Janet Hetherington checks in with Canada's award-winning National Film Board and finds that its commitment to innovation in animation is as fresh as ever.
Oh, Canada... or in the case of the venerable National Film Board of Canada (NFB), auteur Canada!
Canada's NFB produces and distributes social-issue documentaries, auteur animation and digital content with a unique Canadian perspective. Since its founding in 1939, the NFB has created over 13,000 productions and won over 5,000 awards -- including more than 90 Canadian Genie Awards. The NFB received its 12th Oscar for the 2006 animated short The Danish Poet (directed by Torill Kove and co-produced by Norway's Mikrofilm AS and the NFB).
"In the world of art and cinema anywhere in the world, when people think of Canada, they are often thinking of NFB animation," comments Tom Perlmutter, government film commissioner and chairperson of the NFB. "The impact that Canada has as a result of that -- the positive impression we leave about Canada -- is immeasurable."
"In October, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in L.A. honored five great NFB women animators," Perlmutter continues. "Caroline Leaf, Janet Perlman, Torill Kove, Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis collectively delivered the Marc Davis lecture. For the audience there, it was magic to be in the presence of such remarkable animation talent."
The NFB, which will be 69 years young in 2008, persists in its ongoing mission to remain artistically and technologically innovative. While other corporate animated productions concentrate on box office performance, the NFB focuses on artistic vision -- and cultural bravery.
"The kind of auteur animation that the NFB does is almost impossible to do in the private sector, because there is no financing or business model for such high-end creative work," Perlmutter says. "The results have been and continue to be astounding. The form is constantly being challenged and redefined. In that way, it has the same value as a great symphony or sculpture or painting. The NFB is like a Renaissance artist's atelier that produces a stream of work that is consistently fresh, surprising, and breathtaking."
"This is work that is not for an age, but for the ages," Perlmutter says. "This is work that over generations will attract and have an impact on audiences many times greater than any ephemeral Hollywood hit of the day."
Short and Sweet
Because the NFB animated films focus on the artist's vision, the works tend to be short. However, the NFB allows artists the opportunity to follow their natural areas of interest and expertise and to showcase their talents, as well as explore new ways of creating art through existing and emerging technologies.
"The focus remains on the short animated form, which can be as short as 30 seconds," Perlmutter says. "In the very short form, we've been leading the way in terms of creating original content for mobile platforms. Ann Marie Fleming's M.O.O.D. and Theodore Ushev's Sou are intriguing works that are creating new grammars for the very small screen. In the short form, we have work by some of the world's great animators, such as Cordell Barker, Michelle Cournoyer and Chris Landreth."
Landreth's 2004 work Ryan won an Oscar, along with over 60 other international awards, for its vividly original tribute to the troubled genius of the late Ryan Larkin.
"Chris Landreth's new work is a co-production with the same team that produced Ryan," says NFB producer Marcy Page. "Called The Spine [or Dan & Mary], it's the story of a co-dependent relationship between Dan and Mary, as viewed by a third party, Angela. It's a 'fiction film,' set in a group-counseling situation."
The 12-minute film continues the partnership forged between the NFB and Copper Heart Entertainment (Steve Hoban is also producing), and it represents Landreth's latest foray into "psychorealism" -- his use of cutting-edge animation technologies to explore the complexities of the psyche. The counseling session in The Spine provides fertile terrain for Landreth's imagination, and the experimental non-photorealistic rendering is designed to add an expressive, painterly quality to the visual effects.
Landreth trained as an engineer before moving into animation, working as a software "wrangler" with Alias/Wavefront. His first work earned international respect. The End was nominated for an Academy Award and Bingo won a Canadian Genie award.
While The Spine was conceived as a 2D film, Page says that there is a possibility to eventually develop a stereoscopic output during production -- one that would be purposed separately. "We don't want to paint ourselves into a corner," Page comments.
Stereoscopic delivery is a hot topic around the NFB these days. Money has been allocated for stereoscopic work, but the focus is still on innovative and unusual ways of using the technology.
A new stereoscopic device is being explored for some projects. "SANDDE, or Stereoscopic Animation Drawing Device, is a technology invented by Roman Kroiter and originally developed by IMAX corporation," Perlmutter explains. "It allows an animation artist to draw freehand in 3D space. We are currently developing several projects in a longer format -- 30 minutes-plus -- including a science-based film on the quest to understand the fundamental building blocks of the universe, and an animated version of a Ravel opera."
Other short-form artists are also investigating stereoscopic presentation. "We try to find new ways of dealing with stereoscopic work... ones that industry may not find so mainstream," Page says. "We're about finding new language in film."
"We are putting energy into advancing stereoscopic animation through a variety of techniques," says Perlmutter. "There are ongoing projects working directly under camera and in the stop-motion studio, as well as a wide range of digitally based projects. Though digital processing touches almost all animation projects now, several of our artists still register the initial animation expression with pencil and paper. A new work for a museum in Quebec City promises to be an innovative combination of live action and animation -- all stereoscopic."
Two-time Oscar nominee Chris Hinton is experimenting in stereoscopic technique with his new project, Tiptoe. The film will feature three five-minute dance/movement sequences, tentatively titled Chroma Concerto, Momentum and Light Moves. Two of the three films will be stereoscopic.
"Chris Hinton's last project was his first venture into working with a computer," Page says. "He wants to push the envelope, abstracting the characters and story as much as possible, while still having a sense of story structure."
Page says that the use of stereoscopic technique allows Hinton to place a live figure into animation, and then manually displace the movement and change the fulcrum of the action in bizarre ways. Capturing the stereoscopic elements required a two-technician, two-camera green-screen shoot.
"This generated a lot of terabytes of information," Page says, "which need to be crunched to manageable size for Chris."
As for the work itself, Tiptoe "will play with the ambiguity and mystery of the human form and show where a dialogue with dance can lead." Where Hinton's previous work had begun to synthesize animation and music and enter into a creative dialogue with a composer, Tiptoe will more literally incorporate the figurative gestures of dance into the lively graphic mix.
Hinton's work will be presented without dialogue -- reflecting both the experimental nature of the work and a need to be accessible to multiple languages. The NFB actively supports Canada's bilingual (English and French) culture and presents artists from all across the country.
"Both French and English animation programs are powerful dynamic engines of artistic experimentation and creation," Perlmutter says. "Look at the recent work by Claude Cloutier (Isabelle et le bois dormant) or Georges Schwitzgebel (Jeu). Michelle Cournoyer is finishing her new work and it's very powerful. What I've seen has sent shivers down my spine. Theodore Ushev is working on The Lipsett Diaries and Martine Chartrand is working on MacPherson."
Perlmutter continues, "The French program has entered into a very promising arrangement with Folimage in France to develop emerging new talent like Felix Dufour-Laperriere (Rosa Rosa), who was the first Canadian recipient of the Artist-in-Residence program. Another important initiative is Cineaste Recherche(e), a competition that gives emerging francophone animation filmmakers the opportunity to make their first professional film and develop a unique creative approach. The winner of the 2006 edition, Marie- Hélène Turcotte, is completing La Formation des Nuages."
"We have important work coming out of Winnipeg, which has been a center for creative excellence," Perlmutter says. "Cordell Barker is finishing his latest work, Runaway Train. In Acadie, the French program has developed a very important program for emerging animators. Jodee Samuelson in Prince Edward Island, who had a hit with Mabel's Saga, is finishing her second film with us, Hospital Visit. Bruce Alcock has begun work on a remarkable animation project out of Newfoundland. We also have strong work being done in British Columbia. Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis work out of Calgary."
Tilby and Forbis' latest project is called Wild Life/Nature Sauvage, a 10-minute animated look at a Canadian "Remittance Man," presented in a faux documentary style. The directors are using such techniques as digital imaging, Flash animation, painted backgrounds and scanned animation elements that are composited, colored and treated digitally.
From the Hothouse
The NFB is always looking for new talent as well as new experimental techniques, and the annual Hothouse project for emerging animators assists in that development. Hothouse was created in 2003 by NFB animation studio producer Michael Fukushima and exec producer David Verrall. Its aim has been to re-imagine ways of making animation that are faster and more flexible, and that celebrate the shortest of short forms, while maintaining creative and technical excellence -- all hallmarks of NFB animation.
"With Hothouse, we bring new talented animators from across Canada to Montreal for an intensive three-month training/production program," Perlmutter says. "This has resulted in amazing short animation work and is about to move into its fifth cycle."
Hothouse 4, which took place from March to May 2007, brought together six Canadian and two Brazilian emerging filmmakers to spend three months each creating a very short film based on the theme "Chance Encounter." They worked under the watchful eye of director Torill Kove and other mentors, including associate producer Maral Mohammadian, composer/sound designer Luigi Allemano, digital imaging specialist Randall Finnerty, producer Fukushima and exec producer Verrall.
The resulting films are diverse in both content and technique, with explorations in 2D animation, puppet animation, rotoscoping, mixed media and even improvisation.
Hothouse participants have gone on to do other work with the NFB. Hothouse alumnus Malcolm Sutherland's four- to five-minute piece Flip/Flop is set for 2008 release.
"Malcolm Sutherland's work Bird Calls was a Hothouse winner," comments producer Page. "He's a very gifted and prolific filmmaker. He's interested in the idea of how much you can get from an image... what you can recognize as an image, and playing with tension."
Flip/Flop is about uncertainty and the pleasure of discovery that is possible while moving in and out of a state of uncertainty. In this film without words, hidden, dream-like scenes emerge and dissolve into a stream of free-flowing shapes in a series of moments that build to suggest the presence of a hidden order.
The short features music by local composer Ramachandra Borcar, which Page describes as "one of his first ventures into animation."
From Short to Long
NFB directors may enjoy the experimentation that the NFB permits, but they may move into more mainstream projects as well. Writer/director Jesse Rosensweet received the opportunity to work on a short called Paradise for the NFB after his first short film, The Stone of Folly, won the Jury Prize for Short Film at Cannes and played at animation and film festivals around the world.
Rosensweet has also directed a number of commercials and music videos, including a stop-motion video for Destiny's Child. He is currently in production as director on Edison and Leo, a quirky story about Thomas Edison, which will be Canada's first stop-motion feature. The film will be produced by Dean English of Vancouver-based Perfect Circle Prods. Karen Powell is serving as exec producer.
The NFB is also moving into what it calls "hybrid projects," where animation may be combined with documentary film for long-form work. One such project in development is Luc Chamberland's Seth, a feature-length documentary on Canadian cartoonist and graphic novelist Seth (Gregory Gallant), whose comic drawings regularly appear in the New Yorker, The Washington Post, The New York Times and elsewhere. The NFB's Page and Gerry Flahive are co-producing.
The film will be structured in chapters with stand-alone animated and hybrid vignettes or "comics" that can be extracted from the longer documentary work. "There will be animated sequences based on Seth's work," Page says. "There are also sequences that reflect Seth's life. Luc Chamberland went to Prince Edward Island to see Seth's father, to talk about the stories and to have Seth's stories read out loud."
Recreated history (memory and false memory) and the summation of a life are recurrent themes in Seth's work. His graphic novel It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken posits the true Seth on a Citizen Kane-like quest for a faux comic artist of the past, piecing together that "life" from fragments of comics the cartoonist is able to "track down," like so many petals of the famous "rosebud."
The documentary will look at Seth's creation of the fictional Canadian city of Dominion, and will also use Seth's creation of a puppet production about a fictional artist on his deathbed in Dominion to piece together a recreation of this real artist's life.
The NFB has been working on another animated documentary as well -- in the form of The Dark Years, a three-part television special, co-produced with Barna-Alper Productions, about the Great Depression in Canada.
The Dark Years is scheduled to air on Canada's History Television channel on December 26, 27 and 28, 2007 in three hour-long segments. The animated program views history from a newsroom perspective to present the turbulence and events of the 1930s. The Dark Years frames the stories of ordinary people against the big issues of the day -- mass poverty, widespread unrest and the looming threat of fascism. Politicians, celebrity aviators and visiting royals share the stage with prairie farmers, bankrupted office girls and rail-riding hoboes.
Animation was chosen to make the topic more accessible to viewers. "Animation can soften the blow and make history friendly to audiences, and at the same time you can maintain a level of sophistication in the content," says John Halfpenny, animation director of the project, in an interview on the NFB website. "I see The Dark Years as having broad appeal to a general audience. Younger viewers would like it, for sure, and I can see it being used in schools."
Specific animation style was also used to reflect the era being presented. "We tried to tailor the animation to the specific timbre of each segment," Halfpenny says. "In the scene where [newsman] Sinclair meets Hitler in 1930, we opted for a jokey style that evokes the "rubber-hose" animation that was so popular in the '30s."
Animation also provided archival and visual content that would have otherwise been lacking. "I've made a number of historical documentaries, most of them driven by archival footage, and I'd begun to feel that audiences were beginning to experience what I call archive fatigue," director and exec producer Steven Silver of Barna-Alper Productions says in his NFB interview. "Too often archival footage was being used as a kind of wallpaper behind a radio-style narration, and audiences were no longer responding. Plus, there was very little Canadian footage available from the period in question. I didn't want to use American footage as a stand-in for Canada, pretending that American street scenes were shot in Toronto."
"The images need to be clearly anchored in the story," he continues. "They need to connect. So I was looking for a new way to story-tell history, a new approach to making a historical documentary. We needed great stories and great characters -- and we needed the visual elements that connected them to an audience."
The choice of using animation also produced some unexpected benefits. "An interesting and unintended effect was that the animation reinvigorated the stock footage that we did use," Silver says. "Framed by animation, archival images take on a new life, and you see it in new ways."
Being televised means that The Dark Years will reach a mass audience. This is not always the case with shorter works, so the NFB is working toward new ways of having their productions seen. Tom Perlmutter says that the NFB will be making announcements regarding the NFB's new strategic plan, including connecting to audiences, in 2008.
"The NFB participates in over 400 festivals around the world, which is a great way to reach audiences," Perlmutter says. "The Internet has been a boon for animation, bringing whole new audiences to [this world]." The NFB website also hosts an online store with DVDs for purchase.
"The National Film Board is among the most significant cultural organizations in the world," Perlmutter says. "There is no other producing body that has delivered so much to so many with such little means." And, he advises, "Stay tuned, because we're in for some dazzling new developments."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.