The Animation Pimp: Greetings from St. Helena

Enraged by why certain films are screened at festivals and others aren't? The Animation Pimp tells it like it is from INSIDE the festival room.

Illustration by Andreas Hykade. Courtesy of Chris Robinson.

Illustration by Andreas Hykade. Courtesy of Chris Robinson.

Greetings from St. Helena

"Every festival organization should have the freedom to choose their options, philosophy and ideas which make the festival different and SPECIAL, exactly what festival visitors, filmmakers, buffs and fans are looking for! How uninteresting if every festival was looking for Annecy or Zagreb. It would not be worthwhile neither to participate nor to visit."

-- ASIFA Board of Directors: Comments on the Toronto '84 Animation Festival

Yeah... sure... for the most part... the opinions of the Pimp are also those of the Ottawa Animation Festival's Artistic Director. I don't apologize for that. Although not many folks think I should, one rapacious crankbag blasted me (as festival director) in a (Pimp) comment space last summer because... umm... not sure why actually... I guess it was because her friends' films weren't being accepted into Ottawa competitions anymore and she felt that, as the Napoleon of festival directors, it was my intention to deprive her friends (whomever THEY are) of a screen in Ottawa theatres. I was flush with pride. At long last someone who sees the layers of empathy dripping from the pores of my flesh, a peasant who recognizes the power and sway of a GREAT festival director. Hurfugginrah! They actually believe that I have spent day and night carefully examining each of these so-called artists' films, while conducting extensive background checks into each so-called artist's psychological, academic, criminal and sexual history. Once I had carefully narrowed down the list of so-called artists, I then set out to find a feckless Selection Committee who would unconsciously succumb to my dastardly demands... or die. Failing that, I had Plan B: seduce them with liquor, opium, goat photos and whores. Once the committee was 'convinced,' these so-called artists would NEVER EVER see the light of the screens in MY kingdom!

Alas, tis a dream, a wonderful dream, but nevertheless merely a candy-coated imagining from the lands of pillows. In truth I am little more than a self-loathing, barely educated, poorly organized procrastinator whose idea of empathy, generosity and socializing routinely involves proper palm placement during self-loving to ensure maximum effect.

Ok enough. To the point: November was the 1st anniversary of the Pimp column. I was gonna try and form some thoughts about the selection process in Ottawa so that we could have it in print and move on to more important tasks like examining why the live-action artists are such fashionable arses... BUT then the world went nuts (more so)... there was that whole Gulliani thing then the Bush thing then the stolen lumber truck baseball contraction then Mario's sore hip then Patrick Roy pulled out then my doctor called and said my cholesterol was high then this girl called and said something about Daddy grade 10 mother was a cheerleader loose sperm then there was the Italian crisis as I walked by the forum ruins and wondered why Italian animation SUCKS then my brother called, he rarely calls, then Richard said the SD reader fired him which is like Gretzky being cut then I went to a GBV concert and couldn't hear for 2 days then I listened to Far East Suite continuously for one week and hell the next thing ya know it was xmas and I had shopping to do, decorations to hang, cookies to bake then came the new year and my annual enema. Soooooooooooooo (whew!) finally... in the month of love and suicide, when I suffer from neither, I found a moment to articulate a few thoughts about festivals and specifically competition film selection for those of you who care. If that's not you, might I suggest this dandy nostalgic piece by one Richard Meltzer.

Every year people bitch about the film selection; that's part of the game. I LOVE it when a 'rejected' entrant sends angry emails demanding to know what moron obviously missed the point of their film. I like that energy. You spend SO MUCH time with this child. You believed in it enough to make it. You SHOULD be passionate about it. What irks me is the ignorance of the process. "How could this film get in and not mine!?" "Everyone at my school thinks it's THE best film ever." "How can Cybersix get in and not Father and Daughter?" Stuff like that.

It's hard to get your film into Ottawa. There are 6 competition programmes generally running no longer than 80 minutes each. That's 480 minutes of film. We receive more than 1300 entries. Fewer than 100 are accepted. Annecy, as a comparison, receives the same number of entries, but offers at least twice the competition space. As such me, my momma, her sister, her sister's cousin's uncle's neighbour's friend's brother's daughter's stepfather's ex-wife's dog with a blocked bladder has a decent chance of being screened.

Tick-tocking aside, folks forget about the categorization of entries. Entries are judged within their categories (eg. kid's film, TV series, independent film, graduate film, commercial, etc...), so when you see Cybersix or Celebrity Deathmatch in competition and not the latest Plympton or Quay epic, it is NOT because the committee felt that Cybersix is a better film. Some ask, especially the folks from the old part of the world, why categories? Why not just judge everything on the same level? Well...films are not produced in the same conditions or with the same intentions (ya ok...I know that's a rather problematic argument in the end too -- Why accept 'crappy' TV animation? Is it fair to have Iranian animators competing against NFB toonsters? -- But a line must be drawn -- get it? Heh heh heh).

Until this year a committee of International animation professionals selected competition films for the Ottawa fest. From the beginning of my tyrannical reign I contemplated slicing the committee. We (hell...I) finally decided to do it in 2000. There were a variety of reasons: 1) It costs us almost $10,000 (CDN) to bring four people to Ottawa in the summer to deliberate and then back again in the fall for the festival. 2) selection by committee sucks. Invariably, because it's such a small community, the same faces begin showing up on different committees and juries (just take a look at Cinanima 2001 as a great example). 3) While peer assessment is a nice dream invariably these animators don't have the opportunity to attend festivals to keep up with contemporary animation. So what happens when people aren't keeping up with the new stuff? They tend to make comfortable and familiar decisions. We all do that...but if you're not watering the nuggin...you're taste buds are gonna stagnate. Hence...(and I say this as a first hand witness) committees often pick films because of WHO made them or WHAT prizes they won rather than the actual quality of the work. 4) Furthermore, there is rarely any detailed debate. More often than not, a simple 'democratic' vote ends all discussion: "next film, please." The result: animation festivals start to look the same.

Now...this is less a criticism of the people than the system. These four people spend 10 days in a room watching 1300 films. That is an insane task to ask anyone (increasingly we found it difficult to even find people who wanted to do it). Often they are watching 100 films a day. They become cranky, hungry, tired and slowly begin to get on each other's nerves. Their patience diminishes, the vision blurs and their mental process tires.

In short...it's an unfair experience for the committee member, festival, filmmaker and audience.

Our solution, and it is by no means perfect, was to have selection done in house under my supervision. It usually involves at least three of the festival organizers. As Artistic Director, I have the final say and naturally my decisions effect and influence the look and tone of the event. I make no apologies for that. A museum or gallery has a curator, why not a festival? In truth, there is nothing radical about this system. It is common practice at live-action festivals as it is with many newer animation festivals (Holland, Fantoche, Anima Mundi; Stuttgart has a combination).

There are a few critics of this system who throw out that tired line about democratic process. That's just an excuse for avoiding responsibilities (see 'democratic vote' above); an emergency exit that eliminates the need for thoughtful, impassioned discussion and provides a handy hand washing for those who really don't have opinions; besides, since when is democracy in the best interests of the people?

With our in-house system I have the advantage of knowing virtually all the contemporary films out there (not that THAT necessitates TASTE). Without the restrictions of a committee we take at least a month to observe the films leaving plenty of time for discussion and repeat screenings. Yes, I have final say, but I take the opinions of my colleagues seriously and rely on them to stop me if I'm perhaps being too lustful toward, let's say, an Estonian animation film. Besides the process demands more than one judge.

We also have the ability to reconsider a rejected film or two if there is room. Why not? Why this formal OPERATIC procedure that sings: ALL IS FINAL!!! ? I ain't afraid to say it: We make mistakes, especially with the limbo entries. See...there are films that are VERY GOOD and VERY BAD. That's usually fairly easy to sort out...but that big pile in the middle is essentially left to a crapshoot. All sorts of important but also trivial influences sway selection of those films: Maybe they had to piss when they saw your film? Maybe the coffee was brewing. Maybe it was just before lunch after a long morning. Maybe they cut it off too early. Bottom line: Any festival that tells you that the system of selection is some pure, objective process of GODS is, as my friend Ronnie said, "Shitting in your mouth and calling it a sundae."

Now you know. Oh and hey...how'd you like Meltzer?

Hottie Animator of the Month

Jayne Pilling. Jayne should be knighted or damed (as in Dame Pilling) for the endless hours of life she has given to animation.

Last Month's Secret Message Was: 4'33. The winner was David Dyment of Toronto, Ontario. Dave wins an extra large industrial roll of bubble wrap.

Chris Robinson is a writer, festival director, programmer, junky and has been called the John Woo of diplomacy. His hobbies include horseback riding, pudpulling, canoeing and goat thumping.

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