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The Masters Of Animation: An Unprecedented Opportunity

Seattle's first animation festival gets a glowing review by Doug Ranney. His tales of hobnobbing with animation's biggest stars in a casual setting are sure to make you green with envy.

The city of Seattle hosted it's first-ever animation festival this past Fourth of July weekend. Attendance could have been stronger, but those who were there, fans and animators alike, gave the event across-the-board rave reviews. Animator Marv Newland said it reminded him of Annecy in the late seventies: no hype, no self-promotion, just a heartfelt display of craft and opinion. The low-key nature of the festival, perhaps typical of Seattle, more than made up for its lack of glitz by providing attendees with an unprecedented chance to mingle closely with some of the top animators in the world. Most of the guests made themselves available after their presentations, holding informal Q&A sessions in the lobby of the Seattle Art Museum. Ray Harryhausen lingered for nearly two hours after his session, taking questions, signing autographs, and posing for pictures. Barry Purves did likewise, even allowing fans to pass around and manipulate several of the original stop-motion puppets he had brought along. Amazing Events With 25 animators and 29 separate events, where does one begin to summarize this festival? Here are a few examples. On Sunday there was a remarkable panel composed of Mamoru Oshii, Rene Laloux, Marv Newland, Igor Kovalyov, Craig Bartlett, Bill Plympton, David Silverman, Jim Blashfield and Maurice Noble. You could hardly ask for a wider cross-section of animation backgrounds and styles. At times, a question from the audience would spark an interchange among the panel members, leading to the somewhat comical sight of Rene Laloux posing a question in French that was translated into English and re-translated into Japanese for Mamoru Oshii, whose response in Japanese was translated into English and.. you get the idea. While the panel members disagreed about many things, they concurred that commercial distribution remains a big problem for animation. Oshii maintained that even in Japan, the domestic audiences prefer Disney films, and regard their own Japanese anime as somewhat disreputable. Naturally, independents Marv Newland and Bill Plympton know all about the difficulties of getting their work seen, but even Maurice Noble had some marketing horror stories about the later work he and Chuck Jones did together.

Looney Tunes veteran Maurice Noble entertains an attentive crowd in theSeattle Art Museum lobby. Photo courtesy of Susan Purton/Scarecrow Video.

On Monday, an impressive panel of stop-motion animators was assembled, including Bruce Bickford, Stephen Holman, Barry Purves, Henry Selick, Ray Harryhausen, David Anderson, and Janice Findlay. The dominant theme was the increasing competition stop-motion animators are facing from computer animation. Naturally, there was plenty of criticism of the shortcomings of CGI. Barry Purves, in particular, waxed bitter about putting in nine months of puppet work for Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, only to see it thrown out in favor of CGI. Even Burton collaborator Henry Selick criticized Burton's decision, pointing out that you can't do a real homage to cheesy Fifties sci-fi stop-motion by using hyper-realistic computer animation. The general consensus was that, Nick Park notwithstanding, puppet animation is getting harder and harder to sell.

One of the biggest draws of the festival was the Sunday night Simpsons show with director David Silverman. He talked the audience through two hours of clips, including some early proto-Simpsons work. Big crowd-pleasers were a compilation of "couch gags," and a censored "Itchy and Scratchy" sequence. It's hard to believe, but there are some things beyond the pale even for Itchy & Scratchy, in this case involving chewing his own leg off to escape a trap. Silverman laid out the entire history of the show and talked the audience through the production process of a typical episode. After experiencing two and a half hours of his intense, quick-witted personality, it's easier to see how Silverman's show maintains its creative edge. Even during the Q&A period, he never let up, and more than one insipid question was answered with a tart, though not nasty, response.

Mark Gustafson presented his stop-motion short, Bride of Resistor. © Will Vinton Studios.

The Old Guard

The wide-ranging roster of attending animators might be grouped into a few major categories. The Old Guard included Disney veteran Marc Davis, layout artist Maurice Noble, and stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen; all gracious, entertaining, and unanimous in their dislike of most commercial animation being done today. Davis kicked off the festival, showing some of his work and narrating slides of his designs for Disneyland attractions, including "Pirates of The Caribbean" and "The Haunted Mansion." Maurice Noble filled in for an ailing Chuck Jones at the last minute. Since the screenings were already set, Noble ad-libbed his way through Jones' work, some of which he had not worked on. In the end, he completely charmed the audience, and his off-the-cuff presentation led him to some offbeat topics that probably would not have been otherwise covered. As a long line formed for Ray Harryhausen's program, a pleasant sight was Harryhausen and Henry Selick chatting in the lobby. It was the kind of sight that proved to be common throughout the weekend. There's no doubt that the animators enjoyed sitting in on each other's programs as much as the fans did. As Marv Newland put it, they all had a great time hanging with each other and just "making the scene." The fans were by no means kept at arms length, either. One attendee, whose experience was not unique, related how he struck up a conversation with Harryhausen when he found himself seated next to him in the audience of another animator's event. When Harryhausen's screening of Jason and The Argonauts ran long, he graciously took questions in the lobby afterwards. This was in contrast to Marc Davis, whose corporate handlers hustled him out of the museum like a rock star. Young Whipper-snappers In contrast to the old-timers were the younger, and employed, animators, such as David Silverman and Hey Arnold's Craig Bartlett. These guys are young, successful, confident, enthusiastic, and irreverent. Silverman fairly crackles with intensity and wit, while Bartlett radiates upbeat energy. Both had great fun goofing on the "Masters of Animation" theme, suggesting that others bow to them and respond, "Yes, Master." Despite the banter, though, they exhibited a sincere awe of the aforementioned Old Guard. Mark Gustafson screened Mr. Resistor and Bride of Resistor, with engaging stories of life at Will Vinton Studios. Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh presented his musical scores and jingles for animated shows, while Stephen Holman screened his hard-to-describe hybrid Life With Loopy segments.

Nosehair, a sequence featured in Bill Plympton's Mondo Plympton.

The Independent Presence

The Independents included Bruce Bickford, Jim Blashfield, Rose Bond, Janice Findlay, Joan Gratz, Ruth Hayes, Marv Newland, and Bill Plympton. All are doing, or have done, interesting personal films, with Blashfield, Newland and Plympton being the most commercially successful. Bill Plympton is as tireless as usual, screening Mondo Plympton and working on yet another one-man feature, although this time he's using traditional cel techniques to increase his production speed. Also in this category, but somewhat distinct, are the Brits David Anderson and Barry Purves. Both have created some terrifically impressive shorts, especially Purves' Achilles- a stop-motion tour de force with a decidedly un-commercial homosexual theme. Poor Barry had the misfortune to be scheduled at 8 PM on Friday opposite the Fourth of July fireworks, so his program drew (it must be said) an embarrassingly small crowd. Nonetheless, the jet-lagged animator screened some beautiful works, and thoroughly engaged the audience with his passion for the art form.

Friday's biggest crowd turned out for Mamoru Oshii who screened his early independent work, Angel's Egg. Oshii, speaking through his translator, went to great lengths to underscore what a flop the film was in Japan. He claimed that it kept him from getting work for years, and thanked the audience for not falling asleep during the screening. When asked what he thought of the festival, the shy director replied only that he hated traveling, he missed his dogs, and his producer had forced him to attend. We think he was joking. Despite his less-than-outgoing nature, Oshii's screening of Ghost in The Shell on Saturday was a big draw.

Animation director Jack Stokes made an extremely rare public appearance with an uncommon screening of Yellow Submarine.

Rene Laloux seemed every inch the French elder statesman, holding forth on a variety of subjects. The voluble director sometimes rambled on in French for minutes at a time, leaving his dazed interpreter to try to sum up his remarks afterward. He brought along the original version of Fantastic Planet, much different than the edited and dubbed version seen in America, as well as the rarely seen Time Masters. Martin Rosen had two presentations, screening both The Plague Dogs and Watership Down. Animation director Jack Stokes made an extremely rare public appearance with an equally rare screening of Yellow Submarine. Gerald Potterton had two presentations, including the festival-ending screening of Heavy Metal. All in all, there was just about everything for which an animation fan could wish. In a sense it was an "anti-Animation Celebration," in that it was all about the works themselves, with practically zero focus on "the industry." Festival organizer Norm Hill believes that one is unlikely to see another program of this size anytime soon- anywhere. It's a real shame that the crowds weren't better, but it was Seattle on a beautiful holiday weekend, after all. And the event was a first-time effort at that. Not one single event was a clinker, and even the rookie projection room screw-ups at the Art Museum had serendipitous side-benefits. Nearly every program ran long, which led to all those wonderfully intimate Q&A sessions in the lobby. Considering how influential American cartoons are worldwide, it's odd that there really isn't a regular, honest-to-God animation festival in the United States. Neither Annecy nor Ottawa have much to do with animation in France or Canada...maybe Seattle could become their American counterpart. Let's all hope so, because years from now, the animators and fans who attended the 1997 Masters of Animation will still be talking about it. Doug Ranney founded the Whole Toon Catalog, and currently owns a book publishing firm, Tiger Mountain Press. He resides in the Cascade foothills just east of Seattle.