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The Animation Pimp: Why is it NOT DONE?

Animation festivals have sunk to a boring level of similarity, staid programming and a repetitious circle of participants. The Animation Pimp challenges a shake up.

Insignificant and occasionally interesting contributions to the cognition of reality

Illustration by Andreas Hykade.

Illustration by Andreas Hykade.

Saw an interesting program at the Holland Animation Film Festival in November (2002). It was called Not Done and was put together by a Belgian chum of mine, Edwin Carels. The three-part program consisted of films and videos (by the likes of Martha Colburn, Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow and Leslie Thornton) that challenge the notion of what is and what is not animation in terms of both content and technique. What I found more interesting was Carels accompanying text where he asks: "Why does a medium in which virtually anything is possible, in which the imagination has free reign and the laws of physics dont apply, so rarely shock its viewers?" And in particular, he takes animation festivals to the carpet for contributing to this stale situation by: not seeking out filmmakers in the experimental, avant-garde or art gallery world; not showing more performance-based work from animators like, for example, William Kentridge; not being a forum for serious debates about animation.

This is not the first time Ive heard this complaint. In an article in the 2000 Holland Animation Film Festival catalogue (which was reprinted in the Spring 2001 ASIFA magazine), Canadian animator Pierre Hébert was critical of the current state of animation suggesting that it had become a recluse unwilling to open its doors to new possibilities.

Conservative and Homogenous

Although Carels is attacking my bread and butter, I tend to agree (in principle) that animation festivals have all become fairly conservative and homogenous. No one really cares about animation festivals as a forum for serious discussions. They are primarily a forum for buyers, recruiters, ASIFA members and drunks. From retrospectives to competitions to jury decisions, everything is relatively peachy keen. Sure, some folks mildly bitch to their friends about this or that decision, but rarely is there any sort of loud, meaningful debate about a film or a program. Even at Ottawa '98, when we got into trouble for showing this apparently racist Polish film called Black Burlesque, it wasnt the animation community that yelled and screamed at me, it was two Canadian Jewish associations.

And despite all the talk about experimental and cutting edge animation, festivals are not actually showing anything overly radical. We hear that Robert Breer, Stan Brakhage and Martha Colburn are animators, but when did you last see their work at an animation festival? Rather than rely on the same old crowd of independent, student and studio animators, festival programmers have got to attend mixed-media and experimental festivals, art galleries, video shows i.e., the other cinema. We can kick animation in the balls and awake it from its decades long drool and bring in some fresh voices.

And as Carels suggests, why limit presentations to traditional film-video screenings? What about installations, dance performances, theatre? Artists like Pierre Hébert, William Kentridge and Kathy Rose all merge animation with performance arts. The problem here however (at least from an Ottawa Festival perspective) is that a single performance costs significantly more than a regular film screening. So, you knowwhat can I sayIm copping out a bit here, but do I spend thousands of dollars for a one night performance thats going to attract half capacity and leave me with no money for any other programs JUST to win the respect of assorted intellectual-artistic hipsters?

But It's Not So Simple

Then again what is a groundbreaking work? In this post-MTV age weve appeared to have seen it all? As John Waters sorta saidcan anyone make something that is groundbreaking or shocking that doesnt involve sex or violence? In Holland, for example, I went to this difficult Japanese experimental screening and then went to a screening of commissioned TV animation (commercials, music videos, ids, etc.). Aside from artistic intention (one sells a philosophy, the other, shoes), they both seemed stylistically similar. With the proliferation of mass media and the need to fill airtime, yesterdays avant garde is todays Nike ad.

Besides, much of what we show in Ottawa is already considered out there by both the local public and even portions of the animation community. Furthermore, were not some free floating entity; we are government supported and receive most of our money from animation studios, schools and software companies. We have to answer to the needs of those who fund us.

Nevertheless, I think competition and retrospective programs can (and should) be easily shaken up. There are many works that straddle the lines between animation, video art and experimental, and in most cases animation festivals shy away from these works. As Carels suggests, there is a tendency in animation, more than in any other art form, to focus on craftsmanship. Animation folks are obsessed with the quality of drawing and animation. WHAT is being said is generally less important than HOW it is being said. I remember some Animation Nation loser saying that Priit Pärn films were poorly drawnas if there is some set standard of drawing! Or how about those whiners who keep saying Waking Life isn't animation? I meanfirst offShut the fuck up, it IS animation. 2. Shut the fuck up and THINK for two seconds about the content. Bunch of Disney-Star Wars-Tornado-Norstein weened Wankers. Not to keep harping on The Old Man and The Sea (I could also use the puppet films of Barry Purves, the works of Frédérick Back, any post-Creature Comforts Aardman production or Martine Chartrands Black Soul as examples), but while all sorts of animation folks saw this gorgeous, beautiful animated film that used a painstaking fingerpaint technique, I saw a crappy, sentimental film that oh so poorly adapted one of Hemingways few decent books. And then theres the computer. Every goddamn year I am asked why there are not more computer films in competitionwell Ill tell you why, because they suck. The animators are so busy whacking off on whatever cool software they have, they often forget to come up with an actual idea (or at least one that isn't ripped off from some combination of Star Wars-Star Trek-Anime). I kid you not, the computer entries we get (and its the same crop as every other festival) are so embarrassingly stupid and riddled with clichés that our decision process becomes that much easier.

Currently there are too many animation festivals showing too many of the same films, all being judged by the same voices. Its become too cozy and familiar. We need to hear from new voices. We need to get animation artists (and more specifically open-minded animation teachers like Stephanie Maxwell who can introduce their students to something beyond the typical animation canon) together with musicians, poets, digital artists, experimental filmmakers so that these worlds can introduce themselves to each other with the long-term hope that something new and inspiring will emerge. A lot of people in animation bitch and moan (including me) over the fact that festival animation remains this hidden little secretwell given that weve been sitting in our house with the windows and doors locked and the blinds pulled downis it really that surprising?

Chris Robinson is but a man. His hobbies include squirrel taunting, goat thumping, meat dancing and elderly peeping. You can find the results at

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A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.