November 23, 2005

Illustration by Matthew Forsythe

One of the highlights of the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema this past week-end was an inspirational talk given by the distinguished animator, Michael Nguyen. Nguyen, who has worked on such major-studio projects as The Little Mermaid, The Road to El Dorado, and The Iron Giant, told the audience about bringing 'a sense of life' to animation.

"Animation is more than moving an arm," he said. "That doesn't give life. When you go to a museum to see a Rembrandt, what you see is just a picture. But what makes a Rembrandt a Rembrandt is what you feel. There's a soul, something that lives and resonates with the viewer. That's the way I see animation. We need to communicate that life," he said.

Though he encouraged animators to approach their work with a child-like sense of fun, Nguyen said he takes the medium very seriously. "I don't treat them as a funny cartoons. Animation is a way to communicate."

Since 1994, Nguyen has also been an instructor at the California Institute of the Arts. Though he says, "I don't teach, I just share what I love."

Nguyen just returned from South Korea, where he was judging student animation. Sadly, he said, a lot of contemporary animation lacks the life force and empathy required to effectively communicate. "When I animate a seal, I become a seal. When I animate an elephant," - he hung his arm in front of his face and lumbering moving slowly - "I become an elephant."

Despite the major studio emphasis on computer generated animation, Nguyen is still a traditional animator and his favourite films are still the classics. He cites Pinnochio and Snow White as his favourite films. But Fantasia is his all time favourite.

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice is the most perfect piece of animation there is, in my opinion. There's only one shot which I would change if I could."

Which one?

"When the books are swirling around Mickey, there's a strobe effect. It should be a little smoother."

Among other projects, Nguyen is currently directing My Little World, which will be his first feature under the production company, July Films. Set in Vietnam, My Little World is a story of a boy who grapples with the loss of a family member through a summer in the country. Watching previews of the film, it was obvious that Nguyen took his own advice and threw himself into the work.

"For me to live is to feel, to touch, to love and to share that feeling and for me the way I do that is through traditional animation."

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