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Cats and Dogs Living in Harmony: ASIFA-East 2004 Review

Alain Bielik meets the visual effects supervisor behind the hallucinatory images of Blueberry, a French western with a twist.

Elmo's World and gangster film animator Joey Ahlbum. All photographs courtesy of Richard OConnor.

Elmo's World and gangster film animator Joey Ahlbum. All photographs courtesy of Richard OConnor.

Less than 12 hours after the ASIFA-East awards wrapped at the New Schools Tishman Auditorium, the same space hosted the federal 9/11 Commission hearings. The one where the audience members pointed out: The CIA funded al Qaeda to the smirking government appointed counsel of millionaires.

If looking for revelation, dont turn to government committees or the ASIFA-East awards. Between the two, the ASIFA-East awards might have at least some flashes of comedy -- if not quite as innovative in its storytelling.

When the awards began 30 years ago, they were most likely an insular, industry-only event where fans, students and newcomers -- while not unwelcome -- were unlikely to be seen. Todays attendees may be somewhat more diverse, but the films remain surprisingly parochial. If ASIFAs parties become better than the screenings (and this may soon happen) what more could signal of the crumbling of animations ancien regime, would anyone bother to erect a new order in its place?

New York City's Salt and Pepper: Steve Dovas and Ray Kosarin.

New York City's Salt and Pepper: Steve Dovas and Ray Kosarin.

Look at the winner of the Excellence in Experimental Technique Award, Andaluz by Joanna Priestly and Karen Aqua. Fairly easy on the eyes, if aurally assaulting, technique-wise and in design, its a throwback to 1983. Its like a commission from the Bureau of Spanish Tourism. Experimental is a vague term, but in what dictionary does this meet its conditions?

ASIFA (on the east coast of the United States, at least), and perhaps animation on the whole, confused by the constant edicts floating down from Hollywood Hills that 2D is dead has become convinced that the mere picking up of a pencil is an act of rebellion -- that the simple act of drawing not only validates a film but makes it somehow superior.

ASIFA-East president David Levy.

ASIFA-East president David Levy.

The joint Best in Show winners exemplify this thinking: Bill Plymptons Guard Dog and Greg Fords Its the Cat. This happens to be Plymptons first piece that wasnt shot on film, the rest of his process remains the same with the Oxberry replaced by the scanner. The piece is about a minute too long for me, but the gags pay off and it displays Plymptons short films moving deeper into an interesting period of observational fantasy. Its the Cat generates opinions, not about itself, but on the bygone animation, which it mimics.

If the Van Buren cartoons from the '30s and '40s made you switch to Gilligans Island as a child, this film will have you fondly comparing the merits of Mary Anne and Ginger before the obligatory Three Blind Mice reference. But if youre nostalgic for a time before you were born -- when animation was done the right way -- Its the Cat is impeccably executed. Surely 2D is not dead when the corpse of Ub Iwerks has risen with his Blackwing sharpened.

Animator Nina Paley.

Animator Nina Paley.

Its the Cat and Andaluz are independent films and should be considered with gravity and dignity. Were they commercial commissions they would deserve more slack -- and would, in fact, be highly laudable intelligent executions of specific, salable concepts. Alexander Woos Student Academy Award Winning, ASIFA-East Honorable Mention Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher would be a clear indication that the future of independent animation is alive and well were it not so obvious that the author has no interest in creating work of artistic merit, but is gunning for a layout position on the next DreamWorks TV series. God bless em, I hope hes happy.

NYUs other entrant Jake Friedmans Green #1 in D Minor (1st Place in the Student Category) may be a throwback to the 70s -- some of his animation looks like John Canemaker channeling Tissa David -- but its a heartfelt, joyous film. Rex Steele is awash in cynicism (and more dangerous, belittles the ever increasing threat of Corporatism), if its flashy enough, if you can make multiplane moves with motion parallax, if you can put in some 3D elements, if you give em big tits and heart shaped asses, people will love it no matter how banal, no matter how ugly the art.

President's Award recipient Chris Robinson uses his laser vision on Jesse Schmal.

President's Award recipient Chris Robinson uses his laser vision on Jesse Schmal.

The above paragraphs are in honor of the evenings special honoree, Chris Robinson. Robinson, who writes the Animation Pimp -- and I can personally attest to the accuracy of that title -- and is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival, was given the Presidents Award for his contributions to independent animation. If a writer and festival organizer can make any contributions to this art form, it is to demand better. It is to be discontent with second best from those who should do better and to hold no allegiance to animation or friendship to its creators above what he feels to be honest criticism. Honest criticism, given as always with respect, can propel an artist to create an ever-improving body of work.

Highlights of the show included:

Chris Hintons Nibbles: gets better each time. Simultaneously subtle and over the top.

Nina Paleys Sitayana: proves, 1) there is no Fart Joke programmed in Flash to be executed in all films over one minute and, 2) it doesnt matter what tools are used, if it looks good and sounds good the final product will be good.

PES Pee-nut: Im kind of snobby when it comes to the bodily function gags, this one is clever, charming, well designed and impeccably executed.


On the left, prom king and queen, Patrick Smith and Olivia Ward while Debra Solomon (right) readies for Richard OConnors take on her last film.

Marianetti/Wachtenheim, LLCs entries: My favorite is Q for Sesame Workshop which proves that you dont have to be soppy and pedantic to make a kids film and shows off their often ignored animation skills. Saddam and Osama was funny, if politically suspect (a bit neo-con). Although I must give jeers to Are You Hot? their SNL parody of some show I never saw. I suspect the original was funnier than the parody.

Curious Pictures Codename: Kids Next Door: The first time I saw this series, I had no idea what was going on. Even after seeing the same episode three times, I had no idea what was going on. This episode from the new season was pretty funny, despite the grimace-inducing-Bill-Cosby-meets-Jerry-Lewis father. It made me want to see another 11-minute episode. Battle Ready Armor indeed.


Patrick Smiths Moving Along: I think Patrick Smith is a very good animator. Ive worked with him and would hire him in a moment. This music video shows his skills improving with each project. The part where the client clearly made him repeat a scene from his film Drink is a bit disappointing, but sometimes you just cant win those arguments.

Karl Stavens Piano Dog Visits the Underworld: This is so screwed up and great. The first time I saw it, I hated it. The second, I loved it. Now I want to see it again. The title says it all.

The judging for these awards happens over three nights at the School of Visual Arts and voting is open to all members of ASIFA-East.

Richard OConnor likes to tell other people how to make movies. He has done this at Parsons School of Design, NYU, in numerous magazines such as ASIFA International and Boards, and at animation studios throughout New York including his own recently founded Asterisk.