Animation | Film Analysis | Film Reviews

A Blast of a Bash

1 Jul , 2004  

Written by Genevieve Butler | Posted by:

Rhode Island School of Design grads steal the show at the recent New England Animation Bash, presented by the Brattle and Coolidge Corner Theatres.

Animation is alive and well in New England. The success of the first annual New England Animation Bash, a joint effort of the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge and Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre, and a comprehensive celebration of the art, proves it. Features, shorts, TV shows, the traditional and the computer generated and assisted alike, were screened before appreciative and enthusiastic audiences this June. The films also ranged from contemplative to creepy to side-splitting hilarity, and were made by artists as diverse as the many images that graced the screens of the two local theatres.

The festival was comprised of programs and special events that highlighted local talent: the "RISD Spotlight" screened the made-in-Providence work of animators from one of the best animation programs in the country, and there was a panel discussion and screening of segments from the award winning Watertown based animation production company Soup2Nuts. There were also local connections in the Bash’s other programs: "Avoid Eye Contact: The Best of NYC Independent Animation," for instance, included the animations of a few RISD graduates, and the Coolidge hosted the traveling "Kids First! Film Festival," which will return to Brookline in the fall, and this time featured shorts based on the Boston inspired classic, "Make Way for Ducklings," and "Pete’s A Pizza," a piece by locally based FableVision Studios.

The Bash also attracted the attention of animation-makers world wide. Clinton McClung, Coolidge Program Director, and Brattle Theatre Co-Director Ned Hinkle selected 13 shorts for the Bash’s "Competition Show," out of over 30 films, some from as far away as Canada and Europe. The competition was for one of the festival’s two Audience Awards, one for the top local piece and one for the best film from farther away.

Always champions of local and independent film, Hinkle and McClung realized that there were few opportunities for exposing animation, and no animation festival of this scope on the east coast. And, with the recent popularity of what Hinkle calls "smart animation for grown-ups," as seen on cable networks like the Cartoon Network and Comedy Central, with the box-office success of Pixar productions, and the international acclaim of Japaname and features like "The Triplets of Belleville," their timing is excellent.

"It would have been a lot different to do this a few years ago," Hinkle said. Brattle Co-Director Ivy Moylan added that "animation is cheaper now so we have so much more to show." McClung has also given this much consideration, and has been screening animated shorts before some of the Coolidge’s feature-length screenings. He started screening an animated short called "Sub," by Jesse Schmal (a film from the program "Avoid Eye Contact") before "The Triplets of Belleville," and the 4 ½ minute "Nibbles" by Chris Hinton, before "Super Size Me." "Nibbles" also touches on the vicissitudes of fast-food culture, so McClung sees the films as a good match, and would like to find other shorts to pair with his feature-length screenings, if he can "find one to fit." He was also pleasantly surprised by the willingness of animation-makers to allow their films to precede full-length films: "we can’t pay them, but they get exposure," McClung said. He has found that New England animators are more than happy to have there work viewed when asked.

Accessibility is an all too familiar issue for animation shorts, which unlike feature-length films, have to be either squeezed in between things, as on some of the cable channels, or complied into feature-length screenings or compilations. Audiences and animation-makers alike enjoyed a weekend dedicated to nothing else. Here are a few highlights:

"The Competition Show"

The winners of the "Competition Show" were Temah Nelson, for "Unspoken," and Isabelle Favez for her short "Circuit Marine," but many of the other filmmakers were no stranger to prizes.

"Unspoken" was definitely a crowd pleaser, and this was no surprise to Hinkle or McClung, who also counted it among the best of the competing films. The film, which was a cel and computer animation piece, had a strange suspense to it, which set it apart from the other comic offerings. The film was the local winner, and the Waltham based filmmaker’s film was also screened at the First Forest Theater Film Festival in Oregon last May.

Will Becher’s stop motion short "Boxed In" has won eight awards, according to a January profile of recent animated favorites in Animation World Magazine (mag.awn.com) by Taylor Jessen, who called Becher’s film a "gleeful slice of English eccentricity." The film features a lonely old man walled up in a windowless flat whose senility at one moment reflects sadness, the next produces the joyful and imaginative mischievousness of a child home alone, and leaves one wanting to simultaneously laugh and cry. His solitude is interrupted by the delivery of a package containing a fast-moving rodent. Thus the battle of cat and mouse is on. The ending is a surprise, as are the battle tactics. The film was produced at Edinburgh College of Art as Becher’s thesis project in 2003. The film is 35mm and Beta SP/DigiBeta.

To find out more, visit: http://www.britfilms.com/britishfilms/catalogue/browse/?id=D9CC705918f9f1DDCDNoQk6174AA 

To read Taylor Jessen’s complete article reviewing some animations featured at recent festivals:

http://mag.awn.com/index.php?ltype=search&sval=independent&article_no=1980&page=2 

Another of the international entries was Showa Shinzan by Alison Reiko Loader. Shinzan is from Belleville, Ontario, but is Japanese in descent. Her film chronicles the experiences of a young girl sent out to the country to live with her grand-parents during World War II. The film gets its title from a mountain born out of a volcano which erupted in the village that the family is living in, which is secluded but not immune from the realities of war. The National Film Board of Canada is handling the distribution of Loader’s film, and sent it to the New England Animation Bash on behalf of the artist. The film is 3D/archival footage/drawings.

To learn more about Showa Shinzan and Alison Reiko Loader, visit: http://www.nfb.ca/showashinzan/film.html 

"Penguins Behind Bars," by Janet Perlman is also connected to the Canadian NFB, and Perlman is also an award-winning animation filmmaker. Her successes include an Academy Award nomination, a Parent’s Choice Award and the prize for Best Short Film at the Berlin Film Festival, among others. Perlman also has local connections: she has taught animation at Harvard and RISD. "Penguins Behind Bars" is a sort of toon-noir which employs voice-over (Lili Taylor gave voice to protagonist Doris Fairfeather) and tells the story of one young penguin’s raw deal taking the fall for her bum gangster boyfriend’s life of crime. Doris does time in a tough woman-penguin’s prison with some hardened penguin-ladies, and the film is beautifully executed and darkly funny. "Penguins Behind Bars" is a digitally colored cel animation.

To find out more about "Penguins Behind Bars" and Janet Perlman, visit: http://www.nfb.ca/penguinsbehindbars/ 

The out-of-town Winner of "The Competition Show," "Circuit Marine," is a hilarious consideration of the ‘eat or be eaten’ dilemma. The computer generated short is the sixth film by 30 year-old Swiss director Isabelle Favez, who completed it while in residence at a NFB-sponsored program in 2003. Aboard a ship, sailing an incredibly rough sea, some gorging pirates are too busy to notice that their pets — a clever kitty-cat, a parrot, and goldfish — are running amok down below. While backs are turned, the animals spring into action in search of their next meal, though the pirates behavior with their fish is not much different — yaaar!

To find out more about "Circuit Marine" or Isabelle Favez, go to: http://www.nfb.ca/circuitmarine/en/ 

The National Film Board of Canada represents the above three artists, and their films can be purchased through their site.

To find out more about the National Film Board of Canada, and to purchase videos, go to: http://www.nfb.ca/e/ 

"RISD Spotlight"

The curator of the "RISD Spotlight" was Brian Papciak, a RISD grad himself, and part of the locally based Hand Cranked Films. NewEnglandFilm.com once interviewed Papciak about his film "Met State," which was part of the 2003 Sundance On-Line Film Festival. Other Hand Cranked claims to fame include Jake McKaffy’s film "War" which screened at Sundance this year, and was covered by NewEnglandFilm.com in February, as well as a long list of awards received by the group’s four animators which can be viewed on www.handcrankedfilms.com.

Papciak chose films that ranged in medium and format, but each was loaded with evidence of the exquisite training that has made the school famous. The 17 films were mostly thesis projects by students in the school’s Animation Program and, though a few of them were submitted by alums of a few years back ("Above Average," Jamie Maxfield’s beautifully rendered flying horserace was done in 1993, and the witty "Dog Apocalypse," by Joe Fullerton was a 1991 project), most of them were made with in the last 5 or 6 years. However, many of these films have already made the rounds at screenings and festivals.

One intriguing film, dubbed by the filmmaker as ‘a monsta rap musical’ was Jeremy Wabiszczewicz’s 2003 2D animation short "Manimal," about a hip-hop duel between a hairy Big Foot/Cousin It monster and our hero, Manimal, the rhyming Cyclopes. Wabiszczewicz’s piece is going to be screened at the Comic-Con International Film Festival in San Diego this July, and has been to the 2003 Downstream International Film Festival in Decatur Georgia, and was a 2003-04 finalist at the NextFrame Festival at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Another NextFrame finalist was Dave Zackin, whose 2002 film "Tuna Nooda," was also screened in Decatur, GA last year. The mixed media animation won "Best Animation" at the 2003 Portland International Film Festival as well. "Tuna Nooda" is a delightfully funny story of a young boy — perhaps Zackin himself — who is faced with having to complete a science report on sea creatures, prepare lunch with his nostalgic Grandfather, and listen to his reminiscences of his days as a life-guard and ladies’ man. When the conversation of sea creatures turns to canned tuna, lunch and saving lives, it is not clear whether they’re both talking about the same thing, or indeed who is babysitting who. The piece is charming and has a distinctive style which brings an older man’s stories, a child’s drawings, and even pink shredded tuna to life.

For more information about the RISD Animation Program, visit: http://www.risd.edu/film.cfm 

To read NewEnglandFilm’s 2003 coverage of Brian Papciak’s film "Met State": http://www.NewEnglandFilm.com/news/archives/03may/papciak.htm 

To find out more about Hand Cranked Films, or to order a video of four of the group’s short animations, visit: www.handcrankedfilms.com 

"Soup2Nuts Panel Discussion and The Best of Soup2Nuts"

On Saturday evening, the Brattle featured a special engagement: Soup2Nuts, the Watertown-based production company responsible for such comic classics as "Dr. Katz," and the more recent hit shows "Home Movies," and "Hey Monie," sat down for a panel discussion highlighting the history of the company and screening some segments of shows as a way of illustrating the group’s production process. The event was decidedly more fun than that sounds however. Needless to say, everyone who works there is funny. In fact, RISD grad Soup2Nuts animator Alan Foreman confirmed in a later interview that it’s a bit of a ‘prerequisite’ to getting a job with them. Soup2Nuts Art Director and fellow RISD alum Aya Fukuda concurred: "when we’re interviewing we see their humor show through in their work."

In minutes the panel took the audience through the production process from brainstorming to cable primetime, which in real time takes months. One audience member asked roughly how long it takes to make a show, and though it varies, the writing seemed to take the most time (up to a month) with a day of recording, a couple of weeks for sound editing, mixing and design, a couple more to storyboard, between 15 and 18 days to animate, and a few days for post-production. Without conventional scripts, the Soup2Nuts process relies extensively on improvisation, and improv techniques are preferred throughout. During an analysis of a segment from "Home Movies" it became clear just how important this method of production is to their process. They screened a short rough sequence with audio — colorless and simplified, its function was to get down the basics of what would be the foundation of the finished product — then the finished product, and they differed greatly. Somewhere between the initial audio recordings, the storyboarding, editing and more editing, the animators had come up with visual jokes that had not been planned for in the storyboard, but which made the final sequence even funnier.

The history of Soup2Nuts began about 10 years ago when they were known as Tom Snyder Productions, a company specializing in educational software. When Snyder befriended comedian Jonathan Katz, "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist," and Soup2Nuts "internationally recognized TV production company" were born in 1995. According to Carl Adams, Soup2Nuts Audio Director, the legend goes something like this: the crew recorded an episode, realized that they had moved a bit fast for TV, transcribed the finished product into script form, sent it in, and the rest is history. After its first year, "Dr. Katz" won an Emmy and a Peabody Award.

With the success of their first venture, Soup2Nuts found themselves very much in demand, producing programming for HBO, ABC, CBS, NBC, FX, and most recently for Cartoon Network, "Home Movies" (as part of the network’s "Adult Swim" block, which features animation for more mature, or at least older, viewers) and "Hey Monie." "Hey Monie" is a very unusual animated series: the first of its kind, the show chronicles the life of a thirty-something African-American woman. "They say after a certain age girls tune out on animation," Adams said in the interview, but for Soup2Nuts "Hey Monie" was a risk worth taking. Last April, "Hey Monie" won the award for comedy at the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications (NAMIC)’s 10th Anniversary Vision Awards.

Over the course of those years, the technology changed, and Soup2Nuts has been through it all. Their later work, "in terms of character design, is more graphically dynamic," Foreman said, but when Animator Pro came along, "we got an SGI computer, taking a gamble on 3D, but it was so complicated," added Adams, that the machine became a pricey doorstop in their Watertown office. Despite the technological trends, Soup2Nuts has relied most on a more organic tool: talent. Most of the team went to RISD, but only Foreman actually studied animation there. "I swore I’d never touch a computer," he said of himself as a traditionally trained animator. However Foreman did acquire higher-tech animation skills, but he had to "learn it all on the job." Most of them learned that way. Animator Stephen Rogan joined Soup2Nuts based on the strength of his portfolio. "Luckily, I came in learning Flash while everyone else was learning it," Rogan, a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art, with a background in painting, said of learning the ropes. His background served him well, as what he already knew about composition and rendering made the task of learning animation much simpler, just a matter of learning a few programs. When they are looking for new people, Fokuda said, "we ask for figure drawings," not necessarily animations, because "it’s a lot easier to teach someone how to use the programs, than to teach them to draw."

One comment during the Q&A after the panel — delivered by Clinton McClung — drew enormous applause: "I think it’s great as you guys have grown that you’ve stayed in the Boston area." Besides Soup2Nuts’ connections to RISD and Mass Art, the company also likes the neighborhood, and plans to stick around. "Most business is all on the phone," Adams said, and what is done on the premises is shared by everyone. In the Boston-area they are always close enough to New York to pop down and pitch a show, or get over to Providence to see the work of the year’s RISD grads. And, the companies and individuals who work with them are more than happy to abide: nearly all of Dr. Katz star-patients made the trip to Watertown to discuss their problems, but Soup2Nuts also uses local talent such as actor Will LeBow, of American Repertory Theatre fame.

So what’s next for Soup2Nuts? The company always has many projects simultaneously in mid-production, but next on the horizon, fans of "Home Movies" can keep an eye out for a soon to be released DVD package.

For more information on Soup2Nuts, or to view clips and credits of shows, visit: www.soup2nuts.tv 

"Avoid Eye Contact: The Best of NYC Independent Animation"

This program screened at the Brattle and the Coolidge, and is available on DVD. Among the 11 contributors were three RISD grads, and the films represented the spectrum of genres and styles featured elsewhere in the Bash.

Jesse Schmal’s film "Sub" is a short with spare dialogue, a striking illustrative style, and a decidedly red aesthetic. The soundtrack, (which sounds like Soviet anthems) as with "The Triplets of Belleville" guides viewers through this unusual film which appears to have miniature narrative within. Schmal is a 2000 graduate of RISD.

Michael Overbeck, also went to RISD, and is a native of Higam, MA. His film "Tongues and Taxis" is the story of a bitter, pissed-off man whose tongue has a mind of its own, as do a lot of the elements that make up the landscape of his bizarre animation which features walking, car-crushing cabs, and a staple-gun wielding cat. The list of fests this film has gone to and is bound for is a long one; to find out more visit: www.mikeoverbeck.com 

"Roof Sex," a stop-motion piece by PES, chronicles the secret life of upholstered chairs. This film is a must see: his and her chairs romp around a rooftop enjoying their home alone freedom, and return to the living room just in time, except…

PES studied at NYU. To find out more visit his website: www.eatpes.com 

To learn more about "Avoid Eye Contact" films and filmmakers, and to purchase the DVD, visit: http://www.squarefootagefilms.com/