Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.12, March 1998

Thinking about the World Animation Celebration `98

by Michelle Klein-Häss

Ray Harryhausen, who brought puppets
from the production of his stop-motion
visual effects, was presented a Lifetime
Achievement Award by modern-day
counterpart, Ken Ralston.
© Craig Skinner/Celebrity Photo,
courtesy of WAC.

Well, here I am after a week of WAC and I'm pretty much none the worse for the wear. Then again, I spent a full day at the Internet Pow-Wow on Monday, took Tuesday completely off, went to only a few events on Wednesday and Thursday then attended solid screenings between 1 to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday. Some of my friends who attended the festival did a lot more and they had the blood-shot eyes and stooped, pooped bodies to prove it.

One observation comes to mind immediately...if WAC `97 was a well-oiled machine, WAC `98 was sort of like a car that needs a tune-up. Perhaps it was the fact that the second one happened less than a full year after the first, perhaps it was too few people riding herd on too many events, perhaps it was the Sophomore Curse.

Monday, February 16, 1998
The Internet Pow-Wow was a splendid event, although I suppose I would have to reply "guilty as charged" if someone accused me of bias. After all, it was the day the New and Improved
Animation Nerd's Paradise was officially launched, and it was also a day full of wonderful information I intend to put into practice on ANP and other web sites of which I am in charge. The highlight was a panel which paired Internet pros with animation artists like Christine Panushka and Corky Quakenbush. After an entire day hearing tech speak, it was very handy to get some perspective from those who perhaps aren't as technically inclined as myself and the majority of the presenters.

Wednesday, February 18, 1998
The screenings and events I attended ranged from the great to the so-so. Wednesday brought a tribute to Speed Racer (Mach Go Go Go!) which featured an episode of the classic 1960s animated series; the Dexter's Laboratory homage "Mach 5;" a peek at the absolutely hideous 1980s-vintage Speed Racer series made by Fred Wolf, and about half of a newly dubbed episode of the upcoming Speed Racer 2001 series. I have a soft spot for Speed Racer, although it took a recent marathon on The Cartoon Network to remind me exactly why I liked the show in the first place. Speaking of The Cartoon Network, vice president of original programming (and confirmed Animation Nerd) Linda Simensky hosted this event.

Also on Wednesday, Bill Plympton's I Married A Strange Person unspooled. Early mentions of the show claimed this was the Plympton feature's "West Coast premiere," but the feature had already screened at Sundance weeks earlier...technically Utah is part of the West. I Married A Strange Person has its moments of hilarity, but unfortunately it simply goes on for far too long and repeats itself a lot. You get the idea that Strange Person would have made a great short or featurette, but as a feature it suffers.

Thursday, February 19, 1998
Thursday I took a peek at the films in competition screenings, but was driven out by the quality, or rather lack thereof, I observed. What clinched my disgust was Shikato, a seemingly interminable (It was almost 8 minutes in reality.) series of blackout skits featuring some primitive, sub-Atari animation of mooses who bump into each other in slightly different ways. Perhaps the folks who enjoy those home video shows of people falling down in slightly different ways would find it funny...I just found it tedious.

Thursday concluded for me with two screenings: the 1981 semi-classic adult animated feature Heavy Metal that was introduced by its supervising director Gerald Potterton, and a tribute to the wizard of dimensional animation, Ray Harryhausen. The former is something I have seen a few times in the past. The sophomoric humor doesn't really stand up well, but the final sequence, Ta'arna, still is as fresh as when Heavy Metal premiered so many years ago. One complaint about the Heavy Metal showing: the sound system in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium is not up to the task of playing high-quality multichannel stereo sound. One hopes that THX or some other professional theater sound company would step up to the plate next year and donate a decent stereo system for use during the festival in the Civic and also in the Gold Theater upstairs.

The Harryhausen tribute was wonderful. The master showed clips from his work, ranging from his Mother Goose shorts from just after World War II all the way to Clash Of The Titans. With most of the Golden Age animation directors no longer among the living and many of the remaining ones in very poor shape, it was thrilling to see and hear that Mr. Harryhausen was still very much alive, well and mentally sharp. Thanks to the use of projection video, everyone in the house got a chance to see Harryhausen's amazingly detailed sketches and original models from his movies. One hopes that a publisher would approach Mr. Harryhausen with an offer to do an "art of Ray Harryhausen" book in the near future. Harryhausen was presented with a WAC Lifetime Achievement award for his vast catalog of work.

One thing that rankled, however, was the characterization in some of the festival materials of dimensional animation as an "archaic" form of animation. Yes, 3-D computer animation is thriving and the means of making 3-D computer animation are becoming more and more accessible, but dimensional animation, whether using clay or latex models or even existing, unmodified toys and dolls, is still a vital and thriving art form.

Animation legends Joe Barbera, left and William Hanna,
right gathered with several of their former colleagues,
including Margaret Loesch, Jean MacCurdy, and Lucille Bliss
© Craig Skinner/Celebrity Photo, courtesy of WAC

Friday, February 20, 1998
Friday I attended two more events: a screening of the first episode in the Japanese original animation video (OAV) series The Peacock King and a salute to Hanna-Barbera Studios and its founders Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. The Hanna-Barbera event audience was full of H-B alumni and was a symphony of nostalgia. The clips shown were almost exclusively from the "classic" H-B series of the late `50s through 1966. The MGM years were represented by the Tom & Jerry short, The Cat Concerto. The event ended with the presentation of a WAC Lifetime Achievement Award to Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.

Next came The Peacock King...a mess, but a beautiful mess. We were shown the first episode of this anime OAV effort: a tale which mixes Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist mysticism, evil neo-Nazis from Germany on the loose, and the time-honored story of the young hero and his elderly mentor into a chaotic stew. I'd probably want to seek out other works by the creators of The Peacock King, but as far as the rest of the episodes of this OAV series, I don't think I'd be too interested.

Saturday, February 21, 1998
Saturday, the last day of WAC, was a real busy one for me. I got to the festival about ten minutes after the first screening I wanted to see, the Corky Quakenbush/Space Bass presentation, got under way. Luckily, I didn't miss much beyond that annoying WAC intro bumper and a few introductory words. Those who think Quakenbush's career started with MAD TV got an eyeful of his earlier work, plus a good chunk of his MAD TV-related shorts. Interspersed with the screenings were giveaways of Space Bass-related goodies. Quakenbush is a real talent, and will probably make an impact on the animation industry to rival fellow animation iconoclasts like Danny Antonucci, John Kricfalusi and Ralph Bakshi.

As soon as the Space Bass show ended, the big Cartoon Network event in the main Civic Auditorium venue beckoned. Plans for a quick jaunt around the ASIFA Animation Opportunities Expo were dashed as I had to choose between the one screening I really, really was looking forward to all through the week and the Expo. By the time the Cartoon Network show would be over, the Expo would be closed. However, I learned from friends who were attending that Expo `98 was significantly smaller than the previous year's event, and that most of the studios were not being very aggressive in their hiring.

The Cartoon Network event was the worthy decision. This show was also hosted by Cartoon Network's Linda Simensky, and featured a lot of material from the vaults of the first cable network devoted entirely to cartoons. It included a hilarious Dexter's Laboratory short, "Rude Remover" which like the legendary Ren & Stimpy episode "Man's Best Friend," will never be shown on television. Also in the "forbidden" category were a couple of WWII-vintage classic shorts, Tex Avery's Blitz Wolf which was his first cartoon for MGM, and Friz Freleng's 1943 Looney Tune Daffy The Commando. It was good to see these cartoons on the big screen, and only Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarves would have been a better choice among the "banned 12" Warner Bros. cartoons.

However, the event did not totally revolve around forbidden delights. We got to see the premiere of another Dexter's Laboratory cartoon, "Dee-Dee and The Man," a bunch of Cartoon Network bumpers which as you know are often funnier than the programming, and the unveiling of a work in progress, a pencil test of one of Spümco's new Ranger Smith shorts. The latter was great; a classic John K. moment, full of over-the-top energy and theatrics. This and another Ranger Smith short will be seen sometime this year on the Cartoon Network. Hang on to your Ranger hat!

After the Cartoon Network event, I got a little time to catch my breath and grab a quick bite before the John Coates event started. The Coates salute was nice, although the promised "clips from Yellow Submarine never seen in America" were not shown. All Submarine clips were as I remembered them from several viewings. Also The Beatles animated series was barely touched upon and nothing from that series was shown. Most of the clips were from Coates' output as a producer and were his latter works like The Snowman and When The Wind Blows to his most recent short, the Elvis-as-cat opus Famous Fred. Coates was awarded the third of the three "Lifetime Achievement Awards" given at the festival.

After the Coates salute, we were ushered out only to have to get back into line for the penultimate event of the evening: the World Animation Competition awards. The big winner of the night was Piet Kroon and his short T.R.A.N.S.I.T. This gorgeous evocation of the Art Deco and Streamline Modern art styles of the 1920s and 1930s tells a tale of skullduggery and sex amongst the Beautiful People of Europe. It won both the "Best Animated Work Longer Than 5 Minutes But Shorter Than 15 Minutes" category and the Grand Prize of the show. Bill Plympton's I Married A Strange Person won the coveted "Best Animated Feature" award, beating out the somewhat more deserving (and Annie-awarded) Cats Don't Dance. Corky Quakenbush's Clops short for MAD TV won for best dimensional animation, and got some of the loudest applause and cheers from the audience. Pixar got an award for Geri's Game in advance of its probable win at the Oscars, and Steph Greenberg received the award for "First Work Made By An Independent Animator Intended For Public Exhibition" with his `Net-influenced short, The Physics of Cartoons.

But the disappointments continued...Why did The Simpsons, a show long past its prime and hanging on strictly due to goodwill and the King Of The Hill's audience, prevail not only over King but also Beavis and Butt-Head, South Park, and Daria? Why did the plug-ugly Beauty And The Beast: The Enchanted Christmas win anything? The mind boggles.

At Week's End...
Summing up? WAC has a lot of work to do in tightening its focus and getting a better grip on the technical and organizational problems it faced this year. Perhaps WAC should be a biennial, along the lines of Ottawa and programmed for the years that Ottawa doesn't happen. WAC should also consider pushing the next Celebration to a Summer date. Apparently, a lot of the art student population could not get this non-vacation time off. A Summer date would also give WAC the advantage of having its pick of the best student works from schools like Cal Arts, UCLA School of Animation and Art Center College of Design. If NATE isn't going to come back to WAC next year, why not call on the organizers of AniFX and have them exhibit?

I wish I could call WAC a success. I cannot say it was a failure because a lot of fun events happened and I took home some great memories. But it could be a hell of a lot better. Mr. Thoren and Ms. Sullivan, the ball is in your court.

Michelle Klein-Häss is a San Fernando Valley-based writer, Associate Editor of Toon Magazine and Editor/Webkeeper of
Animation Nerd's Paradise.

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