Sunday, May 10, 2009

aniMAYtion at SVA

(Note: image above from Rebecca Sugar's SVA thesis film, "Singles.")

While April showers usually bring may flowers, this year--the showers were in May and they brought animation. Come to think of it, the first week of May might be dubbed "New York Animation Week." This past this week featured the 40th ASIFA-East animation festival and student animation shows from Pratt, Parsons, NYU, and SVA. An animation enthusiast coming in from out of town has the opportunity to hit all these animation events in one week. Mayor Bloomberg, you can thank me for the tourism idea...and speaking of the Mayor, The Mayor's office of film sponsored an animation careers panel on May 5th at the new SVA theatre. Last, but not least, The BeFilms festival was in full force this week. And, if this wasn't enough, some local folks threw an Animation stimulus party. Has there ever been such an animation packed week in New York's checkered history? I doubt it.

ASIFA-East's exposure sheet blog already has some great coverage of the ASIFA-East 40th animation festival so I won't use blog space here to tread where others have already gone. Instead, I'd like to focus on SVA's student thesis animation show, otherwise known as The Dusty's. But, I can't do that without first beginning with a quote from Bill Plympton spoken during his Keynote address at the Careers in Animation event earlier in the week. "My style is old and tired. You [the students] have the new look people will be interested in."

I never heard Bill voice this before. The great thing about his style is that it never tried to belong to any particular era. The only thing that makes it "old" is that we've seen Bill's work for more than twenty years now. He's not the next thing, nor does he represent where tastes were twenty years ago. Plymptoons are one man's singular vision and (in my opinion) show how a true independent exists in a category by themselves.

That said, one could attend the SVA Dusty's screening and see what Bill might be alluding to as the "new look people will be interested in." Mike Rauch, Elliot Cowan, and myself walked together to the SVA screening and this gave us ample time to chat. Mike wanted to know what NY animation school's like SVA are teaching the students. He asked, "Are they learning color theory, figure drawing, and the other fundamentals?"

The answer is complicated. NY animation school's provide a background in the fundamentals, but, they focus more on preparing the students to work and think as individual artists. The traditional animation track at CalArts is where students go who wish to join the larger Hollywood animation industry. NY school's offer an alternative. Consider them to be the breeding ground, not of the next John Lasseter's, but of the next Bill Plympton's.

The interesting thing is that a good smattering of films from this year's SVA Dusty's show are not only works of artistic individuality, they are also examples of animation craft of the highest possible order (yes, even in the polished CalArts mode). But, these terrific SVA films are not trying to be audition pieces to score jobs on The Frog Princess 2. Veteran animator Dan Haskett has complained to me that he wishes there was a combination of NYC substance with Hollywood craft. Well, Mr. Haskett, here's a crop of films made just for you... How dare these students exploit Hollywood technical chops to use towards their own ends? Only in New York, and perhaps, only (in this scale) at SVA.

Student films, at their best, are like indie animated films made as a graduation requirement. Let's face it, making a great animated short is hard as hell. How many of us are expert at storytelling, timing, pacing, acting, animating, character and background design, color theory, sound design, and directing all at once? It almost seems impossible to do so. Yet, Shu-Yi Chiou (Hey, It's Me. Your's Bubbly), Alex Wager (Juxtaposed), Mikhail Shraga's (Metamorphosis), Paul Villeco (Metal Boot), Eunkyu Kim (The Mouse Reaper), Michael Antonucci (Passin' on Class), Rebecca Sugar (Singles), Jake Armstrong (The Terrible Thing of Alpha-9), and Peyton Skyler (Cat) are ALL interesting, touching, funny, odd, bold, experimental, fascinating, and amazingly executed (in-everyway) films.

I've had my heart broke before. There have been other amazing student filmmakers who have graduated and not made a single independent film since then. But, I sincerely hope that this above group is just getting started. We can use their spirit. They could make a major contribution, ensuring that NY hold on to its dominance as THE independent animation city of the world.

These films cast such an impression on me that it could be possible to over look other good films that screened that night. First off, I have to tip my hat to animation wunderkind Lev Polyakov. Lev's been on the scene so long and made so many films that its already possible to take him for granted (and he's only now graduating!). It's been interesting to see him evolve from Piper the Goat to his newest, Fantastic Plastic. He's evolving a hectic and energetic style of animation that combines commercial polish with offbeat ideas. I would love to see what he might do with a quieter, shorter, and more personal film.

I'd like to point out a few more of these good films that rounded out the program. There was something unique and odd about the staging of many of the shots in Hyo Jung Ahn's "Another Story of A Cat & a Dog." Ioana Alexandra Nistor's "The Chicken Prince," was an unusual mix of Disney storytelling conventions, black comedy, and morality fable.

For the I-LOVE-TO-DRAW-AND-IT-SHOWS-AWARD, I'd nominate Emmanuel R. Jaquez's "Bully Proof," Shelley Low's "Durian Season," Valerie Ang's "Manic Expressive," Patrick Weibel's "Memorabilia," Pedro Davie's "My New York," Sandy Hong's "Pathway," Nadia Saburov's "Pink Flamingo," "Rebecca Pena's "Spaced Out," Carly Crawford's "Star," Elyssa Di Giovanni's "Trade Winds," and Wesley Etienne's "The Workout Plan."

One of the hardest things for anyone to do is successful comedy and two films aimed their sights very successfully in that direction. Wesley Etienne's "The Workout Plan," was fairly conventional in much of its territory (including often-mined audio cues), but, he nailed many of his jokes right on target and the accumulated effect was impressive. Even more successful was Michael Antonucci's "Passin' on Class, which was infinitely better than most of what regularly airs as animated comedy on Fox or on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup. Did animation just find its next master of the laugh?

Amid Amidi provided a good spotlight on the SVA Dusty's show at and the conversation inevitibably turned to why the quality was so low on some of the student films. It is undenaible that there were some real turkeys on that screen. The most problematic films not only had weak design, animation, and storytelling, they also looked like the student had put in very little time and effort. Why, after four expensive years at film school would a student turn in such a film, especially when some of their peers are busting their butts all year to polish out gems? There's no one answer. Some students go through their schooling with apathy, merely going through the motions until they graduate and then doing something entirely different with their lives.

Most students begin their school years with some level of interest in animation. Then they are asked to work hard and push themselves to learn the fundimentals of this very difficult artform. The bottom line is that its easy to watch cartoons, its easy to love animation. But, try doing it, and that's what separates the sincere from the insincere. Howard Beckerman wisely tells students, "Everything is easy until you try it yourself."

Yes, school's like SVA let in a wide range of students. Some of those bets pay off and some don't. But, I would put much of the responsiblity on the students and their parents. I recommend that any would-be student that has not tried animation on their own ought to before deciding to go to SVA, Pratt, NYU, Parsons, etc. A would-be student should pocess enough intellectual curiosity to try out animation before they spend four years of time and money to learn it. When I was a kid I used the family Super 8 and video cameras and created hours of animation. Today, would-be students have no excuse not to do this. Programs like Flash and After Effects are cheap and accessable. I can't imagine a student deciding to go to school for animation without having tried it on their own first. That would be like saying, "I want to be an English Lit major," but never having read a book, thinking you'll start reading when freshman year begins. Odd, huh? But, that's what many animation students do.

On cartoonbrew, Amid responded to one former student that offered a list of reasons why her film was not as stellar as it might of been. Her point was to say that not everyone is ready to make a film even after four years of school. I agree with her and I also agree with Amid's response that a film must stand on its own without the backstory of the student's struggle. I would further suggest that no matter what industry folks like Amid and I think of your film, you have the option of making another film. You decide if your thesis film represents you or not--by making or not making more films.


ben oviatt said...

You used my joke! I'm honored...

I'm grateful for this post, David. I actually had a bit of a chuckle at Amid's post the other day, and I really couldn't help but feel like he just didn't quite "get it." The performance gap is not something that exists only in animation, and it is certainly not unique to this year's batch of thesis films. Do you think there aren't people who pay 150k and spend four years in business school but can't even file their own tax returns? There are, I've met them. To blame this sort of phenomenon on admissions or instruction is very dangerous. In the end film school, like business school, like life itself, can only return on its original investment; the one made by the student him/herself.

And: "You decide if your thesis film represents you or not--by making or not making more films." Hear, hear.

Elliot Cowan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elliot Cowan said...

What a post!
I had to scroll down twice to read the whole shebang.

I hope that these talented film makers have the chance and the inclination to make something else without the support of having equipment, friends and the structure of learning around them.
I hope they're not absorbed by a commercial world either.

Also worth mentioning.
I do not know all of the film makers, but I do know Rebecca Sugar and I do know Jake and apart from being incredibly talented they are also smart, amiable people with plenty to say about the medium they love.
I'd work with either of them in a second.

Michael Sporn said...

Elliot has put his finger on the heart of the matter. Once out of school the nurturing phase is gone, and filmmakers have to show us the goods. It's not easy to have to find ways to pay for everything, get people to help you (or not) and still come up with an idea for a film worth making. It ain't easy and all thos Independents that continue on have to get a lotta credit just for showing up.

Once the student graduates, it's a big world out there.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Ben,

Well said! And, thanks for the pun, "aniMAYtion."
Tim and Mike Rauch's blog just posed some questions on animation educations at their blog at:

I have mixed feelings about that discussion. On one hand, its an interesting question to ponder. What ingredients should be part of the perfect animation education? But, the best program will not be able to reach all students. When students are not ready to work/learn/stretch/grow/stumble than no program can change that. Students and parents have to choose animation based on the best possible reasons. A would-be student should be trying out animation on his/her own first.

I agree. And, I SO hope that Rebecca and Jake and others like them continue on! Keep making films, guys.

Hi Michael,
I'm of the "showing-up" school of indie filmmaking myself. Its great to be in mix. I can't imagine watching others make films year and after year. I'd go crazy. There's too much inspiration in the world to not join in.

Tim Rauch said...

This seems to have been an unusually talented class (SVA has had some great student films before, but man this year's group seems to be bursting at the seams). "Passin on Class" is on YouTube here:

That's a well written short with damn good timing on the laughs.

The most unusual thing to see was the "Trilogy" created between Peyton Skyler, Mikhail Shraga and Rebecca Sugar. Individually, these are extraordinarily fun and enjoyable films that really worked for me despite having very unusual structures and plots. Fantastic stuff. In Mikhail's "Metromorphosis", when the world starts falling apart, that is just a super engaging chunk of screen time. And then he ends it with that insane bit in the hallway and the poor dog on the sidewalk! I was laughing throughout. Peyton's film is as bizarre as the others, I really enjoyed some of the drawings and the "future world" he created. Rebecca's film is an absolute gem in my book and one of the most interesting things I've seen in a long while. I wish I could draw like that!!! and write music like that and be as successfully bizarre as that.

Really, really a special group. Can't wait to see those I haven't yet.

Anonymous said...

I think everyone here has pretty much explained what I was going to. :). Great and inspirational post. I loved that you provided compliments to some of the other unsung heroes as well as those incredible filmmakers who blew all of out of the water!

I especially agree with Elliot and Michael as post-graduation is the real challenge and the adventure to come.