Monday, March 24, 2008

Teacher Comforts

I recently heard about an animation teacher’s meeting in one of the NY area schools. For several years in row, the problem (as explained by the administration), has been that the grades are too high and the quality of the student’s work, too low.

As for grades, no doubt there are some animation teachers that grade far too gently. Such a policy may be a sign of general laziness in teaching. For instance, a teacher that passes everyone won’t have defend a failing grade. If everyone passes, there are no confrontations. No confrontations mean less work and aggravation for the teacher.

As for the quality of the student’s work? I’ve always believed that students that needed school the least made the best students. Just below them are the students that struggle and work their ass off just to scratch out a few successful moments of animation. I belonged to that group. Below that group are the lazy masses of students yearning to be left alone. This group went to art school to escape rules and discipline. For them, school is supposed to be a utopian paradise filled with freedoms, while at the same time owing them a quality education.

Teachers have a choice to either allow the student majority to wallow in that malaise or to shake things up. Again, it’s much easier to just attempt to teach the students that seem to give a damn and ignore the rest. By engaging the students this way, year after year, the teacher is part of the problem, part of the status quo that prevents the school’s program from really teaching the students.

Teachers are not supposed to be best friends with their students. Confrontation is important. Part of a teacher’s job is to rattle the student’s into discovering their enthusiasm. A teacher should set the expectations incredibly high for both quality and quantity of work. Students should not be allowed to move on until they master each stage or lesson. When I’ve taught “Intro to Animation” and “Action Analysis,” students had to make changes/revisions to their work week after week, sometimes extending assignments a month later than was originally planned. All the while these students had to simultaneously keep up with the new weekly assignments. Work compounded on some students, but all improved dramatically by the time of the semester’s end.

During the difficult semester, some students had been close to tears or were otherwise noticeably frustrated. That’s okay. A teacher has to push their class. It’s not enough to give an assignment and then, the following week, express disappointment that the class didn’t work hard enough. That’s not teaching. That’s participating in a passive aggressive war. A class needs a challenging teacher that provides a structure and opportunity that does not exist anywhere else.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


On March 11, ASIFA-East held a jury screening for the student category of our 39th annual animation festival. At our festival, the entire community of ASIFA-East members (that come out to vote) make up the jury. Not only does this make our festival the most democratic and fair animation festival in the world, it’s also the only one that opens up its selection process to the general public. Perhaps, most notably of all, there are often a handful of the filmmakers present, suffering through a special kind of hell that only a filmmaker in competition can understand.

The first reality we dealt with at our student jury screening was that we were at least a half hour shy of enough time to watch every single entry all the way through. Even with such a restriction, we were still committed to watching over 2 and 1/2 hours of student films. Perhaps most positively, the films we stop prematurely will let us watch the more worthy films all the way through and keep the audience from getting overly fatigued. Still, it’s hard to NOT to think of your film being stopped as a traumatic event. In total, we called time on 7 films this evening. More than once there were murmurs in the audience reflecting a dissenting opinion. At ASIFA-East, we require one person to motion stopping a film (by shouting out, “TIME”) and then at least one more individual coming forward to second that motion. Instead of that scenario, usually the first uttered “time,” unleashes an echo of support from dozens of jurists too shy to have spoken first. We have our consensus, the film is halted, we vote, and we move on.

The good news is that, over the years, several films that have been stopped early have gone on to win a prize at our festival. If we stop a film, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole audience hates the film. It does mean that the jury has seen enough of the film so to evaluate it on the ballots.

At the end of the screening, one ASIFA-East jurist came up to me and said that it was a shame to stop any films early because for some of these filmmakers it might be the only chance to get their film screened. I see that point. However, we proudly offer one open screening per year in which everyone may present a film in a safe, supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. When it comes to our jury screenings, we’re supposed to be critical, separating the wheat from the chaff. If any filmmakers feel that they were denied their one chance at a screening, I would offer that they should make more films, better films, and spend more energy towards getting them screened and into festivals.

At a jury screening, films must quickly earn even their first few seconds of screen time. I personally begin to watch each film with a middle average score in my head and what I first see and hear immediately starts accumulating points positive or negative. Production values, quality of craft, ability to convey an idea or technique, all come across in those first few seconds. In this generation of youtube living room animators cranking out films, we filmmakers entering films at the ASIFA-East festival and squirming through a critical screening of our own film have an opportunity to learn and grow from the audience response that is virtually unparalleled anywhere else.

As democratic as we are, I don’t always personally agree we every film we honor or deny (nor should I.) We are a community of voices choosing what makes it into our festival. I can’t help but recall a jury screening two years ago that included John Canemaker’s “The Moon and the Sun,” (pictured above). The very personal film played all the way through to it’s half hour conclusion without the audience calling time, but clearly some in the audience might have wished too, which I find very perplexing and disheartening. “The Moon and the Sun” didn't place at the festival that year, but went on to win the academy award for best short subject at the 2006 Academy Awards ceremony. No single jury’s taste, however how big the jury, represents the final word on a film or a filmmaker.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Kids Films

This weekend, my film, Good Morning, was featured at the BAMKids festival. This festival, now going on 10 years, is an offshoot of the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. My little film (clocking in at barely over a minute), played to four sold-out screenings spread over the weekend. Each screening was followed by a Q and A, featuring Bob Charde (Good Morning’s composer), and my ol’ Nickelodeon-era animation pals Jen Oxley and Eric Weil, whose film, “Janie and Jerome in “Light’s Out,” was also featured.

The children’s film festival circuit is a curious affair. First off, it’s amazing to have your film shown to an audience anywhere. The curious part is when you realize the audience is mostly young parents with tiny tots in tow. Try saying that five times. Lurking among the family audience are a handful of industry people, including some network development executives and other international festival directors.

Are there bad films at the children’s film festivals? Sure. Same as Ottawa. At Ottawa the bad films will likely be independent films that are overlong, random, or seemingly pointless. But, an independent film doesn’t have to please you; it can simply just BE. The independent film, may be a narrative, might have a concept or characters or story, but it need NOT to be successful. The independent film has the choice of following any or none of the rules of storytelling. The one rule is, “there are no rules.”

No rules always seemed like a trap to me. I like creative rules on which to build a film’s structure; something that I can push up against or break through at will. Maybe this is why I respond to children’s films or why I have utmost respect for the medium. A great children’s film transcends the label, “children’s film,” and simply stands as great film, period. Immediately coming to mind is Gil Alkabetz “A Sunny Day,” (see picture above. The film's craft is near perfection; great concept & story, great timing/posing/animation, imaginative layouts/continuity, attractive design/color styling, tight pacing/storytelling, bursting with charm/humor, and featuring a killer score/sound design. For more on this film/filmmaker, go to:

We all know animation is a stepchild to the larger film and entertainment industry. Yet, within this stepchild are other subdivisions. All too many of them are self-imposed. One obvious stepchild is the respectability (or lack of) in the area of children’s films. It ain’t never been cool to make films for kids. How ironic that unlike any other genre of independent animated film, only the “children’s film” has the potential to reach everybody in the audience.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Report from NYICFF

It’s been called the Tribeca of Children’s Film Festivals, and after spending a weekend at The New York International Children’s Film Festival (NYICFF), I’m inclined to agree. I was blown away by the sold out screenings, lines of people down the block (hoping to purchase a ticket) and the amazingly attentive audience comprised of mostly parents with young children.

I’m getting to be a bit of a festival hound and it’s fun to be able to compare and contrast the festivals. Most indy animators make films with one eye on Annecy or Ottawa. These are the sexy festivals with a large concentration of filmmakers and industry execs in attendance. In fact, many who attend these aforementioned festivals go more for the social mixing than they do for the screenings. The emphasis is on networking. At a festival such as NYICFF, the equation is flipped on it’s ear. At NYICFF, it’s about the films. Maybe I’m a little out of step, but that’s a pretty sexy idea to me.

Here’s how NYICFF describes itself (posted at
"NYICFF was founded in 1997 to promote intelligent, passionate, provocative cinematic works for ages 3-18 and to help define a more compelling film for kids. Since its launch, the event has grown to become the largest festival for children and teens in North America, with a paid audience of over 20,000 attending the most recent event. Since 2000, all screenings have sold out in advance.

Each year NYICFF presents a highly selective slate of the best animation, live action, documentary and experimental film from around the world. The next annual, city-wide festival will take place March 2008. The three week festival will present 100 new films in competition plus gala premieres, retrospectives, filmmaker Q&As. workshops, receptions, and the NYICFF Awards Ceremony. NYICFF also presents screenings and premieres throughout the year at the IFC Center and other locations."

Before I contrast NYICFF with Ottawa or Annecy I should point out that there were several indy heavy hitters represented this past weekend. NY’s PES had “Dogs of War” and “Game Over.” Russia’s Konstantin Bronzit had “Lavatory-Love Story.”
Also featured were, Georges Schwizgebe’s “Jeu,” Claude Clouteir’s “Sleeping Betty” (see image above!), and my favorite film, Oleg Uzinov’s “Zhiharka.” I’m happy to add that my film, “Good Morning,” was also in the mix, but I figured you might have guessed that already. Note: You can watch Good Morning by visiting: My amazing composer, Bob Charde, was kind enough to make this link. Thanks, Bob!

I understand that “film selection-wise,” a festival such as Ottawa looks to serve an undernourished need. Through the guidance of Chris Robinson, you get a lot of experimental films, and the narrative films tend to be abstract or non-linear. After five days of Ottawa screenings I find myself yearning for something a bit more satisfying and my cravings are usually satisfied by Ottawa’s films for children category. However, Ottawa can only program one such screening, and they are surprisingly conservative when picking children’s films. In contrast, NYICFF, is able to offer children’s films, sometimes so bold, that they blur the line, erasing the definition of what it might mean to be a children’s film. Over the weekend, I watched films with themes on homosexuality (“Donkey Girl”), eating disorders (“Ice Floe”), as well as one hell of a grown up take on dance competitions in Australia (“Razzle Dazzle”).

As I watched the range of these so-called, “kids films,” I couldn’t help but think that Pat Smith, Bill Plympton, and Andy and Carolyn London (among many other top indys) often produce films that would play well at this festival. There was another phenomenon that should not go unreported. My film played in the same category as Mo Willem’s “Knuffle Bunny,” which was directed by Maciek Albrecht. Before the films even played, the audience was abuzz with parent’s whispering, “Knuffle Bunny” to each other. Mo has found incredible success with today’s parents and children with his wonderful run of children’s books. I, for one, appreciate that Mo helps show how children’s films can be hip and cool, while at the same time satisfying a general audience.

The lesson here is that NYICFF is redefining what might be considered a children’s film. Isn’t it about time us filmmaker’s followed suit?