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A First Time for Everything: Judging the 9th Edition of the Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival

One of LAIKA’s star animators, Rachelle Lambden, provides a first-person perspective on what it’s like to watch 87 films in two days as a jury member at the ninth edition of the Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival.

As LAIKA prepares for the opening of its first major retrospective “Animating Life: The Art, Science & Wonder of LAIKA” at the Portland Art Museum (October 14, 2017-May 20, 2018), AWN asked one of the studio’s star animators, Rachelle Lambden, to give our readers a first-person account of her first judging experience at an animation festival.

Known for her delicate, emotional and nuanced work, Lambden was assigned with some of the most poignant and intimate moments in the award-winning studio’s recent films. LAIKA’s Animation Supervisor Brad Schiff (Oscar-nominated as part of LAIKA’s VFX team on Kubo and The Two Strings) is one of her biggest fans. “There are not a lot of stop-motion animators in the world period,” he says. “Great ones are even rarer. Rachelle is that special talent who brings an inherent sensitivity to her animation. It is something unique and incredibly important. She can evoke a kind of natural sympathy into the puppets that I have rarely seen. We have leaned on her to animate the most sensitive and meaningful moments from our last films.”

Lambden served as a judge at the ninth edition of the Festival Stop Motion Montreal -- held earlier this month September 15-17 -- watching 87 films over the course of 48 hours alongside fellow jurors Dale Hayward and Ludovic (Ludo) Berardo to select the winners in three categories. Curious about the process? Read her report, complete with plenty of photos, below:

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A First Time for Everything: Judging the 9th Edition of the Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival
by Rachelle Lambden

I had never been a jury member before so being invited by the organizers of the ninth edition of the Festival Stop Motion Montreal was a great honor and thrill. The Festival strives to promote the amazing technique of stop-motion, which creates the illusion of movement with objects or characters that would otherwise be inanimate.

According to Érik Goulet, who launched the festival in 2009, “In this era of the digital revolution the stop-motion form has regained popularity. It brings us back to the handmade cinema, the texture of the real materials and the fantasy made possible by animating frame by frame. “

Erik, a stop-motion animation professor at Concordia University in his “day job,” called the just-concluded 2017 festival program the most expansive and internationally-focused ever.

I was struck by the caliber and diversity of both the artists and the incredible range of formats and subject matter in the submissions. I anticipated that my experience as a judge in the film festival would be based more on technical grading and tangible quality of films. In the end, not only was it the story, technical skill and artistic merit of the films, but after watching 87 films in two days, there were certain ones that I just couldn’t stop thinking about

Once you start watching the short films, there’s something striking about the medium, you’re reminded that you’re experiencing something different, such a variety of styles; experimental, narrative, artistic…and all with an element of vulnerability. Short films don’t always have time to create complex narratives, so often they are based on one idea or story, which often makes it very raw and authentic. It can be exhilarating to watch a series of short films in a row, especially in stop-motion where the medium can be so diverse that the object or puppet can be made from anything at all. One film will star a live action human animated in pixilation and the next, a puppet made of wire, paper, clay, or ball and socket armature with a small wig and animatable pupils.

It was incredible to meet and experience a cross section of international filmmakers from the stop-motion community. To see the work that’s currently being developed, all somehow affiliated with stop- motion was a good way to get out of my daily practice as an animator and be immersed in the versatility of the medium. Stop-motion animation really does transcend boundaries in terms of language in that it is an accessible medium to anyone. Skill levels may be different, of course, but I find stop-motion to be a very democratic medium. It’s tangible and accessible.

The incredible thing about being a professional in stop-motion and working at LAIKA, is that I focus daily on the minutia and finely polished details of the craft. I feel lucky to be able to spend my time doing that. My experience as a juror for the Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival reminded me of the world outside of that, where all facets and styles of the medium are inspiring to watch. Working alongside my fellow jury members Dale Hayward and Ludovic (Ludo) Berardo was an enormous honor. We were tasked with picking winners in three areas:

The Emerging Talent (Students/Academic) category offered a diverse range of styles, skills and mixed mediums, but one thing they all shared and what I found to be the most interesting was that this was a series of short films with a certain rawness and authentic voice that can sometimes be reined in at a professional level. I felt inspired by the talent that this category showcased, the fresh take on the medium was intriguing and reminded me of the initial passion that grips an artist just discovering the world of stop-motion. We chose Téte á Téte by Natasha Tonkin from the United Kingdom. She created a beautifully crafted film about one family’s search for connection in a digital world. She blended beautiful animation with commentary on social media and relationships and employed unique mixed media and stop-motion.

The Independent films were an incredibly difficult category to narrow down to one winner. This was the category with the largest number of submissions, all worthy of consideration. However in the end, a few films really stood out for us while deliberating. The winner of this category was After All, by Michael Cusack (Australia). This film left such an impact. It’s about the relationship between a man and his mother and had a series of flashbacks and just enough humor and heartache to really hit an emotional chord (and remind you to call your mom!). I completely forgot I was watching puppets.

There were a couple of films in the Independent category that didn’t win but left strong impressions. The Escape by Jaroslaw Konopka (Poland) had some of the most incredible cinematography in stop- motion animation I’ve ever seen. There was also something about the animation of the woman in the film that made it feel like it was cutting between live action and stop- motion. Also, the film Nevada by Emily Ann Hoffman (US), was such an intimate view of a potentially life-altering decision, it was so real and authentically told, it was difficult not to think about the story long after the film was over.

All the judges brought different films to the discussion when we deliberated in the Professional category. But one film did emerge and that was The Burden (Min Börda) by Niki Lindroth von Bahr (Sweden), who also won the Audience Choice Award. This musical short, featuring singing and dancing animals fighting existential despair, had already won the prestigious Cristal for Best Short Film at Annecy in June. We could watch it over many, many times. Not only was the art direction incredible with tones of a Wes Anderson-style of stop-motion, it also had a great soundtrack. But what struck me the most were the moments of real acting, the awkward moments that happen when you think the camera has stopped rolling or when you think nobody is watching, the subtleties and the overall message and aesthetics.

My first juror experience was an incredible opportunity in every way (well maybe not getting up at 4:00AM to catch the flights from Portland, Oregon to Montreal...nah, that was part of the adventure as well.) Merci to everyone at the Festival and hope to see you again soon. A la prochaine!

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