If you like to second-guess jury decisions, Ottawa '96 was the perfect animation festival for you. Almost as good as the O.J. Simpson trial. Even the Grand Prize Winner engaged in some public secondguessing.
When Russian animator Igor Kovalyov came forward to accept his best film of the festival trophy for Bird in the Window, he was suitably gracious if somewhat stunned. He thought Priit Parn would win it for his film 1895.
This was the perfect ending to an enjoyable animation festival that featured some peculiar choices for inclusion in the competition, several surprising prize-winners, and no clearly outstanding triumphs. So it was easy to second-guess things here.
I'm not suggesting in any way that the jury was less than competent or that Bird in the Window was an unworthy winner or that the festival's line-up was skimpy. On the contrary, Kovalyov's film was richly designed and intriguingly plotted. The festival itself was crammed with good movies that were, given certain limitations, wellprogrammed. And, in determining the awards, the jury was impressively skillful and diplomatic in finding ways to ensure that no one felt cheated. Second-guessing is much easier when first choices aren't very obvious, when no one dominates. That was the case at Ottawa this year.
Surprisingly, the most competitive category of all had to be the one for first films. The National Film Board of Canadasponsored award in this category went to Mike Booth for his fiveminute film The Saint Inspector. Amusingly described in the program as the story of "a higher being in a state of pious bliss [who] endures the attention of a meddling official", this bizarre and irreverent film proves that England is securing its future as the model-animation capital of the world. Yet few people in the audience would have objected if any one of the nine other films in the category had been given the prize. The overall quality was that good.
The jury indicated just how good by giving special mention to two other first films--to the boldly black and white (no colors, no greys even) film Tale about the Cat and the Moon by Pedro Serragina which takes anthropomorphism in a slightly different direction, and to the elusive Lazarus by Vanessa Cruz.
More revealingly, two other films from this category, the hilarious Hilary and the equally funny Gagarin, already recognized at other animation festivals, were multiple award winners in the craft and media areas here. (And Da DA, also a firsttime effort, was not entered in this category.) So it looks like the near future of the art of animation is very bright.
In case you haven't already heard, Gagarin by Russian animator Alexij Kharitidi features a cute Disneystyle bug who has a taste for adventure. During a badminton game he hitches a ride inside the shuttlecock. The story switches to his point of view as he is batted back and forth between the badminton players. The celanimation here is expertly rendered, the overall timing is marvelous, and the humor warm and refreshing. It won craft prizes for animation and humor.
Hilary by Michael Hodgeson, another British model animator, is an offbeat bedtime story told by a cynical dad as he takes his bewildered young son on a weird trip to slumberland. While the animation of the two main characters is pretty elementary, the trick of concentrating on the background details and the jaded attitude of the father's tale more than compensate. The clever writing won it prizes for best story and for most popular film in audience polling.
If there were any films at Ottawa '96 which, on the basis of awards, inched ahead of the rest, Gagarin and Hilary were the ones. And they were firsttime films. Does this mean that the all's right in the animation world? I'll leave the second-guessing to you.
Then There Were Shorts
Combination Skin, Hodgeson's second film in the festival, proves just how competitive the short animation (under 10 minutes) category was. In this slight variation on Hilary, a mother babbles at her wideeyed son in an eerily danklooking reptile house. Although the narrative is equally quirky and the puppet animation a decided advance on Hilary (if somewhat more conventional), Combination Skin could only garner a special mention. It and Piet Kroon's Da DA, a well-drawn but predictable parable about conformity and parental competitiveness, lost out to on of the more curious choices at the festival--Joe's Apartment: Funky Towel by Chris Wedge.
A zany send-up of Esther Williams' synchronized swimming musicals of the 1940s, Funky Towel choreographs cockroaches in a filthy toilet bowl. While it is based on a great premise and is nicely orchestrated, some audience members wondered why it wasn't in the promotional works category since it is a music video excerpted from a feature film. Not exactly controversial, but it did lead to some lively discussions.
As did the additional prizes awarded in the short animation category. Alice Stevens' Yellow Shoes, a mock documentary that could easily have won the educational category (where, oddly, no prize was presented) was cited for outstanding design. Vuk Jevremovic's The Wind Subsides was singled out for its energetic line drawings of wild animals running. As was Petra Freeman for the unusual technique of Jumping Joan, an award that was met by many quizzical looks from the crowd.
In another tell-tale indication of the current state of animation, five out of the six films entered in the overtenminute category were designated for recognition of some sort. What this means is hard to fathom--unless you were the unfortunate sixth entrant.
Paul Driessen's The End of the World in Four Seasons, with 8 and 9 images competing for the viewer's attention at the same time, took the category prize. By doing so, he somewhat redeemed the NFB's reputation, which had been tarnished more than a little by having all but two of its films rejected for the competition in its home country. The other NFB production, Robert Doucet's stirringly beautiful folktale Flying Canoe won the best Canadian film award; so the NFB went two for two (or maybe 2 for 20).
Priit Parn's amusing but perhaps overlong twisted-history of the LumiereBrothers before they invented cinema, 1895, won a special prize for design. And Wat's Pig, a dauntingly detailed, often split-screened medieval story of a ruler and his poor, misplaced twin, done in claymation by Peter Lord, helped win Aardman Animations a Special Jury Prize. It was a pretty good year for long-form animation.
Promos, Educational & TV
The most bloated category in the entire festival, not surprisingly in this overly and overtly commercialized era, was the promos and ads category. Twenty-two productions were in the running for prizes.
In a refreshing challenge to the predominance of brassy, computer-generated, 3D modeling, the first prize was given to Winnipeg animator Cordell Barker for his simple animated doodles on Quebec telephone bills. For those of you wondering about what happened to this Oscarnominee (for The Cat Came Back), the award shows that he has not lost his touch; he's just narrowed his audience and temporarily succumbed to the lure of advertising.
As if further evidence is needed for the current state of affairs in animation, the promos and ads category had almost as many entries as the final four categories: children's, educational, made-for-television, and episodic television. Two of these categories (educational and episodic TV) were (arguably) too under-represented for the jury to decide on an award. Whether this means that good stuff is not being done or whether it is just not making its way to Ottawa or whatever, is where the good secondguessing comes in.
In the made-for television competition, Nick Park's latest Wallace and Gromit story, A Close Shave was clearly more ambitious than its two main competitors Johnny Bravo and Raging Rudolf.Johnny Bravo, a celanimation about an overmuscled, politically incorrect Elvis lookalike with blond hair, is already slated to be a TV series, but it was less interesting than some of the other Cartoon Network material. Raging Rudolf is a clever retelling of the Christmas reindeer's story in terms of Scorsesean profanity, intimidation-tactics, and gore.
As amusing and precise as Nick Park's previous efforts, A Close Shave was missing some, perhaps indefinable, quality. It pits the hard-working Gromit against a sheepnapping, controlling pet of a knitting-store owner with whom Wallace the inveterate inventor is smitten. While it is marvelously inventive and pleasing, it is already too familiar to legitimately claim "Best of Show" awards.
Likewise the Simpsons episode Treehouse of Horror VI: Homer 3D which, despite its computergenerated graphics and Tron references, was neither as funny nor as biting as the best episodes of this series can be. Still, the jury selected it, in an unprecedented twinning of the Grand Prize, as the winner for Best Television Production. Intriguingly, there was no prize in The Simpsons' regular category. Plenty of room for speculation and second-guessing there.
If the competition part of the festival was not quite up to the quality of some previous festivals, the rest of the events at Ottawa '96 were spectacularly successful.
Retrospectives of the works of German animator Raimund Krumme, Estonia's Priit Parn, the incomparable Shamus Culhane who labored in many of Hollywood's animation factories, Kaj Pindal and Derek Lamb from the NFB, and especially Fedor Chitruk from Russia not only showcased the immense talents of these animation giants; they also showed, inevitably, how indebted many of today's animators are to their work (including festival winner Kovalyov) and how alert many other animators should be to their techniques and especially their storytelling mastery.
Screenings of rare Israeli and Mexican animation were less rewarding, except to show that Israel was influenced too by UPA, and Mexican animators can do full frontal nudity and sex better than anyone.
A salute to Nelvana Studios of Toronto, a sampling of the Cartoon Network's new shorts (previously unavailable in Canada, although already hits with many of the Americans in the audience), and the premiere of the NFB's new feature animation La Plante Humaine all served as welcome tonics to the crushingly opportunistic previews of Warner Bros.' break-the-bank Michael Jordan film Space Jam and Disney's latest ventures into feature-length advertising for plastic merchandise available at McDonalds.The highlights of the festival for me were the screenings of Greg Ford's long-awaited documentary Freleng: Frame by Frame and the personal favorites chosen by Honorary President Louise Beaudet from the vaults of the Cinémathèque Québécoise.
Ford's thorough examination of the contribution of Friz Freleng has to be the best study of animation ever filmed. Freleng has too long taken a back seat to his more garrulous Warner Bros. contemporaries. With many examples from classic films, Ford demonstrates why Freleng's flawless sense of timing and unsurpassed use of music should give him pride of place at Termite Terrace. This was long overdue and well worth the wait.
Louise Beaudet's program featured exquisite prints of some remarkable artistic animations. Oscar Fischinger's wonderful 1937 An Optical Poem with its lovely geometrics, two of Lejf Marcussen's hard-to-see films The Public Voice and Lederkonkurrence, the legendary Frank Film and UPA's excellent The Telltale Heart (both firsts for me on the big screen), as well as the incomparable The Thieving Magpie were but a few of Beaudet's fine choices. They will provide lasting memories for me.
In this day of inane cartoons for TV, ritualistic cloning of empty successes, and the relentless throb of rampant commercialization (all of them in evidence at Ottawa '96--this was a festival with a wide sweep), it is invigorating to see that undeniable masterpieces are still allowed to share the program.The Ottawa International Animation Festival may be known far and wide for its pumpkin-carving picnic and its opening and closing night parties (in a grunge bar called The Cave, complete with enough pool tables to let even the neophytes at AWN compete, and then in the actual Canadian Parliament buildings, no less). It's also renowned for its willingness to combine the business of recruiting with the necessities of useful workshops (a great one on the making of the 3D Homer) and the pleasures of seeing new animation. All of these things, plus the generous sampling of works from the masters, have made this the "festival of choice" for many animation fans. There's no secondguessing that.
Gene Walz is head of the film program at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. He is currently finishing a biography on character designer Charlie Thorson and is now editing a book called Great Canadian Films.