Final Thoughts on Ottawa 2011
By Dan Sarto
There are a number of things I can always count on at an Ottawa festival. First, I will find myself defending Chris Robinson and the selection process. Second, I will find myself defending Chris Robinson and the selection process with people whom earlier in conversation I had defended Chris Robinson and the selection process. Third, after watching several days of screenings, I will question Chris Robinson’s selection process. Nothing ever changes. I love it.
The festival brings together everything uniquely interesting about the animation industry. Art, commerce, tattoos, the best and worst of kids cartoons, unintelligible films from Asia, alcohol, great student films and big studios walking hand in hand with little studios, agreeing they'll refrain from poaching talent except at the parties. The Ottawa festival brings together big and small, have and have not, legend and newbie together in a unique way - cozy, intimate, unpretentious, inviting. The care that goes into its planning is always evident – from the programming of retrospectives to the variety of master classes and talks, nothing on the schedule seems out of place and each holds its own against the other. It’s tough to arbitrate the constant decision making surrounding what to do and when. Suffice to say, days and nights are always full and I travel home lamenting all I didn’t get a chance to see or do.
Some final observations on the 5 day fest, in no particular order and really, to be honest, displaying limited insight:
- This year saw a larger than usual number of big, substantial films from well-known animators. None were trivial undertakings and all showed just how difficult it is to top yourself film after film. Like high-priced free agent designated hitters, noted directors are expected to hit a home run every time they swing the bat. It’s a tough burden and an impossible and unfair standard to which they are held. Their films this year were all good, even excellent, but not spectacular.
- It seemed like there were several hundred films from Asia that made absolutely no sense. Maybe a thousand. Each one was more completely baffling than the next. Fundamental cultural differences aside, what goes on in these mystical faraway lands that drives animators to make films Western audiences can’t understand? For that matter, can Eastern audiences understand these films? Is it societal pressure to succeed? A diet too rich in seafood and kecap manis? What fuels the need for unique individual artistic expression at the cost of making sense? Payback for Western shipments of grain to Kim Jong Il? Who’s driving this bus?
- Networking at the picnic was excellent. Most pumpkin carving contest entries were unimpressive. The potato salad was flavorless and had way too much mayonnaise. There were forks, spoons but no knifes, so cutting cupcakes in half became needlessly treacherous.
- Let’s just say Dunn’s is convenient and leave it at that. No, let’s not leave it at that. I hate spending good money on mediocre food. Sorry, I’m just fussy that way. Call me Emeril. At most events, breakfast is my go-to meal. It’s the only proper meal I can count on all day. Or at 1 am, after an evening of too much beer and too many Canadian lectures on why the U.S. is ruining the world. My omelets at Dunn’s were thin enough to slide under a door. That would be an appropriate breakfast for someone locked away with a highly contagious disease. But jeez, come on. I have feeler gauges that are thicker.
- The festival seemed well attended. Every screening I sat through at the Bytowne and the Empire Theatre was pretty full. By the way, the Bytowne popcorn was exceptional. Salty, not too greasy, very few un-popped tooth-busters lurking at the bottom of the bag. Whoever handles the concession should teach the cooks at Dunn’s how to make omelets.
- I don’t recall any films that were sidesplittingly funny. Some were pretty amusing, like an Australian Rules football match.
- I was amazed that even when introduced to the crowd, only a few animators walked up front and stood properly for their 5 seconds of applause. I appreciate that shyness, sciatica or a hellacious buzz might make such a trip particularly perilous. However, what filmmakers in attendance failed to realize was that by not standing in the light, so they could actually be “seen,” no one in the audience could see what they looked like. If you don’t know what they look like, you can’t easily find them, say, to setup an interview, talk distribution, or discuss opportunities for work! It’s basic self-promotion and it shouldn’t embarrass anyone.
- A special shout out to the scruffy construction worker who spent 5 minutes outside my window at 7 am each morning, enthusiastically clearing his throat and horfing up god knows what. Thanks bro.
Of course, no final thoughts would be final without final thoughts on some of the films I liked:
Blanche Fraise, by Frédérick Tremblay – this film, which won the prize for Best Narrative Short, is one of the more depressing films I’ve seen in quite some time. Two rabbits, ostensibly a couple, starving to death, losing body parts to traps, finally committing suicide together. As my father used to say, “Oh, a comedy!”
Bout, by Malcolm Southerland – a simple, neat film, a cross between an aboriginal cave painting and a televised boxing match. I especially liked the pacing, which too often in films with minimal visuals, is quite slow and boring.
Fiesta Brava, by Steve Woloshen – Steve’s amazing scratch films display such visual depth, such deliberation, it’s mind boggling to think that someone still makes films by painting, cutting and manipulating real photographic movie film. Frame by frame. Hour after hour. Fiesta Brava is a fast paced, high energy film that exemplifies the very essence of animation.
Galleria, a graduation film by Robert Proch – Robert’s film is solid, artful, beautiful to watch, an expert paring of animation and music that both seem made for each other. If you’ve ever been dragged to the mall by a partner or spouse, then you’ve lived this film more times than you care to admit.
The Goat and the Well, an undergraduate film by Ben Cady – this was one of my favorites, the perfect little animated short. It took home both the Best Undergraduate Film as well as the NFB Public Prize awards. It was simple, the timing was impeccable, the lead up to the gag was just enough and the punch line payoff was quite funny. It paid homage to the short film mantra (also the mantra for bank heists and teen sex) of “Get in, get out, you’re done.”
Guard Dog Global Jam, by Bill Plympton – I’m sure there were times the logistics alone made Bill’s production team question their sanity. However, the end result showed the genius in this project’s “insanity.” This “remake” of Bill’s 2004 Oscar-nominated short Guard Dog brought together the work of 75 animators from around the world, each assigned a scene from the original film to animate in any style they chose. The final film, a visual cacophony, comes together beautifully. As much a tribute to the contributors love and affection for Bill, the final compilation of so many different types of animation does great justice to the original, which is one of Bill’s funniest shorts.
Moxie, by Stephen Irwin – I actually picked this film to win the Grand Prix, which it did. Unlike so many films ruined by pointless absurdities inserted by filmmakers trying too hard to be cute, hip, odd or suicidal, Moxie displayed both the heft and the quirkiness a truly funky, offbeat film must have in order to ring genuine. I didn’t always know what was going on, but it made sense somehow in a completely enjoyable way.
The Renter, a graduation film by Jason Carpenter - It’s refreshing to watch an obviously personal film that doesn’t involve incest, the death by drowning of a young sibling, or famine. Jason’s film captures perfectly the mundane events that in the eyes of a child seem huge, dramatic and often overwhelming. In this case, we join a young boy in day care, battling his perceived demons like Arthur in his quest for the Holy Grail. The visual style is edgy enough to convey the boy’s concerns, but not so much that it undermines the conclusion that all is not as bad as it seems. The film won the Walt Disney Animation Grand Prize for Best Student Animation.
And so, I bid Ottawa a fond "later there, aye" farewell until next year.