So I got a bunch of animation books for Christmas, and one of them is ‘The Animation Pimp’ by Chris Robinson, head of the Ottowa International Animation Festival, and often controversial speaker-of-his-mind. It’s a collection of columns he wrote for the AWN website from 2000 to 2005 – one of them really rang true with me. After searching everywhere I finally found it on the AWN website. Here is it is reproduced below – I’ve added the bold emphasis in the body of the text. I especially like his statements about how so many animators (and reviewers/viewers) obsess over technique and forget about content.
The Animation Pimp: Why is it NOT DONE?
Insignificant and occasionally interesting contributions to the cognition of reality…
Saw an interesting program at the Holland Animation Film Festival in November (2002). It was called Not Done and was put together by a Belgian chum of mine, Edwin Carels. The three-part program consisted of films and videos (by the likes of Martha Colburn, Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow and Leslie Thornton) that challenge the notion of what is and what is not animation in terms of both content and technique. What I found more interesting was Carels accompanying text where he asks: “Why does a medium in which virtually anything is possible, in which the imagination has free reign and the laws of physics don’t apply, so rarely shock its viewers?” And in particular, he takes animation festivals to the carpet for contributing to this stale situation by: not seeking out filmmakers in the experimental, avant-garde or art gallery world; not showing more performance-based work from animators like, for example, William Kentridge; not being a forum for serious debates about animation.
This is not the first time I’ve heard this complaint. In an article in the 2000 Holland Animation Film Festival catalogue (which was reprinted in the Spring 2001 ASIFA magazine), Canadian animator Pierre Hébert was critical of the current state of animation suggesting that it had become a recluse unwilling to open its doors to new possibilities.
Conservative and Homogenous
Although Carels is attacking my bread and butter, I tend to agree (in principle) that animation festivals have all become fairly conservative and homogenous. No one really cares about animation festivals as a forum for serious discussions. They are primarily a forum for buyers, recruiters, ASIFA members and drunks. From retrospectives to competitions to jury decisions, everything is relatively peachy keen. Sure, some folks mildly bitch to their friends about this or that decision, but rarely is there any sort of loud, meaningful debate about a film or a program. Even at Ottawa ’98, when we got into trouble for showing this apparently racist Polish film called Black Burlesque, it wasn’t the animation community that yelled and screamed at me, it was two Canadian Jewish associations.
And despite all the talk about experimental and cutting edge animation, festivals are not actually showing anything overly radical. We hear that Robert Breer, Stan Brakhage and Martha Colburn are animators, but when did you last see their work at an animation festival? Rather than rely on the same old crowd of independent, student and studio animators, festival programmers have got to attend mixed-media and experimental festivals, art galleries, video shows — i.e., the other cinema. We can kick animation in the balls and awake it from its decades long drool and bring in some fresh voices.
And as Carels suggests, why limit presentations to traditional film-video screenings? What about installations, dance performances, theatre? Artists like Pierre Hébert, William Kentridge and Kathy Rose all merge animation with performance arts. The problem here however (at least from an Ottawa Festival perspective) is that a single performance costs significantly more than a regular film screening. So, you know…what can I say…I’m copping out a bit here, but do I spend thousands of dollars for a one night performance that’s going to attract half capacity and leave me with no money for any other programs JUST to win the respect of assorted intellectual-artistic hipsters?
But It’s Not So Simple
Then again what is a groundbreaking work? In this post-MTV age we’ve appeared to have seen it all? As John Waters sorta said…can anyone make something that is groundbreaking or shocking that doesn’t involve sex or violence? In Holland, for example, I went to this difficult Japanese experimental screening and then went to a screening of commissioned TV animation (commercials, music videos, ids, etc.). Aside from artistic intention (one sells a philosophy, the other, shoes), they both seemed stylistically similar. With the proliferation of mass media and the need to fill airtime, yesterday’s avant garde is today’s Nike ad.
Besides, much of what we show in Ottawa is already considered ‘out there’ by both the local public and even portions of the animation community. Furthermore, we’re not some free floating entity; we are government supported and receive most of our money from animation studios, schools and software companies. We have to answer to the needs of those who fund us.
Nevertheless, I think competition and retrospective programs can (and should) be easily shaken up. There are many works that straddle the lines between animation, video art and experimental, and in most cases animation festivals shy away from these works. As Carels suggests, there is a tendency in animation, more than in any other art form, to focus on craftsmanship. Animation folks are obsessed with the quality of drawing and animation. WHAT is being said is generally less important than HOW it is being said. I remember some Animation Nation loser saying that Priit Pärn films were poorly drawn…as if there is some set standard of drawing! Or how about those whiners who keep saying Waking Life isn’t animation? I mean…first off…Shut the fuck up, it IS animation. 2. Shut the fuck up and THINK for two seconds about the content. Bunch of Disney-Star Wars-Tornado-Norstein weened Wankers. Not to keep harping on The Old Man and The Sea (I could also use the puppet films of Barry Purves, the works of Frédérick Back, any post-Creature Comforts Aardman production or Martine Chartrand’s Black Soul as examples), but while all sorts of animation folks saw this gorgeous, beautiful animated film that used a painstaking fingerpaint technique, I saw a crappy, sentimental film that oh so poorly adapted one of Hemingway’s few decent books. And then there’s the computer. Every goddamn year I am asked why there are not more computer films in competition…well I’ll tell you why, because they suck. The animators are so busy whacking off on whatever cool software they have, they often forget to come up with an actual idea (or at least one that isn’t ripped off from some combination of Star Wars-Star Trek-Anime). I kid you not, the computer entries we get (and it’s the same crop as every other festival) are so embarrassingly stupid and riddled with clichés that our decision process becomes that much easier.
Currently there are too many animation festivals showing too many of the same films, all being judged by the same voices. It’s become too cozy and familiar. We need to hear from new voices. We need to get animation artists (and more specifically open-minded animation teachers — like Stephanie Maxwell — who can introduce their students to something beyond the typical animation canon) together with musicians, poets, digital artists, experimental filmmakers so that these worlds can introduce themselves to each other with the long-term hope that something new and inspiring will emerge. A lot of people in animation bitch and moan (including me) over the fact that festival animation remains this hidden little secret…well given that we’ve been sitting in our house with the windows and doors locked and the blinds pulled down…is it really that surprising?
Chris Robinson is but a man. His hobbies include squirrel taunting, goat thumping, meat dancing and elderly peeping. You can find the results at http://asifa.net/robinson