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Hollywood's World Animation Celebration

Gregory Singer found WAC 2000 to be exhiliarating. Here's why

Wacfest was, true to its name, a celebration. The festival has been around for the last fifteen years, and it has had an extravaganza of some sort surrounding the film competition for the last seven of those. This year, with the vision of Terry Thoren and the blessing of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, the World Animation Celebration has returned to its roots and home of Los Angeles, with a weeklong schedule of events that covered everything from the history of sex in animation to the archival footage of Disney's "unseen treasures."

A common observation among attendees was that, 'This isn't your normal trade show and recruitment expo.'

Bill Plympton's self-portrait. © Bill Plympton.

Truly L.A.

Walking poolside of the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel -- where, once upon a time, the likes of Marilyn Monroe used to live -- with a beer in one hand and a cell phone in the other, people were making deals, making calls, and generally watching as a new breed of celebrity emerges. Where else could one rub elbows, and forge relationships, with the president, CEO or executive producer of a major independent studio? Passing among the cabana booths, the beach balls and the bikini-clad girls promoting Eruptor.com, these "future mogels" of the entertainment industry came from as far and wide as Canada, India and South America. Courtesy of Wildbrain.com, this brave new world was Web cast for the amusement of a larger, on-line audience, and if you look closely enough, you might even spy as part of the surreal background and wonder: 'Hey, isn't that Bill Plympton?' -- or, from his balcony perch, an older gentleman patiently giving interviews to the media -- 'Hey, isn't that Stan Lee?'

Yes and yes.

Though the activity of Wacfest was spread among the different venues of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the L.A. Film School, and even, for one afternoon, the Paramount Studios lot, the whole festival was remarkably well coordinated and organized. In the future, there will be one facility (currently under construction) that will house the entire affair, but for now, most of the week's discussions and screenings took place at Hollywood Boulevard's newly restored Egyptian Theater, only a short jaunt away.

A visually stunning scene from Raoul Servais' 1996 film Taxandria. © BIBO TV.

Special Programs

Celebrating the animation of Russia (Fedor Khitruk), Poland (Piotr Dumala), Belgium (Raoul Servais), the Czech Republic (Michaela Pavlatova), and others from Japan and Britain, the festival was, in one gesture, a bridge between animation's traditional origins and expressions, and its coming future. Kicking off the entire week, in eight hours of sweat and laughter, Clifford Cohen and Nigel Zeid of AnimAction corralled together the talents and energy of some 550 young, fledgling animators to create 57 short films, as part of the festival's World Animation Marathon.

Don Bluth and Gary Goldmans latest effort, Titan A.E. © Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

Career workshops provided guidance and encouragement to aspiring animators throughout the week. And among the Internet competition of films, for his piece Argon, Peter Peterson of Davidson College, just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, walked away with Shockwave.com's $25,000 grand prize for best student Internet production.

Gary Goldman and Don Bluth were given a Life Achievement Award for their work on such projects as The Secret of NIMH, Dragon's Lair, American Tail, Anastasia and Titan A.E. In other forums, Oxygen Media screened its X-Chromosome show, MTV Animation debuted its Spy Groove series and Leonard Maltin hosted a ten-year salute to Matt Groening and the other creators of The Simpsons and Futurama.

Perhaps one of the best attended events of all was "The Making of the Iron Giant." Director Brad Bird, producer Allison Abbate and supervising animators Tony Fucile and Steve Markowski were among those who spoke during the evening. The audience got to see clips of scenes that were cut from the final movie -- for constraints of time, money and storyline. There were even some short, joking animations that the artists had done in their spare time, such as Hogarth doing the moonwalk and the Giant dancing around like a ballerina. (One can cross their fingers and hope that such gems will get published on the special edition DVD.)

Iron Giant: a true animated treat. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or

The real meat-and-bones of the week, nonetheless, were the panel discussions, all of which, wittingly or not, came back to the one great mystery of what to make of the emerging, converging medium of the Internet. Two days were devoted to the International Business Conference for Television Animation; one day was given to the World Summit for Animated Feature Films. And while two years ago the Internet was only afforded a half-day seminar, this time around (apart from being the thematic undertone of every conversation) it was the specific focus of a three-day Big Animation Internet Pow-Wow.

The Big Topic

What is the distillation of wisdom/experience from those three days of dialogue and banter? What are the latest and greatest business models for creating animated content for the Internet?

The audience was hungry for DETAILS and NUMBERS. How much are deals going for? What does profit participation look like?

The Internet, everyone admits, is still looking for that nexus of technologists, capitalists and artists to hit the sweet spot of creating emotionally compelling content. But still, everyone also admits, part of the beauty and charm of the Web is the creative freedom it allows. "A camel is a horse created by committee," is the common lament and worry. But in distributing and exhibiting on the Internet, one does not have to answer the competing, sometimes inscrutable, notes of a roomful of network and marketing executives. One only has to satisfy their own whims, and the interests of their audience.

Eruptor is one of the many Web firms taking a risk by entering the highly competitive Internet animation industry. © Eruptor.com.

There is a difference, of course, in simply creating something for the Internet, and in having that something generate revenue. In one sense, the sobering news of the panelists is that, 'You have to first lose a boatload of money to be successful.' But then in the next breath, the advice comes: 'Don't listen to us. Ignore us. Just do great work. This is the moment in time when it can be seen and exposed.'

No one can honestly anticipate the trajectory of the Internet, or where exactly it is evolving. New platforms for animated content -- portable palm devices, kiosks, Web-TV, e.g. -- are slowly working their way into the marketplace. For future audiences, the convergence of all these technologies and media will be commonplace and second nature. Our children will understand intuitively what we're now just trying to get our arms around.

John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren and Stimpy, and now, on-line, The Goddam George Liquor Program, is trying to encourage the unique freedom of the Internet back toward the visual strength of early animated shorts, as were pioneered on television in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. With characteristically irreverent and cantankerous humor, John K. assures us that we can look forward to such shows as Weekend Pussy Hunt (presumably on Icebox.com), and he suggests, "The role of the artist is to completely break down our American moral system."

John K. was one of the first animators to find freedom on the Web. © Spumco.

Other Themes

This was an underlying, latent hope of festival participants -- that somehow, in all its formats, animated storytelling could grow into a more adult-oriented and adult-targeted art form.

Miami-based Locomotion, a cable channel serving South America, Portugal and Spain, considers itself a 24-hour primetime animation destination, with a purported core audience of 18-to-35-year-olds. The channel expressly and exclusively caters to an older viewership, but this level of intelligent, mature animation, at least in the United States, is something sorely lacking and eagerly awaited.

In the festival's film competition, seeing such works as When The Day Breaks (by Canadian directors Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, produced by the National Film Board of Canada) and Flying Nansen (by Russian director Igor Kovalyov, produced by Klasky-Csupo) was a real treat. One had the jaw-dropping realization of what animation could become, if more people would take the financial and creative risk to create it.

When the Day Breaks. © National Film Board of Canada.

One of the seminars of the week specifically addressed this possibility -- of producing animated features in the budgetary range of US$3-10 million. With the somewhat inevitable and necessary costs of promoting and advertising a film, this investment quickly and minimally inflates to a more realistic price-tag of $10-15 million, but still the idea and intent is there. Business-as-usual in making animated movies does not have to be business as usual. For example, Klasky-Csupo is currently in production on an R-rated feature-length adaptation of Charles Bukowski's work, with a target budget of $3-5 million.

The festival's many events and discussions all boiled down to one point however. Catherine Winder, of Twentieth Century Fox Animation, put it most succinctly: "You have to have someone who's open to guerilla filmmaking." Whether it is the Internet, producing the next smash on television or a feature -- the time is now for a few risk takers to hit it big.

Gregory Singer is an independent producer living in Orange, California. He is also the assistant editor of the Animation Journal.

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