LAIKA/house director and premiere animation blogger Ward Jenkins checks out his new hometown's first animation festival to discover a new U.S. animation tradition unfolding before his eyes.
Inspired and Spent
I think I'm going to have to stop going to animation festivals. I'm not sure I can handle so much creativity in one place, in such a short amount of time. I've been to Ottawa three years in a row now and after each visit, my mind seems to separate from my skull and hover just above my body. So much inspiration, so much yearning (to create, to make something equally amazing) that my head just can't take it. Then, it's back to reality and my mind finds its way back. Back to working for the Man. Back to the grindstone. Why did I expect any different from the brand spankin' new PLATFORM International Animation Festival? Here I am again, mind hovering outside my body, inspired and on fire. And completely spent.
There was quite the buzz within the animation community before the festival officially opened on June 25, 2007. It all began with a casual conversation between festival director Irene Kotlarz and Michael Ouweleen, svp of programming and development at Cartoon Network -- they thought it was interesting that there was no international animation festival in the U.S. (hasn't been one since the 2000 World Animation Celebration in Los Angeles). Seizing the opportunity, Michael threw Cartoon Network's proverbial hat into the ring and was able to convince the network to pony up the money for a brand new festival in America and even better, provide hands-free support, allowing the festival organizers to do their thang.
Quite an endeavor. But where to have it? Cities like L.A. and New York were out of the question -- too big. Smaller and more intimate and with such a strong artistic and creative community, Portland would eventually be chosen to host the grand event. PLATFORM was born.
Fun, Funky, Ready for Anything
So what was the PLATFORM festival like? Overall, there was a cool hipster vibe that permeated the festival (though not in the typical, irritating way). For the most part, Portland hipsters are not pretentious and often open to new things. Which is why the festival worked so well in this city -- the mood was vibrant, funky and fun. Much like the overall identity branding done by Doma, complete with oddball characters (organic and geometric in shape) and who were subject to a number of conveyor belt chores. The member of the festival staff were much like these characters -- willing to do anything to make this event something that you would never forget.
So, how do I know about Portlanders? Well, it just so happens that I moved to Portland three months ago -- snagged a sweet job as director at LAIKA/house. Having the festival unfold right before my eyes would be a treat like no other. Everyone at the studio knew what a great thing this would be and I was right there with them -- I could barely contain my excitement. In addition, I was going to be participating in a festival panel, which would be a big first for me. In fact, I was tapped to be on not one, but two panels. I was shocked (and honored, of course) but struggled to wrap my brain around the idea. I was nervous to accept but couldn't let such a terrific opportunity pass -- I finally agreed to do both.
Starting Off with a Bang
The festival started off with a bang on Monday night with the first Competition Program followed by the Opening Gala Party at the Portland Center for Performing Arts, where most of the screenings, panels and presentations would be taking place for the week. In fact, the Competition Program 1 was invariably the strongest, giving me the impression that the PLATFORM folk shot its wad too soon, too early. Highlights from the screening included the Oscar-winning short, The Danish Poet by Torill Kove, The Pearce Sisters, directed by Luis Cook (of Aardman), Apnee by Claude Chabot, Rabbit by Run Wrake, and One Rat Short by Alex Weil.
I was especially impressed with Aardman's The Pearce Sisters and its combination of CG characters with 2D layered elements. The overall style had a flat and illustrative style with weathered textures and devoid of overly strong colors (much like the titular sisters themselves). I felt that this was one of the best of the fest and the jurors felt the same -- it won the Grand Prix award, sharing it with Gregory Barsamian with his installation No Never Alone.
Afterwards, the Opening Gala (complete with champagne and live music) gave everyone the chance to meet and greet. All night long, I ran into fellow festivalgoers whom I'd previously met at the Ottawa Animation Festival. We embraced as if we were part of some sort of secret society and I guess in some way, we were.
Closing out the first evening was the light-hearted animated grudge match between two opposing facets of our industry -- Humor vs. Abstract. Indie NY filmmaker (and Portland native) Bill Plympton presented some of his favorite humorous cartoons while Portland animator Joanna Priestley countered with her favorite abstract films. The judges? We, the audience, of course. Paul Harrod kept score with a sound meter to measure the audience's applause. In the end, the Abstract program won the crowd. Joanna showed some incredibly strong films, such as Oskar Fischinger's Studie No. 6 and Evelyn Lambart's and Norman McLaren's Begone Dull Care/Caprice en Coulers. Bill's selection included his own Guide Dog, as well as Bingo Bongo, by Frederico Vitali and fellow New Yorker Signe Baumane's Teat Beat (which brought the house down). Safe to say that a fun time was had by all and no better way to end the first evening of the very first PLATFORM festival.
One of the joys of having an international animation festival in my backyard (so to speak) was the opportunity to take my kids to a few of the family-friendly screenings being offered. PLATFORM's first was the Competition Program 2, early Tuesday. It was exciting to have the chance to expose my kids to something like this -- animation from across the globe and way outside the mind-melting stuff they usually watch at home. However, the selection committee suffered a lapse in reason when it came to deciding what was considered "family."
There were many questionable selections here that I would've never labeled as "family." Call me dogmatic, but the student films, Once Upon a Time and Goodby Canine were not really family programming, but more a couple of so-so films that just happened to contain no objectionable content. And why was Domestos Multiplication in this screening? It was too scary and plus, it was a commercial. Odd choices were made here and I was extremely disappointed. The lone shining star in the screening was an episode of Aardman Animation's Shaun the Sheep, directed by Christopher Sadler. Charming animation (as usual) by U.K.'s powerhouse of character-driven stop-motion animation.
Immediately following the screening was the Children's Block Party. There was music, of course -- a couple of DJs digitally spinning kid-friendly tunes. This gave me the opportunity to sit and have lunch while the kidlets ran around and did everything but dance.
After the dance party, I took my daughter to see what ended up being one of my favorite screenings of the festival, "Films by Kids for Kids." This looked more promising than the earlier screening, and it didn't disappoint. The show was filled with short films by budding young filmmakers who displayed amazing talents. Even though it was obvious that some of the kid filmmakers had the help of mom or dad, the overall plot lines and characters were undeniably from the minds of children (which proved to be wonderfully refreshing). Clearly, technology is becoming increasingly easier to master.
After watching these adorable films, I realized that children these days have many ways to exercise their creativity through the means of animation. I happened to run into Ouweleen on my way out of the theater. With our gaggle of children milling about, he said to me, "Looks like we have some projects to work on this summer."
I love the fact that PLATFORM organizers put a lot of energy into setting aside some programming for families and children. There was another screening later on in the festival that was labeled as a "Family Program" and even though this screening had its own flaws as well, the kids thoroughly enjoyed themselves. And really, that's what it's all about.
Big fan of mid-century art and design that I am, I was highly anticipating Amid Amidi's screening of vintage `50s commercials and industrials, "Design Daze: Mid-Century Modern Design." Major highlights for me: watching a group of commercials done by Playhouse Pictures and seeing the superbly designed, More Than Meets the Eye (1952, UPA), an industrial aimed at touting the benefits of CBS radio, designed by John Hubley and Paul Julian. I also was looking forward to finally seeing Energetically Yours (1957, Playhouse Pictures), designed by famed cartoonist Ronald Searle. In this day, it's extremely rare to see films like these projected up onto the big screen. This particular screening was a special treat and it was as if Amid's excellent Cartoon Modern book had come to life.
The second part to his presentation came after the picnic on Wednesday and focused primarily on designer Tom Oreb, who worked at Disney for a good amount of his career before falling out of sight and into obscurity in the `60s and `70s. Amid proceeded to dissect Oreb's designs and went into extreme detail, explaining how form and volume were just as vital and appealing when viewing Oreb's characters. I have a special affection for Oreb's work, unknowingly paying homage to him in my work at different times. Which is not an easy thing to do -- Oreb had an innate ability to observe real life through stylized lines and form where others simply couldn't. He's one of my heroes and I wouldn't have known about him were it not for that one issue of Animation Blast that featured him on the cover several years back.
Competition Program 3 was a heavy one. When it's mentioned in the program that this particular screening is not suitable for children, you know you're in for a bumpy ride. Most of the content was definitely on the heavy side, such as Uri Kranot's and Michal Pfeffer's God on Our Side and Ian Gouldstone's Guy 101. But it was smart to include some humor into the mix like Joanna Quinn's Dreams and Desires -- Family Ties and Cold Calling by Nick Mackie, featuring real audio of Nick getting revenge on annoying telemarketers.
Later on that evening, New York filmmaker Pat Smith presented "Cartoons From HELL!" featuring some frightfully good films by JJ Villard (Son of Satan), Scott Kravitz (Loom), Hisko Hulsing (Seventeen), and Don Hertzfeldt (Ah, l'amour), among others. I found it interesting that the New York indies were shut out of the competitions. But that didn't stop them from having a major presence at PLATFORM -- Pat showed his latest film, Puppet, at this screening, along with Bill Plympton's most recent film, Shut Eye Hotel. Pat is trying to secure the rights from the filmmakers to have the "Cartoons From HELL!" collection available on DVD soon.
Attack of the Bloggers
Wednesday was my big debut as a panelist. The panel, "Attack of the Blog: Meet the Bloggers" was set to start at 11:30 am and I was a bundle of nerves beforehand. I got over it when I finally met my fellow panelists, Aaron Simpson, Ovi Nedelcu, Jon Izen and Charles Zembillas -- a bunch of very talented guys who all happen to use blogs differently. Whereas Aaron and I post about links and stuff that interest us on our blogs (Coldhardflash.com and wardomatic.blogspot.com, respectively), Ovi stated that he posts mainly to get feedback on his artwork. And that's okay. Everyone has a different approach to blogging and I am certainly a testament to that ideal.
AWN's own Dan Sarto moderated the panel, posing varied questions regarding the importance of blogging and how students and animators should utilize the format to showcase personal work. We also discussed about how the industry has been affected by blogs, most notably through the harsh critiques and opinions of readers and other animators. Ultimately, I felt it went well though we merely scratched the surface of such a vast topic. I think an ongoing panel with a rotating roster of bloggers for each year would be just the thing.
Immediately following the panel, we were whisked away by bus to beautiful Sauvie Island for the PLATFORM Festival Picnic, sponsored by LAIKA. The Animator's Picnic at Ottawa has always been the highlight of the festival and you could safely say the same for Platform. The picnic was a laid back affair, with freshly grilled hot dogs and hamburgers (not to mention veggie burgers, too -- after all, this is Portland), cool drinks and live bluegrass music. This gave us the chance to rub shoulders with others in the industry -- to meet a favorite animator or your favorite blogger (I wish).
I had the great opportunity to finally meet Peter Lord, thanks to Oscar-nominee Sharon Colman, who knew him quite well. I was also extremely happy to shake hands with Claymation pioneer Will Vinton. There were many there whom I had wanted to sit and chat with, but there just wasn't enough time. It's nice to see animators relax, too. Bill Plympton was walking around without any shoes on. I caught Amid Amidi throwing a frisbee with some student animators. Jerry Beck of Cartoon Brew was making the rounds, passing off postcards promoting his latest venture, Cartoon Dump. I just missed my good friend and animation historian, John Canemaker (though we were able to connect later on in the festival). He was one of the jurors, so his time was extremely limited everywhere he went.
Pros and Cons
There are pros and cons to having a major animation festival in the same town as where you live. The main pro is that it's convenient. Just hop on the MAX or streetcar and you're right there, nothing to it. No need make hotel or travel arrangements -- you're right there. The big con to it is that there's no sense of disconnect. You are still tapped into family and work throughout the week and you can't fully concentrate on the festival at hand. I made the mistake of not asking off work for most of the festival. So, with deadlines looming at the studio, I couldn't attend some of the screenings and presentations that I would've love to have checked out.
One of the most highly anticipated events of the week was Animation Inside Out, a walking tour of animated installations that was accompanied by a street party. It was the pinnacle event that set PLATFORM apart from the rest. Everyone was talking about it beforehand and raving about it afterwards. I didn't hear one bad word about the event. I wish I could I tell you that it moved me to tears. That it rocked my world. But I can't. An unfortunate family emergency kept me from witnessing this incredibly unique event and for the rest of the festival, I had to endure a thousand variations of "You didn't see it? Aww, man, it was awesome!" Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it. It was great. Let's move on. Maybe I'll get a chance to check it out next year.
I didn't get a chance to check out any of the Internet competitions or mobile device animations, either. There was just too much happening, and I couldn't have possibly done everything. I guess there's always next year.
Some screenings and events that were worth it: I checked out the Portland Animation Showcase to see what this new town of mine had to offer and I was very, very impressed. I was giddy to see such fine talent come from such a cool city. Priestley's Street Car Named Perspire was hilarious, as was fellow LAIKA director Mike Wellins' Big Ass World of Science. The Drinking and Drawing event sponsored by Frederator also seemed like a big hit later on that evening. I didn't participate because it was late and I'm getting old. Someone remarked how funny it was that most of us complain about not getting paid enough and here we all are, drawing for free. Maybe it was the beer.
On Saturday, I participated in my second panel, Tribute to Hanna-Barbera. Other panelists included Cartoon Network's Ouweleen and artist Kenny Scharf. Kenny and I just let Michael take the mike -- he was definitely the HB geek of the panel. A highpoint: hanging out and talking with Scharf afterwards about art and whatnot. When do you get a chance to do that?
I took my daughter to see a special screening of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Afterwards, Marge Champion, the dancer who was the reference model of Snow White for the animators chatted with Canemaker about what it was like to perform on the Disney lot back in the day. It was extremely inspiring to listen to Champion, who's still as vibrant as ever at the youthful age of 88, talk about dancing and staying fit throughout the decades. Another highpoint for me was having my daughter, Ava, meet Marge, who happened to mention that she knew another Ava from long ago -- Ava Gardner. Marge was so sweet to my Ava -- she politely took the time to turn and give her full attention. John Canemaker, who was standing right next to Marge, commented that in profile Marge looked like "Snow White talking to a little bird."
The Awards Ceremony was short and sweet, clocking in at just under an hour and a half. It was a lighthearted event, with intentional misspellings for title cards, broken trophy bling (thanks to Don Hertzfeldt), Danny Antonucci almost dropping the f-bomb and Marv Newland making fun of the categories. The winners came up to the stage, gave their thanks and it was immediately onto the next category. The presence of Portland-based animation dignitaries as presenters gave the festivalgoers a little extra reminder of just how important this city is to the industry as a whole. From Vinton, to Joan Gratz, to Plympton, to Rose Bond, and more, Portland is definitely an animated town. And I couldn't have been more proud of my new home. What an incredible thing, to witness this large, exciting event. And right before my very eyes.
As I drove home afterwards, I had difficulty concentrating on the road. My mind was wondering, hovering, racing as I thought about getting my film project back on track. Hopefully, I'll get the chance to showcase my work at PLATFORM one day. Until then, you'll see me next year at PLATFORM. You can count on me being a permanent fixture. In fact, you'll probably get tired of seeing me. So, thanks to Cartoon Network, Ouweleen and Kotlarz for taking on the monumental task of starting up a brand new international animation festival here in the U. S. Looks like it's a winner.
Ward Jenkins is the newest animation director for LAIKA/house in Portland having just moved from Atlanta in March of 2007. He wastes his time away writing about art and animation on his blog, The Ward-O-Matic. He is also a contributor to Drawn!