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?
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.
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.