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A Kick in the Head: OIAF Artistic Director Chris Robinson Reflects on 40 Years of Ottawa

The Ottawa International Animation Festival’s artistic director tries not to take himself too seriously as he celebrates the landmark 40th anniversary edition of the largest independent animation festival in North America.

The Ottawa International Animation Festival celebrated its 40th edition this year with a stellar lineup of independent feature and short animation from all around the world, and AWN was there in full force, meeting filmmakers, studio reps and students alike while taking in the crisp autumn air at the annual picnic and boat cruise, attending talks, and, yes, watching animated films.

We met with filmmakers from a handful of continents, sipped cocktails on the river and at the stylish Fairmont Château Laurier, and spoke with dozens of pumpkin carving contestants about the inspiration for their entries. [Anger for the win!] Braving the balcony seating at the By Towne Cinema, we caroused with groups of animation students who behaved like savages, glitter bombing each other and the audience below and chanting “Ushev, Ushev, Ushev,” as the illustrious director himself conducted a sing-along with the OIAF 2016 Signal Film he created with Andreas Hykade.

And at some point we finally sat down with OIAF artistic director Chris Robinson, otherwise known here at AWN as The Animation Pimp and the author of the infrequent Chew on This blog, to ask him to reflect on the festival’s history and position as the largest of its type in North America. With a nascent cold coming on, Robinson was his usual pensive and pessimistic self, but beneath the mask we could still catch of glimpse of his pure love of animation, which shined through at unexpected moments and undoubtedly fuels all his waking hours.

Read on, gentle reader, read on:

AWN: So, 40th Anniversary. Big stuff. Any feelings about that?

Chris Robinson: Fear of the reality of mortality is becoming more apparent now. This is my 25th year here. This is my last year in my 40s. It’s all very dark. I am not happy with it.

AWN: That’s a lot to deal with. Do you view this year’s edition as the culmination of something?

CR: Well, we’ve had anniversaries before. During the 20th we brought in the past directors, and for the 30th we did some stuff as well. We’re proud of the anniversary, and we’ve been highlighting it, but I don’t think it’s good to get too caught up in the past. It is, maybe also, because I realize it’s 25 years for me, too, this year. I think it’s a year where I really look back and go, “Holy shit.” The stuff that this festival has been through over the years and how it’s still going, and I didn’t destroy it.

AWN: Were you worried that you might?

CR: Yeah. When I took over, I was there in ‘92, but I took over in ‘96 or ‘95 as Executive Director. I realized a few years into it that I was not was not a good person for budgeting or hiring or administration stuff. I might’ve been in trouble if I hadn’t woken up and realized, “You gotta change this up.” I was married to Kelly Neall at the time, and we had a young son. She was looking to get back to work. She had worked on the ‘94 festival as the producer. I said, “Let’s make two new jobs. You’re the managing director. I’ll be artistic.” I focus on what I feel I’m strong at. That ended up being the best decision I probably ever made, and Kelly really solidified the festival. She came up with TAC -- The Animation Conference -- and that really brought the industry more into it.

AWN: And that allowed you to be more focused on the artistic side.

CR: Yeah. I think there’s a healthier balance. She stabilized it. When I came on, there was me. We were bi-annual [Editor’s note: that means every two years] but it was me. All year-round. We only had money for one person. Now we have five people year-round, and it’s all because of the work Kelly has done. She brought that stability.

AWN: Looking back, any particular highlights from over the years that you remember with fondness or affection?

CR: I think that the one that always comes into my head -- there was this New York kid, Lev-something. I forget. Russian kid. He won in his category. I don’t know what it was. High school. I’m up on the stage and when his name is called and everything. I just hear and see this burst of energy jump up from his seat, and I see him run down his isle, run down the theater isle, jump over the speakers, onto the stage. He’s just screaming like Jerry Lewis the whole time and I just see him coming towards me with this -- so that always stuck.

AWN: Did you hug him?

CR: Yeah, and then he hugged me. That was a nice moment.

AWN: That kind of enthusiasm can make up for a lot of the other hard, sloggy things.

CR: Another time, it was David Verrall, the former executive producer of the English-language animation studio at the NFB. He was an honorary OIAF president two years ago, and in his honorary speech he spoke about a file in his office full of notes from people who doubted me that complained about me and my methods. He said that he and the others finally came around to respect what I was doing and how I was doing it, but he still kept the letters and loved to re-read them from time to time. He also said something about my “fire” and how it was good for animation…that was really super nice.

AWN: That must’ve been very gratifying.

CR: I really respect him. He doesn’t say things like that a lot so it was a nice moment in a personal, selfish way.

AWN: Do you have any favorite disasters?

CR: Oh, boy. My opening speech for the 30th anniversary. That really did it. I listed off 30 idiotic moments in Ottawa festival history.

AWN: Animation Pimp style?

CR: Yeah. I probably reprinted it as a Pimp somewhere. [Editor’s note: We couldn’t find it.] I should’ve done a recording.

AWN: How did that go over?

CR: One animator in particular was not happy, even though I didn’t mention him by name.

AWN: Well, one moment out of 30, that’s not so terrible. And sometimes you have to pay for the laugh, right? That stuff doesn’t come free.

CR: There’s just so many. We’re going for comedy here. Don’t take anything seriously. Everything is looking for a laugh. What I think separates us from a lot of the festivals that we -- not just me, but Kelly and Azarin and the whole team -- we don’t take it all that seriously. We’re very serious and put everything into it because that’s our job. The festival itself we don’t take very seriously.

AWN: I love that the festival artwork from over the years reflects that mindset. In 2013, Michael Zavacky from McMillan designed the “Free Your Inner Child” campaign for the festival, which created a minor furor when it was unveiled. That some people found the imagery inappropriate made me love it even more. Just the idea of Ottawa and what you guys were doing there was exciting.

CR: My first festival -- and I am not dissing Annecy at all; I think that it’s really good, and Marcel Jean has done a great job there improving the competition -- but that was my first festival I went to in ‘95 and I learned a lot about what I didn’t think we should be doing. Because Annecy can be very exclusive.

 “We always get asked what’s new. And I’m like, ‘the fucking films that we picked!’ We’re happy with how we are. We’ve found a structure that we like. We tinker with it a little bit here and there, but we like it the way it is.” 

AWN: It’s very serious.

CR: Yeah. It takes itself pretty seriously. We just very quickly, maybe a year or two after I took over, got rid of politicians and people wearing suits giving speeches and stuff like that because nobody gives a shit.

AWN: You know, the people who have to write the speeches, they care.

CR: They’re the only ones. And they’re the people who are not there most of the time so they’re just writing it for somebody to read.

AWN: So, less speechifying, more films.

CR: Just lightening it up and making it more fun and just being inclusive. I feel like we treat Pixar and Disney big-wigs the same way we treat students. Everybody is equal. Everybody gets access to the events and parties and picnics and stuff.

AWN: Can you name some of the things that have been added to the festival program-wise in recent years?

CR: No.

AWN: Okay, I’ll retract that question.

CR: That’s another thing, we always get asked what’s new. The local media will say, “What’s new this year?” And I’m like, “the fucking films that we picked!” But they keep expecting something more. We’re happy with how we are. We’ve found a structure that we like. We tinker with it a little bit here and there, but we like it the way it is.

AWN: I love that there’s not a whole lot of overlap in programming. I had to work hard to build my schedule, but I didn’t have to sacrifice anything.

CR: We try to make sure everything’s repeated. If something’s showing Wednesday or Thursday, we try to repeat it Saturday or Sunday so the weekend people can see all the films as well.

AWN: That’s really nice. Not everybody does that.

CR: There was a year where we programmed too much, probably in the early 2000s.

AWN: So you’re learning to edit things a little bit more.

CR: Yeah, for sure.

AWN: Curate, I guess, is the big word, right?

CR: I guess so. Even the length of the program varies, keeping it 70-75 minutes.

AWN: So people don’t start crying.

TAC started up in 2004, and that was a real turning point for us. We had the National Arts Center, which had always been our home. Then they just up and said, “Oh, we took out all the film projection equipment, so, see you! You’ll have to go somewhere else.” And this was less than a year before the festival.CR: Yeah, it’s tough to take in too many short films at once.

AWN: So no real notice?

CR: No. And then we lost our major government funding. We got a letter in the mail saying, “We’re taking all of your funding.” We were advised not to do anything by one of our board members, but I chose to ignore that person. Instead we got really aggressive and went to the media. It turned into a massive campaign, with an outpouring of attention from animators and media outlets all around the world. Not only did they put the money back, but ultimately it brought us more sponsorship. And that’s the year TAC started up.

AWN: Is there any particular advice you plan to ignore for next year?

CR: [laughs] I realized there’s always people complaining about the program everywhere.

AWN: Sure, sure, sure. It’s a program, right?

CR: One year we did a survey -- this was many, many years ago -- and we figured out that 10 percent said, “No the program is good the way it is.” 40 percent were like, “Oh, it’s too artsy.” 40 percent were, “It’s too commercial.” Quite baffling. But I just realized, okay, it’s perfect.

AWN: That’s a beautiful split, yes.

CR: I’ve never looked at the survey again. I’m just, okay, I’m doing a good job. That’s fine. That was my calming moment where I didn’t get bothered by anything anymore.

AWN: Do you go to a monastery after the festival for a week or two? Brain cleanse?

CR: No. It’s pretty Zen when I’m here. Kinda calm.

AWN: That’s nice because you’ve been building up to this, and now you have done it.

CR: I’ve already, unlike my colleagues, I’m done. My festival period was earlier.

AWN: Then maybe you can enjoy it a little bit, too, because it can be hard to enjoy things one presents.

CR: I think the last couple of years I’ve enjoyed it more. There was a period when I distanced myself a bit. I wasn’t as involved, just wasn’t feeling it. A big turning point was the “Meet the Filmmakers” panels. National Film Board producers would come in and moderate and provide sponsorship and stuff. A couple of years ago I decided, “You know, I should be doing this.” I picked the films. I should be moderating the discussions, too.

AWN: Because that’s what you’re in it for.

CR: Yeah, exactly. We wanted to add more comedy material, too. The panels are better now, they’re funny, and the filmmakers seem to enjoy it. That was good. It got me more involved in enjoying the festival again, too. Being more engaged, I guess.

AWN: Right, because you have to do your research beforehand and prep.

CR: Since the late 90’s, because I was always terrified of speaking growing up, I kind of developed a system of being barely prepared. I’ll make notes about what I need to say and then I go up, and I stumble a lot. It’s kind of like Dean Martin and Buster Keaton or something.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.