In 2015, I tracked my media consumption on a page on my blog, but then never did anything with it. Earlier in 2016, much like I adopted GoodReads to track my books, I created an account on LetterBoxd to track films, and my oh my, how much easier it is. I’m not sure why I never did your typical end of year wrap ups on my blog before, but here we are making up for it.
Unfortunately, my picks were not totally in-line with the Oscar nominations, which were released this morning. We were on very similar planes regarding the film, but we definitely have our differences. And there’s one that I haven’t seen, that wasn’t nominated, that, based on performance and reviews, sounds like it should have made the cut. I also mention an animation-related documentary that was nominated for an Oscar as well! But I plan to go into the Oscars a bit more in the future, both on AnimationComplex and on the in-progress, not-yet-launched Animation Complex YouTube channel.
I visited Seattle, Washington the first weekend of September, where my good friend moved. This is the third summer in a row where I made this trip, with the last two occurring after the SIGGRAPH conference. Despite not attending this year, my northwest adventure more than made up for my absence in LA.
Have you ever had a period of time where things felt oddly connected? Or maybe you had a few unrelated classes thematically spill into one another? That was my week in Seattle. This trip had a much welcomed, consistent theme running throughout the duration, starting with the plane ride there. In the wake of the first casting news announced for Steven Spielberg’s filmic adaptation, I decided to re-read Ready Player One. The book heavily features a virtual world, OASIS, where the characters spend most of their time, and where they truly live their lives. I’ve always had a strong fascination with more technology-driven cartoons, to the point where I probably would not be working in CG animation without them driving my interest into computers. The references to some of these properties, and others such as WarGames really got me excited about these types of stories, and knowing about some of the VR and AR tech being developed, such as the HoloLens, OASIS won’t seem like a pipe dream for much longer.
In the years that I’ve known him, my friend has been a source of inspiration and assurance throughout my foray into CG/interactive technology. Working at Mircosoft, he definitely knows a thing or two about technology. We’ve always had similar taste in/appreciation for science, science fiction, art, media, and technology, so I supposed my little adventures being related shouldn’t be too surprising. 🙂
Towards the end of March, I had the privilege of attending the US premiere of the 2015 animated adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet at the New York International Children’s Film Festival (NYICFF). The screening took place at the SVA Theatre on 23rd street, which gave me a chance to stop in and visit SVA, where I am a part-time MFA computer animation student.
I have been following this adaptation of The Prophet for a while now, honestly in shock that such a film was even rumored to exist. When I first learned of it, it just sounded too good to be true: it is a (mostly) 2D animated feature length film, with contributions from eight of the world’s leading indie animators, and it tackles subject matter with a lot more depth than slapstick. I was so pleased that Salma Hayek was seeing this through.
To be brief (and spoiler free), the overarching story follows Mustafa, a writer, artist, and teacher whose work was perhaps a little too liberal for his local government. Under house-arrest for years, he is taken care of by a woman whose daughter, a quiet troublemaker, becomes an unlikely friend. When his sentence is up, he is escorted by guards through the town, towards the docks, where he is to be shipped back to his home country. Along the way, he encounters many of the locals, who welcome his return with unbridled celebration (to the displeasure of the government officials). He shares with them eight sermons (a distillation of the original 26 poems), which range from topics of love, work, death, and everything all humans experience in between. These are where the work of the independent animators come through. I won’t elaborate further, but I will steal a line from Variety’s Review, saying that it “…doesn’t shy away from grown-up concerns.”
At times, I did find myself admittedly wanting to fast-forward through the main story, just to get to the smaller inserts done by the indie artists. Each one offered something new both stylistically and in the way they visually conveyed the more mature sentiments of Gibran’s poems. Although the overlying story was interesting in its own right, there was much to be desired for me. The cel-shaded CG was a bit awkward for me visually. Similarly, some of the gags involving minor characters (particularly the seagull and bumbling guard) seemed forced.
Ironically, the children I ended up seated next to disliked the inserts and I was treated to an audible sigh (“Another one!?”) as each one began. After the screening, I overheard the father discussing with his children, asking what they didn’t like about it. The older of the two (with approving nods from the younger) stated that the short animations kept distracting them from the main story, and that they were too wordy, which made it more difficult to follow along. As a child, I know I would have preferred the varying segments over the overall story, but I also know that the depth of those segments would have been lost on me.
I am not going to go into the shorts any more, as I’d like to watch the film once more, as well as give other people a chance to see it for themselves in theaters before reading any sort of deconstruction. And–in case it was a concern–this film does touch a tiny bit on God, particularly during a couple of the inserts. But I never felt like it was being thrown in my face. The beautiful thing about the words of the prophet is that, regardless of religion, they are universal truths and experiences we share by simply being human.
I highly recommend seeing this film. Go see it on the big screen, support dream projects like this, support the indie artists and this beautiful collaboration. Support 2D animation–an animation that asks a little more of its audience–that calls attention to the freedoms of expression we often take for granted. Celebrate the wisdom and words of the prophet.
GKids has announced that the film will hit New York City and Los Angeles theaters on August 7, with a US and Canadian rollout following after.
NYC-based independent animator Bill Plympton visited Blue Sky Studios!
This actually wasn’t my first time seeing Bill Plympton talk. He’s visited my department at SVA a number of times, was on a panel I saw a while ago organized by The Academy and the Society of Illustrators, and I tend to bump into him at NYC events, and support his other animation endeavors. I have quite a few post cards with doodles of his iconic guard dog:
It’s always interesting to see Bill talk, because, unlike many artists who cater their talks based on whether the audience is predominantly students or professionals (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), he is always very blunt and sincerely speaks his mind. He doesn’t beat around the bush about his opinions on animation in the US, about being an animation student today, or about himself and his career.
He’s the first one to tell you that he doesn’t make a whole lot of cash from his films, and that any money he makes goes into the next film. He discussed his decision to launch (a successful) kickstarter for his latest film, Cheatin’, his early days as an illustrator-turned animator, and the freedom (despite limited resources) he enjoys today tackling more grown up subject matter. He was encouraging to many artists, reminding them that they can still create their own work about whatever they want despite being at a larger studio.
Always the advocate of broadening the scope of animation in America, Bill’s talks always touch on this, which is why I enjoy them so much. There’s no reason why more films like his can’t exist alongside your Disney musicals. I personally prefer a grey area in between these “kid” and “adult-themed” films, which is why films like The Wind Rises appeal to me on a thematic level. They tell more mature stories but can still be accessible to younger audiences. But Bill is doing what no one else in this country is doing, and doing so without compromise, and I love that. He shows that these darker topics can be digested without being the punchline like you so often find in “adult” animation like South Park. Again, not that there is anything wrong with that, but there is always room for more!
My friend from high school, Eric Francisco, interviewed Bill for the site Geekscape. It’s a really fantastic read, as Eric asked some great questions, many of which I ponder a lot while working at a studio that solely focuses on family-oriented stories. While at Blue Sky, Plympton did briefly share his thoughts on the matter, similar to this bit from the interview:
They get jealous, they have adulterous affairs and divorces, [even] hook up with prostitutes and things like that, but yet they can’t talk about it. They can’t discuss it in their films. They have to do kiddie films. Which seems like lying. They’re betraying their artistic sensibilities. Whereas I can draw about whatever I want and that’s what makes me an artist talking about my own life.
The independent film life is not for everyone, especially with a beast of a medium like animation. But it’s so great to see people like Bill Plympton continue to carve a niche for themselves. And from the looks of some early reviews of Cheatin’ (which just was released to limited theaters), it looks like that niche will be growing even more this year.
Through my internship/junior membership at the Producers Guild of America (PGA), I’ve had a number of incredible opportunities. One I’d like to write about was a recent talk given by Fred Seibert, an animation producer and owner of Frederator studios, and moderated by long-time friend and industry giant Herb Scannell, who is currently the president of BBC Worldwide North America and former president of Nickelodeon. This event was part of the PGA’s New Media Council’s ‘Spark! The Conversation’ series.
Fred Seibert is a titan. On the official Frederator site, he gives a very good breakdown of what he himself has dubbed the five different lives he’s lead thus far, so I won’t redundantly give his backstory. A charismatic and gifted orator, it was entertaining to hear him tell his own story. His conversation was peppered with perfectly timed pauses, sideways glances to friend Herb, and a running jokes about his, to quote my friend Josh, “passionate ego-obsession.”
Though many of my non-animation major friends have not necessarily heard of him, or even Frederator, they’ve certainly heard this sound bite, and know the work that’s been put out. Titles include The Fairly Oddparents, ChalkZone, Fanboy & Chum Chum, My Life as a Teenage Robot, the recently kickstarted Bee and Puppycat, YouTube sensation Bravest Warriors, and golden child Adventure Time. He was one of the earliest in the business to jump on the teen/young adult wagon (MTV Networks), and more recently his ventures on the Internet (namely YouTube).
While Herb was president of Nickelodeon, he greenlit some of the channel’s most famous cartoons (Ren and Stimpy, Hey Arnold, Doug, Rugrats, The Fairly Oddparents, SpongeBob SquarePants, and even Dora the Explorer). His full bio can be found on the BBC’s site.