton studios. Even though it looks a lot like stop motion, it's computer graphics. Chambala is notable as having the most beavers. My Life as a Teenage Robot 'Killgore', Codename: Kids Next Door 'Operation: A.R.CH.I.V.E.' and The Secret Show 'Lucky Leo' were all quite enjoyable TV episodes each flowing out of a single story concept (cute small robot wants to be a killer but isn't taken seriously, adults were made by children, lucky criminal is too lucky to be caught) and fleshed out by the series characters and environment. Nice to see such quality in the mainstream. However, Gopher Broke was the funniest, simply the concept of a gopher trying to get food from passing farm trucks and being foiled in various ways. Most notable shot: a marvelous slow motion view of the cow dropping through the air, butt first, towards the gopher.

Next up was In the Pink, a retrospective of the Pink Panther theatrical shorts. It was interesting seeing them again in film form (though we didn't see the original credits), but somehow they don't seem to have passed the test of time. The stories and drawings are sadly just too simple by today's standards.

Mid-afternoon was filled with competition 4. Here we saw a left over from 2004 political film entry by, about what would happen if members of the Bush administration had to go and fight in Iraq themselves. Just not as much political activity as there was in last year's USA election year. The most memorable ones seem to be the longest ones, in particular The Corridor. It was about an unemployed man watching a corridor hard enough until he can see the unseen, which seems to be some spirits of Easter Island trying to escape from their binding statues in the art shop at the end of the corridor.

The evening opened with a retrospective of Peewee's Playhouse, hosted by show designer and independent painter Gary Punter. I'd never seen it before so it was quite fresh and wild. They made good use of early chromakeying to superimpose live action and animation, trying all sorts of stunts with the technology. There was lots of Plasticine animation, from Penny's tales though to the weird sliced Plasticine loaf animation. Of course, the set design was over the top. In the Q&A we heard about the rushed production and small stage, Paul Reuben's two scandals (we guessed the third would be cannibalism), noticed the burnout near the end, and talked about the show's evolution from stage to TV.

The evening was topped off by competition 5. Honda 'GRRR' was a notable advertisement, with annoying diesel engines flying around the country and city - then contrasted with their new quiet diesel engine flying smoothly. Tower BAWHER was yet another abstract art with music film. It was my least disliked one since it did have the graphics actually linked most strongly to the catchy energetic old Russian propaganda music. Could make a good music visualiser plug-in, unlike most of the others which could only be used as screen savers. The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello set up a good story (sacrificing sailor's lives to keep a monster alive that could be used to cure plague) in an interesting alternate Victorian style universe of flying machines and cloud life. As usual, lots of annoyingly silly rotating machinery; I assume that's because it is easy to model in 3D.


Met the filmmakers in the morning - fewer than usual since there had been lots of partying on Saturday night, and many also had to fly home on Sunday.

The Kid's Showcase was pretty good overall. Standing out were Journey To Mars which shows how a childhood dream of being an astronaut is encouraged by a grandfather with a "magic" tow truck going on a visit to some badlands, then fades with age, but surprisingly comes back during a real Mars landing. Pinata was a fun character study of a live Pinata trying to avoid being hit - almost like a Pixar short, but done by a guy in Australia. And of course, Sponge Bob 'Fear of a Krabby Patty' was as good as ever.

Competition 6 happened in late morning. The best was Surly Squirrel, a classic cartoon caper with animals mixing in with cops and robbers in a big chase scene. Even better than Gopher Broke, due to the longer story. I also noticed The Muffs 'Don't Pick on Me' music video, partly because I kept on spotting Tom Neely with his straw hat in the crowd just about every day. He'd done a political cartoon last year (Brother, Can you Spare a Job?), but this year it was a music video with a 1920's art style (like his political cartoons). I had seen the surreal The Newsroom 'Learning to Fly' earlier on TV; surprisingly it held up to a second viewing.


Finally, in the awards, I agreed with most of the prize winners. Surley Squirrel was mine and the public's favourite. I could understand most of the others, except the abstract film choice. But then I wouldn't want to understand that!

- Alex

Copyright © 2005 by Alexander G. M. Smith.