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The NFB Animation Hothouse — Part 1

Jean Detheux in conversation with Michael Fukushima about the National Film Board of Canada and its Hothouse project to encourage new, young animation filmmakers.

Hothouse © 2003. Photographs courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

Hothouse © 2003. Photographs courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

Some Prefatory Remarks by Jean:

For years, I have wished that studios would invest a tiny amount of their profits in support of animators who are attempting to create not necessarily commercial animation projects. I am convinced that such support would not only be philanthropic (whats wrong with that anyway?), but would also provide those studios with material and ideas that could contribute greatly to their much-needed renewal.

For years, I have wished that in vain.

Its no secret for readers who have gone through my previous AWN articles that I have no great love for habitual animation, that I firmly believe commercial animation is stuck, and has been stuck for many years, condemned (and condemning itself) to repeating endlessly, with very minor and superficial variations, more of the same. Not only are major studios stuck, they are also spending vast sums of money that are not only geared to profit, but profit at the cost of a possible and needed raising of the level of conscience of the audience. (Cézanne said it better than I ever could: Art is a religion. Its aim is the elevation of thought.)

Chris The Animation Pimp Robinson has written well and at length on this sad state of affairs in the animation world, so I will not go through the whole trial again here. I will however add that a concern for Quality (in Pirsigs/Phaedrus sense) is far from being a matter of elitism; it is actually a matter of survival.

There are few exceptions to this stuck situation, very few alternatives: auteur animation exists, but most often lacks access to the means of production (and when it gets that, it too often joins the more of the same amorphous herd, maybe as a prerequisite for getting the means), but above all it lacks the means and venues for distribution (where can you see non-habitual animation these days, outside of animation festivals?).

Only a few individuals and small studios around the planet are involved with creating animation that is not aimed at catering to (and creating) the lowest common denominator, and that do not partake of this yet-to-be-curtailed agenda of those Chomsky calls, The Moral Monsters, namely mercantile interests bent on conditioning people into becoming mindless consumers.

It is a shame that so often animation is reduced to a witless amusement aimed at entertainment as a mind-numbing process (see my Notes from the Underground Part 1 on this). Very few studios and independent animators actually escape this assumed obligation, very few indeed are attempting to create

The National Film Board of Canada has always played a very special role in animation (and film in general), one does not need to list its glorious history to be convinced of that. The NFB is an institution that is supported by Canadian taxpayers money, and as such, like most other public institutions in our western world (with, often, the armed forces being the only exception!), it has greatly suffered from enormous budget cuts, from the lack of foresight of most politicians who, as usual, are very focused on the short term (especially their own reelection) and not so much on the nurturing and pursuing of the tradition of excellence and vision that was started by some of their (better) predecessors.

A while ago, I was at the Montreal NFB studios where I had the chance to sit in on the presentation of the works of the second Hothouse promotion. I saw Michael Fukushima (with hair!) introduce that group of six budding animators, and also present a bit of the history of the Hothouse project itself.

This Hothouse was news to me, and, after viewing the six short pieces (some of which were very potent), I asked Michael if he would be willing to give me more information about this work that seemed to be very similar to what I had been hoping commercial studios would do out of the goodness of their heart. Michael was so generous with the information he provided me (he obviously cares about the Hothouse project, and so he should), that I decided to write this article in the form of a conversation with him (please note that my comments here and below reflect my views, not necessarily his).

First a quick description of the concept as it was advertised (in an apartment-hunting or personals style) by the NFB to attract a second wave of Hothouse applicants:

Professional short animation film opportunity available. Are you new or relatively new to the animation game but eager to take that next step? Join us and complete a 30-second film in 12 weeks start to finish. Almost everything provided except your idea, drive and ambition. Modest fee offered.

A more conventional description reads thusly: The National Film Board of Canada is looking for submissions for the second session of its Animation Hothouse workshop. The NFB Animation Studio has created the Hothouse intensive program to re-imagine ways of making animation that are faster, more flexible and that celebrate the shortest of short forms while maintaining creative and technical excellence, hallmarks of NFB animation. This is not quick and dirty, but rather intense and amazing. Think of horticultural hothouses where gardeners create optimal growing conditions to encourage the blossoming of exotic orchids and other blooms in weeks rather than months. This offer is to emerging creators with the imagination, vision, experience and enthusiasm to relish the Hothouse challenge, to flourish in the Hothouse environment and to accomplish the blossoming of a successful project within the Hothouse parameters.

So, this first article is basically an introduction to the Hothouse project. There will be two more papers focusing, in chronological order, on each of the two groups of animators who have gone through the 12 weeks of intense Hothouse experience.

But first, heres a quick introduction of Michael Fukushima: Michael is a producer in the Animation Studio of the NFB, based in Montreal. He has been an NFB producer since 1997 and before that he was a freelance director in the studio for seven years. In his pre-NFB life, he was an independent filmmaker and producer. He graduated from Sheridan College (Oakville) in 1985. He taught animation at Concordia University (Montreal) for a few years, and has been a community activist outside of animation for 18 years.

Michael Fukushima.

Michael Fukushima.

The Conversation:

Jean Detheux: Michael, you talk about the Hothouse as being an example of a Third Way in (NFB) animation. Can you define it, and while you are doing that can you define the other two ways as well?

Michael Fukushima: During my time at the NFB, Ive mostly seen two ways of making animation films: 6-10 minute, well-financed films directed by established, accomplished filmmakers that take about 18 months to produce and have a 90%-plus success rate; and 5-8 minute, slightly less well-financed films directed by emerging, less-established and less-accomplished filmmakers that should take 18 months to produce, but sometimes take many months longer to make, and that have a 60-65% chance of success. So, although they are essentially the same processes, these two established paths are quite dissimilar in execution and in the satisfaction of the experience, for both the filmmaker and the NFB.

The Hothouse is designed to be lower-risk (hence lower pressure) for both the filmmaker and the NFB; to be comprehensive in terms of experiencing the various costs and compromises (creative and otherwise) in making film that must stand up to high scrutiny; to work with professional contributors such as editors, composers, engineers, specialists and producers so as to experience truly collaborative film making; to make each Hothouser go through and understand every step of the process from proposal design to public release; to do it all in 12 weeks and not 20 months; to understand that sometimes process is just as important, if not more so, than product.

JD: You know as well as I do that theres a real steamroller at work these days (in fact, since the Reagan era) that would demand that any art endeavor produce profits, or at least be self-supporting, and which posits that taxpayers money should not be dumped into supporting the arts. How do you justify the cost of the Hothouse?

MF: In spite of the fact that Im an NFB producer, I too am a taxpayer. One role of the NFB has always been to be an agent of social change, as well as being an incubator of the best, most innovative animation possible. As noted earlier, a key part of the Hothouse puzzle has been to give weight and credence to the process of animation filmmaking, thereby influencing young, emerging filmmakers to evolve and change their perceptions of creativity and ultimately change the small part of the world that touches them. That then changes the next small circle of the world and so on, and so on. The Hothouse is social activism in action. It opens up young minds to the world of creative possibilities around them, so that the next film they make is the one that benefits from all that is learned here.

JD: So you see the Hothouse (if not the NFB) as having a teaching component. How does it differ from schools then?

MF: Should this be done at school? Maybe. But schools are not production studios. They have a mandate to teach, not necessarily produce. The NFB is a production studio and has the chance to offer an experience supported by decades of expertise. These are profoundly different. A school couldnt do this on its own because no school has the depth of production expertise and knowledge of the NFB. (Note from JD: As a teacher, I can say that time and again I have seen students almost getting there in terms of finding something through and in their work that would get them fired up and on the path to their own self-discovery, and not just as artists, only to be forced to drop it or drop out in order to keep up with the curriculum. I have also witnessed, countless times, doors being shut on a students interest in the name of we already have enough students working in that style, we need to have more students working in other styles now.)

JD: Where does the Hothouse fit, in the NFB big picture?

MF: the Hothouse is an ideal complement to the other mandate of the NFB: to build on its legacy of excellence and innovation in animation and to nurture, sustain and challenge a Canadian filmmaking community. The Hothouse films, modest and compressed in production though they are, still must be able to stand on their own feet amongst some of the greatest animation films ever made. No other entity in this country can challenge filmmakers in this way. Its precisely that balance and that intermingling, between the best and most accomplished of our filmmakers and the rawest fledglings of filmmakers, that effects such profound social change, that produces the best even amongst the youngest and newest, and that challenges and feeds all filmmakers.

JD: How is the Hothouse being perceived within the NFB as a whole?

MF: The Animation Hothouse has become something of a model within some parts of the NFB. And it has generated enthusiasm for the challenges to adapt and evolve that come with such a radically different way of making complete, professional film. I believe its a good model because its well-designed and comprehensive, with explicit parameters and objectives. Maybe, more importantly, its fit within the Animation Studio is also model, it represents only a modest part of our overall program, and is but a modest part of my own producing dossier. So there is no compromising of our larger, regular program, which remains effectively unchanged.

JD: Is it having an impact outside of the NFB Animation Studio?

MF: Hothouse has also spawned (or emerged simultaneously with) a handful of other programs in NFB studios across the country: Shortz and Picture This in BC [British Columbia]; Nunavut Hothouse; Momentum (documentary) in Ontario.

JD: Where do you see it heading?

MF: This iteration of Hothouse needs time to play itself out to a natural conclusion, so I expect it to remain more or less unchanged for the next year or so. The themes may change (someone has suggested that the next sessions address earth, air and fire, to add to water), but the other main criteria and objectives will remain fundamental to the whole experience.

Conclusion by Jean:

In the next article, we will be looking at the work of the first group of animators who went through the Hothouse experience. I am particularly intrigued by the role and influence of the mentoring directors, Chris Hinton for the first group, Janet Perlman for the second one. As I have been working with 12- and 13-year-old budding digital artists for the past four years or so (as a volunteer teacher), I am very acutely aware of the need for programs similar to the Hothouse, and though these programs are an absolute necessity, they are also incredibly rare. This is one more of those precious things that should be popping up right and left, yet I am not surprised it has been initiated by the NFB and found almost nowhere else.

Only in Canada, eh?

Jean Detheux is an artist who, after several decades of dedicated work with natural media, had to switch to digital art due to sudden severe allergies to paint fumes. He is now working on ways to create digital 2D animations that are a continuation of his natural media work. He has been teaching art in Canada and the U.S., and has works in many public and private galleries.