Richard J. Leskosky: Observations from animation festival

"You can't unsee this stuff." The official motto of the 2012 Ottawa International Animation Festival (which ran Sept. 19-23) captures the festival's brashness and boldness pretty well, but masks its family-friendly side.

The 36-year-old festival now held annually in the Canadian capital attracted its largest number of entries ever (2,337 from more than 80 countries), of which 101 were selected for screening and competition in several (sometimes overlapping) categories, including music videos and promotional animation.

The festival featured special (non-competition) screenings organized around specific themes (experimental animation techniques that have found their way into commercials, for example, and comedians and animation) and retrospectives of specific artists' works. (One of the latter honored Karen Aqua, who died in 2010 and whose early animated films were once distributed by Picture Start Inc., a Champaign film distributor that I helped co-found back in 1979.)

Ottawa also included live workshops and master classes with veteran animators and discussions/demonstrations by professionals associated with recent major releases such as "Paranorman" and "Hugo." Although a previously announced category for nongameplay animation in video games did not actually materialize, gaming animation was represented by Ubisoft's session on game character development and their upcoming "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist" release.

In recent years, the festival has made an effort to encourage young animators by awarding prizes to student works at graduate, undergraduate and high school levels to the best Canadian student animation and even to animation schools' showreels collecting multiple students' works (Supinfocom in France won this year).

The student films (except for the showreels) run with those of the professionals in the competition screening programs on an equal footing. Even the high school work at this stage is outstanding — just consider this: South Korea has a high school specifically dedicated to teaching animation.

Though the Ottawa International Animation Festival has traditionally focused on short, independent animation, the explosion of feature-film animation over the last decade has had an effect here, too, this year more than most. The festival hosted an advance screening of "Hotel Transylvania" with a Q&A session, had four competitors in its feature film category and screened four features by Ralph Bakshi in a special retrospective.

It speaks to the breadth and diversity of feature animation production that the films Ottawa screens in this category are rarely major releases.

"Coraline," a couple of years back, was probably the most "Hollywood" animated feature shown in the competition, and last year's (also Oscar-nominated) "Chico & Rita" showed locally only in a Latino festival at the Art Theatre. In fact, many of these features will never get distribution in the United States because they're so esoteric or so weirdly off the wall.

This year, however, two features in competition looked like possibilities at least for the art house circuit and even for Oscar nominations:

— "Le Tableau" ("The Painting") from France tells an enchanting tale of class struggle among the figures in a painting.

The artist has abandoned the painting, and social divisions have arisen between those figures who have been completely rendered, those who have not been completed (even an uncolored foot or piece of costume can put one into this category) and sketches, bare outlines of figures.

When a complete falls in love with a half-finished, they must leave their painting in search of the artist to finish the painting and put things right.

Though the film deals with questions of social justice, art and levels of reality, it nonetheless speaks effectively to both adults and children. One older attendee I spoke with was eager to see it come out on DVD so that she could give it to all of her grandchildren.

— The winner in this category, however, was "Arrugas" ("Wrinkles") from Spain, based on Paco Roca's award-wining comic book. The film tenderly charts the friendship of Emilio, an elderly retired banker with the beginnings of Alzheimer's disease, and Miguel, a senior con man type, in an elder care home. Both funny and sad, it comes across as a sort of gentle "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" but set in an old-age facility and without the domineering nursing staff.

Emilio's increasing dementia in particular is finely and sympathetically observed, and the fact that the film is animated probably makes that descent easier for the viewer to bear.

The major artist retrospective this year also emphasized feature film production by honoring Ralph Bakshi, director of the first X-rated animated feature, "Fritz the Cat" (1972), on the 40th anniversary of its release. Besides "Fritz," the festival screened "Heavy Traffic" (1973), "Coonskin" (1975) and "Wizards" (1977). Bakshi was on hand for a special Q&A session and to sell artwork from his various films.

Though I personally have never cared that much for Bakshi's work, his energy and, well, chutzpah are indeed impressive. Over the course of a dozen years in the 1970s and '80s, he made eight feature-length animated films with a tiny staff and not much money (a few years later in 1992 he did the live-action and animated "Cool World," his last feature). During that same period, the Disney studio turned out three features.

Bakshi eschewed practices, such as model sheets and storyboards, that gave Disney films their controlled, well-crafted look. Instead, he just basically barreled through sequences, never seeing what they might look like until the process was complete, fully colored and ready to go into the film. If then it didn't seem to work, he tossed it and did not try to replace it.

That gave the finished films a raw look and energy that fit their violent, racially and sexually charged themes, but it also tended to leave gaps in the narratives.

Bakshi also cut corners (virtually all animators cut corners, but with some it's a lot harder to spot) with the liberal use of photographs and rotoscoping (tracing over live-action footage).

His 1978 version of "The Lord of the Rings" was heavily criticized for reusing footage from Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevski" and for just coloring over, not even tracing over, live-action footage of other characters.

Bakshi retired from animation in the late 1990s and turned his creative energies to painting. A friend turning him on to new computer animation software, however, has inspired him to get back into animation, and he has been working on a series of shorts ("Bakshi Blues") reusing some of his feature-film footage with new dialogue of a satirical political nature.

You can check out his "Trickle Dickle Down" on YouTube. It's an anti-Romney ad and does not use bad language, but since it's Bakshi, there are elements to offend both ends of the political spectrum.

I haven't discussed festival winners because in most cases, you will probably never have a chance to see them except by accident — except for the music video and TV animation winners. At least you can find Joel Trussel's winning music video for M. Ward's "The First Time I Ran Away" on YouTube.

The best television animation made for children award (chosen by a jury of kids) went to the "Eggscellent" episode of Cartoon Network's "Regular Show." The best television animation for adults award went to a puppet animation segment done for the live action IFC cable series "Portlandia" — "Zero Rats" by Rob Shaw. In it, three rats try to capitalize on a Portland grocery's decision to go packaging-free on all its foodstuffs.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

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