Tara DiLullo tackles the vfx commercials, which wowed viewers during Super Bowl XL, to see how the top artists scored such magic.
Now in its sixth year, the British Animex International Festival of Animation and Computer Games was held from Feb. 6-10, 2006. The main talks and presentations took place at the University of Teesside in Middlesbrough, northeast England, three hours train journey from London. The five-day event (screenings ran into the next Saturday) consisted of two days on the computer games industry, a day of workshops and two days of animation talks.
I was only able to attend the second half of the event, which meant I missed out on presentations by games figures such as Richard Levelord Gray, the famed level designer who worked on titles such as Duke Nukem 3D. Arriving on Wednesday, I enjoyed an afternoon workshop class with Ed Hooks, author of Acting for Animators, more on which below. In the evening, I went to a sell-old Lounge event where attendees mingled with many of the guests. The braver souls could try an improvised networking session on speed-date principles, which involved speaking to many strangers very quickly. Being press, I had an excuse to sit this out, but it was great fun to watch!
While this was my first time at Animex, many of the participants were old hands, and I chatted briefly with Stacey Simmons, director of the Red Stick festival in Baton Rouge, which is effectively twinned with Animex. Both festivals share the cart before horse strategy of holding an event to create and nurture a regional industry, as opposed to putting a festival in an established animation centre. The fact that Animexs ident was provided by a young Middlesbrough studio, Seed Animation, illustrates how the strategy is working. Pretty much everyone I spoke to or overheard seemed enthused by Animex, and some students (the audience at which the talks were mostly aimed) seemed almost overawed by the contacts and expertise on show.
The talks began on Thursday, with a lively introduction by professor Paul Wells, author of the book Understanding Animation, who talked about, Its All Gone King Kong Wells discussed the 1933 and 2005 versions of the gorilla epic as touchstones of the industry then and now. There was more animated zoology from comparative anatomist Stuart Sumida, whose talk enthralled even a scientific illiterate like me. Deftly explaining the contrasts between carnivores and herbivores, then moving on to the differences between men and women, Sumida made a case for Mickey Mouse as a cross-dresser. He also argued animation was a bastion of science in a country where, My president doesnt believe in evolution! He finished up highlighting a new growth area theme park attractions whose narratives and robot actors are conceived in CGI, such as the new yeti adventure, Expedition Everest, at Disneys Animal Kingdom.
Character animation was central to two prominent talks. Pixars Mark Walsh surprised everyone by sidelining 3D and focusing on the psychology of 2D stars such as Disneys Beast and Homer Simpson. However, he made a topical allusion during a discussion of character consistency, citing Pixars worries about how a certain studios CGI sequels (now happily shelved) might have diluted Pixar stars like Buzz Lightyear. As well as animation, Walsh extolled live-action performances, picking Crispin Glover as George McFly in the first Back to the Future film and Denholm Elliots butler in the comedy Trading Places.
Walshs points were extended in Ed Hooks impassioned presentation the next day, where he embedded animation in a view of storytelling as that which, serves the tribe, helps the world and makes the difference. He passionately denounced fart gags (sorry, Shrek) and lambasted the closed-off, loser characterization of Jim Hawkins in Disneys Treasure Planet, a godawful movie, which he spent an hour demolishing in his acting workshop. Given Hooks dislike for Jim and his admiration for some Japanese animation, I couldnt resist asking if hed seen the popular anime Evangelion, with its wuss hero Shinji. He hadnt, but said hed look into it.
As an instance of good cartoon acting, Hooks singled out a short sequence in The Iron Giant where the title character bites a car, causing the horn to blare; the Giant tries frantically to stop the noise before throwing the car away. Hooks counted 15 thoughts on the taciturn titans face during the sequence. As an instance of bad human acting, Hooks chose me to demonstrate different types of walk, with my negative acting skills recorded for posterity. If youre going to a Hooks workshop, be warned hide in the back row.
Moving beyond the inner life, Jeanne Pappas Simon gave us an introduction to Face Reading, or how a characters face impacts intuitively on the viewer. Among her drawn signifiers were brown hair (seriousness), square hairlines (workaholic), small eyes (analytical) and cleft chins (sexual passion). Later her husband, Mark Simon, gave a frank, inspiring account of the trials and frustrations in getting a cartoon on screen, using his cruelly hilarious Timmys Lessons in Nature shorts as an example. Among the points he raised were the difficulties for Americans in negotiating with the French (who he said prefer grovelling Americans); the importance of written contracts in animation; and the complete un importance of target demographic age-brackets (5 to 9, etc) in creating Timmy-style cartoon comedy. On the last matter, his advice was, Play the executives game, put the numbers on your pitch, but dont get wrapped up in the minutiae.
Moving to visual effects, Rachelle Lewis, of Digital Domain, took us through the studios work on films like I, Robot and Stealth (though she made no bones about hating videogame movies like the latter). Tony Prosser of Realtime UK gave his perspective on photoreal CGI from the British side, discussing his companys moves into cartoony character animation with a promo for Sonys Buzz: The Music Quiz. From Bristol we heard from Lightworxs Pete Draper, whos been part of a two-man team grinding out incredible effects for a TV sci-fi comedy, Starhyke. Draper presented a hard-hitting talk, aimed at partying students who might be tempted to cut lectures. You have to love this job, he warned forbiddingly. Draper joined Lewis and DreamWorks Shelley Page for an always-relevant session on how not to send showreels to studios.
Fantasy artist Roger Dean, known worldwide for his trippy Yes album covers, talked about developing his imagery into upcoming animated features, the first to be called Floating Islands. Late on Friday afternoon, two more revered veterans, Philip Hunt and Dave Sproxton, took us through the recent dealings of their studios, Studio AKA and Aardman. Hunts talk effectively backed up Mark Simon, focusing on the challenges that AKA faces in pitching commercials and looking at the projects that inevitably come to nothing. Im showing you a lot of failures, Hunt acknowledged, to show it doesnt all go swimmingly. Sproxton screened some upcoming Aardman work, including glimpses of the DreamWorks-animated CGI feature Flushed Away. There was more traditional material on show, though, like a new TV series based round Shaun the Sheep, the woolly hero of A Close Shave.
All the talks were good, but unfortunately there were annoying technical problems throughout the event. Numerous DVDs proved unplayable and there were tiresome problems accessing images on the projector. Even worse, during the Student Animation Awards ceremony (below), the picture temporarily dropped out for several seconds whenever a winning entry was screened, which was enormously irritating. I dont know if there were similar problems at earlier events, but its definitely something to iron out before Animex 2007.
I didnt have any time to have more than a quick look at the screenings going on elsewhere in the building, but there were five programs of student films running through the week, plus retrospectives of Britains BAA animation awards and screenings of this years entries. One could also catch the lucky winners of the Animate! scheme, which supports personal projects for television and is funded by Channel 4 and Arts Council England.
Meanwhile, a cinema in the next town (Stockton-on-Tees) was previewing the live-action/animated MirrorMask, co-created by comics stars Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman, and the The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, the second feature by the avant-garde Brothers Quay. Neither film appealed to me much when I saw them at previous screenings. From a technical viewpoint, though, their extravagant uses of colour and composition in creating off-key, defiantly personal fantasias must have made them fascinating for anyone looking to out-weird Terry Gilliam.
Friday afternoon saw the presentation of Animexs Student Animation Awards, chosen by a jury including Sproxton, Hunt and Page. The 3D Animation prize went to the witty and imaginative Klik Klak, from the Supinfocom Arles college in France. A different French college, Supinfocom Valenciennes, produced the gruelling but powerful Experimental Animation winner 90 Degrees, a film that caused a judge to say, My head is bleeding. The vfx winner was Fabel from the German Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg, a singular tale about a man with a goldfish bowl (plus fish) for his head. Last, the sensitive Kamiyas Correspondence by Sumito Sakakibara won the 2D Computer Animation section. Created by the Japan-born Sakakibara at Londons Royal College of Art, the film was praised as a beautiful and disarming story. It also reminded me of Isao Takahatas 1991 anime feature Only Yesterday.
Andrew Osmond is a freelance writer specializing in fantasy media and animation.