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The Animation Pimp: The Kids Eat It Up

Here’s a wee Pimp tribute to some of the most ass-kicking student films from the last 20-ish years.

No matter how many prizes, accolades, interviews, or millions any of us get in our careers as filmmakers, we all started at the humblest of beginnings, at zero. We were all students or apprentices to our art before we became masters. But in all of the most successful of us, there was even back then, in our beardless youth, the shimmering foreshadowing of future success. Some of the most promising of student works reminds us that our student films can be our most liberating expressions, and can be harbingers of greatness to come. And they’ll remind us of where some of the best ideas and talents have always come from; the gloriously fecund creativity of young artists.

Here’s a wee Pimp tribute to some of the most ass-kicking student films from the last 20-ish years.

Hilary, Anthony Hodgson, UK, 1995, 9:00

"When I finished Hilary I had no idea if it was any good or not.  The first time I watched it with an audience was at our graduation show, and it was a great relief when everyone laughed in the right places.  The RCA made prints and sent it out to the festivals, which is how DreamWorks saw it at the Ottawa Animation Festival - which is how I got my job.  I think I was very fortunate.  I had never animated with a computer, and I was not a good stop-motion animator.  I guess there wasn't as much competition back then.

The animation is obviously pretty dodgy, but I like to think that adds to its charm.  I still like the story, and John Woodvine's fantastic voice. It still feels quite original to me, although when I watch it I can see influences from the writers and filmmakers that I loved at the time - Mark Baker, the Brother Quay, Aardman, Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood, Mike Leigh, Oliver Postgate.

Hilary gets a few hits each week on Vimeo, and occasionally someone will leave a comment about how they saw it years ago and enjoyed it and were happy to find it again.  That's very nice."


Tables of Content, Wendy Tilby, Canada 1986, 7:00

"I thought I was going to be a documentary filmmaker, but when I got to art school (Emily Carr in Vancouver), I was seduced by the solitude and of course the control of animation. I didn’t take to working on paper or cels so tried painting on glass straight ahead under the camera, a technique pioneered by Caroline Leaf. I liked the simplicity and danger of this seat-of-pants sort of animation as it meant I could never go back and fix anything. The result was Tables of Content, a documentary of sorts, inspired by my part-time job waiting on tables at a seafood restaurant. Looking at it now, I see a rather odd film with plenty of things that should have been fixed. But I am very grateful for it (and that precious time at art school) because it has everything to do with my joining the NFB in Montreal the following year."


Second Class Mail, Alison Snowden, UK, 1985, 4:00

"I made Second Class Mail in my last year at the National Film and Television School in the UK.  I'd spent three years specializing in live action and hadn't planned to make an animated film at the school, but had always had a keen interest in the animation department where my friends there included Nick Park and Mark Baker.  So with just a few months till graduation, some spare change in my production budget and the urging of my partner, David Fine, I decided it was a good opportunity to use the facilities.      

I wanted to do a simple film with movement and patterns, but with a story which meant something and had some heart. The original inspiration came from an old spotted rain hat I'd bought.  I wanted to start with bouncing dots and then use those to transform into the next scene and so on.  When I look at the film now I feel that the animation and design look crude, but I'm proud that I chose to come up with a simple idea that allowed me to be creative with the storyboarding and the soundtrack , and which seemed have both humour and meaning."


We Lived in Grass, Andreas Hykade, Germany, 1995, 15:40

"We Lived in Grass - that was my coming out. Before that film I was just digging in the dirt, adapting this and that, but with We Lived in Grass it was the first time I would work in a language I felt most comfortable with. A language I could handle without the support of a big army. A language, where I could go in any direction - comedy if possible, tragedy if necessary. In a way creating the film was like learning to speak. Although the film itself is a big mess, it still has this raw and twisted energy one can only create unconsciously. It's like an old ragged song from another time."


Mr. Smile, Fran Krause, USA, 1999, 8:20

"There was a janitor in my school named Mel. He would sing in a beautiful baritone as he cleaned up around the cafeteria. I tried to get him to do the voice of the preacher bird, but every time he got to "floovde" it would come out "floodge." We tried about fifty takes. Every time - floodge. 

If it wasn't for this film, I probably wouldn't have landed my first job at Blue's Clues. I don't think my brother and I would have been able to get our first TV pilot, Utica Cartoon, if I hadn't been able to finish Mister Smile. This cartoon let me travel all over the world for a couple years, meeting great people at a bunch of film festivals. Every job I've had since college can trace itself back to this cartoon.

How's that sound? Do I need to sex it up at all? Animation's kinda boring. I guess there was some drama when my cel paint was impounded in Canadian customs because they thought it was flammable. Other than that, I sat at a desk for two semesters listening to Archers of Loaf's first album over and over again."


Dog, Suzi Templeton, UK, 2002, 5:40

"Dog is perhaps the purest, most unconscious work I’ve ever done. The film evolved from a feeling I wanted to express, a relationship that I wanted to portray.

I had originally scripted and storyboarded several additional lighter scenes, but to meet my deadline I shot only those scenes which were absolutely essential to tell the story, which happened to be all the darkest ones. Although, in hindsight, I think its economy is its strength, what is left is a desolate film that some find unbearable.

Having the bleak Dog on my reel did not help me to get the work directing commercials that I sought after leaving the Royal College of Art. However, after seeing the film, the producer who wanted to make a film version of Peter and the Wolf was convinced that I was the right director for the project. Also, the critical success and awards that Dog had received helped enormously in financing Peter and the Wolf."


Doxology, Michael Langan, USA, 2007, 6:00

"I was in a really good head-space at the time, nudged by a few great RISD professors into a place where I felt creatively energized and free to make whatever I wanted—so I did! Somehow the thing ended up being kind of funny. With Doxology I struck upon the mission of broadening the audience of experimental film through traditional hooks like production value, music, sensation and humor, and I’ve been on that path ever since.

The film got some great exposure, first through film festivals, then broadcast and online. The immediate result was a commercial adaptation of the car tango scene that I directed for Škoda. Since then I've spent 50% of my time on commercials and 50% on new short films. Looking back, it's a little rough around the edges, but I'm still really grateful for the fertile germ it proved to be."


Grace, Lorelei Pepi, USA, 1998, 6:30

"Grace was my Cal Arts MFA thesis film done in the Experimental Animation department. It was the most transformative and demanding art experience I'd ever had up until that point. I dove really deep down for it, exhausting myself, my bank account, as well as my friends. I did ridiculously crazy things just to "get that shot just right.” The resulting work did relatively well at the festivals, allowing me to gain attention and to meet all kinds of like-minded people. It also answered my own question as a younger artist, that I could find my own private vocabulary of expression in my art, and still be able to communicate meaning to others. I found that I love teaching animation, as my relationship to this art form is so much more about the intimate expressiveness rather than the commercial uses of it. And best of all, I’m still making my own films, with one just about finished."


Uncle, Adam Elliot, Australia, 1996, 6:00

"Making Uncle at the age of 25, was the first time I had touched plasticine since I was a child. I had never animated a short film and was terrified. Yet with the guidance of my animation lecturers and a very polished script, once I sunk my hands into the plasticine everything seemed to flow naturally, intuitively. I realized making 'clayographies' was the culmination of so many things I loved to do - draw, design, make, photograph, tell stories, entertain and nourish my audiences. At the time I had no idea this was a beginning of a life-long love affair with blobs of plasticine that would take me and my films around the world many times."


Son of Satan, JJ Villard, USA, 2003, 11:00





Thanks to Michael Fukushima for assistance.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.