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SAFO `99: How A Festival Should Be

Dan Sarto reports on Ottawa's SAFO 1999 which was by all accounts a hit!

The Ottawa `99 International Student Animation Festival, known as SAFO, completed its impressive, four-day run this past October 24th. A thoughtfully planned combination of student and school competitions, workshops and panels, retrospectives and tributes, with an exhibitor floor as well, SAFO delivered on all fronts -- not too ambitious, not too low-key, with just enough structure to give the proceedings, and the blue chip listing of top industry participants, the respect they deserved. Now, if I could have just found a good meal in downtown Ottawa, the festival would have been flawless. I could only eat so much maple butter, that hopelessly addicting, incredibly rich and delicious paste I spooned directly from the jar with my fingers.

Chris Robinson (middle), festival organizer, visits the Level 13 Entertainment stand.

Chris Robinson (middle), festival organizer, visits the Level 13 Entertainment stand.

A Significant Contribution

Not even a devastating fire that destroyed the Festival office in August could trip up this event. Festival director Chris Robinson's influence could be felt everywhere as he prowled the venue with his leather jacket and ever-present coffee cup. The festival event line-up reflected both his keen sense of our contemporary animation landscape, as well as his knowledge of animation history and the richness, and importance, of that heritage. Chris is no stranger to controversy; he can be outspoken, and his straightforward manner doesn't always sit well with some of the crusty veterans on today's animation scene. One thing, however, is clear to me -- he knows animation, and he knows how to put on a dynamite festival. His vision coupled with a hard working staff of full-timers and volunteers made SAFO `99 an informative, entertaining and rewarding experience. SAFO is supported by almost every Canadian organization except the Toronto Maple Leafs (a hockey team). In the U.S., government support for the arts is never understated. Just ask Rudolph Juliani. In fact, any government support seems to be "in your face." However, at SAFO, the comfortable atmosphere underscores the real importance of the festival. I sensed that many of the screenings and events were attended by numerous important members of groups such as the Canadian Film Council, the National Film Board of Canada, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and others. Unlike in the U.S., for such a gathering of big kahunas, everyone seemed very civil, wearing scarves and kissing each other on the cheeks all the time.

Many schools where present. Here, Karen Grant-Jaeckle, Head of Communications and International Services for Sheridan College, poses for a picture at her school's stand.

Many schools where present. Here, Karen Grant-Jaeckle, Head of Communications and International Services for Sheridan College, poses for a picture at her school's stand.

These Are Student Films?

The official competition was comprised of 92 films, including 14 from children, culled from over 700 entries from 40 countries. While many of the films were not to my liking, I was impressed by the tremendous amount of talent displayed by all the student animators. My taste in animation is skewed heavily toward that which entertains a seven year-old. However, even I could recognize how much good animation was being shown. Even the terribly depressing tales of family tragedy and suffering were pretty good. Watching the story of a family dealing with the loss of a child, who drowned, made me wince at the shallowness of my complaints about the horrible pancakes I'd had that morning for breakfast. As it should.

While I didn't agree with all the judges' decisions, there were so many good films, that I'm sure any set of winners would have seemed unfair. My personal favorite was Man in the Moon, by Arvid Vibel and Chris Stenner, which is a superbly designed, excellently paced and uncharacteristically funny -- I haven't seen too many German films I've laughed out loud at -- stop-motion tale of a solitary lunar rock farmer who one day gets to meet up with some NASA astronauts. It was the best film in my book. Little Milos, by Jakub Pistecky, about a timid gentleman, his overbearing wife, and a pet goat, was also well done, with a solid story told simply and effectively. Daylight, from Estonian animator Mait Laas, had some very interesting characters, and is a combination of cutouts, metal parts, and who knows what else. Crowd favorite Mister Smile, by Fran Krause, was also very well done. The film is a quirky, funny tale about a diverse set of oddball characters with nothing in common except they all get invited to Mr. Smile's party. The piece boasts a climactic discourse on the inter-relationship between love and food that had me laughing out loud.

(left to right) Pierre Herbert from the National Film Board of Canada and Joan Ashworth from the Royal College of Art were some of the attendees.

(left to right) Pierre Herbert from the National Film Board of Canada and Joan Ashworth from the Royal College of Art were some of the attendees.

Panels and Workshops and More, Oh My!

Interspersed with the official student and school competitions were a series of workshops and panel discussions, ranging from issues surrounding the distribution of independent short films to how to setup a portfolio. Well known and respected industry veterans such as Dave Master and Tom Knott from Warner Bros., PDI's Eric Darnell, as well as Cartoon Network's Linda Simensky, gave the proceedings an air of authenticity hard to match. Students jammed the workshop room at every opportunity. As I expected, the sessions were completely packed. The festival was filled with intensely focused and eager animation students. They had lots of questions, and they never failed to take advantage of the excellent group of speakers and presenters.

(left to right) A crowd surrounds Linda Simensky, Cartoon Network's Vice President of Original Animation, and Eric Darnell, director of Antz, after a heavily attended workshop.

(left to right) A crowd surrounds Linda Simensky, Cartoon Network's Vice President of Original Animation, and Eric Darnell, director of Antz, after a heavily attended workshop.

The special film programs and retrospectives again provided students with intimate access to many well-known and respected animators and animation executives, who provided their audiences with thoughtfully compiled presentations. These types of events can't be easy to coordinate and pull off. I know how tough it is just getting my two kids to school in the morning, let alone leading a presentation on the making of The Iron Giant. Danny Antonucci was there, showing such crowd pleasing favorites as Lupo the Butcher, Lupo doing Converse Sneaker commercials, as well as some Ed, Edd n Eddy episodes. You know how people say it is the shy, demure, soft-spoken artist who does the most outrageous work? Well, those people never met Danny Antonucci. I'd love to be a fly on the wall at a meeting between him and some network programming executives! Peter Dougherty from MTV Europe showed a rapid fire sequence of MTV animated logos and other tasty treats, including at least one rather interesting Brothers Grunt short (there may have been two shown, but I was so stunned by the first, I'm not sure). Gerben Schermer, director of the Holland Festival, showed a program of animated commercials from Holland that included one astonishing animated piece from industrial giant Phillips, a stop-motion tale of a wintry trip to the zoo in which every character, including all the animals, were beautifully designed around light bulbs. Truly amazing. An international competition program of applied animation (i.e. animation done by people who have to work for a living) included three extremely funny MTV commercials for Beavis and Butthead Do America, where a live-action Mike Judge is shown directing the animated duo with hilarious consequences, such as Beavis getting pummeled by the stunt double. If you are not laughing, I guess you had to be there. I was awfully tired and it seemed really funny to me. Sweden's Studio Film Technarna had a program of unbelievably bizarre animation that had me looking at the screen with the same tilted head stare that my cat employs when he watches me use the bathroom.

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(left to right) Gerry Paquette, Coordinator of Digital Animation at Algonquin College, and Ellen Besen, a professor at Sheridan College. (left to right) John Munro, Vice President of Marketing & Sales at Chromacolour, and Martin Phelan, Product Evangelist for Crater Software.

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(left to right) Film Roman's Jay Francis, Director of Acquisitions, and Doug DuMont, Acquisitions. (left to right) Mike Valiquette from Dynomight Cartoons and Tom Knott, Warner Bros. Feature Animation's Recruiting Manager.

As far as I'm concerned, SAFO `99 showed how a festival can and should be run. It's nice to know that there are still individuals and key organizations that feel it their duty to support animation and the new generation of artists and storytellers in ways that are neither crassly commercial or hopelessly ignorant of what truly makes this industry so vital for the future.

Dan Sarto is an accomplished "hack" technologist and Chief Operating Officer of Animation World Network.