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AFF: The Truth Behind the Festival Controversy

Animation veteran Thom Richardson travels to the inaugural AFF event, uncovering the truth about the controversy that has swirled around the new traveling festival.

Downtown Moose Jaw. All photographs courtesy of Thom Richardson unless otherwise noted.

ASIFA-Saskatchewans Animation Film Festival (AFF) was meant to be a showcase for the regions growing animation industry and not the flash point for tensions within the global industry like it became. Designed as a moving festival, which would take place in a different Saskatchewan city each year, the inaugural event took place in the south-central city of Moose Jaw from March 3-6, 2006. Held at the Moose Jaw Civic Centre, the home of the Western Hockey Leagues Warriors, the locale seemed to be a great choice providing scenic beauties like Crescent Park as well as attractions like the Tunnels of Moose Jaw where Al Capone was rumored to have hidden out.

The four-day event was filled with competition screenings, retrospectives and panels. The flight from Malaysia where I recently started work on a 3D feature called Jump Jalle Jump, about an 8-year-old Malaysian boy who finds a magic pair of Air Jordans while working in a Nike factory, was grueling to say the least. After I left the pontoon plane at Old Wives Lake, I settled into the bed and breakfast, where my fellow jury members were staying.

Because of the delay I missed the first three screenings and panels of the day. Having spoken to folks who attended the screenings, many said From Dark Clouds Fall Bloody Tears: A Retrospective of Eastern European Animation was an unusual, but bold choice to kick off the festival. This was to be followed by a screening, hosted by Leonard Maltin, highlighting the history of satire in animation, however, the Screen Actors Guild threatened to boycott Canadian productions. To avoid compromising the festivals goal of promoting animation by spurring a complete collapse of the industry, the screening was pulled from the schedule. The next screening was a compilation of trailers for upcoming animated features from around the world, which featured the talents of Tom Cruise, Jena Elfman and John Travolta.

I was more upset with missing the first three panels of the day, which included Direct-to-Cellphones: Disneys New Sequel Strategy, Motion Capture: Making Animation Outsourcing Easier and Why We Even Bother: Non-Disney Execs Discuss Disneys Pixar Buy. But it was an easy choice to skip the two competition feature screenings, so I wouldnt miss the last two panels of the day.

The first Pencil Pushers: The Plight of the 2D Feature Exec collected many former execs from various 2D studios to find out what job prospects are open to experienced 2D vps and development directors. With many companies closing down their 2D units, many execs who have lost their jobs are finding it harder and harder to find new work. As Alec Lacoix, a former 2D exec at Bluth Studios, said, With no training or knowledge of story, its been hard to make the switch to the 3D realm.

With technology advancing so fast, execs need to keep up-to-date with the latest technologies just like the artists. Paul Wallis, a former exec at Fox who now works for the fledgling Chinese firm Frushin Bros., commented, Before I used Quicken on a Mac, but now I have to figure out [Microsofts] Money on a PC. Because all our software is pirated I cant call the service line for help either. Its tough, but you have to change with the industry or be left behind.

The first day of conferences wrapped up with a scholarly debate titled, How Low Do We Go: The Audience IQ Crisis. With half the panel comprised of college professors from such universities as UCLA, Penn State and Yale and the other half comprised of a whos who of childrens TV execs, the panel discussed the new challenges that Generation ADD presents for childrens programming.

Franklin Steinburgwitz describes audience IQ.

Franklin Steinburgwitz of NBC said that lowering IQs and attention spans affect networks more than cable stations. Having to meet certain government educational requirements, network cartoons need to contain a certain level of educational value. Before coming to NBC, I worked on PBS Liberty Kids, which we discovered many kids couldnt relate to because they became confused by concepts like the American Revolution and newspapers, said Steinburgwitz. We had to reduce the average age of our test audiences to three. A trial was done on tween-aged chimpanzees, but that was later abandoned because data didnt match the average six to 13-year-old. The chimps family social interaction was found to be more attentive or focused than the typical American family unit.

That night the big retrospective screening was Animated GIFs: Six Second Masterpieces. With most of the crowd a little restless, though still polite, festival director Gordy Jagarsky presented the lifetime achievement award to IM Buddy inventor Chip Gore, who was visibly moved by the recognition, saying, So many people said that changing the standard colon dash parentheses into a moving smiley face was a waste of time. This and my house in the Hamptons have proved them wrong.

After the screening, as some of us walked to Bullwinkles Bath House for the first of three late night hentai retrospectives, the first seeds of conflict that would haunt the tumultuous last day of the event started sprouting. Many felt that Mr. Gores lifetime achievement award was undeserved. Some even questioned whether Gore even knew how to animate. During a much needed soak as the festival screened Wicked City, I chatted with the offended animator Bud Laskey, who informed me that he worked for Gore, who Laskey claims wouldnt know Maya from XSI.

Laskey claims that Gore made wild promises to all of his employees during the dotcom boom of the late 90s, but failed to pay any of the employees. Like any aggrieved animator, instead of filing a lawsuit, Laskey hit the Web with a fury, posting Gores shady business practices on various forums. Laskey lamented, But nothing came of it.

After a festive night of drinking, the next day started slowly for me I must admit. Fridays panels were dedicated to the growing mobile market. Topics included: How to Make Money in the Mobile Market, How to Exploit the Mobile Market to Make More Money, How the Big Players are Exploiting the Mobile Market to Make More Money, How Is the Mobile Market Exploiting the Big Players to Make More Money and How is the Consumer Being Exploited by the Big Players and the Mobile Market So the Consumer Will Have No Money.

In screenings, the first shorts competition screened as well as two additional competition features. The first two retrospectives were Nuts for Animation: History of Cartoon Genitalia and The B+ Showcase, which featured a lively, but somewhat spotty program of shorts that just missed the competitive selection cut. The top showcase retrospective of the evening, hosted by historian Jeremiah Cane, celebrated the work of ink & painter Les Banks.

Ink and painter Les Banks circa 1999. Courtesy of AFF.

The ink & paint artist worked on three shorts, Warner Bros. Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943), MGMs Red Hot Riding Hood (1943) and Disneys Cleanliness Brings Health (1945). All three films were screened. Banks coloring technique was showcased best in Cleanliness perfectly mixed deep blues and purples used to highlight the Careless families depressive backwater South American hygiene customs.

Cane presented slide after slide of detailed close-ups of the various cels from each production, driving the screening into the night two and half hours after it was scheduled to conclude. In closing the event, to the remaining crowd of fifteen, Cane accepted Banks lifetime achievement award on the artists behalf for Banks was unable to come to Canada because of an incident with an undercover cop and MySpace, which is still under investigation.

Once the lights came up, I rushed over to the second hentai retrospective and was quite disappointed that I missed the latest installment in The Moral Hazard series. Nonetheless, it was nice to see a festival have the guts to embrace all aspects of the animation industry like AFF did. Controversial productions like Forbidden Love and Daiakuji are too often censored for their sexually provocative subject matter. Its nice to see an event have progressive thinking to challenge norms by presenting films with previously taboo topics like demonic sex acts and school girl bondage fantasies.

I quickly forgot about the films I missed once I had a few sakes in me. The late night hentai retrospectives were a great place to meet people. The laid back atmosphere of the bathhouse made for a hip setting for networking with fellow attendees. I was able to meet a lot of really nice people, especially two PR reps from a new Russian gaming firm. The aggressive tactics used by the gaming industry to get the word out about their companies is awesome. I lost their business cards and dont remember the companys name, but I definitely wont forget Natasha and Lati.

Once, we left the retrospective, with festival director Gordy Jagarsky, Bud Laskey was there with about a dozen 2D animators and confronted Gordy about filling the jury with his friends and studio hacks, which Gordy fervently denied. This is when he personally attack me, claiming I was a sell-out who dissed by 2D roots by moving to Asia to direct a CG feature. I reminded Mr. Laskey that he animated on a computer as well, but Laskey said, I work in Flash out of necessity. Paint on glass is my medium of choice, you philistine.

Even though I didnt get much sleep that night with Lati consoling me after the hostile exchange, I was still able to get up by 10 the next morning. Having missed the first competition shorts screening of the day and student portfolio review, I opted to skip the Machinima Workshop for Dummies and caught the Parents Suck: The Best in Student Shorts screening. I was thoroughly impressed with the professionalism of the student work and how they dealt with adult topics like world peace, crystal meth and music. Twelve films dealt with child abuse, thirteen films addressed various reasons why President Bush is dumb, a thought-provoking five-second short addressed attention deficit disorder and the final film was a heartbreaking tale about a young boy whose mother doesnt believe in his dream to become a rodeo clown. As an artist myself, the personal angst felt all too real.

Skipping the second B+ Showcase, I went to check out the Is CG The Cure for Cancer? panel, but was unable to get in because I had forgotten my panel pass back at the room. So I had to run back to the b&b were Lati was in the lobby eating a muffin, so she helped me look for my pass, which I found behind the mini-bar. I was able to get back to the panel to catch the tail end of the discussion on techniques of yesteryear. It was fun to chat with some of the high school students there about how animators once used pencils. They caught on pretty quickly after they stopped pushing the eraser like it was a delete key.

Talking with the students energized me so much I decided to skip the competition feature screenings and attend the Art of Prayer: Career Tips for Students discussion. Several industry insiders laid out to the students the lousy job prospects. Some freelance animators gave helpful tips on resumes and portfolios, how to apply for unemployment and where the best soup kitchens were in Southern California.

In a promising note regarding new opportunities in the industry, recruiter John Hudson said, With the line between sexual orientations blurring more and more in Hollywood these days, the casting couch is no longer just a career advancement choice solely available to women.

Students Benjamin Graph and Linda Von Rein loved Pound Puppies and hope to make their own 2D feature upon graduating.

At the close of the session, I was able to talk to some of the students about what they thought about the realities of the industry and most of them were confident enough to disregard what the professionals had to say under the firm assumption that their talent rivaled that of John Lasseter. What I like best about talking to students over veteran animators is their optimism and untainted sense of awe. The fact that I worked on Pound Puppies wont get me anywhere in the industry today, but two girls from BYU thought it was totally awesome. Its that kind of attitude that makes me continue to volunteer as a mentor.

The big event on Saturday night in the screening hall was the Tribute to the Voice Work of Tim Allen. As part of the presentation, the festival screened clips from Toy Story, Toy Story 2, the Toy Story 2 videogame, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins and the Win, Loose and Kaboom! episode of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. The tributes presentation was spectacular. I liked the ice-dancing rendition of Allens career performed by the Disney on Ice skaters. Many of the animators who actually brought Allens characters Buzz Lightyear and Meldar Prime to life were asked up on stage to discuss their experience working with the digital representation of Mr. Allen.

Then in a sad attempt to co-op the event for his own 2D agenda, Laskey took the mic, telling the audience the whole presentation was a farce and conspiracy. After he was removed by two very helpful mounted police officers, host Tom Kenny got the audience laughing again. The only other blight on the evening was when Jonathan Taylor Thomas came on stage to accept Mr. Allens award on his behalf and went into an ill-advised routine of poorly execute cartoon voices in a veiled attempt to revive his own voice over career. Not since presenter Cory Feldmans brutal rendition of Elmer Fudd at the 98 Annie Awards has a celebrity so offended the cartoon community.

Unlike the previous nights hentai retrospective, the mood was much more restless. I noticed that the festivities were much more segregated with the Cartoon Brew Crew not mingling with the elite 2-G Mafia members of the L.A. Chapter of SIGGRAPH. After two previous late nights of networking, I called it a night early.

On Sunday, I was up bright and early and was surprised at how warm it was for March in Canada. The warm breezes of Moose Jaw make it a wonderful location to spend 11-hours a day in a darkened theater or cramped conference room.

After indulging in the incredible all you can eat ham breakfast served at the b&b, I made the hard choice of skipping the final competition shorts screening and instead attended the American Pitch session. The workshop allowed up-and-coming artists to pitch their projects to industry insiders, which included execs from Nickelodeons Sasha Broomfeld and the BBCs Nigel Lineberry as well as experimental animator Dennys Taboni.

As hopeful artists pitched their projects to a packed crowd of screaming thirteen-year-old girls, boisterous debates between the judges made for an exciting experience. In one heated exchange over an experimental animated program featuring hyper-colored butterflies and large-breasted chicken ladies living in a colorful post-apocalyptic world created by globalization, aimed at the pre-school demographic, Broomfeld merely tried to nicely break it to the artist that even though his work was vibrant and original, it didnt have realistic commercial potential. This spurred Taboni to call Broomfeld an industry hack, who is the sole reason why progressive non-narrative art is not getting on TV.

A shot of the villain, The Hag, from Silly Sidekicks.

The audience voted for their favorites, choosing five finalists that will then be represented by AFF, who will pitch the projects to various studios on the artists behalf. The finalists include: * Doug Younghusbands Jumbo Shrimp, which follows a tiny, optimistic shrimp and his dimwitted, talking mango, best friend, named Flick.

* Trevor Lynchs Judo Jive Jam, an anime-style show that follows a pack of foul-mouthed samurai rappers who engage in bloody street fights while addressing current urban issues from a Caucasian perspective.

* Shannon Walkers Purrrrr, Kitty Kitten Scratch Scratch Kat Fight Club, an anime-style action-adventure show, which follows a band of cute kitten kung-fu masters as they try to save the world from destruction.

* Hung Lees Robot Monster, an anime-style comedy show, which follows the difficulties of a giant monster cyborg living among real giant monsters as he tries to make a name for himself as a DJ, in addition to saving the world from destruction.

* Thom Richardsons Silly Sidekicks, a CG series, which is set in a world where all the superheroes are banished into an alternate dimension and the worlds sidekicks must step up and save the universe from destruction while staying true to their comic relief origins.

After the winning the American Pitch session, I was flying high and looking forward to the next panel, Political Cartoonists: The Real Axis of Evil, but a fire led the event organizers to cancel that session. So, I popped in at the Spotlight on America screening, which showcased the U.S.s influence on the history of animation. It was a remarkable collection of work, but many felt it was unwarranted. Ive been going to events all over the world for years and have seen retrospectives on every other country and it was refreshing for a festival to highlight the contributions of American animators like Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, John K and Brad Bird for a change.

I stayed for the beginning of the next screening titled, You Gotta See This!, a collection some of the worst films submitted to AFF. One terrible film from a 13-year-old boy paying tribute to his mother who died of leukemia was so trite and maudlin that it had the entire crowd in stitches.

After a half hour, I skipped out on the screening to catch the tail end of the final panel of AFF If We Ran Things: An Animation Forum Member Discussion. Because of the earlier fire, the discussion was moved to the amphitheater in Crescent Park. To keep the same lively vibe of anonymous contempt and lack of decorum as an animation forum, the panelists were shrouded behind dark screens and went by their usernames. The panel included CG_Conspirator666, Disney_Sux8672, Disney_SucksTK421, AnimeShawn and PixelChix.

CG_Conspirator666 laid out an interesting scenario where the animation business is really in cahoots with the oil, pharmaceutical and firearms industries to turn a profit. He/she said, Its not about art; its about telling a well-crafted story, which can connect with a wide audience. Its really just a form of mind control so people will buy more DVDs.

AnimeShawn then added, Any true artist worth anything must be unproduced and underappreciated until after their death. Its obvious that the reason I havent got a TV deal is because my stuff is so much more advanced then some stupid exec can handle. If you want to see what I mean visit my blog and if you are an exec and like it then text me and well get together because youre obviously the one smart one and are not retarded and can make the proper decision on what deserves to be on Cartoon Network.

Lati (left) and Natasha (right) get cozy with animator Michel Estrada at Aucun Français Frit Ici.

After the final panel, there was time to spare before the awards ceremony, so I meet up with my longtime friend, Michel Estrada, whose short was in competition at AFF, Natasha and Lati and we had a wonderful diner at a small café called Aucun Français Frit Ici. Once we were done chowing down on some fine French cuisine, we headed over to the theater for the awards ceremony. And this is where the controversy of the event really came to a peak.

We took our seats in the auditorium and when Gordy, the festival director, came out to welcome everyone half the audience booed him. This is where even as Gordys friend I must admit that he made a mistake. He told the audience to fk off and it was his festival and could do what the fk he pleased. This spurred a good portion of the audience to skip the formation of paper airplanes and just hurl their programs at the stage.

So this is the point in which I feel AWN misrepresented what happened in their original news coverage of the event (AWN 3/10/06). As a member of the jury, I can assure you that being frat brothers with Gordy and shorts winner Michel was not a conflict of interest. Were objective people. The artsy fartsy crowd felt Ukrainian Ivan Uganslavskys 44-minute scratch film, Zilch, was a shoo-in. However, we believed that the slow-moving ode to the abuse of female North Korean farm workers under Soviet rule was really a downer and kind of boring. And just because I didnt go to any the competition screenings doesnt mean I hadnt watched the trailers. In the end, we chose Estradas CG comedy, Canned Nuts, which follows the misadventures of a silly squirrel who gets his testicles caught in a vacuum-packed jar at a peanut factory and must free his genitalia before the jar is boxed and shipped out. The reason we cited for picking the film was for its edgy and compelling story line with attention to detail as well as just being piss-your-pants funny.

This is when rabble-rouser Laskey led the Cartoon Brew Crew to storm out of the auditorium and go post nasty things about the event on their blogs. They said the event was just a studio tool, but I disagree. Just because Madagascar, Chicken Little, Valiant, Robots, Hoodwinked and The Magic Roundabout were the six features in competition doesnt mean we were blatantly kissing ass as some said. We picked Madagascar for compelling CG designs and wonderful voice casting. AFF is a tough festival to get into. The criteria clearly states a film either has to make $100 million dollars at the U.S. box office, finish #1 at the U.S. box office or be at least 70% produce within a computer to be eligible for awards.

I think calling the event a total disaster like some in the liberal and conservative media have been saying is an over exaggeration. Unlike E3, AFF kept the lights on. Unlike, Annecy the audience wasnt melting in their seats. People these days always want to dwell on the negative. But Im happy to report that The Animation Film Festival will again be back in 2007 for its corporate sponsors said theyll back down to controversy in a second, but have no qualms profiting from it.

Thom Richardson is yet another pseudonym for AWNs managing editor Rick DeMott, who excitedly looks forward to writing AWNs April Fools article each year. AWN would like to thank iStockPhoto for the images.