Association International du Film d'Animation
(International Animated Film Association)
February 2009
by Karl Cohen

Don't miss "A Look Inside the Mind of the Maturing Bill Plympton" as the last item of this issue

"CORALINE" IS A VISUALLY DAZZLING ANIMATED MASTERPIECE! by Karl Cohen Henry Selick, who directed Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), has pushed the art of stop-motion animation to new heights in Coraline. It is a wonderful sophisticated surreal fantasy, a noble magical quest against evil, shot in 3D. It is so well told that I quickly forgot I was looking at puppets. I became engrossed in every moment of the young heroine's adventures. Along the way she meets wonderfully inventive creatures including flowers that talk, eccentric humans, bizarre spirits and other unusual things. The girl is bright and lovable so it is easy to emphasize with her as she explores her new home, a Victorian mansion with a magic garden. This mysterious Lewis Carol-like feature opens Feb. 6.

My eyes were riveted to the screen the entire time. One of the first images is a long shot of the mansion that shows off the depth of the enormous set. It also hints that this will not be a Psycho-type horror film as you can barely see a strange looking acrobat doing exercises on the steep roof. What follows is a story constantly full of surprises including a circus performance with trained mice. The voice talent is exceptional and Skywalker Sound provided the finishing touches.

The well-constructed screenplay was written by Henry; based on the book Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I consider the film better than Nightmare Before Christmas (both are terrific films) and this leaves no doubt in my mind that when given the proper property and budget Henry can be an exceptional director.

Parents should be aware that the film's script is scary at times, just as the climax to Disney's Snow White is scary. This is a dramatic Gothic fantasy with many intense moments, but Henry avoids gross visuals or ugly violence. It is rated PG "for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor." The film is distributed by Focus Features (Milk, Burn After Reading).

WORLD PREMIERE OF DAVID CHAI'S "LIFE ON A LIMB" He is delighted that it will premiere at San Jose's Cinequest this year, a major festival in his hometown. David teaches animation at San Jose State and several of his friends and students worked on it.

OUR ANNUAL OPEN SCREENING WAS FULL OF IMPRESSIVE SURPRISES It was a wonderful celebration on Jan. 14th that covered many different directions in animation from abstract art to outrageous humor. There were serious mature works, a surreal fantasy about noses and Michael Langan's amazing no budget commercials for a hip retail store. Alan Orcutt surprised us with All Egg Row that features a Busby Berkeley chorus line of dancing chicks (these chicks were still covered with their egg shells). David Chai's Life on a Limb is an excellent humorous cartoon with a serious thought-provoking conclusion about hu! man greed destroying our world. I suspect both Alan and David's films will do well at festivals. Fred Lewis provided beautifully executed high tech computer animation and effects and Gene Hamm mailed us Spectacular Fire, a well stated cynical statement about TV news coverage. (Gene wasn't at the show as he has been working in LA doing animation for's website. On Jan. 14 he was performing stand-up comedy in LA.).

The program opened and closed with the wicked humor of Wachtenheim/Marianetti Inc. They create many of the "TV Fun House" and "Fun With Real Audio" segments for Saturday Night Live. We opened with an outrageous illustrated lecture about Black TV cartoon stars and ended with John McCain having to introduce George W. Bush during the 2004 election. The McCain piece showing the senator's disdain for Bush was perfect as it was shown just a few days before W. left office for good. (

The most unusual surprise was Ivan Maximov's Snout, a surreal fantasy from Russia of recognizable and fantastic animals doing unexpected things, often with their noses. Some of the Hieronymus Bosch-like characters walk or fly in a dreamlike slow motion, which adds to the surreal illusion. Nancy Denney-Phelps tells me the bear and the pig represent the very popular Russian version of Winnie the Pooh. To tie it all together Nik Phelps has created and performed an original score that beautifully enhances the film's unworldly feeling. At least one member told me it was the best film of the evening. (Nancy is excited about two other tracks Nik created, one is for a Russian living in France and Friendly Fire is for a German -- all 3 were recently entered in Annecy 09.)

Michael Langan has constantly amazed me with his creative efforts using stop-motion and special effects. Since moving to SF a little over a year ago he has created about 400 experimental commercials for a local retailer with an Internet site plus an exceptional PSA about global warming. His new pixilation film Dahlia is an experimental short that premiered at Slamdance in January. At the event I found out that each of his 400 ads were made in 3 to 6 hours and without a budget. While their quality may be uneven, they show he has a brilliant creative imagination and the energy and talent to execute them.

Allen Orcutt's dancing chicks in All Egg Row was an audience pleaser. People love his twelve precision dancers who are shown off to great advantage thanks to fine theatrical lighting, excellent use of color and dramatic camerawork.

Marcy Page was in the Bay Area for the holidays. She gave me two new works to show from the National Film Board of Canada where she works as a producer. One person later told me that Sante Barbe by Cedric Louis and Claude Barras was her favorite film of the evening. It is a charming and fascinating puppet animation about a kid's memories of his late grandfather. The second film, Forming Game (Jeu de Forme) by Malcom Sutherland, is a magnificent abstract work of art where what might be pieces of a puzzle appear and dance about and then disappear. They suggest at times almost recognizable shapes until a very recognizable form appears near the end o! f the film. Seeing the work for the first time I was reminded of how delighted I was when I first saw Ishu Patel's Bead Game so many years ago. Both films have strong rhythmic soundtracks and wonderfully playful visuals. Years ago Marty McNamara invited Ishu to San Francisco where he presented a memorable ASIFA event about his work. I hope Sutherland continues to make fine films for the NFB.

Another film that impressed me was Karen Albala's The Collector, a handsome hand drawn film made while she was a student at USC. It is a surreal experience of a young woman in an abandoned and decaying library where strange wormlike varmints have eaten up the content between the covers. All that is left of past knowledge are a few uneaten letters. Some float around the room like dust particles. It brought to mind my thoughts about what is happening in our post-literate culture. I find it depressing that several people I know no longer read. It saddens me to see excellent bookstores go out of business and to see printed publications becoming thinner and thinner before vanishing for good.

The program included a lot more impressive work. The Heart of Amos Klein by Michal and Uri Kranot from Israel is a powerful film about a man who became an evil intolerant bigot. John Douglas Joy's Yes We Can is a positive Obama message. Patrick Lake showed us the elements that went into a complex multi-layered composite shot. Alex Budovsky's black and white Last Time at Clerkenwell is a remarkable visual fantasy set to an equally impressive soundtrack by Stephen Coates. We showed work from Studio Baestart in Hungary including the delightful KJFG NO 5. There was also a really nice film by Franz Krantz. There were one or two other works I was impressed with, but I don't take not! es in the dark and now I can't recall who made them.

Special thanks to Liz Keim who programs the McBean theater for letting us use it and for doing an excellent job presenting the program.

PIXAR'S ED CATMULL TO RECEIVE THE GORDON E. SAWYER AWARD This Oscar statuette is from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and will be presented to him at a banquet February 7. Ed is a co-founder of Pixar and president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. The award is for his lifetime of technical contributions and leadership in the field of computer graphics for the motion picture industry.

SEE RAQUEL COELHO'S "HOW TO MAKE A BABY" (Rated G) Raquel and Cassidy just had their first child and to honor the occasion they created a delightful cute pixilated experimental work of art. Cassidy works at PDI/DreamWorks and Raquel is joining the staff at San Jose State in the fall. See their 45 second explanation of how it happened at By the way Raquel is from Brazil where Coelho = Rabbit

ATTEND A STORYBOARD CLASS It is taught by Sergio Paez who was lead storyboard artist for Star Wars: Clone Wars. This is a class for both students and professionals.

ADULT COURSE ABOUT "RACE IN ANIMATION" Instructor: Jack Curtis Dubowsky, Saturday, March 21, 10:00--6:00 pm, Ninth Street Independent Film Center, Enrollment limited to 25; $70/$85. Presented by the San Francisco Film Society | 39 Mesa St. Suite 110 | San Francisco | CA | 94129 (415) 561-5000. The ad for the course reads, "Since its inception, animation has mined racial stereotypes for entertainment and propagandistic purposes. Many early cartoons featured characters developed from vaudeville and minstrel show stereotypes. ! Wartime cartoons used racial and national caricatures to mock and demean America's enemies. Later, studios repressed their own work: Disney squelched the Academy Award--winning feature Song of the South in 1986, and YouTube routinely pulls down vintage theatrical release cartoons saturated with exaggerated racial imagery. This class investigates suppressed historical and contemporary cartoons, deconstructing their meaning and uncovering their cultural and historical contexts."


Friday, February 13, ASIFA-SF'S private celebration with Oscar nominated animators and a 35mm screening of their work. For current ASIFA-SF members only. Members must RSVP.

SF INDIE FEST TO SHOW BILL PLYMPTON'S "IDIOTS AND ANGELS" AND HIS SHORT "HOT DOG" Sun. Feb 15 at 7:15 pm and Mon. Feb 16 at 9:30 pm at the Roxie Cinema

Thursday, February 19, 7 to 10 pm, SF SIGGRAPH & DOLBY PRESENT A 3-D FESTIVAL AND SCREENING at Dolby Labs, 100 Potrero Ave., Free. For more information contact John Gilbert at

Now Through June 30, THE MANY FACES OF MANGA free exhibit, NJAHS Peace Gallery, 1684 Post


WALLACE AND GROMIT BREAK A TV RECORD Aardman's Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death was seen by 14.3 million viewers, making it the highest-rated show of 2008 in the UK. That was more than 53% of the Christmas Day audience. In the new episode the ever-faithful Gromit rescues Wallace from the amorous clutches of murderous bun-making seductress Piella Bakewell. The show is another hit for Nick Park.

"WALL-E" GETS 6 OSCAR NOMINATIONS It has been nominated for best animated feature along with Bolt and Kung -Fu Panda. Wall-E is also up for best original screenplay, sound mixing, sound editing, original score and best original song.

RACE FOR THE OSCAR FOR THE BEST-ANIMATED SHORT In December animation people met in LA and NYC to screen about 40 shorts that qualified for the competition. From their votes the top 8 films were selected to be on the "short list." Those films were screened for members in early January in NY, SF and LA. They were:

* Lavatory - Lovestory by Konstantin Bronzit (At End of the Earth), 10-min., a story of finding love in an odd location.

Glago's Guest, 7 min., a solitary soldier in Siberia is joined by a most unusual and helpful guest.

* La Maison en Petits Cubes, 12-min., an old man whose house looks like blocks.

* Oktapodi, 2-min., two octopuses help each other escape from a cook.

Skhizein, 14-min., having been struck by a meteorite, Henry has to adapt to living 91cm from himself.

* This Way Up, 9-min., Laying the dead to rest has never been so much trouble.

* Presto, 5-min., a carrot triggers a war of wits between a magician and his bunny.

Varmint, 24-min., a small creature struggles to preserve a remnant of the peace he once knew.

The votes from those screenings determined the shorts that would get nominations: A program of the nominated live action and animated shorts opens in 60 US cities on Feb. 6. Films with an * are nominated for the best Animated Short award.

DREAMWORK'S CEO JEFFREY KATZENBERG WAS IN SF TO PLUG DIGITAL 3D AND HIS NEXT ANIMATED FEATURE For a big name film executive he came across as just an average, ordinary, somewhat successful guy. He was dressed down in a white T-shirt with a dark V-neck sweater over it. His opening 15 or 20-min. pep talk about how important 3D movies will become was actually rather flat and dull. I thought he had said all his lines far too many times, but after showing 20-minutes of clips from the feature, he came alive in a Q&A session. He became excited about answering most of the questions, living up to the press calling him "the high priest of the new 3D wave" and "the John the Baptist of 3D."

In his talk he simplified the history of film into four eras, silent films, b/w sound features, color features and now wonderful digital 3D using a single projector. He loves talking about Tru3D (a product line from a company in Dallas, Texas) versus the old system that used red and green glasses "of your father's day" and caused eyestrain, etc.

Yes, the movie clips looked great in 3D. They were sharp as 35mm film, bright and rich in color saturation. The footage shown rarely came forward off the theater screen and after a while the novelty of his much-hyped Tru3D process was taken for granted. I was no longer aware of it. I never felt I was in the picture; something Jeffrey claimed was a wonderful breakthrough of the process. Perhaps the illusion is greater in IMAX. I was in a stadium theater with a large flat screen and I was constantly aware of the edge of the screen even though I was down front in the third elevated row.

DreamWorks' Monsters VS Aliens is an updated 1950s B monster film full of implausible inventions and events. There is lots of humor including a TV reporter asking why the US is the only country where UFOs land. All of the voice actors are excellent including one of the monsters that has the brain of a brilliant scientist and a body that is part cockroach. The film's big star is a young blue-eyed blonde who was hit by a meteor on her wedding day. Somehow the accident has turned her into a 50-foot tall female (actually 49' 11").

The film's plot is obvious. The monsters save the world from a giant robot from outer space. Their battleground includes downtown San Francisco and yes, you will see the Golden Gate Bridge destroyed in 3D, right before your very eyes. And that is just the beginning of the fun.

Can this film possibly pay for itself? The cost before advertising is said to be a mere $165 million. The 90-second 3D ad to run just before the halftime of this year's Super Bowl (125 million pairs of red green glasses were given away by Pepsi) cost "tens of millions of dollars." Jeffrey calls the screening of the TV ad "perhaps the biggest media advertising event in history."

As I watched the Monsters VS Aliens footage, especially during the humorous moments, I thought it might have been inspired by Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! (1996) According to Box Office Mojo, Burton's film with special effects by ILM grossed $38 million in the US and $101.4 million worldwide. Other inspirations were the 1958 "classic" Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and/or a 1993 remake using the same title. Iron Giant (1999) about a giant alien robot that lands on earth cost $70 million to make and it only grossed $23.2 million in the US. Bolt is in 3D and it cost about $150 million to make and as of Jan. 15 its worldwide gross was only $185.3 million (less than half of the gross gets back to the producer).

So is Katzenberg going to lose his shirt on this film? Does the world want to see a top notch alien invasion film? I hope so. When it was proposed as a project Katzenberg thought there would be enough theaters in the US that are capable of showing digital 3D by the film's release date (March 27, 2009). That isn't likely to happen due to the recession. To make matters worse, in the Q&A he admitted that theaters outside of the US are not converting as quickly to digital projection as halls in the US. Katzenberg still says things will work for him.

He estimated it costs between $80,000 and $90,000 per screen to equip a hall with digital projection and the best sound system and screen possible, which is why theaters are not running into digital 3D at this time. It cost him an extra cost of $15 million to make it in 3D, but it appears he still assumes that gimmick will put the film in the black. To make up the added cost theaters are expected to charge an extra $5 a ticket (supposedly for the glasses needed to see the 3D effect). That means it will cost $15 for most adult tickets.

Will 3D be the answer in the coming years to keeping movie theaters profitable? Katzenberg, George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron and a few other creators of blockbusters are banking on 3D being the answer, at least until we have high quality 3D TV broadcasts. Katzenberg believes that isn't likely to happen for another decade or two, although some form of 3D gaming may arrive fairly soon.

I look forward to seeing this feature even though it isn't likely to be a cinema milestone. It should be a lot of silly fun played for laughs with a few unexpected plot twists to keep us interested. Parents of young kids should expect dramatic moments, but I suspect it will be rated G or GP and will not be very scary. A lot of jobs may rest on the film's advertising campaign being a success. Monsters VS Aliens opens March 27.

ASIFA-ATLANTA HAS ANNOUNCED SOME OF THEIR EVENTS FOR 2009 They offer figure drawing sessions every Thursday at Westwood College, monthly animation workshops at Manuel's Tavern (monthly "Boozer Doodle" cabaret style sketch sessions with models). In January they put together a program on stop-motion. In March they are showing the documentary feature Monster Road about Bruce Bickford. It will be presented at the Center for Puppetry Arts. In April the Atlanta Film Festival will present an "Animation Extravaganza." For May they have planned "Roll Yer Own" (tobacco or pot?). July's event is "Blowin' Smoke" and August is "Animation Attack." In October they will celebrate International Animation Day and in December they ! are planning another gallery show.

"WALTZ WITH BASHIR" has now won both the Golden Globe Award and Critics Choice Award for Best Foreign Feature of 2008. It was awarded the Best Film of 2008 award by the National Society of Film Critics. The film has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary and a Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary (winner to be announced Jan. 31).

Despite all the awards and the rave review in the SF Chronicle, the film's "wide release" in the US was only 8 theaters before the Oscar nominations were announced. It had opened on 5 screens in late December, so Sony has apparently delayed things. Perhaps they were waiting for the nominations to be announced or for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.

Folman summed up his approach to his film in an interview in "Film and Video." He said, "War is like a very bad acid trip, if you've ever experienced it. I wanted the audience to go through the experience in a dimension that you don't know. It's completely different from everyday life. The design of the animation is intended to produce this effect. From the very opening, when you see the dogs running through the streets of Tel Aviv, you're in this very unpleasant hallucination. Then it goes deeper and deeper until it reaches the documentary footage of the massacre."

"WALTZ WITH BASHIR" DIRECTOR TALKS ABOUT HIS NEXT PROJECT Ari Folman has acquired rights to The Futurological Congress, a science fiction short story by Stanislaw Lem according to The Hollywood Reporter. The proposed film will be a hybrid of live action and animation. The story is set in a futuristic world where everything appears perfect, with an abundance of money and good natured people, but it turns out the world has a dark, drug-infused underbelly. Lem is the author of Solaris, a novel that was adapted for the screen both by Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh. He has been compared to Philip K. Dick, and wrote many stories and novels before his death in 2006. Congress has story elements similar to Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story that inspired Blade Runner.

DISNEY WANTS TO BUILD A THEME PARK IN SHANGHAI They recently submitted plans to the central government for this joint venture for a resort and theme park. "No deal has been signed, no project has been approved." The Shanghai amusement park, hotel and retail center would be built over six years on a 371-acre site near Shanghai's international airport for an estimated cost of $3.59 billion.

Disney's park in Hong Kong has had problems with low attendance so there are also plans to enlarge it. Negotiations are taking place between the Hong Kong government and Disney on how to finance the $645 million expansion. The Hong Kong government owns a 57 percent interest and is hesitant to invest more knowing there will be public criticism over the park's poor attendance.

ANIMATION IS RECOGNIZED BY BAFTA (THE BRITISH ACADEMY AWARDS) In the "Films Not in the English Language" category they nominated Persepolis (Marc-Antoine Robert, Xavier Rigault, Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Parannaud) and Waltz With Bashir (Serge Lalou, Gerhard Meixner, Yael Nahl Ieli, Ari Folman) along with 3 live action features (The Baader Meinhof Complex, Gomorrah and I've Loved You So Long. The animated film category recognized Persepolis (Marjan! e Satrapi, Vincent Parannaud), WALL-E (Andrew Stanton) and Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman).


ANNECY INTERNATIONAL ANIMATED FILM FESTIVAL Deadline is February 15 for submitting shorts, TV films, commissioned films and graduation films. March 15 for features.. Festival dates are June 8-13, 2009

by Nancy Denney-Phelps

Riga, Latvia is one of my favorite cities. The Daugava River running through the center of the city before it reaches the Baltic Sea makes it a wonderful city to walk through. Riga is a historian's delight, full of architecture that reflects the diversity of cultures, from the 12th Century German conquest and art nouveau delights to 1991, when the country won independence from the former Soviet Union. The architecture of the Soviet period is still interesting to give you a feel of how the city was when it was still part of the Soviet Block.!

Sergei Eisenstein was born in Riga and his father, a famous architect, designed many of the beautiful art nouveau buildings. The city reminds me very much of St. Petersburg. It has the same beautiful yellow and rose hues of paint and when the sun light hits at the right angle the city glows -- sort of like those evenings in San Francisco when the sunset hits the windows of the buildings and they glow golden.

I was very excited when Nik and I were invited to give a presentation on music and animation at Arsenals Film Festival, taking place 12 through 21, September. I had heard so many good things about the festival and it turned out to be a smorgasbord of tasty delights, film treats of all kinds from around the world and parties with outstanding catering.

Animated films are not presented as a separate competition category and no animation was presented in the International Competition, but the Baltic States Film Competition was enriched with seven Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian animated pieces. I was delightfully surprised by director Roze Stiebra's I Played, I Danced. Several generations of Latvian children have watched her heart-warming films with their strong musical influences. Her new film, based on a play by Rainis, the Latvian Goethe, is the story of Tots, a musician who suffers the trials of the underworld to bring his beloved Lelde back to life. In this film, Roze combines the tempo and editing style of music videos with classic animation techniques taking her work in yet another direction.

It was lovely to see Signe Baumane's award winning Veterinarian on the big screen. The touching story of a sad veterinarian who loses a patient, is based on events that she experienced when visiting her sister, a professional vet.

Ieva Miskinyte, whose 2006 Maestro was a big crowd pleaser at festivals, has used the aesthetics of black and white graphic art in her new film Bridge. Hardi Volmer, a member of Estonia's renowned Nukufilm Studios, creates films that often make me smile. His new film Closing Session is no exception. The story, told using stop motion plasticine, deals with the diverse world of religions and the vast range of differences and interpretat! ions people give to them.

Although it was not contemporary animation film, The Bug Trainer is a new documentary about the animated films of Wladyslaw Starewicz. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip into the amazing world of the great Russian pioneer of puppet animation. The Bug Trainer explores Starewicz's creative ideas and concepts of his work, along with opinions from film critics and other animation directors to help us understand why he is still considered one of the greatest creators of the animation world. The 53-minute film was also in contention for the Best Baltic Film Award.

The Best Baltic Animation Award went to Little Bird's Diary directed by Edmunds Jansons. I have written about this delightful film before, since I had the pleasure of meeting Bruno Ascuks, producer of the film, on my previous visit to Riga last year. The film brings to life the beautifully drawn diaries of 80-year-old Irina Pilke depicting her life during World War II and her ironic view of events in the Soviet Union. Bruno and Latvian writer Nora Ikstena heard an inter! view with Ms. Pilke, and after meeting her and seeing her amazing diaries he conceived the idea of bringing her drawings to life. I have been fortunate enough to see the actual diaries when I visited Bruno at his home and they are truly an amazingly beautiful record of an important period of history. The film also received a commendation from the InterFilm Jury (composed of three members of the Lutheran Church).

Three pieces of animation were presented in the Panorama category. Four new episodes of Signe Baumane's Teat Beat of Sex (# 8, 9, 10, and 11) were screened as a group and are as entertaining as the first seven. These shorts examine sex from a woman's point of view, covering such diverse topics as the size of a man's "kirby", panties -- to wear or not to wear them, and kissing the prince who turns into a frog.

Black Ceiling, the Estonian animation/poetry project pairs the country's top animators with 7 pieces of classic Estonian poetry. There are currently 3 animation/poetry projects, from Holland, Belgium and Estonia, and each one is uniquely different in style and character. I hope that animators from other countries will undertake projects like this, since animation is the perfect medium to bring poetry to life.

I found the film Devil's Fuji, at 32 minutes, to be far too long and tedious. This story of a Latvian Devil who occupies Japan's Mt. Fuji felt more like an annoying animated music video with a loud and jarring sound track.

Arsenals is really several festivals inside one fabulous big film event. Along with the usual competition and panorama screenings of new films, the festival also celebrates silent film and music. The 1923 Hollywood extravaganza Salome, starring the exotic Alla Nazimova opened the festival. Screened at the new hall of the Latvian National Opera, the film was accompanied by live music performed by the Latvian National Opera Orchestra. The official reception that followed was full of delicious food and drink in a 1930's atmosphere.

The first Norwegian film made in 1926, The Bridal Party in Hardanger, was presented at an open-air screening. Four other silent films, including Guy Maddin's 2000 homage to silent cinema The Heart of the World, were shown throughout the 10 days of the festival.

The evening Panorama programs covered every style and subject, from the just released Penelope Cruz - Ben Kingsley film Elegy to Mike Lee's critically acclaimed Happy-Go-Lucky. I saw Elegy at the Flanders International Film Festival and was totally amazed by Dennis Hopper's performance as Ben Kingsley's best friend. I haven't seen Hopper give a performance this strong in a long time, and if I hadn't known it was him I would never have guessed it.

I was very glad that I had the opportunity to see the poignant About Water: People and Yellow Cans. This visually stunning film focuses on the power of water or the lack of it in 3 developing countries. The land and everything on it is crumbling into the Indian Ocean in Bangladesh. The people have devised a system of building houses that are easily dismantled and rapidly moved further inland. Juxtaposed with this is a story of villagers in a Kenyan slum lining up to collect water in yellow cans. The image of a ship cemetery in the mi! ddle of a Kazakhstan steppe, near the shrinking Aral Sea, still haunts me. Austrian director Udo Maurer gives us much to ponder about one of our most necessary natural resources. The screening was followed by a reception where water from different parts of the world was served.

That same evening, I Love, You Love, the opening film of the Slovenian "Films of the 1980's" series was screened followed by a lovely reception. One of my favorite and unique screenings was listed in the catalogue as Pay In Kind where the audience paid for their admission with gifts from their garden. The viewers were treated to the 1982 Slovakian film She Kept Crying for the Moon, the s! tory of a single woman raising her illegitimate daughter in the macho society of Eastern Slovakia. Meanwhile, Latvian chef Mart Ritins prepared a special Arsenals soup with the garden gifts. It was shared by all after the screening.

Along with all of the film programs there were numerous seminars and special presentations. Nik and I presented a program tracing the history of animation through music. Nik also played his saxophone at a festival gathering at the hotel and presented a more formal concert at a local club "I Love You" in the Old Town. Several of our Riga friends who were not attending the festival came to the club to see us, so it was a lively mix of good music and conversation in a relaxed atmosphere.

I was delighted to attend the opening of the "Cinema Made by Jews in Latvia" exhibition at the Latvian Jewish Society. This beautifully presented exhibit featured broadsides, programs, and photographs of a bygone era. It gave a vivid picture of the Jewish contribution to early Latvian cinema. Of course, the opening included a lovely reception with food and drink.

The opening of the Baltic Film presentations was the 1913 silent feature A Tragedy of a Jewish Student. The film, the earliest known to be made in Latvia, shows such historic sites as street cars passing the Orthodox Cathedral, the University and the little bridge by the Opera House.

The catalogue was full of many intriguing films but unfortunately I didn't have a chance to see very many of them because the festival planned so many wonderful special events for their guests. On the first of two excursions we traveled by bus to Easter Island on the North Sea Coast. This man made stone island, linked to the land by a narrow strip of land, was built during the Soviet era to be home to a sea water pumping station for a nearby fish farm. Maris Gailis, former Prime Minister of Latvia and his architect wife Zaiga, masterminded the transformation of the crumbling pumping station into an environmentally friendly sho! w case house. The only thing that I really miss from San Francisco is the ocean, and it was such a pleasure to walk along a beach on the Baltic Sea. Our host took us on a walk to see a wedge of swans that live near his home. Our beach stroll was followed by delicious food and drink upon our return to the house.

The next morning a group of us took an early morning flight to Liepaja, the Southernmost Latvian coastal city. After a bus tour of local sites and a visit to a Navy cruiser, we were taken to Karaosta. This former closed secret military town is slowly becoming a place for artists and a tourist destination. On the coast a short distance from the city, we toured some artillery bunkers and I was struck by the similarity to the coastal fortifications that I used to climb on the cliffs right outside of San Francisco.

In 1994 the Soviet army left Karaosta and most of the blockhouses were stripped of anything that could be carried away leaving skeleton houses and piles of rubble. The town appears to be a landscape of ruins except for the beautiful Russian Orthodox Church built during the reign of Tsar Alexander III. It has been painstakingly restored to its former glory.

For our last stop, we were taken to Karaostas Cietums, the only prison in Europe open to the public. Built in Tsarist times, it has housed a wide range of prisoners, from those convicted for military breach of discipline, to Stalin's enemies. Now it is a bed and breakfast where you can spend the night on a prison bunk or iron bed. We were all locked in cells and then "marched" under orders of strict silence to the dining hall where we were fed a prison meal and given our ration of vodka to keep us warm on our flight back to Riga. I wish we would have been given more information about the history of the prison and I found it ve! ry strange that people who still have vivid memories of the horrors of the Soviet era would want to spend the night there, much less treat the entire experience as a bit of a joke.

On the last day of the festival, Nik and I paid a visit to our friend Vilnis Kalnaellis' Riga Film Studio. Vilnis, producer of such films as Triplets of Belleville and Signe Baumane's moving Veterinarian has a beautiful, state of the art studio. Nik was particularly envious of the music production facilities. We had the opportunity to watch When Apples Roll, a film by Reinis Kalnaellis, Vilnis' son. The film, which is in post production, is a delightful hand drawn tale about a cat that lives in a wardrobe with her best friend, a mouse. I look forward to seeing the final version at festivals this spring.

The festival staff loves surprises, and after sitting through so many traditional awards ceremonies I had no idea what fun awaited us. The winner in each category was called up to the stage to receive their award and then seated under a beauty salon style hair dryer. The main prize of 20,000 US dollars was awarded in a lottery to emphasize that all of the Competition winners in each category are equally good and deserving to receive the top honor. This was no normal lottery however. A representative of each film chose a cup of coffee from a table. In one cup the festival president h! ad hidden a flower petal. On signal everyone started to drink their coffee. The lucky petal was in the cup of a Latvian boy, representing American director Ramin Bahrani and his film Chop Shop.

Following the award presentations, Sergei Ovcharov's film The Orchard, based on Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard was screened. I found the vaudeville style treatment of the original story to be very trite and totally out of keeping with the feeling of the original play. The film did, however, contribute the theme for the closing ceremony with its rose petal rain and the cherry blossom in the cup. The Latvian Society House, site of the closing night party, featured a beautiful spread of food and drink. It was high end cate! ring -- lots of salmon, shrimp and baby lobster tails and sweets, sweets, sweets which Nik loved. The band performed lively traditional music. The highlight for me was the traditional Latvian dances which festival staff and guests performed into the wee hours of the night.

I am delighted that Nik and I had the opportunity to attend the 19th International Film Festival Arsenals. Filmmakers should not hesitate to submit their films to this wonderful festival. The theatres and projection are of the highest quality and the festival staff went out of their way to ensure that guests were treated royally. We had a most wonderful time and I certainly hope that we will be invited back again. You can contact the festival at: Visit their web site at:

by Karl Cohen

Bill Plympton, who is certainly the most important independent animator in the US, was in San Francisco for a screening of Idiots and Angels in November. His latest feature is an impressive departure from his earlier works. It is a sophisticated, mature work and Bill notes, "It's the best reviewed film I've ever had."

Variety called it "his best animated feature to date... may attract the larger arthouse auds that have thus far eluded Plympton in his feature forays."

A reviewer for Zoom In Online, who saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival, wrote, "Though dark and twisted at many parts, the film is simultaneously gorgeous and emotionally fulfilling... Dark yet hopeful, mournful yet celebratory, Idiots and Angels is exploratory animation for adults to equate to the joy of discovery their kids find in any Disney film."

The reviewer for Quiet Earth (online) says, "Idiots and Angels is a beautiful animation with striking imagery and a unique ability to change it's tone and message in a heartbeat. What starts off as a comment on banality turns into a noir-ish thriller, then transforms into a morality tale before surging head on into romance. It's also a superhero film and a comedy.... Plymton has an excellent eye for imaginative and outrageous imagery."

I've been a good friend of Bill since 1987 when ASIFA-SF held an in-person screening of his work. He had come to California to attend the Academy Awards (he has since received another nomination). I saw his new feature at Ottawa 08 and was anxious to interview Bill about the new direction of his work.

Idiots and Angels plays with his shot Hot Dog Sun. Feb 15 at 7:15 pm and Mon. Feb 16 at 9:30 pm at the Roxie.


I began my interview by asking, "why the switch in directions?" That's a good question. Hair High, which I think is my best film, had big name voices, was shot on 35mm, I spent a lot of money on it and it had some of the best animation we've ever done, but it just didn't perform well. I made some money on it, but not a lot. So I just said fuck it. I'm just going to do an indulgent film with a tiny budget. I'm just going to do pencil and paper, minimal color, no voices and no big name actors; just music. I'll make it dark, the way I want it.

For some reason people feel this film is much more personal. I think that is why people are reacting so well to it. It's more Bill Plympton than my other films. My earlier features were full of sex, violence and wacky humor. This film is not so much wacky humor; it's just a more personal film. People are saying I'm growing up; I'm maturing. I still love that wacky humor and I want to come back to it, I don't want to give it up. I still love surreal humor like the Marx Bros. and W.C. Fields. I will come back to it.

For now I'll continue to do these darker films. I'm working on one right now. It's about jealousy. I'll use the same technique, the same kind of look; it's a personal story. I don't think there is going to be any dialog. I like it without dialog. It's about a couple that loves each other madly and desperately, but through miscommunication and other people messing with their relationship they begin to get jealous of each other. It becomes very violent and twisted. Eventually they'll come back together of course. It's sort of the same feel as The Postman Always Rings Twice with John Garfield (1946). It's that kind of sexual tension. The storyboard is almost done. I'll start animating in February. I hope I'll be showing it in 2010.

The making of Idiots and Angels was so easy, so smooth, so cheap, so painless, that I want to do it again. I still have some big time scripts. I want to get some big money for them and do them as real serious productions.

I'm getting a lot of interest from European investors now. The French pre-buy my films. Each film is pre-bought and that money helps finance them. They are buying all rights in advance, theatrical, TV, cable, pay-per-view, DVD, Internet, whatever. I don't mind doing that. Now I'm getting the Dutch government interested in pre-buying rights for their country. Spain and Germany might also be interested, so if I can get three or four countries pre-buying, I don't have to put my own money into it. That would help me and I could pay my employees more, which I think is important. They do a really good job.

Where did the story for Idiots and Angels come from? I don't know. I have no idea. I wish I could remember what inspired it. The first thing I remember was in Lille, France after a festival showing of Hair High I was walking back with an intern who was showing me the way and he asked 'what is your next film.' I said off of the top of my head, 'an asshole guy wakes up one morning with wings on his back,' and he said that's a good idea. I don't know where it came from, but I started thinking that has possibilities, so that night I started sketching it, doing character designs, possible plot ideas and it just flowed. It came out so easily, so quickly. Scary!

I don't know why I was thinking about wings. I had seen Wings of Desire 15 or 20 years ago. I think that might have been an influence. I don't know why I was thinking of wings, but you know animation is great for flying people. Peter Pan is a classic. So are Dumbo and Superman. There is something about animation and flying people. There is no trickery involved, just drawing.

Redemption is a theme I wanted to talk about in the film. I don't like to tell morals or lecture people, but the moral to the film is that everybody has invisible wings on their backs and this film sort of shows you how to find those wings. You have to discover those wings, to use those wings, to exercise them, to treat them well and that is what this film is about. This guy is learning how to use them and fly away from idiocy.

There is a certain amount of religious overtones. I'm not a religious person, but the idea of dying and being reborn is one of those universal ideas that people can relate to. I think that's one of the reasons people like this film. It speaks to a lot of issues. I don't talk about any specific religion or any specific idea. That's why it is a mysterious film. It's just this guy who's totally fucked up and he learns to, or decides to change his life and I think that is a theme people can relate to.

Where did the dark seedy bar come from? I don't think of you as someone who hangs out in such places. I remembered about a month ago, that when I was 16 growing up in Oregon, there was a grocery store about two miles from where I lived. I was a box boy in that store and right next to that grocery store was a bar. Sometimes I would deliver stuff to the bar. I'd walk in there and it was such a mysterious place. It was almost like a Greek Orthodox Church, very dark and there was smoke coming up from the cigarettes similar to the smoke in my film. There were 3 or 4 people in this dingy place including a floozy in the corner. I don't know if she was a hooker or some divorcee looking for a cheap thrill. Then there was a guy at the ! bar who probably came in at noon and started drinking. I thought what a mysterious lifestyle that is. What kind of people go to a bar at noon and drink there all day long? The images of that seedy lifestyle left a strong impression. That is what made me design that bar. The bar didn't have a really high ceiling with rows and rows of bottles. That was added as an artistic fantasy, but other than that the bar was rather similar. Just a simple square room with a dark door that had a little diamond shaped window that light would come in. When someone would open the door the whole place would be bathed in this light that poured in through the doorway. I love drawing that kind of atmosphere, that kind of chiaroscuro that takes place in a bar. That's why I designed it that way.

It's a totally different environment from your previous films. Yes, that may be why my films don't sell. I don't know. I like bright films; I like bright humor. I always believe humor should be bright and this film has a darker humor, a darker vision, a more mysterious feeling. It's a kind of cartoon noir, which may be why people seem to relate to it better.

Another interesting aspect of this film that I was really afraid of in my earlier work, but it works really well here, is there are a lot of places in the film that are really slow and very contemplative. For example the shot where he walks into the bar the first time, you see him open the door and you hear this pedal steel music as he's walking to the bar while the bartender mixes him a drink. It's a long shot, maybe longer than a minute. I was really digging the music and I just loved that anticipation that something is going to happen. In my past films I was always afraid of long slow moments in a movie. Since I decided I'm just going to play it the way I want to play it, people like it. I even got a question last night about that sequence and how it came about.

Anther sequence that is very slow is when the guy drives his car into the garage, the garage door shuts and you hear the engine running. I always wonder when people realize, 'oh my god, he's killing himself.' I always wonder when that connects with the audience. That's a long shot too, maybe 40 seconds.

The idea of one drawing held for 40-seconds is great when you are an independent animator and you don't have any money. If I could do a whole film like that there would be 200 drawings in the whole film. I'm always looking for ways to economize. It makes the story really interesting when you show stuff. It goes behind the vision. The picture is real slow and people get relaxed and start to get into the atmosphere.

Another thing I've had trouble figuring out is timing and pacing. I followed the garage sequence with that crazy scene where the guy rides her back. It has a real slow part and then a real fast part. I like that changing of speeds.

How have the festivals liked it? I've been invited to a lot of festivals. I love it. Fortunately for me Biljana Labovic, my producer, has gone to places that I didn't have time to go to. She came out to the Mill Valley Festival, introduced the film and had a great time.

Have you been to Korea? I wasn't able to go, it conflicted with another festival. I have a lot of fans in Korea. They make great films there and they really love animation.

I went to Bosnia; a weird experience. It was a big hit in Greece. I went to Romania and it was a huge hit. We had packed sell out shows. They wanted to take us to Dracula's Castle, but I didn't have time to go there, but we did see the People's Palace, Nicolai Ceausescu's folly. It is a monstrous palace that he built to his own ego. Supposedly it is the biggest building in the world after the Pentagon... Meanwhile people were starving. It was beautiful, but I think it is the building that brought him down. People were just so disgusted that he spent so much money on himself.

I'm going to Dubai in a couple of weeks. I think they are going to censor it, cut out the nudity. There is no sex, but some bare breasts. That's what they told me. I'm going to France to do some publicity for the premiere. (Since this interview the film has opened in several French cities.) I'll make another small tour in January and then I'll get started on my new film.

I think it is a breakthrough film; a totally different direction and hopefully it will expose me to a bigger audience. Older people come out of the film loving it. I've never had people 50, 60, 70-years-old as fans before. Also women generally stayed away from my earlier features, but they love the message of this film, the look of the film, the idea/concept of the film. That's a new thing for me, which is why I think it is a breakthrough film.

I think Idiots and Angels is really different from what is out there on the screens of America. I think it's a really fresh kind of look and idea. I was hoping the distributors would see the same thing, but apparently they are really conservative now. I've had screenings for all of the big distributors and they have all turned it down. The major distributors like the film, but they think that it's too dark for their commercial market. It's really too bad. I'll have to go with a smaller one. We've had a number of offers, but they've all been very cheap. I wanted to get at least $100,000 so I could get the money back that I spent on it. We did get a nice advance from France and it looks like Spain is going to com! e up with some good money.

I've resigned myself to never being a blockbuster kind of director. I'll always be like a Jim Jarmusch of animation. Just under the radar, making good films that a lot of people like, but never a huge number of them. That's OK. I like making these films. I've got a lot of fans. I make money, I make ends meet, I travel the world over, so I couldn't ask for anything more. I'm happy.

In the next issue Bill talks about the music in his feature, His upcoming short films and other projects.



Newsletter Editor: Karl Cohen
Contributors: Paul Naas, Gene Hamm, Nancy Denney-Phelps and other friends of ASIFA-SF.
Cover illustration by Ricci Carrasquillo
Proofreader: Pete Davis
Mailing Crew: Tara Beyhm, Shirley Smith, Denise McEvoy
Webmaster Joe the Calif. Kid Sikoryak, assisted by Ricci
Special thanks to: RICHARD WILLIAMS and his wife MO SUTTON for their generous gift to our chapter of two 2-hour programs at the Balboa in November. Thanks also to Gary Meyer of the Balboa for hosting the benefit for our chapter. It was a wonderful event and about 500 people got to enjoy learning a bit more about animation that day. Also thanks to Gene Deitch for his excellent program later in the month. Thanks also to Tara Beyhm our VP, to our treasurer Karen Lithgow, to The G Man for sending out our e-mail updates, to Nancy Denney-Phelps for representing our chapter on the international ASIFA board, to Patricia Satjawatcharapjong who posts excerpts from our newsletter on the International ASIFA website
ASIFA-SF is a chapter of: Association Internationale du Film dAnimation with almost 40 chapters around the world.
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