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The Lyrical Lines of Tsvika Oren

Tsvika Oren has been deeply involved in animation for the better part of 30 years - creating, teaching, writing, judging, jurying…

I first met Tsvika Oren when he served on the jury at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in 1998. A few years later I contacted him while I was in Israel on a visit, and asked if I could show him an early draft of a short film I wanted to make. He listened with great patience and offered valuable and insightful suggestions on storyline, imagery, etc. The visit being over, he accompanied me out the door to catch my cab. On a busy street corner in Tel Aviv, he gave me a goodbye hug and as I jumped in the cab he waved me off with these memorable words: “Don’t forget to have fun!”

Preliminary sketch for Mermaid S.O.S.

“Have fun!” Very telling words. Tsvika’s animation is a lyrical play of line, gently tugging on the viewer’s imagination, perplexing them, teasing them, charming them. Immersed in animation for over 30 years, he has had a hand in shaping many of the animators who are behind the flourishing industry in Israel. He continues to teach at a number of institutions, produce fine personal animation (he independently produced over 30 films), write for a variety of journals, chair ASIFA Israel, and the list goes on.

What drives this indefatigable animator, teacher, journalist, thinker? I contacted him by email to find out.

SK: Tsvika, tell me a little about your own work as an animator. I recently watched “Mermaid S.O.S.” which is delightful film, full of whimsy.

TO: I make films because I have a need to and because I enjoy it tremendously. As a rule, I adopt to the means available to me. Only one of my films was made with a grant. My conclusion of the experience was that, for me, it does not justify the time and effort necessary for getting financed.

Each of my independent films was (and is) a unique experience. With all the criticism I have I do like every one of them. Each one contains some aspects I was curious about. Thus, besides the pleasures of animating and of self-expression there is also the pleasure of discovery.

Of my commissioned work the most exciting was designing and animating sequences for an avant-garde theater show, “Alice in Wonderland”, adapted by director Steve Solomon and artist Hadas Ofrat for the Jerusalem Spring Festival 1979. I loved the cast, the rehearsals, the magic of actors interacting with animation back-projected on a huge screen, as well as the challenges: the limitations of budget and backstage space meant the film had to be projected via a mirror on to the screen. To solve the distortion I drew the animation in a suitable opposite distortion. Was wonderfully stimulating.

Other commissioned films I loved were all those I’ve worked on at the Eyn Gedi Studio. Mainly because the studio was at the edge of kibbutz Eyn Gedi, with a magnificent view over the Dead Sea and next to a beautiful oasis. It’s a pity the studio closed down in 1987.

Still image by Tsvika Oren from Alice in Wonderland theatre production, 1979.

SK: How did you fall in love with animation? Is there a first film in your life?

TO: Impossible to point out a single film. My introduction to animation was through the pleasures of Disney features and WB + MGM cartoons. The exciting realization that animation is also a personal art form came thanks to NFB films, mainly McLaren’s. Among the earliest personal films I saw, loved and was stimulated by were Ryan Larkin’s 1972 Street Musique, Frank Mouris’ 1973 Frank Film, Paul Driessen’s 1974 Cat’s Cradle, Marcell Jankovicz’, 1974 Sisyphus, Alison de Vere’s 1975 Café Bar, Bob Godfrey’s 1975 Great I.K.B, George Griffin’s 1975 Head, and in 1976 Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro non Troppo, Caroline Leaf’s The Street and Kihachiro Kawamoto’s Dojoji Temple. I still love all of these films (and many more).

I went to the London students’ film fest 1972 and to Annecy 1973 - two wonderfully shocking and stimulating experiences for the hungry ignoramus I was at the time.

SK: Tell me a little about your encounter with the films, what drew you in.

TO: Some are stimulating in their narrative structure (as well as visual and movement qualities), like The Street, Cat's Cradle, Great I.K.B, and Allegro Non Troppo. Movement as communication - emotion, weight, body language, etc. are very exciting in films like Sisyphus and Street Musique. The latter has in addition the wonderful suggestions of sub-texts. Frank Film and Head are thought provoking. So is the Dojoji Temple use of a theatrical approach in lighting, design and staging. These are only a very few of the films I love. There are many excellent cartoons and personal films which, as I see it, are a must for anyone creating animation.

SK: You've been teaching for years and hundreds of students have passed through your classes. What are the major themes that you consider the most important to communicate to your students?

TO: I’ve been teaching a wide variety of courses, combining hands-on experience with history and theory. It seems academies here prefer now separating practice and theory. I find it a sad mistake. So, teaching history and theory of animation now, my aim is to help students make over 100 years of animation become part of their creative vocabulary. It is an enjoyable process, full of adventures and discoveries.

One of the most important concepts I push is that of nonjudgmental curiosity. There is a lot to gain out of developing the ability to find interesting, stimulating components in any film one sees.

Another concept is that in order to get the most out of a film, one should find out about the environment it was created in - cultural, social, scientific, etc.

SK: Can you expand a little more?

TO: Here are four of the basic concepts I present to students doing personal films:

1. There is no GOOD animation, design, sound, etc. or BAD, only suitable (or not) to each specific film.

2. Accidents should be treated as possible blessings. Instead of crying over spilled milk one should check whether the milk stains can contribute to interesting developments.

3. Each person has a unique combination of characteristics, habits, (dis)abilities, cultural background, etc. A creative person should define these and use them as tools to be used creatively. For example, a 50 cm tall person may walk on very high heels to achieve average height OR make use of his/ her unique point of view.

4. Making time to animate spontaneously – even as little as 15 min a week – is important for discoveries and for remembering what a pleasure animation is.

Still image from Diary 1 by Tsvika Oren

SK: Are most of your students university based?

TO: Far from it. In over 30 years of teaching I ran the widest possible variety of hands-on courses. Different needs require emphasis on different concepts. One can imagine the difference between the workshops I’ve run for families with very young kids and those for live-action filmmakers. An extremely unusual one was a workshop with convicted criminals at a maximum security prison. The aim was to get them to cooperate in a noncompetitive manner on a long-term production. Teaching basic awareness to movement as communication and to cinematic story telling were all that was required of me. That and my not worrying too much about any unsatisfied ‘student’ feeling the need to pay me a visit when he got out of jail.

SK: Many filmmakers are using YouTube as a venue now to show their work. How does that compare for you against festivals?

TO: As I see it, there is no comparison. Important festivals have clear criteria for selecting films; treat films and filmmakers with respect – screening quality, credit, rights, etc.; publish catalogues with carefully checked info, and so on. YouTube, on the other hand, is a kind of Town square. The positive side of it is that it is open to all. Enables one to observe, discover, play at drawing conclusions and to pick up subjects for study. It’s wonderful to find there interesting films. At the same time, one can never rely on it being the whole film and nothing but the film. As for quality, it often is like seeing a poor book reproduction of a great painting; good for getting an early impression until a proper viewing is possible.

Another aspect is that most of what I see seems to ignore the specific viewing conditions of the web. It’s as if the films (let’s agree on this term) were made without any conscious awareness of the medium chosen for their exposure. Of course, I may have missed those made as “web art’. Or maybe such web based works just aren’t there yet and will gradually develop.

Still image from Diary 2 by Tsvika Oren

SK: Tell me about your Diary films.

TO: I was invited by ReAnimacja festival, Lodz, Poland, to give a master-class on spontaneous animation. I thought it could be interesting to do, as an example, a bit of animation whenever I find time. Sort of an anthropological study of my thoughts, associations, etc. It was a nice surprise to find that it communicated my pleasure of animating and that people liked it. And so I completed it as a film with music by Martin Westlake, an experienced musician living in France. I previously had only some Asifa related e-mail exchange with him. Communicating with him by mail on sound for the film was pure joy.

Diary 2 too was not planned to be a film. I was curious whether animating free hand would indeed express what I feel. I did it in different moods, detaching myself (as much as I could) from my drawing hand. (My hand was acting independently, with me watching it so it doesn’t cheat - no careful lines, no beautiful drawings.) Animating time was limited to a maximum of 15 minutes before the pleasure of animating spoiled ‘the Mood’. Showing the accumulated Moods to close friends has convinced me it’s worth screening. So – another exciting cooperation with Martin Westlake and Diary 2 was born.

Still image from Mermaid S.O.S. by Tsvika Oren and Avi Ofer

SK: Mermaid S.O.S. (2004) wasn’t made by traditional means. Tell me the story of that film.

TO: The film was made as an adventure. No script. It started with one of Avi Ofer’s drawings. We met once a week for a couple of hours, asking ourselves “What can happen next?”. Talked story possibilities, sketched, animated and then went home to think, play, animate and sketch our different versions. When we met again we would view the animation and sketches that each of us had made during the week, choose, refine the animation, talk about possible developments and again go home to play.

It was all done on an early version of Flash – Flash 4. Very animation friendly.

SK: The drawings are very whimsical. You mentioned that you were drawing with a mouse and that Avi animated with a wacom pen. How did that work out?

TO: We tried at first each doing a different part. It didn't look right. The difference in line qualities could not serve this specific film's reality. The animation I did could be regarded as inspirational. Avi did all the final animation. We discussed together nuances of movement and talked possibilities of story developments, making our choices together. Same for the animation. Some of the ideas were acted out, some were fully animated and some only key animated. It really was pure fun.

The DagBack image (Dag = fish in Hebrew) is a sample of the many sketches we did for the next stage after the fish exited right. As you can see, each leads to a very different story about the fish adventures off screen.

Dag Back, preliminary image from Mermaid S.O.S. by Tsvika Oren and Avi Ofer

Since we did not commit ourselves to making a film, it was a let's-have-fun-maybe-a-film-will-come-out-of-it, we felt free to play at being detectives exploring situations we had invented.

Surprisingly, after 7 weeks we had a film we felt was worth showing others.

Indeed worth showing others, and certainly worth watching, as are all of Tsvika’s lovely films.

You can catch “Mermaid S.O.S.” on the web at http://vimeo.com/19791592 . Also watch for Tsvika’s films in retrospective screenings and at animation and film festivals.

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