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World Animation and VFX Summit Turns Three

AWN correspondent Heather Kenyon takes a working vacation in Los Angeles for the third annual World Animation and VFX Summit, including the Opening Night Gala and two days of panels and discussions.

“Masters of Reinvention” panel. From left: director Tony Bancroft, executive producer Julia Pistor, ‘The Simpsons’ director David Silverman, and Disney producer Don Hahn. (Photo by Will Thoren.)

Last year I attended just the closing evening of the World Animation and VFX Summit. It was such a great time and I saw so many old friends, acquaintances and partners that I swore to make it a point to participate more the next time.

And attend more I did! Spanning November 2-5th and based at the fabulous California Yacht Club, located in Los Angeles’s marina just north of the Los Angeles International Airport, the Summit is a well-rounded, fun event.

The Lay of the Land

The Summit kicked off on Sunday, November 2nd with an Opening Night Gala and then went into two days of panels and discussions. The final day, the 5th, is a studio tour day. All those interested boarded a bus and toured Cartoon Network Studios and Mousetrappe in Burbank and RGH in Woodland Hills. The event’s atmosphere is cool and laid back and being located at the beach only helps deliver a truly Californian vibe. There is a schedule but if everyone is having an extra great time schmoozing it up during a break then Jean Thoren, the event’s founder and organizer, will give everyone an extra 10 minutes before heading back in. The presentations offer solid information but aren’t rigid or formal. Questions from the audience are encouraged and frequently the panels broke into discussions between panel members. It reminds me of the early days of Kidscreen when it was in Universal City in Los Angeles. Anyone remember that? Anyone? Anyone? Yes. I am that old. Jean’s warmth and deep connections infuse the entire event. At every turn during every break, cocktail party or just passing in the lobby she is introducing people, pointing out other great contacts and making sure everyone is having a productive time.

The Opening Night Gala and the closing Sunset Cocktail Party were held on a patio around a fire pit overlooking the moored boats of the marina. A large tent offered seating for the Opening Night’s honorees and sponsors.

It was lovely to see the great Bonnie Arnold (How to Train Your Dragon 2) be recognized as the Feature Producer of the Year and the uber-humble David Silverman, Director of the Year, dish a few fun behind the scenes Simpsons tidbits. The most inspiring speech by far was from Lifetime Achievement Award winner Phil Roman, founder of Film Roman. We have all been touched by Phil’s contributions to the industry. Not just his shows but in the way he ran Film Roman. A true gentleman, Phil made the industry a better place here in Los Angeles for a long time. Born in Fresno, an agricultural town in California’s central valley, Phil saved up $60 and moved to LA, later joining the Air Force and going to Art Center on the G.I. bill. He loved animation because all you needed was “a piece of paper, a pencil and your imagination.” After working for several studios he decided to try his hand at opening his own because he’d “rather try and fail then never try at all.” His journey was long from picking grapes to running one of the most influential studios in town, but he left us with: “Dream. And dream big. Because dreams come true even for little Mexican kids from Fresno.”

The Meat of the Meal

“Building a Blockbuster: Brick by Brick: The Secrets of The LEGO Movie” panel. From left: cinematographer Pablo Plaisted, producer Dan Lin, and co-director Chris Miller. (Photo by Will Thoren.)

From that strong start the event then launched into two days of panels, keynotes and presentations. The panels ranged in topic from software and technology, to television and feature animation to business topics and introductions to international players. Each panel featured very interesting and high-powered players who spoke quite candidly about their assigned topics.

On the feature film side, there were in-depth case studies on Disney’s Big Hero 6 and Warner Bros.’ The LEGO Movie. The event also hit on the indy side of the fence featuring a panel about indy feature distribution and another panel featuring the directors and producers of this past year’s biggest feature films and ones we are sure to see in the Oscar race. The funny, personable Rob Minkoff kicked off the first day with his keynote. The great thing about Rob is that while he has worked for DreamWorks (Mr. Peabody and Sherman) and Disney (The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion), he’s also been involved in independent projects. He’s done animation and live action. Shorts, television and features. He’s the kind of guy you want to hear speak about the creative process as he’s been there and done that and can see and relate many different sides of the creative prism.

The television side of things was less dense but offered a solid line up as well. Canada was well represented with Guru Studios, Pascal Blais Studio, Atomic Cartoons and Big Bad Boo all featured on a panel. A really great discussion was had about “Rebooting Classic Properties” and featured Disney’s Troy Underwood discussing Tron and Star Wars, Cort Lane from Marvel and David Voss from Mattel’s Playground Productions giving us an inside look at their upcoming He-Man. Tuesday also featured a fun panel with Kara Vallow, the animation producer behind Seth MacFarlane’s animation empire, Claudia Katz of Rough Draft fame and Halle Stanford, a seasoned exec from The Jim Henson Company, who really knows the ins and outs of the international kids television space. I think this was the broadest “television” panel I have ever seen -- from prime time heavily written shows to the kids space there was a lot to cover! Halle even talked about Henson’s recent unscripted show, which featured their Creature Shop.

“Adventures in the Global Market” panel. From left: moderator Tom McLean; Dirk Hampel, co-founder of Germany’s B-Water Studios; Trevor Lai, founder, CEO and creative director of UP Studios in China; Chuck Powers, former chief creative officer Kartun Studios in Malaysia and director of Ribbit!; and Anja Sosic, producer for Poland-based Human Ark. (Photo by Will Thoren.)

I really enjoyed the panel “Adventures in the Global Market,” which presented four studios from very different corners of the world. Dirk Hampel, founder, of B-Waters Studio in Germany revealed they took their name from the famous Bruce Lee quote. Come on! Who wants to work with this guy now? Everyone, that’s who!  My biggest surprise was Anja Sosic, who is a producer at Poland’s Human Ark. Poland has a fantastic animation tradition and was definitely nurtured during the Communist years. However, after the fall of the Iron Curtain the 1990’s were bleak times for the country’s animation studios. Now, it seems a dynamic, fresh new scene is percolating. Human Ark’s reel was lovely. I spoke to Anja after the panel and she explained that because the scene was so bleak in the ‘90s many talented people moved to England, France, the U.S. and elsewhere to work. Now, they are coming back home armed with all of this experience and rebuilding the country’s animation scene. Most of the studios are small but they are coming together to form collectives to take on larger projects. All in all, sounds like a groovy scene. I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw a great pitch at an upcoming television market from Poland.

With two days of non-stop panels I think it is worth taking the time and camping out. While some areas are well trod for the industry insider, there are always surprising tidbits and it is good to see everyone. But then there are the surprises -- or the panels that discuss topics just out of your usual purview that prove interesting and a good reminder of what is going on in the world of animation just outside your usual path. Two such mind-expanding panels for me were “21st Century Tools of the Trade” and “Meet the New Interactive Magicians.”

“Interactive Magicians” featured the how-to of creating a ‘knock your socks’ off space for the Space Shuttle to repopulating virtual boxes of cupcakes. (Are you kidding me? This is how we spend our days now?) And “Tools of the Trade” was a deeply interesting panel that touched on the problems that the VFX world is having to Harold Moss, founder and creative director of Flickerlab, showing everyone their Cartoon Broadcast Live Animation System and teasing an awesome upcoming app that is going to let us animate -- yes! for realz -- our text messages with our own personal avatars.

Other great tidbits was a panel featuring top notch lawyers and managers, Google’s interactive short film Duet featuring the great Glen Keane, and a panel called “Masters of Reinvention.” This panel featured the likes of Julia Pistor, Don Hahn, David Silverman and Tony Bancroft as they spoke about their careers and tips for longevity in a rapidly changing media world.

For Next Year…

I have long felt that most animation events in Los Angeles fail because the draw of the office with all of its meetings and scheduled calls, wick people away, and make it so they cannot fully engage in a hometown event. That is why we go all the way to places like Annecy, Cannes, Sheffield or Ottawa -- far, far away -- allowing unfettered focus. By setting this event at the Yacht Club, Jean Thoren has emulated this on the West Side. I live far, far on the East Side of Los Angeles and frankly do not go west often. If I do it is a hurried, pointed run to a meeting in between peak traffic times. Or, I make a day trip of it, scheduling several meetings to make the battle with the 10 freeway worth it. But with this location, no matter how hyped up you are upon arrival, one look at the blue, blue ocean, the moored yachts, the green lawns and palm trees, and you are glad you made the trip. Once you are ensconced in the venue, the speakers and the camaraderie of the event, it becomes this luxurious little bubble you don’t want to leave. The venue also has two floors – one where the panels and events are and another top floor perfect for meetings or doing an email or two in down moments.

With AFM starting on November 5, the event is well situated in the calendar. Next year I plan to get a hotel for a few nights and just camp out on the Westside. With the airport so close there are plenty of rooms and bargain prices.

The One Paragraph Skinny

Overall, the event’s attendance is not only locals but also a surprising number of quality out-of-towners, all set in a chill location that is designed to be conducive to relaxed meetings. If you are new to the industry you will find the event to be a great way to meet the people and companies you need to get started. And if you are an industry diehard, you will be able to catch up casually, meet some surprising new players and hear from the top people in other animation tracks than your own. Plus, you’ll remember that L.A. has an ocean next to it and it’s really cool!


Heather Kenyon is SVP of Production and Development at Citizen Skull Productions, which currently has a slate of reality and scripted projects. Several animated projects are currently in various states of development with co-producers, networks and toy companies around the world. Along the way, Heather also consults for Discovery Latin America, the British Film Commission, the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and Market, Sprite Animation and Snowball VFX.