February 16, 2007
More sad news in the animation community today. Ryan Larkin died on Wednesday at the age of 63 of metastasized lung cancer.
If you've been anywhere near a film festival in the last few years you've probably seen Chris Landreth's documentary Ryan, which traced his brilliant but relatively brief career as an animator at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his subsequent downward spiral into drug and alcohol addiction. Larkin was panhandling in Montreal and living in the Old Brewery Mission when Landreth befriended him and started making Ryan.
Ryan, I think, proved to be something of a watershed for Larkin. When I met him briefly at the Ottawa festival in 2004, he said he was working on a new film—something I'd heard through the NFB grapevine before, but which I didn't entirely believe until I heard him say it. There was a determination in his voice and his manner that I rarely hear, but at the same time he was still drinking. I remember thinking at the time that he was at a crossroads, and I hoped that the creative side of him would win.
I was elated when I read that Ryan had produced some idents for MTV a few months ago, and was looking forward to seeing his film—and, especially, talking to him about it—when it was completed. That he completed the MTV work indicated to me that he at least had alcohol under control, if not beaten. The sad irony is that while people were most concerned about his drugs and drinking problems, it was his other addiction, smoking, that killed him.
I'm glad I got to meet Ryan, if only for a few minutes. My regret is that I never did tell him about the effect his films had on me. I loved Syrinx because I've always been interested in Greek mythology, and Street Musique's shimmering, transforming imagery hypnotized me when I was a teenager.
Walking affected me the most, but I didn't see it until I was in my early twenties, studying animation at Concordia University. When I did see it, it was like being struck by lightning. Watching Walking while all your receptors are open for analyzing movement is a bit like bringing a butterfly net to a Monarch migration. Animators talk about how physics and character are the two essential components of a walk cycle, but Walking is the masterclass. More remarkable, although the film made it starkly clear just how much I had to learn, I didn't get that familiar feeling of despair at my lack of ability in the face of such talent; the effect it had was of pure inspiration. That was a rare thing, and I remember that feeling every time I see it.
Ryan made Walking in 1968; I suspect that in the 39 years since then, an uncountable number of animators were inspired the same way that I was. Larkin's genius burned briefly, but it burned bright, and while I'm sad that we won't get to see the new direction he was going in, I'm forever grateful that we could be touched by his work—and that, for a while, he knew how much he meant to us.