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Winners and Losers

Mike Smith discusses his opinions on how value is placed on animation whether by studio executives, festival judges or awards, and how chronic mismanagement and ignorance hold the art form back from what, artists are capable of creating and audiences accepting.

From the first time I put pencil to paper, to the first time I put drawings to film, I have always known the artistic potential and variety one can find with animation. For every voyage of discovery, one is faced with a multiple of new possibilities. Over my twenty years of working in animation, I have been lucky enough to work with or encounter a variety of talents that are easily observed as individuals, or just as easily obscured within the layers of teamwork that some productions demand.

Mike Smith. Courtesy of Mike Smith

Probably the most fulfilling period of my career so far was running a studio in London that became an open door to such talent. I became aware of the shear amount of talented artists and diverse animators that had little or no platform to make their own films or add their individualism to the commercial business. At that time London was opening up to more inventive thinking and more creative design. Even though it was locked into the world of commercials and short films, it was a fine time for different kinds of animators to be noticed. Understandably, the industry today is aimed very much at moneymaking and the so called `common public appeal.' Something that produces films as valid as the next, but also determines the repetitiveness and shortsightedness of most major studios. There would seem to be few targets for independent animators to aim for and be able to express themselves to the public. This is one good reason for major art and film bodies to help promote the cause of animation. Allowing more innovative work to be acknowledged by such institutions would be inspirational to animators and audiences alike. Indeed, even with one of the most prestigious awards like the Oscars, one is sad to hear such phrases banded around as, `They are thinking of abolishing the animation category,' or `They will only win if the film is humorous.' Festivals and Competitions There are, of course, the animation festivals. A time when even the most unknown of animators are able to show their films to whomever attends. A chance for animators to strut the boards of recognition, and share views and opinions with fellow animators to remind themselves why they first embarked on the long costly process of finishing their work. While this arena is much appreciated and well worth the effort involved, when attending these festivals, the feeling of lots of animators agreeing and looking inwards at each other somehow feels empty on the grander scale once the festival is over. Admittedly, on a personal level, these festivals can be very inspiring. They can fill the imaginative mind with a bigger view of the world and give an encouraging push to express yourself through the medium. From that point of view, the festivals are an important and necessary part of the animation calendar. When one considers the richness within a festival and what might be gained by more public awareness of them, it is unfortunate to observe a competition that must produce its yearly winners and losers. The fact that some festivals become internally political about what kind of film is better than another, or that certain competitions favor character or humorous films and others favor the more art oriented films, would seem to balance out fine. Animation awards claim to be open to all comers, and quite often certain notable films are ultimately brought to the top for certain reasons. I recently was asked to be a judge at a prominent festival. At first I was apprehensive and suggested they were asking the wrong person, but I hadn't been to a festival for some time and thought it might be an interesting and eye opening experience. Indeed, it struck me how many different ideas were shown, and how many artistically creative animators still practice their craft with such a personal touch. On the face of it the festival was a very fulfilling event for me. What spoilt my involvement, was the endless discussions behind closed doors and the arguments that followed, accumulating to the decisions that as judges, we were forced to make. A selection committee had apparently `weeded out' the films that were not good enough for competition, leaving the five judges with a selection of possible prize winners for different categories. The fact that some categories only had two, or sometimes only one, selected entry didn't seem to phase the organizers. I was told, 'If you don't like it, then we won't give that prize away.' I can only imagine what it must feel like to be presented to a festival as the singular entry, and be told publicly that you didn't win. However the other alternative is to be told as a judge that this is the winner.

On one occasion I even found myself defending an entry that was deemed by one judge as sexist and an injustice to women. The film in question was one of a series and was made by a women with an original sense of humor and a uniquely personal touch of despair to the main character. After much table banging, where I was informed by this same judge that she would `not allow' this film to get a prize, and being told that I could not possibly understand as I am not a woman, I was offered the `deal' that if I change my opinion about a film from another category, then the film in question could win. While debates of this nature can be healthy and interesting, I was in no mood to be branded a sexist or argue any further, so I agreed if only to move on.

Then there is the problem that five judges must face together when five differing favorite films need to be narrowed down to one grand jury prize. This had to be the longest and most futile meeting or argument at which I have ever had to be present. After all, isn't the most celebratory aspect of an animation festival to proclaim the scope and versatility of the medium? With this in mind, it was impossible to find everyone in agreement. This was another endorsement of the strength to be found in the versatility of animation dialogue, yet another weakness in our ability to understand how to portray this to the world. While certain animators get caught up in it all and wish for the grand prize (some even secretly expect it), they are lining themselves up as we were as judges, for the impact of disappointment and failure. In the end, if only to stop the late night into early morning circular argument, the inevitable politics made its ugly appearance. 'You can give that an award, if I can give this an award' and, 'If you don't let this one win, then I won't let that one win.' Yes, even the grand prize winner was whittled down until there was one film about which all five judges could agree was something interesting. No, it was not anyone's original choice, but even if it had been 4-1 or 3-2, the process was less than fulfilling for me and left some in the audience with dismay as to our choices. The trouble with contests in the field of art is that it leaves as much of a bad taste in the mouths of many, as it becomes a personal victory for one. Why do we set ourselves up like this? I do not claim to have a complete or better answer than the way things are, but I don't feel very comfortable about it either. It would be nice to believe that an objective choice had been made each year from broad and open minds; perhaps a voting system in festivals from those who attend, or a selection of overall prize winners that might make up the final event and not one film isolated for one reason. After all, to our industry and its public, festivals should be a celebration, not a competition. As far as the more visible competitions, such as the Oscars, one can only hope that they will try to broaden their view of animation and help make it more prominent to the public. I attended the viewing of the last ten selected films for Oscar nomination consideration, and found it very poorly attended. If the views of the Academy's members are that lackluster, or if they are content to let the Oscar stand for their predictably traditional attitudes, then so be it. But as a very visible stage to the world, it would be a wonderful way to promote the position of animation, at least for that one moment, as a part of the filmmaking world, rather than a subject they just as traditionally brush under the red carpet. In Hollywood terms, animation has proved its worth in money making and popularity. This should be mirrored in their yearly accolade to themselves and not seen as an afterthought. A Smarter Public I believe the public's perception of animation to be of an art form that is always inventive and full of surprise, both in its visual strength and its entertainment value. However, Hollywood's perception of what the public will accept is tainted and under constant pressure from the major studios and governing bodies of filming. It's a 'which came first' type of situation: do the public need to be told what animation is, what to expect and how to accept it, or are they able to understand and enjoy a more varied animation look, accept new ideas, genres and films that cater to differing age groups? This would not even be a question seriously attacked in most studios, as the bottom line is how much money is to be made. Making a film can obviously be a big investment, however the industry at large is built purely on the success of its last major, and sometimes comparatively unexpected, hit. An animated feature idea that may not fit into a tried and tested merchandising formula will ultimately fall into development hell. A film that delves into a different format of story telling would not be given consideration. A director with a vision and a differing approach to filmmaking would be kept under control. A director who writes an original story or script would be deemed to be a problem to many of the studio executive chains of command.

It seems that within live-action, it is possible to find, and quite rightly so, the acceptance of individual ideas, seriously good writing, independent filmmaking and a variety of styles within its film language. In animation, we are forced to work and express ourselves with the equivalent of one repetitive sentence. Short of one or two examples, the film industry, that makes more then a pretty penny from the interest in animation, should address this issue. While top executives build their careers and move up their success ladders, I can't help but helplessly watch their bad and wasteful decisions. They even claim their success on the backs of films that have battled through micro-management and committee decisions, producing hits by default. They will develop so many this way, hoping one will be their hit. I was pleased to hear in some studios that there may be the dawn of a new approach, in that some projects in development might be taking on this challenge. Even on a smaller budget scale, a risk should be afforded toward a greater variety of animation films for their audiences, as well as to aid their search for new audiences. The perception of our industry needs to have creativity at its helm and be raised to a new level of understanding among audiences. When festivals or award ceremonies offer some limelight for animation filmmakers, the politics and manipulation of the public's perception should not continue. We should be openly and loudly applauding the animator's ability to communicate through a variety of mediums.

I was asked to write my comments in reference to awards and how such awards are decided on in the first place. I do not profess to be an expert or have all the answers, but like so many others, having swam against the current of an industry that has so much to offer and is forever held back, mismanaged or misunderstood, I do feel the inclination to point out how comfortably numb we are as the glory days of more feature production houses and bigger pay packets struggle to continue. When the feature animation boom occurred not so long ago, I was among the many who were promised a change along with it. I remember a lot of executive dialogue to the tune of, `We don't want to be just another Disney.' I remember many top executives claiming they wanted to make more adult oriented material, or teen to adult. I remember three very big people in the film industry starting up their own major studio and claiming they were going to place the art of filmmaking back in the hands of directors. Well, in truth no one really owes anybody anything, but I found most of what I was told was a means to get one under control as opposed to being in a position of control. Prominent awards and festivals can be extremely helpful to the industry of animation, not as a support system of a money, power hungry mentality, but more as a voice for everything that's usually hidden underneath. Mike Smith has been in the animation business for twenty years, working on shorts, music videos and features.

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