Richard J. Leskosky: Highlights from animation festival in Canada

Richard J. Leskosky: Highlights from animation festival in Canada

The Ottawa International Animation Festival, which ran Sept. 16-20 in Canada's capital and is the largest animation festival in North America, is 39 years old this year. It still remains fresh, though, featuring the most recent shorts and features from around the world in competition screenings, while also introducing contemporary audiences to artists, films and techniques that already occupy fundamental positions in animation history.

Two of the four features in competition are not likely to appear on American screens or maybe even DVDs; one might possibly show up in specialized venues; and the winner already showed on television here but in a different form.

The Romanian-French-Polish co-production "La Montagne Magique" ("The Magic Mountain") is an animated docudrama rendered in various techniques, including live action. It tells the story of a Polish refugee whose antipathy toward the Russians who controlled his home country drove him to move first to Paris in the 1960s, where he participated in various political demonstrations, and subsequently to Afghanistan, where he joined the resistance to the Russian forces there.

"Pos Eso" ("Possessed"), clay animation from Spain, combines large chunks of "The Exorcist" and "The Omen" with bits of "Alien" and maybe even the Al Pacino version of "Scarface" (the exorcist enters a house beset with demons firing a sanctified machine gun that rains shells around his boots). Add to that a large helping of anti-clericalism, bull fighting and a flamenco/drum duel between the possessed boy's mother and a demon, and you have a truly Bunuel-esque animated feature, but with even more black humor and a bloody body count.

"Adama," computer animation from France, could well show up here someday in perhaps a campus or library venue. It tells the story of a West African boy trying to find his older brother among the European trenches of World War I and bring him back to their isolated village. On his journey, Adama encounters both those who would exploit him and those who would help him — sometimes the very same person — as well as the expected horrors of war until the film takes a turn into magic realism for its conclusion.

"Over the Garden Wall," which won the prize for best feature, is actually an edited version of the 10-part Emmy-winning Cartoon Network mini-series from last November. Created by Patrick McHale (creative director of the first two seasons of Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time," which has won four Emmys of its own), the film follows two young brothers (and the younger brother's frog) as they try to find their way out of a mysterious forest full of strange and ominous characters. The cartoon characters move against a muted, often foreboding background, and the story, while original, has a classic feel to it.

The winner of the best independent animation short (awarded by a jury of animators) marked a milestone for the festival. This was the first time in its 39 years that a student film won its grand prize. "Small People with Hats," Tokyo animator Sarina Nihei's MA project for the Royal Academy of Art in London, is a surreal tale of the plight of small people in a society not really very friendly toward them (they do not fare well). You can see a brief trailer for the seven-minute film on the Vimeo site at .

Interestingly, the public prize, determined by audience votes at the Gala presentations of the five shorts programs (comprising a total of 56 shorts), had appeared in the same program as Nihei's film — Don Hertzfeld's "World of Tomorrow." Hertzfeld's films are festival regulars and frequent winners, and his company's name, Bitter Films, is a pretty good indicator of their tone, despite their humor and wealth of ideas.

His figures always look as though they were drawn by a 6-year-old, and he has a knack for making meaninglessness and futility comic.

Here, a little girl is visited by her clone's clone from 200 years in the future, who has a question for her about a lost memory that she hopes will help with the tedium of immortality. Miscommunication ensues, not to mention all the dangers of time travel. "World of Tomorrow" has already won 27 other awards at festivals around the world. You can see clips at

The festival also demonstrated alternatives to the sort of digital imagery that dominates the theatrical feature film market at the moment. One program showcased contemporary animators employing analog materials such as chalk, sand, pen and ink, clay, and puppets. Another displayed hilarious flash animation from the Newgrounds website from its earliest years (2000-2005). Newgrounds lets anyone upload any flash animation they have created (but nothing too risqu); it now also streams audio and offers games as well. It's definitely worth a visit.

Clay animation was eye-poppingly represented by a program of works by Bruce Bickford. Bickford had done animations for Frank Zappa back in the 1970s and has worked with various techniques, but the festival's program focused on his recent clay animation work. There wasn't much plot — frankly, just armies of figures slaughtering each other and transforming into other creatures.

Most of the clay animation you might have seen undoubtedly had figures morphing into different shapes as well as moving like puppets. That can be impressive, but Bickford's work is completely amazing. He fills his screen with scores of characters of different sizes and has them all moving, then has them changing shape and then also has them changing size. That would be tricky if you were working with just one or two characters, but he's manipulating dozens in a relatively small space. And then consider this: After the screening, Bickford was selling some of his figures (which hadn't gotten mashed into other forms), and they were less than an inch tall. What he does is like building ships in bottles while you're juggling the bottles.

The OIAF also featured a recently remastered print of Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman's 1958 black and white fantasy, "Invention for Destruction," released in America as "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne." Live actors move through a world that looks like a wood engraving with fantastic animated machines and vehicles and practical special effects — that is, effects accomplished without optical printers, computers or photochemical processes. The horizontal lines common to wood engravings, for instance, were actually painted on the sets (and in some cases, costumes) with special ink rollers.

An accompanying documentary, "Film Adventurer Karel Zeman," interviews filmmakers around the world who emphasize their debt to Zeman and his films, including Terry Gilliam and Time Burton. The recently established (2012) Karel Zeman Museum in Prague is in the process of issuing remastered DVDs of his works.


Correction: In my last column, on end titles, I described a "honey wagon driver" as someone who "pilots the catering truck." That is incorrect, as reader Mike Brandt kindly pointed out to me. Although the honey wagon does cater to the needs of cast and crew on a movie set and does have a somewhat removed relation to food, it is not a catering truck. It is a vehicle that hauls portable toilets. I regret the error.


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

Topics (1):Film