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Animation Nights New York Celebrates Third Annual ‘Best of the Fest’

AWN’s resident Miscweant shares his conference report on the cutting-edge XR Showcase and presentation by indie legend Bill Plympton.

Legendary indie animator Bill Plympton talked about his career, gave advice and showed some of his work, including his recent music video, 'Tupelo' and examples of his scathing 'Trump Bites' web series.

The weekend of October 6 and 7th saw ANNY’s - “Animation Nights New York” - annual “Best of the Fest,” a panoply of events and screenings designed to satiate the most insatiable of the city’s animation community – and give up-and-coming animators and entrepreneurs opportunities to learn from and mingle with like-minded folks.

Apart from Saturday evening’s screening of shorts vying for an Oscar nomination, and Sunday’s “Best of the Fest” assortment, sessions like “Contracts for Artists,” “Distributing Animation in the Digital Age” and “The Future of Animation: AI-Generated Characters” filled the schedule. However, one room in the downtown office tower where the fest took place held particular interest for me: “The XR Showcase.”

Inside a dozen or so tables sported different VR software, some from established or new producers, others from ambitious students or recent animation school graduates.

I’m still getting used to the experience of donning a VR headset (not the most comfortable of headwear) and having the real world around me transformed into an artificial, synthetic environment. And God knows there’s been enough movies and TV shows about the dangers of being trapped in a VR world -- or not even being aware you’re in one to begin with…

Object Normal's 'Here & Elsewhere,' created by David Lobser.

But it’s so cool to totally, suddenly be elsewhere. In fact, the first headset I donned was displaying a piece from Object Normal studio called Here and Elsewhere. To quote the company’s website:

It is twenty thousand years in the future and our signals have been received, but it is too late for life on earth. The hyper dimensional crystals have arrived to a blasted wasteland. They can see the beauty in our ruins, and something of themselves in our striving. They must first clear away these desiccated remains and send some of it to their museum. They reconstruct this planet in their own image and restore a harmonious balance.

When the alien crystals send the remains shooting off to their planet you can raise your head and follow the departing fragments as they travel further and further away until they are no longer visible; you turn around and the building wall close behind you has been replaced by a bare, endless vista.

David Lobser, the piece’s creator, explained the angular, crystalline shapes are simpler to create and manipulate, not via vector animation but as “low-poly” 3D, which as the technique’s name suggests requires less information to construct.

Cosmic Sugar, Object Normal’s other piece on display, was of the interactive variety and particle animation-based. You hold two controllers (which in your headset appear to float in front of you). As you move your arms, a swarm of particles in a multitude of colors swirl about under your direction. Among its many interactive features, audio is a two-way street: the motion can generate sounds -- or audio can be imported into the piece to create motion. (Moving my arm to send sending particles circling and spiraling in front of me made me feel like Dr. Strange casting spells and energy shields.)

The Looking Glass displayed its gear, a combination of lightfield and volumetric display technologies that capture 45 unique simultaneous views of a virtual scene.

A company known as The Looking Glass had its eponymous creation on display, a solid-looking transparent block enabling the onlooker not only to view the contained object at any angle, but to interact with it. (When I put my hand in front of the tiny holographic dancer within, a virtual version of my hand materialized, enabling me to scoop her up and hold her in my palm.) According to the company’s website, the device “is a combination of lightfield and volumetric display technologies,” capturing “45 unique simultaneous views of a virtual scene.”

Then it was back to the headset to try out the PlayStation 4 game Moss. Using handheld controllers, I was able to open and turn the pages of an enormous fairytale book (the kind old-school Disney movies used to begin with) sitting on a table in a massive Hogwarts-style hall. Images materialized - just like magic! - on what seemed at first to be blank pages, launching the story of an adorable little mouse travelling through an interactive forest on her quest to defeat evil.

Polyarc's single-player action-adventure puzzle game, 'Moss,' tailored for VR.

Bob Los’s In Memory was a much more somber (and non-interactive) experience, the reminiscences of an imprisoned sailor recalling his lost love. Each “chapter” of the story appeared as a memory bubble containing a tiny animated three-dimensional world viewable from any angle. (When the sailor is piloting a submarine, his head is visible through a porthole; but when viewed from above the sub’s entire interior is revealed - including the sailor at its controls - as if its top were transparent.)

“Tvori” means “create” in Russian, but in the VR world it’s the name of drawing software one manipulates in virtual space. The program builds characters and environments and programs camera moves, making it an excellent pre-visualization tool. (As a non-hands-on guy, the detail that really intrigued me was the virtual monitor floating above the 3D scene, displaying the scene below as a flat 2D image even when the monitor was angled away from the viewer.)

VR software from tvori.

My favorite among the Fest’s sessions was the one conducted by independent animation legend Bill Plympton. Plympton presented samples of his work, including Tupelo, set to a song by rocker Jackie Greene. A series of scathing shorts animating some of President Trump’s head-scratching sound bites followed which, related Plympton, earned him death threats from some of the president’s more enthusiastic supporters.

Plympton offered his three rules for being a successful independent animator -- or as he referred to them, “Plympton’s Dogma:” 1. Keep your films short, five minutes or less; longer and you risk boring your audience;  2. Keep them cheap: no CGI, no celebrities, no commercial rock songs that cost $$ to license; and 3. Make them funny. (“If you can make people laugh you’ll always have an audience.”)

Bill Plympton.

Plympton ended by relating his Disney experience: as an eager 14-year old he sent an assortment of drawings to the Mouse Factory and received a friendly note advising him to check back with the studio in a decade or two.

After one his two Oscar nominations (he didn’t specify whether it was for Your Face or Guard Dog) the studio got in touch with him with a “fat $1 million contract offer.” The only hitch: the studio would own everything he did, outside independent work included. “I realized I wasn’t destined to be working for Disney; I’d probably be discovered doing naughty drawings on the side and wind up being fired in three months.

He added, “I don’t want anyone looking over my shoulder telling me ‘you can’t draw that;’ that’s why I’m independent.”

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.