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Hang Up and Try Again: A Conversation with the NFB’s New Head of English Animation, Michael Fukushima

Chris Robinson’s candid interview with the longtime producer, hard at work charting a new studio course in an increasingly digital world.

When the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) recently announced that Michael Fukushima had been named the new Executive Producer of their English Animation Studio, balance was restored in the animation universe.

Many a brow was raised when the NFB tapped Roddy McManus to succeed beloved veteran animation producer, David Verrall as head of the studio in 2011.Given the abundance of experienced people out there who were intimate with both the NFB and the international animation community, McManus seemed like an odd choice.

It didn’t matter much. The likeable, enthusiastic and energetic McManus resigned from his post earlier this year after only two years on the job.

The NFB got it right this time with Fukushima – who is a well-liked and much respected NFB and animation veteran.

Fukushima joined the NFB in 1990, making the award winning animated documentary, Minoru: memory of exile. He was hired as a producer in the English Animation studio in 1997. Aside from creating the NFB’s excellent emerging filmmaker program, Hothouse, Fukushima has produced a slew of notable films including: the animated documentary by Shira Avni, Tying Your Own Shoes, won both the Golden Dove at Dok Leipzig and the prestigious NHK Japan Prize, Oscar®-nominated Japanese filmmaker Koji Yamamura’s Muybridge’s Strings, Ann Marie Fleming’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, and the Oscar®-nominated Dimanche, by Patrick Doyon. Fukushima’s freshest batch of productions include works by Bruce Alcock, newcomers Claire Blanchet and Elise Simard, and the newest film from Cordell Barker, due out in Spring 2014.

AWN’s Chris Robinson recently spoke with Michael Fukushima to discuss his new post and the challenges that await him.

Chris Robinson: What exactly does being the Executive Producer of English Animation entail?

Michael Fukushima: The Executive Producer of a studio is the overall leader, overall manager of all projects, budgets and planning. The Executive Producer is the driver of the studio in consultation with producers, and sets the visions and ambitions for the studio.

CR: Do you do that in collaboration with Ravida Din, the Director General of the English studio at the NFB?

MF: It’s all done in collaboration and so the Executive Producer’s job in a way is to interpret the Director General, her aspirations and ambitions to the animation studio and in turn to represent the animation studio and its needs and ambitions back up the chain in those discussions.

Ultimately, all English programming has to revolve within the overall strategic plan of the NFB.

CR: Ravida is new to the Director General job. I believe she started in February 2013.  That means two new faces in pivotal positions. That could be a good or bad thing. How do you feel about that?

MF: Well, she’s new to the Director General position but she’s been at the NFB probably just as long as I have in various capacities. So we’re new but we are bred to the bone NFB. I have enormous confidence in Ravida’s faith and commitment to the NFB so I don’t have to worry about my own faith and commitment to the animation studio because I know she’ll have my back. It’s reassuring.

CR: The NFB is not just animation. The studio is also internationally renowned for its documentary films. Is it a struggle to get the animation voice heard at times?

MF: You might find it funny, but we do have a minority mindset in this studio. We account for something like 18-20% of the total English Program’s budget allocation. We’re producing maybe 25-28% of English production output. So we are a minority within the English Program. We have that minority complex where we regularly - not so much in creative conversations, but in administrative and bureaucrat conversations  - have to put our hands up and say, ‘hang on, these work for documentary but they don’t work for animation. Can we pause and take another look at this and make the animation exceptions?’

On the creative side of things, we’ve generally always been valued and respected for our expertise and track record. For the most part, we have been able to creatively do what we have wanted to do. It’s my intention that this continues.

CR: What are some of the highlights of the NFB’s current five-year strategic plan (which runs from 2013-18)?

MF: Technical innovation remains central to the plan. In fact, the plan talks about converting the NFB into a creative laboratory. We’ve always felt that this studio is a creative laboratory, so that’s a key part of it for me. Reaching different audiences differently is also a key part of the plan. It’s more of a documentary objective but I suspect we need to think about that in animation. We need to find distribution methods or a body of films that reaches an audience that is different from our conventional animation audience. We need to find a way to get regular, non-specialist viewers interested in what we’re doing.

CR: I can remember a time when everyone in Canada knew Neighbours or The Cat Came Back. We either encountered the films on TV or in classrooms. I give school presentations around Ottawa and I was surprised to find that not only had most kids not seen or even heard of either film, they weren’t even aware of the NFB!

MF: That is a worry. We’ve started to address that with the various iPhone and iPad apps and streaming films on, but I think these platforms are still just appealing to specialty audiences. I don’t know what the solution is going to be but you’re absolutely right. We need to find a way to fix that.

CR: It’s sort of a fresh start for the English animation studio. For years, it was always David Verrall, Marcy Page and yourself. David has retired. Marcy is retiring.  When will you start bringing in new producers to fill the gap? What are you looking for in a producer?

MF: My plan is that we have two animation producer postings posted in December at the latest. One would be immediate to replace me. One would be to replace Marcy. That would allow more of a transition period. I’ll be looking for a complementary team of producers. I intend to continue to produce maybe 1-2 projects a year. I expect the other two producers to carry 6-8 projects each per year. Hopefully we’d be able to output anywhere from 3-5 films per year. That’s ambitious given that our output has been 2-3 films a year.

CR: With Marcy leaving, what does that mean for some of her regular collaborators like Wendy Tilby, Amanda Forbis, Torill Kove, and Chris Landreth?

MF: Hopefully it only means that they have to get accustomed to a new producer. That might mean that in the short term I serve as a transitional producer because they know me and we’re comfortable with each other and then move them onto one of the new producers or maybe the fit with the new producers will be exquisite from the start. I’m not foreseeing any profound differences beyond whether - as with all projects - they fit with our current mission and the obligations we have with the strategic plan objectives.

CR: What criteria do you use to determine what filmmakers to work with? How much of it is based on the quality of the project vs. the background of the filmmaker?

MF: It’s all part of the mix. Obviously the idea has to be really strong. There has to be something that stands out and makes us say, ‘wow, that’s interesting.’ We definitely look at the filmmakers themselves. We do want to have a mix of established filmmakers because they’re confidence-inspiring for the filmmakers and NFB as a whole. Here’s a filmmaker or producer who will deliver for us a top-notch film so that at least we’re confident that one in a slate will be successful for us. It also causes the other animators to aim higher. They don’t want to look bad. So we’re looking for a creative mix of personalities. It’s alchemy really. An idea, something inventive, fun and something that the filmmaker really needs to make. I can’t stand when a filmmaker comes to me with three or five projects. It tells me that they’re all a little bit disposable to that filmmaker.

CR: Although the NFB did away with employing full time directors about ten years ago, there’s still that outside perception that it’s very difficult for new/emerging artists to make a film with the NFB. 

MF: It is. I get that perception completely. People are going to be trying to figure out what my direction will be for the studio. What I said was look at my track record. If you look at my roster for the last ten years, it’s been pretty wide open. I’ve worked with new filmmakers like Elise Simard and Claire Blanchet, Lillian Chan, and also Ann Marie Fleming, Bruce Alcock, Koji Yamamura. So I want there to be a real mix. I want there to be first time and second time filmmakers here rubbing shoulders with more established filmmakers. 

I will say that I do regularly worry about dipping into the same well too many times.

CR: Often we see the same names again and again alongside international co-productions that feel a bit iffy to be frank. I know that some of these issues fall to the French side as well, but the NFB has recently coproduced films with many firmly established animators (ie. Koji Yamamura, Michel and Uri Kranot, Georges Schwizgebel, Regina Pessoa, and now Priit Parn). To an outsider it might seem that the NFB is taking the easy road by latching onto established names. 

MF: I know the perception is out there. It’s a little bit in line with what I just said about having a mix of experiences in the studio.

CR: Yes, but I’m speaking more from a Canadian perspective here. The NFB is a Canadian institution. People might argue that the NFB isn’t doing enough to nurture and support Canadian artists.

MF: We do need films that have a different cachet and give us a different assurance of success than other filmmakers and films. We have an international reputation. We were founded by a guy [Norman McLaren] who really believed in internationalism: Canadians having something unique to say in the world and non-Canadians having something unique to say to Canadians about the world.

CR: It’s fitting too that both Grierson and Norman McLaren, the two more important players in the NFB’s history, were foreigners.

MF: We have a history of international artists like Ishu Patel, Caroline Leaf, Paul Driessen. The practice has changed a bit since the 1960s in that Patel, Leaf and Driessen all wanted to work with the NFB so they moved here and became Canadians. In an ideal world for the NFB, I would love if a couple of these international filmmakers said, ‘it’s worth our while to become Canadian citizens and then be Canadians working at the NFB.’ The reality is that people aren’t going to do that. There’s a cachet to having a couple of high profile international co-productions in our dossiers because it continues to show that we care about what’s going on outside the Film Board and outside of Canada as well as inside.

CR: I suspect it’s not that big a financial investment either, certainly nothing that could really fund a single film.

MF: Yeah, we do leverage quite a bit of creative input for a modest investment compared to 100% NFB animation films.

CR: I’d once heard talk that the NFB was considering moving in the direction of feature animated films. How true is that?

MF: It’s never off the table. It’s been talked about forever. I suspect that if the right project, filmmaker, and benefits came along and we could make the case for it, the NFB might take the plunge, but there are now new rules about NFB investment in big projects that have come down from the Treasury Board of Canada. It’s quite limited what we’re able to contribute to a bigger coproduction. And a feature would have to be a co-production. The NFB just couldn’t afford to produce its own feature.

CR: Finally, and this is my own little personal beef. The NFB puts lot of time, effort and money into getting Oscar nominations. I get it to a degree; it’s a nice thing to show the government bosses. At the same time, it seems to go against the very nature of the NFB (which from the beginning has always sought to avoid the Hollywood path). Winning at Annecy or Ottawa is far more difficult a task, so why is that not being celebrated more? 

MF: I think it’s two things. One, it’s easier to get behind and get enthusiasm both inside and outside the NFB – don’t forget that not everyone in the NFB is an animation lover or expert, so getting an Oscar nomination is an easier way to get the entire NFB excited and supportive about a project. Plus, it generates excitement and enthusiasm with the Heritage Minister and the Prime Minister’s Office.

The other part of the Oscar equation is connected with changing and expanding the audience for our work. I think that winning the Crystal at Annecy is spectacular and great if you’re in the business, but The Globe and Mail [national newspaper] doesn’t pick up that story. The NFB gets an Oscar nomination and the papers pick that up. Then there are a couple of interviews and stories. People go to the NFB site and watch the nominated film while it’s streaming. These are people who know nothing about the Film Board, but who see this piece, know the Oscars and think, “Wow, us, Canada?” The question for us is does it sustain? Do the people who click on a couple of films because they got an Oscar nomination regularly come back after that? That’s the nub of the question for us and I’m not sure what the answer is there.

Chris Robinson's picture

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.