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The New Age of Animation at Sundance

Joe Strike looks at daytime TV successes of 2003 in the U.S and what we can expect from 2004. He talks to industry vet Fred Seibert and network pundits at Kids WB!, FOX BOX, Disney/ABC, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, as well as Linda Simensky, in her new role at PBS.

This year Sundance presented lots of animated films and technical goodies for the well-heeled animator/filmmaker. Photo by Bob Bayless.

This year Sundance presented lots of animated films and technical goodies for the well-heeled animator/filmmaker. Photo by Bob Bayless.

Animation contributed to more than 30 films in this years Sundance Film Festival. Besides fully animated short films, a half-dozen documentaries and one feature premiere used animation along with live action to help tell their stories.

Filmmaker Robert Mowen mixed software and the G4 to create Drop, a unique picture poem. Courtesy of Robert Mowen and Sundance.

Filmmaker Robert Mowen mixed software and the G4 to create Drop, a unique picture poem. Courtesy of Robert Mowen and Sundance.

The experimental film Drop (six min., color, Sony HD Cam) is a poem in pictures created entirely from the imagination of filmmaker Robert Mowen (director/cinematographer/screenwriter/editor/ designer/sound designer). Rather than words, Drop employs expressionistic images, visual connections and metaphors to follow the journey of a raindrop through a complex, yet fragile world. The idea for Drop began six years ago while Mowen was working as a director in television commercials and broadcast design.

Although his background was primarily in film, his work with talented designers versed in the latest computer technologies opened up to him the creative possibilities of merging traditional and virtual filmmaking techniques. Lacking the funds to hire digital artists, Mowen mastered all the sophisticated design and animation software necessary to create his vision. The cutting-edge computer technology enabled him to produce, entirely by himself, an art film with a high-end commercial quality normally accomplished by a visual effects team.

Approximately 80% of Drop was created on a G4 Powerbook using off-the-self animation, graphics and compositing tools, without the use of a post-production facility. The actors were captured on 35mm film against greenscreen while the backgrounds and foregrounds were created using 3D computer applications. Mowen explains, I didnt simply record reality. I created every frame of the film completely from my imagination, using an Apple Macintosh Powerbook and a mix of software.

Harvie Krumpet continues to win awards. At Sundance it received Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking. © Melodrama Pictures.

Harvie Krumpet continues to win awards. At Sundance it received Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking. © Melodrama Pictures.

Told with a fine balance of comedy and pathos, winner of an Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking, Harvie Krumpet (22 min., color, 35mm) is the biography of an ordinary man, the archetypal underdog, cursed by perpetual bad luck who learns how to seize the day. Written, directed and animated by Adam Elliot, the film is a plasticine animation (clay animation), narrated by Geoffrey Rush. Elliot starts with details, like wanting to have quotes in the film, then he figures out how to weave them into the story. The quotes became humorous fakts put on cards that served as chapter breaks in the structure of the film. Born with a physiological tremor, Elliot makes his models bigger about the size of a wine bottle so that it is easier for him to move them. The arms are plasticine with head and arms made of the car bog used by panel beaters. Sets are wood. The animation and sets became more dynamic and detailed as the filmmakers skills became more finely tuned.

The most difficult scene was the wheelchair dream sequence, which took many hours of concentration and rehearsal. Recorded at the beginning of the process, Rushs narration served as a guide track for the animators, helping them predict how many seconds that they needed to animate. In order to help the animators get to know Harvie as he grew, the film was shot in sequence over 15 months, using a converted Bolex and super 16mm film. Elliot rarely deviated from his script and storyboards. Almost all of the 280 plus shots are as originally envisaged on the detailed storyboard of almost 300 individual panels. Elliot reveals, I hope people can relate to Harvies life and see a little bit of him in themselves I think of my own life and wonder whether it is all about fate, or whether we can shape our own lives and seize the day.

Academy Award-winning director/editor, Jessica Yu, worked with animation producer Kara Vallow to bring to life the words and paintings of writer and artist, Henry Darger in the documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal (81 min., color, Sony HD Cam). The touching portrayal of Darger uses first-person writings, including a 2,500-page autobiography that chronicles his traumatic childhood and the lonely life he endured as a man many dismissed as crazy. A friendless janitor by day, Darger retreated into a fantasy world of his own making at night, creating hundreds of paintings and the more than 15,000-page novel that was his lifes work. Only when Darger was on his deathbed in 1973, did the landlords of his 40-year residence discover the contents of his private world.

HP showed its wares in a hands-on filmmaking lab. Among the product the company presented was the high-end HP Workstation xw8000.

HP showed its wares in a hands-on filmmaking lab. Among the product the company presented was the high-end HP Workstation xw8000.

As an official presenting sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival, HP showed its commitment to a vital independent community. HP workstations were featured in daily hands-on filmmaking labs. The high-end HP Workstation xw8000 offers optional dual processing, Intel E7505 chipset and high performance I/O technologies along with features that enhance scalability, manageability and reliability. It delivers the speed, power and performance required by large-scale projects and is available with a broad range of operating systems and graphics solutions. The HP Workstation xw4100 provides powerful performance at a low cost with features like ECC memory, single or multi-display 2D and 3D OpenGL graphics choices, new Intel Performance Acceleration Technology and ISV certifications. Collaborations between HP and key hardware and software application providers, such as Avid, means the user can expect the performance, compatibility and reliability needed for computer-aided digital editing, animation and design applications. (www.hp.com/go/workstations)

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Sony brought the Qualia 004 High-Definition Projector system (left) and its DVCAM DSR-PD170.

This is the first festival that Sony was able to demonstrate the Sony Qualia 004 High-Definition Projector system made possible with Sonys breakthrough SXRD technology using content shot on Sonys HD 24p camera. Sony also demonstrated the operation and picture quality of their leading cameras for motion picture production: The High-Definition 24P CineAlta; the IMX PAL 25P camcorder; and the brand new DVCAM DSR-PD170.

Panasonics second generation progressive scan camcorder, the AG-DVX 100A 24p/30p/60I MiniDV Camcorder, is equipped with more than 20 user-requested features including improved color reproduction, cine-like gamma curves and enhanced image adjustments, a slow shutter function, smoother focusing and zooming, and 16:9 aspect recording. It has enhanced low-light capabilities and the Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS) virtually eliminates blurring caused by hand shake. (MSRP $3,995, www.panasonic.com/broadcast)

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Other tools for indie filmmakers: NewTek LightWave 3D (8) includes enhancements in dynamics, character animation, modeling and animation workflow and texturing tools. ($1,595, upgrade $495, www.newtrek.com) Softimage I XSI 3.5 not only offers hundred of tools and refinements to graphics and effects artists, also but integrates mental ray v3.2, the most current version of rendering technology from mental images. Responding to the production needs of high profile industry users like Industrial Light & Magic, v3.5 features expanded interoperability with Avid editing and finishing products. ($6,750, upgrade from $1,495, www.softimage.com) Alias Maya 5 incorporates numerous customer-requested productivity enhancements and new ways to create digital content. These improvements include: enhanced animation constraints, an expanded range of tools for modeling and up to 90% increased speeds on Windows operating system. (Maya Complete $1,999, Maya Unlimited $6,999, www.aliaswavefront.com)

Just about every format was used to create the films screened at Sundance. Films were shot in 35mm, super 16mm, Sony HD Cam, BetaSP and miniDV. Editing was on film flatbeds, with Avid Film Composer, Avid Adrenalin, Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premier. While some films used tradition hand-drawn sketches and painted animation cels shot on an Oxberry printer, others benefited from computer animation applications like After Effects and Maya. Screening formats included traditional 35mm film and cutting-edge HD projection. More tools than ever are available to the filmmaker, all that is needed is the creativity in using them.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

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