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From the Spring 1989 issue of Animation Magazine

Celebrating Animation:
Memoirs of a Golden Buns Contender

by Phil Denslow

Let me say right away that I didn't see the entire Third Los Angeles International Animation Celebration. But let me also say that I saw all of the films in competition, all of the tributes to countries and studios, almost all of the tributes to individual animators, plus some features and special programs. Seeing about 300 films in a week should count for something, even if it didn't quite qualify me for the coveted Golden Buns Award (a prize for those who sat through all of the festival). I plan to frame my tattered and much hole-punched V.I.P. ticket as a reminder of a wonderful time spent enjoying animation from around the world.

My particular interest among the many offerings of the festival was seeing films by independent animators. The Animation Celebration provides a unique opportunity to experience an incredible number of such films from many countries. Except for this event, here in Los Angeles we only get the occasional 90 minute program of often-seen prize winners that will attract as large an audience as possible. I was hoping that I could immerse myself in a wider variety of styles, techniques, and cultural backgrounds. This festival certainly met my expectations (and I didn't have to travel to Europe or Asia to see it).

With hindsight, I realize what a terrific job the projection staff did to present so many films and videos with so few snafus. The only film I remember having to be shown over (the sound was muffled the first time through) was "Hooty Sapperticker" by Craig Rice. It featured fairly minimal cut-out animation set to a delightfully inane song. After seeing and hearing the film twice, we apparently had the lyrics etched into our brains, because for the rest of the evening there were spontaneous outbreaks of "Hooty, Hooty, Hooty" choruses in the lobby and outside the theater. It's a memory of the festival I'll carry the rest of my life.

Celebrating animation's great artists were the tributes to individuals. These events not only showcased a body of work but also gave us the film makers themselves, in person or on film. The tribute to Mel Blanc was primarily a question and answer session with this master of funny voices, followed by several Warner Brothers cartoons. The questions were as often about working with Jack Benny as Bugs Bunny, and Blanc was an entertaining (and multi-personalitied) speaker. Art Babbit's tribute had less discussion, but gave us a longer reel of clips and short films from his work at the Disney and UPA studios, several vintage commercials, and a documentary about Babbit made in England which featured "home movies" shot during the strikes at the Hollywood cartoon studios circa 1940. The tribute to Chuck Jones combined a screening of an hour-long documentary on the Warner Brothers' director with an opportunity to see "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," a project born out of Jones' love for Rudyard Kipling. (I was disappointed in not being able to see the Don Bluth and David Hand tributes, and I also regrettably missed the Roger Rabbit effects program.)

Less familiar material was featured in the tributes to Fedor Khitruk, the senior Russian animator/director, and Jan Svankmajer, the Czechoslovakian surrealist film maker. Both tributes reminded us of how much great work that we rarely see has been done over the years in eastern Europe. The Khitruk program included several wonderful films and a discussion with the film maker about the methods and organization of the Soviet animation industry. The Svankmajer program was a stimulating collection of work that extended the Czech tradition of puppet and stop-motion animation. Included was a clip from Svankmajer's interesting feature film version of "Alice In Wonderland," which was to soon play in Los Angeles.

Six recent animated feature films were presented, but I was only able to see three of them. "Subway to Paradise" and "Heroic Times" were well made films, but their stories didn't really do much for me. "When the Wind Blows" was based on the idea of what would really happen to people who believed the government's version of how to survive an atomic bomb. This fantasy could have been done in live-action, but it may have been too gruesome without the distancing effect provided by the animation. It was hard to accept that the characters would never get angry at their situation, but I guess that was left for the audience to do.

The festival also gave me a chance to see groups of animated commercials, computer animation, and animated music videos. These nuggets are normally scattered across hours and hours of less-interesting programming, so it was great to be able to see a lot at one time. Since these pieces are made for the purpose of grabbing our attention, they made for enjoyable, if a bit intense, programs.

The computer animation program featured demonstrations of how high-speed computer graphics is being used to create puppet animation for film and television. This seems like a natural direction for a technology capable of reproducing mechanical motion easily. The advantage of using a computer is that the puppet can have a metamorphosing appearance, while moving according to a puppeteer's guidance. Two production companies, Pacific Data Images and deGraff/Warhman, demonstrated how they are using this technique for "Jim Henson's Muppet Hour" and "Felix the Cat: The Movie," respectively. John Lasseter of Pixar presented home movies of the baby studied for the making of a computer animated baby in the film "Tin Toy." The real baby was at least as big a hit with the audience as the digital one.

MTV'S Animated Rock was the name of the program dedicated to music videos. Included in the collection of animated videos and station I.D.s was the group effort "Amnesty International - Universal Declaration of Human Rights" which tries to raise consciousness about the lack of such rights in too much of the world. Many animators from around the world created images that when combined with the reading of the Declaration's positions, produced a powerful message about an ongoing struggle. The MTV program concluded with two pieces from the "Moonwalker" videotape by Michael Jackson. It was a treat to see his "Leave Me Alone" and "Speed Demon" projected with film, so that the quality of the special effects could be properly appreciated.

The program of commercials featured mostly spots done in this country, with a few from England and one each from Australia and Belgium. In addition there were a few MTV logos thrown in, and the show opened with an entertaining TV special, "Meet the Raisins," by the very busy Will Vinton studio. I wished there had been more representation of non-English speaking countries in the commercials competition, but perhaps there just weren't many entered.

The presentation of salutes to studios and countries combined a mixture of films in competition and retrospectives. The Soviet, Canadian, Estonian, and Belgian programs consisted of mostly films out of competition, while the films of the British, Scandinavian, Zagreb, and Shanghai shows were mostly in competition. I suppose one could try to extract a certain amount of "national character" from each of these collections, but one may only be revealing one's preconceptions and chauvinism. With the exception of the two Canadian shows, which I had seen most of before (and enjoyed seeing again), I felt these programs blended in with the nine additional programs of films in competition that made up the heart of the festival. The Shanghai studio's program stood somewhat apart due to the several beautiful films using graphic techniques from Chinese painting and illustration. The Estonian program had a strong anti-war theme. In fact, "War," by Hardi Volmar & Riho Unt, was memorable for its scene of generals casually launching missiles while the tune "We Are the World" played on their TVs.

The Soviet program included another talk with Fedor Khitruk, this time about the possibility of getting a distribution deal set up to take advantage of the expanding possibilities for cultural and commercial exchange with the Russian animated film industry. Later, when considering the practicalities of this, my friend Dan McLaughlin assured me that I needn't worry about naive Russian film makers getting into the clutches of unscrupulous Hollywood hucksters, for, as he said, "They've been taught since birth about the negatives of capitalism."

The programs of films in competition were for me the most important part of the festival. It is only at an international festival like this that one can see so much recent animation from so many film makers. I felt that this was my chance to catch up with what the rest of the world is doing. By setting aside the time and money for this event, I could achieve almost instant expertise in the current state of the artform. Perhaps seeing so many films day after day is not for everyone, but I loved it. It helped to not be under the pressure of being a judge or journalist (I wasn't asked to write this article until a month after the festival) so I could just relax and enjoy the films. Also, in my mode of amature film maker, these programs were very stimulating and inspiring. I always see in other's work small pieces that set me thinking about possible ideas of my own.

After seeing so many films, I began to notice some trends or patterns. The most noticeable pattern was the emotionally limited use of women characters in films by male filmmakers. Women were represented in these films as either a briefly ogled figure with large breasts, or as a henpecking smotherer to be avoided. I suppose this does actually represent how a lot of men in the world view women, but it was disappointing that men working in such a creative art-form resorted time after time to such stereotypes.

Speaking of stereotypes, a very disturbing pattern for me was the physical appearance of a majority of my fellow Golden Bunsers. When I would exit the theater after a program and approach the front entrance to join the V.I.P. line for the next show, I kept being startled to find the line already forming with mostly 35ish balding overweight bearded males. Since I knew how close I would come to fitting right in, I immediately began exploring the neighborhood until showtime. I can report that the NUART theater is located in a colorful, busy area, with interesting shops and eateries.

Some of my favorites among the all of the films were: "Feeling From Mountain and Water" by Te Wei Yan, which was shown as part of the Salute to the Shanghai Animation Studio program. This film was a beautiful visual poem of a young boy helping an old man travel to his place of dying. Traditional watercolor painting techniques were animated with such care as to seem magical, and the touching story was gracefully told without words. "The Hill Farm" by Mark Baker, part of the Salute to New British Animation, had a lot of fun depicting rural existence as a combination of sometimes rude everyday events with an occasional struggle to avoid giant elements of nature.

"Welcome" by Alexei Karayev and "Vydrutasy" by Garri Bardin were both from the Soviet Union. The former was an excellent use of paint-on-glass technique, while the latter used bent wire to form its characters and props. These films made clever observations about social behavior while using unusual materials that worked well to tell the story. Other films that struck me were: "Koko" by George Griffin (USA), "The Cat Came Back" by Cordell Barker (Canada), "Finger Wave" by Gyula Nagy (Hungary), and "Picnic at Bug Stump" by Patrick Volk (USA). I could go on, but as I look over my list of films, there are too many to mention individually. I'd just like to thank all of the film makers for allowing me to enjoy their special dreams.

The finale of the Third Los Angeles International Animation Celebration was the awards presentation followed by a party for the film makers and other special people (like me). It was fun to applaud the recipients and then rub elbows over wine and snacks. I had missed the opening night party, as well as the MTV party, so I made sure to enjoy this one. It was a nice end to my try for the Golden Buns award, and I'm looking forward to the Fourth Los Angeles International Animation Celebration. I hope that everyone who worked so hard to organize and present the festival felt it was worth it. I certainly did. It was a classy show.

Animation Magazine: published by Thoren Publications, Agoura Hills, CA (818) 991-2884.