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Supporting Independents: Five Champions

Harvey Deneroff profiles five individuals who continue to promote independent animation filmmakers at a time when support for their filmmaking is disappearing.

The recent exponential growth of the animation industry has seemingly deflected interest away from independent animation filmmakers. At the same time, a number of venues and opportunities for independents appear to have vanished or have seriously diminished. For instance, animation festivals which once seemed almost totally focused on the independent scene seem to have shifted their attention to more mainstream (i.e., commercial) pursuits. In the midst of all this talk, I checked in with a number of individuals who, each in their own way, have tried to keep the channels open for independent filmmakers, and even provide them with new opportunities.

June Foray. Photo courtesy of June Foray.

June Foray

Although, the Academy Awards hardly seems a battleground for independents, the Oscars for Best Animated Short have long provided a means to gain wide visibility. The fact that this award still exists, however, owes much to the singular efforts of June Foray, who as a member of the Academy's Board of Governors consistently fought attempts to do away with it. Foray, voice artist extraordinaire (who is reprising her role as Rocky in the forthcoming Rocky and Bullwinkle live-action/animated feature), has been defending the award from its detractors since joining the Academy Board in 1977, when she and Saul Bass led the fight. "The issue," she says, "has come up several times since. I think it was 1993 the last time. It has always been a struggle, because there haven't been many shorts playing at regular theaters, even though people love them. Don't forget many big filmmakers, like John Lasseter, started by making shorts, [as well as] people like Bruno Bozzetto and John Halas." The diminutive Foray has always been an activist, having played a key role in building ASIFA-Hollywood and even organizing the nationwide meat boycott in the 1970s. "I have a big mouth," she says. "I care." "For the time being," she feels, "the [animation Oscars] are safe." Her current fight, though, is helping documentary filmmakers fight an attempt to do away with the Oscars for Best Documentary Short Subject.

Clare Kitson. Photo courtesy of Channel 4.

Claire Kitson

Britain's Channel 4 has long been a force whose influence extends well beyond broadcasting into financing theatrical films. It has also provided one of the few sources for funding one-off short animations in the U.K. And it is Claire Kitson who has been the driving force behind these commissions, which include Barry Purves' Gilbert & Sullivan: The Very Models. However, according to Kitson, the ability of Channel 4 to continue funding many of these films seems seriously in doubt. "We have a problem scheduling them," she laments, "and they are very expensive. It costs us about £10,000 (US$16,100) a minute for shorts, which is an enormous amount of money for us. And the only place to schedule these films is late in the night." After experimenting with several formats, the films are now seen in a program called Beyond Dope Sheet, shown at midnight following the half-hour Dope Sheet, a magazine show on animation. The program not only includes original films, but a range of works by the likes of Jan Svankmajer and Bill Plympton. In commissioning new films, Kitson is able to expand her reach by joint programs with the Museum of the Moving Image and the Arts Council. The former involves "a competition for first time filmmakers, usually college students to develop new ideas. We usually get 100 applications, and we have a panel who pick the best 4, who then work in a glass fronted studio at the Museum for 3 months developing their project; if they are approved (which they almost always are) then they go into production. (We have a similar program in Scotland as well.) In the future, these films will be 3 minutes long instead of 5, in order to fit in a new time slot after the news." With the Arts Council, Channel 4 is able to fund an additional 6 films a year. Even though prospects for original animated shorts on Channel 4 are not bright, Kitson does note, "There is a bit of expansion into adult series, though their prospects are up in the air right now. In the past, we have done three original series, including Alison Snowden and David Fine's Bob & Margaret, which is done with Nelvana. Unfortunately," she notes, "it is more popular in the U.S. than in the U.K."

Fred Seibert. Photo courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Fred Seibert

Fred Seibert, the newly appointed President of MTV Networks Online, is one of a handful of American TV executives who not only have an understanding of the independent scene, but have sought to exploit it in the best sense of the word. As President of Hanna-Barbera, he headed the What a Cartoon! project for the Cartoon Network, where seven-minute cartoons were commissioned from filmmakers around the world, ranging from veterans such as Bruno Bozzetto and Ralph Bakshi to newcomers like Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter's Laboratory) and Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy). Several of the films were eventually spun off into successful shows. He subsequently extended this idea at Nickelodeon, where through his Frederator Incorporated he produces Oh Yeah! Cartoons, which features three original shorts per episode. "It is clear," Seibert says, "when you are in the studio system, the whole independent scene provides many question marks. For someone involved in a commercial enterprise, people who do something for their own reason is confusing. At the same time, independents, it seems to me, have become less interested in interacting with the commercial scene. They really don't understand the language the other is speaking." He also points out, "Until the Miramaxes and Octobers came along, the same was true in live-action." Although he admits that since forming Frederator, he is "working at lot less with independents, one of the things I appreciate about them is that they are primarily filmmakers, in word as well as deed. I appreciated that independent filmmakers mastered the notion of what a film was, rather than just one specific craft; they think holistically, rather than in pieces. The depressing thing about the Hollywood factory system is that, for filmmakers, the circumstances limit their thinking about filmmaking. The main exception are people who make commercials. "While many people who become independent filmmakers are interested in nonpopular forms of communication or expression, I am in the business of making popular films. So, what I try to do is find the filmmaker who wants to communicate beyond the festival point of view, such as Henry Selick. In my case, I want to tell stories to kids, which often is not the easiest thing in the world."

Linda Simensky. Photo courtesy of Cartoon Network.

Linda Simensky

As Vice President of Original Animation at Cartoon Network, Linda Simensky, has carried on and extended the reach of the cable channel into the independent animation community. It is a role she seems very comfortable with, especially given her leadership role in ASIFA-East and Women in Animation-New York. In addition to continuing the What a Cartoon! shorts program, Linda has reached out to small independent studios, run by the likes of Danny Antonucci (Lupo the Butcher) and John R. Dilworth (Dirdy Birdy, Courage the Cowardly Dog), for new series.

"The philosophy here," Simensky says, "has been, 'You don't know where you're going to find a good idea.' A lot of people look to big name studios or go to students. Students, though, lack experience in telling a story, something independents and studios are not lacking in. Short of people working in their basement, independent studios are one of the few places you can find fresh ideas. "What I look for in a project is something that is funny and unique. One way to find something like that is to go outside the mainstream, especially in places you wouldn't expect to go. For instance, I met Gav Gnatovich, [of Cleveland-based] Knock Knock Cartoons, at the 1991 Animation Celebration, where he had a film in competition and always kept in touch." Now Cartoon Network has greenlit Gav's Longhair and Doubledome for production as a seven minute series pilot. The short features Longhair, a fastidiously sophisticated and self-serving Cro-Magnon, and his charmingly earnest yet irksome friend, Doubledome, as they endeavor to evolve alongside their oafish neighbors, the Neanderthals. Other studios she and the Cartoon Network work with include the Chicago-based Tricky Pictures, a commercial house founded by people who once worked at Cuppa Coffee Animation in Toronto, with whom Simensky is also cultivating a relationship; the latter is an innovative stop motion house, whose Crashbox animated game show appears on the HBO Family Channel. One of the reasons, Simensky feels, why the Cartoon Network is more open to these studios is, "We're in Atlanta [not Hollywood]."

Chris Robinson. Photo courtesy of Chris Robinson.

Chris Robinson

In the past few years, the world of ASIFA-sanctioned animation festivals has been going through considerable turmoil. Several major festivals, including Annecy and Ottawa, broke away from ASIFA and have gone off on their own; in doing so, they have tried to come to terms with what they see as a rapidly changing reality. One of the most vocal proponents of this change has been Chris Robinson, Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the International Student Animation Festival of Ottawa (SAFO). Robinson feels he "tries to help the art of animation by using several approaches. For instance, by attracting more corporate support, we have created more funds to invite lesser known international artists. A major weakness of the World Animation Celebration, for example, was their refusal to take risks and show artistic screenings. It's true you won't pack the house [with such films], but there are ways around that if you really want to show independent films. "To really get general audiences out to the festival, you need to show more commercially accessible work. At the same time, you hope that while they are watching The Wrong Trousers in competition, they might see something totally different, like a film by Raimund Krumme, Jan Svankmajer or Joan Gratz." As for SAFO, Robinson notes, "Let's face it. Student work is becoming in many ways the last vestige of independent animation. Most of these kids won't make another film and this gives them a rare chance to take the spotlight. Of course, students were there [at SAFO '97] to find jobs. Studios and schools were there to recruit. Again, it's a balancing act." The Festival has also created a reserve fund to make possible the distribution of independent films. "In 1998," he says, "we began distributing a video of the work of Polish animator Stefan Schabenbeck. This year, we are releasing a series of Estonian tapes." In these and other efforts, Robinson is counting on his sense that, "The industrial success of animation has also liberated the public's perception of what animation means. Toy Story, Rugrats and Antz are no artistic masterpieces, but they have introduced a drastically new look to the general viewer. The success of these films suggests that we have a viewer who is more open to different types of animation." Harvey Deneroff, a freelance writer and animation consultant/analyst based in Canoga Park, California, is the former editor of Animation World Magazine.

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