Monday, October 21, 2013

Animation on the Range - SoDak Animation Festival Review

If you want to draw a bunch of animators to a small college town on the eastern edge of South Dakota, the most compelling enticement is obviously pie and ice cream. SoDak Animation Festival in Brookings, SD, knows the straight path to my heart.

The festival is the combined effort of animator and professor Cable Hardin and the enthusiastic animation students at SDSU. In the middle of endless fields of corn and soy, the local and student community gathers to celebrate visiting animators and their films from around the world, culminating in the presentation of the Golden Cowbell Awards.

Pie at Lange's Cafe
Brookings is not an easy place to get to, but those who make the effort will be welcomed with MidWestern hospitality. This festival really has its heart in the right place. Cable Hardin, the festival’s founder and head of the animation program at SDSU says, “Without the filmmakers present, it’s just a bunch of movies”.

100% of the (very reasonable) entry fees are collected in a filmmaker travel fund to help cover some of the travel costs for participants. This is so rare in the US and it’s a smart way to entice budget-conscious animators to make the trip to Brookings. Our small group of animators and festival guests were chauffeured around town by hard-working volunteers and treated to home cooked meals, local brews and a special outing across the prairie in search of pie and pipestone.

The Saturday animation workshop.
I know what this kid wants for Christmas.
I was on this year’s jury so I had the opportunity to see every film in the festival. The majority were solid pieces of filmmaking, mostly narrative and character driven with a few more experimental works thrown in to keep things spicy. Techniques varied from highly polished CG to traditional cel and stopmotion I could tell it was a program meant to be both enjoyed by the public and inspiring to the next generation of animators studying at SDSU. Only the family program lacked a high ratio of well-crafted animation eyesores. Kids don't seem to mind amateur stopmotion as long as there are fuzzy animals and dragons.

Aside from the winners, which are listed here, some of my favorite films were:
Astigmatismo by Nicolai Troshinsky
Beautiful, imaginative cut-out film with mind-blowing in-camera effects.
Dents de Lait by Julie Charette
Subtle observation of a young boy working through a great loss.
Khachaturian Meets Dali by Kirill Fessenko
As strange and wonderful as the surrealist himself.

Cody Walzel (Breadheads), Ann Mendenhall and Stephanie Son (Bird and Fish) were there in person to accept their awards, but as an extra special treat, the other award winners sent in some very creative acceptance speech videos, bringing a little bit of France, Taiwan, and London to the awards ceremony.

One of the things I enjoyed most was the panel discussion on All Things Animation. The other panelists were Steven Hunter from Pixar, Eric Say from NBC graphics division and Jeff Hayne at Mill Creek Entertainment. Sitting on comfortable couches in front of a full house, we had a lively discussion on our respective roles in the industry, fueled by an endless stream of questions from audience.
SDSU students animating sugar during the festival

The conversation was peppered with personal anecdotes from Steve’s work on Nemo, Incredibles and Brave, Jeff’s mission to revive his favorite childhood cartoons for modern audiences. Eric revealed that millions of Americans don’t know that their Monday Football experience is sometimes entirely dependent on an unathletic animator running down the hall with a tape seconds before broadcast. We spoke about commercialism vs. creativity, the changing nature of distribution and funding, risk-taking and balancing personal work with making money. The thoughtful questions and the stamina of the audience told me they truly appreciated the combined breadth of experience in front of them.
Thanks SoDak, for a great festival!

The evening ended with the presentation of cans of Thank You® Chocolate Pudding and packets of meat sticks from the campus meat lab (also home of the gummy bear brats) were nearly as good, especially when Steve tore open the meat sticks and began dipping them in the chocolate pudding. Mmmmmm… really, it wasn’t half bad.

If I have sparked your interest in SoDak, the FAQs on the festival website offer a further glimpse into the lighthearted spirit of SoDak. They are worth reading, just for kicks.

The festival is likely going biannual, so there will be no festival next year, but come 2015, don’t overlook this little gemstone in South Dakota. The ice cream really is amazing.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What is this HATCH thing anyway?

HATCH is constantly redefining itself. 10 years ago it started in Bozeman, Montana as a film and music festival with a mentorship component and it has branched out into an an expansive canopy of creativity in a perpetual state of hatching. It is part TED-talk, part think tank, part summer camp for creative minds. It’s not exactly a conference and not exactly a festival, but after 10 years, it is settling into the undefinable HATCH Experience. I guess the reason we all have such trouble explaining it is because you really do have to experience it to fully grasp its significance. Now, after my second “HATCH Experience”, I feel I am starting to “get it”.

I used to have one of those kids chemistry sets. This is how I really learned the meaning of the word catalyst. I could mix a little of this and a little of that in a confined container, drop in a bit of another bit and something cool and unexpected would happen. Usually it involved changing colors, maybe some percolating bubbles. I always hoped for something really cataclysmic - like the giant bang and black cloud of smoke that would clear to reveal my with my hair standing on ends and a sooty ring around my safety goggles. Alas, that never happened in my parents’ garage, but it happens all the time at HATCH.

Our periodic table includes entrepreneurs, artists, hackers, inventors, CEOs, do-gooders, designers, groundbreakers… I could go on and on adding to the volatility of the HATCH identity. There are infinite opportunities for collaboration between HATCHers and equally infinite potential outcomes. All the guests are hand-picked by HATCH founder Yarrow Kraner, a mixture of creative success stories, untested “Groundbreakers” and local Montana innovators - a different mixture every year with no agenda other than to engage. We are, essentially, Yarrow’s human chemistry experiment.

The individuals who are invited to HATCH are all people who make stuff happen - whether on a daily basis or over years of struggle. Regardless, they are people with resumes. Yet remarkably, HATCH is an ego vacuum. I can’t say if it’s a “Check them at the door” scenario or if Yarrow has a sixth sense about ego-less people, but the four days are permeated with active listening, engaged networking, and sincere encouragement and mentorship. There’s no way to differentiate a keynote speaker from a local volunteer other than by spending some time in conversation. Impromptu collaborations abound with a tendency towards beta-testing crazy ideas on-site. For example, this year groundbreaker Nick Campbell set up an installation/performance of three electric guitars played by falling sand. I mean, why not?

I’m still mulling over the talks and conversations from the last few days, trying to glean every grain of effectiveness from my Hatch Experience. I am inspired by seeing so many people dive into an unknown entity with such abandon and it gives me much needed courage as an artist to keep forging on along my own path. Despite it’s ambiguity, HATCH is doing good in the world. It is worth supporting. And if an invitation ever happens to drop into your inbox, dive in recklessly. You won’t regret it!