The return of Los Angeles' only animation festival was bigger than ever.
Attending the World Animation Celebration in March was something like running a six-day marathon, as one sprinted between festival screenings, a business conference, a technology exhibit (and accompanying classes) and a job expo (with panel discussions), taking time out to participate in the making of a feature film, while refreshing oneself with a slew of late night parties. Thus, when the planned Sunday morning screening of the best of the festival was canceled at the last minute, it seemed a huge sigh of relief was heard all around Pasadena. The marathon aspects were punctuated by a number of top-notch events and plentiful opportunities to schmooze and network, but were also besmirched by an often confusing scheduling and other teething pains. The Celebration itself was wrapped around a revival of the Los Angeles International Animation Celebration (1985-91), a festival run by Terry Thoren on behalf of Expanded Entertainment, distributor of the International Tournée of Animation. Thoren eventually bought Expanded and Animation Magazine (which organized this year's event); and now, in addition to these enterprises, Thoren functions primarily as CEO of Klasky Csupo (Rugrats, Duckman, etc.). The old Celebrations were mostly held in the Nuart Theater, a comfortably run down revival house in West Los Angeles, which lacked the luxurious ambiance of such festivals as Cardiff and Ottawa. This time around, though, the Celebration was ensconced in the elegant and spacious Pasadena Civic Center, which houses a 3,000 seat concert hall, along with two exhibition spaces; Animation Magazine's International Business Conference for Television Animation was held in the nearby Doubletree Hotel, and the Academy Theater was drafted for additional screenings (including a mini-anime festival).
World's Largest What?
Touted as the "world's largest animation event," it may seem ironic that the sheer magnitude of the event was cause of its weaknesses. It was obvious that many of the problems were associated with trying to do too much, especially given the fact that each of components were handled by separate organizations. There was the schedule of screenings, World Animation Celebration, then there was the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Opportunities Expo, Miller Freeman's New Animation Technology Expo (NATE, sounding suspiciously like NATPE,) The International Business Conference of Television Animation (IBCTVA,) the Women in Animation Seminars, The Animation 2000, and many other small events scattered throughout. People complained of having five different schedules, and it was sometimes only after the fact that you realized what you had missed. The only sensible way to stay on top of it all, perhaps, would have been to have a full-time personal planner, or to clone yourself. To compare WAC to established international fests like Annecy, Ottawa or Hiroshima seems unfair. WAC is not a festival, it is a "celebration," and in that identity it is most confident as a large networking, professional and educational event. Focusing on those strengths, there were several aspects of the Celebration that went off seamlessly.
The International Business Conference of Television Animation (IBCTVA) at the beginning of the week went along smoothly and was full of informative panel discussions sprinkled with top-notch international executives, mixed in with presentations by a variety of international studios, as well as an effective keynote address by Nelvana's Michael Hirsch.
The ASIFA-Hollywood Job Opportunities Expo, now in its fourth year, benefited greatly from being part of a larger attraction. Taking place on the closing two days, and in a central location, the Opportunities Expo rapidly became the place to meet people. It was both the most expansive and relaxed version of the event, with elaborate booths instead of tables. But the number of exhibiting companies and attendees was down from the previous year, due to a quadrupling of the exhibition and increase of admission prices. Perhaps it was also due to the decline approaching the once-ravenous recruiting efforts of the major studios. Eager portfolio-wielding students and aspiring animators were met with friendly but un-promising meetings with the likes of Disney, Warner Bros., and Dreamworks, who are nearly staffed-up for their feature film productions. Running alongside the exhibitions were a grouping of 45 career-oriented panel discussions, on everything from principals of color keying to career opportunities for post-production personnel. It would perhaps be untoward of us to comment too much on the panels, as we moderated one of each, but they did seem highly productive and quite well attended.
Among the outstanding film programming events was a presentation by Fox, which included a lengthy panel discussion with key players in various Fox Animation projects. Moderated by Fox Family Films president Chris Meledandri, the panel featured in-person Matt Groening, creator and executive producer of The Simpsons, David Silverman, co-director of The Simpsons, Kevin Bannerman, vp of Fox Family Films, Greg Daniels, co-creator and executive producer of King of the Hill, Maureen Donley, executive producer of Fox Feature Animation's debut effort Anastasia, Ben Edlund, creator of The Tick (now being developed into a feature film for Fox,) Margaret Loesch, chairman and CEO of Fox Kids Network and Mike Judge, creator of Beavis & Butthead and King of the Hill. Bringing all of those creative people together in one place was a notable accomplishment in its own right, and the result was an interesting and informative discussion which left the audience feeling positively charged, and of course, scrambling for autographs and introductions afterwards.
Another excellent program was A Tribute to Aardman Animation, perfectly timed with the studio's 20th anniversary and Peter Lord's Oscar nomination for Wat's Pig. Famed director Nick Park and Aardman co-founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton were in person, and they spoke on-stage in an interview format with moderator Leonard Maltin following a screening of selected Aardman films and commercials.
Viacom president and CEO Sumner Redstone appeared for a highly anticipated and well attended keynote address on the closing night of the festival. While it was a slightly inspiring endorsement of creator-driven animation, unfortunately, Redstone's speech read like an expertly-crafted press release, marred by gloating over the very real accomplishments of MTV and Nickelodeon. His presence, nonetheless, added an air of officiality and importance to the proceedings.
With 40 awards categories, the competition aspect of the festival was the least impressive, being simultaneously enormous and uneventful. Almost all of the independent films had already been seen at other festivals during the past two years, and the proliferation of TV shows, commercials and home video productions really clogged up the program. People were not talking about the films during social times as they usually do at festivals, maybe because they'd already seen them at other festivals during the year, and few people were attending the daytime competition screenings in the uncomfortable, makeshift upstairs theater. The presence of 40 separate awards categories severely diluted the impact of any one award, especially during the final awards show, which turned out to be very anti-climactic and confusing, more like a graduation ceremony than a proper awards show. Ending the show with Terry Thoren's self-congratulatory roll-calling of all festival staff and volunteers on-stage took the focus away from the filmmakers, a shift from the usual "behind-the-scenes" invisible persona of festival organizers.
Overall, the after-festival buzz about Hollywood is positive; exchanges of impressions among colleagues ring with phrases like "I had more fun that I expected to," and "It was great for networking." Well, fun and networking are two good things. The pressure and expectation on WAC were particularly high, as this was something that has been hyped-up relentlessly in the industry for years without any results. Everyone was exhausted at the end of the week, a good sign that an event was appreciated, or it could just ,mean that the closing night Klasky Csupo day-glo party got a little WAC-ky. . . . Organizers say that the festival will happen again in 1998, so it looks like those of us who went this year will get to enjoy another week in sunny Pasadena, and those skeptics who waited this year out will have to come out from hiding in their studios and join us. See also the list of WAC Award winners on the World Animation Celebration official web site, and Harvey Deneroff's pre-festival interview with director Leslie Sullivan.