When I was younger my first creative passion was for drawing, and my first serious career goal was to become an animator. Ultimately I fell further in love with other creative pursuits and the time-consumption of animation made it hard to keep as a hobby, but like a football fan whose dedication to the game is integrally tied to the fact that he “used to play a little ball, back in the day,” my love of animation has always been more than a mere appreciation for the artform; I was in the trenches, putting in the slavish hours alone, endlessly re-drawing pictures or shifting a piece of clay a few millimeters at a time. So it was with great pleasure that I relinquished an entire weekend to the 2nd Los Angeles Animation Festival – a joint effort between LAAF founders Miles Flanagan and John Andrews, and the programming muscle of repertory powerhouse The Cinefamily – which came to a close this past Tuesday.

The festival had some truly beautiful and provoking new pieces, plus a few strolls down memory lane. Overall my only critique would be LAAF’s potentially difficult accessibility to regular audiences, really only servicing those who are already into animation. Though I also think that criticism could be leveled at any art or film festival in general. Such festivals are rarely designed to entice the unconverted.

The fest kicked off with the U.S. premiere of Surviving Life (Theory and Practice), the newest – and purportedly last – film from Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer (Little Otik). While this was my least favorite feature of LAAF, it is undoubtedly an interesting experiment in storytelling technique. Certainly it is worthy of seeing for any Svankmajer fans. The film opens with an explanatory speech from Svankmajer himself, rendered in Monty Python-esque silly cut-out animation (Svankmajer is supposedly one of Terry Gilliam’s influences, so maybe I should just say “rendered in Svankmajerian silly cut-out animation”). In this opening Svankmajer explains that the film was intended to be live-action, but when the film’s budget did not come through, he decided to make the film as a meld of live-action and photo cut-out animation. While the end result – scenes fluidly shifting back and forth between live action and animation from shot-to-shot – is quite unique, it wore me down after a while. The film’s story concerns Eugene, a married office worker whose life has been enveloped by a calm ennui, when he begins having strange and vivid dreams about a woman he has never met. Soon these dreams take over his life, to the point where he devises a way to force on the dreams during interludes he takes after work and before going home to his increasingly suspicious wife. Towards the end the story goes to some interesting places, but the blended animation style stilted the pacing and flow of the story for me. I also thought it diluted its own effect. I think it would have been more potent if Svankmajer had only used the cut-out animation within the reality of Eugene’s dreamland. 6.5 out 10 (I am only giving scores to the new features)

The memory lane piece of the evening was “How MTV Rocked the Animation World,” a retrospective on early-MTV’s unique relationship with animation (you know, back when they were considered cutting edge, and actually played music videos). Aside from being a trippy blast of nostalgia, the retrospective plainly illustrated the amazing creative direction MTV had during its first fifteen years. The screening was essentially just a lengthy highlight reel of MTV’s pioneering early 90’s animation anthology, Liquid Television (originally a co-production with the BBC), which spun off several other MTV animated programs, most notably Beavis and Butthead and Æon Flux, mixed together with a delightful best-of selection of MTV’s animated logo bumpers, and clips of other classic animated programming, like The Maxx and the animatic pilot for Daria. I’d say the biggest drawback to the retrospective’s presentation was simply trying to cram too much into the allotted amount of time, and thus weakening the whole thing. The Maxx, for example, was even more amazing than the fuzzy memories I have of it from my youth, when I was too young to truly get roped in by such madness. I wanted more The Maxx. More of almost everything. But we rarely got to see more than a few minutes of each piece, which kind of hindered the retrospective’s ability to progress beyond “Hey, remember this one? And how about this one?” Anyone who didn’t remember the shorts and series we saw clips of probably had no clue what the fuck they were looking at. More engaging was a short showcase from Titmouse Animation, one of the sponsors for LAAF – in particular Mike Roush’s The Hidden Life of the Burrowing Owl, a hauntingly weird tale of vengeance starring an adorable burrowing owl.

Day one closed out with the Los Angeles premiere of Redline, a face-meltingly high-octane anime from Takeshi Koike, who directed the “World Record” segment of The Animatrix. Redline takes place in a sci-fi fantasy outer space realm, and tells the story of JP, a disgraced racecar driver looking to reclaim glory by winning the Redline, the galaxy’s most dangerous and prestigious race. While very, very much anime, Redline sidesteps a lot of the melodrama and dense mythology trappings that turn many people off from Japanese animation. This is a film both anime fans and non-anime fans can likely enjoy (I neither love nor hate anime). The film is so high-speed manic that it can be a little tricky to follow exactly what “the deal” is with many of the supporting characters, but the upside is that it doesn’t really matter. The film is about a race, and our hero and his giant-breasted love interest (this is anime after all) trying to win said race. Redline snagged LAAF’s Audience Award. 7.9 out 10

Regrettably schedule conflicts prevented me from seeing Jiri Barta’s In the Attic, which is described as a surreal version of Toy Story. But I can tell you that I heard great things about it at the festival, and I can also tell you that the film scored very highly in the audience voting process. Of course, its quaint and quiet charms couldn’t quite compete with Redline’s cocaine freak-out energy. I would have been extremely surprised if Redline did not get the audience award. I’m also not sure why LAAF called the award the “audience” award, given that it was the only award given to features, which makes the fact that the audiences did the voting seem sort of irrelevant.

Piercing 1, which was making its North American premiere, has the distinction of being the first independent feature film ever produced in China. The fact that it is animated makes that feat all the more impressive. Further impressive yet is the fact that director Liu Jan (adapting his own novel) animated the whole thing by himself on a WACOM tablet. That might clue you in to the visual style of the film, which is decidedly still – mostly characters sitting or standing and talking. For the first 2/3 of the film, the tone is quite still too, a bit like an animated version of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (minus all the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins music). The story concerns the hopeless trajectory of Zhang Xiaojun, a young man from rural China who has moved to the big city to find a more exciting life, but one bad thing has led to another for him, and he has become unemployed – he also gets his ass kicked a lot. After making the decision to return home, an act of good samaritanism sends his life into a horrible downward spiral until the film surprisingly crescendos into a farcical storm of violence, right out of a Coen Bros film. For those who can take the contemplative tone of the early portions, the pay off is great. 7.5 out of 10.   

One of LAAF’s big events was the 25th anniversary screening of Will Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain. For those of you who don’t recognize Vinton’s name (which I would guess is most of you), I assure you that you have seen his work countless times, especially if you were alive in the 80’s and early 90’s when Vinton’s instantly recognizable Claymation style was seemingly everywhere. Back during my animation days I was a clay guy, inspired entirely by Vinton’s work (most notably the final segment of a weird Fred Savage DTV film called Dinosaurs! A Fun-Filled Trip Back in Time!). In fact, the first award I ever won for something creative was for a clay animation parody of Gumby that my friend Sean and I made in 11th grade. So, of course, I was pumped when I heard that Will Vinton was going to be the honoree at LAAF. While Vinton was certainly not the first person to use clay in stop motion animation, he was the first person to truly expand on its possibilities, and to reach a level of detail in character animation previously only seen in hand-drawn projects.

Vinton registered the word “Claymation” in the early 1980’s, but it quickly became a genericized trademark for anyone referring to stop motion animation using clay. Aside from doing a variety of amazing Oscar-winning short films, some Oscar-nominated* FX work for the cult-classic Return to Oz and Disney’s Captain EO attraction, Vinton is probably best remembered for the pop-cultural juggernaut that was The California Raisins, which started as an advertising campaign for raisins and eventually became a TV special, some best-selling albums (I had a California Raisin Christmas album as a kid), and a tidal wave of merchandising. Besides the screening of Mark Twain, there was also a retrospective dedicated to Vinton’s shorts and impressive advertising work (which included the Domino’s Pizza villain, The Noid – who Domino’s should really resurrect). I was happy they showed one of my favorite Vinton pieces, which was this segment from his A Claymation Christmas special…

The Adventures of Mark Twain is an impressively odd film. Vinton talked a bit with the crowd about being forced to water down his mature film to make it more appealing to children, and unfortunately it shows. While the animation is mind-bogglingly spectacular (every single thing we see on screen is made out of clay, no other materials were used for anything, not even the clouds), and portions of the film are quite excellent – in particular an interlude featuring what might be the coolest design for Satan I’ve ever seen – the film feels trapped between two worlds, too sophisticated and existential to truly work as a kids film, and too goofy and dopey to truly work as a film for adults (namely two unfortunate, and long, Adam and Eve segments). That said, this is a film well worth seeing for anyone who did not catch it as a kid. Telling the story of Mark Twain’s attempt to fly into space to meet Hailey’s Comet (and die), with Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer stowing away on his flying ship, the film is dripping with great Mark Twain quotes and some partial retellings of some of his classic stories. Vinton had signed away the rights to the film back in the 80’s, to a distributor who did not know what to do with it, but Vinton says he has now regained the rights and is hoping for a sexy 25th Anniversary Blu-ray and DVD.

Like with Piercing 1, another great backstory precedes Midori-Ko, which took Japanese animator Keita Kurosaka ten years to single-handedly animate in his free time with pencils. The story is of a young vegetarian woman who discovers a strange vegetable that grows a face and humanoid body and begins running around her apartment like a child. The plant creature soon becomes an impossible-to-resist treat for the woman’s obnoxious and hungry neighbors, who want nothing more than to eat the little plant person. Midori-Ko is bonkers. There just isn’t a better way to say it. Rendered all in sepia toned pencil-work, the animation style is somewhat reminiscent of pencil-animation great Bill Plympton. The film seems like the sort of inspired madness you might get if Studio Ghibli hired David Lynch, Plympton, and the ghost of Hieronymus Bosch to execute one of their films. Midori-Ko‘s story really is not a huge selling point, nor is it that compelling. This is all about the animation, which is truly amazing – both light with fairytale wonder and heavy with earthy nightmarish imagery. You will see some crazy shit here.  8 out of 10

LAAF’s virtuoso bit of programming was their screening of René Laloux and Roland Topor’s psychedelic classic, Fantastic Planet (La Planète Sauvage), which won the special jury prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and was distributed in America by Roger Corman, back when he was one of the only people smart enough to realize Americans might actually want to see some really good foreign films (just one of the many reasons Corman is awesome). The film also features gorgeous score by Alain Goraguer, which was recreated live at LAAF by the band Jesus Makes the Shotgun Sound. In fact, not only did JMSS play Goraguer’s entire score live during the film, they also provided all the atmospheric aural design, sound FX, and hired several actors to perform all the dialogue. This is the sort of thing I would dig seeing even if it wasn’t pulled off with much success. It is an inherently cool idea (especially if you have already seen the film). The fact that JMSS and company fucking nailed it just made the whole screening that much more amazing. For those living in LA that were unable to attend the show (or had no idea it was even taking place), you’re in luck. Cinefamily and JMSS were so pleased with how things went that they’ve decided to do an encore show in January.

Closing out LAAF was Sylvain Chomet’s newest film, The Illusionist. Like Chomet’s previous film, The Triplett’s of Belville, The Illusionist is another dialogue-free exercise in the power of visual storytelling. And while it lacks the madcap whimsy of Belville, I think The Illusionist is a stronger film narratively. That said, I suspect that not as many people will be able to connect with this film as did with Belville. The Illusionist shoots for something more than Belville did, and while I think it mostly succeeds, it does not do so with an undeniably resounding bang. The ending has the potential to be taken as a disappointment. Made from an unproduced screenplay by famed French filmmaker Jacques Tati (anachronisticly showing a clip of Tati’s live action film, Mon Oncle, is one of The Illusionists few clunky missteps), the story is rumored to be an apology of sorts to the daughter Tati abandoned as a child. There’s actually a whole stink here surrounding Tati’s abandoned daughter, that you can learn more about from Mr. Roger Ebert if you’re curious. The Illusionist tells the extremely simple and often very heart-breaking story of a middle-aged French illusionist who lives the life of a workman entertainer, carrying his own poster to and from various venues around Europe, performing without complaining anywhere that will pay him. Life on the road leads him to a remote town in Scotland, where he finds an unlikely tag along, a young Scottish girl who mistakenly believes that the illusionist is actually magic. Unable to speak English, the illusionist doesn’t really have a way to break the news to the girl that he is only doing tricks, and unfortunately the girl thinks the man has the power to pull money from her nose anytime he wants (a trick he does when they first meet), and soon the illusionist is taking on odd jobs to feed the girl’s burgeoning love of fancy clothing. Knowing the backstory of why (potentially) Tati wrote the script, the film takes on new shades of meaning, in particular painting the characters’ relationship as that of father and daughter and not a sexual one (something that is somewhat ambiguous in the dialogue-free film). The story is quite touching and quite sad, in fact there are some profoundly depressing moments in this film, which is also thematically about the slow death of the vaudevillian scene. Chomet’s style of intricate character animation, his attention to setting detail, and his love of golden-hued bygone eras, is a feast for the eyes – to use as generic a film critic phrase as possible. Like I said, I suspect a lot of people seeing this film solely based on their love of Belville may walk away underwhelmed by the story, but no one is going to walk away underwhelmed by the visuals. 8.1 out of 10

All-in-all I found the second LAAF a big success, expanding upon both the scope and vision of the original festival (which was in 2007). Nothing is set in stone currently, but the people behind the scenes would definitely like to see LAAF become a yearly function at Cinefamily. I hope it does.

* Amazingly Return to Oz and Young Sherlock Holmes, both of which featured some extremely unique FX work (especially Holmes, which sported the first ever completely CGI film character), lost the Best Visual Effects Oscar to Cocoon.