Animation Unlimited 2008, the 20th Society for Animation Studies conference was graciously hosted by the Arts Institute at Bournemouth, in the beach resort town on the southern coast of England. The Arts Institute, under the guidance of Paul Ward (pictured here getting the Society’s McLaren-Lambert Award), did, as the Brits like to say, a brilliant job. As SAS conferences like to do, it provided a judicious blend of scholarship and practice-based presentations. (Many thanks should also go to Paul Wells [Loughborough University], who was all over the place, who organized and moderated events of all sorts.)
The key to this and other conferences is the presentation of the scholarly papers, and the discussions they engender; I will discuss this is more detail later, but first, I want to talk about the various other events, including several keynote speakers.
The opening keynoter was Esther Leslie (Birkbeck College, University of London) (pictured left), who spoke on “The Flux and Flurry of Animated Worlds — On Stillness and Hypermovement.” Leslie is an expert on Marxist theories of aesthetics and culture, focusing on Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. (Her expertise in matters Benjamin was clearly evident in her talk). She first popped up on the animation radar a few years ago with the publication of her well-received Hollywood Flatlands, Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant Garde (Verso 2002).
The closing address by Sean Cubitt (University of Melbourne) (pictured right) had the more appealing title of “The Band Concert Matters,” and was a rather convoluted, but nevertheless interesting discourse on (among other things) movie technology. (One of his prime areas of interest is media technology.)
In between these two rather academic presentations. there were what might be called practice-based presentations from both animation professors and filmmakers. (The Society has always tried to include filmmakers as an active part of its membership.) The first keynoter in this regard was Aardman Animation’s Richard Goleszowski (pictured left), who gave a heavily illustrated rundown of his career, including providing some clues as to why Aardman’s version of The Tortoise and the Hare never got anywhere with DreamWorks; he also talked about why he first left Aardman to be a freelancer (he was sick and tired of doing TV commercials).
French director Michel Ocelot introduced his latest movie, Azur et Asmar, which has yet to be released in the United States (I will write more about it separately). The Arts Institute’s Peter Parr lectured on the importance of drawing to animation, which was followed by a round table discussion on the topic that included Ocelot and British director Joanna Quinn (pictured below).
In addition to all these talking heads, there was also a small exhibit, “Bob Godfrey: Satire Surrealism Sex,” put on by the the Bob Godfrey Collection at the Animation Research Centre’s ARC Archive, University College for the Creative Arts, Farnham.
During the reception for the exhibit, I had a chance to talk to Godfrey’s grandson, Tom Lowe (pictured here on the right with Gunnar Strøm). I asked him when a set of all Godfrey’s films might be released on DVD. He said that they are working with Criterion to do exactly that; there are some rights issues, but one hopes they can be cleared up real soon, as Godfrey is just too important a figure not to have his films fully available. (The interest of Criterion, which usually seems to avoid animation, in the project seems to stem from Janus Film’s past dealings with Godfrey.)
Then there were the papers …
Oh, yes, there were also a whole batch of scholarly papers presented in between everything else, including one by yours truly. The tenor of the papers reflected a number of factors, including the predilections of the selection committee, but they did reflect several interesting trends in animation scholarship. For instance, there was an exciting panel on animated documentaries, an area that, with Persepolis and Waltzing With Bashir, has brought a new kind of attention to animation. Game animation seemed to be more visible than usual, what with four papers (including one panel) devoted to the topic, and the “Round Table Discussion: Animation Industry/Animation Education” being chaired by Chris Chilton, Computer Games and Animation Manager at Skillset.
Though there is nothing new about having a panel devoted to Japanese animation, it was nice that all three presenters were Japanese (including two who flew in from Japan). One paper from this panel by Gan Sheuo Hui (Kyoto University) on “Selective Animation: Rethinking the Concept of Limited Animation and its Relation to Anime,” ended up not being so much about anime, but about analyzing the complexity of animation itself, from limited to full to total animation. Interesting as this was, it became more so when I heard Victoria Meng (Arizona State University) talk about “Aural, Figural, and Metrical Microstructures in Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Analyzing Complementary Intra-Shot Forms in Animation and Other Frame-Based Motion Picture Media,” when it became clear both were trying to develop the type of analytic tools more common in cinema studies (such as found on the CineMetrics website, which deals with shot lengths). It would seem that animation scholars (at least at this conference) seem caught up in analyzing movement within a shot, while live action scholars try to examine shots in relation to other shots. There really is no reason why this is so, except for tradition; for instance, why has no one on CineMetrics done an analysis of the shot lengths of animated films, such as Koko’s Earth Control or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, where editing plays a vital role?
The “Histories” panel I was on seemed indicative of the breadth and scope of the scholarly work going on. For instance, my friend Mark Langer (Carleton University, Ottawa), who is in the last laps on his massive Fleischer book for the University of California Press, spoke on “From Education to Entertainment: American Animated Advertisement’s Shift from the 1920s to the 1930s,” which dealt with sponsored films, such as Fleischer’s In My Merry Oldsmobile; the most interesting aspect of it was discovering the large number of regional animation studios which existed back in the 1930s, who were doing theatrical commercials for local advertisers. (He apparently gleamed his information from advertising trade journals rather than film magazines.)
Musa Brooker (an MFA student at CalArts) detailed the life and career of Floyd Norman, the pioneer African-American animation artist; Norman is a popular and highly respected figure in Hollywood, but is unfortunately little known elsewhere, and Brooker’s effort is an important first step in correcting that problem.
Tom Klein (Loyola Marymount University), in “Woody Abstracted: Film Experiments in the Cartoons of Shamus Culhane, 1943-46,” showed how a frame-by-frame analysis of some of Culhane’s Woody Woopecker shorts revealed how he stuck in wild bits of abstract animation; these sort of subliminal bits are not new, but one usually associates them with putting in naughty pictures rather than experimental art.
As for me, I talked about the relationship between the Movie Brat Generation that came out film schools in the 1960s and today’s animation renaissance; in particular, I tried to examine the involvement in animation of Gary Kurtz (producer of the first two Star Wars films and The Dark Crystal), George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and their relationship with the first batch of CalArts Character Animation graduates and Don Bluth.
I really don’t have the time to go into the scope and variety of the other papers presented, but almost all those I heard (about half of those given) were more than worthwhile to say the least.
Beyond all of the above, it provided a delightful way to see old friends and make new ones. Though Animation Unlimited is one of the larger SAS conferences, it was nevertheless a wonderfully intimate event for which Paul Ward and his cohorts at the Arts Institute should be justifiably proud of.
And Atlanta in 2009
Lest I forget, next year’s conference will be hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design at their new Atlanta campus, in late June or early July, which I will be in charge of. This will not be the first SAS conference I’ve been involved in, but since it will mark the 20th anniversary of the first conference at UCLA in 1989, I thought it would do it one more time. Anyway, more will be revealed in due course.