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Red Stick Strikes Again

The Miscweant wraps up his latest outing to Baton Rouge for Red Stick.

Fandemonium at Red Stick. All images courtesy of Joe Strike.

The 2010 iteration of the Red Stick International Animation is now history; do I really have to wait 51 weeks for the next one to roll around? Anyway, in the meantime I can talk about what went down since my last check-in, and end by taking a look at the big (cartoon) picture…

Saturday (the 13th) was wrap-up day: not much -- hardly anything -- in the way of festival sessions. Plenty of feature animation, though, what with screenings of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Mulan and Pocahontas, all worked on by Pres Romanillos (the posthumous recipient of the Festival's Lifetime Achievement Award). Not enough full-length animation for you? The Secret of the Kells, Shrek Forever Afterand My Dog Tulip unreeled as well.

Stuart Sumida, the animation world's favorite biologist and consultant on animal anatomy, introduced a screening of How to Train Your Dragon. He's helped any number of DreamWorks, Disney and Pixar animators strike a healthy balance between real-life and toony beasts -- but what to do when they're animating fantasy creatures? (To be precise, an octet of flying dragons, each radically different in appearance from the others.)

The short answer: cut and paste, create beasties that look like x but fly like y… "For real-life inspiration we looked at birds, bats, bugs and pterodactyls. We also looked at dinosaurs and alligators. They're cool and have interesting body shapes."

Chris O'Neill -- winner of the Festival's Golden Baton Award (l-r), Stephen Beck, Stacey Simmons (director, Red Stick Animation Festival)

That gator shape became the movie's Gronkle: "a big fat crocodile who flies like a bumble bee or a hummingbird." There's also the Hideous Zippleback, a flamingo-based baddie who moves like a snake, and, as they used to say, "a host of others."

Sumida revealed an interesting factoid about Red Death, the Godzilla-sized monster who rules the dragons, a detail the movie never got around to mentioning: "It was the equivalent of a queen bee, so we knew it was a girl."

And Toothless, the trained dragon of the title? Turns out that his inspiration was a plain old housecat (with an add-on set of batwings). Those awfully big eyes (that had me worried pre-release he and the movie would be overly cutesy) were actually feline in nature. Looking back, it made a lot of sense both in terms of story (Toothless is smarter than the average dragon -- those eyes show a lot of wisdom) and audience relatability. (It's hard to be frightened of a monster who on some level reminds you of Garfield.)

Sumida demonstrated what might have been his biggest kick in working on Dragon when he recreated a character's fall-and-roll maneuver. "I got to do martial arts," one of his favorite hobbies. "I had fun."

And just how did a university biology professor become part of the feature animation community? Turns out in his college days he enjoyed hanging with the school's art students, a much more interesting crowd than his fellow science majors. A few years later Sumida was teaching in Chicago during a particularly frigid winter when one of them phoned. Charles Solomon, now an animation historian asked if he was interested in visiting California to help Disney animators better understand equine anatomy for Beauty and the Beast. Sumida took one look out the window and was on the next plane. (Well, maybe not the next plane, but it sounds better that way.) Then they asked him back to do the same for The Lion King; and there were a lot more animals in that movie…

Golden Baton Award finalists: Chris O'Neill (Lilac Wine),

Lucas Martell (Pigeon: Impossible), Pascal Drzazga
(Blackface) and Stephen Beck

Meanwhile, plenty of Fandemonium action was going down at the nearby Hilton. Panels with titles like "Who Wins in a Fight -- Vampires, Zombies or Werewolves?" or "The Ten Worst Science Fiction Movies Ever Made" (one answer: any made-for-TV movie on SyFy), were the kind of chat sessions any convention-going sci-fi geek (like me) would be familiar with -- but none were animation-related.

Adding a fan-directed sci-fi/fantasy component to Red Stick might be a good idea if it were anchored by an anime track or the occasional American effort like The Iron Giant. As Fandemonium stands now, however, it still has a way to go. Other than a handful of authors and Star Trek/Stargate veteran Robert Picardo promoting his appearance in a low budget sci-fi movie, big genre names were absent and overall attendance was low. An all-but empty dealer's room (three occupied tables out of 25 or 30 set up for the event) was a particularly telling sign.

Red Stick asked Baton Rouge resident Sydney LeJeune, organizer of the town's annual sci-fi convention, to create and run Fandemonium. "It was kind of a short notice," she said by way of explanation. "Vendors usually decide which conventions to attend a year in advance. This weekend is the Austin Comic-Con --Star Trek fans who would have come here from Texas are there instead. I don't blame them -- that one's a lot bigger."

The festival's last act was its most spectacular, a show that filled the stage at the city's River Center Arena. My younger son is a collector of original soundtracks (like his dad), but it turns out he's not a John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith fan --when he says "soundtrack" he's talking about video game music.

Jeannine Romanillos -- widow of 'Pres' Romanilos who

received posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award

He would've loved "Video Games Live," and someone who never picked up a game controller in his life (guess who) had a quite splendid time as well. The stage was overflowing with the city's 90-piece symphony orchestra and a huge choir squeezed in just behind them while a trio of video screens displayed game images and appropriate psychedelia overhead. The bombastic music accompanying Halo or the orchestral suite performed against a montage of Sonic the Hedgehog games could easily hold their own against any Hollywood production. (Educational bonus: the Sonic montage packed 19 years of videogame evolution -- from pixilated 8-bit Sega games to high-end Xbox 360 animation -- into a handful of minutes.)

A mini costume contest (the winnah: a youngster dressed as Legend of Zelda's Link), a high-stakes Guitar Hero session and a blazing (real) guitar turn by concert creator and composer Tommy Tallarico eliminated any risk of the evening turning self-congratulatory. (And you've never lived until you've heard Tetris music performed by 90 classically-trained musicians.

Time to put a bow and ribbon on this thing: 437 films from 36 countries competing for awards in nine categories (all of which were winnowed down to the Golden Baton winner Lilac Wine)… a brand new Red Stick award, the Sci-An trophy (two winners there: CNN for its Deepwater Horizon simulations, and the Manitoba Museum for its multi-screen Ancient Seas presentation)… and tons of other stuff I wasn't able to take in.

And now, a few opinions on Red Stick, beginning with festival director Stacey Simmons: "Overall, I was pleased with the festival. Our overall attendance was down, which was a little disappointing, but also expected since we changed our ticketing structure and with the economy in general in tatters.

Stuart Sumida discusses How to Train Your Dragon.

"I was most happy with the films and the filmmakers that we had. I think it was overall a success. It was wonderful to have Video Games Live in Baton Rouge.  But as always animators, artists, and visual effects folks are the nicest people in the entertainment industry. It's a joy to be around them.

"I was also super excited by our first Baton D'Or competition and the three finalists. The winner Lilac Wine moved everyone to tears. It was just beautiful.

"However, I have to say that my favorite thing was the tribute to Pres Romanillos at the Lifetime Achievement Award Dinner. I was so moved by Scott Johnston's presentation I can't describe it. I had a great (if exhausting) festival, and I'm delighted to get to work on 2011."

Then, moving onto a bit of constructive criticism: "I enjoyed the festival and their hearts are in the right places, but they need to dial up their level of showmanship. The Emmys or the Oscars are all about anticipation. The organizers need to visit the Ottawa or Imagina festivals to understand how to make their festival more of an event. Even having a section on their website about cool stuff to do in Baton Rouge would help get attendance up."

Clay Katis (animation supervisor, Tangled) has fun

instructing youngsters.

And now for the compliments: "I thought the festival was pretty cool. I was really impressed by how many awesome panelists they had… it was great that they contacted the three Golden Baton nominees beforehand so that they could attend the festival. I particularly enjoyed the community outreach and had the middle school kids there… the tribute to Pres was also very touching."

"Based on the films, food, people, community, location and festival venue, Red Stick has it all, certainly one of the better festivals I've been to… the lively discussion after the Howl screening showed me that the Red Stick audiences are really smart, curious about production decisions, appreciative of different filmmaking styles, and not shy about asking the tough question… I had just as good a time as I've had at Annecy, Ottawa, or Sundance, and yet, Red Stick still seems somehow undiscovered and not as well attended as it should be."

"I felt very welcome by the organizers and by the people in Baton Rouge…giving my lecture in such a grandiose locale at the House Chamber Old State Capitol building was a real kick and made me feel quite privileged."

There you have it: a great festival that more people need to know more about. And so, as the sun sets over the mighty Mississippi, let's end with this:"I was very moved by the lifetime achievement award to Pres Romanillos, more so as it was preceded by several clips of his beautiful animation. To see such a body of work really makes you feel that what we as artists produce in our lives will indeed live beyond us."

Joe Strike, aka "The Miscweant" (http://www.awn.com/blogs/the-miscweant), has written about animation for the New York Daily News, Newsday, New York Press, Fanboy.com, and, for more than a decade, Animation World Network.

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