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Ottawa Day 2: Jan Pinkava is Utterly Charming and It's Really Cold

The highlight of my second day in Ottawa was finding a working ATM. But the “treat” of the day was sitting in on an intimate discussion with former Oscar-winning Pixar and current Laika writer/director Jan Pinkava. Friendly, engaging, entertaining and brilliant – utterly charming. Made me feel like audience extra at a taping of “Regis and Kelly.” And it’s really, really cold here.

Ron Diamond, Jan Pinkava and Me.

By Dan Sarto

The highlight of my second day in Ottawa was finding a working ATM.  Actually, it probably was my third meal at Dunn’s in 2 days though I’m praying by Day 5 I’ll have figured out how to order something with “flavor.” My suitcase was too full to pack any “flavor” so I had to leave it in LA.  What a shame.  I guess in Canada you need to ask your waitperson to bring some “flavor” on the side. But the “treat” of the day was sitting in on an intimate interview/discussion at TAC with former Oscar-winning Pixar and current Laika writer/director Jan Pinkava.  Friendly, engaging, entertaining and brilliant – utterly charming. Made me feel like audience extra at a taping of “Regis and Kelly.”  And it’s really, really cold here.

I say this a bit tongue in cheek, but deep down, I’m quite humbled when meeting with certain people whom I consider a bit “larger than life.”  It’s not that I become a speechless fanboy, it’s just that it’s not that often, in the information blitz that is my normal day, that I get a chance to spend a bit of time talking to someone I consider one of the greats in our business.

The session with Jan, a last minute schedule change for TAC, was quite excellent.  Of course I’m a bit biased in that the interviewer was Ron Diamond, my business partner in AWN, but I’m sure he’ll tell you I’m not a “homer” for all things AWN and never have been.  With that said, Ron’s genuine warmth and affection for Jan gave the proceedings an intimate feeling that more than filled the big hall.  Jan spoke at length about his tenure at Pixar, the creative process he was lucky enough to be part of, how his Oscar-winning film Geri’s Game came about and ultimately won Hollywood’s biggest prize.  He shared how while living in London, he answered an ad in the Guardian looking for someone who considered themselves “the next John Lasseter.”  At that time, no one knew John Lasseter except the rare person who by default, if they knew of him, probably was someone whom you’d want to hire.

Jan went on to discuss the exacting story development process on Ratatouille, the endless iterations that went into building and strengthening the story and just how truly unique that process is at Pixar.  Working alongside Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, not to mention John Lasseter, among other, is truly a one of a kind experience.  He shared how despite the tremendous amount of work by a large number of people, there came a point in time, that comes on every production, where you arrive at the conclusion that “this thing is a piece of @#$%.”  But you trust the process and the people you work with and from there, something special comes together.

Phil Mulloy's exceptional feature film, Good Night Mr. Christie.

From TAC I hoofed it over to the Bytowne to see Phil Mulloy’s latest feature, Goodbye Mr. Christie. I met Phil more than a decade ago outside the American Bar in Annecy.  I introduced him to Igor Kovalyov.  His first words to Igor, with his genteel British accent, were “Right, you did that odd short film with the skiing soldier.  Yes, well, I didn’t care for it very much at all!”  To know Phil is to love his utterly unpretentious view of life, his keen perception of the absurdities, idiosyncrasies and hypocrisy the surrounds us all.  His gentle manner and collegiate appearance are in stark contrast to the minimalistic “in your face” nature of all his films, from the visceral brusqueness of his design to the sharp use of violence, sex and not-always-pleasant topics of discussion.

Goodbye Mr. Christie is a must see, if for no other reason than it is almost unheard of for an independent animator to pull off a feature length film, mostly if not completely on their own, that can entertain an audience for 80 minutes! How many animated films entertain an audience for 3 minutes!  Go to a festival and you’ll see firsthand how few films fall into the latter category and how almost none fall into the former.  Goodbye Mr. Christie is hard for me to describe, other than to say that a family is torn apart by sexual scandal that merely masks its underlying dysfunction and the dysfunction of society as well.  The characters are all voiced with computerized synthetic speech of the most basic answering machine style, which makes all the dialogue utterly devoid of nuance and emotion.  But that in itself adds a layer of nuance and emotion that is so different from what we’re used to hearing that it drives home the underlying story with a bluntness that is riveting.  As I say, it’s hard to describe, but if you have a chance, you should see this film.

Priit Parn's Tuukrid Vihmas (Divers in the Rain).

The second shorts competition was not as inspiring to me as the first program from last night.  I enjoyed Priit Parn’s Tuukrid Vihmas (Divers in the Rain), though that enjoyment, like the enjoyment to be had from watching any Estonian film, is an odd mix of pleasure and pain. This might be the first Estonian film I have ever even remotely understood, which is to say, I got it a bit, which is to say, I normally watch Estonian films and have no idea whatsoever what is going on. Having actually been to Estonia for 9 hours on a family cruise two summers ago, I can honestly say, now I understand why Estonian films are so not-understandable.  I’ve seen the Estonian Navy – three 70 year old PT boats on blocks in a decrepit old shipyard next to a former prison for political dissidents. There is one submarine, built by the British in the 1930s, now a listing museum of sorts, on which the Soviets welded shut the escape hatches in order to impress the sailors that mission failure was not an option. It made no sense. What is Priit’s film about?  There is a sinking ship, a deep sea diver, his restless insomniac wife, a bunch of seemingly incompetent workers, a car crash and incessant rain.  Other than that, I’m not sure of anything.

Joseph Pierce's A Family Portrait.

My favorite film of the program by far was A Family Portrait.  Great film. For me, I immediately embrace any film that accurately depicts true family dynamics, where even the most mundane activity, like sitting for a family portrait, can be a catalyst for great humor, great sorrow, great sarcasm and great anger, in various combinations and cycles, all within the span of 30 seconds.  One parent glances in dissaproval at a child – in an instant, the expression morphs for just a second into a monster and then back – the style employed throughout to capture all the sneers and jeers and varied emotions was extraordinarily on target.  I’ve sat for extended family portraits and I can attest to the fact that they can and often result in wills being rewritten and trusts being dissolved. They can bring out the absolute worst in every participant and actually should be outlawed. Kids can sometimes be little fuckers, though to be fair, so can some parents (myself not included as I am and have always been the perfect father in all ways imaginable – just ask my wife).  This film captures the essence of restrained familial mayhem brilliantly.

Dan Sarto's picture

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