Jan 302011

Yesterday I attended the Joe Chang workshop at the NWFF. Joe Chang, a Chinese animator, was in town introducing a selection of his short films playing at the Children’s Film Festival. ‘Workshop’ I guess is a strong word – it was more of an extended chat. Which was fine because Joe Chang is a very nice and interesting man, and it was great to hear what he had to say about being an independent animator in China and in Canada (he used to live in Vancouver, BC and made a couple shorts for the National Film Board).  Still, it would have been nice to see some practical side of his craft – some frames or a demonstration. He started off apologizing that he had not been informed about the number or age of students until the day before, so had been unable to prepare anything substantial, so perhaps there was organizational snafoo.

Anyway, he showed us five or so of his shorts, one called The Chinese Violin. This was very child orientated and made for the NFB about an immigrant girl to Canada and how she adjusts. It had an oppressive narration and was very PSA-like. Mr. Chang did, in fact, tell us that the NFB made him change the story and add the narration so that it would appeal more to children. The downside of working with them.

Two of the shorts were also child-oriented, and these were either commissions or based on recordings of his kids, and three were very interesting personal films. ‘Pan Tian Shou’ was about an activist who existed in real life, who was involved in the 1966 revolution in China (my history is sketchy here). But it was a hand drawn animation with segments where ink blots were shown forming, and an ink painting in the traditional Chinese style was animated – he said he had his students (he is an MA student advisor and Dean for the School of Art at Zhejiang University of Technology in China) do that for him with ‘3-D software’. This was my favorite. Some haunting imagery, thought-provoking structure and interesting subject matter.

Below is a trailer of all his films, and a segment of “Pan Tian Shou’ can be seen starting at 00:37:

He said that though he is asked sometimes to make animations for commercials he just doesn’t have time, what with teaching full time and working on his personal films, which are a priority.  He can’t distribute his films on the internet successfully because of the government regulation of the internet and, as far as I know, he doesn’t even have a website. He hasn’t put together any DVDs of his work, but plans to soon, as he now has a total of 43 minutes of work. He said he probably won’t end up selling the DVD on any website of his own, but rather Amazon.com, and some of his work may be available through the National Film Board website.

He says his main distribution strategy is festivals. He applies for all the festivals himself (no assistant) and has won four major prizes over the years and sometimes gets screening fees (Hear that US festivals?). One of his other major outlets is art gallery installations (one of his films he has displayed on a large monitor set up beneath a koi pond) and the other is live events: in Singapore he has screened one of his films with a live orchestra. He plans to do more of this.

Being an independent filmmaker is difficult all over the world, it seems. China has no funding for artistic work, and he says that in fact, the only artistic animations that get made in China are by students – after that the students grow up and get a real job. But he said it was also hard when he lived in Canada. Working for the NFB has its drawbacks (they keep all the rights and have a say in the story) and there weren’t a ton of alternate funding sources. He still has contacts there, but stays in China because of the teaching position which is a good deal.

Overall he seemed like a happy guy in his fifties, who brings his son with him on his trips and is very patient with him – his son spent the entire three hours alternately twirling in his chair, rubbing a glass bottle against a table and taking pictures of it, or sleeping.

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