Animation Breakdown’s Alex McDonald and Kevin Sukho Lee on Launching A New Festival

The Los Angeles indie animation event of the season takes place tomorrow, Saturday March 8th, at The Cinefamily. (An encore has been added for March 28th because tomorrow’s screening is sold out.) Animation Breakdown Roundup! is a collection of over two dozen shorts by seasoned indie stars (Vince Collins, Emily Hubley), current filmmakers (Kirsten Lepore, Takeshi Murata, Devin Flynn, Allison Schulnik, Galen Pehrson, Amy Lockhart, Matt & Paul Layzell, Garrett Davis, Charles Huettner, Caleb Wood, Alex Schubert) and next-wavers (Peter Millard, Sean Buckelew, Quique Rivera Rivera.)

The program harks back to the pre-Internet glory days of touring animation festivals when the easiest way to see new cartoon shorts in the United States was with an audience at an independent cinema. The new Roundup! program is curated by Animation Breakdown director and programmer Alex McDonald and Nickelodeon’s director of animation development and former Yo Gabba Gabba! animation producer Kevin Sukho Lee. Cartoon Brew interviewed Alex and Kevin via email about their current and future plans for Animation Breakdown.

Cartoon Brew: Break down Animation Breakdown, what is it?

Alex McDonald: Animation Breakdown is an ongoing programming residency based out of The Cinefamily, LA’s popular, eclectic non-profit cinematheque. Animation is to me the purest, most magical form of cinema. I mean, it’s literally the art of making something inanimate move or conjuring something from nothing, and I think that makes it one of the most visceral and direct—regardless or perhaps because of its arduous process—forms of artistic expression. My initial pitch was to have a monthly showcase where the only parameters were that the films were animated and were great (which is of course a bit subject to my own taste and predilections as a programmer). Features, shorts, old, new, classic, experimental — I wanted it to be a place where Golden Age Fleischer cartoons would rub shoulders with Piotr Kamler’s Chronopolis and the latest David OReilly short. The general public so often has a predetermined notion of what animation is and I wanted to detonate that by showcasing the full breadth of the artform. Cinefamily got wholly on board, we dubbed the brand “Animation Breakdown” (a little tip of the hat to Zeppelin) and kicked it off with a super successful six-day festival in 2011. I’ve been lucky enough to program monthly events for an enthusiastic, loyal audience ever since. This show, “Animation Breakdown Roundup!” is ABD’s first all-original contemporary shorts festival, curated and commissioned over the past year by Kevin and I.

Kevin Sukho Lee: My involvement in this show started with me pitching the idea to Alex of an event for mostly local animators to make films and get together to screen them for each other and an adventurous audience. My initial inspiration was Midsummer Night Toons in New York City, where every year filmmakers have a venue and a deadline they work towards on their own personal projects as if they were students working on their theses. I’d been following it from afar and it just seemed like a no-brainer to do something like that in LA with all the great animators and filmmakers here. My aim was to foster the growth of a community of filmmakers and filmgoers interested in personal, non-commercial animation, and most importantly do it at a physical venue to encourage people to interact. After a while we had amassed a lot of interested filmmakers, local and non-local (we may have gotten a little carried away!) but many didn’t have time to do something for the show, so this led to us offering to show films already released or about to be released, which led to us splitting the one show up into two: the original program of premiere ‘commissioned’ films which we’re calling “Free For All,” and the newer omnibus program of films we’re calling “Roundup.” The first edition of “Roundup” is this Saturday, March 8th. “Free For All” will happen in November’s Animation Breakdown Festival, as will a second edition of Roundup. Our hope is to do both programs annually thereafter.

Cartoon Brew: Are there plans to tour the program beyond the Cinefamily screening tomorrow?

Kevin: Alex has been really pushing for this and I hadn’t really thought of it at first, but the more we talked about it the more it made sense. We both didn’t grow up in LA or NY, so the idea of a show like this reaching smaller cities is motivation enough to try to tour this show.

Alex: Yeah, I’m starting to look into the logistics of booking and touring the show. If you want it in your city (or country), let us know! It’s complicated, of course, because I want to make sure it’s financially viable — if it hits the road we need to be sure we can get some money to all the artists for their amazing work. Barring that, or maybe in addition, we were looking into doing some sort of V.O.D. type thing. Provided all the animators are into it, we want people all over to be able to see it together as one piece.

Cartoon Brew: How do you convince an audience to attend a show like this against a competitor like the Internet, which provides a 24-hour on-demand animation festival.

Kevin: While I very much love the Internet and all of its amazing and easily accessible content, I think the one critical thing it’s missing is the human, face-to-face interaction and reactions that comes with screenings and festivals. Just think of the difference between going to a physical university vs. taking online classes. Meeting other humans is in our DNA and doing it online is great but doing it in person is even better. It’s a whole other experience, and just plain more fun, watching films with an audience. And while you’re at our show, you can meet and have a beer with the filmmakers as well as other people with similar interests as yours. What more could you ask for as a fan?

The other thing I’d point out with the Internet and this never-ending 24-hour stream of content is it’s not programmed because it isn’t an actual festival. Visiting Youtube or Vimeo and looking for something to watch is like walking into a never-ending library. It’s wonderful it exists, but it’s also daunting and most people are not programmers. I would argue most people want another human, not just an algorithm, to pick through tons of stuff for them and present them a selection rather than wade through everything themselves—like any DJ does at a club. Let us make a mix for you and maybe you’ll see things you’ve never heard of and didn’t expect, but end up discovering something you love and sticks with you the rest of your life? That’s what we’re offering with our programming.

Cartoon Brew: You mentioned the ‘Free For All’ screening later this year. Can you talk more about that?

Alex: Yes, yes. It’s true. We are finally, funding willing, bringing back the fully-blown Animation Breakdown Festival (ABD II) in November. It was meant to be annual but has been pretty tricky to pull off, financially. I admittedly have pretty lofty ambitions for the follow up. I mean, the first fest contained three sold-out shows with Don Hertzfeldt in person, a Polish animation retrospective with prints flown in from Europe, a Space Ghost: Coast to Coast cast and crew reunion, a sneak preview of Pixar’s La Luna with a making of presentation by Enrico Casarosa, an evening with Bruce Bickford, and an impromptu karaoke performance by Brad Neely (he tore the house down with George Michael’s “Father Figure”, for the record). That’s a hell of an act to follow! The U.S. doesn’t have an animation festival quite like this, and we want to step up and provide that. This first “Roundup!” on March 8th was initially meant to be a part of the festival, but we felt it was too good to sit on. We had commissioned a lot of works specifically for it and didn’t want the filmmakers to have to wait. I commissioned Emily Hubley’s new film back in 2012 when we thought the next fest would be right around the corner. She’s been patiently holding onto it ever since! It’ll finally get its world premiere on Saturday.

Cartoon Brew: Talk about programming the screening. How did you find filmmakers and what was your criteria for selecting shorts?

Kevin: It started with the filmmakers we wanted to approach and champion. It was their work that inspired us to do any of this in the first place. We didn’t set out to take submissions and say “no” to tons of filmmakers and be at the mercy of what gets submitted to our small venture. I suppose it’s lucrative to accept filmmakers’ money [editor’s note: many festivals charge a submission fee], but I’ve been on that side of things and it sucks, that rejection and the accumulating expense.

We do want to emphasize that Roundup is not meant to be a comprehensive “best of 2013″ program. It’s just a very select program of films we like and want to shine a light on. Most of them are recent or brand new. In fact, we’re very proud and thankful that we have several films in our program that have not screened anywhere or posted online yet. For a first time show like this that isn’t part of an established festival, we’re offering a very unique opportunity for filmgoers in LA.

Cartoon Brew: How does the Breakdown program differ from other omnibus-style animation programs that we’re familiar with, like ADHD, Spike & Mike, Animation Show, and Liquid TV?

Alex: Well, admittedly we are taking cues from a lot of that stuff. When we initially started talking about the show we were lamenting the loss of touring programs like The International Tournee, The Animation Show or the original Spike & Mike fest. I think it’s a lot more like that. I grew up on that stuff, my library seemed to have the entire Expanded Entertainment VHS catalog, thank god. I think the distinction is that it’s riffing on that original Spike & Mike Festival of Animation rather than its Sick & Twisted iteration — which I think in its own way led to ADHD, Adult Swim and Liquid TV. We love all of that stuff too, of course, but those programs by their very nature curate things that are kind of all of a similar vibe. Those original fests were way more diverse. You’d have something intense, outrageous and hilarious right next to something meditative, beautiful and haunting. I like that feeling of not knowing where you’re going to get plopped down next. For me it makes for a much more rewarding trip.

Kevin: Also, I feel like there are varying degrees of commercialism at work in those programs you list. Many of those are selling what I would consider product versus art. I’m a fan of all of them, so this is no knock on commercial work. I think I wouldn’t have the open mind for animation I have if it weren’t for Spike and Mike and Liquid TV. What we’re going for is personal filmmaking ultimately. That doesn’t mean everything is abstract and requires a degree to understand. On the contrary, it means filmmaking that is pure, from the heart, where the aim is not to impress a small academic audience, or make tons of money but to just do what you are personally driven to do for whatever high or low minded motivation you happen to have, and ultimately to just connect with other humans.


  • cckrad

    WOW! what a line up! this looks awesome!!!!

  • Bob Harper

    AAAAAAGGHHHHH!!!! This is the first I heard about it and I have tomorrow already booked!

  • Leslie

    Damn it, I really want to go to this! Why such the late notice Amid, I’d have definitely attended had I known a week ago. I guess there’s the upcoming ABD II but it’s so far away :-(

    • Alex McDonald

      Honored you’d like to come! No fault with Amid here though, he would have been able to give a little more notice if we hadn’t given him immense, essay length answers to prepare for the site. We’re just so grateful to him for spreading the word (and for his patience with our lack of brevity)! As mentioned here, our initial show tonight is sold out but we added an encore on the 28th so hopefully you can mark your calendar and join us then! :-)

      • Leslie

        Will do, thanks :-)