Cartoon Brew 2008 Favorites: Amid’s Picks

This is the time of year that news and media organizations begin the avalanche of annual “best of” lists and the like. The thought of doing a “best of” list strikes me as arrogant, especially when it comes to something as subjective as art. So instead I present you with my personal picks of the year. I make no claim that these are the best of 2008; these are only the things that I enjoyed most during the past year. Also be sure to read Cartoon Brew co-editor Jerry Beck’s personal picks of 2008.

ANIMATED FEATURE
Sita Sings the Blues

Let me begin by apologizing for not praising this film enough on Cartoon Brew (thankfully Jerry has). So let me just say it now: Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is hands-down one of the most entertaining animated features I’ve ever seen. That fact is even more impressive because I went into the film thinking I wouldn’t be able to sit through an entire Flash-animated feature that looked like the image above. But Paley’s deeply personal story kept me captivated for its entire length, a rarity in my feature animation viewing experiences, and the animation only added to the story. There wasn’t a false note in the film. That it was made by one-person is nothing short of unbelievable. That nobody can see the film due to copyright issues is nothing short of criminal.

TV SERIES
Superjail

Violence and animation: a tried-and-true combination that is taken to new heights in Superjail, a surprisingly well-done piece of TV animation that airs on [Adult Swim] of all places.

ONLINE ANIMATION
It’s a tie between the same filmmaker–David OReilly. Whether he’s pranking the world with his Octocat series or exploring contemporary forms of animated storytelling in his Please Say Something series, OReilly is one of the most promising young animators on the contemporary animation scene.

ANIMATED SHORT
There were plenty of fine animated shorts in ’08 including, but not limited to, Chainsaw by Dennis Tupicoff, I Am So Proud of You by Don Hertzfeldt, The Tale of Little Puppetboy by Johannes Nyholm, My Grandmother Beijing by Mats Grorud, Cattle Call by Matt Rankin and Mike Maryniuk and Drux Flux by Theo Ushev. One film stood out above all. It is a remarkable grand-scale animation experiment that turns the entire world into an animation canvas. Pencil or digital–who cares? All you need is a wall and housepaint. No doubt about it, my favorite animated short of 2008 is Muto by Blu.

FAVORITE ANIMATION
Ironically, movement and animation are often the most ignored parts of an animated production, so I want to give special credit to two animated shorts that had creative tour de force animation performances. Both films can be viewed online though neither of them have English translations.

Orgesticulanismus

Orgesticulanismus by Mathieu Labaye

The Noir

Thé Noir by Serge Élissalde

MUSIC VIDEO
I’m choosing three just because I can…

Duality of Deathening

Talkdemonic’s “Duality of Deathening” directed by Orie Weeks III.

Wanderlust

Bjork’s “Wanderlust” directed by Encyclopedia Pictura

Stay the Same

Autokratz’s “Stay the Same” directed by Laurie Thinot

OPENING TITLES
Kung Fu Panda

When will CG studios recognize that the opening and end credits are not the only parts of their films that should be interesting to look at? Case in point, the appealing opening titles to Kung Fu Panda. A joy to watch–I’m waiting for the CG equivalent of this.

DISCOVERIES
One of the great joys of doing this website is that it affords me an outlet to record my personal discoveries about the art form, whether it’s learning about amazing films I haven’t heard about (Fehérlófia), artists I wasn’t aware of (Stan Vanderbeek) or understanding the nuances of animation history (the unacknowledged diversity of the industry during the Golden Age).

ANIMATION STUDIO
Fred and Sharon’s Movie Productions: Quality-wise they’re somewhere between Roadside Romeo and Space Chimps, but this Canadian husband-and-wife directing dynamo set themselves apart by tackling weighty subject matter like anti-war dramas:

ANIMATION BOOK
Ballad of a Thin Man
Alcohol and drug abuse, male prostitution and child molestation are not exactly standard fare for animation biographies. The Ballad of a Thin Man: In Search of Ryan Larkin by Chris Robinson is the story of fallen-from-grace NFB animator Ryan Larkin (1943-2007). Robinson, the director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival, was responsible for bringing Larkin back into the spotlight in the 2000s which culminated with Chris Landreth’s Oscar-winning shortform biopic Ryan, but by the end of the book, Robinson largely regrets “rediscovering” Larkin. Chris also weaves in stories from his own troubled past resulting in a powerful and poignant book. The book comes with a DVD of Landreth’s Ryan and two of Larkin’s films, Walking and Street Musique.

ANIMATION BLOG (CONTINUING)
Michael Sporn

Michael Sporn’s Splog: The personal blog of Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning animation director Michael Sporn is truly a thing of wonder. Updated every single day for three years running, it is a phenomenal resource of ideas and artwork. His passion for the art form comes through in every post.

ANIMATION BLOG (NEW)
Animondays by David Levy. Technically, it started last fall, but 2008 was ASIFA-East president Levy’s first full year as a blogger. He writes just one post a week, but they’re invariably thought-provoking and insightful.

ANIMATION BLOG (NEW – HONORABLE MENTIONS)
Popeye Animator ID: Master animator and timing director Bob Jaques tells you more about Popeye animators than you could ever want to know.

Spectorphile: A blog about animation legend Irv Spector created by his son Paul Spector.

ANIMATION ART EXHIBIT
Adventures of an *

Whenever I’m depressed about the state of the art form, I only have to watch a film by the Hubleys like Tender Game or Moonbird to regain my enthusiasm for the medium. Despite being intimately familiar with their work, I still wasn’t quite prepared for the awesomeness of seeing John Hubley’s background paintings and storyboard panels from Adventures of an * (1957). The exhibit covered all of one wall in the basement of the Museum of Modern Art this past summer, but that’s all that was needed. Hubley’s work represents animation at its most artistic and daring, and offers a guide for where we still need to take this art form. Piece after piece, Hubley discarded animation’s tendencies for crude mass-produced imagery and created a vision of uncompromising individuality and aesthetic beauty. More art from the exhibit can be seen at Michael Sporn’s blog.


  • http://bakertoons.blogspot.com Charles Brubaker

    OK, I REALLY have to see “Sita.” Any chance of making an appearance in Tennessee, Nina?

    Hopefully Superjail will get picked up for 2nd season. Another show I like is “Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack,” which seems to get better with each passing episodes (I’d mention “Chowder”but that began in late 2007)

  • http://questioncopyright.org/ Karl Fogel

    Nina Paley did a great (fire-breathing, really) interview about how “Sita Sings The Blues” got into copyright jail, and how it’s a symptom of a larger problem:

    http://questioncopyright.org/nina_paley_sita_interview

  • animation pimp

    glad u mentioned Superjail and The. Enjoyed both pieces immensely. Superjail is such a fantastic post-punk piece of Panter-tinged nihilism.

    I’d fight everyone to the death in favour of “I am so proud of you.”

    Was a good year for the toonies.

  • http://asteriskpix.blogspot.com Richard O’Connor

    Beating me to death after “I’m So Proud of You” would be easy, I’d be both asleep and halfway there.

  • http://dailygrail.com/blog/8389 red pill junkie

    You should have a ‘Best Student Short’ category too, methinks :-)

  • Joey

    claiming that “best of” lists are arrogant is much more pretentious than simply listing which movies you think are the best.

  • Chuck R.

    Karl, thanks for that link. A posting devoted solely to Nina Paley’s copyright issues would be well worthwhile.

    While the article makes a great case study for art students and students of copyright law, I hope people don’t draw the wrong conclusion from it.
    I haven’t seen Sita (although I hope to at the first opportunity) I’m truly inspired by Paley’s devotion to her inner muse and the sacrifices she made to get her personal vision on screen intact. I hope she works through this mess and Sita gets a respectable release.
    Still, I’m amazed that an independent artist would knowingly take a copyrighted property and exploit it, and then complain that the copyright laws are somehow working against artists. This is ludicrous. Copyright laws in the US (for now at least) are very liberal and serve to protect the creators of intellectual property. I appreciate the magnitude of what Nina went through on the film, but artists can’t expect to make a living doing the fun part and ignoring the technological and legal aspects of their business. Musicians have a right to make a living at what they do as well.

    If it’s any consolation, Nina’s in good company. In the early 20′s FW Murnau made the single-greatest film adaptation of Dracula ever, but failed to secure the rights from Bram Stoker’s widow. the result: the courts ordered every existing print destroyed. We’re very lucky to be able to see the movie today. The advice to clear rights in advance is very good advice indeed.

    Amid, thanks for opining and thanks for (belatedly) putting in a good word about Kung Fu Panda. Also thanks for getting the word out about films like Orgesticulanismus! All the best in 2009!

  • John

    “Muto” was supercool. I wouldn’t give it top honors though because it’s essentially a stunt that’s very clever, but has nothing to say.

    “I’m So Proud of You” was one of the best movies I’ve seen all year, long or short. Funny, sad, lyrical, moving, and crammed with beauty. I don’t know how Hertzfeldt does it.

    I thought I was the only one digging “Superjail” as a guilty pleasure :)

    After being teased for so long, will we ever be able to see “Sita?”

  • http://niffiwan.livejournal.com/ Niffiwan

    Amid, I completely agree about “Sita Sings the Blues”. I saw it at the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema, and it was the most fun I’ve had in a film theatre all year. And I also came in with some trepidations about the flash animation.

    Re: Chuck R. “Copyright laws in the US (for now at least) are very liberal and serve to protect the creators of intellectual property.”

    Wrong, they serve mainly to protect the OWNERS of intellectual property, which are usually corporations who continue to milk them long after the original artist is dead. In the case of the compositions that Nina Paley used, the only reason they even survived was because a record enthusiast kept copies; the corporation that owned them thought they were worthless and threw out the original recordings. The only reason they are worth anything NOW is because Nina Paley’s film ADDED worth to them, so now they are trying to extort money from value that was not created by them in the first place.

    In addition, the original recordings are in the public domain (the sync rights aren’t), so if Nina Paley created a soundtrack of her film with the songs removed, and another soundtrack with just those songs and empty space in between, and synced them up, releasing her film in this manner would actually be legal.

  • http://robcatview.blogspot.com robcat2075

    @ Chuck R.: The interview linked to above suggests she thought she was working with PD material when she made the film and found out otherwise after the fact. It’s not clear. Either way though, she’s stuck.

    But I’m always doubtful about films – independent, student, fan or otherwise – that do major borrowing of other people’s music. It’s a too easy way to add polish and production value to a film without paying artists to actually do the needed work.

    Is copyright the problem, or is the problem that film makers want a free way to make their films seem expensively made?

    Does her story REALLY depend so much upon those specific songs? If so then those songs have contributed something essential to the movie and the owners deserve compensation.

  • Paul N

    Niffiwan, the creator of a work IS the owner of the intellectual property, unless that work is made as a work-for-hire, or the creator specifically sells or gives away the rights.

  • http://niffiwan.livejournal.com/ Niffiwan

    “robcat2075″: Let us say that you are correct and the corporate owners of the sync rights to those public domain songs deserve compensation.

    In that case, the question becomes what kind of compensation do they deserve? They are asking for a lump sum of something like $1-2 million dollars (I can’t remember the exact figure), money that an independent filmmaker like Nina Paley simply does not have.

    Would it not be more logical to ask for a percentage of the total earnings of the movie? In that case, they get about as much value as the public thinks it deserves (through ticket sales).

    Even if you agree that they require compensation, what they are doing now is killing a potential cash cow by strangling it before it can get out the door.

  • http://blog.ninapaley.com Nina Paley

    Hey robcat2075 – I followed the link to your blog and noticed it starts with a photo of the disgraced IL Governor. Did you take it? There’s no credit, let alone copyright notice. Nor does it link to its original source. It’s one thing to add polish and production value to your blog without paying photographers to actually do the needed work, but not even crediting them is unconscionable. Especially because those photographers are probably still alive, and their reputations would benefit from proper citation. (Copyright is not the same as creditright, although many confuse them. I’m a firm believer in proper citation, even as I critique the current copyright system.)

    Scrolling down, it appears your blog contains quite a bit of uncredited material, almost certainly under copyright. Does your blog REALLY depend so much upon those specific images? If so then those images have contributed something essential to the blog and the owners deserve compensation.

  • John

    I think the major difference is Robcat2075 does not stand to make any money from his blog (I assume). A motion picture, though a work of art, is at the end of the day still a commercial venture and any third party rights owners involved will always expect to be compensated. Heck, if anyone took my own art and used it in a movie, of course I too would expect to be compensated.

    Niffiwan writes, “In that case, the question becomes what kind of compensation do they deserve? They are asking for a lump sum of something like $1-2 million dollars ”

    The problem I believe is Nina used these songs without knowing about the status of their rights ahead of time (again, I assume). The trouble here is this gave the rights owners absolute control over negotiating: they have complete leverage over her because she has a finished film now but no clearances. I’m not making any judgements on her production team, but they unfortunately put themselves in a bad position where they’re at the corporation’s mercy with no bargaining power.

    If the production team had approached the rights owners in advance of making their movie to negotiate terms, I imagine they may have had a happier outcome. A music lawyer is much more likely to work with you towards a common ground if you give him the idea that if he asks for too much money you will simply go use someone else’s music (even if you’re bluffing). Going ahead without their blessing A) puts you in a bad position later on and B) puts them in a nasty mood!

    At the end of the day, if there is any “lesson” at all here, it is perhaps that every great artist needs to be protected and aided by an equally great producer. Filmmaking is both an art and a business and there are sharks in these waters!

  • http://questioncopyright.org/ Karl Fogel

    The “lesson” here is that laws that prevent artists from using each others’ work are a bad idea, and result in censorship.

    Chuck R.: “liberal” is not an accurate term to describe laws that offer monopoly control over copyable works for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. Copyright was not invented to support creation — it was invented to subsidize distribution, that is, it was devised by the printing industry. See questioncopyright.org/promise.

    Using words like “take” and “exploit” to describe what Nina did gives the wrong idea. She didn’t “take” anything — she made copies, and used her copies in a new work of art. That this runs afoul of copyright laws just shows how out of touch those laws are with the realities of artistic life. Reuse of existing works has been an integral part of art since humans started doing art; it’s only recently that we started requiring artists to get legal advice for this most natural of acts.

    The support of one particular business model (centralized distribution by monopoly-holding publishers) does not justify censorship. We have no shortage of art, and copyright royalties are not what fund most artists anyway. Let’s stop pretending that these laws are for the artists and look at them realistically: they were designed by publishers (it’s no coincidence that copyright law first appeared with the printing press!), and they continue to serve publishers’ interests today. I’ve nothing against publishers, but I see no reason why support for a dying business model should be used to justify restrictions on the sharing and reuse of copyable goods.

    What happened to Nina is censorship. The question we should be asking ourselves is, how many Ninas out there have we not heard about?

  • Chuck R.

    Karl, you’re using the rhetoric of a drug-dealer who’s been caught red-handed. We can argue till we’re blue in the face about when a copyright should expire. That’s up to lawmakers and lobbyists. The laws in existence are what’s important here, and it’s not that complicated: If you didn’t create it, don’t assume you can use it. My 4-year old can understand that. “Censorship”? “Using copies”? Twisting the English language around to justify stealing is bad instruction for any artist reading your blog or this one.

    Let’s put your logic to this test: If I were to sneak into a theatre to see Sita, Wall-E or any movie for that matter, I’m not physically “taking” anything, but if that behavior went unpunished, theaters, film companies and artists would go out of business. Yes, it’s stealing plain and simple.

    Before you tell me anymore about the “realities of artistic life”, let me ask: do you make a living creating works or art, and do you retain the copyrights to anything you create?

  • http://niffiwan.livejournal.com/ Niffiwan

    Paul N: “the creator of a work IS the owner of the intellectual property, unless that work is made as a work-for-hire, or the creator specifically sells or gives away the rights.”

    Yes indeed, and giving away the rights to the big companies that could market and distribute their art was the norm until relatively recently. Fewer people are doing that now, but the corporations keep lobbying the government to extend copyright terms longer and longer in order to hold on to what they have. If this had not been happening, I think the recordings that Nina Paley used would have been completely in the public domain over 30 years ago:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Copyright_term.svg

    But as it is now, nearly all culture from 1923 onwards is officially off-limits for artists. Unless you’re making a parody of it, then it’s OK. But any other reinterpretation is usually illegal.

    The funniest thing about this is that some countries, like Russia, have separate laws covering “folk creative works”; “folk creative works” under Russian law are not subject to any copyright whatsoever (in other respects Russian copyright law is nearly identical to the US version). But the irony is that if these copyright laws had existed before, folk art would not even exist! The gradual improvements upon a work until a consensus style is developed would be impossible in a situation where a melody that might otherwise become what they now call “traditional” on CD albums is shackled to one artist’s accordion only and forbidden to all others.

  • http://robcatview.blogspot.com robcat2075

    Perhaps Nina can get an internet collection going to pay for the music rights, as she did to pay for a print of her film so it could be shown at the Berlin Film Festival. I recall that being promoted here on Cartoon Brew and I recall contributing to that cause. I still have the thank you post card she sent back.

    What was it… $35,000 was needed and paid for that print and no one said the film-print-makers (probably a large corporation involved somewhere in that process) were censoring the film by refusing to do it for free. Why is this new cost regarded differently? Why not raise the money for the music rights too?

    Nina is right, I should have credited the photographer of the Blagojevich picture on my blog. About the only distinction I could draw is that that picture is lacking in the unique value that the songs in Nina’s film seem to have. Any of the thousand extant pictures of the guy could have served to illustrate my lame commentary on his abundant hair (and the use for commentary purposes *might* get me a “fair use” pass on the copyright infringement thing) whereas the songs in Nina’s film seem to be unsubstitutable and essential to the value of the movie as a whole.

    If the problem is, as described, that the particular “sheet music” arrangement used is still under copyright (as opposed to the song itself, a different thing from the sheet music) I was going to suggest hiring a composer to knock out a version of the song with a suitably different accompaniment and hire a singer to cover it. All in tempo to the original, of course.

    That would cost way less than clearing rights to a classic recording.

  • http://blog.ninapaley.com Nina Paley

    I respectfully request that those engaging in a debate about copyrighted material in “Sita” actually watch the whole 43-minute interview at questioncopyright.org since it explains more. Your comments are also welcome there.

  • http://questioncopyright.org/ Karl Fogel

    Chuck R: I’ve made a living producing replicable works of the mind (what you would call “intellectual property”) for more than 15 years now, including two books that were both published (you can buy them at Borders right now) and simultaneously released under totally open copyrights.

    “Censorship” is a perfectly accurate term for when someone isn’t allowed to distribute information. Some censorship is justified: nuclear secrets, for example, or divulging another person’s medical records. This censorship is not.

    It’s circular to argue that I must be wrong because I disagree with the law. The law is precisely what Nina and I (and others) are saying should be changed. Many things that are now legal were formerly illegal, and vice versa. If you’re arguing that a practice is right simply because it is encoded in law, then there’s nowhere to go from there.

    Using the word “stealing” to describe an act that does not deprive the supposed victim of the object allegedly being stolen is twisting the English language, IMHO. Steal my bicycle and I have no bicycle; copy my song and now we both have it. You can call it “theft” or “stealing”, but putting a loaded word on something doesn’t make it so.

    Sneaking into a theater steals a non-replicable good: seat space, which the theater has a finite amount of.

  • Chuck R.

    Karl, Maybe this is difficult for you, but most artists are capable of thinking in abstract terms. When you create works of art, you have a physical component which can be sold (a canvas or a CD) and an abstract component (the image or sound itself) Both have intrinsic value, both can be sold away, and both can be stolen or infringed upon.

    Getting back to the theatre analogy. When you buy a ticket, you’re not paying to sit in a seat. You’re paying (we hope) to be entertained for 2-3 hours. That is a service (another abstraction). When people try to get that service without paying for it, it denies the theatre and studios of their rightful income. And yes, it does hurt the industry and every individual involved in the long process of providing the entertainment.

    So, you’re absolutely wrong to imply that stealing requires a physical transfer of some sort. If you are helping yourself to something that cost another party to provide, you are stealing.

    You are also dead wrong to imply that art can’t be created without stealing (famous quotes by Stravinsky and Picasso notwithstanding).
    While nothing created by man is truly original, artists create things everyday that are original enough by legal standards. It’s important to note that Nina’s visual designs aren’t giving her headaches. Are they 100% original? Probably not, but they are products of her own imagination and skill and are not a subject of contention. Her problem is that she is stubbornly insisting that her art is not “art” unless it draws upon works (music) that she is unable to create herself and unable to procure. She has the right to define what is and isn’t “art” to her, but her inflexibility is her big problem, not the music publishers.

    I’m not happy to be writing like this. I really admire Nina’s talent, spirit and resolve. I have no admiration for people who buy rights to work they’ve had no part in creating and just sit on it. If you are trying to make a point that there’s a better system, I applaud you for trying and at least joining the conversation.

    The reason I’m arguing so emphatically, is that we have a system in place that does give strength to artists —when artists take the time to learn about it and use it to their advantage. When artists behave like children, essentially doing as their muses dictate without thought to the consequences, they hurt themselves and the entire art community.

  • Paul N

    I looked up Karl’s books. He appears to be a software developer deeply involved in the open source movement. That certainly speaks volumes about his position on this issue.

    The difference, of course, is that open source developers go into it with the intent of giving away their intellectual property. Such is not the case with the materials in question here.

  • http://www.mooneyart.com Gerry

    “Air Pirates”, anyone?

  • http://sopesope.blogspot.com/ Luis Sopelana

    I just saw the season finale of Superjail!

    Wow. Just wow.

  • http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/splog/ michael sporn

    Thanks for the honer, Amid. One note. I’ve been up and running daily for almost seven years now, not three. It’s still fun.

    I have to agree with you about Sita. Just about the best aniated feature. The only one I liked more in all those years is The Illusionist.