Day Two's Evening Screening with ASIFA-SF

SF’s Dolby Laboratories in Potrero Hill hosts tonights screening of the Oscar-nominated shorts for SF’s ASIFA chapter. As if I’d had any doubts that I was among serious animation fans, chapter president Karl Cohen’s next announcement, that the Balboa Theater will be screening some Gumby shorts in honor of the recently-deceased Art Clokey earns an audible gasp from the audience. This group loves animation, and lives animation.

By Andrew Farago

Later Thursday evening, we reconvened at San Francisco’s Dolby Laboratories in Potrero Hill for a special screening of the Oscar-nominated shorts for SF’s ASIFA chapter.  I arrived 45 minutes before the screening for an opportunity to talk shop with Javier, and was not at all surprised to find out that almost a dozen ASIFA members had arrived before me, hoping to stake out good seats in Dolby’s theater.

Within five minutes of my arrival, there were another dozen ASIFA members, and by the time Ron, Javier and company arrived, there were probably 40 people—all of whom were at least 30 minutes early for the screening.  Being new to the industry, Javier actually went unnoticed as he walked around the room, so I caught up with him pretty quickly and asked him about his time in the U.S. so far.

His biggest regret has been that he hasn’t had any time to draw in his sketchbook while he’s been on the road, since it’s been one cool venue after another since his arrival.  Javier’s a very humble, very self-effacing guy, and he doesn’t think of himself as a great artist, but he’s “good enough to pay the bills” with his comic book work.  His sketchbook was packed away in the car, unfortunately, so I didn’t manage to get a look, but I’ll make sure to bug him about it if I ever make it to Granada.

His comics, for the most part, are done for the French and Flemish markets, as their thriving comic book industries are able to pay much better and offer significantly higher exposure than their Spanish counterparts.  The Spanish comics industry is very limited, and relies heavily on reprints of American comics, so there’s little opportunity for someone to produce work that will find a welcome audience back home.

As a result of his comics training, he fell into animation almost by accident.  “You know how to make comics, right?  That’s pretty close to storyboards.  You should work for us.”  And the rest is animation history.  His family had strong doubts about his career choice, but winning the Goya—the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar—and netting an Academy Award nomination have managed to convince them that he’s got a future in this business.  (I’ve heard variations on this story from at least a dozen other animators.  Oscars carry a lot of weight with moms.)

As much as he enjoyed his other visits, Javier was really excited about his impending trip to Pixar, and was hoping to cross paths with Brad Bird or Bill Presing.  “What I really like about Pixar,” he said,”is that you can see one of their movies, and you know right away who directed it.  With other studios, it’s just a product.  But with Pixar, it’s art.”

And if anyone at Pixar wants to hire him, dirt cheap, he said that he’d be happy just to have a small drawing table out in the hallway, with a stack of paper and some pencils.  I’m sure it would violate any number of labor laws if John Lasseter scooped up all of the best talents from Europe and locked them away in Pixar’s sub-basement, but I’m sure that other studios have done worse.

Javier ran down the list of sites he’d seen in San Francisco, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, the cable cars…and had seen so much that he couldn’t remember it all, so I’m hoping that his group managed to take lots of photos while they were tooling around the city.

It’s not Javier’s first trip to the United States, as he spent an extended period in Rochester, New York studying English as a teenager, but it’s his first visit to the west coast, and it would be hard to make a better first impression than a whirlwind tour of Dreamworks, Skywalker Ranch, ILM and Pixar. 

All the same, he’s looking forward to a brief period of downtime between the Pixar trip and the Oscars, maybe hitting the beach, getting in a little bit of drawing, and spending some time with his mother and her boyfriend, who’ve also traveled to California.  And if he happens to score some time with Scarlett Johansson while he’s in Los Angeles, he’s certainly not going to complain.

Javier’s trying not to get his hopes too high as far as winning the Oscar on March 7, since he’s aware that he’s up against some stiff competition.  Nick Park has won four Oscars from five nominations, and that one loss came in a year when he happened to have two films up against each other, so it would be hard to bet against Aardman.  “There’s a lot of buzz about Logorama, though,” mentions Javier, “and that might win if the judges say, ‘Nick Park already has enough Oscars.’”  Win or lose, though, he’s thrilled to be along for the ride.

As 7:30 approaches, we’re told that it’s time to go upstairs for the screening.  I’ve only seen the Wallace and Gromit short at this point, and am looking forward to watching the rest, especially The Lady and the Reaper and Logorama, which I’ve only heard described as “something no distributor will touch in a million years,” and I’m curious to find out just what that means.

Clusters of 10-15 people at a time crowd into Dolby’s elevators, and the Spanish contingent and I catch one of the last cars to the third-floor theater.  One passenger, unaware that she’s riding along with some Oscar nominees, asks “What night are the Oscars this year?”, and three Spaniards chime in “March seventh” almost before she’s finished asking the question.

We take our seats, and ASIFA-SF President Karl Cohen approaches the podium to welcome everyone and run down a list of other upcoming ASIFA events.  The always popular “Careers in Animation” seminar has an impressive list of professional animators already on board for portfolio reviews and networking opportunities.  Karl promotes an upcoming screening of Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary about Disney’s “lean years” in the 1970s and 1980s prior to the release of Little Mermaid, and he warns that “some fans online really love it, and some critics really hate it.  I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t tell you which group is right.”

As if I’d had any doubts that I was sitting among some serious animation fans, Karl’s next announcement, that the Balboa Theater will be screening some Gumby shorts on April 1 in honor of the recently-deceased Art Clokey earns an audible gasp from the audience.  This group loves animation, and lives animation.

Karl surrenders the podium to Ron Diamond, who thanks everyone (probably 100-plus, which is great for a weeknight during a week of really unpredictable, often-rainy weather) for attending.  He talks about the origins of the tour, and the underappreciated art of the animated short—which is almost always on the chopping block when the Oscar committee determines which awards to hand out on television and which ones are only worthy of the pre-recorded, not-to-be-aired ceremony.  John Lasseter, thankfully, uses his influence every year to ensure that the shorts get their fair due, but it’s a constant battle, supposedly.

Eight years ago, Ron started the AWN Oscar Showcase Tour, and although this was a lean year as far as director participation is concerned (those international travel schedules can be a nightmare to coordinate, I’m sure), but it’s still going strong and he wants to make sure that these directors get the VIP treatment they deserve, if only for a couple of weeks.

Ron points out that, with the exception of the digital-formatted Logorama, all of the shorts will be presented in 35mm, which draws another gasp.  It’s the perfect audience.

The program starts with French Roast, followed by Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty, then The Lady and The Reaper.  Three comedies, each with a streak of dark humor, each computer-animated.  All three drew big laughs from the audience, and it’s hard to predict if any of them will win over the Academy.  French Roast seems to be the most “slight” of the three, and the Granny O’Grimm piece would be almost as funny if it were a spoken-word album, so I’d give the nod to Lady and the Reaper if this were a three-horse race.  The comedic timing, the pacing, and strong use of pantomime make it a real standout.

Next up was Logorama, about which I’d heard nothing except that there might be some copyright issues that would prevent it from seeing a wide release.  Which is like saying that there might be some problems if Godzilla were dropped into downtown Tokyo during rush hour.  Without spoiling anything, I’ll mention that about a half-dozen of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world are going to do everything in their power to supress this film if it wins the Oscar, which is probably reason enough for the Academy to recognize it. 

Wrapping up the evening’s program was A Matter of Loaf and Death, the latest Wallace and Gromit short.  It’s almost not worth the effort of writing about it, since the review for every Wallace and Gromit is exactly the same.  Wallace is an idiot, Gromit tries to keep him from getting killed, but working together they manage to save the day, and Nick Park and the crew at Aardman turned in another brilliantly-timed, funny, enjoyable film.  I’m tempted to file that away for future reference, since I’m sure I’ll love the next Wallace and Gromit film, too, for exactly the same reasons.

Ron, Javier, Enrique and Raul take the stage again after Wallace and Gromit wraps up, for the ever popular post-screening Q&A.  The questions run the gamut from the basics (“Where did you get the idea for this film?”) to the esoteric (“How did the stereoscopic 3-D differ from ‘traditional’ 3-D?”), but the crew handled them all admirably.  

Raul had the best short answers of the night, when asked how to describe the Spanish animation industry:  “Crazy people.”  Followed quickly by, “we’re doomed.”  

When asked about his next project, Javier shrugs and says, “L.A.  Then holidays.”  Which is all he really needs to say.  When you’re off to Hollywood for a week of parties and you’ve already made history in your home country, I think you’re entitled to a little downtime.

Andrew Farago is the Curator of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum and the author of the forthcoming Looney Tunes Treasury from Insight Editions.

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