Sunday, August 2, 2009

Intellectual Curiosity

Years ago I went to a free concert in Central Park where Jonathan Richman opened for Randy Newman. At the conclusion of the show, a friend of mine remarked, "If this had been a talent contest, Newman would have easily won." I had the same feeling after back-to-back film festivals at BAM on Sunday (Animation Block Party's 6:50 PM show) and Monday (The 47th Ann Arbor Film Festival, Traveling Tour 2009), with animation as the definite loser.

Don't get me wrong... there were some bright moments at the ABP show (and in all fairness I only saw one of their many programs), but just about every entry was bogged down with the trappings of pop culture, animation self-referencing, and light-weight themes and ideas. None offered much (or any) insight into important issues, the state of world, the human condition, or even simple human relationships.

Despite endless possibilities, many animation artists would rather contemplate how to use any story set-up as an excuse to create an epic fight scene. Among the most technically polished pieces in the ABP show was a seemingly endless film that featured a pint-sized character rambling on and on in a post-game locker room. The attractive design work and subtle character animation were not enough to generate interest in the tedious film. Can you imagine a live action equivalent, with great lighting, art direction and cinematography but no story, just a guy rambling on and on? If you're doing a narrative film, it’s not enough to have good animation or high production values. A narrative film requires structure and interesting characters working through something the audience can relate to.

Obviously, animators making a film have a right to make anything they want, and it’s also true that what I don't appreciate could still work for somebody else. I don't mean to knock an individual film or filmmaker or ABP, but I am interested in pondering what these films say about us as a community of animation artists. A personal film has the opportunity to explore areas that a big budget theatrical animation or an animated TV series couldn't touch. But, many personal films are love letters to those very institutions, repeating themes and scenes and jokes we’ve seen before, with the effect of diminishing returns.

It’s ironic that animators are the first to defend the potential of their medium and are also the least likely to exploit it. What does it say about us that we are more concerned with getting a cheap laugh or recreating a fight scene from “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” than we are about really saying something? The ABP has a significant amount of student films, which are graduation requirements for their makers. Are they evidence of a population of serious art students ready to absorb and then build on what came before? Or did they pursue animation for different reasons entirely? We all make films to express something, and my thesis film expressed my desire to write an effective story from beginning to end. What some of these student animators are choosing to express does not give me hope that they have the needed intellectual curiosity to create work that will surprise the older generations like mine and inspire the generations after them.

An example of surprising and inspiring animation, not to mention gut-wrenching, was something I saw, not at the animation festival, but in the Ann Arbor program.. a short called "Passages" (pictured above), which was an animated documentary by documentary filmmaker and animator Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre about the real life horror of a baby delivery gone wrong. This film reminds that animation can be an effective tool for dramatic purposes and storytelling.

Other Ann Arbor highlights included a winning pair of live action films, one a spotlight on urban decay in present-day Detroit ("A City to Yourself"), and the other a disturbingly voyeuristic look into the isolated inhabitants of a German apartment building ("Six Apartments").

It's now a week after these Sunday and Monday screenings and while nothing of substance remains in my head from the ABP, the Ann Arbor films have permanently nested in my brain. They make me want to be a better filmmaker––to make personal work that says something about the world.


George said...

A memory comes to mind when I was a younger music student. Someone was trying to argue that Brittney Spears was good music, and I argued against her, comparing Ms. Spears to J.S. Bach. How could anyone disagree that Brittney Spears was garbage compared to Bach?!

I completely missed a point. Brittney isn't doing the same thing as Bach. I was mistaken because they both express themselves musically, but even within one artistic medium, there are still so many different avenues to pursue, and comparing Bach to Brittney is akin to comparing apples and oranges.

I think you touched on this with your question, "...did they pursue animation for different reasons entirely?" I think that is exactly the point. So what? Just like Brittney Spears doesn't want to push the boundaries of music (in, let's say, the way that Ligeti, Shoenberg, or Reich do (or did)), there are plenty of animators who don't want to push animation forward. I think that's fine... let them do what they want.

I think we are extremely fortunate to live in the times we do because there are plenty of outlets for everyone; there is plenty of room for Ligeti and Brittney to both succeed. Both have a lot of fans, and detractors.

In one of your recent posts, you were arguing for the right of animators to make their own career paths. Now it sounds like you're taking the opposite position. (Or perhaps your recent post was only arguing for animators who have earned their right to make their own career paths.)

Not everyone is trying to make something of substance, and that's just fine. I think one can make quite a career out of either path of making work of substance, or not.

Elliot Cowan said...

I think this harks back to an old conversation of ours: are we animators or film makers or both?
Most animators are not really film makers, I do not think.

David B. Levy said...

I consistently argue that everyone has a right to their own career paths and the right to make any films they wish to make... I'm asking you to examine what the subjects of these films says about the community of animation artists and in particular the next generation of students.

The mainstream industry side of animation is already well represented, a personal film or a student film has the opportunity to go places a commercial product could not. It's a terrible thing to waste.

roconnor said...

A festival that mixes student and professional work puts both the filmmakers and the audience at a disadvantage.

One thing the ASIFA-East Awards gets right is keeping them distinct.

Student films have entirely different requirements from professional films. We look for different things and can accept them (or reject them) on entire different criteria.

It's not so much a Bach to Britney comparison -although I'll wager there's harmonic and rhythmic structures to "Toxic" that are just as complex as the Goldberg Variations (Ms. Spears, of course, just being the cardboard cut out for the brains behind the curtain)- but a matter of cultural intent.

The student film within animation culture is both an experiment and a portfolio piece. Often someone expresses their animation skills or their draughting prowess through bravado animation. They may have no intention of ever working in the story department. They may have strengths in lighting and camera, so their thesis is built around that. These may result in lousy films but great student work.

As for the question of how people would react to a film that's a well lit, well shot, character piece with no story that simply pays homage to works past-people love Tarantino.

David B. Levy said...

You nailed it on the head that a festival should separate student from professional work. To mix it all up makes for very troubling viewing. But, I'm sure the ABP has their reasons for presenting this way.

Jim Mortensen said...

ABP is a very young festival - 7 years I think. It is also different atmosphere. It's more fun "Block Party" than animation festival. It's a place to get together and grab a beer after watching some funny cartoons.

I had some great laughs at Saturday's 9:30 showing. "No Naked" and "Backwards" were pretty funny flicks. I didn't come into it expecting Persepolis.

Also, lets be honest. "Animation" is still synonymous with "cartoons" when it comes to short films. When the general public thinks animated shorts, they think of Looney Tunes and whatever funny 30 second animation they saw on YouTube or Newgrounds that day. The market for shorts from intellectually curious animation artists is slim. There's a reason Plympton has his rules for surviving as an Indie.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Jim,
All true enough... but, knowing that, do you choose to make work to fit the status quo... that lives up to the stereotype that animation equals "cartoons?" Each of us decide that based on the work we choose to produce.

Any opportunity to screen animation is a good one so I applaud ABP for being so successful at doing this for 7 years now...

Yes, Bill Plympton's 3 rules (make it short, cheap, & funny) work for him and can work for others, but that is still but one path to follow. Bill comes to his path honestly.. but, is it just as honest to follow that path just because it worked for Bill? Some questions to ponder.

Jim Mortensen said...

"Yes, Bill Plympton's 3 rules (make it short, cheap, & funny) work for him and can work for others, but that is still but one path to follow. Bill comes to his path honestly.. but, is it just as honest to follow that path just because it worked for Bill?"

For some, maybe for many, yes. On a purely personal level, I try to make films that are honest to who I am. Some of those films have been generic ("45 seconds to heartbreak", "first kiss") and some of those have been somewhat out of the box ("emerge", my thesis). But I have personally noticed that more people have responded emotionally to the short, funny ones than the out-of-the-box ones. Maybe that's the medium, maybe that's where my talent is as a filmmaker.

Even Jim Henson had to adapt. His original short films are weird, mysterious, and almost unwatchable. The original pilot for the Muppet Show was called The Muppet Show: Sex & Violence. But, as groundbreaking as his work was, even he had to tune his work to meet the audience.

And there's something about the short-animated format that screams "Make it short, make it cheap, make it funny." I know lots of non-animation people that have seen "Ah, L'amour" and "Rejected", but ask them about Hertzfeldt's newer work and they stare blankly at you.

I'm not saying that Animation has to be defined by those rules, I'm just saying that the expectations are different. Exceptions for emotionally moving animated content are there, but they are exceptions. Even Hertzfeldt has to veil an emotional message within comedy.

David B. Levy said...

This is steering a bit off topic, but its interesting none-the-less. Nobody (least of all me) is suggesting that a filmmaker shouldn't try to connect with an audience.

All films are for the audience, but the filmmaker is the one entrusted with the audiences time and attention span. Narratives and experimental work along with narratives that push the envelope can all be entertaining or fascinating to watch. And, animation does not have to be automatically "a cartoon" to enjoy this audience connection.

PES makes incredibly appealing work that is whimsical and soulful AND completely without the trappings of cartoons (or Bill Plympton's 3 rules).

I'm not sure who you are speaking to about Don Hertzfeldt's work, but all the people I respect in NY animation are very familiar with his newest works and many find them to be among his best work.

Jim Mortensen said...

Dave -

I got a little off-point there. Sorry. Some quick wrap-up points though.. In the last post, I mentioned non-animation people not knowing Hertzfeldt's newer work, not animation people. My opinion of his newer work is extremely high. But when introducing a non-animation person someone to Don, I will always start with Rejected or Ah, L'amour.

I should have read your original post as more of a call-to-action than a critique. That said, I think the observations contained in your original post were observations of inexperience in actual filmmaking and storytelling. It takes a filmmaker while to work through the clichés of their inspirations before they find themselves being honest about what they want to put in the world. And many filmmakers don't get beyond the point of clichés.

ABP is much smaller than Ann Arbor, and is directly connected to the student film scene through Casey. And student animation is ripe for cliché.

Pierre Fontaine said...

It seems that the Animation Block Party is open to just about anything that people want to show. I do think however that animators really need to focus on at least a theme, if there's a lack of story. At the very least, a theme gives your audience a "hook" to grasp.

While Ryan Larkin's "Walking" has no story, you can't take your eyes off it. You'd think a film that features walk cycles would be boring but it's anything but because the whole film is a celebration of animation's ability to capture movement.

When I made my own senior thesis film, I had the benefit of a semester long writer's workshop to help me construct the story (as trite as the story was...). I've seen plenty of animations that are purely exercises to explore certain techniques. These are interesting in their own right but don't really stay with you.

Of course, a bad story is as uninteresting as an animated exercise. I find the comment that most animators are not film-makers to be a very interesting one. However, I think that if someone is going to be spend weeks or months (or years) on a project, that it should say "something", even if it isn't meant to have any message at all. Exercises really don't express a point of view, but even a simple piece of animation can speak volumes.

By the way David, I just got your book and think it's really brilliant. Thanks for writing it and I'm looking forward to your next book coming out soon.


stephen said...

most festivals have a brand image they strive to maintain. it helps them market to both filmmakers and ticket buyers. Based on both the types of films submitted and the types of films selected according to a festival's mission, you're going to get wildly different programs, all with varying degrees of commercial and critical success.

This diversity in animation comforts me. It means animation is branching out and reaching more people than ever before. There's an audience for everything, even if it's not all my cup of tea.

the term "student film" has some nasty connotations that should be done away with. If the student films are bad, don't put them in the festival. But I've seen plenty of overblown professional productions that don't match the heart, story, or ingenuity of a good student short. it's not rewarding to the filmmaker or audience to separate the films, unless the festival is extremely craft-focused like asifa-east.

David B. Levy said...


The diversity in animation comforts me too, Stephen.. that's why I'm uncomfortable when I see large volumes of student animation and indie animation that doesn't take advantage of the full spectrum of choices available to them.

Your analysis that festivals have missions that effect how the select and program is spot on.

And, while this is off topic... the range in quality of student work is part of why it's exciting to view student work. You never know what to expect. However, a festival (in my opinion) should separate the good from the bad. The clunkers should not make it past the selection process.

David B. Levy said...

Thanks for the comment and for the kind words about my book. So glad you enjoyed it.

I love "Walking," and it speaks to the power of animation that such an exercise can also make for a compelling short animated film. A film like that is like a celebration of animation.

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David B. Levy said...

Hello SVA Grad and John,

I removed your comments and (the thread that followed them) because this is not the place for that conversation. You are both more than welcome to email me personally to explain your issues with the class and the way it is being taught. And, you have my word that I will take it in the right spirit. And, that could prove useful to the next round of students.

I just had coffee with a former student this week and asked him what he would change about the way I teach the class. I took notes and it was very insightful.

Anonymous said...

How shocking teach....

You never did listen to your students and you still aren't.

A rose does not a summer make. Just because you went out with one student and took some notes doesn't mean you solved any issues.

Let's remember, my initial comment was disagreeing with your comparison of Ann Arbor to ABP. I don't think they're equatable. Wanna delete this one too? Unreal.

David B. Levy said...

John, I take your point about the comparison btwn Ann Arbor/Block Party. And I welcome you to follow up with me by email on your issues with the class and the way its being taught. The door is open.

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