Titmouse artist Mike McCraw animated on Disney’s Motorcity and is currently working as cleanup artist and animator on Black Dynamite for Adult Swim. He had a vision for a really cool animated Power Rangers cartoon and instead of waiting for someone to make it, he just started making it himself. “Not to mention it gives me the opportunity to practice my animating skills,” he told me. “As a longtime fan of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, I began a series of animated pieces featuring a single Ranger in each one. Fully animated/hand drawn in flash, my latest is the Blue Ranger (below) which was preceded by the Black and Pink Rangers.” Great action stuff, says I.
First staged in 1976, the Ottawa International Animation Festival is no spring chicken. Only the animation festivals in Annecy (France) and Zagreb (Croatia) can claim to be older. Despite its age though, Ottawa is more eclectic and surprising than at any point in its history.
For the past decade-and-a-half, under the artistic direction of Chris Robinson, the Ottawa Animation Festival has burnished its reputation for challenging and unconventional fare. It has also managed to piss off its fair share of filmmakers, including Sylvain Chomet and Aleksandr Petrov — controversies that Robinson has addressed in his writing.
The North American animation festival scene has become much more crowded in recent years, but at the end of the day, Ottawa remains the gold standard with its trifecta of provocative competition selections, intelligent film/lecture programming, and diverse attendees from the global animation community. Regardless of whether I’m invited as a guest (such as this year) or pay my own way, it’s one of my favorite festivals. It continues to grow too — while the festival has always been a hub for the East Coast animation community, it has recently made a concerted effort to invite more guests from the West Coast animation scene. Below, Chris Robinson talks with Cartoon Brew about the continuing evolution of the Ottawa festival and what we can expect at this year’s edition, which begins next Wednesday, September 19.
Cartoon Brew: How much has the Ottawa animation festival changed since you became its artistic director in the mid-90s?
Chris Robinson: Identity. Stability. Fluidity. Community. Foundation.
The biggest change is the OIAF has a pretty solid foundation in place and it has become very communal and team orientated.
Some of the seeding began when I came aboard in 1995. Having no animation background (outside of working for the OIAF since 1992), I couldn’t help but bring a different perspective to both the programming and identity of the OIAF. It was not always pretty or smooth, but it was a starting point. The real turning point was in 2000 when Kelly Neall came aboard as Managing Director. We have very different personalities, almost opposites in some ways, and that yin-yang combination was perfect for the OIAF.
Kelly played a central role in giving the OIAF some sense of stability. Through Kelly, we’ve expanded and managed to put together a solid team of people. When I took over in 1995, I was the only regular employee really until about 2000 when Kelly came aboard. Today, we have about 5 full time, 1 part time along with a steady stream of contract staff through a government program. More importantly, people past and present like Maral Mohammadian, Andre Coutu, Jerrett Zaroski, Azarin Sohrabkhani and Dominique Forget play(ed) essential parts in helping shape and re-shape the OIAF structure, identity, programming, and vision.
Cartoon Brew: When I first started attending a decade ago, I don’t recall there being so many commercial/mainstream guests. This year’s line-up includes Hotel Transylvania director Genndy Tartakovsky, ParaNorman co-director Chris Butler, and Fairly OddParents creator Butch Hartman. Is this a good thing?
Chris Robinson: Why wouldn’t it be?
Cartoon Brew: Because Ottawa has always been about promoting unheralded independent filmmakers and industry iconoclasts. I wonder whether this commercial presence shifts the focus away from the creative filmmaking that is the reason many of us attend in the first place. How do you balance it and keep the festival from becoming too commercial?
Chris Robinson: I think the indie/commercial issue is a bit overstated. There’s more mainstream in some areas for those people who want that, but there’s the same amount of indie/experimental events for folks who don’t care about industry/commercial. It’s all perspective. You’ve pulled out a few events that fall into the commercial realm (no more than any other year), but what about the special screenings: Barry Purves, Karen Aqua, Run Wrake, Ralph Bakshi, 3 other thematic programmes (Intersections, Stand-Up Comedians, YouTube) about as removed from commercial as you can get.
Oh… and there are the competition screenings. Would anyone consider Chris Sullivan, Leah Shore, Hisko Hulsing, Theo Ushev, Michaela Pavlatova, Purves, Paul Bush, Michael Langan, Pierre Hebert, Don Hertzfeldt, PES, Steve Subotnick etc… to be icons of the commercial/mainstream? Kinda doubt it. On our post-festival surveys, we’ll get 10% who say programming is fine, 40% who say we’re too arty, 40% who say we’re too commercial. I’d say we’re doing just fine.
Cartoon Brew: You curated a Ralph Bakshi retrospective this year. His work often feels very much of a time and place. Why is he relevant today?
Chris Robinson: I’m not smitten with all of his work, but what I respect is Ralph’s punk spirit. He does what he wants, the way he wants. He had some quote saying, “Animation is whatever the fuck you want it to be.” That should be a mantra for every animator.
In Bakshi’s films — especially Fritz, Coonskin, Heavy Traffic — he gives us a world that is raw, genuine, intense, shortsighted, naive, sloppy, arrogant, ugly, poetic, pretentious, uncomfortable, disjointed, violent and urgent. Just the way life is. Just the way we are. His films deal with issues (sex, race, class, identity) in ways that make people uncomfortable – even today – and that’s a great thing because it can force you to ask yourself some tough questions about your own existence and society.
When I started working on the retrospective part of my goal was to show what animation was missing today… that we don’t have a shitdisturber like Bakshi…. who did all this wonderful craziness in a commercial setting. I still believe that…but an interesting thing happened during the process. I started noticing that we have a chunk of films this years that carry the Bakshi torch in different ways: Chris Sullivan’s Consuming Spirits, Ian Miller’s Cheap Joke, Leah Shore’s amazing film, Old Man (about Charles Manson), Hisko Hulsing’s Junkyard. He’s had an enormous influence on many independent animators and I know a lot of animators attending Ottawa this year are very excited to have a chance to meet him.
Personally, I’ve found that a lot of Bakshi’s words and ideas are not all that far from what we try to do at the OIAF. The idea of challenging people’s perceptions and thinking about animation is very close to the spirit of the OIAF.
Cartoon Brew: Tell us about the programs you’re excited about at this year’s festival?
Chris Robinson: That never changes. The competition screenings are always the one I’m most excited about. We make these decisions in relative isolation and in less than ideal situations (ie. choosing 100 films or so out of almost 2400 entries)… so it’s always interesting to see how an audience reacts… and even how you react as a programmer to the film in a cinema context.
There are really a lot of great screenings this year that will appeal to everyone. Barry Purves, Run Wrake, Karen Aqua along with some unique special screenings featuring stand-up comedians, YouTube creations etc… but, yeah, I’m pretty excited about the Bakshi screenings especially the One on One event we’re having with Ralph. Could be some fireworks!
Hell, I’m excited to see what Frenzer and Foreman are going to do this year at the closing ceremonies. Hard to top an improvised Mandarin rap performance.
Cartoon Brew: For an artist reading this, either pro or student, how would you answer the question, Why attend an animation festival, especially when I can see so much animation online nowadays?
Chris Robinson: That’s like saying why have sex when I can jerk off anytime I want to.
EDITOR’S NOTE (9/15/2012): At the request of Chris Robinson, there were a few minor revisions to his answer to the Ralph Bakshi question.
Heads up, New Yorkers: Estonian animator Priit Pärn will be making a rare appearence in Brooklyn to attend a specially curated screening program of his work on September 27th, 28th, and 29th 2012. One of the most influential artists in animation, Pärn has not been to NYC since 1989; this is a rare opportunity to meet him in-person and to see his films on the big screen.
The six-part screening program includes a selection of his post-soviet era films. A complementary/supporting program entitled The New Pärnographers, which plays throughout the month of September in front of other films, will present contemporary animated shorts by over a dozen artists from around the world whose work has been inspired by Priit Pärn. Participating animators include: Koji Yamamura (Japan), Igor Kovalyov (Russia/USA), Dylan Hayes (USA) Ami Lindholm (Finland), Christy Karacas (USA) and many more.
The Spectacle screening space in Williamsburg has limited seating. Tickets are $5 and you should definitely pre-buy tickets if you want to be guaranteed a seat. Full details can be found here. Don’t miss this chance to meet a true animation original.
Animator Darrell Van Citters is following up his most-excellent making of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol book with a new book on The Art of the Jay Ward Studio. As Ward employed many ex-UPA artists, Van Citters uncovered much Ward material researching his Magoo book, realizing that Ward “more than any other studio, tried to keep ‘funny’ alive in TV animation.” Apparently Classic Media and the Ward estate have given their blessing on the project.
Van Citters is quick to point out that his book won’t be another history of the Jay Ward studio – Keith Scott’s thorough examination of the Jay Ward studio, The Moose That Roared, “has already covered that topic and covered it exceptionally well. This is meant to be a visual encyclopedia of the art created by some of the industry’s most talented designers and boarders within the context of TV animation’s golden age”.
Van Citters is putting out the call to any and all collectors of Jay Ward original art, soliciting scans of their pieces for use in the book “in order to make it as complete as possible. This call includes original storyboards, model sheets, layouts, cels, backgrounds, pitch art for unsold pilots, promotional art, ad art, the Bullwinkle comic strip and comics, etc. I realize that much of the early Ward production work was done in Mexico making it extremely difficult to locate, if in fact it still exists.” If you’re a collector of Jay Ward production art or know someone who is, or know family members of artists who worked at Jay Ward, contact Darrell via his website. He’s hoping to have this book published next year. If it’s half as good as his previous volume, we’re in for a treat!
When television creators Dan Harmon (Community) and Dino Stamatopoulos (Moral Orel) — partners in Los Angeles production company Starburns Industries — were thinking of ideas to develop for animation, they remembered a Charlie Kaufman-penned play called Anomalisa that they’d seen staged in Los Angeles in 2005. They envisioned great possibilities for the project, and soon had Kaufman’s blessing to pursue funding to produce an animated film.
The only hitch was that the idea — a 40-minute stop-motion film revolving around a man crippled by the mundanity of his existence — wasn’t an easy sell to either TV networks or film studios who have predefined notions of what animation is. In another country, they might have been funded by a government arts program, but in the United States, Anomalisa was destined to languish as an idea.
Harmon and Stamatopoulos launched a campaign in early July using the online fundraising website Kickstarter. Their campaign, which ended yesterday afternoon, set a new record for an animation project on the crowd-funding platform, raising over $406,000, more than double its goal. More impressively, it is at least the 5th animated project that has raised over $100,000 this past summer on Kickstarter.
Kickstarter says that films have been the second-most funded category on their site this year with over $42 million pledged through August 31. They haven’t provided a breakout for what percentage of that amount has gone toward animation projects, but it is in the millions of dollars.
The director of the forthcoming Anomalisa is Duke Johnson, a veteran of Starburns projects including Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. Johnson explains to Cartoon Brew how the crowd-funding route can be a boon to both the filmmakers and the audience:
“For this particular project, we are inspired by the idea of a pure artistic vision from script to screen. Meaning that all creative and even technical decisions, like distribution, are made by a core creative team with no incentive beyond making the best possible film out of a script they believe in. Which we believe will ultimately give people something they really want and can’t otherwise have.”
Visual effects veteran Phil Tippett, who owns the esteemed Tippett Studio in Berkeley, California, recently restarted production on a twenty-year-old personal film project called Mad God, which he calls an “anti-studio, anti-corporate, anti-commercial statement.” He got back into it at the urging of younger employees working at his studio who wanted to step away from their computers and learn the craft of stop motion animation. To fund the project, Tippett initially auctioned props from his long career in visual effects, including an AT-AT Imperial Walker from The Empire Strikes Back and a RoboCop puppet from RoboCop 2.
When the funds from those auctions began to dwindle, Tippet turned to Kickstarter. He sought to raise a conservative $40,000 to cover the costs of studio space, crew lunches, hard drive storage, lab services and other bare essentials. He admits the costs would be much higher if not for the all-volunteer crew and the fact that he owns a lot of film equipment after decades of running his own studio.
Tippett raised more than three times his goal—$124,156—enough to comfortably complete the first chapter of Mad God. He says that the free-from nature of the film, which he likens to painting or sculpture more than filmmaking, leaves it open to an indefinite number of episodes. “The narrative allows me to go back in and open it up,” he told me. “It’s not stuck to a logical timeline. The chapters will continue to get revised over the years.”
Just to be safe, Tippett has already shot an end title for Mad God — “If I die, that’s the end,” — though intriguingly, he also suggests that other artists “after me or alongside me” could take aspects of Mad God and expand upon the concept in different directions.
Another animation veteran who has embraced Kickstarter is Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi. His run-ins with network executives have been well documented throughout the years so when he wanted to resurrect a short film idea based on his character George Liquor, he reached out directly to his fans.
During his fundraising campaign, he told potential supporters on his Kickstarter page, “This is the absolute best way for me to make cartoons for you without pesky executives and middlemen second guessing every gag and drawing I do!” Feeding into the anti-corporate sentiment, one of the rewards he offered was a producer’s shirt that reads, “I Made It Happen! The Body In This Shirt Is The Official Producer of John K’s Can Without Labels.”
Kricfalusi easily exceeded the $110,000 goal needed to produced an 8-to-10 minute short. He wrote that the budget was only half of what it would have cost to produce a Ren and Stimpy short at his former studio Spümcø. The lessened cost is due in large part to the way that Kricfalusi has revamped his production pipeline. He no longer ships animation overseas, instead producing the animation from a home studio equipped with Toon Boom software and a small crew of artists.
The projects by Starburns, Tippett and Kricfalusi aren’t based on series currently in production, and they were able to achieve their financial goals largely on the reputations of their creators. However, two other Kickstarter animation campaigns that have recently concluded with six-figure pledge totals are based on series currently in production. The creators of the Animusic dvd series raised $223,137 to produce a third installment in their series that combines computer animation and electronic music. Meanwhile, the popular Flash-animated series Dick Figures, produced by Six Point Harness and distributed online by Mondo Media, blasted past its $250,000 goal to reach $313,412.
Ed Skudder and Zack Keller, the creators of Dick Figures, encouraged fans to donate so that they could produce a movie-length version of their cartoon. Their financing campaign benefitted from Mondo Media’s 1.1 million YouTube subscribers, says Aaron Simpson, vp of animation and business development at Mondo Media. The company embedded ads for the Kickstarter campaign throughout their YouTube videos, which resulted in approximately half of the Kickstarter funding.
Simpson is quick to point out that having a popular online animated series doesn’t guarantee a successful crowd-funding campaign. Last year, Mondo Media conducted a campaign for its well-established Happy Tree Friends, which raised only 10% of its goal. The company learned a lot from that early failure, including the importance of offering rewards revolving around the project itself (HD film downloads, film soundtracks, behind-the-scenes making-ofs). Ancillary rewards (T-shirts, posters) are fine too, but Simpson says that many supporters are more interested in items directly related to the project itself.
Simpson points out the importance of “creating something really, really special” in relation to the existing product. The creators of Dick Figures didn’t simply ask audiences to fund the production of additional shorts of the same length, but to help create a movie. And successfully reaching a goal is not the end of the line: another important part of their strategy was to create an online space where fans could continue to support the project financially even after the initial Kickstarter campaign was completed.
The Kickstarter projects discussed here all benefitted from being attached to well known creators or established animation properties. It would be unreasonable to expect that an independent or moderately successful filmmaker could raise a similar six-figure amount. That doesn’t diminish the achievement of these campaigns, however. Even known filmmakers such as those in this article would have struggled to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from their fans just a few years ago.
Over the summer, crowd-funding finally emerged as a viable alternative to traditional animation financing models. There are enough people who are using platforms like Kickstarter to support the production of professional-quality animated films by name filmmakers. The possibilities are, indeed, limitless now that filmmakers and fans can connect directly with one another instead of relying on third parties. For animation, it may herald a new era of more innovative and unique projects.
Anomalisa by Starburns Industries
Length of Film Project: Approx. 40 minutes
Projected per Minute Cost of Animation: $5,000
Average Pledge: $70.41
Mad God by Phil Tippett
Length of Film Project: Approx. 12 minutes
Projected per Minute Cost of Animation: $3,333
Average Pledge: $49.21
Cans Without Labels by John Kricfalusi
Length of Film Project: Approx. 8-10 minutes
Projected per Minute Cost of Animation: $11,000-13,750
Average Pledge: $38.38
Dick Figures: The Movie by Six Point Harness
Length of Film Project: 30 minutes
Projected per Minute Cost of Animation: $8,333
Average Pledge: $55.81
Animusic 3 by Animusic
Length of Film Project: Approx. 40 minutes (based on previous Animusic release)
Projected per Minute Cost of Animation: $5,000
Average Pledge: $67.95
Witte van der Tempel made this haunting film over a year and a half period, while at Netherlands’ Utrecht School of Arts. Says van der Tempel:
“I wanted to make a gripping film in which the character would undergo the deepest terror and anxiety and come out transformed and illuminated. Visually this film had to represent something essential about my style. My favorite drawing technique has always been to scratch the image onto the page in an almost psychotic way – allowing the pen to “find” the picture. I wanted to examine to what degree this could be applied in animation, and secondly how well it could combine with 3D elements.“
DreamWorks Animation has unveiled the most ambitious animated feature slate of any cartoon studio in history. Beginning next spring, DreamWorks will release a total of 12 features in 3-1/2 years under their new distribution deal with Fox.
The Croods (March 22, 2013)
Turbo (July 19, 2013)
Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Nov. 1, 2013)
Me and My Shadow (March 14, 2014)
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (June 20, 2014)
Happy Smekday! (Nov. 26, 2014)
The Penguins of Madagascar (March 27, 2015)
Trolls (working title, June 5, 2015)
B.O.O: Bureau of Otherwordly Operations (Nov. 6, 2015)
Mumbai Musical (working title, Dec. 19, 2015)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (March 18, 2016)
How to Train Your Dragon 3 (June 18, 2016)
Graduation film (done during an exchange between Gobelins and Calarts last semester) by Louis Thomas. Thomas is currently working as a character designer/illustrator for both Pixar and Jib Jab. We featured Thomas’ previous short back in 2010. This one is a tribute to composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein and about 250 other Hollywood movie-star inspirations (all the caricatures are named in the end credits).
Whatever you thought of John Carter (Me? I liked it, a lot!), its director Andrew Stanton is one of the good guys. Full disclosure, I met Andrew when I moved to LA way back in 1986, when he was one of the artist/writers behind Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures. A few years ago, Andrew allowed me and small crew special access to shoot some of the interviews for the Mighty Mouse DVD bonus documentary at Pixar. He told me then that his next film was a live-action/animation adaptation of Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars – and his excitement for the project was intense.
Today, The L.A. Times ran a front page story (must be a slow news day) on how John Carter’s failure has affected him. The article gives some insight in how this project was produced – Disney pretty much gave Stanton a green light and no other supervision, notes or interference. It’s failure was a humbling experience for him and any hope for a Carter sequel has been squashed. Stanton is now back at Pixar directing a follow-up to Finding Nemo.
Nickelodeon had already passed on the project at that point, but after the enthusiastic reaction it received online (including on Cartoon Brew), they’ve revived the idea. Johnny Ryan told VICE magazine yesterday:
[Nickelodeon] helped us make this little teaser trailer cartoon. They really liked the way it turned out and wanted to go on to the next step and develop a pilot. We wrote and storyboarded a pilot episode which they didn’t like so they wound up passing on the whole thing. Fast forward a few months later and animator Nick Cross posted the original cartoon on his site where it got a really positive response. I think this made Nickelodeon rethink their decision and they decided to revive the project.
So now we are going back into development to try and make it work. We haven’t really worked out all the details yet as far as how many episodes and all that stuff. I only just found out that they wanted to try this thing again yesterday.
Howard Lowery is currently auctioning an interesting historical curio that I hadn’t seen before: an organizational diagram showing the varied synergistic relationships between the divisions of Walt Disney Productions in 1967. Needless to say, a synergy chart for today’s Walt Disney Company would require a much bigger piece of paper than 11″x14″. Click to embiggen.
Evidence has emerged that even as Digital Domain was running on fumes and had no cash to operate its Florida studio, they continued hiring people from around the United States. That leads us to the tragic story of the Alberts family, who arrived in Florida from New Hampshire on the day DD shuttered its Port St. Lucie-based Tradition Studios. Now, the family of five is homeless with no job and just $200.