Andrew Osmond reports from Bristol on this year's Animated Encounters, starring Matt Groening, a toon Beryl Cook and Shrek in 3D.
The front gates of Animated Encounters 2002. All photos © Animated Encounters 2002.
For the third year running, Bristol's Watershed Media Centre hosted Animated Encounters, now the main U.K. animation event in the festival calendar. Encounters ran from April 25th to 28th, a Thursday to a Sunday. Thursday saw the launch reception and an "Opening Highlights" taster screening. Friday was Industry Day, with several panels oriented toward animation students, after which Matt Groening made the evening go off with a bang. There were more industry events on Saturday, but the weekend was mostly given to the serious business of watching cartoons. Excluding the opening highlights, the Groening presentation and two children's shows, there were eleven programmes between 60 and 90 minutes each, enough for the most avid toon fiend.
Placed beside Bristol's docks, and a few minutes' walk from the town centre, the Watershed is a pleasant venue. The main indoor cafe is sunny and spacious, and throughout proceedings there were large groups of attendees seated round the tables talking nineteen to the dozen. Everyone seemed cheerful and enthusiastic, and impressed by the range of events and films. Most of the screenings were sold out well in advance, though standbys were sometimes available. At the start and end of an event, things got congested as people moved between cinemas and the café area, but no-one seemed to mind. The cinemas themselves were cool and comfortable, and everyone had a clear view of the screen. Print quality varied for the vintage screenings, but the new films looked fine.
Matt Groening (right) presents his "Desert Island Flicks" with interviewer/stand up comedian Phil Jupitus. The enthusiastic audience happily greeted Groening's choices.
The hot ticket, unsurprisingly, was Friday's "Desert Island Flicks," over two hours of animation chosen and presented by Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Not only was the cinema packed, but hundreds more people crammed into the nearby IMAX to watch a live broadcast of the event. Happily, Groening was as enthusiastic as the audience. His picks included several Hollywood favourites and a lesser-known Chuck Jones film, the madcap chase Fair and Worm-er (1946). Groening recalled Chuck's famous description of TV cartoons as "illustrated radio." Did the late maestro find anything to like in The Simpsons? Groening could only hope so. His two British picks both hailed from '98: Jolly Roger, the piratical Oscar nominee by Mark Baker, and Baby-Cue, a deeply strange stop-motion doll saga by Hazel Grian. By a genuine happy accident, Baker and Grian were both in the audience. Groening's last choice, the Yogi spoof Boo Boo Runs Wild by John Kricfalusi, brought the house down.
The standard of the other film programmes was high, with very few duds (i.e. films where you're waiting for the end). On the international side, my favourites were Pizza Passionata, a hilarious Finnish model film by Kan Juusonen about a lonely man's fantasies Aria, a model version of Madame Butterfly by Norway's Pjotr Sapegin, with neat self-referencing nods to the medium; Stubble Trouble, a screwball caveman comedy by American Joe Meredith; and The Test, a live-action/stop-motion Czech chiller that reminded me of Svankmajer. (Afterward, I learned it was by the master's son Vaclav.) The brilliant Lovebirds, a Danish film by Trylle Vilstrup, portrayed feathered blind dates with ghastly realism. Bruce Wilson's Friday Night Idiot Box, three quick gags about Canadian couch potatoes, was as witty as it was tasteless.
On the British front, I enjoyed the waspish Loves Me... Loves Me Not, a vintage '92 Aardman film by Jeff Newitt. I was also glad to see this year's BAA and BAFTA winner Dog, a model film by student Suzie Templeton, telling a desperately bleak story of bereavement -- so bleak, in fact, that one viewer left when it came on, saying he couldn't face seeing it again. The festival favourite was Give Up Yer Aul Sins, a superb Irish drawn film by Cathal Gaffney. This took the animated vox pop approach popularised by Aardman, applying it to a Bible story told by a breathless little girl. The result was funny and charming. The film scored highest in the festival's audience ballot, and will be nominated in the upcoming Cartoon D'Or in Wales.
I couldn't get to two themed programmes, "Belgian Panorama" and the CalArts collection "California Dreaming." From all accounts, the Belgian collection was excellent but the CalArts films had dated badly, many feeling very juvenile. The honourable exception was John Lasseter's drawn short Nitemare (1980), featuring many ideas used in Pixar's Monsters, Inc. More vintage films figured in "Forbidden Animation," a collection of censored works, inspired by Karl Cohen's book of the same name. I suspect the sell-out audience expected Spike and Mike naughtiness, but the surprise was how mild most of the content was. (Or is it just that Brits see Red Hot Riding Hood on children's BBC?) For me the main pleasure was seeing Bosko and Flip the Frog for the first time, as well as Clampett's Coal Black, a short whose energy marginalised any racism.
It Wasn't All In The Dark
There were two high-tech presentations on Saturday. At the IMAX cinema, we had a sneak peak at DreamWorks' large-format 3D version of Shrek. It may be a work in progress, but the extract shown -- Donkey and Shrek crossing the lake of lava -- drew gasps of awe from the audience. In "Seeing Is Believing," Cinesite's Sue Rowe talked through a video deconstruction of her studio's FX work. The talk covered the animation of Tomb Raider's killer statue, Sean Connery climbing skyscrapers in Entrapment, and how to remove an ear-lobe in The World Is Not Enough. The tricks may be known to FX 'zine readers, but it was fun to see them on screen.
On the talks side, I saw Claudia Lloyd of Tiger Aspect discussing Bosom Pals, an animated version of the 'big woman' paintings by Beryl Cook. There were some problems with the projector, but Lloyd's stories and insights were highly entertaining, as was the impressive pilot. (Bosom Pals is now being made as two TV specials.) On Saturday, I caught the presentation by London and Budapest studio Varga, focusing on how youngsters could get into the industry. The same question was highlighted by a DreamWorks rep, whose talk was reportedly very good. All speakers had time to chat to people individually after their presentations.
Watch a clip from festival favorite Give Up Yer Aul Sins now. © Brown Bag Films. The festival goers found time for more informal encounters at the end of the day.
More mixed was "The Great Animation Debate," involving a quartet of professionals discussing the U.K. animation industry, with Tony Collingwood (Collingwood O'Hare) as chairman. The title was a misnomer. It was more a matter of each speaker (and later the audience) talking about the situation in his or her bit of the business, with little flow or focus. Many subjects and problems were raised, from the place of merchandise in the creative process, though the decline of personal shorts in the U.K., to the mixed blessing of Britain's burgeoning animation courses. However, much of the talk felt slow and meandering. The students I spoke to, though, were grateful to hear their peers discuss the industry's problems.
Overall, Encounters was a great success. The Groening event ensured crossover appeal for the general public, and the man's presence helped interest the local media, with the Watershed proudly displaying numerous press cuttings about the event. As a student put it after the animation debate, the future for British animators may be uncertain, but the enthusiasm, the will to pursue the animation craft, is self-evident. Let's hope Blighty's animators have new triumphs to celebrate when Encounters meets again.
Andrew Osmond is a freelance writer specializing in fantasy media and animation.