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The Ottawa Animation Festival 2013: So, What Did We Learn?

AWN’s editor-in-chief waxes something far from poetic about his annual sojourn to OIAF.

Each year around this time I trade the oppressive heat and civic apathy of L.A. County’s San Fernando Valley for the cool fall climate and civic apathy of Ottawa. Braving Air Canada’s iron-lung seat design as well as the heartfelt interrogations of the Toronto Airport customs goons (“So there, you, ah, you know anyone that works on The Rugrats? Good show there, aye?), I cross the vast heartland of North America on my annual pilgrimage to the tender and welcoming embrace of the Ottawa International Animation Festival. 

Despite the unexpected mid-flight hat trick of a screaming toddler, squabbling pensioners (“Jesus Mary Beth, what did you pack in this bag, a forge?”) and a stellar lineup of CBC Programming (“This Week in Peat Herding”), my travels, for the most part, were uneventful.  I did take exception, however, to getting fleeced during my Toronto layover by a polite, neatly dressed young airport snack kiosk attendant charging $5 for a thimble sized bottle of Evian.  Our exchange went something like this:

Snack Kiosk Attendant: “Sir.  That will be $5.”

Suddenly Angry Dan: “Really? $5 for a tiny bottle of water?  You have got to be kidding!” 

Snack Kiosk Attendant: “No sir.  That will be $5.”

Suddenly Angry Dan: [Shaking finger indiscriminately, sensing his histrionics were beginning to make the eight people stuck in line behind him quite uncomfortable] You sir should be ashamed of yourself, charging $5 for a bottle of water. You’ve got a great future ahead of you in theatre concessions!”

Indignities of modern travel aside, I always, without fail, enjoy my time at the Ottawa festival.  Old friends, new friends, scores of pale festival volunteers, the competition screening announcer’s unintelligible French pronunciation of film and director names, Chris Robinson’s luxurious flowing head of hair, it’s like comfort food for my cranky old soul. Between TAC and OIAF, the week is packed. I sit in on some presentations, I watch some films and I eat at least one delicious Donair of questionable origin.  What more could anyone want?

Adding to my embarrassment of festival riches this year, I had a great meal at the Black Tomato.  The duck confit was truly spectacular, though my waitress upset me to no end when ten minutes after taking my order, she sheepishly informed me they were out of duck rillettes. Never go back on a promise to serve rillettes.  Ever. Wars have been fought and lost for much less.

Lately, at my family’s request (well, to be honest, insistence), I’ve been trying to ignore the myriad of trivial annoyances that often derail my day and focus my attention on being happy, not angry. Don’t yell at the cats just because they immediately groom themselves anywhere you touch them. Don’t scream at the TV just because you don’t like the color of the weatherman’s tie. Don’t curse Facebook, or Apple, or Google, or Reality TV, or lazy sitcom writing or restaurants the serve steak fries rather than shoestrings.  Life is too short to stroke out over things you can’t change.  Get over it. Get over yourself. Move along Dan, there’s nothing to see here.

So, in the spirit of moving along, I offer the following report on my trip to the 2013 Ottawa International Animation Festival.

So, What Did We Learn at the 2013 Ottawa International Animation Festival?

  • The competition screenings were solid.  Great new films from well-known and established animators like Chris Landreth (Subconscious Password) and Theodore Ushev (Gloria Victoria).  A new crop of student films that showed both good storytelling and technical skills.  Judith Poirier’s wonderful short, Two Weeks – Two Minutes, made by printing directly onto 35 mm film stock  with rare old moveable type and a letter press. Several films from Japanese animators that though I had no idea what the hell they were about, were quite amusing, including one about having to take a shit. 
  • The food, for the most part in Ottawa, is mediocre at best.  And overpriced.  The service however was always friendly, though I did get the stink eye from one hostess at Dunn’s on Dalhousie after I told her I liked the festive window treatments (see, Dunn’s keeps the windows completely open even if it’s 150 below zero. There are no window treatments as there are no windows, hence I was being snarky with my compliment).
  • The “colorful” and uniquely opinionated street denizens homesteading on Rideau Street have no sense of humor.  A talkative lot they are, but not the most jovial.  In fact, they tend to be quite verbally aggressive. My French is pretty rusty but during one verbal joust with a pair of ex-fur trappers in front of the Beer Store, I was either called a “puck bunny” or a “big fat dollop of pastry cream.”  Not quite sure.

  • Some Canadian animators never get over the perceived indignity and complete moral outrage of not having their film selected in competition.  Many have never been able to forgive this obvious miscarriage of justice, forever bitter that their 14 minute minimalist black and white experimental tree bark, moss and elbow macaroni stop-motion epic, a vitriolic rebuke of 21st century corporate greed and avarice, was passed over by the selection committee. My advice…Occupy Rideau. Partake in a bottle of Jameson. Or devote more time to your Facebook page because we’re all are dying to read more of your shitty posts about the benefits of homemade soap or your summer spent learning about sustainable quinoa farming. 
  • Those same “Some Canadian animators” are, for the most part, firmly and unequivocally convinced that Chris Robinson and his band of shadow conspirators prefer certain types of films (in particular, ones not made by said animators) and that he is solely responsible for making the competition selections. And he does so while holding an eternal grudge against said animators. Like 9/11 skeptics and Area 51 fanatics, no matter how much evidence exists to the contrary, these animators will not be swayed.  In fact, as the years go by, they become even more entrenched in their delusions. It’s like my mom’s stubborn defense of cooking with margarine. She just won’t hear otherwise.

  • St. Brigid’s may be a cool old Catholic church-turned-community center venue, but Maxwell Smart had better odds understanding the Chief while screaming “What?” inside the Cone of Silence than an audience member had hearing anything being said up on stage inside the cathedral.  Other than that, a great party spot.
  • Teachers like Erinn Hagerty (University of Pennsylvania), Dave Chai (San Jose State University), Steven Subotnick (RISD), Tim Finn (Art Institute of Boston), Ruth Lingford (Harvard), Elliot Cowan (University of the Arts), Rick Knowles (NBCC Miramichi) and others I’m sure I’ve left out, deserve our undying gratitude and respect.  Each year they drag a group of students to the festival and “show ‘em how it’s done.” I cannot overstate to animation students and young professionals the critical importance of attending such a festival, especially with caring, knowledgeable and engaged mentors who make it their business to get their students engaged, to encourage participation. It’s not TEDx, it’s not Vimeo and it’s not an iPad app.  It’s real, not digital. Get involved.

  • The Animator’s Picnic remains one of the greatest festival programming ideas of all time, second only to my idea of running Phil Mulloy’s Good Night Mr. Christie backwards in search of subliminal messages about sex, violence, apathy and anarchy.  Come to think of it, you’ll find those messages by running the film forwards. 
  • This year’s pumpkin carving contest continued the downward spiral of recent years into the abyss of mediocrity.  It has been ages since the contest has seen a truly inspired and well-designed carving.  For such an artistic gathering, the pumpkin carving contest continues to be a great disappointment.

  • Too many students have no clue they’ll never work on Despicable Me 4 or Iron Man 6 unless they get a job in the studio cafeteria.  We’ve all experienced the humiliation and sadness when, for the first time in our lives, we get slapped in the face by the realization we truly suck at doing the thing we love most.  For me, it was freshman physics.  For these youngsters, it’s a simple walk cycle. Even so, you can’t help but begrudgingly applaud their unbridled enthusiasm for all things animated.  It’s just unfortunate that their complete and utter cluelessness is as sadly amusing as the chaos of a global industry they’ll soon be cursing from the unemployment line.
  • An OK joke done once is OK.  An OK joke done ad nauseam is lame.  To the Japanese director of Ketsujiru Juke, wearing a mask while being introduced at the film’s premier was cute…for 10 seconds.  Wearing it to the Meet the Filmmakers session the next day was not nearly as amusing to the audience as it must have seemed to you. However, I must admit, explaining your film was inspired by an ex-boyfriend who enjoyed giving you enemas made for great theatre.   

  • If I’ve said it once I’ve said it 725,365 times: too many films are simply way too long! Since when did a generation of filmmakers decide there is no need to concern themselves with how audiences respond to their films? Maybe I missed that memo.  You know, the one that said, “To all filmmakers: Please continue making long shitty films no one can stand watching.”  Too many films go on and on and on and on. And on. During screenings, you see audience members rummaging through their backpacks looking for a sharp object they can use to gouge out their eyes. Note to filmmakers: Take your 11 minute epic and edit it down into the best three minute film you possibly can. Then do everyone a favor and destroy the remaining eight minutes. No one will miss them but you.
  • Everyone but me is getting younger.  This year’s OIAF parade of fresh faced, eager young students made me feel incredibly old. When you’re approaching the age where you could be their grandfather, somehow the fantasy of running off to Manitoba with a comely young CG artist no longer seems exhilarating.  It just seems creepy.

So, what did we really learn during our time at OIAF 2013? We learned that the international animation community is as inspiring and amusing as ever. We learned that despite continued economic uncertainty within the animation business, artists all over the world continue to create unique and compelling work when common sense would dictate a career change.  And we learned that OIAF continues to shine as the gold standard of animation community gatherings, a festival that always entertains, rarely dissapoints and never fails to deliver.


Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.