Sunday, August 24, 2008

Here I Go Again On My Own

If I were inclined to appreciate 80s hair-bands, I might be singing, “Here I go Again On My Own,” by Whitesnake because as of Monday I completed my latest project (directing six spots for the Electric Company). All I have lined up now is teaching one night a week at Parsons this Fall and one night a week at SVA this Spring. The rest of my time is ripe with possibility. I’ve learned long ago to seize such time because it is often fleeting. Most of us agree that although we love animation this doesn’t automatically mean that all of our employment is spent on “dream jobs.” The realist in me adds, “nor could it be.” Dreams are ours to make. Opportunities are ours to take. If anyone from Hallmark Cards is reading this, I’m available for a job in the copy department.

For me, time on my ownsome means time spent on a personal film (see images above from my in-progress short!). The new film is a third collaboration with musician, producer, and voice over artist Bob Charde. I used to refer to my films as independent films. Maybe if I had called them personal films I might have actually made something personal. I started out on the right track by making a film called Snow Business, which started out as a concept film (a snowman traveling through a city by accidental means) but, I realized later that the film was really based on part of my life experience. As a child, I used to eagerly anticipate my father coming home from his Ad agency job in Manhattan. As a family, we always waited until my dad got home so we could all eat together. Sometimes he wouldn’t get home until 9 PM. It was such a special feeling when his car pulled up and he came up the stoop of our house. Before we would eat, I would get to hear a play-by-play of the day’s events at the office and I’d fill him in on my day too. It was OUR time and I cherished it.

That longing is in the film Snow Business, which at its core is about a boy longing for time with his Dad. That personal truth gave them film a powerful center and I believe it went a long way to overcome any production problems with the film. Yet, I didn’t fully understand this at the time and I thus allowed other influences to creep into my second film, ensuring that it had nothing personal in it whatsoever. At the time I was obsessed with getting a development deal for my own television property (something I wouldn’t achieve until 8 years later). I allowed this to corrupt my second film (and my third film too, but that’s another story) in which I tried to draw the current hot look on TV. For content I aimed at shock value, which was a two-part rebellion. Firstly, I was working fulltime on Blue’s Clues and secondly, Snow Business had also been a family-friendly affair. I was oddly concerned that I would develop a reputation as a children’s filmmaker. All of this added up to a sad cocktail on which to base a film.

Although it took me years to get my personal films back on the right track, I can't say that nobody tried to warn me. Once in a while somebody comes along and has the guts to tell you something painfully honest that you desperately need to hear. Shortly after my second film debacle, David Cutting (an animator at Blue’s Clues) said to me, “David, I think with your second film–– you really threw out the baby with the bathwater.” The last time I heard such stinging honesty was years earlier at SVA when an foreign student told me through his broken English, “Your work is no good.”

I think the demands and pressures on the next generation of independent filmmakers to do something "commercial" with their films must be even worse than what I had experienced. If your animation doesn’t become the next big viral sensation on YouTube does that mean that it's a failure? Whenever one thinks of the marketplace when making personal art the “personal” goes right out the window. I’m now just under half way through production on my newest film. I’m proud to say that it doesn’t look or feel in any way like the product you see today on TV or in the viral sensations perpetuated on line. Although it is a kid’s film, I’m not using any of the assembly-line techniques of puppeted animation that dominate much of kids TV these days. Content-wise, the film spends its entire time in the company and conflict between two characters engaged in an average day’s activity. The tone is quiet, the pace is slow, and the characters do not scream their lines. I am blissfully out of step and I LOVE IT!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hiroshima Mon Amour

***photos from top to bottom: the closing ceremony where the festival logo, Lappy, gets to share the stage, the local Hiroshima dish called Okonomiyaki which is sort of like a crepe piled with noodles, scallions, bacon, and an egg, and topped off with a sweet Japanese sauce. (Thanks for the tip, Masako!), and finally a rooftop ASIFA party at the festival picturing Yasmeen Ismail, me, Yoshiya Ayugai, Bin-Han To, and Eric.)

My wife and I just got back from our trip to attend the 2008 Hiroshima International animation festival, where my film, Good Morning, was in competition. The festival was fantastic! The staff was very friendly and the screenings and events were very well organized. The sound and projection of the films was superb throughout. I’m finding it difficult to organize my thoughts on the whole experience because there are so many things I could write about.

First off, the festival coincides with the anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. We attended the Peace Museum (which is just a few blocks away from the festival) on our first day in Japan and it documents both the years of war that led up to the A-bombs dropped on Japan as well as the rebirth of the city soon after. As you walk through the museum you begin to experience the event as one big time clock with all the pieces falling into place to lead up to the tragic event. It was very emotional experience to walk through the museum surrounded by Japanese people experiencing it too. By the end we were mentally and physically exhausted and tried to fit in a nap before the next festival screening. I found myself staring at the ceiling in our hotel room, unable to sleep because of the understanding that I was lying in a space that would have been only 800 or so meters from the Hypo center of the explosion on 8:15 AM, August 6, 1945.

On a lighter note, I found the festival screenings were a great deal longer than at other festivals. At the Hiroshima festival, the nightly competitions were so long that there was a ten-minute intermission. A retrospective on animator Paul Driesen was over three hours long and a retrospective on Astro Boy creator Tezuka broke the four-hour barrier. I enjoy Driesen’s work, but I wonder if a tighter selection of films would serve his screening better. He makes concept-heavy films and after a while, one might yearn for some characters in a different kind of interaction. But, I realize that my bias is an unfair criticism for Driesen’s work because my preference has nothing to do with kind of stories he’s moved to tell. The character-based film, John and Karen directed by Matthew Walker (which won an award at the festival), pulls a viewer inside in a way that a concept film cannot. At its worst, a concept heavy film acts as a distancing device because there are no characters to draw the viewer in. My definition of a character is any character that goes beyond a stereotype, archetype, or a piece of moving furniture. There are examples of films that combine characters with concept and the best example I can think of is John R. Dilworth’s The Mousochist, which is one of my favorite films of all time.

The festival offered many opportunities for schmoozing with a series of official parties, and the party often spilled out from there to a local bar called Otis!, or to the 8th floor lobby of our hotel. I was impressed how many of the British and Finnish filmmakers were self employed at their own studios and I was jealous to hear how their respective governments help fund some of their films.

Also in attendance was ASIFA-East’s own Ray Kosarin (who had also served as a selection committee member some months earlier). Former ASIFA International board member David Ehrlich served on the festival jury and attended the festival with his wife Marcella. Recent RISD graduate Andy Cahill was in competition with his film “Spontaneous Generation.” I had met Andy a few months earlier when I spoke to the graduating at class at RISD. I am always impressed when students or recent students trek to festivals and dive into their careers. Too many students graduate and stare at the wall and wait for something to happen instead. At festivals you can make numerous important relationships and pick up oodles of inspiration––two things that could help anyone’s career (student or otherwise).

My film didn’t win a prize at the fest, but our week in Hiroshima was unforgettable. We followed it up with a four nights in Tokyo, where friends of a friend from New York showed us around and took us to dinner and karaoke. We felt so welcomed! On our last night in Japan, eight of our new international pals (who attended the Hiroshima festival) regrouped with us for dinner and more karaoke in Tokyo. By then, our little group was like a family. No doubt another festival will bring some of us together again soon. Maybe Ottawa?

In conclusion, a few words about Tokyo. It’s huge. It’s modern. They don’t take credit cards. There’s no litter ANYWHERE. Toilets are heated and spray water at you (in a good way). Signs are in English and Japanese. The subway is far easier to navigate than people say. There is a plethora of 7-11s and McDonalds. Customers are treated WAY better than they are treated in NYC. The summer heat and humidity gives Florida a good run for its money. Instead of a pigeon infestation, you run into the occasional haw-hawing magpie. And, the city is teaming with vending machines, bicycles, and… Japanese people. The last one came as a real shock. Next time, I’ll read the guidebook more clearly.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Go East, Young Man!

Well, I'm off to Japan, to see my short "Good Morning" compete in competition at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival... so I don't have time to say too much today.

I'll do my best to post something on the festival this coming Monday. Until then, wish me luck!

Just for fun, I drew the Totoros above after rewatching "My Neighbor Totoro" this week. I suppose I shouldn't admit that the film had me crying like a baby even though I'd seen it once before.

Talk soon!