Stephen Lynch reports from Australia's foremost animation festival.
In 1996, the Queensland Animators Group held the first of what they hoped would be a biennial event designed to bring together the states community to enjoy animation in all of its forms. Since then, the festival has responded to the dearth of like festivals within Australia by taking its program on tour to most of the nations capital cities, including Sydney, which is where I caught up with it for the first time. Held April 5 9, the 3rd Brisbane International Animation Festival travelled well, wowing audiences with a rare animated treat.
Crowd Pleasing Highlights
Comprising four sessions spread over two nights, the tour program encompassed "the best of BIAF," enabling interstate audiences the opportunity to view works from the festivals variety of sessions. According to festival director Peter Moyes, one of the most popular of the Brisbane sessions was the Directors Choice. "Its sort of like a best of world animation, so you would expect some keen interest there. We were lucky in having two Academy Award nominees screening in that one." Of these, Peter Peakes Humdrum, in which two bored shadows play shadow puppets, was a definite crowd favourite. And then as if to prove that laughter is indeed the international language, Russian animator Konstantin Bronzits At the Ends of the Earth delighted audiences with its absurd premise of a seesawing house perched atop a mountain peak. "That film had very visual gags and also draws upon Russian culture," notes Moyes. "I think a Russian audience would even find that more funny."
More esoteric was the festivals Pacific Film and Television Commissions Grand Prizewinner, the Estonian film On the Possibility of Love. "Estonia is always interesting," finds Peter Moyes. "Their approach to storytelling is very different, and the narratives are quite inventive. What was heartening to see was that our two competition sessions were very popular. People are interested in seeing what is coming out right now." Among this years winners were two films which illustrate the variety of techniques employed by the festivals competitors. The Courier Mail Critics Award went to Ruth Lingfords controversial Pleasures of War, which mixes black and white woodblock animation with documentary archive footage. Perhaps the most unique ingredient was to be found in the winner of the Griffith University QCA Debut Prize, Svetlana Filippovas The Night Has Come. "That was coffee on a light box," advises Moyes. "A beautiful film. The subtlety of the shades that the filmmakers achieved was just amazing."
Fest favorites like Achilles and Rex the Runt were shown. Courtesy of Brisbane International Animation Festival. Achilles. © Bare Boards Productions.
Going A Little Commercial
While festival organizers were rightly proud of the international content of the program in its first year as a member of the International Alliance of Animation Festivals (joining such world renowned festivals as Ottawa, Anima Mundi in Brazil and Holland), time was taken out to pay homage to the pioneers of the Australian animation industry in the Cartoons of the Moment session. "We took that title from a 1917 Harry Julias film which showed how animation was used in newsreels. It was commenting on the economy in Germany, and was basically trying to poke fun at the Germans around the time of the First World War." Also featured strongly in this session was the all but forgotten entrepreneur Eric Porter. Of particular interest was his innovative use of cel animation over 3D sets in his failed television series Captain Comet and the Space Rangers. More successful were Porters commercials, of which Louie the Fly remains a perennial favourite.
"I personally find the Australian retrospective very interesting," opines Moyes, "because it has early advertisements that we have all grown up with and are very much in our national conscious." Complementing this aspect of animation was the inclusion for the first time of the National Commercials Competition. "It was to bring in industry interest and try not to just isolate animation as art," reasons Moyes, "but also to highlight the artistry in commercial and advertising animation. Its also a way of us financing ourselves a little." The inaugural winner was Captain Pecker, featuring a karoke singing penis which was also featured in the festivals Out of the Closet session.
Works from the Puppets to Pixels session featured on the tour included Ladislaw Starewiczs The Old Lion (1932), whose workmanship and attention to detail still managed to amaze even todays jaded audiences. Counter-pointing this was Chris Wedges Academy Award winning Bunny, in which computer animation was used to tell the tale of an old rabbit that is pestered by a persistent moth. "It was basically to draw a link between the work of people like stop-motion pioneers and the newer technology," advises Moyes. "One way of looking at it is that CGI animators create their models in the computer, so in a sense its paying respect to the early stop-motion animators for what theyve lent to 3D computer animation."
The Guest of Honor
One of these stop-motion pioneers was the festivals guest of honor, Mr. Ray Harryhausen, whose presence certainly raised the awareness of the tour. Peter Moyes admits that, "Its smart to get someone with a high profile, but hes also a nice guy. Rays been wonderful, and hes certainly got lots of energy for someone whos 79 years old. I also think hes getting a real kick out of seeing how many enthusiasts he has around the country. I dont think he was expecting it." Ray Harryhausens reaction would seem to confirm this. "I had no idea that Australia had so many people interested in animation. Which is wonderful because some critics have suggested that CGI means that conventional animation is dead, but its not. I think theres room for every media, every technique. Thunderbirds brought back the string puppets. Jim Henson brought back the hand puppets. So theres room for everything that entertains the public. Im just glad that our pictures are still regarded as great entertainment, which Im amazed at sometimes."
Stop-motion films like Doom and Gloom and One Day A Man Bought a House served as a nice backdrop for guest of honor Ray Harryhausen. Courtesy of Brisbane International Animation Festival.
If any reassurance was needed, the final night of the tour allayed any doubts. Dedicated to his career, Harryhausens seminar in Sydney was in such high demand that he agreed to put on an extra one in an attempt to satisfy demand. While his models of skeletons, dinosaurs, flying saucers and Medusa elicited the expected rounds of applause from his fans, even they were surprised at the artistry of his pre-production drawings. "I had to learn how to draw to put my ideas on paper so that other people could see them, otherwise they would remain locked up in my head. My biggest influence was Gustav Dores illustrations. I still draw in the manner of an engraving rather than a sketch, using a powdered charcoal technique to pick out the highlights. That was something Willis OBrien taught me."
Herein lies the strength of BIAF, in that it is the only festival in Australia that deals with all forms of animation. As Moyes concludes, "Weve been missing out on a lot. Other festivals have animation components, while others only deal with one technique, like digital. I would like to suggest that before us, there hasnt been the same focus on animation, the same concentration, and therefore not the same kind of quality, and not the same kind of reach. Because were looking specifically at animation, its our top priority."
Stephen Lynch has written about the various aspects of filmmaking for books and magazines throughout Australia, England and America, as well as co-hosting Flicks, a weekly film review program.