The following is animation historian, film critic, and San Francisco based lecturer, Karl Cohen's review of events at this year's Ottawa. The views are his only and do not necessarily coincide with my own.
OTTAWA 2010 WELCOMES CONTROVERSIAL ANIMATION
The Ottawa International Animation Festival is North Americas only major international animation festival and television animation conference. Besides the annual competition screenings, the 2010 event included several special programs of films from Japan, a show of work from the Czech Republic, films by women, Jerry Becks The Inappropriate for Children Show, my program Lets Go Crazy! that shows how animation has depicted mental health problems over the years, and other unique screenings. Master classes were held with Caroline Leaf, Torill Kove and Steven Woloshen and workshops were held on voice acting for animation, storyboards and other topics. Disney and Pixar made a special presentation and the festival introduced the latest prototype of the SANDDE stereoscopic computer system that will be available for purchase in 2011. There were special events for teens and younger kids and colleges had recruiters at booths to answer questions about their programs.
Ottawa 2010 was also a great place to network. They run a centrally located cafi where you can meet people, they hold parties every night and the annual Friday afternoon picnic was well attended. The animation conference is held in a luxury hotel that has lots of lounges where you can meet friends in a relaxed atmosphere.
The festival has a reputation for showing controversial works. Chris Robinson, the festivals artistic director doesnt play it safe and stick to programming films he knows will please his audience. Instead he challenges you to look at and decide for yourself what has value, be it artistic, social or political. One of this years prizewinners dealt with sexual orgasms. Others were about the war in Iraq and other topics that tend to shock polite society. Most of the shows were listed in the program guide as either intended for adult audiences or recommended for those over 14. While there were programs especially for kids, much of Ottawa 2010 was not a safe, family friendly event.
Minimalist animation won the top prizes
The biggest surprise for me was seeing the film that won the feature competition grand prize. The five films in that competition were Sylvain Chomets The Illusionist (UK, France), Munehisa Sakais One Piece Film Strong World(Japan), Phil Mulloys Goobye Mister Christie(UK), Brent Greens Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then (USA) and Keita Kurosakas Midori-ke (Japan). And the winner, selected by an impressive trio of prize-winning animation directors: Atsushi Wada from Japan, Torill Kove from Norway and Michaela Pavlatova from the Czech Republic, was Goobye Mister Christie.
Mister Christie has almost nothing in common with the conventional feature from Hollywood or Japan. Chris Robinson, Ottawas artistic director, says, If Disney is animations heart, then British animator Phil Mulloy is its bowels. Very very far from the colorful cartoony world of bunny rabbits, cuddly ogres, and other assorted sexless wide-eyed moral crusaders who make the world safer and linear for us, are Phil Mulloys deceptively crude and intentionally primitive animation films.
I think it is important to write about Mr. Christie as it and some of the shorts shown are part of a recent and controversial trend of voice driven animation that is minimal in its artistic execution. Critics may write these films off as simply bad or ugly art, but like it or not minimalist animation is now firmly entrenched on American cable television in numerous extremely low budget shows produced for Adult Swim and other late night programs. More importantly film festival judges are taking a serious look at films like Goodbye Mister Christie and awarding them major prizes.
What is so different about Goodbye Mr. Christie? One of the first things you notice is Phil Mulloy didnt use famous actors to provide the voices. Instead the voices are computer generated and are about as exciting as listening to digital voices that tell us the time or to leave a message at the beep.
Visually all we ever see on the screen are black silhouettes of talking heads against blank white or garish flat wallpaper backgrounds. There are no eyes. You look through the eyeholes and see the background. Oh, there is visual variety as we meet a talking dog near the beginning of the film and a large spider later on. We also see a cutaway of a large lump covered with fabric that is supposed to be an erect male member, but I dont recall seeing any other body parts found bellow the neck. Yes, the films visuals are that limited.
So why would anybody want to see this minimal film, much less give it a major prize? Mister Christie may be barely illustrated radio, but the plot and dialogue are so outrageous and over the top that you either find it extremely funny, take delight in its shocking content and love it, or you hate it and tell people it was the worst After talking with over a dozen people about their feelings about the film there seems to be no middle ground about how people responded to seeing it.
The film is totally absurd entertainment just as the theatre of the absurd (Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Becket and others) was in the late 1950s and 60s and Alfred Jarrys Ubu plays were in the late 19th Century. The story begins with the disintegration of Mister Christies family. A sailor named Ramon seduces his wife by playing magic music downloaded off the Internet. Then Ramon plays the music for Mister Christie, a priest and Mr. Christies son who has four gold rings hanging from his nose and nails sticking out of his face. Ramon even plays the music for the familys talking dog. I bet you can guess correctly what happens each time someone hears the magic music.
The film spirals downward after Mr. Christie is seen on TV in a scandalous situation. To escape he starts digging a hole to China. Along the way he meets God and a few other people. He even kills See it if you dare. Some people will be fascinated and entertained by this work, but I suspect the majority will hate it. I doubt the film will be shown in many movie theatres, but it may get released on DVD.
The festivals 2010 Grand Prize for Best Independent Short Animation, selected by a different international jury (Munro Ferguson from the NFB of Canada, Maya Yonesho from Japan and Frances Leeming from Canada) also went to a minimalist work, The External World by David OReilly who was born in Ireland and works in Berlin. Judging from the applause it received when the prize was announced, the audience was quite pleased with the choice. The films character designs and backgrounds are quite simple, but the gags are outrageous. For example one sequence has an adult trying to play catch with a kid. The adult tosses the kid a boomerang, but just as the kid is about to catch it, the boomerang reverses its course, flies back and cuts the mans head off. The kid picks it up and in a fit of anger he tosses it away. Predictably it comes back and lots or red pours from his head.
The External World may not sound like your kind of film from my description of it, but when it had its world premiere in September at the 67th Venice Film Festival the Orizzonti competition jury nominated it as Venices entry into the European Film Awards Competition because this animated film pushes the limits of morality in a very humorous and grotesque way. It is cinematically made, offbeat and highly original.
Not all of the awards went to minimal animation
Dustin Grella from the School of Visual Art in New York won both the Best Graduate Animation Prize and the Walt Disney Animation Studios Grand Prize for Best Student Animation. His Prayers for Peace is a moving tribute to his younger brother who died while on patrol in Iraq. His film is a handsome narrative work that combines stop-motion, pastel drawings, rotoscope footage and other techniques. The film has been seen at other festivals including Annecy, Stuttgart, Monstra (Lisbon) and Anima Mundi. The Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York City showed it in November before the opening nights documentary feature. The film can be seen on the Internet on Viemo. http://vimeo.com/7520674
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Complex pop-up animation based on paper pop-up books was used to create two outstanding looking commercial works. The best promotional animation award went to WF, Heroes of the UAE by Josish Newbolt and Ben Falk from the UK. It was constructed with paper cut-outs, puppets and other materials, composited digitally and it shows a father and daughter journeying through a newspaper world. Going West by Martin Andersen from New Zealand created his pop-up look digitally. It honors the joy of being absorbed in a good book using ones imagination.
The best experimental/abstract award went to Ruth Lingford for Little Deaths. This remarkable animator from the UK is presently teaching at Harvards Carpenter Center and her new work was made using a 2D computer system. The soundtrack consists of male and female voices describing what is indescribable, the human sexual orgasm.
Probably the most complex work shown and certainly one of the most impressive was the Lipsett Diaries by Theodore Ushev. The film won the Canadian Film Institutes award for best Canadian animation. By creating a cinematic collage built up with layers of fast moving visuals and sounds the artist takes us on a 14-minute journey through the mans life, from disturbing childhood memories to his artistic triumphs including winning an Oscar for his experimental animated short Very Nice, Very Nice (1961). The final section of the work covers Lipsetts mental decay that led to his suicide at the age of 49 in 1986. Chris Robinson wrote the films script.