Janet Hetherington and Jon Hofferman report on the animated workshops, panels and screenings at the 2008 Ottawa International Animation Festival and the Television Animation Conference.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we Canadians are a fairly resilient lot, you know. Fifty weeks ago I was on a farm just out of town here, and every single banana tree there had been snapped off practically at the base. And yet here we are not a year later and the bananas are flourishing everywhere… And just as the bananas have recovered in this area, so have the people. And whilst there's still a lot to be done in this community, there has been an enormous amount achieved in restoration work over the past 52 weeks."
Thus did OIAF Artistic Director Chris Robinson, Great Communicator, reluctant showman, mass debater, kick off the 2008 Ottawa International Animation Festival, thoroughly confusing his audience and, in accordance with a long-established tradition, severely trying their patience. It was a fitting beginning to the latest edition of North America's largest animation festival, where animators from around the world come to watch films, talk shop and drink large quantities of beer. But first there was the Television Animation Conference.
The Greening of TAC
Held as always at the sumptuous Chateau Laurier hotel, TAC opened on September 17 with a keynote address by Brown Johnson, president, animation (Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group), who said that creating successful animation should be "one part story, one part playground and one part creator vision."
Sometimes that creator vision requires perseverance. In their keynote speech on September 18, Robot Chicken co-creators Seth Green and Matthew Senreich related how it took them four years to get their wacky series off the ground. The show was conceived while Green was busy acting in such films as Austin Powers and Senreich was editing comics-focused Wizard magazine. "We knew nothing about stop-motion," Senreich says, while Green notes, "It wasn't easy to pitch a 'stop-motion sketch comedy.'"
Eventually, Sony financed 12 shorts that were shopped around for four years and the show finally found a home at Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Said Green, "It seems so amazingly impossible that we're now in our fourth season. Robot Chicken is something we made and we love it."
Green and Senreich are currently working on a stop-motion animated family feature, Naughty or Nice.
Robot Chicken production tip: Don't get overwhelmed with the process, and thank God for unpaid interns.
Pitching was a theme often revisited at TAC. In the "Pitch This!" competitive session, two TV series ideas were presented to a panel of experts that included Athena Georgaklis (Teletoon), Marie McCann (CBC), Linda Simensky (PBS) and Daniel Weinman (Jetix Europe), with Ira Levy (Breakthrough Films and Television) as moderator.
First-time pitcher Cole Schapansky of Winnipeg presented The Mulligans, a 2D animated show aimed at children aged 4 to 9 that features barnyard animals at a golf club. This pitch was followed by Way Out There from Louisiana-based creator Al Bohl. The proposed Flash series aimed at 9- to 13-year-olds is about a human boy who is an exchange student on an alien planet. Both pitches received detailed commentary by the judges, along with suggestions on how to improve the concepts. The panel selected Way Out There as the winner of the pitch competition, and Bohl was awarded a pass to OIAF 2009.
Pitch This! pitching tip: Tell the story. Focus on central characters and have stories coming out of those characters.
Short and Sweetland
Even veteran animators can find pitching a daunting experience. Festival speaker Doug Sweetland, director and animation supervisor of Pixar's Presto, found himself having to pitch the Presto story when he took his first stab at writing a short. "It was incredibly difficult," Sweetland told Animation World Network. "I was naïve enough to think it wouldn't be."
Sweetland came to the project with considerable experience, having joined Pixar in 1994 to work on Toy Story as an animator. He worked on each subsequent feature up to and including Cars. "I was having a good time. I was not in a big rush to direct," he says. Still, creating the Presto short allowed both Sweetland and his crew to explore new areas and new responsibilities.
Sweetland says that he learned a lot from the story's transformation over the 16 months required to complete it. "I found out what a delicate house of cards it is," he says. "One change affects the entire structure." He was involved from beginning to end, including sound recording at the legendary Skywalker Sound Ranch. "It's the Valhalla for recording," he recalls with some awe.
Presto was released in conjunction with Wall•E on June 27, 2008, and will be out on DVD on November 18. "The Pixar legacy is built on short film," Sweetland says. "This project definitely built up my confidence. I now know what trouble I'm getting into."
Doug Sweetland pitching tip: Go where your interest leads you. When you pitch, hope that you pitch to people who will be hard on you. Focus on character and behavior, and observe as much from life as possible.
Tween is the New Teen
Other TAC panels and workshops dealt with determining target audiences for TV series. In "Tween is the New Teen," speakers Georgaklis, Leah Hoyer (Walt Disney Animation), Frank Saperstein (Blueprint Ent.), Jillianne Reinseth (Studio B Prods.) and moderator Tom McGillis (Fresh TV Inc.) explored how 8- to 12-year-olds are viewing older-skewing media, which can cause challenges for animators because tweens are still children at heart.
"Tweens don't just have more access to technology," observed McGillis. "They're cooler than we were. They're Youtubing, Facebooking, IMing... and yet they still freak out over the Jonas Brothers."
"As a parent, I know how they're constantly trying to push boundaries," added Saperstein. "There's pressure from peers to act older. But they still need the safety of home and parents."
The panel noted that while tweens may watch live-action shows like Gossip Girl (an older-skewing drama), Hannah Montana and Camp Rock, and read books like Twilight, they have different expectations when they are watching animation. "They expect to laugh and be entertained," Saperstein says. "Animation allows [them to kick back and be] a kid again."
Tween target tips: Do your research. Talk to tweens, informally and in focus groups. Get kids involved as part of an online advisory panel. Keep track of the trends... what are they talking about in the playgrounds?
State of Canadian Animation: Adults Only
Another seminar focused on animation geared toward the adult market. Speakers Stephanie Betts (Breakthrough Film and Television), Patricia Burns (Leap2ns Inc.), Jonas Diamond (Smiley Guy Studios), Matt Hornburg (marblemedia), Rachel Nelson (director, drama content, CanWest Global), Adam Shaheen (Cuppa Coffee Animation) and moderator Alan Gregg (Brown Bag Films) looked at new properties, broadcast platforms, audience expectations and more.
"There was The Simpsons, then there were South Park and Family Guy," comments Hornburg. "With the advent of Adult Swim, it was established that there is a platform and an audience for adult animation."
All speakers were working on projects with adult market appeal. Gregg of Brown Bag screened a segment of Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty, an animated scary tale. Diamond noted that Smiley Guy has been offering Odd Job Jack, which started as an Internet show and follows the misadventures of a weird temp worker, since 1997. Cuppa Coffee has brewed up Life's A Zoo, a new stop-motion series that features rude animals in the world of indie rock videos, airing on Teletoon Detour. The Dating Guy, a half-hour, 13-episode series from marblemedia and Blueprint Ent., is scheduled to air in March 2009 on Teletoon. Breakthrough Animation received an order from CanWest Media to create 13 half-hour episodes of Producing Parker, a show about an overworked and underpaid TV producer that stars Kim Cattrall, for Tvtropolis, set to debut in fall 2009. Burns, of Leap2ns Inc., notes that her company has been working with producer Dave Thomas on The Animated Adventures of Bob and Doug McKenzie, based on the famed SCTV hoser duo. That launch is planned for January 2009.
The panel discussed series like Family Guy, which was "cancelled and then uncancelled" due to successful DVD sales. "The good thing about DVDs is that they generate buzz, reaching people even if they haven't seen the show," said Betts. "But it's usually really just icing on the cake. The general rule of thumb is that the broadcaster wants two seasons, and if the audience is growing by season three, it works."
Adult target tip: Look at an overall strategy for the show. Consider support using an aggressive Web portal with original content to create viral marketing opportunities. However, maintain the TV show as the bread and butter.
Launching Into Online Space
The World Wide Web was discussed on many panels and on many levels -- from young artists getting their work out, to established broadcasters finding new delivery opportunities. One TAC panel featured speakers Mark Bishop (marblemedia), Jason Chaney (Corus Television Interactive), J.J. Sedelmaier (JJ Sedelmaier Prods. Inc.), Dan Meth (writer/director/animator, Frederator) and moderator Dan Sarto (AWN), who discussed how to harness its potential as a revenue-generating and artistic broadcast tool.
"It's not the way it was when we were growing up," Bishop said. "There is real immediacy associated with the Web. If you want to play in that field, create original content. Don't just show clips of shows online." However, even if 25,000 people watch a clip on Youtube, there is no guarantee that the concept will be successful on television.
"The economics are that service work is different from webisodes," commented Sedelmaier. "I can't keep the studio going exclusively on Web work unless it's network-based. However, decisions to do Web animation may be based on how it will contribute to your body of work."
For Meth, the Internet provides an artistic community. "It's like a big clubhouse where people get to see your work and comment," he says. "Thousands of people have seen it. The feedback is great. I know right away if I should bring a character back." Meth does not tailor his work for the Web; rather, he uses it to explore different animation styles and stories, producing a short on a weekly basis
"There's also more opportunity for people who are not experienced," Sedelmaier noted. "There are more ways now than when we were starting out."
Online target tips: Advertisers are looking for numbers, so know your stats. If advertisers or broadcasters take an interest in your online offering, make them feel like they discovered it.
L.O.S.E. Case Study
Nerd Corps was on hand to discuss the process of bringing L.O.S.E. (The League of Super Evil) to the small screen. Speakers included Chaney, Asaph Fipke and Chuck Johnson (Nerd Corps Ent.), Philippe Ivanusic (League of Evil Prods.), David Wiebe (YTV, Nelvana Ltd. Corus Entertainment), and the moderator was Nerd Corps' Ken Faier.
Nerd Corps took up the show, which everyone else passed on, three years ago. "It's almost good that [the creators] didn't know how hard it is to do a show like this," Faier noted. The series was actually picked up in 2005, went into development in December 2005, garnered interest from Jetix Europe in August 2006 and got an order from YTV six months later. The show was also presold to the BBC.
One interesting aspect of the case study was that YTV, which first passed on the show, later picked it up because it found itself in the market for boys' series. L.O.S.E. is scheduled to debut in 2009.
L.O.S.E. production tip: One of the challenges of a boys' comedy series is that if you don't hit a joke bang on, you're down to zero. Be prepared to revisit the gags that don't work.
Pushing the Limits of Technology
Technology was the focus of the presentation by Clem Hobbs, director of postproduction, Decode Ent. Using dirtgirlworld, a new hybrid series that goes into production in October 2008 as an example, Hobbs talked about the unique challenges of taking a labor-of-love musical short and developing it into a viable TV series.
"Hybrid is the most difficult and most expensive route you can choose," Hobbs says. "The animation feeds production constraints. There are a lot of barriers."
However, when Decode was approached to co-produce the show in 2007, the company fell in love with the show's look -- animation/live action blended with photomontage and illustration -- and was committed to recreating that look. "We thought it was a great property with an innovative look," Hobbs says. "It resembled Angela [Anaconda, another Decode series] a bit. Its look stood out in the marketplace. It also offered the opportunity to 'push the envelope.'"
That innovative look led to quick presales, but it also provided challenges. "The gamble was whether the process could be simplified while maintaining the look," Hobbs says.
Being a co-production means that the work is split between studios -- and countries. "The barrage of data never stops," Hobbs says. "You need the right people in the right place at the right time. You need to adhere to strict filing conventions, or stuff could be posted and just sit there for days."
The big-headed characters of dirtgirlworld are aiming to dig up new ground in Australia, the U.K. and Canada in 2009.
dirtgirlworld production tip: When you're involved in a co-production with another country, be prepared for a lot of early-morning or late-night calls.
Sex, Politics and Power Tools
As always, the heart of the festival was the shorts competition and, once again, I (Hofferman) was glad I wasn't on the jury, not only because I'm often indecisive and sometimes don't play well with others, but also because there were so many good films that it would have been extremely hard to choose one above the rest. In awarding the Grand Prize to Dennis Tupicoff's Chainsaw -- an ambitious, suggestively allusive, but I thought not entirely cohesive meditation on "romance and celebrity... fantasy and death" -- the jury seemingly staked a middle ground between the more conventional narratives and the visionary, semi-incoherent individualism residing at the farther edge of the aesthetic spectrum
Notable among the former were The Heart of Amos Klein by Uri & Michal Kranot, a powerful critique of Israeli military politics (and, as such, an interesting companion piece to Ari Folman's acclaimed feature, Waltz with Bashir); Kunio Kato's accomplished House of Small Cubes; Jeremy Clapin's very funny and clever Skhizein; the beautifully designed, ethically unsettling Berni's Doll by Yann Jouette; Andrés Barrientos & Carlos Andres Reyes' overly familiar but technically spectacular apocalyptic epic In August; Smith & Foulkes' crowd-pleasing, Audience Award-winning tale of funereal mishaps, This Way Up; Felix Massie's Hertzfeldtian Keith Reynolds Can't Make It Tonight; and Don Hertzfeldt's even more Hertzfeldtian I Am So Proud of You, the ironically deadpan and heartbreaking sequel to Everything Will Be Ok.
In the abstract/experimental/oblique category, standouts included Muto by Blu Blu; George Schwizgebel's virtuoso and emotionally affecting Retouches; the whimsical and amusing Cattle Call by Mike Maryniuk & Matt Rankin; Sea Dog's Devotion, one of the strangest and most satisfyingly ambiguous of the narrative films, by Anna Kalus; Bruce Bickford's drug-addled, graphically fluid The Comic That Frenches Your Mind; Theo Ushev's Marcusian Drux Flux; Kudan, a strange Japanese fable with Matrix-like themes, by Taku Kimura; and two incredibly accomplished graduation animations: the beautifully wrought, if almost wholly elusive, Pecatum Parvum by Asya Lukin, and Matthieu Buchalski, Jean-Michel Drechsler & Thierry Onillon's exquisite, surreal Camera Obscura.
It was gratifying to see such a diversity of styles, and if the omnipresent computer played some role in a majority of films, the proceedings were not dominated by soulless CGI, an increasingly common occupational hazard. If there was a recurring element in a large number of films, it was the use of text, either in the form of voiceover narration or as a visual element -- an interesting and somewhat surprising development in a world ruled more and more by images. A significant number of films also incorporated a confessional element (notably It's Always the Same Story by Joris Clerté & Anne Morin, I Slept with Cookie Monster by Kara Nasdor-Jones, A Letter to Colleen by Andy London & Carolyn London, and Like Me, Only Better by Martin Pickles), perhaps reflecting the greater public display of formerly private matters in such media as reality shows, blogs, and nonstop social networking. Or not.
Shorts Competition tip: Keep up the good work!
The OIAF also offered animators the chance to interact at other functions, such as the SAW Gallery art exhibit, which was the site for the book launch of author Chris Robinson's Ballad of a Thin Man: In Search of Ryan Larkin (an AWN publication). Artist Theodore Ushev was also in attendance, with his work from the book on display in the gallery. Other books on art, design, animation and comics were available at the OIAF Book Fair, located in Ottawa's Arts Court venue.
A beautiful day welcomed artists to the annual Animator's Picnic. Shuttle buses were running late for this event, but once participants arrived at Canada's heritage Billings Estate, they were able to consume hot dogs or veggie burgers (did we mention beer?) and begin carving pumpkins -- a festival tradition. First-time attendees Alex Mostovyk and Victoria Cook from Philadelphia had a grand time creating a drunken pumpkin, which, while perhaps not a suitable symbol for the entire festival, captures the party atmosphere and rampant creativity that is the OIAF.
Or, in the words of director Robinson: "Congratulations to you all, well done, enjoy your bananas."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi. Janet's character, Portent from Monster Love, placed third in the Starz Character Idol pitching competition held at the OIAF.
Jon Hofferman is interim editor of Animation World Network.