From Cornwall to Canada - Falmouth at OIAF40

This year Animation & Visual Effects were given the chance to represent the University at the Ottowa International Animation Festival, and the the 20 hour journey to get there began on a dark Cornish Monday night.

Goodbye UK!
Canada looks small from up here!
But Canada had pulled out all the stops and welcomed us to the festival with a blast of late summer heat! But we were there for the animation and not sunbathing! Well they say that 40 is the new 30, and if that works for animation festivals like it does for those of us born pre ’76 then the OIAF is still young at heart. For 40 years the organisers have been curating the best work around and the offerings this year are set not to disappoint. Festival team under Chris Robinson have pulled out all the stops to offer a packed five days from 21st to 25th September this year set around Canada’s capital city Ottowa.

And what a location to host an animation festival. Not just because of the legacy of Canadian animation from the halcyon days of the NFBC and beyond but because of its cultural diversity, somehow familiarly British. But turn a corner and you are in the middle of France then turn again and its modern Canada with its own sense of identity, creativity and tolerance. Ottowa probably has more beards per square mile than Shoreditch and would certainly be a challenger to rival it as hipster capital. The venues are diverse, from the modernist Gallery of Art to the St Brigids Centre for the Arts through to numerous bars and clubs throughout the city, each with their own vibe. OIAF is everywhere in the city and the city is proud to host it.

The festival opened on Wednesday with a Gala screening of ‘Window Horses’ from Canadian director Ann Marie Fleming. ‘Window Horses’ is an exploration of the protagonist Rosie’s mixed cultural heritage, and it sets about questioning how our idea of self, our identity is shaped by the influences of culture and art. Rosie is a young poet who, to her amazement, discovers that she and her self-published work has been invited to a festival in Iran. This opportunity allows her to investigate the culture of her estranged father, himself Iranian and that of her Chinese mother who passed away in the same year that her father disappeared from her life. The film is a sensitive well crafted voyage of self-discovery, skilfully blending the mix of cultures. Visually it is redolent of the work of director Candy Guard, best known for her work with the animated TV series ‘Pond Life’. Like Guard’s work Fleming has simplified her characters to uncomplicated shapes, flexible and fluid. 

The focus here is on the characters and their stories, but that is not to detract from the animation in any way. This is a story tellers film, nothing ephemeral here, this is grown-up animation and doing what the medium does best – telling tales that we should be interested in. And ironically it somehow epitomises the Canadian idea of self, the mix of cultures, the fusion or friction created by diversity and difference and as such was an inspired choice to get the 2016 festival underway.

The 22nd is when the festival really hit its stride with an opportunity to meet the film-makers from the Short Film Competition at the St Brigid’s Centre for the Arts bright and early. Or bright and early if you went to the late night student party the night before. Actually for any animator 9.30am is early and at a festival more so! For me the day had two highlights – first is the six screenings of the OIAF Grand Prize Winners (films that have previously won at OIAF in a retrospective programme that honours some of the biggest names in contemporary animation) and second it’s the chance to attend the one-to-one talk with legendary animator Caroline Leaf. 

Caroline Leaf
Still from 'The Two Sisters'

I’ve been lucky enough to meet Caroline before and talk to her about the pain-staking process that she went through to create her masterpieces. But I am more than happy to hear her talk again and again as she is utterly inspiring and humble about her work. Animation is a slow process at the best of times, so why make it more so in a painful almost torturous way? In a time where we can see the fruits of our labours instantly it’s refreshing to hear her talk about the intensity of laboriously scratching away at the emulsion on expose film stock, or the manipulation of oil paint over months and months. Maybe we should take a leaf out of Caroline’s book and do it the hard way. It’s about reward. And with Leaf’s work the rewards are plentiful. I think there’s a lesson there.

The festival was jam packed with offerings all week to tempt you off the streets and into a dark cinema ranging from the abstract and experimental to mainstream, from big budget through to student productions and a lo-fi 8 bit retro reimagining of the work of Norman McLaren! Thanks to the British Council in Canada the Animation & Visual Effects course was represented on Friday at the Gallery of Art. Here I had to give a talk to a packed auditorium of 400 eager students on animation in the UK. The course was also there at the animation trade fair the following day at St Brigids. All day a steady stream of hopeful animators and visual effects artists looking to come to study in the UK were wowed by the work of the current students and graduates. And they weren't alone - a number of top studios were there, including Framestore and Cinesite - all eager to snap up our graduates! So if you're looking to relocate to Canada...

The quiet before the storm. Soon this was packed to the rafters!

The Saturday night was awards night at the St Brigid’s Arts Centre and the festival jury have selected some very worthy and well-deserved winners and with the sheer number of films being shown and the high quality of work that job cant have been easy. On the top of the pile taking the Grand Prize for the Best Animated Feature was Jean-Francois Laguionie’s joint French & Canadian production ‘Louise En Hiver’. An honourable mention was given to Jan Bultheel for ‘Cafard’. Taking the Grand Prix for the Independent Short Animation was Diane Obomsawin’s ‘J’Aime Les Filles’.

Still from 'J'aime Les Filles'
 ‘J’Aime Les Filles’ is a good film, yes, but a Grand Prix winner I am not so sure. It packs content and currency sympathetically , and it intelligently discusses women’s first time same-sex experiences as a vox-pop doc. However what it lacks is a matching sophistication in design and a fully realised arc. 

This film has its moments, just not nearly enough and it kind of just is, sadly. For me there were far stronger contenders which include the Norwegian film ‘The Absence of Eddy Table’ by Rune Spaans (which picked up the richly deserved Best Design award). 

Still from 'The Absence of Eddy Table'
This has got to be my new favourite film of the year 
without a doubt. My first impressions though were not great when our hero first hit the screen and I was prepared to write this one off as a turkey. The protagonist bears an uncanny likeness to the bastard off-spring of a Minion so my sympathy was going to be in short demand whatever was to befall him. But I was soon won round. This is ‘War of The Worlds’ meets ‘Alien’. 

Never before have I watched an animated short and had the hairs on my neck stand on end. It’s tense, uncomfortable and brilliantly mastered with the inspired casting of Faith No More’s Mike Patton the the ‘voice’ of our hero. It looks great and its hybrid design works perfectly giving its cg a real feel of stop-motion.

The other big winners of the night were:

Best Narrative Short Animation. ‘L’Aveugle, Vaysha’ (Blind Vasha) dir. Theodore Ushev. From the jury “a beautiful retelling of an old world tale with contemporary relevance. The stylised woodblock prints were beautiful”

Best Experimental or Abstract Animation. ‘Suijun-Genten’ (Datum Point) dir. Ryo Orikasa. From the jury “Loved the texture. The granularity of the sound and medium had a visceral quality. Poetic beauty. I don’t know what it was but I was moved”

Best Undergraduate Animation. ‘Cialo Obce’ (Foreign Body) dir. Marta Magnuska. From the jury “A unique story. A mesmerizing metaphor for self-acceptance”

Walt Disney Animation Award for Best Graduation Animation. ‘Frankenfurter Str.99’ dir. Evgenia Gostrer. From the jury “Subtle but very beautiful. Surprising narrative and emotional impact was achieved by minimalist technique”

Best Commissioned Animation. ‘Honda – Paper’ dir. Pes
Best Short Film Made for Young Audiences. ‘Three LittleNinjas Delivery Service’ dir. Karim Rhellam and Kim Claeys.
Best Animated Series Made for Young Audiences. ‘Shaun theSheep ‘The Farmers Llamas’ dir. Jay Grace.
Best Script. ‘Fired On Mars’ dir. Nick Vokey and Nate Sherman.
Best Design. ‘The Absence of Eddy Table’ dir. Rune Spaans.
Best Animation Technique. ‘Velodrool’ dir. Sander Joon.
Best Sound. ‘Squame’ dir. Nicolas Brault.
DHX Public Prize. ‘Fired on Mars’ dir. Nick Vokey and Nate Sherman.
Canadian Film Institute Award for Best Canadian Animation. ‘Blind Vaysha’ dir. Thoedore Ushev
VIA Rail Award for Best Canadian Student Animation. ‘NIHIL’ dir. Khoebe Magsaysay

Of the shorts one of the other the stand out films alongside ‘L’Aveugle, Vaysha’ (Blind Vasha) for me was Jan Saska’s ‘Happy End’. I really didn’t envy the jury on deciding between this and the eventual winner of Best Narrative Short Animation, and if you get the chance to see Saska’s black comedy then do so. You wont regret it. It’s grimly humorous and employs an imaginative unusual narrative structure. I wont say more, I don’t want to spoil it! I think it’s also worth mentioning some of the films from the Canadian Student Competition. Not wishing to disagree with the selection of the jury but I feel that ‘Feathers’ was cruelly robbed. Animated and directed by a collective called ‘Hands on Deck’ from Sheridan College. Behind this film are nine budding stop motion animators Christine Le, Sarah Stefanon, Melissa Chin, Jacob MacMillan, Sarah Kieley, Anita Yen, Eustace Ng, Lilja Hlin H. Péturs and Mellisa Gabric. A real shame they didn’t win big here but their sensitive and beautifully crafted film about change and acceptance is sure to pick up awards elsewhere.

But the festival was not all about watching films and there were some amazing talks from the film-makers, from legendary animator Caroline Leaf and film-maker and acolyte of Norman McLaren Donald McWilliams. William’s screened some seldom seen work including the sublime ‘Damon the Mower’ dir George Dunning, McLaren’s ‘BlinketyBlank’ and Trinka’s ‘The Hand’. The sun shone on the OIAF picnic, you could visit the aniboutique where you could buy the best of all things animated or related from mugs, tshirts, DVDs to posters and more or sample some VR.

Artistic Director Chris Robinson has excelled himself this year with the programme of films and events.


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