HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Category: Interviews (Page 3 of 5)

Fragments of Tokyo

Fragments of Tokyo

Jon Ellis, of I Wrote This For You, is one of those people whom you never expect to meet. But there he is. At the end of the table sipping his Guinness with a polite smile on his face. He wears dark clothing and knows way more about goth music than you ever will, though in fact he is quite a polite (that may just be a British affectation) affable and colorful character, despite seeming to dwell in a monochrome reality. Once you sit down and commit to having a conversation with him you realize that he is relentlessly intelligent, very well read, an unapologetic vegan and of of the nicest guys to have a couple of pints with any day of the week.

Our conversation moved about like an apoplectic cuttlefish from music (his band is called Muff Punch) to scuba diving (he is an avid diver) and from computer privacy (a programmer by day) to photography (a Paparazzo by night).

Fragments of Tokyo – Interview with Jon Ellis

HESO: What is Fragments of Tokyo?

Jon Ellis: Fragments of Tokyo is a collaborative annual exhibition. The idea grew out of a desire to put something, that was mostly happening on the internet, back into the real world context of a gallery.

The name itself is a reflection of the need to bring together four very different styles of photography under a single moniker. The only common aspect of all our work was that we all shoot in Tokyo, and obviously no photograph of Tokyo can take in more than a fragment…

H: Who are involved?

JE: The four members are Toshiya Watanabe, Thomas Orand, Dairou Koga, and myself. In order, an ad agency art director, a refuse collector, a book seller, and a programmer. Two Japanese, a Frenchman, and an Englishman…it sounds like the start of a ‘walk into a bar’ joke.

H: What is your process of creating images?

JE: While we do sometime meet up and shoot together, mostly each of us works better alone. My personal process is an odd mix of order and chaos. Photography is something that I do for enjoyment (rather than employment) and therefore tends to fill up inconsistently sized and spaced holes of my time. The pictures for last years Fragments of Tokyo were mostly not shot with the show in mind. As a series they were shot over several nights out in Shibuya; some ‘dutch courage’ snatched street shots, and other interesting piece of light that just drifted past. In reality the series didn’t exist until I’d pulled the shots together from my archives.

This year has been rather different. Rather than shoot and try to find the series, I’ve had a specific vision of the shots in the series. Having a specific set of images in mind has made the experience more stressful, but has also made me focus and a try a little harder to define a style.

H: Living in the biggest metropolitan area in the world, what do you draw on for inspiration?

JE: For my latest project the shape and form of the city. Tokyo isn’t a particularly green city, which removes, what would be for me, the obvious inspiration of nature, or the interaction of nature and the city. Taking pictures of people requires a kind of serendipity and dedication of which I’m apparently incapable. This leaves the architecture, the buildings, and structures.

Beyond that, it’s mostly just a desire to deconstruct the everyday jumble of the city, to break it down into neater, more ordered pieces that keeps me shooting.

H: Being that, as you said, Tokyo isn’t a particularly green city, where do you go to meditate?

JE: A small, grey box, into which no thoughts can flow, that exists in a corner of my mind.

H: What projects are you working on currently?

JE: My current biggest project is to relocate to the other end of Eurasia. That is taking up most of my time and energy. In the background there is also a long running project to document some small fraction of Tokyo’s system of railways and stations. It’s one of those project that may never end, or see the light of day!

Another other long running project is a collaboration with a friend in South Africa. Together we create a blog called ‘I wrote this for you‘. Every entry is one of my photographs and a short form story. It has been running for something like four years, and have become quite popular. Iain Thomas, the writer, gave a short talk on short form storytelling at TEDx in Johannesburg.

H: Will you give us a tasty recipe?

JE: Saute a finely chopped onion in some olive oil, with a bay leaf, and twenty whole peppercorns. When the onion is soft, add a whole, chopped, head of celery, leaves and all. Add 300 – 400g of brown lentils (preferably soaked over night), salt, and cover with water. Keep an eye on the pot, and add more water as needed. When the lentils are soft (takes 20 – 40mins depending on how long the lentils soaked), blitz it with a hand blender until it’s silky.

Goes best with good, dark, german bread.

H: Yum, maybe the next recipe for Eat Me Drink Me. Thanks Jon & good luck with your exhibition and current projects. Fragments of Tokyo 2011 will run from 3.14.2011 (Monday) ~ 3.20.2001 (Sunday) at Gallery Place M in Shunjuku. Check out the map.

Guerilla Dining Scandinvian Style

Guerilla Dining Scandinavian Style

What we call little things are merely the causes of great things; they are the beginning, the embryo, and it is the point of departure which, generally speaking, decides the whole future of an existence. One single black speck may be the beginning of a gangrene, of a storm, of a revolution.

– Henri-Frédéric Amiel

Are the Danes Only About The Danish?

Are the Danes Only About The Danish?

The spice trade has made kings. Pasta has altered migrations. Water has started wars. Culture is most often characterized by what is on the menu and national borders are decided in the kitchen. How did this become so? In the history of the world it is hard to pinpoint the emergence of any one movement, the birth of a nation. Especially dealing with food, since everything that lives needs to consume in order to continue to do so, it can be a messy business. 10,000 BCE finds the beginning of the agricultural revolution, and thus the centralization of human activity, the cessation of nomadicism, the formation of cities, the ability to store food. People found out applying heat to foodstuff made it easier to chew and, in some cases, taste better. Pretty soon thereafter some yeast blew into an earthenware container of dried barley and beer was born. At this point all hell must have broken loose with everyone putting everything they could find into their mouths, to more or less comedic failure. Behold the invention of the restaurant (and probably soon thereafter the hospital).

Fast forward twelve thousand years or so and you may find yourself at any one of the best1 restaurants in the world: Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley or Thomas Keller’s nearby The French Laundry in Yountville. Ferran Adrià’s elBulli in Catalonia is closing next year, but Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray is still in search of perfection. And then there is Noma, Copenhagen’s best of the best, run by René Redzepi, dedicated to an “innovative gastronomic take on the revival of Nordic cuisine.”

What if you don’t have the €250 to sit at elBulli (which even at that price operates at a loss), or the surprisingly low DKK745-DKK1,150 for a set meal at Noma, but still want to eat unique, creative and delicious food? You might find yourself sitting cross-legged in a basement, on a boat beneath a bridge, in a disused building, surrounded by strangers and about to partake in food and drink that may only be available for one night, before moving somewhere else, or disappearing altogether. This is what is known as Underground Dining, aka the Pirate Restaurant, and are basically paying, itinerant dinner parties.

Guerilla Dining Scandinavian Style

The history of Guerilla Dining has its base in many pots. Supper clubs, often located on the outskirts of the anytown, USA of a century ago, are the predecessors of roadhouses, diners, truck stops and the fast food devolution of today, as well as share a direct lineage with speakeasies. Speakeasies, as many know, became popular during the 1920-1933 U.S. Prohibition as a way to bypass federal law restricting consumption of alcoholic beverages, but also as a way to avoid costly taxes, high priced liquor licenses, and teetotaling religious zealots by being easy to set up and break down and located largely by word-of-mouth.

These days the evolution of the restaurant and eating habits in general could be pinned to economic woes. When economies go south for the winter-and stay there-restaurant-enthusiasts tend to eat in more. Hipsters hosting co-op dinner parties with high-end food bought with food stamps. The proliferation of backyard gardens, home-canning, stews and soups and traditional peasant recipes, often with homegrown ingredients, are all wildly popular, in no small part due to gastronomic television programming and more time spent at home. The grass rootsiness of the Slow Food Movement is slowly trudging forward with stick-to-your-ribs local, seasonal goodness, but nothing quells the hunger pangs for a great meal out in singular surroundings with like-minded individuals. Here is where creativity meets economy.

Tiffany of Silver.Spoon Guerilla Dining is a great Culinary Guide to Copenhagen

Tiffany of Silver.Spoon Guerilla Dining is a great Culinary Guide to Copenhagen

Meeting Tiffany of Silver.Spoon Guerilla Dining in Copenhagen was a great introduction to the meat-packing district of Vesterbro-the flagship area for the artisanal revolution going on in Denmark: beer and wine, bread and coffee-as well as finding out about the seemingly unlikely concept of an American running a “pop-up restaurant” abroad.

“The venue dictates the event,” she told me as we walked along Istedgade, the main drag of one of the liveliest areas in the city, “so we think of each dinner as a kind of one-night art installation.”

“How are the Danes responding?”

“The main focus of these dinners is meant to remove the diner out of the traditional restaurant paradigm while still providing some of the typical comforts of a restaurant. Our guest chefs are amazing, and the prices are really great for Copenhagen, but the Danish tend to be…”

“Conservative?”

“People here like to eat early and stick with what they know. The Caesar Salad is frustratingly popular,” she laughs, “though we are making headway.”

The recent Thanksgiving Dinner & A Flick event, which partnered with chefs of San Francisco’s graffEats for the second stop of their guerilla dining world tour to offer a “memorable 5-course twist on the American Thanksgiving tradition,” was a success despite logistical difficulties.

“The overall event was a smash, the film curation was excellent and the wine pairings were good, but given the layout of the venue, the time between the courses took much too long.”

Yet one of the inherent dangers-lack of familiarity of the surroundings-of the ephemeral food trade is also one of the boons. Ghetto Gourmet‘s Jeremy Townsend describes it well, “When you get thousands of people from the internet to have dinner with each other on some stranger’s living room floor, you get a lot of great stories.”

Is it any wonder that the Ghetto Gourmet is from the Bay Area? Started serendipitously in 2004 and reported by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, the New York Times wrote about them in 2007. The phenomenon popped onto the radar in Buenos Aires in 2007, the U.K. in 2008 and by that point the underground culinary world should have become common knowledge. But somehow it hasn’t.

People talk about who was first, who started what, and being late-in-the-game, but the truth is that anymore, more than the games we play to make our egos swell, more than even needing to eat it, we all love food. Who cares where the phenomenon came from? First and foremost, eating food is about survival. The various discoveries of different edibles and techniques for preparing them has largely defined who we are and where we live. We must give thanks to those who came before us and gave their lives so that we would know the hearty goodness of the noodle, the satisfying fulfillment of warm rice, the buttery contentment of bread. We are the next step in the evolution of food. And these days, we love eating out. Eating well out. Eating well out together with our friends and family. And once with them, does it matter where we do it, as long as the same loving attention is paid to flavor, presentation and ambiance?

*

1 “Best” refers to Restaurant Magazine’s annual list.

If you are looking for a comprehensive listing of the underground dining scene, Dan Perlman’s Saltshaker is it.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Tokyo puts “Eco” in the 23rd TIFF

Poor Japan. With its yen soaring and its global relevance in free fall, its hulking neighbour to the West is suddenly getting all the girls. China, like a tubbier younger brother whose discovery of Clearasil and lifting weights has cured his acne and stunted growth, has dramatically emerged out of its commie slumber to swipe his elder brother’s economic crown. Yet while its new muscles might justify its swagger, it has all the petty combativeness of an adolescent. To cap a recent string of diplomatic disputes with Tokyo, it abruptly withdrew all of its films from the festival in protest at the Taiwanese delegation not being introduced as “Chinese Taiwan”.

Fortunately, even with China gone, Tokyo is still hanging onto the coattails of the zeitgeist with its theme of “Ecology” for the third straight year. Despite not commanding quite the same reputation as the big gun festivals- Venice, Sundance- the verdant carpet does differentiate them from the other T.I.F.F. in Toronto. Which is how there were more than a few high-profile films and Hollywood actors in attendance. In addition to the usual Japanese suspects of Tadanobu Asano and Kyoko Koizumi, Catherine Deneuve was there with Potiche, while other premiers featured Josh Hartnett, Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore (Bunraku), Jeff Bridge and Michael Sheen (TRON: Legacy), Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere, and Wesley Snipes (Brooklyn’s Finest), with Ewan McGregor (The Ghost Writer) and Keira Knightley (Never Let Me Go) representing the Brits.

I found the collection I did see surprisingly polished and varied, covering all the hot topics: water resources, homosexuality and immigration. Click To Tweet

Tokyo puts “Eco” in the 23rd TIFF

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010)

“It’s trauma, it’s… the loneliness of being seen by a big crowd.” So says director Saverio Constanzo of the recently released, The Solitude of Prime Numbers. The adaptation of Paolo Giordano’s hit novel, tells the story of two misfits, Alice and Mattia, whose traumatic childhoods push them together in an awkward and compulsive relationship. Mattia is a mathematic genius who rather pretentiously described their relationship like that of prime numbers either side of a non-prime: close, but forever apart and destined to solitude.

Differing from the linear narrative of the novel, the film flits between three different time periods, and aims for a more dramatic, highly-strung atmosphere than the quietly contemplative prose in the book. “We mixed everything to make something more like a rock opera than a silent book.” said Costanzo, adding, “I go to the cinema to be shocked, surprised, to lose my orientation. Not to see what I already know.” It is beautifully and poetically shot, but at times the tension feels inappropriate and somewhat forced.

And Peace on Earth, based in a suburb of Rome, also fails to live up to its pretensions. Although its press release claims the protagonist is a recently released convict who whiles his day away on a bench, more time is spent following a trio of thoroughly unlikeable layabouts, whose mutual contempt for each other is almost as repulsive as the crime they eventually commit. They get into fights, sniff coke, laze in the sun and insult each other. The director is at pains to reflect Rome’s heritage, with long sweeping shots of architecture, a classical score and textbook cinematography that admittedly does throw up some artful shots. But the characterisation is lacking, and the plot so aimless that the central event- a rape- feels tacked on rather than being the crescendo, and one feels little empathy for any of the characters. Despite the director’s professed desire to make a film that reflected the city as they knew it, the mafia scenes are as cliche as it gets: pushed up tits, knuckle dusters, and lots of smoking.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Hot young silhouettes in LED Track Suits: Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

The gap between the makers’ aspiration and achievement is much narrower for Dog Sweat, an enlightening look into the private lives of young people in Iran. With most people’s impressions of the country formed by mainstream media, from the nefarious President Ahmadinejad and his devious grin to the apparently Twitter-powered “green revolution” last year, director Hossein Keshavarz said “We wanted to do it underground so we could make a film that was authentic, because we wanted to show the energy. There’s such a great energy in Iran.” Yet while politics have an inevitable influence on daily life (the director discloses that making the film after the contested elections would have been impossible), it is also clear that young people are much the same anywhere else in the world. At one point, a guy suggests to a girl that they make a film about Iran. She snorts derisively at the suggestion that they focus on villages, which would merely perpetrate the misapprehension that Iran is full of camels, and suggests that they make it about “what’s really going on- the writers and intellectuals”. No doubt the director was putting his thoughts in her mouth here, although Dog Sweat actually delves into even more controversial topics, such as homosexuality, extramarital affairs and illicit premarital sex.

Keshavarz and co-writer Maryam Azadi vision amounted to, “Well, we’re not all villagers… 80% of Iranians live in cities, 68% of Iranians are under 30 years. So we just wanted to show that there’s a big range of different people in society. And we feel like only a certain range, only a specific range, has been seen of our society.” Shot on handheld cameras, the film is dynamic and energetic, although when obligations begin to encroach on desires, the tone turns melancholy. The lack of freedom and harsh penalties suffered by the characters left a bitter taste in my mouth, but I was also cheered to see how intelligent, eloquent and energetic modern day Iran is compared to the media’s projections.

In contrast, Sketches of Kaitan City only told me everything I already knew about Japanese families: they don’t talk much. Made up of short vignettes focusing on the lives of inhabitants of Kaitan, the film is set by the sea in freezing Hokkaido. The word “sketches” suggests a poetic sensibility, but I found the quiet desperation in each of the stories simply painful to watch. Dissatisfied with his job, a man beats his young wife and berates her stupidity; a young man loses his job and takes his sister up to see the sunrise at New Year, only to disappear afterward; a married woman works in a bar and sleeps with clients when drunk, provoking her husband’s rage. In all, there is a chronic lack of conversation, which made me wonder how anyone can get through life with so few words and so much pain.

The family members in Hospitalité are almost as uncommunicative, but the entrance of a stranger into their lives gets them- and the neighbours- talking. Filmed almost entirely inside a cramped house in a sleepy part of Tokyo’s traditional district, it brilliantly communicates the claustrophobic atmosphere of urban Japanese life. Kobayashi, who lives with his young wife Natsuki and his daughter from a previous marriage, runs a printing business out of the front of his house. One day, an unusually forward stranger, Kagawa, invites himself into the house and deftly inserts himself into their spare room, their business and love lives. It is hard to tell whether his nonchalance is supreme confidence, a hideous lack of perception or simply insanity, but whichever, he manages to ride roughshod over his hosts’ feelings. Using secrets about his hosts’ lives to coerce them, he invites a string of loud, boisterous foreigners into the house, who cause interminable queues for the bathroom, ruin Natsuki’s birthday with a raucous party and generally intensify the petty fears of the gaijin menace in the neighbourhood. While this image does little to dispel the image of foreigners as terrifying, noisy giants that are a threat to social peace, they are portrayed as such from the small-minded perspective of the local anti-crime group. To his merit, Kobayashi scolds one particular busybody for “bad-mouthing our friends” later on in the film, and the end suggests that the alien intrusion actually brought a little excitement and light into their suburban lives.

a video leaked onto YouTube of a Chinese fishing boat smashing into the side of a Japanese Coastguard boat. International audience indeed. Click To Tweet

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Waterlife (Kevin McMahon, 2009)

Catching one ecologically themed movie- Kevin McMahon’s Waterlife, which examined the ecological disasters unfolding in the five Great Lakes between the U.S. and Canada, was a good choice. Although most people view these expanses of water as benign sites for boating and fishing, sinister health risks lurk in their depths. From the menace of the zebra mussel, which pushed out other species and unbalanced the ecosystem in just a year, to the toxic industrial sludge dropped into Erie by unscrupulous industry, it’s a horrifying story of how gleefully and ignorantly mankind has destroyed nature. With the residues of half of America’s medicine cabinet swilling around the seaweed, deleterious plant estrogens are also wreaking havoc. While the image of hermaphrodite frogs (70% have testicular deformities) might be somewhat comical, it reveals the devastating effect that plant estrogens wreak on the environment, and the food chain. Sure enough, it goes up to humans as well; the ratio of girls born to boys in areas around the lake stands at 2:1. After watching the amount of toxic sludge, both faecal and chemical, and the repeated assertion by scientists that the water we drink, bathe in and cook with is a “soup” of chemicals, I was pushed to question my faith in tap water and consider that “bourgeois” bottled mineral water might just be worth it.

Despite all the seriousness on show, the stand outs for me were all centred around children. Like Iván Noel’s ¡Primaria!, a charming semi-autobiographical look at a primary school in Seville that features the same children that the director actually taught for a year. “Everything in the film is something that happened.” Inspired by his experience, Ivan Noel wrote a script and brought in adults to play the teachers. When asked about the direction of the children, Francisco Alfonsin, who plays Jose Maria, quipped, “Actually, we didn’t have a script at all.” The new art teacher encounters chaos in the classroom, but eventually manages to both control and inspire his new charges, even “curing” one boy’s hyperactivity with art. Another teacher warns Jose Maria that another boy, Carlos, “knows more about you than you know about yourself,” a prophecy that becomes evident later on in the film. Some of the children’s perceptions are communicated with cute Michel Gondry-esque hallucinations (such as toy bugs scurrying across the floor or a group of ignorant parents devolving into monkeys and stuffing their faces with bananas). “[Ivan’s] aim was actually…the celebration of childhood and the celebration of teaching as a profession.” It is hard to describe the humour and joy in the film without coming across as cheesy or contrived, but suffice it to say that it leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

The Solitude of Prime Numbers [La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi] (Saverio Costanzo, 2010)

The delights of childhood are similarly explored  in Hands Up!, in which a group of friends try to save their Chechen classmate from deportation in Paris. Despite being just into double digits, the child actors are incredibly accomplished, and turn out performances so natural it is a wonder that they were sticking to a script. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi is also superb as the feisty mother Cedrine, who takes in the quietly thoughtful girl, Milana, in answer to her son’s pleas, saving her from the claws of the bureaucracy. In contrast to the dark tone that underpins the film, with suicides and a constant police presence, one can also revel in the nostalgia of an idyllic childhood- playing with bows and arrows, making dens, burning leeches with cigarettes, ducking out of chores and establishing biscuits as a main food group. In fact, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that it was the best film about childhood I have seen since my own. However, behind all the charm and romance, director Romain Goupil also manages to criticise a political system that harms where it should help.

Nir Bergman’s Intimate Grammar is a less rosy view of being little, although it has its moments of innocent magic. Aharon, a young boy in a peacetime 1960s Israel, worries his parents by not growing for three years. His mother, an overbearing and unsympathetic ballbreaker, thinks he is to blame. The family is an awkward and argumentative one, with meal times particularly fiery. Aharon’s sister starts dieting, while his father’s dalliance with a neighbor (who is so obsessed with him that she pays him to knock down all her internal walls in exchange for his company) seems to further enrage and unhinge his mother. Aharon feels disjointed and adrift, stuck physically at age 10 while his peers sprout hair, develop deep voices and tower above him. Judged too dreamy and quiet by the girl he is obsessed with, he takes to bed with lovesickness until he decides to make a dramatic decision. Colourful and funny- although the mother is terrifying- Bergman’s film is slick and well put together, but I don’t think as deserving as the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix as either ¡Primaria! or Hands Up! (their matching exclamation marks seem to be of indignation here).

There were many more that I missed, including the intriguing Bunraku, which is described as a blend of “manga, spaghetti westerns, samurai films, video games” and stars Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore, Josh Hartnett and Japanese pop star Gackt. Need anymore be said?

Despite not seeing any of the high-profile offerings, I found the collection I did see surprisingly polished and varied, covering all the hot topics: water resources, homosexuality and immigration. Yet while there were queues of people outside every morning, the publicity was surprisingly subdued, meaning that Tokyo has a while to go before it gains enough clout to pull a truly international audience in. Other than via the green carpet, how can this T.I.F.F. differentiate itself from the (first) T.I.F.F.? Perhaps it needs to invite more controversy. While last year saw the Japanese premiere of the dolphin slaughtering expose, The Cove, the piece of film that garnered the most column inches this year was a video leaked onto YouTube of a Chinese fishing boat smashing into the side of a Japanese Coastguard boat. International audience indeed.

Spreading Poison – Taiji’s Mercurial Defiance of the Oceans

Spreading Poison – Taiji’s Mercurial Defiance of the Oceans

“I really feel we only have a couple decades to turn around what’s going on in the oceans.

— Louie Psihoyos

The photos depicting peaceful inlets of coastal water are of Taiji, a little known whaling town on the Pacific coast of Japan’s Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture. The region is known as Kumano, and is a world heritage site, renown for its pilgrim trail and striking temples set in both ancient Cedar forests and along pristine coastline, such as this. The jagged asymmetry of the windswept trees perched on jutting outcroppings of rocks, themselves constantly battered by the sea, feels like something out of the Ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige’s well-known repertoire of wood cuts.

Because it is spread over an entire peninsula (the Unesco people couldn’t name just one spot a World Heritage Site) the area is a well-kept secret, even amongst the Japanese. With the overpowering Mt. Fuji, the Nagano Alps and other monumental landscapes to compete with, it’s easy to see why. After making the out-of-the-way journey, most Japanese will readily admit that Kumano, and Taiji in particular, with its mixture of mist-shrouded mountains and craggy cliffs, is one of the most startlingly beautiful views of the sea in Japan.

Yet every September when a group of fishermen emerge from Taiji’s sheltering coves to catch the yearly dolphin migration in order to supply the world’s aquariums with fresh dolphins (at around 200,000USD a head), these picturesque waters turn from cobalt blue to blood red in a matter of hours. How? Why? It depends on who you ask.

The Cove - Interview with Louie Psihoyos

Louie Psihoyos © Manny Santiago

Last October, HESO asked Louie Psihoyos founder of OPS (Oceanic Preservation Society) and director of The Cove. Referring to the annual slaughter of approximately 2000 dolphins in the waters of Taiji, he said Japan is “a microcosm of the oceans.

“I really feel,” he continued, “we only have a couple decades to turn around what’s going on in the oceans. This generation coming up and maybe the next one are going to be the only generations to be able to fix this before it’s too late, before well, just break out all the champagne and drink it because…there’s not going to be anything left for anybody else…”

HESO: So this is larger than just some proud fisherman slaughtering dolphins for some cultural reasons?

Louie Psihoyos: When the cultural tradition argument gets in the way of human rights, your argument falls apart. If we acidify the oceans just a bit more we lose the coral reefs and anything with a carbonate structure just dissolves. Plankton creates two out of every three breaths you take. It creates more oxygen than all of the rain forests combined. So little things like acidity going up have huge impacts on future generations. If we can’t win this small fight in Taiji, how can we win the bigger fight?”

How can we indeed.

The truth is that we are already—right now—in the midst of a massive extinction. The funny, but not funny at all, part is that most are of species we had no idea existed in the first place. Click To Tweet

Spreading Poison – Taiji’s Mercurial Defiance of the Oceans

“Ocean acidification is a growing global problem that will intensify with continued CO2 emissions and has the potential to change marine ecosystems and affect benefits to society.” said a June report on Ocean Acidification for the National Research Council and Congress.

Jon Ellis, an avid diver and underwater photographer might phrase the panel’s comments differently. This from his recent trip to the Great Barrier Reef:

While it’s hard not to buy into the popular notion of having repeatedly soiled our own diapers, to the point of ruination, it’s also hard not to applaud what a dedicated few are still doing to in trying to race the clock to help stem the tide (pun intended) of the current big biological catastrophe.

“Things like the BP oil spill in the gulf, while completely terrible—and avoidable mind you—are really just the fetid frosting on the rotten cake, so to speak.” says a San Francisco environmental activist wishing to remain anonymous. “The truth is that we are already—right now—in the midst of a massive extinction. The funny, but not funny at all, part is that most are of species we had no idea existed in the first place.”

In The Sixth Extinction, Richard Leakey and Robert Lewin say that the current one—differing from the previous five—is a patently human-caused event. Paleontologist Niles Eldredge believes that there can be little doubt amongst logical people that humans are the direct cause of ecosystem stress and species destruction. “Transformation of the landscape, overexploitation of species, pollution, and introduction of alien species explosion of human population, especially in the post-Industrial Revolution years of the past two centuries, coupled with the unequal distribution and consumption of wealth on the planet, is the underlying cause of the Sixth Extinction.”

Louie Psihoyos and OPS’s next documentary film, Racing Extinction, will focus on this mass extinction event, but—if it’s possible—in a positive way. Can pollution, habitat loss, overfishing, global climate change and ocean acidification be overcome?

The truth is that the reef really isn’t in that good condition. Even in areas where people rarely dive there is a lot of dead coral around. It’s true that it appears to be recovering – new growth dots the outcrops of dead coral, but… Click To Tweet

Save coral reefs, which constitute less than one percent of the ocean’s space, but are home to more than 25 percent of its fish, and you can save humanity. Kill them and you kill us. How are we planning on saving them from bleaching—a whitening of corals that occurs when symbiotic algae living within coral tissues are expelled? Bleached coral may recover over time or simply die out altogether. The truth is, as Bill Bryson puts it in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas.”

Some recent bleaching events are the result of a rise in sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea—an area that includes the coasts of Myanmar, Thailand, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and northwestern Indonesia. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Hotspots website, temperatures in the region peaked in late May at more than 93° F (34° C), while long-term averages for the area are around 86°. The hottest summer on record is producing record temperatures in the oceans as well, a place that oceanographers admittedly know very little about.

Something we do know is that the seas around Australia’s 20,000 miles of coastline are notoriously stingy. Enough so as to exclude them from the top fifty fishing nations, according to Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters. Magnesium Photo’s Matt Greenfield, an avid diver, recently photographed sharks around the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast—one of the only places in their coastal waters where sea-life is truly abundant.

Finning sharks, dredging the ocean floor, selling tainted dolphin meat as whale: the animal rights argument rightfully doesn’t stop nearby Japan from scouring the world for what the Aussies—despite 9 million miles of territorial waters—have to import. Japan’s very long and extremely well protected fisheries arm—accounting for more than 15 percent of the worldwide catch—is often openly hostile, misleading and willfully ignorant toward their own customers and any such international pressure citing anything, even the human rights argument. Tsukiji Fish Market in central Tokyo, the country’s seafood nerve center, is the largest in the world and the only one of many fish markets which have misrepresented dolphin and other cetacean meat for whale meat. Their spokespeople seem to have a preternatural gift for keeping the masses ignorant of the unsustainable truth, flouting international law and deflecting criticism from abroad.

Agree to Neither Agree Nor Disagree

“Most Japanese people are completely unaware of this (Dall’s Porpoise) hunt – it’s the largest direct hunt of any whale, dolphin and porpoise in the world and is putting these animals at risk while producing hundreds of tonnes of toxic meat for human consumption.”

Clare Perry EIA Senior Campaigner

Meanwhile, many Japanese Fisheries apologists will counter with statements like, “…in a world where we eat millions of chickens, cows and pigs, where we seem intent on plucking every salmon, cod, oyster and shrimp out of the ocean, is there something morally wrong about hunting a marine mammal like a dolphin?”

Not morally, but concerning consumer’s health, yes. Based on 1972 World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, Japan’s fisheries and Health Ministry (JMHLW) have been ignoring the self-imposed maximum contamination levels in seafood products of 0.3µg/g (parts per million – ppm) Methylmercury (MeHg) and 0.4ppm Mercury (Hg). Recently tested Dall’s porpoise samples (from a separate hunt in northern Japan) being 1.02µg/g, almost three-and-a-half times the recommended limit, often more (Source: EIA-International). The giant Blue-fin Tuna, known in sushi bars around the world as maguro, are regularly toxic as well. In fact any fish, or ocean going mammal over a certain size and age is likely a repository for dangerous levels of Mercury and any other heavy metals dumped in the ocean over the past 60 years.

Lucky then that not many are actually eating it. Certainly not the Japanese. According to the Guardian, of the 1,873 tons of whale meat processed in 2001, 70 tons went unsold. As a recent poll suggests, some 95 percent of the 1,047 respondents reportedly ate whale meat “very rarely”, had not eaten whale meat in a “long time”, or ate it “not at all”. 34.5 percent of the poll’s participants thought commercial whaling should resume, and 39.2 percent “neither agreed nor disagreed” with the idea.

One Japanese scholar with an opinion, Jun Morikawa of Rakuno Gakuen University in Sapporo, argues that whaling’s popularity—and therefore the fishing of all cetaceans—is largely a myth promulgated by certain governmental bodies and major players within the whaling industry. Though it seems that as long as 39.2 percent of the world “neither agree nor disagree” with any of this, our oceans will be in trouble.

HESO would like to thank Louie Psihoyos from OPS and Clare Perry from EIA-International for their cooperation in creating a dialogue of openness.

Best Movies To Travel To

Best Movies To Travel To

It’s summer in most of Asia, which means heat, sweaty, hot, shirt sticking to you no relief in sight mold literally growing on you dampness. Rather than another boring “How To Beat the Heat” post, which never really work, how about just distracting that part of your brain always reminding you of the barometer reading with some classics from the closet? Don’t have the money to travel the world? Why not take a trip of the mind? Put down the magic mushrooms and let HESO come up with the best movies to travel to. This is what I watched as I country hopped across the globe without a plane.

Best Movies To Travel To

Best Movies To Travel To

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)

JapanYôjinbô (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)

As history has shown by the sheer number of remakes, as well as establishing the Dashiell Hammett man-with-no-name persona, this period drama of a wandering samurai amusing himself for the greater good has become the prototypical Japanese Western. One of Kurosawa’s greatest films, it has all the essential pieces of a classic: understated and brilliant acting by the exhausting Toshirō Mifune, leading a surprisingly decent cast of supporting actors, while being shot by the preeminent cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, yet it’s the simplicity with which Kurosawa brings and keeps all of these powerful elements together, even when they one or another seems to want to strike out and imbalance the masterful story-telling at work here. Overall a great way to feel good about setting out on the unknown road and seeing where the wind leads you. Sayonara Japan.

ChinaJing Wu Men aka Fist of Fury (Lo Wei, 1972)

Not exactly “Made In China”, but set there, specifically in the foreign settlements of Shanghai, where the Chinese martial artists the story centers around are generally a pitiful bunch, beaten and bullied by their supposed Karate-practicing Japanese betters. That is, until Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) returns to find his teacher mysteriously dead. The acting and the martial arts are as bad as the choppy-cut, off-kilter cinematography. Even Lee, acting in his second film since Fists of Fury (not to be confused with this singular tense flick…apparently only one of his fists were working at this time), is melodramatic, regularly misses cues and is generally portrayed as a fighter who is skillful yet stupid, talented yet proud and basically alienates most everyone around him until they end up dead and he finally kicks it into high gear and kicks some serious Jap ass. A must see if only for the 60s-era California surfer-boy voice-overs. Great for replacing Japanese pride for Chinese grit.

Best Movies To Travel To

Genghis Khan (Henry Levin, 1965)

MongoliaGenghis Khan (Henry Levin, 1965)

There are so many (bad) films about Genghis Khan that it was a tough choice including one on this list, yet what other movie about Mongolia (that you would want to watch) would qualify? Genghis is the end all be all Mongol and it would be pure chicanery to suggest that in one month of traveling roughshod through the country I didn’t take solace and respite in at least one film. This one beats out the recent Genghis piece done by the Kazakh Sergei simply because it stars Omar Sharif as Temujin (later Genghis Khan), James Mason, Eli Wallach as a Shah, Telly Savalas (who despite his lack of lollipop prop is oddly engaging) and white man extraordinaire Robert Morley as the Emperor of China, of course. What else need be said? Watch this and realize that this is Sharif (who also acted in Dr. Zhivago in the same year) at his peak, then go to Mongolia, get on a horse and reenact it yourself.

RussiaRusskiy Kovcheg aka Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)

More than any other film on this list, Russian Ark, is both cinematographically astounding and stultifyingly dense, and is worth watching more than once, but only by those with more than a passing interest in Russian history, (which admittedly might be a rather low number), or those who love beautiful camera work. Despite Aleksandr Sokurov’s brilliant work pulling this brash work set in Saint Petersburg’s Heritage Museum off, it is the single 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot by Director of Photography/Steadicam Operator Tilman Büttner that, more than being a merely extraordinary piece of work, embodies the dreamlike feel that film should be all about, all the time. Simply stunning.

Best Movies To Travel To

The Singing Revolution (James Tusty, 2007)

EstoniaThe Singing Revolution (James Tusty & Maureen Castle Tusty, 2006)

It’s okay to answer the question, “What do you know about Estonia?” with, “Not much.” Which is why you should watch the captivating documentary by American-Estonian husband and wife team James and Maureen Castle Tusty, who in 1999, and after extensive research, went to Tallinn, Estonia after less than a decade of independence from Soviet rule to interview and film an essential historical document about a country few know anything about, who successfully sang for their freedom from 1988 to 1991 when they declared themselves a sovereign nation, despite failed, though aggressive Soviet tank deployment. A great insight into the indomitable spirit of a largely undiscovered, beautiful land and its (women) people.

PolandTrzy Kolory: Bialy aka Three Colors: White (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994-1996)

In France, the Trois Couleurs trilogy, based upon the ideals of the French Revolution (Liberte, Equalite, Fraternite) is deservedly famous, but has understandably lacked popular attention in the U.S. for Polish-born director Krzysztof Kieslowski. A truly amazing black comedy- and the only one of the three actually set (mostly) in Poland- this film sees its browbeaten protagonist go from put-upon pauper to super-nouveau riche while attempting to foil organized crime syndicates all in an effort to seek justice (equality) for his wife’s initial cruelty. Wow. People should watch more French films. And go to Poland: the food is good, the women are beautiful and crime is, as they say, easy.

DenmarkAntichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)

Until I did a bit of research, Lars von Trier’s intensely phlegmatic films always struck me, as did his name, as being of German extract. Europe being of local character, and Denmark being situated as it is just to north of their attention-hogging neighbors, it is not difficult to confuse the infamous director’s chaotic and harsh settings with Nazi-period experimental films. For good or ill von Trier is confrontational and controversial simply because of the subject matter he so deftly portrays. Antichrist is no different. The beauty and horror of its imagery will haunt you, and maybe even plant the seeds of discontent in seemingly successful relationships, such as mine and my ex’s. Though maybe not. Regardless, it is devastating and beautiful. Guard your groin and watch with trepidation.

Best Movies To Travel To

Delicatessen (Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, 1991)

FranceDelicatessen (Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1991)

Who hasn’t always wanted to live in Paris, at least for a little while, perhaps because of watching too many French New Wave films during college, perhaps to experience the “real” Patats de Liberté. Trips to the City of Light, however, often never quite deliver as much as the films of one of the most well-known directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (here paired with Marc Caro), have. Are you still sans beautiful French nymphette? Have you never experienced a proper public transportation strike? What about eaten Brie along with a great bottle of vintage Vin de Bourgogne and then French kissed Audrey Tautou? Nor more realistically have you eaten your neighbors, led a team of subterranean vegetarian revolutionaries or fallen in love with the landlord’s daughter. Obviously you have yet to live. Watch Delicatessen, and its sequels, and you just might.

USAIn America (Jim Sheridan, 2002)

In America is, simply speaking, one of those kind of beautiful cinematic renditions of why America is, in theory, so great. More than Jim Sheridan’s almost signature underhanded (yet somehow understated) sentimentality, the film succeeds in pulling our amber waves of grain for purple mountain majesties heart strings due to meticulous direction by famed Irish creator of My Left Foot Sheridan. Yet it is the even keeled acting of a surprisingly powerful ensemble cast (and atypically great child acting) that pulls the film into the well deserved characterization of “modern classic”.

The Atlantic OceanThe Perfect Storm (Wolfgang Peterson, 2000)

Best Movies To Travel To

Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999)

Taking a cruise? Ferry? Trans-Atlantic Cargo Ship? Or just going deep sea fishing for the last of the big game fish? Whatever your summer plans, better see disaster film specialist Wolfgang Peterson’s take on Sebastian Junger’s account of the storm to end all storms: The Perfect Storm. Featuring a cast much more talented than the very 90s ABC Sunday Night Movie feeling effort brings forth to the big screen, this is more a showcase of what would become Peterson’s trademark digital disaster effects. Fun with friends and alcohol.

Deep Blue SeaDeep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999)

Hands down Renny Harlin’s best film is The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990). No argument. Otherwise known for his sequels, he has a knack of bringing out the worst in otherwise decent actors (Bruce Willis, Samuel Jackson), while coaxing fun performances out of unexpected places (Andrew Dice Clay, LL Cool J). Despite what some would say has been a disappointing career, the Finnish-born director is persistent in working to bring his ideas to the big screen. One of the best (to drink to) is Deep Blue Sea, a story based on using DNA from “enhanced” sharks to cure Alzheimer’s Disease, a completely plausible storyline given credence by Caucasian-sounding Jackson’s command performance. Too bad the Diceman was unavailable to be the sharks’ straight man.

LostLost (J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, 2004)

Man Vs. WildMan Vs. Wild (Discovery Channel, 2006)

The last 17 episodes of the sixth season of Lost deserve to be watched back to back to back. In order to properly appreciate the confusingly profound (maybe?) final season it would be best to have already been avoiding the popular media outlets for some months. Having no idea what’s going on, nor caring, until the end, about the real world, is maybe the only attitude to take. Though one would like to make it to New York and see friends and family waving like a long lost soldier finally coming home, it’s not altogether an inexplicable thought pattern to desire for the cruise ship to crash on some heretofore yet uncharted mid-Atlantic island. Weird, isn’t it? In order to be successful to seduce stranded warrior women, hunt for tropical polar bears, negotiate peace between Good & Evil, one would do well to study Bear Grylls’ curriculum vitae of eating insects, reptiles and raw boar testicles, squeezing drinking water out of animal crap, and making rafts and signal fires out of what materials you have around. What better combination of television shows than Lost & Man Vs. Wild to keep you company on your Trans-Atlantic voyage?

Interview with Mac McCaughan

Interview with Mac McCaughan

the focus should be on the records and the bands as opposed to the label. Click To Tweet

Superchunk is Mac McCaughan (guitar, vocals), Jim Wilbur (guitar, backing vocals), Jon Wurster (drums, backing vocals), and Laura Ballance (bass, backing vocals). Since releasing their first 7-inch in 1989 out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, McCaughan and Ballance co-founded Merge Records, and the rest is history, literally documented in Our Noise – The Story of Merge Records. “The Indie label that got big and stayed small” has been perfectly placed to serve the niche indie rock scene as it grew into itself throughout the 90s and became something the mainstream music industry has tried so hard to co-opt, yet failed to deliver the kind of personalized service that labels like Sub-pop, K Records, Matador, 4AD, Saddle Creek, Kill Rock Stars, among others, alongside Merge, have been able to provide those artists who prefer to play in theaters and clubs rather than arenas. Everything changed when Merge signed Arcade Fire, for the better of the cottage label industry. After having playing with Superchunk for more than a decade, the band took a break and McCaughan picked up with his solo project Portastatic, as well as recording various film soundtracks, all the while running Merge. But in 2009, they rebanded to record I Hate Music. HESO caught up with the Superchunk during their live show at Fandango in Osaka.

Interview with Mac McCaughan

Interview with Mac McCaughan

Guitarist Mac McCaughan interview at Superchunk Live in Osaka

HESO Magazine: How many times have you toured Japan?

Mac McCaughan: Three times, but they’re all spaced apart. The first time was in 1992, then 2001, and now eight years later here we are again.

HM: So you could say you have an interesting perspective on the country. 1992 was the end of the “Bubble” period and now eighteen years later, do you feel that it is completely different?

MM: Well, I do find it much easier to get around (Osaka) without speaking Japanese, but the map I bought today at 7-11 is pretty useless.

HM: This particular area, Umeda, is well known as a nightlife area. You’re staying at this hotel because it’s thirty seconds from the club (Fandango), but a quick walk around here will show that this is probably the only hotel that doesn’t charge by the hour.

MM: Yeah, this area is a bit…um, why are there hotels even here?

HM: This area, yeah, well, most businesses are involved with the Yakuza, loosely affiliated or directly run by them: this place is all Pachinko and Massage parlors, sex shows and Ramen shops. This economic recession doesn’t just affect normal working folks, but black markets too and well, even the Yakuza are feeling the crunch these days. Don’t even ask how live houses are staying in business.

MM: Do music fans, people who go clubbing go out of their way to find places to go?

HM: In order for Fandango to get a full house, they probably need a band the likes of Superchunk to play. The show will be packed.

MM: What about local bands?

HM: It’s definitely harder for them. The live house system in Japan is rigorous and strictly defined kind of paternal patronage. A local promoter (probably in a band) puts three or four roughly similar bands together on one bill and then each band must sell X number of tickets, the money for which they are responsible. So if you don’t sell you tickets, i.e. can’t get your girlfriend’s friends to come to the show, you have to buy them yourself. Play often and you will find out just how expensive this can be. What do you charge to get into your show in North Carolina?

MM: Usually around $15.

HM: Here it ¥6500. That’s almost 350 percent markup. So these fans really love you. As a musician who is also a label owner, are you noticing anything in particular these days?

MM: It’s true that the industry as a whole is not doing great. In some ways it could be an overall lowering of expectations. We’ve had a couple really good years, but one just hopes that the trend of people continuing to buy our kind of music doesn’t go off a cliff. And that it settles in, maybe less than it used to be, but still enough to support bands that were never planning on and don’t need to sell a million records to survive.

Superchunk Live in Osaka

Merge Records 20th anniversary

HM: When you started Merge all those years ago, wasn’t Superchunk’s first album with Matador?

MM: We released a couple singles on Merge before that, but initially we started the label to promote other local bands. We couldn’t really afford to put an entire album out then. By the time our contract ran out with Matador, Merge was then big enough to put out albums, so we signed with ourselves.

HM: Did Matador’s merging with Atlantic affect your decision at all?

MM: When they went with Atlantic, we wouldn’t have had to sign to them, we would have still been on Matador. If Merge was still tiny at that time maybe we would’ve just kept it separate. Merge was doing well and it just seemed to make sense. Why wouldn’t we be on our own label if we could?

HM: Was that a purely business decision or was that more in keeping with the independent ethos of the time?

MM: I think it was both. I don’t think we would have done it if it didn’t make sense from a business standpoint. If it would have meant that no one could find our records or press them, then no. It all just made sense.

The challenge for record labels is to create music fans. Music fans will pay for music. Click To Tweet

HM: Looking at your discography shows us that Superchunk has released eight albums, seven Portastatic, plus a sizable amount of compilations and soundtracks. A lot of them were simultaneous too. The window of time from 1994-1999 is prolific in terms of sheer output. How were you managing to run a label while recording multiple albums and promoting artists,?

MM: The label wasn’t as big, in terms of how many releases per year and artists we have, as it is now. At that time the Superchunk albums were still the biggest releases we were doing. There was no Arcade Fire. We were touring a lot, but we recorded really quickly. Then in my spare time I would do the Portastatic stuff on my own.

HM: Did you record the Portastatic albums at a studio at home?

MM: More like in my bedroom (Laughs). Well, half were at home and half were at Duck Kee Studios, in someone else’s house with a sixteen track recorder, where we did the first Superchunk record. It was a matter of keeping busy because, well, we didn’t really have anything else to do. No kids or anything yet, so that’s what I was doing.

HM: I guess that’s the ideal situation an independent artist can hope for. Sort of like Coke deciding to buy a bottling plant and bottle their own product, consolidating production.

MM: Right. Exactly.

Superchunk Live in Osaka

Guitarist Mac McCaughan tunes up for soundcheck at Superchunk Live in Osaka

HM: You had bands like Polvo, Lambchop and the Karl Hendricks Trio, but who was the first band bigger than Superchunk?

MM: The first record that sold more than Superchunk was 69 Love Songs and then another record that came out around that time, but didn’t really sell that much at first was Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea. It took a while to get going, but it has sold a lot now. Those were the first albums bigger than Superchunk and it all happened at a good time. Superchunk was slowing down in terms of not touring that much and so it made sense for us to spend more time at the label anyway, as these records required more of our energy.

HM: Was that something that you had expected or hoped for?

MM: We didn’t really expect it. We knew that people would like 69 Love Songs, but none of Stephin Merritt’s albums have sold that many before and the fact that it was a three-cd set…

HM: Seems kind of like marketing suicide.

MM: Right. We knew it would get attention because of the novelty of it, but then it really took off and we just got really lucky with it.

HM: I was introduced to your bands a long time before I put it together that Merge was you and Laura Ballance.

MM: That’s one thing we didn’t do as much in the same way that say Sub Pop did, or Matador even, which is market Merge as a separate thing from the bands. Which to us made sense, because the focus should be on the records and the bands as opposed to the label.

HM: Now looking at the list of artists you represent, there are some pretty big names there. Was it the success of Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel that allowed you to sign, say, Spoon?

MM: We signed Spoon after they had been dropped by Electra, kind of a low point, so they weren’t really all that “big” at that time.

HM: Do you think it’s more a fact of wanting to be a part of a successful label that is run by fellow artists?

MM: Yes, especially if you are a band like Spoon that got dropped from a major label, which made them want to go to the opposite end of the spectrum.

Superchunk Live in OsakaHM: In Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small there’s a quote about East River Pipe’s Fred Cornog, “The guy in an orange smock at Home Depo is also the guy who gets profiled in New York Magazine and writes exquisitely crafted songs that have touched thousands of lives and will live on long after he is gone is like the regular-guy-can-make-music-too ethic in Lambchop. Probably the best argument there is for what makes Merge special.” This goes against every big business model out there. How many employees are you?

MM: We’ve gotten slightly bigger over the years. Now we have fourteen people at Merge. That’s the dichotomy at work: in order to put out an album by that band that’s getting bigger you have to spend more and more money. We tend to work with people who are making records because that’s what they do and they would be doing that whether they get really big like Spoon or whether they don’t even want to tour like Fred Cornog and East River Pipe. They would probably still doing these recordings whether it’s at home or in a studio.

HM: Similar to the infamous Lambchop U.S. bust of a tour Merge put together in an effort to give the fans a chance to hear them how they are meant to be heard. Why does that kind of artistry often go overlooked in the U.S.?

MM: Right, like when they tour Europe with strings and play to sold out crowds in fancy theaters and no one shows up in the U.S. I don’t really know how to explain it. If I did we could prevent that from happening.

HM: What do you think of a band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah who don’t have a label and became big via word of mouth from Myspace and Pitchfork, basically using the internet, being able to sell their albums in the Tokyo HMV for $23, the same as any other artist?

MM: When they decided to go it alone with their second album, it was newsworthy because no one had really done that before, but to me it’s just not that interesting. I like the idea of labels. I like the idea of Matador and K Records having a kind of character unto itself. Even though they represent all these different bands, they have their own vibe. That’s more interesting to me than a distribution deal. I don’t feel like if I was in a band and I was putting out my own record which was going straight to this distributor that was also distributing hundreds, thousands of other records every year, I wouldn’t feel that my record was going to get the attention it deserves, that it would get from a label that had signed us because they wanted to put out our record. That’s not exciting to me a music fan at all.

HM: I recently saw an Ian Mackay interview in which he says, “…American business at this point is really about developing an idea, making it profitable, selling it while it’s profitable and then getting out or diversifying. It’s just about sucking everything up. My idea was: Enjoy baking, sell your bread, people like it, sell more. Keep the bakery going because you’re making good food and people are happy. Dischord really does exist as a result of hard work and the goodwill of the people.” How do you envision the future of Merge?

MM: I can’t say what’s going to happen in ten years. One of the reasons we still exist is because we never really tried to predict what was going to happen.

HM: Can we talk about your blog? Obviously you are into music, but hockey? How did that come about?

MM: In 1980 when I was a kid growing up in Florida we got cable for the first time and I found ESPN, who didn’t have any contracts with major sports except for hockey and Australian Rules Football, so I watched hockey all the time. What really got me into it was the when the U.S. Team won the gold in the 1980 Olympics. I didn’t think much about it again until North Carolina got an NHL team in 1997 and then I got back into it. We won the Stanley Cup in 2005-06.

HM: Back to Superchunk. Is this a “reunion tour”? Are you putting together an album?

MM: This is the beginning of the new album. We have six new songs so far and it’ll be an album eventually. We have to do it in spurts, because our drummer John is on tour with the Mountain Goats, Bob Mould and some other people. It’s an ongoing thing. I don’t think there’ll be another Portastatic album for a while, although I’ve been recording various other material. I just did an album of Merge covers for our 20th Anniversary box. Then I did the score for a short film by the artist Andrea Zittel which is in the box set. I’ve been doing a lot of recording like that and right now Superchunk is the priority.

HM: It’s interesting to note that after the Superchunk hiatus started in 2002, Portastatic really picks up compared to before: four albums, B-sides retrospective, two soundtracks, live scores even (The Unknown at the Seattle Film Festival – live score to 1927 Tod Browning silent film and Page of Madness at the SF Film Festival – live score to 1927 Japanese film director Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film). How was that?

Superchunk Live in Osaka

Guitarist Mac McCaughan sings at Superchunk Live in Osaka

MM: Those were great, a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work for just one performance, but very cool.

HM: I remember quite vividly when The Nature of Sap came out, as it happened to directly coincide with the getting together and the breaking up of my ex-girlfriend and I, so thank you and screw you at the same time.

MM: Ha, thanks! (Laughs)

HM: That album is a definite shift from straightforward guitar-fueled Superchunk type songs. Then when Superchunk went into hibernation, and you released, for example, Bright Ideas, it’s extremely pop type guitar-rocks ditties. It’s not just a one-man group anymore. Do you have a rotating membership in Portastatic?

MM: Kind of. When we do shows as a band, a lot of times it’s with Jim (Wilbur from Superchunk), my brother playing drums, a guy named Zeke has played drums before, and Margaret White plays violin, but she lives in New York, so sometimes we have done some shows without her, like last fall when Some Small History came out, it was me, Jim & Ivan from the Rosebuds playing drums. We kind of just put things together as we can.

HM: What about your testimony on The Future of Radio, mainly speaking about the importance of low-power, non-commercial, and college radio, the need for diversity in an age of media consolidation, and the importance of net neutrality.

MM: That was for the Congressional Commerce committee put together by the Future of Music Coalition, which is essentially a pact with a lobby group for artists’ rights in the digital age. I got involved with the F.O.M. through Jenny Toomey from Simple Machines and got to go before Congress to testify.

HM: I’m a fan of Bill Moyers who has taken media consolidation to heart. The idea that huge media corporations can simultaneously own television, radio and print media companies became quite loosely regulated under the previous president’s administration. Obama has already reversed Bush’s pro-corporate stance.

MM: Yes, that is a dangerous possibility. But whenever republicans try to strip away public funding for stations like PBS, everyone always cries out, “You can’t cancel Sesame Street!” Where else is there programming without commercials? But the U.S. has always been like that. Whereas in Europe there are publicly funded rock clubs. Culture seems to be much more appreciated there.

HM: As a musician running their own label, which puts out physical products (CDs, LPs, T-shirts, etc.) what do you envision for the future of the digital age?

MM: I think that the challenge for record labels is to create music fans. Music fans will pay for music. If you’re a fan and you’re interested in the artist who are making the music, then you understand that you need to support that. I think it helps to have a physical product involved because people feel more of a connection with something when they buy it, take it home, listen to it, look at the cover, read the lyrics, that kind of thing. I personally feel much more of a connection to something I can hold in my hands rather than something that is just a file on a computer. Either way there is the role of the label, which is to work to promote artists and to be a filter for people who are looking for music. I can’t predict the future and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think it’s important for us and other labels like us to get the music out there in the way that fans want, whether it’s a vinyl LP or an MP3 download. Though I personally don’t think that mp3 downloads sound good.

Check out the full gallery of Superchunk’s Live show at Fandango in Osaka.

Superchunk Discography

  • Superchunk (Matador, 1990)
  • No Pocky for Kitty (Matador, 1991)
  • On the Mouth (Matador, 1993)
  • Foolish (Merge, 1994)
  • Here’s Where the Strings Come In (Merge, 1995)
  • Indoor Living (Merge, 1997)
  • Come Pick Me Up (Merge, 1999)
  • Here’s to Shutting Up (Merge, 2001)

Portastatic Discography

  • I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle (Merge, 1994)
  • Slow Note From a Sinking Ship (Merge, 1995)
  • The Nature of Sap (Merge, 1997)
  • Summer of the Shark (Merge, 2003)
  • Bright Ideas (Merge, 2005)
  • Be Still Please (Merge, 2006)
  • Some Small History (Merge, 2008)

Film Scores

  • Looking For Leonard (Merge, 2001)
  • Who Loves the Sun (Merge, 2006)
  • The Unknown at the Seattle Film Festival (live score to 1927 Tod Browning silent film)
  • Page of Madness at the SF Film Festival (live score to 1927 Japanese film director Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film)

Superchunk Live at Fandango in Osaka

Nina the Swedish Goddess of Luang Prabang, Laos

Toy Cameras – Four Corners Dark

Toy Cameras – Four Corners Dark

Toy Cameras - Four Corners Dark

Bonsai at Himeji Castle with Holga 120N

What is the mystery of photography? Why do we love the static image? What is it that these fragments of reality, frozen in time tell us? What is it about the photograph’s ability to transcend commonplace existence that has taken it from an unrecognized set of chemical reactions to the most popular and life-changing art-form the history of the world has ever seen? Are we seeking knowledge of our place within the greater universal complexity? Or could it be that we are a conceited bunch of heretic animals in love with posing for and fawning over our own graven image? Is it not rather that we just love to command machines, fiddle with knobs, push brightly colored buttons and play with toys?

Ahh, toys. Ask most people when they started to fall in love with photography and many, if not most will hark back to the golden days of their childhood, when life was simpler, the sun shone brighter and film was, as the only option available, still cheap. Most photographers of today who were raised in the odd limbo generation of the 70s and 80s grew up on one or more of the futuristic Polaroid instamatics kicking around the house. Or maybe you had the cartridge-based 110 film and disc cameras, invented by Kodak and popularized with the Kodacolor VR, or any number of short-lived point and shoot cameras, that weren’t toy cameras per se, but today can be found lining the discount bins of used camera resellers and garage sales alike, the world over.

In 1957, only five years after MacArthur’s Allied Occupation (which due to its co-incidence with the beginning of the Cold War allowed those in command to rebuild the economy, democratize society and liberalize the stratified class system of pre-war Japan, thus constituting fertile ground to create one of the most concentrated middle classes ever, priming an economy ready for world domination), Fuji Camera introduced the Fujipet camera.

Holga still considers the original reason why Mr. Lee founded Holga, which was to offer people an affordable, practical, easy-to-use camera to take photographs as our objective. Click To Tweet

Marketed to a solely Japanese audience, this plastic camera would go on to introduce the hitherto western concept of leisure combined with the snapshot, for use by the whole family. From the instruction manual, “With the Fujipet Camera you can the pictures very easily just as you manipulate your knife and fork…The Fujipet Camera enjoys great popularity among children, mothers and all the members of the family and affords happiness in all homes.”

Whether the discerning Japanese buyers either disliked the quality or disagreed that mama-san should be left in charge of figuring out not only how to load the complicated 120 millimeter film, but also how to coax a crisp photograph of junior from the plastic meniscus lens, production stopped in 1963, likely due to increasing domestic salaries making production of higher quality and more lucrative camera products look better to companies and their investors. This would prove to be a microcosm of the much larger consequences of what would eventually transpire in Hong Kong with the Holga.

Looking back at the history of the portable camera, these popularized models produced by Agfa, Fuji, Yashica, et al were largely based upon the rush-to-market-mindset prevalent in the center of light industrial manufacturing Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong of the 50s-60s, producing a camera boom. A mindset that was not looking to mingle lightly in niche markets, but to take advantage of the massive buying power of entire middle class populations. It was the Hong Kong novelty manufacturer Great Wall Plastic Factory, in first producing the Diana, which in turn spawned tens of hundreds of clones, that unwittingly launched the modern day toy camera revolution. They were just trying to make a fast buck. In doing so, they made history.

“Cue the Clone Machine”

Despite being marketed to adults as serious, yet affordable alternatives to the cutting edge SLR technology available from a technologically more advanced Japan, Germany and U.S. camera companies in the 80s, these cheap, mass-produced cameras were possessed of a playful, toylike quality. Be it the cheap plastic design or the often blurry, grainy results, there was something definitely lacking in quality, though whatever was missing was made up for by human emotion. Whereas since their inception photography had largely been the realm of nature buffs and burgeoning artists, it was at this time that the by and large middle classes of the United States, Western Europe and Japan began to spend their growing disposable income on any and all cameras, the easier to operate the better. This “chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard, to boot,” mentality caught on like Californian wildfire and with it enough money for companies like Ricoh, Minolta, Canon and Nikon to dump millions into research and development, which would eventually culminate in the digital camera deluge visible across the globe. Now, thanks to Mr. T.M. Lee- inventor of the Holga- anyone can be a photographer.

“Very Bright Indeed”

Toy Cameras - Four Corners Dark

Matsumoto Flasher – Lomo LC-A – Cross-processed

Circa the western world experiencing three days of peace and music at Woodstock, others were concentrating on lighting up the globe in a different way. Universal Electronic Ltd., started in 1969 by Mr. Lee, was initially a very successful flash unit manufacturer, that is until the 1974 release of the Konica C35 EF – the world’s first thirty-five millimeter compact with built-in flash. When business began to drop off, Mr. Lee and company decided to diversify from merely peripherals to producing actual cameras as well. Thus the Holga – the name coming from the Anglicized pronunciation of the Chinese characters for “very bright”– was born.

Despite all signs to the contrary, it was not the original goal of Mr. Lee, nor any of the other manufacturers, to make toys, but rather to ensure that people are fascinated and interested in creative film photography. But business is business and in order to survive in the hotly competitive photographic trade it would prove necessary for Mr. Lee to continue to adapt his company’s vision to the often inexplicable demands of the niche market upon which he now focused. The primary target market was mainland China- not the U.S., Europe, or Japan, who could mass-produce better technology at that time- though largely due to China’s low median income and cameras being a luxury item, initial sales of the Holga proved disappointing. As the Chinese middle class grew due to economic reform of the 80s- and with it buying power and hunger for better technology- many cheaper products, like Holga, lost ground and were nearly completely lost in the shuffle toward the new paradigm of the 90s tech boom.

As artists, amateur photographers and institutions of higher learning got in on the ground floor of the Holga Revolution, business boomed for Mr. Lee and Universal Electronic- largely in part to the Austrian-based Lomographic Society licensing and repackaging the Holga in marketable and highly profitable kits. He was amazed at the resurgence of his twenty year-old baby, remarking it was “out of my imagination!” and smartly thought to capitalize on this newfound “Toy Camera” popularity by diversifying into a wider range of products. Add-ons for the Holga or completely new cameras (the Micro 110, 6×9/6×12 Pinhole, 3d Stereo, Twin Lens Reflex, a whole range of 135mm cameras, fisheye lenses, color flashes, etc.) became profitable ways to expand into areas previously unimagined. The future was very bright indeed. Or was it?

“Smack My Hipster Up”

Toy Cameras - Four Corners Dark

Double Exposure on Kyoto Rooftop – Holga 120N

As pixel-based photography has become the industry standard and the amateur preference, and the paradigm shifts more and more from analogue to digital we see various industries scrambling to modernize to a faster-paced, more multi-tasking way of doing business. The staff photographer, along with the stock photography agency, seems to be a thing of the past. Editors now scan the inter webs for cheap “content” (if choosing to respect copyright) that will likely not have made the cut ten or even five years ago. We sacrifice quality for convenience in order to provide twenty-four hour “news” online. Is this the fault of Diana, Holga, Fujipet or any number of toy cameras which gave rise to the popularity of the modern camera?

To ask what is the future of photography is too big for anyone to take on except in bite-size chunks. One might be well served to look back to the origins of capturing images for answers to why images- and especially those taken with shoddily-crafted plastic parts which often “leak” light, vignette uncontrollably, and capture images so randomly that the photographer would have no guarantee that any exposure will come out at all- have transfixed us deer-like in the headlights of a tsunami of cause and effect. Many of which have such wide ranging societal repercussions that we would be smart to admit no one really has any idea of what’s happening, let alone what’s on the horizon.

Is the iPhone’s Hipstamatic application, which applies a toy camera quality filter to your digital photographs, the future? Is it true to say that we want the romance of film without the hassle? Film is messy and photochemistry stinks and, truth be told, film was never the most environmentally friendly product on the market. Made of cellulose plastic and bonded with gelatin–itself derived from the collagen found inside animal skin and bones–it was once highly flammable and non-vegetarian. The photochemistry used in its development, since it only works in relatively few ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, has remained largely unchanged since its discovery (Rodinal for example), meaning it is still composed of semi-toxic and non-biodegradable compounds. So could film-like filters take over what is, after all is processed and enlarged, just a result? Most film photographers scan their negatives in order to take advantage of the cheap self-promotion of the internet and her myriad online galleries. Yet in doing so, these analogues and their imagery, switching their vernacular from grain to noise and point to pixel, become digitized, often using software to crop and clean up negatives, and then print out via any of the number of high-quality printers using archival based multi-tank inks. So what’s the point of film? Is using film as opposed to digital even a relevant debate anymore? Isn’t the fact that it got us to where we are enough? Or do we really need all these niche luddites continuing to proselytize their anachronistic plastic lenses all over their pretentious micro-galleries while talking about expired stock with knowing smiles and carefully cultured converse sneakers? The truth, always infinitely more complex than thought, is yes, we do.

To extrapolate digital photography as a direct result of the Toy Camera boom, to say that Holga created the digital point and shoot in your mobile phone, to credit Hong Konger novelty and flash manufacturers with the digital paradigm as well as their own eventual decline, is not too far a stretch. What will emerge from the next few digital decades? A perpetual backlash against time-tested, though also time-consuming, archival methods or as Mr. Lee experienced when the unpredictable wave of economic tide turned the middle class Chinese off his product and hipsters on- a rebirth of interest in film and more importantly, sales?

Christine So of Holga Limited

Christine So of Holga Limited likes Toy Cameras

HESO asked Holga Limited representative Christine So about what Holga has in mind for 2010 and beyond.

HESO: Any new cameras in the works?

Christine: Well, to coin a phrase, we could say that we have an “endless roll of fresh film” to use with our Holgas in 2010, in other words, there is plenty in the pipeline. We have just released the 135 TIM twin lens camera mixers and accessories, which we are really proud of. They have two lenses so that the user can take two different images at the same time. Therefore one roll of 36 exposures will become 72 exposures. This is a smiley face Holga and comes with an even cuter smiley flash. I am sure this camera will make the people you shoot smile back just as nicely!

Holga-135TIM-BK-+-12S-BK © Holga Limited

Holga-135TIM-BK-+-12S-BK © Holga Limited

HESO: Do you see the digital camera industry hurting or helping Holga?

CS: Undeniably, digital is dominant these days, but I don’t really believe it is either hurting or helping. I would prefer to think that digital cameras are a complement to film roll cameras rather than replacing them. Indeed, digital cameras have changed picture-taking habits, as people are taken in by its many obvious qualities: convenience, picture quality, etc. However, we all know that a sizable community of diehard film fans are happy to spend time in darkrooms and can’t resist the charm of film. Thanks to the internet, film roll fans around the world have been able to share their photographs with a larger public, whether through blogs or other websites, and I would go as far as to say that there is a revival in our favor on the way. I think also that anyone regardless of age, who has the good fortune to get their hands on a film camera won’t be able to deny the charm of using Holga, as it is something you can’t experience from digital cameras. Therefore, for people whether young or old, film cameras, in particular the Holga thanks to its simplicity, break many taboos and offer a completely new and more personal experience. In reality, the two mediums are too different to compare, let’s simply say that it is like trying to compare oil painting to watercolor.

HESO: In a sentence, what is Holga’s Mission Statement?

CS: Holga still considers the original reason why Mr. Lee founded Holga, which was to offer people an affordable, practical, easy-to-use camera to take photographs as our objective.

HESO: How can Holga take advantage of the growing number of “collector-type” photographers in Japan and elsewhere who continue to use film?

CS: Since 2000, we have released a new pinhole series, stereo series as well as further developing our classical models with additional elements, such as – vertical view finders. We don’t have any plans to release any limited editions quite yet as we still focus on quality. One thing it is for sure, the growing number of Holga fans will motivate us to develop more innovative products and revive interest and passion for film photography.

The Animation Show Year 4 Promotional Poster © TAS

The Animation Show

Bill Plympton Self Portrait © Bill Plympton

Bill Plympton Self Portrait © Bill Plympton

HESO interviews Robert May, co-producer of The Animation Show, and independent animator Bill Plympton.

HESO: Can you tell us a bit about the history of Animation Festivals in the US and abroad?

Robert May: In the 1950’s a group of international independent animators formed Association Internationale du Film d’Animation (ASIFA) to help bring animators and filmmakers from around the world together to communicate ideas. A festival was born from this in Annecy France. The International Annecy Animation festival is still the largest in the world today and embodies that original spirit. The first festivals for animation in the U.S. were by ASIFA members who wanted to share Annecy highlights to audiences here in the states. In New York and Los Angeles each year a Tournee d’Animation was started. These tournees (early to mid-sixties) grew in popularity but still really only traveled to a handful of cities and played only in museums and one or two arthouse theaters. They’re credited as the first to really highlight international animation work.

In the early 70s a group of concert promoters named Craig “Spike” Decker and Mike Gribble took great interest in a few local La Jolla acts that would use old Fleisher and other edgy toons to warm up the crowds before shows. In 1975 they ran promotion for the first fully promoted animation festival The Fantastic Festival of Animation formed by animation historian Chris Padilla. This was the first show to create the now universal “program on a flyer” and the first to receive a first-run 35mm theatrical release. Chris’s festival had a huge response given the sci-fi bubble that year with Star Wars but he couldn’t keep things together for a follow-up. Spike and Mike took the idea and with their concert promotion background and launched Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation. That festival grew in popularity through the 80s and competing festivals formed alongside. The most well-known was the Animation Celebration which bought out the tournees (still just playing arthouses) and pushed them into wider release. The late 80s and early 90s brought a renaissance of independent animation as the two festivals competed with each other for viewers. Out of that mix these festivals were the first to screen Pixar’s short films, Aardman Animations (Wallace and Grommit), Bill Plympton’s work, Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butthead, Craig McCracken’s No Neck Joe (McCracken later creates Power Puff Girls), Don Hertzfeldt, John K, Danny Antonucci, the list goes on and on. The Animation Show was born out of Mike Judge’s interest in seeing a proper festival return with artists at the helm and the chance to right some of the wrongs that filmmakers associate with Spike’s reign on the festival circuit these last 30 years.

HM: The enigmatic Bill Plympton, most people know you from your animated shorts (For example the 1987 Academy Award Nominated Your Face or the recent Guard Dog trilogy), but you’ve done quite a bit of other work as well, correct?

Bill Plympton: Right, I have done thirty-five animated shorts and nine feature films. Of the nine, three were with actors, one a live-action documentary, and the other six were animated.

HM: Can you tell us about the process of making an animated film?

BP: First I come up with an idea, do a rough pencil & paper story board, resolve character design, do dialogue (if there’s any at all), flesh out the story, do the editing (almost all of its on story board), do all the drawings myself, which is cheaper, quicker and more fun. Then I give it to my staff (four people), who scan it, clean it, composite it, edit it together, color it, add music, sound effects, send it to the lab and print it.

HESO: (For Robert) Can you tell us more about the Animation Show?

The Animation Show Year 4 Promotional Poster © TAS

The Animation Show Year 4 Promotional Poster © TAS

RM: TAS was started as an annual feature-length theatrical compilation of short films from around the world, exclusively curated by Mike Judge (Office Space, Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill) and Academy Award nominated animator Don Hertzfeldt (Billy’s Balloon, Rejected, The Meaning of Life). 

As animation continues to be plagued as the single most misunderstood film medium, the animated short film is sadly undervalued and underexposed in American cinema, despite widespread appreciation throughout the rest of the world. With luck, popular animated shorts may see limited theatrical play, but most are relegated to the dungeons of the internet, or with luck, DVD. 

The show started with the notion of getting great animated shorts back on the big screen where they belong and has turned into much more with multimedia projects, developing work for the program itself and a range of outlets now available for the first time for short film to live.

HESO: You say that they belong on the big screen, but will any “screen” do- say a mobile phone or the new iPad, if, for example, it widens the audience and exposes more and more people, despite their ever-shortening attention spans, to more great animation?

RM: For the big screen it’s difficult to say. The festival route for a program like TAS would seem to naturally evolve to encompass the work I’ve listed above. A true festival with animation performance art, environmental theater and classic arthouse animation you can’t see online or anywhere else. We’ve taken an even broader challenge to seek out comedic work which is the absolute rarest on the market. Our last festival was a hit because it tapped into commission work and creating some real comedic gems. The truth is that the theatrical system here in the US is broken and we’re caught between the festival and feature motion picture world. We still have a lot of work to do, but traveling festivals are still kicking out there. Mike Judge has done a tremendous service to independent animation though and it’s been fun to be a part of that ride.

The big screen remains at the core of what we’re trying to do because of the experience. Imagine if you’d only ever seen what you now consider your favorite comedy feature film of all time on a four by five inch screen with terrible sound and picture quality. The films we root out to showcase are big movies, they have huge imagination, scope and timing. They’re absolutely murdered on a tiny screen. I think that has really led us more and more towards comedy. Our current theatrical tour includes one or two shorts that have had big lives online but every audience we’ve seen them with comment how much funnier the work was enjoying it with an audience. I’ve watched films on my laptop and iPhone but only out of travel boredom. I know many that enjoy their favorite TV show as downloadable bits while traveling. The point of all this is that the theatrical experience is more than just a big screen. It’s the difference between going to church and praying at home. It’s a shared experience and energy and when the film is good your adventure is transcendent. These gadgets will make the process easier for filmmakers and viewers alike, but I think a line will always be drawn in the sand for projects that look to be created by genius madmen and everything else that’s derivative of that. It’s a confusing thing for people to wrap their brains around because there are incredible TV shows that should be seen in a movie theater and terrible movies that aren’t worth viewing even on your phone. Eventually everything is sifted and that media finds its time in the right home. An episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer runs every weekend at midnight at an art house in Santa Monica as a sing-along. The recent release Max Payne disappears immediately from theaters for it’s home on DVD (ironically Blu-ray or on some video game system)…So the universe corrects itself.

HESO: Mike has had pretty big success coming from a pretty obscure background, but concerning more Independent Animation (such as Bill, Don and PES), what is the process of “making it” like?

RM: The process of “making it” is slow. And there isn’t much of a handbook. Most animators finish school and look for work at small or large animation production companies.  The auteurs out there like PES and Plympton start their own companies to work for themselves. Short films are scheduled in between paid work like commercials, music videos, TV interstitials etc. There is some money to be made from releasing your short films to festivals, but as filmmakers increasingly jump to post their work online these options are fading. Some sites like Atom Films pay for independent work but more and more shorts are seen as stepping-stones for feature films and more commercial work. We’ve tried our best at changing that perception. There is huge value for an artist working on a short to really explore and grow in ways that commercial work simply won’t allow. Both Bill and PES have grown their brands over time. The process really comes down to having a sick amount of talent and drive. These men are also much more than great animators, they’re great writers, directors, producers, etc. The whole package.

Idiot's & Angels © Bill Plympton

Idiot's & Angels © Bill Plympton

HESO: What’s the future of Animation in the States? Internationally? Who’s leading the charge? Bill?

BP: The future’s bright. I think we are in a second golden age. Box office numbers say five out of ten films are animated. There are plenty of people out there making money, doing other kinds of animation, for example Hayao Miyazaki, Tim Burton, Henry Cellick, Nick Park, Mike Judge, all doing adult-oriented animation. There has been an explosion in techniques which helps.

HESO: Despite all these advances you seem to stick to your old school analogue techniques.

RM: The future of animation in the states is still with smaller studios that are pushing new ideas and taking the larger challenges. Unlike schools abroad students are encouraged to find work in the machine (studio work big and small). We are at somewhat of a crossroads as software becomes easier and easier to master and film-making evolves. I could point you in the direction of some of my favorite American animators, but until we all figure out how best to generate revenue from the internet it’s hard to say who’s leading the charge. The animation Youtube site Toonboom has picked up steam but I suppose that’s to be expected given the boatload of cash they’ve thrown at the project. What’s been exciting to watch is the number of independent filmmakers and production companies that have stepped up to the feature plate. In the next few years you’ll see animation succeed on the feature level in a big way from an entity that isn’t Disney, Dream Works or Sony. This will radically change the public’s perception of animation as the options at your Cineplex (here in the US.. at least. Overseas it’s been happening for a while) for animated movies that aren’t just family fare.

Robert May is a writer, does voice work, acts, enjoys Mexican food and mushrooms, though not necessarily together, and has been producing the Animation Show since its inception in 2003.

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